Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Nonnus, Art History and What Happens When Your Theory Explains Everything

This isn't going to be a funny blog, so sorry about that in advance. On the other hand, I've got access to an amazing museum now, so as soon as I get a working camera device, I'll be able to blog about vases shaped like ducks or something.

Today, I went to a talk entitled "Encounters with the Other: Nonnus, Proteus and the Abductions of Europa" by Robert Shorrock. It was, on the whole, a good talk. I'll give a brief summary:

Nonnus was an author in the 4th or early 5th century, and composed (among other things) the Dionysiaca, an epic poem about the god Dionysus (did you guess?).  A small segment of this poem deals with a myth known either euphemistically as the Abduction of Europa or more literally as the Rape of Europa. Briefly: this is the myth where Zeus turns himself into a bull, "seduces" and then abducts Europa, carries her across the sea and then has sex with her. Now, scholars have argued themselves blue about whether this is a rape in the modern sense, whether Europa was consenting, or leading Zeus on, or even (distressingly) whether "rape" and "consent" are even appropriate terms, given the Greeks didn't necessarily have a concept of (female) consent (that's tricky and nebulous). It's not my intention to get my feminist on, but I'll just state for the record that I think it is a rape, in the sense that Europa doesn't consent, and that all the talk we have to have about the "eroticism" of the scene in Horace Odes is pretty grim and distasteful.

Luckily, we weren't talking about the eroticism of the story (much) or debating at all whether Europa was able to consent (good- I think?). We were looking at Nonnus' version, which is interesting and different in style to other versions. This is seriously the kind of think classicists get excited about- stylistic differences. I'm kinda glad I'm a historian.

Anyway, after much discussion, the main thesis of the paper was: Nonnus' Dionysiaca was the inspiration for a particularly striking Rape of Europa paining (this was a common painting theme in the Renaissance).
The Rape of Europa by Noel-Nicholas Coypel, 1726-1727
This is the second such painting by this author, and here is the earlier, and another for comparison:

The Rape of Europa by Noel-Nicholas Coypel, 1720

File:Simon Vouet - The Rape of Europa - WGA25375.jpg
The Rape of Europa by Simon Vouet, 1640

As you can see, Coypel's two paintings are very different. It was Shorrock's thesis that the later painting (the first of my images) directly depicted bits from Nonnus' work. I'll give one of two examples:

The man at the bottom centre of the painting, blowing a conch shell at the bull is a triton (a male siren or mermaid). Nonnus describes: "A triton who heard Zeus' seductive mooing, mooed back an equivalent tune to the son of Cronos on a conch shell" (lines 55-60. I can't be exact as this is from an un-counted translation).

The man grasping Europa's cloak is Boreas, the North Wind, who Nonnus describes: "excited by the fresh breeze of marriage, bellied out her cloak full sail" (lines 67-68?)

There are plenty more: these match ups account for most of the people in the image.

On the whole, I was convinced. Nonnus was little known then (not unlike Coypel himself) and it's not hard to imagine Coypel enjoying painting such a confusing picture at other, lesser educated people's expense.

Or rather, I was convinced, until the questions started. That room was full of art historians, who knew a damn sight more than I did about the subject.  "Could this figure not be Poseidon, rather than Nereus?" or "What if this group was intended to signify the roving sailor of the poem?" and so on. And, to each and every suggestion, alternative interpretation and intertextual notification, the speaker answered "Yes, of course, and that would fit perfectly because..." because Coypel could have been playing with multiple identities for his figures, or Nonnus was making a reference to Homer or something.

Literally, to every question. (Caveat, I snuck out before the very end of questions because I had to go home and eat. It's possible other questions were asked, that disprove my impressions, but somehow I doubt it).

Keep calm, things are about to get philosophical. Sorry. It's time to talk about the concept of falsifiability. I'm just gonna go ahead and quote Karl Popper on this:

"I may illustrate this by two very different examples of human behaviour: that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child. Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child). I could not think of any human behaviour which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness."- Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963. Pages 33-39 available here).

