Back to the Future? Problems and Potential of Metalepsis avant Genette

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This chapter opens the volume by offering a systematic account of metalepsis, both in its modern reconceptualization by Genette and in its earlier incarnations in ancient literature and thought, and problematizes the current state of scholarship on metalepsis from a perspective informed by ancient critics. The chapter thus both clarifies the rationale behind this volume and interrogates some of the assumptions that underpin current thinking in the field. It offers a critical framework of guiding questions which individual discussions in the subsequent chapters explore in greater detail and in different directions.

It has become a commonplace to highlight the multifarious ways in which metalepsis was treated in the rhetorical tradition before Genette’s deft re-appropriation of the term for his structuralist narratology. The new lease of life that Genette’s work has afforded to metalepsis as a critical concept has indeed proven so productive that is has all but eclipsed the term’s original meaning(s) and usage(s) in ancient oratory, rhetorical theory, and literary criticism. While considerable debate continues on how best to grasp the nature of narratological metalepsis, Genette’s intervention has undoubtedly given the concept a more cohesive outlook than it ever had before. As this volume sets out to re-evaluate recent theorizing on narratological metalepsis (developed largely in the context of postmodern literature and arts, chiefly film and the novel) by way of examining comparable phenomena in the ancient world, this opening chapter programmatically brings back into the debate the voices of classical rhetoricians, critics, and grammarians—such as Aristotle, Quintilian, Trypho, Charisius, and Donatus—who dealt with metalepsis in its various earlier conceptualizations. Rather than trying to reconstruct a genealogy of the concept’s transformation in the course of its journey from classical rhetoric to structuralist criticism, however, this chapter seeks to mobilize these earlier theorizations of metalepsis for the purpose of a critical re-appraisal of current thinking.

Building on Nauta’s survey of ‘The Concept of “Metalepsis”’ (2013) and considering recent proposals in Whitmarsh (‘Radical Cognition’, 2013), de Jong (‘Metalepsis in Ancient Greek Literature’, 2009), and Eisen/Möllendorff (Über die Grenze, 2013) for newly expanded ways in which the term should be understood, the chapter probes different rhetorical understandings of metalepsis in earlier theorizing—both as a rhetorical device (sc. a trope) and a rhetorical move (sc. a status)—and shows how they can offer critical perspectives on otherwise overlooked features of metalepsis. Questions raised include: how do the mechanics, structural principles, and effects attributed to metalepsis by scholars in antiquity and today compare? What, if any, is the conceptual relationship between the trope ‘metalepsis’ (often discussed as a variant of metonymy) and the narratological concept of metalepsis (which shares with metonymy a story of structuralist reinvention)? Do discussions of metalepsis as a trope allow us to formulate a ‘grammar’ of metalepsis, in which certain linguistic features frequently play a key role? Does any attempt to theorize metalepsis from a transhistorical perspective require a built-in account of how it can and does vary in changing literary and cultural-historical contexts? And might we gain something by moving away from the markedly violent metaphors (‘collapse’, ‘violate’, ‘break down’) that dominate much contemporary criticism?

In addition to clarifying the phenomenon at the heart of this volume and delineating its broader critical context, the chapter also flags up how and where the individual contributions take up the various lines of critical enquiry here introduced. By presenting a critique of the ahistorical leanings of structuralist narratology and its tendency to under-theorize performance and reception contexts when making use of metalepsis as a critical concept, this first chapter then seamlessly hands over to the next, which further deepens these opening reflections and continues the establishment of a shared conceptual framework for the volume by examining some intermedial dimensions of metalepsis in ancient literature and art.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMetalepsis
Subtitle of host publicationAncient Texts, New Perspectives
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2020

Publication series

NameClassics in Theory


  • Genette
  • Metalepsis
  • rhetoric
  • trope
  • Literary Theory
  • Narratology


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