Upon meeting a scholar of literature, one is likely to ask, “What period do you study?” with the likely answer being a fairly narrow slice of the literary pie — the 19th century novel, say, or nondramatic poetry of the Renaissance.
With Panagiotis Roilos, however, the answer is not so straightforward.
Recently promoted to a tenured professorship in the Classics Department, Roilos focuses on a broad array of genres and periods, ranging from Byzantine Greek novels of the 12th century to the works of modern Greek writers such as Constantine Cavafy, Giorgos Seferis, and Nikos Kazantzakis.
This varied range of subjects is generally grouped under the heading, “Modern Greek Studies,” a field that Gregory Nagy, the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, calls “one of the most dynamic interdisciplinary fields in the humanities today.”
Nagy praises Roilos, not only for his scholarship and teaching, but for “almost single-handedly running the administration of Harvard’s Modern Greek Studies Program ever since his appointment as assistant professor. In addition to his full-time teaching and research, Roilos has managed to put together a vibrant academic program that reaches out to the entire Harvard intellectual community. In addition, he serves as the chair of the Modern Greek Literature and Culture Seminar at the Humanities Center.”
Regarding Harvard’s Modern Greek Studies Program, Roilos points out that it is the oldest on this side of the Atlantic. The teaching of Modern Greek at this University began with the hiring of Evangelinos Apostolides-Sophokles in 1842. The Harvard library holds more than 150,000 books in modern Greek, the largest number outside Greece itself, while Houghton Library contains many rare first editions and manuscripts, including some of Cavafy’s privately printed broadsheets.
A summary of the projects Roilos has completed or is working on can be a bit dizzying, although there are some unifying themes. Roilos describes the overall nature of his research as being “very interdisciplinary and almost always comparative. Anthropology and critical theory form the two main subfields with which my research is often critically engaged.”
A book that represents one extreme of the chronological span he has taken in stride is called “Amphoteroglossia: A Poetics of the Twelfth-Century Medieval Greek Novel” (2005). Roilos translates the formidable Greek word that begins the title as “double-tonguedness,” a peculiarly Byzantine concept well suited to explain a group of highly sophisticated novels produced during the Komnenian dynasty (1081-1180).
The novels are set in an imagined world of classical antiquity with little or no reference to contemporary events. But Roilos discovered that there is more going on in these texts than escapist fantasy.
“The novels are written in a very literary, obscure, convoluted style,” said Roilos. “What I discovered is that they often allude to contemporary reality, but not in a way that is decipherable to a modern reader. These meanings would have been understandable to the literary elite of the time, however.”
These novels, written during what is considered a renaissance of Greek literature when vernacular Greek was being used for the first time in formal compositions, are remarkable for their puzzling juxtapositions of elevated rhetoric with passages of erotic description and grotesque, scatological humor. For example, in “Drosilla and Charikles” by Niketas Eugeneianos, there is a passage in which the hero describes his beloved in very earthy and sensual terms while at the same time alluding to the biblical Song of Songs.
“These novels are extremely subtle and multilayered,” Roilos said. “In fact, they can be viewed as a kind of postmodern literature because of their extremely self-referential quality. The rhetorical strategies employed in the Medieval Greek novel and rhetoric show convincingly that even modern literary theories such as Bakhtin’s concept of ‘heteroglossia’ and ‘dialogism’ have parallels in premodern times.”
From the Byzantine Empire of the 12th century, Roilos’ scholarly interest takes a leap to 17th century Crete, then under Venetian rule and undergoing a cultural flowering known as the Cretan Renaissance. One of the most interesting literary works produced during that period is “Erotokritos” by Vitsentzos Kornaros, an epic poem of love, friendship, courage, and patriotism.
The poem of more than 10,000 verses is a complex, intricately structured literary creation written in the Cretan dialect. Despite its complexity, it has been extremely popular down to the present day, perhaps because its author seems to tap into an older oral tradition. The poem has often been sung by Cretan musicians, and one of Roilos’ research projects has been to record such performances in the field. In an article based on that research published in 2002, Roilos analyzes the interplay between orality and literacy.
The Greek Enlightenment of the late 18th and early 19th century, a period in which Greeks were rediscovering their own ancient past, has also attracted Roilos’ attention. He is currently working on a book about the reception of the classical tradition during the period of the Greek Enlightenment, a research project that his taken him to libraries and archives in Hungary, Romania, Austria, and Italy, all places where members of the Greek diaspora were in the process of rediscovering their glorious history.
The poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) is another subject of Roilos’ scholarly interest. Cavafy, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and spent much of his life in England and France, wrote free verse poems that evoke characters from Greek history and mythology, often expressing feelings of nostalgia and fatalistic regret.
Roilos has written a book about Cavafy’s work that he thinks will offer a totally new approach to his poetics. He believes that the haunting power of Cavafy’s deceptively simple poetry has never been adequately explained. Roilos’ interpretation is based on a distinction made by linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson between metaphor and metonymy. Cavafy’s poems, Roilos points out, rarely use metaphor, although they do employ metonymy, a discursive mode involving the substitution of one thing for another with which it is associated. Roilos argues that Cavafy’s overall poetics and his literary approach to topics such as memory, history, and desire are mainly shaped by this discursive trope, which Roilos calls the “Cavafian trope par excellence.” The book is expected out later this year.
Roilos adds that in addition to his fascination with Cavafy’s poetics, there is a personal reason for his interest in the poet. As a child he discovered while reading Cavafy’s diaries that the poet met twice with his ancestor, Georgios Roilos, a well-known painter credited with introducing impressionism to Greece.
Not all of Roilos’ interests focus on a historical period. In some of his work a particular concept may take center stage. The idea of ritual as an organizing principle in literature has played a part in several scholarly projects and continues to do so in his current work.
With Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, a former Harvard Junior Fellow, now in the classics department at Johns Hopkins, Roilos has co-written “Towards a Ritual Poetics” (2003) and co-edited “Greek Ritual Poetics” (2005). Currently, the two are working on a third book provisionally titled “Interdiscursivity and Ritual: Explorations in Patterns of Signification in Greek Literature and Societies.” The book will explore the ways in which rituals such as initiation “are inscribed in literature and how they affect broader discourses,” Roilos said.
Born and raised in Greece, Roilos earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from the University of Athens in 1991 and a Ph.D. in Modern Greek Studies from Harvard in 1999. Before joining the Harvard faculty he was an assistant professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Greek and Latin.