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An Interview with Panagiotis Agapitos, Visiting Scholar

Posted On July 02, 2012 | 16:52 pm | by lisaw | Permalink

Margaret Mullett

Panagiotis Agapitos is Professor of Byzantine literature and culture at the University of Cyprus. In addition to being a highly respected Byzantinist and philologist, he is also a best-selling novelist. Dumbarton Oaks was pleased to welcome Professor Agapitos as a Visiting Scholar in Byzantine Studies in April of 2012. The following is an interview conducted by Margaret Mullett, Director of Byzantine Studies.

Panagioti, it has been great having you here this month. Can you tell us a little about the project you’ve been working on and what has been special about doing the work in DO?

Well, it has been a great stay and I have very much enjoyed the company of the fellows, a really young group, but also it has been great to spend time with colleagues, and old and new friends. I have been working on a little book on histories of Byzantine literature on the way to writing one myself. I’ve also been looking at periodization of Byzantine literature: it sounds rather precious but it is in fact a useful methodological tool. I have been exploring the attitudes to Byzantine literature of one of the founders of our field, Karl Krumbacher (1856–1909) who wrote a Handbook to Byzantine Literature 120 years ago. I discovered that the DO library was amazingly helpful: I wasn’t expecting it to have almost all the old material, but it does, including an offprint of 1895 which allowed me to reevaluate Krumbacher and his developing views. For example, we always think of him as believing that Byzantine literature started in the fourth century with the emperor Constantine, as the second edition (1897) of his Handbook does—but in fact in his first edition (1891) he thought that Byzantine literature should start in the seventh century with arguments very similar to the ones used today to mark the end of Late Antiquity, but he was forced to start in the sixth century where the classical volume in the series ended. I’ve also discovered that Krumbacher in 1905 proposed how Byzantine literature should look, in a chapter within a popularizing book with no footnotes, but in his most mature synthetic moment.

It is surprising, isn’t it, that Krumbacher’s vision is more attractive to us than that of many who followed him?

Yes, indeed. I’ve also been looking at Franz Dölger (1891–1968), who we wouldn’t automatically think of as a student of Byzantine literature, largely because we think of him more as a student of Byzantine diplomatics, but his PhD research after the First World War was on Theodore Meliteneiotes’ poem Eis ten sophrosynen [On Chastity]. He never integrated his interest in literature with his social and economic concerns--he never developed a theory of Byzantine literature as a socio-cultural product of its time: rather he saw it as a field where endless imitation, variation and repetition went on, and only in vernacular literature was there anything original. This is a very different view from ours today, but also from Krumbacher’s. Dölger’s approach reflected an ideology close to that of Nazi Germany in which texts that failed to conform to his hieratic model, perfectly organized in a ceremonial system, were regarded as dissidents to a perfect regime. His views were hugely influential in that he wrote the overview of Byzantine literature for the Cambridge Medieval History IV.ii (published in 1967), and also provided the foundation for the Greek philology curriculum during the junta through a student of his who acted as consultant to the regime. Even now Greek university education reflects a tripartite division into 1. Introduction to Byzantine philology, 2. Byzantine poetry, 3. Byzantine prose—and this is exactly the structure of Dölger’s chapter in Cambridge Medieval History IV.ii.

Here at DO when we think of histories of Byzantine literature we think of Alexander Kazhdan, who grew up in a very different political system…

Yes, but he made the leap from his early work as an economic historian to look at Byzantium as having a literature like any other literature, and he reacted strongly against Dölger’s overschematic and rigid categorization. He suddenly began in the very late 1960s to work on literary texts with his first article on Niketas Eugenianos, and in subsequent essays and finally in the two volumes of his History of Byzantine Literature he tried to liberate the texts, their authors, and their social setting from Dölger’s categories. He was one of the first scholars really to think of Byzantine literature as a literature in its own right, not a tissue of classical quotations and evidence for lost tragedies, or the means of transferring ancient Greece to the Renaissance, or a powerful influence on Slavonic literature or a stage in the transfer of the folk tale from east to west and west to east.

His was the way of the future, surely?

Yes, indeed. The way we looked at the field twenty-five years ago has moved it dramatically away from Dölger, and a younger generation has done fantastic work and established firm theoretical foundations. You might think that postmodernism has crushed any idea of history of literature, but in fact this has not proved a problem for Byzantine literature, given that it never had a history of its own to start with.

Another issue of course is the training of students capable of reading this literature, and this is an area where you have been able to make a wonderful contribution in Cyprus.

We started there by building our own syllabus, not by adopting the Greek system, and we created a more modern program of study: students take six courses in Byzantine literature over three historical periods (early, middle, and late), which gives them the opportunity to read a large number of texts and this creates confidence in them for understanding the texts.

You’ve talked by implication about your Munich training, and now explicitly about your four-person department and its exciting activities, but not about your training at Harvard.

