- Mimesis and Illusion in Nonnus: Deceit, Distrust, and the Search for Meaning
What is reality? What is illusion? This is the question continually posited by the poem.1
Everything becomes relational, debatable, elusive, precarious . . . Reality and the self become provisional, contingent, uncertain . . . Everything is suspect, neither true nor false.2
Mimesis raises issues of ontological uncertainty and epistemological issues of how to distinguish the genuine and the impostor, and how to deal with optical illusions that epitomize the deceptiveness of the material world.3 From Plato onwards within Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, thinkers like Paul, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, Proclus, Dionysius the Areopagite, and John of Damascus asked what was the validity, indeed morality, of mimesis, and the role of representation and symbolism in art. Should it be about naturalistic imitations of physical entities, or about the transmission of 'more real' but inevitably diminished divine archetypes into the world of forms?4 In any image, what hidden messages lay beneath the manifest? In and by itself mimesis indicates the shiftiness of the world, and thrusts before the perceiver the problematic relationship of original and copy. Nonnus's Dionysiaca is one work among many that wrestles with the conundrum of authenticity and imitation. Part of the purpose of this paper is to explore where this engagement leads. The essential argument is that the semiotic richness of the world that Nonnus creates discomforts rather than cheers when so many characters and objects appear, or really are, treacherous, indeterminate, misleading, and deceitful. The consequent atmosphere of mystery and puzzlement readily fosters perceptions of malevolent, inscrutable forces at work. Vigilance is every thing, for in the Dionysiaca the ubiquity of visual and verbal misrepresentation, and the pervasive hiding, fakery, forgery, and illegitimacy, even though interspersed with instances of disguise and falsehood to assist people, create an atmosphere of distrust that easily [End Page 81] darkens to paranoia. Just what this says about the author, his psyche, and his worldview is, however, impossible to specify.
Ovid's Metamorphoses, to take a work similar to the Dionysiaca in numerous ways, projects a world of demonic, deceitful, shifting, cruel, and capricious deities who operate in an amoral, nightmarish, chaotic, and violent world of ceaseless change and instability, where landscapes may seem idyllic and alluring but prove to be dangerous traps for helpless, unsuspecting victims.5 The relationship between substance and shadow, real and unreal, original and copy, is intrinsically challenging at the best of times, but becomes almost impossible to determine in a work where the fluidity and multiplicity of forms are emphasized. The potential for miscomprehension by readers, and the deception for characters within the narrative, increase significantly. As the diverse nature of his extant literary corpus suggests, however, there is more than one Ovid, and the Metamorphoses may, for example, represent a tendentious and artful piece of anti-Augustanism rather than the uncensored outpourings of Ovid's consciousness.6
Regarding Nonnus, his interest in the nature of reality and the problems raised by mimesis may signify more than debt to centuries of pondering and polemic by his scholarly predecessors. It may have been sharpened by current theological controversies. Response to this activity alone would say something about Nonnus, while leaving the unreliable, shifty world he projects as an artefact uncertainly connected with the parent consciousness.
As, apparently, the fifth-century C.E. author both of a compendious, sprawling, 48-book panegyric, and epic on a pagan deity innately antithetical to much that Christianity stood for, and of a verse paraphrase of the Gospel of John, critics have wondered how the same Nonnus wrote both works and, if he did, which 'author' came first: Was he a pagan who converted to Christianity or was he always a Christian, a bishop even, who grew up in Egyptian Panopolis close to desert ascetics and, finding the lure of pagan mythology irresistible, relished the prospect of challenging and surpassing the likes of Homer? The latter is a very real possibility, for many Christians in late antiquity composed as if they were pagan; there is no insuperable problem in regarding Nonnus as one of these. Moreover, as we shall see, it may be that the...