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Metalepsis: Ancient Texts, New Perspectives

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

Sebastian Matzner (Editor), Gail Trimble (Editor)

Original languageEnglish
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages336
ISBN (Print)9780198846987
Accepted/In pressSep 2018
Published27 Aug 2020

Publication series

NameClassics in Theory

King's Authors


'Metalepsis’ is an ancient term. Classical rhetoric, however, made only limited use of the word to describe certain usages akin to metaphor and metonymy, always staying strictly within the confines of stylistics. More recently, metalepsis crossed the boundary from rhetoric and poetics to narratology (the study of narrative and narrative structure), and was re-framed much more broadly as the breaking of the frame between distinct narrative worlds. This modern notion of metalepsis, introduced by Genette (Figures III, 1972; Métalepse. De la figure à la fiction, 2004), has proved highly insightful for exploring dynamic interactions between the worlds of author and text, such as scenarios in (typically postmodern) fiction where an author enters into conversation with a character (Malina, Breaking the Frame, 2002). However, metalepsis has a much greater potential to address all sorts of other literary transgressions between worlds or levels, and to deepen our understanding of a whole range of dynamics from apostrophe to ecphrasis, from self-conscious metapoetic reflections to anachronism and epiphany.

Classicists have only just begun to examine what metalepsis, which has been theorized so far largely on the basis of analyses of contemporary novels and films, might mean in the context of the ancient world. Yet articles by de Jong (‘Metalepsis in Ancient Greek Literature’, 2009) and Whitmarsh (‘Radical Cognition: Metalepsis in Classical Greek Drama’, 2013), a chapter in Currie’s Homer’s Allusive Art (2016), and a collection of essays edited by Eisen and Möllendorff, Über die Grenze (2013; see also below, ‘Readership, Timeliness, Competition’) have all contributed to a surge in critical interest. This volume sets out to take the current debate to the next level. In its individual chapters and as an integrated whole, it asks both where metalepsis can most productively join other critical concepts in classical research, and how explorations of ancient metalepsis might change, refine, or extend the critical understanding of the concept itself—not just in Classics, but also in literary studies more broadly conceived, and in scholarly work across the humanities. It thus aims to bring a new historical depth to contemporary discussions.

To lay the groundwork for this volume, the editors brought together an international group of scholars with diverse interests and specialisms, both in terms of the texts they work on and the approaches they typically adopt. At a two-day conference at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics in September 2015, this group met to discuss what we can learn about metalepsis when we bring it to bear on ancient material—both in and beyond its now traditional narratological conception as inherited from Genette. Emerging from the individual contributions and collective discussions at this conference (see also below ‘Evolution of the Project and Timetable for Completion’), the proposed volume as a whole raises and addresses central questions for our understanding of metalepsis, both within and beyond the classical world.

If metalepsis consists fundamentally in the breaking down of barriers, to what sort of barriers and to what sort of transgressions can the concept be fruitfully applied? Does metalepsis require recognizable levels of reality and fictionality, constructed by narrative (or other) means? If it does require clear divisions between real and fictional worlds, how does metalepsis relate to other planes such as the past, the mythical, or the divine? In what ways, if at all, does it make sense to identify metalepsis in genres and art forms other than narrative literature, and to approach it from critical perspectives other than that of narratology? What kind of subject—author, narrator, reader, performer—can make the metaleptic leap? Do we need media-specific understandings of metalepsis, or can we develop a general notion of how metalepsis works across and with different media? Do conflations between levels of different sorts operate in the same way and elicit similar effects? And does metalepsis typically disturb, comfort, or have some other affective impact on the reader or audience?

This volume addresses all of these avenues of investigation by probing in particular ancient genres that are not obviously ‘narrative’, by exploring different ways in which subjects and frames/levels/worlds may be constructed, and by examining a wide range of (different) transgressions of (different) boundaries. Aiming to stimulate further debate at the interface of Classics, critical theory, and modern literary and cultural studies—and written and edited, following the OUP Delegates’ initial feedback, to be clear and accessible to readers from all these disciplines—the volume as a whole and its concluding epilogue suggest some answers to these questions and point to further avenues for future research.

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