BMCR 1992.01.07

Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic

, Immanent art: from structure to meaning in traditional oral epic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. xvi, 278 pages. ISBN 9780253322166 $35.00.

This exceedingly welcome volume is a companion to Foley’s 1990 Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song published by the University of California Press at almost twice the price. Although Foley claims that Immanent Art depends upon its predecessor, its arguments make perfect sense on their own, although one who is ignorant of oral theory might do well to look into Foley’s 1988 The Theory of Oral Composition. In the present volume Foley disclaims allegiance to any critical theoretical position, although it is clear enough that his heart belongs to a modified Parry-Lord theory as it applies to South Slavic and Homeric poetry. He is, however, particularly at pains to dispute the notion first advanced by Parry that the formulae, particularly epithets, are essentially mechanical in their application while at the same time he wishes to demonstrate that what a contemporary might read as awkward or superficial narrative is imbued with meaning that an audience conditioned to this poetry would easily absorb, although not necessarily consciously. Since so many contemporary students of Homer are bent on making meaning of every single syllable of the poems one would not have thought that Foley’s fierce polemical stance was necessary any longer. Yet he is concerned to show that the tradition is itself responsible for something more than the superficial narrative logic; these poems are more than the great yarns that twentieth century humanist professors are so often accused of tarting up into complex and artful poems. The Homeric poems, Foley insists, in so far as they are far more than great stories, are rich in meaning because the tradition has so imbued the narrative. The very structures and mechanics of this poetic narrative style convey a meaning to its initiate auditors; here Foley locates the immanent art.

The book is as much the work of a linguist and comparativist as it is of a literary scholar or critic. Foley more than once warns off those who would deal with South Slavic material in translation. Those classicists who have let their Serbo-Croatian slip, however, will be happy to know that his chapter on this poetry makes perfect sense despite the number of terms from that language he introduces. Since the chapter contributes much to understanding what Foley is about in his Iliad chapter, one is encouraged to read it. Most of all Foley will gladden his readers’ hearts by eschewing the obfuscating, pretentious language that is nowadays almost mandatory for anyone who pretends to have something to say about literature. It cannot be said that Foley will be mistaken for Cleanth Brooks or Virginia Woolf, but nonetheless his pages reflect some measure of respect for the English tongue (although the reader can only shudder when Foley quotes Michael Nagler’s “Priam crucifies his instinctive urge to strike at the killer of his son.” [note 95, page 182].) Again Foley takes his disavowal of allegiance to any critical position a step further by suggesting a variety of interpretations for various passages before he focuses on his own. These two features will certainly make the book valuable in seminar and classroom.

Two very great contemporary works on aesthetics inform Foley’s argument, Wolfgang Iser’s The Implied Reader and Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. These are valuable not only for the insights to which they inspire Foley, but constitute a hint that perhaps the new generation of scholars will rejoin the dialogue of humanists from which at the turn of the century classicists withdrew in a petulance equal to that of Achilles. In this Foley shows himself a worthy heir of the great Milman Parry, who by all accounts was a man of marked cultivation and literary interests. From Iser Foley develops the notion of the implied auditor of the oral poetry, the person for whom the poet sang, the habitual listener whose memory of prior performances of the story would allow the poet’s words to merge into something far greater than the moment of delivery, engendering meanings and associations far richer, more manifold than the contemporary text-bound reader might at first imagine. Gombrich in turn has helped Foley understand how elements of the story-line, the superficial narrative logic, are parts of a code that allows the seasoned archaic Greek auditor to understand the story as something far fuller and more ramified than the bare words of the Homeric text might inspire in a contemporary reader, whose imagination, as a matter of fact, without the correction of the encoding might lead him or her into thoroughly idiosyncratic readings. For, while Iser acknowledges that the reader finally determines the meaning of the text, he also insists that wild or wilful readings are inhibited or suppressed by the reader’s understanding of the genre, the tradition, the authorial bent, the cultural requirements of his or her society, any number of factors that are similar to the rest raining and enriching forces in Gombrich’s theories of encoding. Do we not all remember in films from the thirties how it was the girl who smoked and usually wore dark colored clothing who would not end up with the man, the job, the baby, the money or whatever else it was for which all the women in the film were striving?

