Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.12.18

Claude Calame, Poétique des mythes dans la Grèce antique. Collection 'Langues et civilisations anciennes'.   Paris:  Hachette, 2000.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 2-01-021147-2.  

Reviewed by Michael Clarke, NUI Maynooth, Kildare, Ireland (
Word count: 2411 words

This book is designed for students seeking to 'initiate themselves in Hellenic culture by reading texts' (p.7), and it is from their perspective that an assessment must begin. In Britain and Ireland at least, the new customer in the 'Mythology' section of the campus bookshop must choose between bibles of grand theory -- Frazer, Campbell and their imitators -- and fat handbooks with names like Myths of All Peoples. If his bent is Greek he may also find Robert Graves or another descendant of Lemprière, while Ovid or Apollodorus will perhaps be there masquerading as 'primary sources'. Meanwhile Lévi-Strauss and his kin are away upstairs, pursuing their high analyses on shelves headed 'Anthropology': and the habits of readers, as well as the prescriptions of university courses, ensure that students of structuralism and mythology will seldom overlap in their browsing. In the meantime the reader of Classical Literature beats a lonelier path to the basement where the texts are kept, straying upstairs only to sort out the story behind an Homeric paradeigma or to trace the events preceding the opening scene of a tragedy. If the student is adventurous, she will learn much from the established writings of men like Veyne, Detienne and Calame himself, who have laboured to build bridges between theory and practical exegesis; but their approaches are very difficult to reapply to the intractable details of the ancient sources, and they will serve the student's purposes well enough if he simply mines them for a few lapidary quotations about methodology.

It seems that such dissonance is not limited to the English-speaking world, and Calame's target is the mirror image of the problem seen in my bookshop. Between the lines he gives us a clear sense of his notional addressee: a student who has taken an introductory survey course on Mythology, with a diet of unmixed structuralism and decontextualised handbook summaries, and who has been distracted by this course from the voices of those who articulated myths for the real-life Greeks of antiquity. Calame heatedly (even bitterly) denies the possibility that 'Myth' can ever be a valid object of study distinct from the realisation ('mise en discours') of a particular myth in a specific literary creation. Hence the book begins from polemic. The preface presents it as 'a sort of act of faith', but its faith is focussed in two kinds of hatred: hatred first of the structuralist-comparative approach, which strips away the living flesh of poetic enunciation to reduce each myth to an abstract skeleton or plot (intrigue), and then of 'the neo-liberalism of the supermarket ... by which preoccupations relative to method and epistemological coherence have been relegated to the dustbins of western intellectual history' (p.7). This blast of the trumpet suggests why the whole book is shot through with such a passionate belief that the humane and fruitful strategy is to listen to the words of the poets for their own sake: and if Calame succeeds in showing that that approach can be effective and sufficient in the recovery of the ancient meanings, he will be amply justified.

Any book on myth can be expected to begin with a trawl through the names of the giants of theory, from Lafitau via Max Müller and Frazer up to Propp and Lévi-Strauss. Calame does more, however, because he subsumes this discourse into a longer and more insidious progression, beginning in antiquity (right back with the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, in fact: see p. 96) and continuing into the academic present. This is the tradition of boiling myth down into a body of fixed and decontextualised narratives, each seeming to demand explanation as a bald sequence of events. The early mythographers and Apollodorus conspire with psychoanalysts and structuralists to set up (say) 'the Myth of Oedipus' as something to be explained and accounted for as a phenomenon independent of Homer, Euripides, or any other verbal artist who gave shape to a particular articulation of the story. It is no accident that Calame talks of bones and skeletons when he describes this tradition: for him structure is dead, words are what lives. Telling here is his foray into that too-much-trampled field, the semantics of the word muthos itself. Muthos for Calame is what is spoken, enunciated, given existence by words: it does not underlie the wordsmiths' creation, it is inseparable from the living reality of poetry, persuasion and verbal play. Linguistically this is convincing, and it is a welcome change from the persuasive definitions of muthos which have been used either to bolster extra-linguistic arguments or to wilfully merge the Greek word with the modern term myth. In particular, it gives extra force to Herodotus' seemingly naïve assertion that Homer and Hesiod were the first to describe their gods to the Greeks (2.53). For Calame, even if Herodotus cannot be taken literally he is on the side of the angels: the sole focus and fountain-head of meaning is the verbal realisation of myth by the poet, not some anonymous and unknowable Gestalt or template or subconscious schema.

