Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.05

Antonio Aloni, Cantare glorie di eroi: Comunicazione e performance poetica nella Grecia arcaica.   Turin:  G. B. Paravia, Pp. 251.  ISBN 84-455-6173-2.  L.30,000.  



Reviewed by Lowell Edmunds, Rutgers University
Word count: 1792 words

This book is about archaic Greek poetry as a poetry of performance. The word "performance" will have different connotations for different classicists. The young may believe that "performance" means more or less the same as "oral theory." But oral theory did not at first concern itself with what Aloni and others now call "performance." The composition of the Homeric epics was what Milman Parry studied. He argued that it was oral. It took place in performance, yes, but that was not his main concern. He focused on the making of Homeric verse, beginning at the level of the individual line. Twenty-five years after his death, his pupil and collaborator, Albert Lord published the summa of oral theory in the field of Classics, The Singer of Tales (1960). This book, continuing the focus on epic, restated and expanded Parry's findings, especially with reference to the oral Serbocroatian epic that Lord had first studied on trips to Jugoslavia with Parry. But not long after Lord's book, oral theory took a new direction. In 1963, Eric Havelock published Preface to Plato, which maintained that a broadly "oral culture" persisted in Greece down to the time of Plato. Scholars quickly drew implications not pursued, perhaps not foreseen by Havelock, in particular for archaic Greek poetry other than epic, and chief among these was Bruno Gentili, who has spoken eloquently of the impact on him of Havelock's book.

As Thomas Cole has written in his introduction to Gentili's Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece (1988), Gentili took the view that "the poet and the public ... are never author and reader, but always performer and hearer: on the one hand, a reciter or a singer improvising in some sort of social setting ... and, on the other, a largely or totally aliterate audience for whom such occasions function both as a source of entertainment, information, moral edification, and practical advice, and as the principal means for putting the here and now of one's day-to-day existence into some sort of larger cultural context" (xii). In short, archaic poetry of all kinds is a poetry of performance. This is the premise that Aloni has received from Gentili and that puts him in dialogue with like-minded scholars in other countries, most notably Gregory Nagy, whose sometimes controversial work on performance will be for many the background of their reading of this review. The larger background is the continuing debate amongst oralists, antioralists, "postoralists," and neoanalysts.

Cantare glorie di eroi, a collection of already published but revised articles, begins with a general introduction, "La performance nella Grecia arcaica." Aloni provides a model, based on comparative anthropology, of the communication of poetry in an oral, traditional society. Authoritative and memorable, oral poetry has a pragmatic function in the self-maintenance and continuity of its culture. The most conspicuous trait of a traditional society is its conservation of identity in time, its faith that nothing ever really changes. Turning to archaic Greece, Aloni refers to myth and ritual as forces for cultural stability. Myth and ritual are characterized by a "marked" language, different from the "unmarked" quotidian one. Stability is illusory, of course. Things do change. But tradition persists thanks to "structural amnesia" (the concept comes from Vansina). Individuals remember, or think that they remember, while the tradition as a whole changes, forgets, in order to accommodate historical change. In archaic Greece, sung is marked, spoken is unmarked. But song takes various forms, some of which lose melody and retain only rhythm. Meter in particular is a bond that ties poetry to the sphere of the marked and that therefore confers on poetry its special role in the preservation of its audience's group or society. Existence was not, Aloni says, more poetic in those days, but poetry was more existential (23). A list of criteria for the assessment of performance includes: occasion; function; audience; poet-audience relation; commission (in the case of professional poets working for pay).

This essay concludes with a section on the aesthetics of performance. Aloni describes a curious division of labor in current scholarship on archaic Greek poetry. The oralists continue to study the formula, to describe the characteristics of oral literature, and to propose hypotheses on how oral poetry came to be written down. Nonoralists (more or less polemically) seize the aesthetic high ground and write about the literary and artistic characteristics of the same poetry. Aloni calls for an aesthetics of performance and gives, in this introductory essay, the outline of a method. The prerequisite for the excellence of a song is its truth, access to which requires the aid of the Muses or Apollo, either for the song itself, if it is about events of the distant past (epic), or at least for the capacity to sing (e.g., Archilochus). Truth is therefore perceived by the audience as either a repetition of the very words of the Muses or at least of verbal capacities owed to them (36). At the same time, the constant reuse of earlier poetry to which the principle of truth commits the poet means, paradoxically, that his imitation will be inventive, creative. The scholar, for his or her part, starts from the superficial verbal traces of creative reuse and proceeds to innovation at deeper levels.

