Michael Psellos on Literature and Art: A Byzantine Perspective on Aesthetics.
Born as Konstantinos Psellos in Constantinople in 1018, the polymath Michael Psellos has been described by one noted Byzantinist as 'the most amazing figure in Byzantine history' (Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 191). While some might quibble with this designation, the burgeoning market for new translations of a wide range of Psellos's writings underscores his current popularity. Building upon two earlier volumes on Psellos that focused primarily on his orations and letters, this third volume from the University of Notre Dame Press offers English translations and commentaries from a collaboration of scholars on a wide array of his writings on literary theory, visual ethics, and art criticism. For the sake of brevity, I highlight below only some of the sections that I found noteworthy in this fascinating collection.
The art of Middle Byzantine rhetoric comes to life in the hands of a master. The book opens with two Psellian treatises on rhetoric, the first a letter to an unknown student, the second a synopsis of grammar in the form of a poem to the future emperor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-77). In these lessons Psellos displays his virtuosity as a teacher and master of what he described lovingly as 'sweet-speaking' (p. 65).
Elegant prose for Psellos was often a matter of individual style. The next selection of texts focuses on Psellos's views on various literary genres and ancient authorities--pagan and Christian. Rather than relying upon divine intervention or regurgitating the classics, he insisted that inspiration must come from within. He praised the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzos (329-90) for his ability to employ simple vocabulary to craft his own masterful rhetorical style, declaring 'Without emulating the ancients he opened up each and every stream from a source from within himself' (p. 126). For Psellos, there was no single pathway to high rhetoric, advising his student that 'Words, my son, lie scattered about just like (one might say) unarranged stones' (p. 128). It was up to individuals to arrange the collected material as they saw fit to craft their own mosaic of 'perfect composition' (p. 133). Text and author were for Psellos often distinct identities; chameleon-like, the author needed to adapt his persona to the edicts of his chosen rhetorical form. Psellos recommends 'to argue either side of a dispute, both because we can hold opposite opinions about the same matter, and because the good are somewhat similar to the bad' (p. 81).
How securely Psellos remained tethered to the religious norms of his day remains controversial. We often find him skulking through delicate theological territory. Although Psellos describes theology as 'The Science beyond physics [...] the first science' (p. 233), he proudly displays his mastery of Aristotelian logic, Platonic metaphysics, and Neoplatonic visual aesthetics. While Plato stands above all other classical authors, Gregory's writings earn Psellos's highest praise, offering an exemplum of a Christian rhetor and philosopher, an idealized image of an educated man steeped in both Christian and non-Christian learning. As the editors suggest, it is likely that Psellos hoped his contemporaries would see Gregory as a double of himself. While some (e.g. Kaldellis, Hellenism, p. 231) contend that Psellos's praise of Gregory functioned largely as a smokescreen, deployed to protect his Byzantine Hellenism from Christian hardliners within Constantinople, the editors counter that the complex tenor of his work does not support such an interpretation. On this point, Stratis Papaioannou asserts that, while Psellos's models are predominantly non-Christian, we should not see some 'sort of anti-Christian pagan world-view in Psellos' (p. 101).
Psellos rooted his visual aesthetic in Christian and Neoplatonist teachings. The study closes by exploring Psellos's response to Byzantine icons. Although he was aware of the difficulty for humans to grasp the perfection found in the divine world, Psellos suggests that images crafted by the hands of men could capture wisps of the heavenly realm. When describing his experience upon viewing an icon of the Virgin Mary, he wrote: 'I do not therefore write about what I have beheld, but what I have experienced. For it seems that having completely exchanged its nature, it was transformed into divine-like beauty and surpassed visual perception [...]. For she is divided between heaven and earth so that she might have both' (pp. 377-78).
Instead of rejecting the material world as many Christian ascetics of his age had done, we find in these texts Psellos embracing the compatibility of the mundane and heavenly realms. Moreover, Papaioannou contends that by emphasizing the intimate interactions between the reader and the author's literary language, Psellos offers 'a postmodern view before postmodernism' (p. 119). Certainly, as this volume makes plain, Byzantine thinkers like Michael Psellos must be included if we are to appreciate the intellectual history of the Middle Ages.
MICHAEL EDWARD STEWART, University of Queensland
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|Author:||Stewart, Michael Edward|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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