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kalos kalos in Context: Callimachus’ Unreal Aesthetics

The final couplet of Callimachus AP 12.43 (= Pf. 28) has long been a scholarly dilemma. The speaker is pronouncing the boy Lysanias kalos kalos… when Echo interrupts, leaving the exact syntax and significance of the doubled adjective unclear. A similar repetition of kalos appears in AP 12.51 (= Pf. 29), which was likely a companion piece (Sens 2019: 315-16), and which concludes with the enigmatic statement: “I alone would know beautiful things” (ἐπισταίμην μοῦνος ἐγὼ τὰ καλά). Callimachus’ repetition of kalos has primarily been studied as a metrical curiosity (Hopkinson 1982: 164-68), but it engages with an archaic aesthetic motif that helps reveal the significance of this epigrammatic pair to his poetic program.
Archaic sympotic culture produced a great number of kalos-inscriptions on vases, including some which emphatically double the adjective (cf. Rolfe 1891: 92n7). These inscriptions evoked an idealized, discursive concept of beauty without necessarily singling out a particular individual who was present (Lissarague 1999, Lear 2008). Versified inscriptions from grave goods, on the other hand, employ the doubling of kalos to directly index the beauty of the deceased to that of the accompanying object (CEG 447, 450, 897). This correspondence of person and object reflects the growing importance of materiality and sensation as elements of a nascent Greek understanding of aesthetics (Porter 2010: 121-177), and can also be recognized as a precursor to literary ecphrastic epigram (cf. Bruss 2010). Reflections of this motif appear in archaic poems (e.g. Theognis 17 and 1369) but its circulation was much more widespread.
This archaic aesthetic framework helps to clarify the seeming discord between the final couplet of Epigram 28 and the series of programmatic aesthetic statements in the first four lines (cf. Mülke 2004: 194-195). The absence of the boy and his replacement by the disembodied Echo in the final couplet invert the archaic schema and underscore disembodiment and displacement as elements of Callimachean aesthetics (cf. Selden 1998). The ambiguity of the doubled adjective thus serves as the pointe of the epigram and conveys an explicit aesthetic significance that complements his earlier declarations.
This interpretation of the preceding epigram helps to explain its equally mysterious companion-piece (Gow / Page 1965, 2: 160: “a very difficult quatrain”). Scholars have long struggled to explain the connection between the declaration about beauty that ends Epigram 29 and the first couplet in which the narrator toasts the boy Diocles and notes that Achelôus does not perceive the ladles (οὐδ’ Ἀχελῷος … αἰσθάνεται κυάθων; cf. Slings 1973). Here we find a direct reference to the materialist aesthetics of the archaic kalos kalos motif, in which the ladle serves as an index for the boy's beauty. The genitive compliment of aisthanesthai lends the phrase a direct sensuous quality, and Achelous’ figurative blindness then serves as an analogue to speaker’s knowledge of beauty, which is itself expressed in the wishful, unrealized optative mood. This erudite mobilization of an archaic motif serves as an ironic indicator of Callimachus’ simultaneously grandiose and self-effacing literary ambitions.