Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.6.4

Claude Calame, The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. xviii, 220. ISBN 0-8014-8022-1.

Reviewed by Eric Casey, University of Pennsylvania,

In "The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece," Claude Calame approaches Greek literature and culture through the lens of semiotics (i.e., the theory of the nature of signs as first elucidated by Peirce and Saussure and later developed by Barthes, Benveniste, Todorov, Greimas and others). In particular, C. applies the intricate system of Algirdas Greimas in order to reorient our thinking about a myriad of topics in Greek poetics including the changing role of the narrative 'I' in epic, lyric, and historical discourse, the projection of identity through tragic masks, and the rich descriptive content of proper names. The results for classicists of such a prolonged and involved engagement with this particular strand of semiologically-based narratology is a bold, provocative book which always challenges the reader to reconsider important aspects of Greek literature and culture. Unfortunately, C. does not make many concessions to those uninitiated into the abstract realm of recent French semiotics, and at times the reader is left with little more guidance than a host of footnotes to fuller and generally quite technical discussions. Gregory Nagy twice in his short foreword to the book refers to the difficulty in argumentation and even Calame himself acknowledges that the essays may appear "quite abstract to the reader."1

The book is a translation and, given the amount of revision and expansion on the part of the author, essentially a second edition of Le récit en Grèce ancienne: énonciations et représentations de poètes, a collection of essays written over a dozen years' time (and originally published in 1986 by Klincksieck). Janice Orion must be acknowledged for the meticulous and painstaking work that must have gone into translating this book. She worked with C. and consistently followed the ambitious two volume French-English lexicon of semiotic terms produced by Greimas and J. Courtés, Sémiotique: Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage (Paris: 1979/1986).

The introduction was written for the occasion of the book and provides a sophisticated and wide-ranging overview of recent research in French semiotics. C. sketches out levels of discourse within texts and their complex relations to the "communication situation," or "actual act that produces the utterance" (5). The "uttered enunciation" is "the linguistic record of the communication (or referential) situation as it is expressed in the utterance." The actors (or 'actants') in the actual communication situation are categorized as enunciator and enunciatee, whereas the actants at the level of the uttered enunciation are called the narrator and narratee. As C. notes, "the uttered enunciation is to a certain extent independent of the actual production of discourse" (7). Much of the book is taken up with the mapping of the relations between the actants (the I, You and He/She) as well as between the two levels of the uttered enunciation and the communication situation. Throughout most Greek poetry there is a great variety of "shiftings-in," whereby the actants of the enunciation (represented by first and second person I/you) are placed into the utterance with a resulting expulsion of the actants of the uttered enunciation (appearing as third person he/she). This is called an enunciative shifting-in, while the opposite situation (the he/she actants appearing and the I/you actants disappearing) is termed an enuncive shifting-in. C. believes that such an approach will lead to a new way of understanding classical literary forms. He aims to "redefine the way these genres relate to their contexts of enunciation" (26), as well as re-evaluate the relationship between writing and the development of the narrative 'I'.

These are among the most difficult pages in the book and at times the discussion becomes unnecessarily burdened with oblique allusions to contemporary semiotic debates. There are a fair number of fleeting references to semioticians who never again appear in the pages of the book.2 It is not always clear what parts of these theories will be important for the rest of the book. At one point, for instance, perlocutionary and illocutionary speech acts are mentioned though not fully defined. A page later, C. warns Hellenists that "from an enunciative point of view, they risk being reduced to the illocutionary act, in the self-referential concept developed by Ducrot." Ducrot's idea was only barely sketched out on the preceding page and never receives any fuller explanation. While C.'s obvious command of the semiotic material is undeniably impressive, the reader would have been better served by more in-depth definitions of these concepts. Enunciation, for example, is a crucial concept throughout the book and yet is only formally defined in one line: "the process whereby all forms of discourse are produced" (4). He might have gone on to say that the enunciative approach proposes that we must pay close attention to the various ways in which the narrator addresses characters within the fictional narrative, and how these forms of address correspond to the original scene of recitation (e.g., a poet delivering his work before a live audience). Part of the problem seems to be that C. is clearly writing the introduction at least for two audiences, classicists and semioticians, as is evident from the fact that the book essentially has two forewords, one by a classicist (Gregory Nagy) and the other by a semiotician (Jean-Claude Coquet).3

The first two chapters analyze the actantial structure (i.e., the formal relationship between the narrator, characters and the internal and external audience) of a number of epic proems and set forth a descriptive typology of ways in which the subject of the narration appears in the text. Written originally for publication in semiotic journals, these are the most difficult chapters and given restrictions of space, I can only recount some of the major themes, to give the reader a sense of the general approach taken. C. argues that the growing independence of the 'I' should not be directly attributed to the transition from oral to written discourse. He stresses that there is not a progressive development of the 'I' as one moves forward in time. The various types of communication situation and uttered enunciation are all already present in Homeric epic. It is important to note that the relationship between the 'I' and the 'You' is not always analogous when shifting between the levels of the uttered enunciation and the communication situation. The 'I' is sometimes analogous to, and may even have been identical with, the original enunciator of the work, but the 'you' (often the Muse) doesn't generally correspond with the original enunciatee, i.e., the public audience who heard the performance.

