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  • Longa Retro Series: Sacrifice and Repetition in Statius’ Menoeceus Episode
  • Alan Heinrich

The authority of narrative derives from its capacity to speak of origins in relation to endpoints.

Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 276

The narrative structure of the Thebaid was long subject to scholarly rebuke. In his early and influential study of the work, Leon Legras remarked, “Voilà, avec le manque d’unité, le défaut essentiel de la compo-sition dans la Thébaïde” (1905.152). For many years—no doubt under the influence of a normative critical tradition ultimately issuing from Aristotle’s Poetics—scholars echoed Legras’ judgment, reproaching Statius for his digressive technique, and hence for failing to live up to the Poetics’ demand for a plot both “whole and complete.” 1 Indeed, the gap between epic and tragic muthoi Aristotle himself posited, the former already marked by greater episodic distensions, would seem to rupture irredeemably in the Thebaid—now a Phoenissae, Suppliants, or Antigone; at other times a Senecan Oedipus, an Argonautica, or a Pindaric aetiology on the Nemean Games. 2 More recently, Statius has found readers who answer such charges of artistic disunity by appealing to the thematic parallels that link the epic’s digressive elements to the main narrative. 3 But such attempts to domesticate [End Page 165] the epic’s challenges to traditional narrative form obscure the fact that narrative is not an innocent artistic vehicle. Narrative is fundamentally a “cognitive instrument,” a tool for rendering experience meaningful and “readable.” 4 The “closed and legible wholes” it presents provide a model for understanding the world. The Thebaid’s active resistance to formal unity and coherence is symptomatic of its distrust of narrative intelligibility itself. The world projected by the Thebaid is a world whose violence challenges our understanding and our capacity to model this understanding through narrative.

In this study, I examine Statius’ treatment of Menoeceus’ self-sacrifice in Book 10 of the epic. The problems raised in this episode high-light the epic’s challenge to narrative form, for Menoeceus’ death is essen-tially “denarrativized” through the course of Statius’ treatment: the episode begins as if it will form an integral unit of the plot, only to end as yet another digression, stripped of its relevance to the main sequence of events. In the course of the episode, repetition emerges as the primary site of resistance to narrative integrity and legibility. Repetition haunts the episode: Menoeceus’ heroics are pre-empted by the grim, self-destructive logic of Theban history, as altruistic patriotism is displaced by an impotent and regressive spectacle of passion for death. Like the incestuous union for which Thebes is famed, the story of Menoeceus turns back upon itself, to its own troubled and violent origins.

Peter Brooks’ work on narrative repetition will help bring the [End Page 166] problems raised by the episode into focus. In Reading for the Plot, Brooks focuses his attention on the dynamics of Aristotle’s, the narrative middle, whose dual movement he models by way of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. On the one hand, he finds a certain “thanatos urge” in narrative, a teleological orientation towards its own quiescence. On the other hand, not only does narrative resist, as in Freud, all but its own “proper” (and circuitous) demise, it is simultaneously subject to an eros principle that makes of the middle an “arabesque in the dilatory space of the text”; together, we have “a struggle toward the end under the compulsion of imposed delay.” Repetition, Brooks argues as he turns to a different Freudian text, subserves both these movements. Elicited through the course of psychoanalysis and at the heart of the phenomenon of projection, repetition may lead to mastery, contributing to the “struggle toward the end” by “binding” the narrative excitations standing in the way of quies-cence (see Freud’s “Repetition and Working Through”). Through psychoanalytically-induced repetition, the past may be conquered and laid finally to rest. As Brooks writes (1984.134), “[t]he past needs to be incorporated as past within the present, mastered through the play of repetition in order for there to be an escape from repetition and in order for there...

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