In the wake of Lessing’s distinction between the spatial-material qualities of the visual arts and the linear-temporal qualities of the verbal, the trope of ekphrasis has been treated as a mediating device between notions of solidity, durability, and permanence on the one hand, and the momentary or ephemeral on the other (Lessing 1766; Fulda 2017). Post-classical treatments of ekphrasis pay special attention to the ways in which thick descriptions of objects can suspend the passing of time within literary narratives, whilst the ancient rhetorical tradition acknowledges how ekphrastic passages can slow the temporal pace of a text through strategies of enargeia or even describe periods of time (chronoi) (Webb, 2009: 62-4). Yet the dialectic between durability and ephemerality can unfold in different ways. At times, authors play on tensions between the persistence of material objects and the ephemerality of human experience in the context of aesthetic encounter; by contrast, the transcendent power of the literary composition is sometimes set against the mortality of the object (as in Horace’s claim to have ‘built a monument more lasting than bronze,’ Odes 3.30). In both cases, the temporalities of text and object are formulated in relation to questions of materiality and the relative potential of different media to record, transmit, or transcend mortal knowledge and capabilities.
As a literary genre that is markedly “medium-aware,” ekphrastic epigram is especially attuned to such tensions. This paper explores how the relationship between temporality and materiality is played out across Posidippus’ Lithika – his ‘poems on stones’. Whilst several scholars have explored the materialist aesthetics of the Lithika (e.g. Kuttner 2005; Porter 2011; Elsner 2014), the relationship between the text, its ekphrastic objects, and time has received less attention. As stand-alone poems (rather than ekphraseis inserted into a longer narrative) the Lithika enfold multiple temporalities within themselves in remarkably sophisticated ways. The ephemerality of individual aesthetic encounters with gems, seashells, and geological specimens is a leitmotif of the series, as the durability of stone is set against the soft bodies and fleeting caresses of mortal recipients (AB 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), malleable, fluid, or fugitive media such as wax and oil (AB 11, 13), and (repeatedly) the play of light upon, beneath, and within the text’s lithic objects (AB 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 16). Indeed, the Lithika could be said to advance an aesthetics of light and lightness in which the ephemerality of sensation is aligned with material transparency, the miniaturism and mobility of the ekphrastic object, and the brevity of literary form (cf. Calvino, 1988). This fleeting alliance is not simply set against a more durable temporal or material framework, but plays in counterpoint with multiple temporalities, whether the long arc of geological time, the sudden yet dramatic effects of natural phenomena such as floods and earthquakes, the rise and fall of empires, or the meticulous handiwork of the craftsman. Within their jewel-like settings, the Lithika enfold the entire chaîne opératoire of their coming-into-being (Leroi-Gourhan, 1964; Sellet, 1993). Accordingly, the ephemerality of aesthetic encounter is not figured as a descriptive pause – a moment of ekphrastic suspension – but as one of a constellation of moments within a more expansive narrative of making, or poiêsis. Ultimately, the paper will argue that rather than offering us yet another manifestation of Hellenistic leptotês, the Lithika advance an aesthetics of kosmos as that which is both enduring and ephemeral, cosmic and cosmetic, in which precious stones mediate between bodies both human and heavenly, material and metaphysical.
Aesthetics and Ephemerality