The aesthetics of a performance emerges at the intersection of the occasion, the type of performance required by the occasion, and the kind of traditional diction evoked and reused by that performance. Many of the other articles in this collection show Antoni skillfully at work on the verbal traces of reuse, e.g., of epic in Sappho in "Il fr. 94 V di Saffo: destinatari e occasioni della performance saffica." Here he also has an interesting discussion of "iambic" aggression in Sappho. In this approach to performance, the "new Simonides" (fr. 11 W 2nd ed.) will of course be a prime example for Aloni. This is a narrative elegy on a historical theme composed for a public (not a sympotic) performance. In "La performance dell'elegia di Simonide per la battaglia di Platea," Aloni shows that the prooemium of this poem is decisive for its reorientation to the threnodic practices with which elegy is often associated in ancient sources but which it hardly ever displays. The prooemium is indeed central to Aloni's concept of performance and it has its own discussion, "Proemio e funzione proemiale nella poesia greca arcaica," in which Aloni argues that it "is not and cannot be a literary genre with formal characteristics and predetermined contents that are repeated in a regular fashion. It is a question, rather, of a function, or of a necessity, of performance, and therefore all of its characteristic elements are found at the pragmatic level" (137). The next question, to be sure, is: what about Pindar? In "Il proemio e il problema della performance di Pindaro," Aloni steps into a well-known controversy (for the state of the question see K. A. Morgan's review of Mary Lefkowitz' First Person Fictions in BMCR 3.2.15). Aloni proposes to change the focus of research from traits of enunciation (most conspicuously the first-person singular) to the prooemium as an element that gives structure to performance. In general, either solo or choral song is possible, he concludes, and both, alternately, are possible in the same epinician. This last point he proceeds to demonstrate on the basis of the reading of a single epinician in "Locuzione ed esecuzione nella Decima Olimpica di Pindaro."

Finally three articles on hexameter poetry. The most general is "Performances epiche: evoluzione e contesto," on the changes in epic resulting from rhapsodic performances, including the most important ones of all, the ones that were transcribed and became ultimately the Iliad and the Odyssey that we read. (Aloni subscribes to the downdating of the transcription that goes back to M. H. Jensen [1981] and has been affirmed by Nagy.) Aloni traces the story from the aoidos (song accompanied by stringed instrument) as represented in the epics to the rhapsode (recitation -- to the beat of a staff?) of the panhellenic era that begins in the eighth century, at the time of the rise of the city state. This change corresponds to a change of venue. Larger, sometimes heterogenous, audiences hear the songs. The Homeric Hymns, which are prooemia contextualizing performances of epic song, show that such events could be organized as competitions. The legendary competitions of Homer and Hesiod and of Lesches of Mytilene and Arctinus of Miletus are a reflection of such events, and Herodotus refers to early rhapsodic contests at Sicyon (5.67). In his discussion of "rhapsode," Aloni makes the observation that the senses of the word that are incompatible synchronically are compatible diachronically: an earlier stichic (thus "stitched") hexameter is later performed in a competition in which one rhapsode has to "stitch" his song to the preceding. The concluding section of this article deals with the origin of the epic hexameter from sung or lyric verse, which Aloni locates in the necessities of performance for a panhellenic audience.

"La Performance di Cineto" returns to Aloni's 1989 monograph on the Hymn to Apollo, L'aedo e il tiranno : Studi sull'Inno Omerico ad Apollo. He here concentrates on lines 146-76 (the ones addressed to the Deliads that contain the famous reference to the blind bard of Chios). If the Hymn as a whole is a prooemium to a subsequent performance, what would that have been? Aloni argues, on the basis of these lines, that the Hymn was the prooemium not to a rhapsodic but to a choral performance. "The lines of demarcation between epic and lyric poetic forms seem to fall at the level of performance" (73). This conclusion is not as paradoxical as it seems, if one thinks of the ambiguous status of Stesichorus, which is embodied in the term often used to describe his meter, "dactylo-lyric." "Le scene d'annuncio in Omero" explores the reasons for a striking difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey, the many messenger scenes in the former and their almost complete absence in the latter. Aloni's analyses of the messenger scenes in Iliad 15 and 24, operating within the same methodological parameters as the rest of the book, result in an illuminating exploration of the Homeric conception of the distance separating the human and the divine planes of action.

This book proceeds from clearly conceived theoretical premises and follows an original and productive method for analyzing what Aloni calls the aesthetics of performance. He concentrates on the pragmatics of performance, seeking the elements, above all signs of reuse, that show how poetic communication was achieved. Aloni's examples cover the whole range of archaic poetry as well as Simonides and Pindar. A translation of this book into English would be most welcome (and could repair its only lack, an index locorum).

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