The major problem in developing an argument about encoding is the serious paucity of evidence from Homer: we have but two poems and each in only one version. Foley holds to the theory that there is a long tradition of oral story-telling that over time coalesced in the renewed telling of certain great, elaborated, complex stories and we are in possession of fixed texts of two single performances of two of them. Each performance is unique, and makes new and original what is conventional and traditional. Foley’s chapter on Serbo-Croatian oral poetry is vitally important, therefore, since it suggests important analogies in the Homeric poems as to how elements of the story are used to resonate in the audience with other significations. See, for instance, his quotations and remarks (79-81) about versions of formulaic questions of a man absent from and inquiring about his homeland, and how they serve another end than that of advancing the superficial narrative logic and how the material is compressed and exp anded like an accordion from performance to performance. There is also an excellent and valuable discussion of a traditional metonymic meaning in a phrase that seems to be misused in context (83-85). The relative abundance of evidence from the South Slavic material supports Foley’s observations, and at the same time emphasizes how Homerists are necessarily limited. They are especially limited when using statistics. Statistics, the reader will happily note, do not play a large part in this work. This reader is grateful since he tends to be wary of statistical analysis of the Homeric poems, unaccompanied as such an analysis generally is by any discussion of the theory of statistics or the methodology employed. One could in fact argue that, as students of ancient literature take more and more from anthropology and with the TLG on disc providing such ready access to so much data, it would seem necessary that classicists study the statistics of sociology.

Foley’s attention to the oral poet’s audience, implied or otherwise, is pertinent since the essence of oral performance must finally be the extraordinary symbiosis between bard and auditor. Of course, the heart of the archaic audience is no more to be recovered than the archaic smile is to be understood. Homer studies, certainly, would benefit from more contemporary field observation of an audience. When Foley describes three versions of a South Slavic song that Parry and Lord got on record on more than one occasion, and he notes the real differences in the opening verses, or pripjev, as it is called, the question that immediately comes to mind is what was the audience like on each occasion? A crowd, or Parry and Lord alone, Parry and Lord and their intrusive recording machine, perhaps Parry children sitting by? One does not know, but anyone who has been a performer will understand the very great role played by the audience. They encourage or discourage a performer; they give assent, they reject. Foley is mystified at the one occurrence of the poem in which two versions of the same incident, one expanded, one shortened, are included. Perhaps the sight of recording equipment led the singer to include everything, perhaps his audience’s enthusiasm seduced the performer, as sometimes happens in Europe when opera singers repeat an aria that has just received thunderous applause. The fact that this is absolutely forbidden in American opera houses suggests that Puritan control is still strong enough with us in the so-called high arts to make that kind of fluid exchange between audience and performer hard to comprehend. In quite a different venue this reviewer remembers vividly listening to great dixieland jazz bands in New York City in the forties as night after night they jammed, improvised on the very same tunes, and when they had the right booze, drugs, and raving audience, things got really hot. In a sense the audience was as much a part of the production of the music as the performers were.

Foley concentrates on Iliad Book 24 to show resonances and immanent meaning. He has already disarmed his reader by acknowledging that there is no verbal context for the Homeric poems from which one might gauge the encoding process. Using the last portion of the Iliad story is a trifle unfair since the rest of the text will function in Foley’s reader’s mind as the verbal ambience literally denied him. New Critics read the last part of the text in terms of the first. Foley has little choice but to do the same, yet he is arguing for a vast surround of other performances altogether beyond our ken. Nonetheless, the South Slavic analogies are highly suggestive and with an act of faith Foley’s reader will follow him where evidence cannot take them.

Foley introduces Iliad 24.559 τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν προσέφη πόδας ὠκὺς as a line in which the archaic auditor would invest more meaning than the twentieth century reader. He accepts Holoka’s argument for ὑπόδρα suggesting that the speaker is offended by the rudeness of the person addressed. Noting that the epithet, πόδας ὠκύς, is distinctive to Achilles, Foley suggests (142) that the noun-epithet combination should be understood as the equivalent of a word, rather than a phrase made of discrete parts. This excellent idea allows for a vast number of associations to be assumed into and summoned up altogether when the unit appears. As is true of any other word, nothing will be synonomous. Other noun-epithet combinations will mean something else. In this instance, Foley argues, although with little enough evidence to give him conviction, it is the totality of Achilles that the “word” suggests, enlarging him in the auditor’s mind into something far greater than the actor in this brief scene with old Priam. Just as all the events of our lives pass before us as we hurtle off a cliff, I suppose, so πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς conjures up the totality of the auditor’s experience of Achilles over a lifetime of hearing his exploits narrated in performance. Foley is indeed very much aware that the personal story of Achilles arrives at its denouement during this scene and he wants an Achilles who will be part of a finale, a summatory Achilles, all that Achilles ever was being brought to bear on this moment. His ideas about the noun-epithet combination therefore work superbly, but one would like to see Foley develop the same strength for the resonance in each occurrence of the phrase in the poem.