Well, Harvard was very important to me, a real transformation from my German-speaking education in Athens and Munich, a chance to put it into perspective. And from the cradle of Byzantine studies (and modern Greek studies) I was now involved in a department where there were other Hellenists and specialists in Vergil and Seneca and comparative languages like Sanskrit and Old Norse. And the exposure to the methods of classical philology opened up a dawning awareness that Byzantine philology demands different methods. Finally, for the first time I was exposed to the theory of literature through scholars in comparative literature, which led me to change my dissertation topic from metrics and Byzantine music to narratology. I was fortunate to be there while Ihor Ševčenko was in his prime, and also to have been at Harvard when Margaret Alexiou, famous for her classical training and for her father George Thomson, arrived in January 1986. I took her first course on death in Byzantine literature and was astonished to hear an intelligent educated scholar freely interpreting Byzantine texts as literature. Meg finally took over the supervision of my dissertation.

This might have been seen as a defection from Byzantium, since she was Professor of Modern Greek literature, and the vernacular literature of the late medieval period is disputed ground. Was it?

Well Meg was not that kind of Neohellenist: she wanted to see those texts both in a Byzantine context and from the viewpoint of modern Greek literature, but she never tried to capture them for modern Greek. She believed in the ‘continuity’ of Greek literature where others were anxious to push the origins of modern Greek literature as far back as possible. This arose from the early nineteenth-century concern for nation states and national literatures and a desire to find an equivalent to Old French and Mittelhochdeutsch: without that equivalent modern Greek literature appeared to be impoverished. What these scholars didn’t immediately realize was that vernacular literature was not "popular" but high-level aristocratic poetry, produced under the very highest patronage, steeped in the most sophisticated of rhetoric. A Neohellenist will look at the twelfth century and see only the so-called epic of Digenis Akritis and the vernacular experiments (Ptochoprodromos, Glykas, Spaneas); a Byzantinist will see these texts in the context of everything that was written in the period. Literature like art is an open space, not a territory marked out by fortresses. And this is true at the other end of our subject—the relationship of classics or Late Antiquity with Byzantine studies is just as fraught with battles for territorial control.

You said that Byzantine philology demands different methods: how does this work through in the editing of texts?

Traditionally Byzantine texts have been made to look like ancient Greek texts; they have datives and infinitives and were edited as ancient Greek with fully normalized spelling, accentuation, and punctuation according to the German school or the French school. Byzantinists have the advantage over classicists in that we have manuscripts written in the time of the authors, which means that we can reflect contemporary practice in our editing, not the unchanging mimesis of older philologists. We no longer think that manuscripts of vernacular texts are full of scribal errors which need to be corrected (normalized) by the editor: we know now that a scribe with a nice professional hand would copy two texts, one learned with "good," educated spelling, the other vernacular spelled chaotically. The chaos reflects the experimental state of a language and literature which was written without being taught in school. We need to see how the text is structured, how it can be understood, how it uses language before we can decide whether or not to "correct" it. We can learn a great deal from architects restoring monuments: our ideas of preservation now are very different from those of the nineteenth century.

Panagioti, as well as a highly respected Byzantinist and philologist you are also a best-selling novelist. How does each activity feed into the other?

I originally thought it was straightforward. Why shouldn’t a Byzantinist set a murder mystery in Byzantium? For forty years now Ellis Peters has enabled Cadfael to solve medieval mysteries, not to speak of Umberto Eco and William of Baskerville. But I admit I was wrong. It is neither unlaborious nor simple. The process of writing narrative in three dimensions drives us beyond scholarship. Ninth-century shoes may not have come down to us, but we need to represent shoes in the narrative. So I decided to take the process seriously, to be self-conscious about it, to control my own laboratory. So I ask where are the limits, and instead of creating a Philip Marlowe in Constantinople or a body in a library, I ask instead what did the Byzantines perceive as crimes in society, and I go to the legal handbooks of the ninth century to find out. This has the result of allowing me to portray a whole society not just one individual crime. This has taught me not to assume that everything happened in Constantinople: Byzantium was an empire of many cities and languages and also frontiers, and my hero experiences all this diversity. It has also helped me see that when we look at Byzantium we cannot rely on a single specialism: literary scholars must know history and art and architecture, and it is very clear that that is the way Byzantine Studies is practiced here at DO with a great concern for interdisciplinarity, and an openness to surrounding fields. Something else I gained is that writing narrative has given me a broader perspective on the history of Byzantine literature: the author is not down on the plain or on the beach but he climbs a mountain, and the distant view from the height offers clarity. And crime fiction offers its own delights of postmodernity. Intertextuality is to be expected; authors are now competing to complete Conan Doyle, or to offer Oscar Wilde as a detective; readers love that sort of game because they knowingly participate in it. Texts exist because other texts exist, and this is no surprise to the learned reader of Byzantine literary texts where mimesis creates a metalanguage which will drive dynamic response, nor is it a surprise to the avid listener to saints’ lives in monastery, church or home expecting the topoi of a narrative genre and rejoicing on finding them. All kinds of narrative constantly recur; all literature is always true. Texts are not individual masterpieces but part of a linguistic system of production and use. We should forget the concept of a masterpiece, which in the classical world has been so much promoted by processes of selection, edition, education and loss; we should concentrate on the whole of what we have and begin to understand and appreciate the processes of production and reception in Byzantium.

Panagioti, thank you. Please come back and see us soon.