The duality of narrator and narratee in the Homeric Hymns and certain passages of Homer and Hesiod is said to be a narrative device, the 'you' in this case being a purely linguistic formula with no external referent. Moreover, in a line such as "Sing to me, Muse," the Muse, despite her syntactical role as an object or narratee, is placed into the actantial position of the narrator, (or enunciator in the Greimasian system). Calame argues that the 'I' effectively "projects itself through the form 'you' onto a figure superior to itself (divine power) that takes over its actantial position" (53). This provides the appearance of a divine sanction or guarantee of the sacred status of the discourse.

C. treats the sphragis episode in the Theogony (22 ff.), in which the narrative 'I' describes the initiation of the poet 'Hesiod' and names him in the third person, as another type of doubling or projection of the 'I'. The fact that the double in this case is not the Muse but rather is in some way related to the actual author of the text is attributed to an increasing awareness of the poet's autonomous and secular status in the emerging Greek polis. C.'s impressive analysis of the whole prologue to the Theogony in enunciative terms also reveals a high degree of autonomy for the 'I'. He shows how the common epic subordination of the 'I' to the Muses is reversed when the 'I' by itself evokes the Muses and treats them as the content or theme of his song and not as the validating source for the song. Lyric poetry shows an even stronger subordination of the Muses and independence of the 'I.' Furthermore, within lyric poetry such as that of Theognis, Alcman and Pindar, the level of the spoken enunciation displays allusions to the actual communication situation. For instance, in an Alcman fragment,4 the Muse is asked to sing a new song for the maidens. The maidens are not an abstract double for the 'I' but rather the chorus of young girls who will indeed sing Alcman's song.

Beginning with Chapter 3, the book becomes easier for classicists to read, partly because the remaining chapters were not originally written for semioticians, and partly because many of the same concepts involving enunciation and the relationship of the narrative 'I' and its addressee appear again, allowing the reader another chance to grasp these interesting but difficult ideas. In the third chapter, for instance, C. takes on the age-old question of the status of Herodotus' discourse. He argues that we cannot get far by answering the question in terms of literary genres since they admit of different definitions. C. seeks to analyse Herodotus much in the same way he did earlier Homer, Hesiod and the lyric poets, i.e., by considering "the narrator's attitude toward the creation of his discourse, toward his act of enunciation" (81). C. discovers that the structure of the uttered enunciation is generally similar to that found in the earlier poets. There is an external authority to which the subject of the enunciative act can appeal for validation of his discourse, but in this case the external authority is not the Muse but rather the presumably 'real' storytellers and sources on which Herodotus relies (a shift from I/you to I/they). Just as in the case of Hesiod, however, the 'I' ultimately retains control over the discourse since it is the 'I' which judges which stories to include and which sources are trustworthy. The 'I' is slightly disguised in that it often withdraws behind a distant 'He' in a shifting-out reminiscent of the sphragis episode in the Theogony.

Chapter Four is one of the most successful chapters in the book because it applies the enunciative approach very effectively to the problem of the tragic mask and the ways in which it mediates between the identity of the fictional character and that of the actor behind the mask. After a very clear summary of the enunciative hypothesis (98-99), C. argues that the two levels of discourse (uttered enunciation and communication situation) are present as well in the ritual of masked performance. Ritual is considered analogous to narration and so the mask wearer is the enunciator of the ritual (equivalent to the narrating 'I') while the character depicted is the subject of the narrative (described in the third person as He/She). During the performance, there is a succession of shiftings-in and shiftings-out and a partial merging of the narrating 'I' (the person wearing the mask) and the 'He' (fictional character depicted in the ritual). The mask keeps the protagonist of the myth separate not only from the enunciator (mask wearer) but also from the enunciatee (the public audience in the theater), serving as a "visually veiled presence for the narrative past" (113). C. does a remarkable job using the complicated enunciative hypothesis as a new way to consider traditional problems in the role of the mask in tragic performance.

