Representation and its limits



Foreword to the recently released book by Paulo Martins

The fourteen chapters of this book do not fail to deal with any relevant aspect of the “image” in classical antiquity, and I must remember that by “image” one must understand the result of a series of means: wall and vase painting, mosaic , “sculpture” in stone, in metal, in glass, sculpture, so to speak, which already diversified in ancient times on various supports, such as high and bas-reliefs on doors, shields, helmets, coins; such as cameos, gems, cups, rings, pendants, tiaras, brooches, which well predict the size of the material.

In the immediate past, the book comes from the thesis of the homonymous professorship that the author defended in 2014, with great brilliance and courage, as I, arguidor and president of the committee, could testify: the door is always narrow. And now, faced with the honor and privilege of writing the preface to the book, I find myself in difficulties because Paulo Martins is also generous in his “Prolegomena” in tracing, retrospectively and introspectively, the first origin of the journey, leaving whoever it was almost nothing to say.

I believe that he did so because Habilitation, being always and only a title, after the Master's and Doctorate, and not also a position, is the culmination of the intellectual career of the university professor, and carrying it out brings to mind when , where and even why it all began – which in the end is an exercise stimulated by the “memorial” that is part of the tests. Well, almost nothing was left unsaid, and that little bit that was missing, a crack through which the testimonial eye can see a lot, will also show how, in my view, it all began.

Colleagues in the baccalaureate of Greek and Latin, students of professors like the late José Cavalcante de Souza and Francisco Achcar, brothers with fellow students such as Roberto Bolzani Filho and Adriano Machado Ribeiro, who are now teaching colleagues, we knew much more than, without these unpretentious conversations, it would have been possible for us to know about Plato's thought and about the plot of Aenida, by Virgil. We were, I can say, comfortable with what we knew, for example, about the differences between the sensible world and the intelligible world of Plato, knowledge that, thanks to its antiquity, was correct, safe and certain, almost becoming a mere information.

The same was true of the Aenida, whose two halves – Aeneas’ voyage and the war he waged in Italy – we learned to be the sum in reverse order of the matter of Iliad and the one Odyssey Homeric – the erratic travels of Odyssey narrated first, from cantos I to VI, and the hard battles of the Iliad, narrated later, from canto VII to XII. Well then, in that wandering, similar to that of Ulysses, Aeneas lands in Carthage and, exploring the place, comes across a mural painting in which he sees precisely the combats in Troy, which he had just left, and its protagonists, among whom he same! Aeneas sees himself in the painting and concludes that he is already a legend.

We appreciated the step in which Ulysses, a guest at the court of the Feaces, listens to the song of Demodocus, whose material is the deeds of Ulysses himself, who then concludes that he too is already a legend. And then we admired the way in which Virgil, while imitating Homer, substituted Demodocus's song for a different means of narrating, no longer singing, but painting, and we credited the procedure to emulation, in which one imitates, trying, however, to , vary and surpass the model, which was not incorrect.

But we had also learned that there was an initiatory meaning in the journey of Aeneas, that strange hero who, defeated at Troy and expatriated in search of another homeland, it was necessary, from the perspective of Virgil and the legends that make Romans descend from Trojan losers, to leave in fact, behind everything that still had a Trojan character, so that the Rome that he helped to found would not suffer from the vulnerability of Troy, a city that, out of affection for the lovely and the beautiful, ended up losing its very existence. Aeneas' journey was not just sailing towards the west, but it was also a journey within himself, a journey he took to get to know himself and also the new and extremely difficult conditions in which he barely survived.

Now, from such a perspective, it was not difficult to perceive the importance of Canto VI of Aenida, in which Aeneas in the infernal world, instructed by his father's Manes, becomes acquainted with the very reality of things that had already happened, those that happened and those that would still happen. Aeneas from then on knows who he is. In other words, it was easy to perceive there the challenge of Plato's thought, intelligently appropriated by Virgil: Aeneas in those infernal plagues of Canto VI, which are also the beyond, penetrates the intelligible world, becomes aware of the things themselves and therefore now knows, do you know. And that's how it was for us for a few years and it wasn't bad.

And it was then, in the early 1990s that, in my opinion, the decisive move took place which, like everything that is genius, is simple and, in its simplicity, is brilliant! It was when, for the first time, the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences saw the importance of studying images in literature through literature, or rather, letters. This is how I saw and heard it: I was already a professor and Paulo Martins was a postgraduate student, and one afternoon after one of his postgraduate classes he arrived and said: “don't you think that Eneias contemplating the painting in corner I corresponds to to the sensible world and progressively witnessing itself afterwards the machine of the world in corner VI corresponds to Plato's intelligible world?