From that starting-point Calame guides his reader through a selection of texts in which myths are enunciated. His readings are disciplined by an intense awareness of 'the rules of genre' and a narratological approach to the poetic 'I' in its performative contexts. The first target is the myth of Demeter and Kore, as represented in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Calame acknowledges or parodies a host of intellectually enticing strategies for interpretation -- allegorical, psychoanalytic, feminist -- before showing that none of these corresponds to the meaning enunciated by the author of the Hymn, whose preoccupations are with the immortalisation of Demophoon and the institution of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The familiar agricultural interpretation, with the descent and re-emergence of the 'corn maiden' as a symbol of the agricultural cycle, goes back as far as the ancient interpreters but cannot be squared with the Hymn: whether you say Persephone's movements represent the cycle of plant life or the reaping and storage of the harvest, she remains in Hades too long and she is picking flowers at the wrong time of year when Hades ravishes her. Next, Calame takes us through the story of Bellerophon as told by Glaucus in Iliad 6. Setting himself the initial question of why Glaucus omits the flight on Pegasus, which ought to be his ancestor's most famous deed, Calame shows that Homer articulates the story as he does because of two generative principles: first the genre-rules of a hero's flyting self-presentation before combat, and then Glaucus' specific purpose of stressing the instability of mortal good fortune. These factors in combination mean that the attempted flight to Olympus would be problematic and counter-productive in the context. Calame reserves particular wrath for those who invoke the fact that Bellerophon's sufferings from the accusations of a bad woman can be mapped onto the international schema of the 'Potiphar's wife' story: even to admit such parallels into the discussion, says Calame, is to 'efface the semantic specificities' (p.77) of any one of the articulations, and (by implication) to rob the Homeric enunciation of its unique logic. Next he takes the myth of Agamemnon's murder and Orestes' revenge, embodied this time in Pindar's fleeting lines from Pythian 11 (17-37). Calame again filters Pindar's words through the 'rules of genre', which in this case demand that the mythical allusion should contribute to the heroisation of the athletic victor, and he concludes that the deeds of Clytaemestra and Orestes work antithetically to contribute to the amplificatio (p.108). The evocation of Io's wanderings and her descendants by the Chorus of Aeschylus' Suppliants (234-326, 524-601) is interpreted in terms of the dynamic that represents contemporary ethnic distributions through a genealogical logic rooted in the sexual unions of gods and heroes, ultimately connected to the discourse represented by Attic and other myths of autochthony. Calame then moves on to the extraordinary cluster of stories that told of Helen staying in Egypt during the Trojan war. Herodotus' version (2.112-20) emerges as a parable of failed reciprocity, in which both Greek and Trojan characters abuse the ethical and social norms of which the Egyptian king is a paragon; while, once again, the differing genre-rules of historia and lyric narrative explain the absence from Herodotus of the eidolon motif deployed in Stesichorus' Palinode(s). Moving downward in time, Calame next works through Callimachus' Bath of Pallas. Here, cleverly, he shows that the modern scholarly preoccupation with the interdependence of myth and ritual, between narratives of bathing goddesses and the rite of washing a statue, maps confusedly onto the poet's own highly sophisticated concern with the hymnic use of a myth as aition for a ritual. By telling the story of Teiresias, blinded after seeing Athena bathing, in place of a straightforward aition, Callimachus subverts the conventions of his genre at the same time as producing a quasi-cultic celebration of the goddess' power; while the very vividness of his evocation of the ritual, progressing as the poem itself moves on in real time, justifies Calame's suspicion that the ritual is a fictive literary construct by the poet (p. 194). The book ends with a section of Pausanias' account of Troezen (2.30.5-34.3), where Calame's principles of genre-rules and respect for narrative voice are applied even to the most prosy of antiquarians, who for Calame is engaged in creative myth-making as he maps the physical structures and images of the city onto the temporal spaces of the associated stories.

