Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.11


Leslie Kurke, The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Myth and Poetics Series. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp.xiv, 287. ISBN 0-8014-2350-3.


Reviewed by Gregory Crane, Harvard University.

This is an excellent book, well written and well organized: arguments are summarized at the opening and the conclusion of chapters, and the busy reader can quickly grasp its main points in this manner. Readers are, however, well advised to take the time to go through the detailed analyses of individual passages which make up the bulk of K's work. While studies of Pindar traditionally adopt the feisty and often polemical tone of their subject, Kurke adopts a somewhat understated rhetoric, discussing her views of earlier scholarship at length, but without harshness. This is a synthetic study, which generally cites those ideas which it finds useful, and these disparate ideas are skillfully woven into well developed and unique argument. Its ability to move from large analytical ideas to fine grained analysis of detail is impressive and successful. K. manages to connect Pindaric scholarship to many of the most interesting ideas from disciplines outside of classics, and to shed new light on many aspects of this poet.

In some ways, The Traffic in Praise is a "new historicist" work. Historicism among Pindarists has been on the defensive since Elroy Bundy's brilliant attack on the naive Historicism best exemplified by Wilamowitz's book on Pindar [Pindaros (1922)]. Bundy showed that we cannot reconstruct Pindar's personal history from his poems or the gossipy notes of the scholiasts, and he directed scholarly attention to the detailed analysis of form in Pindar. K's book embraces a new "historicism," in that it does not attempt to manufacture a personal biography of Pindar, but it is not a typical "new historicist" work. K. does not build her argument around the telling anecdotes or non-literary materials that we would find in works such as Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago 1980), nor does K. cite much new historical scholarship from Renaissance studies. The analysis of the visible, of processions, entertainments, and generalized ceremony, so telling when applied to the English Renaissance would be equally enlightening when applied to the rituals and symbolic games associated with victory in a Panhellenic contest. The Traffic in Praise does, however, in some measure manage to step outside Pindar and then peer back into the poems. The reader who internalizes the norms of aristocratic exchange, the fundamental importance of the oikos, and the generalized tensions within the polis will see new aspects to this poet.

The Traffic in Praise owes most to classic works of ethnography and economic anthropology. K. cites not only classicists such as Finley, Vidal-Naquet, and Gernet but also the seminal works of Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi, Victor Turner, and Marshall Sahlins, and uses the analytical tools developed by anthropologists to frame Pindaric poetry within its particular historical context. K. relentlessly seeks out the cultural context against which the victory odes should be read, self-consciously subordinating formalist analysis to the social issues which give form its meaning. The Traffic in Praise is a sophisticated and complex work, but one major idea forms its premise. K. emphatically refuses to take the victor and poet as basic social units. The victor, for example, defines himself by his standing within his family, and shows that in most cases "victories of other family members are included with the victor's as a matter of course (19-20)," and provides a "Bundyesque" footnote with sixty five references to prove her point (20, note 14). Pindar's odes carefully analyze the relationship between the victor and his immediate family (oikos), his extended aristocratic clan (genos), and the general community in which he lives, the polis. Victory in a panhellenic game can destabilize society (plenty of real and would-be tyrants used a victory in the chariot race at Olympia to establish their reputations), but it can also help bind the community more tightly together.

The three major sections of this book ("The Economy of Kleos: Symbolic Capital and the Household," "The Economy of Praise in the Aristocratic Community," and "Pindar's Political Economy") methodically trace the metaphors and ideological devices whereby Pindar shields his patron's victory against corrosive envy (phthonos) in family and polis. K. rightly takes earlier scholars to task for seeing in Pindar the representative of an atavistic aristocratic society threatened by the new Athenian-led world order (e.g. 163-4). Pindar's patrons are very much members of the "modern" world, and they participate, for example, in the changing economy of the late archaic period. Nevertheless, K. also stresses that Pindar's work has a profoundly ideological dimension. His poems, we are told, urge the wider community to believe that the closed circle of aristocratic gift exchange serves its interests as well (108). Pindar may not be the old-fashioned Boiotian aristocrat/ Prussian Junker envisioned by Jaeger, but he is in fact attempting to construct a "false consciousness" that will allow his elite patrons to reproduce their privileged position in society from one generation to the next.

The Traffic in Praise manages to achieve two distinct goals. On the one hand, it sees all aspects of society as interlinked, and thus reads the odes of Pindar against their social context, but at the same time her readings open new avenues of research. K. is, for example, acutely aware that the Pindaric ode is an agalma, a dedication composed of words, but similar in form and intent to the statues and treasuries which adorned the great Panhellenic sanctuaries of Greece, but the Traffic in Praise is not an archaeological study. The Traffic in Praise could, however, provide the starting point for a (long needed) archaeological analysis that would show how the Epinikian form invented by Simonides extended and perhaps even changed the physical forms of building and dedication that Simonides took as his model. K. also applies a number of analytical concepts from economic anthropology (e.g. "top rank gift," "symbolic capital," "money economy") that are likely to stimulate new sets of questions.

