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Writing the Unmentionable: Ekphrasis, Identity, and the Phoenix in Achilles Tatius

Robert L. Cioffi

Bard College

This paper investigates the nexus of ekphrasis, landscape, and identity in Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon by examining a single, striking case study: the arrival of the phoenix at the end of the third book (3.25). Few moments tie these strands of the novel so tightly together as does the phoenix, which affords us an opportunity to see how Achilles Tatius’s imagined landscape becomes a key character in his narrative project. My reading shows how the phoenix contributes to the text’s construction of Egypt as a paradox, simultaneously a place of wisdom and urbane antiquity, and of wild unknowable exoticism. In particular, it presents this landscape both as an act of reception and of novel creativity, lying somewhere between fiction and history. The phoenix’s cycles of death and rebirth become, then, a metaphor for the novel’s belatedness in the tradition of writing Egypt.

Despite its lavish description, the phoenix has received relatively little attention, as Helen Morales lamented in her reading of the bird as a figure for Leucippe (1995). Recent studies tend to focus especially on locating its sources (Lecocq 2016). This paper takes a different approach, bringing the description of the phoenix into dialogue with several strands of scholarship on Achilles Tatius, which examine the text’s construction of identity (Whitmarsh 2011), its narrative emphasis on viewing and spectatorship (e.g., Bartsch 1989, Morales 2004, and Whitmarsh 2011), and its engagement with Egypt and Egyptian culture (e.g., Rutherford 2000 and Dubel 2011).

I begin with Achilles Tatius’s reception of traditions about Egypt. The phoenix is the first of three extended ekphrastic descriptions of Nilotic fauna: a hippopotamus is described at 4.2-3, and a crocodile at 4.19. Combined with the description of Alexandria at 5.1, I argue that these ekphraseis structure the novel’s Egyptian narrative, marking the opening and closing of each book with detailed reflection on the Egyptian landscape. Furthermore, all three animals feature prominently in Herodotus (2.68-77), while Aelius Theon identifies the hippopotamus and the crocodile as subjects for ekphrasis (Webb 2009). The phoenix is, therefore, part of Achilles Tatius’s construction of an exotic natural world that is nonetheless characterized by its studied familiarity to readers versed in these traditions.

I then show that the description of the phoenix uses the lens of identity to interrogate these relationships between the world of the novel and that of ethnographic and ekphrastic traditions. Upon arriving in Egypt with its father’s corpse, the bird undergoes a complex identity verification procedure. It performs a funeral oration, while its ἀπόρρητα (unmentionables) are compared, paradoxically, to a γραφή (image or text). This procedure, which combines both the visual and the verbal, straddles multiple modes of identity-construction (performative and genealogical). Further, the phoenix performing a representation of a phoenix performing creates a kind of infinite ekphrastic loop. This moment self-consciously alludes, I suggest, to a tradition of representations of the phoenix, ranging from Herodotus, who saw one only in an image (γραφή), to an immodest Roman rhetorical student who one-ups the historian by claiming—incredibly—to have seen the bird not just in a γραφή, but also in the flesh (P.Mil.Vogl. I 20). Finally, a strong meta-narrative thread throughout this passage points to Achilles Tatius’s interest in a different kind of identity, that between artifact and original. On my reading, the process of describing the phoenix also becomes a space to examine the novel’s strategies for representing the visual world in verbal form.

I conclude by observing that the phoenix also reflects on the human identity of the novel’s Phoenician protagonists. Both could be called φοίνικες in Greek and both travel to Egypt from abroad, but they have very different experiences. The phoenix shows how the text’s creation of distance—between human and animal, reader and text, model and copy—is continuously undermined, marking as unstable the boundaries between nature and culture, literary tradition and innovation, and, fundamentally, the relationship between image and object.

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The Body and its Travails

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