These readings represent a subtle and above all an honest engagement with Greek literature. Calame always seeks meaning, he is never content with a disordered or trivial avenue of explanation. There is good reason to welcome a handbook which follows such a high standard of respect for the texts because the exegesis of Greek storytelling remains a field where models of bad practice still abound -- difficult transitions of thought in the Homeric Hymns are explained by positing imaginary lacunas; respected commentators can tell us that a mythical paradeigma in Homer is ill-suited to the poet's purposes; Pindar is treated as an advertising agency and Herodotus as a weaver of trivial fictions; and it is all too easy to read Pausanias as if he had no mind at all. In short, the book teaches excellent reading habits: as such I would recommend it to anyone, and I would hope for an English translation.

But does the book help the reader to understand myth? Calame never tires of repeating that we must listen to l'énonciation énoncé, we must respect the pragmatics of the ancient voices. Fair enough: but it is an accident of time and alienation that the only such voices available to us are those of high and mighty poets and intellectuals. Calame is right about Apollodorus, that he summarises the poets and cannot be used as if he represented their background; but it is a giant leap from there to the claim, implicit throughout this book, that myth as a phenomenon consists solely of the grand tradition of Homer and Aeschylus and Callimachus and the rest of the literary canon. What of the vase-painters, acknowledged only a few times in all these pages? What of the narratives in the oral hymns that must have accompanied cult? Above all, what of the ordinary storytellers of the community? How does Calame want his reader to relate to the abiding cultural presence of myth in Greek life and language? This is the presence that makes it possible for Euripides to imagine women tourists at Delphi looking at a figure of Iolaos, depicted in carvings of Heracles' labours, and asking 'Is this the man whose story is told (mutheuetai) at my weaving?' (Ion 196) If myths were recounted in the spinning-room, in the lesche and at the symposium, and if their content had enough stability over time and space to make it possible to recognise an artistic image as that woman does, then Myth with a capital 'M' does indeed demand a deeper study than the exegesis of the surviving literary versions, however important that activity may be in itself. In reacting with such violence against the dead hand of structuralist abstraction, Calame comes close to denying the reality of the extraordinary body of motifs, structures and narratives that must have been part of the shared inheritance of those who produced and heard our literary creations. Thus there seems to be a gaping hole in his doctrine: the fact that these humbler, unmarked versions are irrecoverable does not mean that they never existed. It is like reacting against Saussurian linguistics by saying that only parole exists, without langue, or condemning grammar as an illusion because paradigms and rules are not spoken by speakers but extrapolated by grammarians. Paradoxically, Calame is moving towards something that in these islands would be associated with donnish snobbery: the assumption that sophisticated high culture is the only significant discourse and the only worthy object of study.

Let me return to the bookshop customers. Those who hang around the Anthropology and Mythology shelves will learn from Calame that they have been impatient and superficial in refusing to read primary texts on their own terms: but they will be frustrated by his refusal to respect the questions that interest them, questions that address a real and extraordinary aspect of Greek culture -- What does the incest of Oedipus mean? Why does Tydeus eat an enemy's brains? Why do mythical kings serve human flesh to the gods? Why does story A appear to have the same motifs or structures or binary oppositions that turn up in story B in the next polis or in story C from Mesopotamia a thousand years earlier, and which emerge again in story D in Korea and story E on the streets of Los Angeles? Meanwhile, the pale young student in the Classical Literature section will find it easy to twist this book into a justification of reductive and anti-intellectual habits. At the end of the day, the book bears witness to a remarkable intellectual journey on the part of the intellectual succession in which its author belongs: the journey from the intoxication of exploring archetypal structures to the gradual, sober realisation that it is a worthier challenge simply to try to understand what poets were doing when they rethought the old strange stories of their people. But I suspect that the book may prove less exciting and less helpful for those who have not had to make a journey of the same kind.

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