Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.24

David Bouvier, Le sceptre et la lyre. L'Iliade ou les héros de la mémoire. Collection Horos.   Grenoble:  Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2002.  Pp. 514.  ISBN 2-84137-122-0.  EUR 38.00.  

Reviewed by Barbara Clayton, Stanford University (
Word count: 2069 words

This book is developed from David Bouvier's 1998 dissertation at the University of Geneva. Bouvier is primarily interested in the Iliad (the text is subtitled "L'Iliade ou les héros de la mémoire"), although he has much to say about Homeric poetry in general as well. Indeed, while there are many keen observations here, the study is burdened by a dissertation's anxiety to demonstrate mastery of the field in matters large and small. Consequently, there is a frustrating absence of a strong, unified focus throughout the book. On the other hand, what I take to be Bouvier's principal argument is a fascinating one, because it gives to the Iliad the kind of poetic self-consciousness that is usually reserved for the Odyssey alone. Bouvier claims that the Iliad is a poem that understands its purpose as the transmission of positive exempla from generation to generation. At the same time he finds evidence in the poem of an anxiety that men of the future (essomenoi) will no longer care about lessons from the past. Bouvier interprets this anxiety as an awareness that the oral tradition is losing ground in the face of a written culture. Ultimately then, the poem represents both the oral tradition's self-doubt as to its very purpose and a forceful reminder to the poem's audience of what that purpose is, namely to remember the stories of their fathers.

The text is comprised of an introduction followed by six chapters. Here is a summary of their contents:

The Introduction ("Le destinataire oublié") lays the groundwork for the following question: given that the Homeric bard does not address his audience directly at the outset of the poem, how does the poem intend to be heard and interpreted? (Bouvier notes that within the poem heroes always address each other using a name or a title, and he reminds us that this pattern is part of the powerful ideology of kleos in the Homeric world.) It is important for Bouvier that the absence of a direct address to the poem's audience leaves open the possibility that the listeners can identify with anyone in the poem. This "game of identifications" implicates the audience directly, making it impossible for them to completely distance themselves from the poem they are listening to. Moreover, the listeners find themselves in an ambiguous position. On the one hand they can enjoy hearing about war and suffering because poetry is able to transcend the misery it describes. On the other hand, Bouvier does not believe that the Iliad is a poem that intends to mitigate in any way the horrors of war. His goal, I believe, is to establish a purpose for the poem that is solidly based ethically. This introductory chapter is particularly difficult to summarize because it is extremely digressive. I have omitted summaries of short sections on Vico, Hegel, Hesiod and the narratology of de Jong, which I mention here only to signal that the breadth of Bouvier's coverage, while both interesting and impressive, can be distracting as well.

Chapter 1, "Hector et les hommes de demain," returns to the notion of kleos via the role given to future generations in the poem. Whereas the bard does not evoke these "men of tomorrow" either directly or indirectly, the heroes themselves often do; in fact their honor depends upon them. And, Bouvier claims, Hector, more than any other hero, is concerned about what future generations will say of him. This concern takes the place of a direct address to the poem's audience--in other words, the audience itself is implicated in the poem as the hero's motivation. Here Bouvier makes a detour to discuss death, divine justice, and punishment in the afterlife, contrasting the Homeric world with that of the Old Testament. Because the Homeric hero has no divine recompense or punishment to motivate his actions, it becomes the "ethical responsibility" of the audience to remember him. Further investigation of the ethical aspect of the ideology of kleos leads Bouvier to a perceptive analysis of Achilles' apparent questioning of this ideology in Odyssey Book 11, which allows him to assert that heroic ideology is reinforced by a constant questioning of itself. Bouvier notes that the hero's concern with his reputation among future generations is a way in which epic poetry serves the social function of unifying its community, or genos, through a value system passed down from father to son. The final section of this chapter looks at post-Homeric epic (Apollonius and Quintus of Smyrna) and finds that the hero is no longer interested in establishing an exemplary reputation, nor in having a son who is better than himself. References to future generations in these texts are used only by the narrator to point to monuments or natural phenomena that have survived from the heroic past. Here we see Bouvier's interest in connecting the difference between oral poetry and written epic with different ethical concerns.

Chapter 2, "L'invention d'une langue de la mémoire," ranges widely over topics concerned with the nature of Homeric language, with ten different sections, each section further divided into between one and six sub-sections. This chapter best illustrates both the principal strengths and weaknesses of Bouvier's study. Non-specialists will appreciate the detailed overview which covers ancient theories about hexameter, the Homeric Question, the work of Milman Parry and later scholars on the "economy" of Homeric poetry, and a fairly technical illustration of how this economy works that compares repetition in the Iliad with the Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna. Homerists will wonder where Bouvier is headed and find little that is new here,1 although the chapter does include a compelling reading of Iliad 7.89-90. Here Hector imagines a tomb that will be set up for the warrior he kills, which will stand as a reminder of his glory for the "men to come." Bouvier traces the reappearance of the language of this speech to a final moment in Book 23.331-2 that refers to a marker, which is either the gravesite of someone unknown, or a boundary stone. He concludes that whereas Hector is imagining a story that will be repeated down through the generations to come, the poem itself is imagining a transformation of the story, one that goes so far as to suggest a past that can be forgotten. Bouvier began this chapter by asserting that the heroic ethic requires a language (or memory) that will transcend time. The analysis of Hector's speech brings him to his final point, namely that the repetition inherent in oral poetry is no guarantee of this transcendence. Rather, it is an indication that the Homeric bard is less interested in remembering and thus preserving a stable tradition than he is in reinventing that tradition. Not all readers will be convinced, and many will have difficulty reconciling an argument that seems to be based on the nature of oral poetry in general, but arrives at a striking conclusion best illustrated by one brief incident in the Iliad.