Methodologically, the Traffic in Praise, despite occasional protestations to the contrary (such as the quote of Victor Turner on p. 88), works from "functionalist" assumptions. K. throughout the book sees in Pindaric poetry a device for promoting stability and harmony within society. A Pindaric ode reintegrates the triumphant victor within society, helping to resolve its tensions. K. does not focus upon the unresolved conflicts, nor does this study leave the reader with any sense that such conflicts threaten to break loose and bring with them sweeping change. The Traffic in Praise is, in this regard, perhaps too insightful and convincing, for at times it unnecessarily smoothes some of the rough edges in Pindar's work. She represents archaic society as more unified and functional than does Pindar. Although it is acutely conscious that archaic Greek society was rapidly transforming itself, the Traffic in Praise is a synchronic analysis, emphasizing the way in which a particular, largely homogeneous, aristocratic society functioned, without exploring the diachronic process of change.

Consider for example the analysis of Isthmian 2 at 240-256. In this poem, Pindar draws attention to an aspect of his work that has provoked barbed comments in both ancient and modern times. In earlier days, we hear, poetry was not commissioned for money, and Pindar describes poetry for hire (of which Isthmian 2 is an excellent example) as a gaudily made-up prostitute selling herself for money (I. 2.6-8). The old saying is right: "'money, money makes the man,' said the Argive when bereft at once of possessions and of friends" (I. 2.11-12). Carefully applying Polanyi's concepts of embedded and disembedded economic relations, K. argues that "Pindar's strategy is to reembed wealth, to ground it completely in its uses in society. Once this is done, money no longer has to be a negative thing. (249)" "Pindar's ode ... validates in turn a new aristocratic ethos, which depends on embracing the money economy. (254)" "The poet guides his aristocratic listeners step by step from complete antipathy to a money economy to a willing utilization of it, so that by the end they can meet Thrasyboulos on common ground -- the public space of the poem and of megaloprepeia."

In fact, once Pindar has raised the issue of money and its corrosive effect on social relations, he turns his back on the money economy. He goes on to praise the generosity of his patron as if Xenokrates lived in the seventh rather than the fifth century. Polanyi (along with both Theognis and Marx among others) objected to monetary exchange because money was so powerful that it dominated social relations. A man is not defined by his family or by his actions, but by his chremata (the only time the plural of chrema appears in Pindar). Thus, Pindar's Argive man loses his philoi as soon as he loses his possessions. Adam Smith expressed the underlying dynamic in his chapter on the "Accumulation of Capital" when he observes: "The labor of some of the most respectable orders in the society is, like that of menial servants, unproductive of any value, and does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject, or vendible commodity, which endures after that labor is past, and for which an equal quantity of lab or could afterwards be procured." When Smith succinctly summarizes his position: "capitals are increased by parsimony." This statement, pithy enough for formal inclusion in a Pindaric ode, rejects the basic stance of Pindaric megaloprepeia, and yet this praise of parsimony is a fundamental aspect of capitalist accumulation. Megaloprepeia and the accumulation of money cannot be reconciled. They can only alternate with one another: the occasional grand gestures of megaloprepeia, if they are to be sustained and reproduced over a period of time, must themselves be embedded in more general practices of financial restraint.

Pindar's most faithful patrons were from Aigina, one of the leading producers of silver coinage, and thus most successful participants in the money economy, in the archaic period. Herodotus, for example, tells that story in which the Aiginetans are nouveaux riches who profit on the naivete of others (Hdt. 9.80.3). Pindar's patrons from Aigina and the wealthy tyrannies of Sicily (such as Xenokrates of Akragas) used their surplus of precious metals to hire Pindar, and Pindar in turn fashioned for them an image which followed a conservative pattern to which such men had little claim.

Pindar does not resolve the contradiction between money and conservative values implied in Isthmian 2. He mystifies it, drawing our attention away by verbal slight of hand, and leaving the tension untouched. Ultimately the contradictions within the elite societies of archaic Greece did lead to substantive change. The dominance of chremata in particular and material advantage in general is a major theme in Thucydides, and the History of the Peloponnesian War is, in large measure, primarily an analysis of how the old accommodations and inconsistencies of the archaic Greek world resolved themselves in the later fifth century.

The previous paragraphs are, however, a brief critique rather than a criticism of K.'s analysis of Isthmian 2, and, if it disagrees with her conclusions, it takes as its starting point the issues that she raises. There are many equally stimulating and provocative points to be found in this book. The Traffic in Praise is an important contribution for students not only of Pindar but of the archaic Greek world as well.