Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.02


John Peradotto, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey. Martin Classical Lectures, New Series, Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Pp. xv + 193. ISBN 0-691-06830-5. $24.95.


Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Man in the Middle Voice represents John Peradotto's 1987 Martin Classical Lectures, carefully rewritten and combined with other, earlier material published elsewhere. This is an exciting and provocative piece of work, and should fascinate and excite some readers, frustrate and baffle others, and drive a few into fits of fury. This is also a deceptively difficult and complex book, which must be read several times in order to be appreciated. I have substantial reservations about what Peradotto has to say and how he interprets the Odyssey. All the same, this is a book which ought to be read and discussed as widely as possible, and which deserves to be taken very seriously.

One obvious goal of Man in the Middle Voice is to develop a critically sophisticated understanding of the sort of story the Odyssey is and its vision of man's place in the universe. Peradotto argues that the epic is balanced precariously between "myth" (in which man is an impotent, mortal sufferer, trapped in a world dominated by fate) and "märchen" (which affirms the power of hope and human cleverness, and the possibility for happy endings). The hero of the poem is thus both actor and acted up on, victor and victim, or "man in the middle voice," a character inescapably immersed in the Bakhtinian complexities of his own story.

Perhaps the most important thing that can be said here is that Peradotto is a stimulating and innovative reader and expounder of texts, and that his remarks on Homer regularly brought me back to the Odyssey with new questions and ideas. The section in ch. 5 in particular, on the interlocking stories of the scar and Odysseus' name, is deeply revealing of the complexities of and poetic problems in the epic. I do have many doubts about Peradotto's readings of individual passages, which often strain credulity, and indeed about his interpretation of the poem as a whole. Can one really believe, for example, that the use of outamenai and outêse in Od. 19.449, 452 [misprinted "352"], is designed to echo the name Outis a full ten books earlier (pp. 146ff), particularly when the verb outaô is used only of a strategy for attacking the Cyclops which is specifically rejected by the hero (Od. 9.299-306)? And is it reasonable to say of a man who comes home to Ithaca specifically in order to assert his personal claims there, and who is apparently constitutionally unable to perform a great deed without identifying himself (Od. 9.502-5), that he is "never more himself, autos, than when he is Outis" (p. 161)? Part of the point of this book, however, is that we should be less obsessed with "exclusive" readings of works of literature (i.e., zero-sum readings, which assume that if I am right you must be wrong, and vice versa), and I will therefore skip over my objections here as in some sense unimportant. Indeed, Man in the Middle Voice is clearly only secondarily about Homer, and primarily about literary theory and how we ought to think about and read texts.

Peradotto begins here by posing a question: why is that philologists in this country, once methodologically so venturesome, have been so slow to embrace new critical strategies such as semiotics? Part of the answer, he acknowledges, has to do with impatience with "the self-indulgence and needless obscurity that too frequently blemishes" modern writing on literary theory (p. xiii), and with a reasonable concern about what often seem to be the anti-humanistic tendencies of these approaches. In the end, however, Peradotto concludes that the real difficulty is the unsettling tendency of modern critical methods to make the implicit ideologies of the texts we read and study explicit. Much of the material here seems to be drawn from an essay published in Arethusa 16 (1983) 15-33, and struck me as a bit dated. Some American classicists undoubtedly still do thoughtlessly reject "new" approaches out of hand, out of a general reactionary suspicion of "left-wing" thinking, and I may be naively underestimating the extent and persistence of this tendency. All the same, narratology in particular has moved more and more into the mainstream of our field in the last few years. This problem (if that is what it is), that is to say, is perhaps no longer quite as pressing as Peradotto implies. Be that as it may, a second major goal of Man in the Middle Voice is to make coherent, readable sense of a wide range of modern critical theories, and to show how their ability to reveal cultural and literary ideology enriches our understanding of the Odyssey. This is clearly the intellectual heart of the book.

Peradotto is a clear and conscientious writer, who is obviously widely read and extremely competent in modern hermeneutic theory, and his patient willingness to explain a great deal of initially rather baffling material to non-initiates is a genuine service to our field. (Those who have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, on the other hand, should be forewarned that there is a considerable amount of it here.) Some of this is interesting and revealing. The problem with literary theory, however, is that a sizeable percentage of it is not only jargon-filled and dense, but also much better adapted to generating page after page of ultimately empty prose than to shedding significant light on the texts in which we are interested. Peradotto himself is clearly not playing this sort of game. All the same, some of the theoretical material he presents here is ultimately not very rewarding. The Russian Formalist reading of Menelaos' story in Od. 4, for example, is completely flat and uninformative (pp. 33-41). The approach simply doesn't work, which is to say it doesn't make Od. 4 any more interesting or full of poetic resonance. Theory, moreover, seems to have a persistent Procrustean tendency to reshape primary texts to fit its own ideology and concerns, and to my mind that tendency is very clearly at work here. The problem of the ideology of the person may be pressing and important, and is obviously a major obsession of modern hermeneutic philosophy. All the same, I for one remain unconvinced that this is in any important sense what the Odyssey is about.

In sum, Man in the Middle Voice is an intriguing and exciting piece of work. I personally have serious problems with many details of the argument, and ultimately with the reading it offers of the Odyssey as a whole. In the end, however , what is probably most important and valuable about the book is not the answers it offers, but the questions it poses. Man in the Middle Voice should therefore be read not only by Homerists, but by anyone interested in the direction(s) in which our field is heading. If it convinces others on some points more than it did me, more power to it. Even if it does not, perhaps it can be understood as a report from the intellectual frontier, compelling in a strange way even if one feels no desire to visit the land it speaks of, or as a book of stirring prophecy, which one may still decline to take as gospel. This is certainly a work of immense good faith and striking intelligence, and I have no doubt it will have a significant impact on the emerging debate about what Classics is and ought to be. These must have been wonderful Martin Lectures.

A few final words: Peradotto's bibliography does not contain much after 1987, and tends to be a bit casual about the secondary literature, at least in Classics. One surprising omission is Murnaghan's Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, which deals with many of the same questions of identity and self-revelation that are taken up here. Princeton Press, which has taken over publication of the Martin Lectures (hence the designation "New Series") is to be congratulated for keeping the notes at the foot of the page where they belong, as well as for the generally handsome appearance of the volume.