Basically, what he's saying is that it has to be (theoretically) possible to prove a theory wrong in order for it to be right. Otherwise, literally any theory can be "proven" by the facts, provided one is willing to be imaginative enough.Translated to this example, Shorrock should have been able to say "Of course, if this group did represent the sailor, that would rather damage my supposition that the viewer is the sailor", or something. By adapting his explanation to fit literally every point or criticism, he made it inherently less powerful.

This is much more difficult with something like art history, where we cannot empirically prove things, as we can with "lab-science". And it's very tempting to try to interpret everything in light of the theory we just thought up. It's our baby! But it's a temptation we need to learn to resist if we're ever going to say something meaningful about the (ancient) world.


  1. I enjoyed, but think your comparison of different interpretations of art to the Adler v Freud issue is poorly chosen. Here's why: i) on the purely formal level, with Adler and Freud, either one is right or neither; the two can't be taken together. Whereas with the painting, it is possible that the painter had both Nonnus and another text in mind, or different angles on Nonnus text in mind when painting, and he painted in order to invite the ambiguity. Because artists can engage us with intertext and subjectivity in a way that scientific theories and scientists (qua scientists) cannot, the analogy is inappropriate. ii) even if the artist had one particular angle of Nonnus, that doesn't invalidate thinking about what responses viewers of the picture (contemporaneous or later) would have had in mind and how that informs their/our response to the painting, and/or indeed their/our response to the poem. Seeing as both poems and paintings often admit of multiple interpretations, such thinking is not idle - in fact it leads to pretty useful conclusions that will bounce off walls if you throw them at one. The scientific theory aims to describe objective reality; the art theory aims to explain subjective impressions.

    I would also plead that, if you're just interested in the artist's intentions, one theory or another is theoretically falsiable - there may exist Coypel's notes on the painting which will illumine to a sufficient degree his thoughts behind the painting. Of course, we probably don't and never will have them, but the piece of evidence exists putatively, so the theories are falisfiable. (By way of more scientific parallel, someone theorises that the number of stars in the universe is even. The piece of empirical evidence exists to determine the truth or falsity of that theory; it's just impossible to get hold of. That doesn't undermine the theoretical falsifiability of the theory that the number of stars in the universe is even).

    Again, I think Popper would want to limit application of falsifiability to theories that (claim to) be scientific. It's a theory that all bachelors are unmarried: is the fact that we can nonsensically say "I can conceive of a married bachelor" good enough for the criterion of falsifiable evidence? Nonetheless, it's still a theory worth holding.

    1. In reply to your points:

      I agree the Adler/Freud comparison is poor, but that's Popper's example, not mine. I acknowledge that there's a real, serious difference between Popper's mutually exclusive explanations and my competing but partially compatible interpretations.

      Art and literature interpreations certainly don't have to be as rigorous as science; occasionally people try and they fail dismally. History I think is more of a middle ground: certainly I try to describe an existing reality, even though I don't *think* I'm doing it objectively.

      Not everything has to be falsifiable; you, I and presumably Popper agree on that. However, I think it's a good rule of thumb when trying to frame your own argument in a serious subject like academia. As I write, I like to ask myself whether what I'm writing about *could* be falsified, or think about what kind of evidence would support or damage it. I think that's a healthy way to go about making an argument.

      Several people have suggested that I'm advocating a "scientific" famework of knowledge which does not take account of other aspects of the world. I'd explicitly reject that it was a "scientific" approach: I'd prefer "rational", since I'm *not* using the scientific method (I've blogged about this before). Things can be usefully observable in history/ literature without being "facts". Indeed, I'm inclined to say that "facts" in history don't really exsist in a meaningful way. I didn't have a problem with Shorrock's interpretation. My problem was his response to it.

      One has to be able to deal with criticisms, suggestions, critique in a meaningful way. Simply exercising one's imagination enough to work out how literally every point goes to support one's own theory is not legitimate in an academic sphere. Not to my mind.