Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

Daphnis and ChloeDaphnis and Chloe by Longus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This early pastoral romance (dating from the second or third century A.D.) is both entertaining in itself and a good corrective to the received wisdom that the novel is a quintessential invention of Cervantes or capitalism or Protestantism or the 18th century.

Though brief and beholden to the boys-meets/loses/gets-girl conventions of the Hellenistic romance, Daphnis and Chloe is recognizable as a novel: its protagonists learn and grow, deepening their sense of their world and how its constraints may be negotiated. Moreover, the voice of the narrator, self-conscious about narrating a winsome erotic pastoral, radiates a faint but persistent irony that I think of as the essence of the novelistic. Mikhail Bakhtin, though he didn’t like Greek romances, argued that the novel as a form relativizes and ironizes all of the languages that make it up, and Longus, who is highly allusive according to this edition’s introduction, does this ably:

And to ensure that the child’s name should sound adequately pastoral, they decided to call him Daphnis.

The plot: Daphnis and Chloe are each found as babies by poor farmers in Lesbos and are reared to be a goatherd and a shepherdess, respectively, by their foster parents under the influence of prophetic dreams. The pair work side by side every day as they drive the sheep and the goats, and they soon fall innocently in love. Gradually, they discover their erotic desire for each other; though, as they live before sex ed or Internet porn, they do not know what to do about it. Eventually, Daphnis is instructed with maximal explicitness by a bored, predatory housewife in the vicinity who wants to fuck the beautiful boy any way she can and ends up doing so under the cover of pedagogy.

Daphnis and Chloe’s relationship is threatened by war and pirates, but our amorous pair are under the protection of the gods, particularly Eros, the Nymphs, and Pan, and are consequently always reunited. By the end of the novel, more mundane challenges interfere with their love, and we seem almost to pass in 10 pages from the silly pseudo-Homeric adventures of Greek romance to the more mature complications of a Jane Austen. Daphnis, whose foster-father is a slave, may be too low-status to marry the more privileged Chloe; moreover, the slave-master is returning to survey his property, and there is the danger that he will dispose of Daphnis or else allow him to be taken on as a kind of sex-slave by the pederast Gnathon.

Happily, everyone discovers before the end that the foundlings Daphnis and Chloe are in fact the abandoned children of important or wealthy families and can thus properly marry each other as social elites. They remain committed to their pastoral lifestyle, however, and the novel ends happily with their finally making love.

There is a mythical armature to Daphnis and Chloe. As mentioned, the lovers are under the protection of Eros, Pan, and the Nymphs, while the slave-master who comes to survey the property on which the amorous pair disport themselves is named Dionysophanes, or the manifestation of Dionysus. Margaret Anne Doody, in her vast study, The True Story of the Novel, argues for the continuity of the novel from Greek romance to today as an urbane feminist form of literature in contradistinction to the masculinist epic and tragedy; she accordingly interprets Daphnis and Chloe as a an allegory for the erotic potential of equal partnership. In a world where Dionysius has “sold out to Big Business” by becoming a property- and slave-owner, the pastoral couple (under the sponsorship of Pan, representing male sexuality, and the Nymphs, representing female sexuality) imperfectly prophesy the companionate marriage of intersubjective equals that will be described much later, by Doody’s favorite novelist, Samuel Richardson.

Doody’s optimistic reading of this ironic narrative is obviously colored by her polemic against the Dionysius-worshipping Nietzsche, who scorned the Greek novel and the Hellenistic era at large as effeminate, decadent betrayals of the Greek tragic spirit. But in developing a lineage for the novel that goes back before Don Quixote and evades the airless Hegelian literary history that would lead us from Cervantes to the avant-garde end of narrative in an unbroken line of development, Doody’s interpretation is suggestive and cheering. (And surely the other side of Nietzsche’s personality, the one that sees “truth” as a contingent effect of rhetoric, might well be charmed by Longus’s irony.)

In a preface, Longus casts his whole novel as an ekphrasis, or a verbal description of a visual art object: he claims to be elaborating in narrative upon a large painting he encountered in the woods in Lesbos while hunting. Both the novel’s consciousness of its own artifice and its subtle modulation from the mythical divinities of love to the materialist determinations of property relations make it a fully-developed example of the novelist’s art, as does the tonal richness of the prose, which can shift easily from limpid nature poetry to social satire, and which even includes proto-stream-of-consciousness narration as the lovers muse on their erotic confusions:

‘Whatever is Chloe’s kiss doing to me? […] My breath’s coming in gasps, my heart’s jumping up and down, my soul’s melting away—but all the same I want to kiss her again! Oh, what an unlucky victory! Oh, what a strange disease—I don’t even know what to call it. Had Chloe drunk poison just before she kissed me? If so, how did she manage not to be killed?’

Really, only the novel’s investment in the moral and aesthetic superiority of certain bloodlines mark it as pre-modern; overturning this primitive eugenicism (still at work in the Greek romance plots of late Shakespeare) will be the true novelistic innovation of the eighteenth century, as Defoe and Richardson give us heroes and heroines whose heroism does not depend on an occulted blood connection to the ruling caste.

Almost nothing is known of Daphnis and Chloe’s author; in translator Paul Turner’s introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, he even notes that “Longus” may simply be a misprint from “Logos” (meaning “story”) on an early edition’s title page, as contemporary novels are always subtitled “a novel”—maybe the effectively anonymous author is the multifarious spirit of fiction itself.


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