Foley has much to say about Priam’s apparent violation of the conventional structures of a Feast scene by refusing to take the seat Achilles offers him. Priam’s request to deal first with Hektor’s body “at the level of uncontextualized narrative action … must seem a very unlikely, even forbidding endeavor.” (181) Still, it seems reasonable to assume that for an audience who has known this story in so many performances Priam’s request and Achilles’ response must at some level of their consciousness be not only likely but inevitable. The auditor’s familiarity with the narrative, one might imagine, allows for the subliminal investment of this knowledge into the characters of the story, creating thereby either the deepest kind of tragic irony or an entirely fundamental hope and expectation.

It is an interesting interpretation of the last book which Foley is creating for us. Foley establishes a pattern of Assembly – Purification – Feast – Mediation beginning with the action of the first book which he finds repeated at intervals in the poem, the last being an interrupted version that begins with the Assembly in Book Nineteen at which Agamemnon makes amends and Achilles refuses to eat or wash. Foley argues that the events of the rest of the poem are a slow accomodation of Achilles to the imperatives of this pattern, ending with his entertaining Priam at dinner in his tent in Book Twenty-Four. “At this juncture, Achilleus’ reentry into human community is complete, as he coaxes the grief-stricken Priam into sharing the central symbol of that community, the Feast.” (187) In this way Foley gives a comic reading to the twenty-fourth book of the Iliad whereas the conventional interpretation of the resolution of the narrative looks to the tragic desperation that informs the action. In the twenty-fourth book, Foley argues, Achilles is working toward a social healing which proceeds to funeral and to feast: his offering Priam a seat and the annointing of Hektor’s body are major steps in this process. No wonder that Achilles is so angry with Priam, exclaims Foley, who considers that the violation of a code of the Feast is of itself grounds for strong emotion. Yet even if, as Holoka has determined, ὑπόδρα ἰδών indicates that the speaker is offended at the rudeness of the person addressed, it does not necessarily follow that the audience must be equally offended. Foley has set the scene up in anthropological, sociological terms; he sees patterns, the acceptance of violation of which is paramount. Perhaps one ought to consider the parallel advice of Odysseus and Achilles in the nineteenth and the twenty-fourth book. Odysseus points out to Achilles that fasting will not resolve anything, which is to say that humankind has no control over events and must eventually submit to the demands of the body, whether it be to eat or to die. Achilles’ remarks on the two jars of Zeus are as much as to say that the universe is indifferent and arbitrary, again that man has no control, an idea that Achilles has been having trouble learning ever since he argued with his overlord, Agamemnon, in the first book. Coming as they do at similar moments in what Foley identifies as a narrative pattern, these two mediations may constitute a convention of the pattern. Odysseus is sympathetic or at least neutral to Achilles’ refusal to accept the truth of this proposition whereas Achilles grows angry at Priam. Achilles who is consistently arrogant, narcissistic, and self-aggrandizing is again in this instance unwilling to see the control of events taken from his direction. Notice the words of Achilles’ angry response: “I have every intention of giving back your son … Zeus has sent me a messenger on this matter…. and furthermore I know you didn’t get here unmolested on your own—some god helped….” He has yielded on the matter of Hektor’s body, yet he is determined to make a show of controlling events. Priam’s refusal to accomodate him hurts. These observations will not negate the notion that a typical Feast scene is being fractured by the unwilling Priam, but perhaps suggest yet another subtext, a psychological one, playing in the auditor’s mind. In an indifferent or meaningless universe humans have created art as a tinsel icon of the control that will ever elude them; typical or traditional or conventional scenes, phrases, gestu res, or words are themselves all manifestations of this need to control, in defying which Priam can only rouse anger.

I would myself have said that the socialization of Achilles is completed in the twenty-third book scene of the games, and that Achilles encourages Priam to eat in the twenty-fourth because he has finally accepted the awful nothingness of the human condition in which the bodily submission to death and before that sex and hunger are the only truths. Foley, however, opts for the comic reading, and in the terms in which Foley frames it, it is certainly compelling.