It's not often that we have the experience of simultaneously seeing everything and simultaneously knowing in that instant that we're seeing everything. I once read that John Lennon wanted to write Alice in Wonderland. I could also think of countless books that I wanted to have written, but at that moment I just wanted to have that idea! I wish I had glimpsed that Aeneas contemplating the paintings is for the sensible world, as he penetrates the infernal world and seeing things themselves is for the intelligible world of Plato. And today I am proud to have told Paulo exactly that, precisely at that time, and to have repeated it whenever I could, to whoever it was and in the many classes I gave on the Aenida in Latin Literature.

Because I believe in this concept of idea, which can be said "insight”, “glimmer”, “synapse”, or whatever, which is always the thing with intelligence. I do believe that the results of academic research belong to everyone, just as the ideas that gave rise to them belong only to those who conceived them, only to those whom the gods favored, and thus they must be credited. I discovered that those who prefer not to give credit are precisely those who don't have any ideas of their own. In truth, the passage in which Aeneas, contemplating the paintings, sees himself was not only the emulative imitation of the Homeric step, but it was also the broad appropriation of Plato's thought for Virgil to build a hero who, thus, however who bears obvious analogies with Ulysses and Achilles, as I have already said, is completely different from any Homeric hero and could not possibly exist in Homer, since Iliad e Odyssey they predate Plato.

A Aenida, although imitative emulation of Iliad and Odyssey, contains, however, by deliberate decision of Virgil, insertions of disciplines that in Homeric times did not yet exist as such, such as, among others, rhetoric, history, tragedy, comedy and also philosophy. The debts are paid: not being an archaic poet has its price, but it seems to have some good rewards. Because of Paulo Martins' insight, it is clear that Plato's challenge in Aenida it is not limited to Canto VI, but begins much earlier, in Canto I, which therefore prepares for that journey of self-knowledge.

Well then, this germinal idea among us is Paulo Martins and it was from that postgraduate dissertation that he realized for himself and made us, colleagues and students, realize the importance of images in ancient letters, but not only the properly iconic images – statues, paintings and many others I listed above –, which he learned well (and now teaches better) to look at, that is, to read and interpret, but also the “textual images”, of course, the presence these same images and others, all now described in texts in prose and in verse, of which the ekphrases that have been read (and seen) since Homer are just the best known example.

The path diversified as the first ones, that is, the physical images themselves, Paulo Martins sought to discriminate according to the term by which the ancients designated them – statue, effigies, signum, similarity, sculpture, picture, prosopon, agálma, eidolonetc – to show how the ancients predicted they would be seen and what meaning they would like them to have, and he did (the diversification continues), also taking into account the space they occupied and the environments in which they circulated. Now, space, environments concern the opposition between the public sphere (the forum, the sidewalks, the city gates, public buildings, the temples) which is always explicitly political, pertaining to the affairs of the republic, and the private sphere (the house, the villa, the office, the private gardens, the jewels, the artifacts), which in an aristocratic, census-based and slave-owning society, is perhaps no less so, but it will occur indirectly, as it is related to leisure.

As for the textual images (the diversification continues), the author begins by distinguishing on the one hand, let's say it with preface simplicity, the description that occurs in the poems – the ekphrasis – and on the other, the description used in the oratory speeches – the enargy or evidence –, which is a persuasive rhetorical trope that we have, as such, ancient theorizing. But he soon started to deal with more complex objects, such as certain spaces, whose description is dynamic because it presupposes the movement of the observer, as happens with Alcínoo's palace in Odyssey and precisely the infernal world in Aenida. And finally, in addition to distinguishing descriptions, the author analyzes how, according to the ancients, images are processed in the soul of the observer.

The multiplied material that this book exposes derives, I think, from that first idea. I believe I have used, without saying or knowing it, the well-known biological event in which a simple organism transforms and multiplies into complex and varied organisms. Paulo Martins' idea was so brilliant because he was the originator of everything that can be studied today in relation to the image in the ancient world at the University. Why say more? Everything that she generated the reader will be able to see in this book.

*João Angelo Oliva Neto is a professor of Classical Letters at USP. Author, among other books, of The Book of Catullus (EDUSP).



Paul Martins. Representation and its limits: pictura loquens, poesis tacens. São Paulo, EDUSP, 2021, 368 pages.


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