The fifth chapter is the last chapter included under the heading of Enunciations. C. continues to use the enunciative approach as a way to consider the poetics of the gaze in iconographic traditions. Focussing on the Pronomos vase which depicts some kind of dramatic performance, C. effectively lays bare the complex levels of narrated and dramatic action through an analysis of the painted characters' facial gestures and their use of masks. C. is at his best when analyzing a pair of characters, one masked and the other not. The unmasked figure is described as the original enunciator of the performance (i.e., the poet-creator himself) and so represents the level of narrated action. The poet is looking at a masked satyr who is in the process of performing a dance and so represents the level of the dramatic action (equivalent to the uttered enunciation). The presence of the unmasked poet represents the intrusion of the original communication situation into the level of the uttered enunciation (i.e. the performance being portrayed on the vase) and as such is analogous to the types of merging of narrative levels C. found earlier in the lyric poetry of Alcman and Theognis. C. admits (136) that there are some inconsistencies and problems with his interpretation of the vase, and overall the analysis of masks in the fourth chapter seems more convincing and a more successful application of the enunciative approach.

The last three chapters of the book are grouped under the title Representations. Chapter Six is a lengthy examination of the Cyclops story and seven European and non-European variations. C. constructs a model of the narrative structure that recurs throughout the stories, distinguishing in the process between the categories of myth, tale, and story. The analysis is inspired by Greimas' system of semionarrative syntax and can get quite complicated (see, e.g., the charts and their use of formal notation on 148-149). C. impressively breaks down the story into a nuclear structure of two themes, ordeal and counterordeal, and describes the differences in the stories as variations or expansions on the basic narrative syntax of the story. He aims to reach the "deep structures of the semantic microuniverse" (145) and in so doing, "define the syntactical limits within which the Cyclops myth stories examined here function" (158). C. also acknowledges the importance of reaching beyond the purely formal elements of the narrative syntax and taking into consideration "the ideological context and cultural system from which the story emerged" (171).

Chapter Seven is a brief and fascinating examination of the functioning of proper names in Greek poetry. C. argues that Greek poets in various ways implicitly suggest a conception of the proper name's functioning which more adequately accounts for its complexities than the ideas of modern philosophers of language such as Saul Kripke. For the Greeks, the proper name is a condensed "microstory" containing within its lexemes a potential description of the bearer's character. Accomplishing much more than a mere designating role, the proper name becomes a kind of rhetorical figure, "a metaphor for the identity of its bearer" (185). There is much more in C.'s argument than can be represented here, but suffice it to say that his reflections on the functioning of proper names are insightful and represent some of the clearest and most suggestive material in the book.

In the last chapter, C. treats the perennial problem of the relationship between myth and ritual, exploring the Theseus myth and its associated rituals as a case study. C. uses the semantic axis of civilization/noncivilization to show underlying structural similarities of the myth and rituals which help explain why they were gradually thought to be connected. There is an ideological component to this assimilation as well, in that the myth effectively creates a narrative sequence for the rituals which serves to connect them all to the history of Athens.

Although the essays collected here were written over a considerable period of time, C. has managed to weave them together into a coherent case for the importance and usefulness of the enunciative approach for understanding any number of long-standing issues and problems in Greek poetics. It must be said, however, that the book requires a serious commitment of time and effort to understand it and C. certainly could have streamlined some of the more technical forays into recent semiotic research, especially in the introduction and first two chapters. I suspect that he will lose some readers through the difficulty of those initial chapters and that is unfortunate given the more lucid and ultimately more compelling nature of the later chapters which detail the astonishing range of applications of the enunciative approach. C. does not intend this book to be the final word on the application of semiotic methodologies to Classics, and he explicitly acknowledges the need for further refinement of the approach (e.g., xiii, 136). Given the complexity of the ideas and the amount of technical terms in the book, this clear and careful translation will certainly go far in making C.'s appeal more widely heard.


1. Nagy opens the second paragraph of his foreword with the words that "Calame's argumentation is often not easy" (xi) and begins the last paragraph with a reference to "the effort required to read Calame's work" (xii). Calame's own comment appears on page xiii.

2. For instance, on a fairly typical page (11), there are allusions to the ideas of Oswald Ducrot, Antoine Culioli and Hermann Parret, none of whom will play any substantial role in the following chapters.

3. When appealing to the classicists about the virtues of the enunciative approach, C. uses a poem of Sappho as an illustrative example (13). I assume that C. is addressing semioticians when he writes sentences such as the following: "There is a positive aspect to the enunciative approach in that it exposes the trap of the principle of immanence, the trap of assuming that the text of the utterance is structurally closed" (8).

4. Fragment 4 (= 14A Page) in Calame's edition of Alcman (Alcman: Introduction, texte critique, témoignages, traduction et commentaire [Rome, 1983]), quoted on page 50.