Chapter 3, ""L'ordre du sceptre: le héros et la loi," shifts focus from Hector and the ethics of kleos to Achilles and the question of justice. This chapter illustrates the tendency noted above to combine a very wide focus--in this case a survey of theorists from Plato to the 20th century to determine what justice (specifically, θέμις and δίκη) might have meant to the Homeric hero--with a detailed analysis of one particular scene, Agamemnon's offer of one of his three daughters in marriage at Book 9.145. Bouvier concludes that justice is a primary concern in the Iliad and that the names of Agamemnon's daughters (Chrysothemis and Laodike) suggest the resolution of a judicial procedure.

Chapter 4, "L'ordre de la lyre: le héros et l'histoire des ancêtres," is a close reading of Phoinix's story of Meleager in the embassy scene of Book 9. Bouvier's main thesis finally comes into view, and his detailed evidence is more successfully subordinated to a central focus in this chapter. First he discusses Phoinix as a father figure, combing the mythological record and bringing to bear a number of interesting parallels between Phoinix and Peleus. Then he turns to the Meleager story, whose purpose, he argues, is to represent the authority of past heroic deeds. (Phoinix wants Achilles to follow Meleager's example and return to battle.) This authority is what Bouvier means by "the order of the lyre"; when Achilles refuses to follow the example of Meleager, he is, in fact, questioning the fundamental value of epic poetry itself. Unlike Hector, whose actions are determined by the desire to become immortal as an exemplum for the generations to come, Achilles places that very tradition in doubt.

Chapter 5, "Patrocle ou la mémoire de l'Iliade," is a densely argued one in which Bouvier concentrates on Patroclus, the hero with the "perfect name," and his relationship to Antilochus, son of Nestor and friend of Achilles. (In the Aethiopis Antilochus is killed by Memnon--a Hector figure--who is in turn killed by Achilles.) The argument is too complex to summarize here, and moreover it is not Bouvier's own but his presentation of the argument of German scholar H. Mühlestein--with full acknowledgment, of course. While Bouvier stops short of claiming that the Aethiopis predated the Iliad, he does believe that the poet of the Iliad is remembering the story of Memnon and transforming it. Why is this important? Because Bouvier wants the death of Patroclus to be connected with the story of a young hero dying for his father, and we know, from accounts by Pindar (Pythian 6) and Quintus of Smyrna, that Antilochus is killed while trying to save his father. In other words, the story of Memnon allows Bouvier to return to the notion, presented in Chapter 2, that oral poetry is transformative rather than preservative. The final part of the chapter is a close reading of the last exchange between Achilles and Patroclus in Book 16, and takes up the question with which the previous chapter ended: why would the poet of the Iliad choose to celebrate a hero who finds himself beyond both "the order of the scepter" and "the order of the lyre," i.e., a hero to whom justice has been denied and who will not respond to the appeal of the heroic past? This chapter will be quite difficult for the non-specialist to follow.

In the sixth chapter, titled simply "Conclusion," Bouvier states that when Achilles returns to battle to avenge the death of Patroclus, the "order of the scepter" has been reestablished. Logically, he argues, the poem could end here, and the fact that it doesn't underlines the primary importance of the "order of the lyre," which demands that sons remember their fathers. It is no accident, Bouvier believes, that the poem ends with an encounter between a father and a son. Moreover, he points out that when Achilles remembers his father to Priam, he refers to Peleus as someone who will not have descendants to carry on his name, apparently forgetting that he has in reality given Peleus a grandson, Neoptolemus. For Bouvier, this slip is an important reminder that the Iliad is capable of reinventing tradition; indeed he finds the poem to be "most ethical" at these moments. Some readers may find the non-mention of Neoptolemus to be insubstantial support for such a weighty conclusion.

The last part of this chapter is presented as an appendix, in which Bouvier addresses the question of the relationship of the Homeric epics to writing. This section entails summarizing some of the more prominent theories (Lord, Finnegan, Nagy, for example), and concludes by situating the Iliad at the moment when, Bouvier claims, the oral tradition was beginning to doubt its viability, in other words to worry that men of the future would no longer listen and learn from the past deeds of their fathers. But the voice of Priam prevails, and the Iliad becomes a lesson for all time.

It is difficult to recommend this book without qualifications. Some parts are too technical for the non-specialist, and others are too general for a Homerist. Bouvier's style is digressive, and occasionally repetitive, although extremely engaging. (One footnote is repeated, nine pages later, verbatim.) By and large I found the textual analysis quite powerful, if not always convincing. The book is not without typographical errors (pp. 53, 56, 64, 130, 177, 188, 245, 255, 364, 383, 439), and in two instances footnotes occur on the wrong page (pp. 247 and 267).


1.   The reference to O'Neill's study on word position restrictions in hexameter poetry (Yale Classical Studies 8, 1942, 105-78) is omitted in the bibliography.

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