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Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

I've read books for many different reasons before, but this is the first time I recall reading a book because of ballet music. As I mentioned in an earlier post I recently heard the Seattle Symphony Orchestra perform Ravel's full score for Daphnis et Chloé, and during the performance a supertitle screen told us the story of the ballet. Thus I learned that the story involved pirates and nymphs and Pan, and this naturally made me curious about the ancient Greek novel that the ballet is based on. It turns out to be a wonderful book, which I've now read in two different translations -- Jeffrey Henderson's for the Loeb Classical Library, and Ronald McCail's for Oxford World Classics.

Along with reading the novel (which is very short -- more of a novella by modern standards), I've been reading a lot of literary analysis of it and of the romance genre as well (cf my review of the Northrop Frye book last week), so I've got a lot of other people's commentary in my head at the moment. Therefore I know that nothing is known about Longus, who gets the credit for writing Daphnis and Chloe. Nothing was said about the book by ancient critics, and the earliest surviving manuscript is from the Byzantine era. Based on textual evidence scholars date the composition to some time in the second century of the common era. It is one of only five ancient Greek novels that have survived in complete form. All of them are romances in the sense of love stories as well as of adventure stories.

Daphnis and Chloe by Louis Hersent

Daphnis and Chloe by Louis Hersent

Daphnis and Chloe is a pastoral romance, and unlike the other ancient Greek novels, in which the lovers wander around the Mediterranean, Longus' story is entirely set on the island of Lesbos. Both Daphnis and Chloe were abandoned as babies and raised by slaves working on the estates of rich men who live in the nearby city of Mytilene. As the story proper begins, Daphnis is 15 and Chloe is 13, and the god Eros is conspiring to make them fall in love. They herd goats and sheep together, and they begin in a state of childlike innocence into which piercing thoughts of sex and love are initiated. In four chapters, the book outlines a charming but subtextually fraught series of mini-adventures involving wolves, pirates, partying playboys, an invading army, lusty cowherds, courtesans, and pedophiles, and divine intervention from nymphs and from Pan, all carrying Daphnis and Chloe further down the road of sexual love.

Considering the fact that I've been able to read numerous analyses of the book, it's almost hard to believe that Daphnis and Chloe was long considered a trivial work of mild pornography. Only in the past fifty years has it been recognized as a major work of literature that, under its sunny surface, is carefully constructed and chockablock with literary references to older writers such as Theocritus and Sappho. Not sure how much of that I would have noticed without having read the commentary, but the story works perfectly fine on its own, building slowly to an emotionally gratifying climax that ends, yes, with Daphnis and Chloe finally having sex, "spending that night more sleepless than any owl."

In a prologue, Longus describes the book as (in Henderson's translation), "an offering to Love and the Nymphs and Pan, a delightful possession for all mankind that will heal the sick and encourage the depressed, that will stir memories in those experienced in love and for the inexperienced will be a lesson for the future," and I'll be damned if it didn't do just that for me. It's rare to read something that is both so sweet and so wise, so knowing and so fond. It embodies its theme of Love with loving grace. There's a lot of the commentary about the religious dimension of the book, with Dionysos seemingly at the glorious garden heart of it, surrounded by the Nymphs and Pan and Eros, and Longus brings a sense of the sacred to the initiation of his innocent protagonists into the mysteries of Love, even as much of the action plays as a kind of slapstick comedy. It's really hard to describe the tone, because its such a fine balance of multiple valences. Goethe apparently loved the book so much that he said you should read it once a year, "to be instructed by it again and again, and to receive anew the impression of its great beauty." I may well follow his advice. I was completely enchanted by it.

The scenario for Ravel's ballet, by the way, was written by Michel Fokine. Fokine initially wrote a scenario that covered the whole novel, but it proved too long, so what they ended up with covers only the first half of the book. Even then it cuts out quite a bit and moves things around. The story it tells is therefore far simpler than the novel, but it retains the dreamlike quality and the sacred sense of Pan's awesome power. In fact, I'm listening to the music as I write this, and it strikes me as a work of intricate genius responding, even if idiosyncratically, to another.

"For absolutely no one has ever escaped Love nor ever shall, as long as beauty exists and eyes can see."

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