BMCR 1993.01.04

1993.01.04, Claude Calame (ed), Figures grecques de l’intermediaire

Figures grecques de l'intermediaire. Lausanne: Etudes de Lettres, 1992. Pp. 146. 18 francs.

This volume, part of a monograph series produced at the Université de Lausanne, contains five essays on a wide variety of topics, and a translation into French of Theocritus’ first Idyll. All the contributions are chiefly concerned, according to the editor’s preface, with “[les] domaines où précisément les catégories modernes de l’identité et de l’altérité se recoupent, perdant ainsi de leur pertinence.” The theme is thus rather diffuse, the more so since the different essays in the collection not only deal with widely varying authors and genres but also show different understandings of “l’intermédiaire.” Furthermore, the editor himself seems to abandon any attempt at unity by including at the center of the volume a translation of Theocritus 1 by Maurice Chappaz and Eric Genevay; the translation forms a lively follow-up to an essay which concerns that poem, but is in other respects an anomaly.

Of greater concern than the unity of the volume, however, is the paradoxical nature of its stated undertaking. By showing that there are, in fact, intermediate figures that don’t fit standard structuralist polarities, this volume ends up suggesting that those polarities were artificially imposed to begin with—thus undermining its own category of “l’intermédiaire.” The paradox is evident in the following sentence from Calame’s introduction:

Si la pensée polaire souvent à l’oeuvre en Grèce a pu faire croire que les oppositions mises à jour par l’analyse structurale traditionelle bénéficiaient d’un fondement culturel, il est temps de constater que les Grecs au moins se gardaient bien de penser le monde selon les canons de la logique binaire. (p. 2)

This is as much as to say, the Greeks saw the world in terms of polar opposites, except when they didn’t. One is left wondering why the contributors of this volume took structural analysis so much for granted, if their own readings so often undermine that analysis.

Several of the essays in the volume suffer from this disturbing form of petitio principii. For example, Pierre Voelke’s essay “Ambivalence, médiation, intégration: à propos de l’espace dans le drame satyrique,” begins as follows:

Les études grecques, en particulier celles s’inspirant d’une démarche anthropologique et structurale, ont fait et font encore un usage important des catégories de l’autre et du même, ceci d’ailleurs sans que leur statut ne soit toujours clairement défini et, notamment, sans que l’on sache si comme telles elles correspondent à des catégories de la pensée grecques. Si la réponse à cette question n’entre pas ici dans notre propos, précisons cependant que nous continuerons dans les pages qui viennent à utiliser ce couple conceptuel, dans le mesure où nous lui reconnaissons en tout cas une valeur heuristique et descriptive. Dans le même temps pourtant, notre intention … est de mettre en évidence, à partir d’un exemple précis, la difficulté de rendre compte de représentations culturelles complexes à travers une telle dichotomie, dès lors qu’elle est utilisée sans précaution et sans mise en question de la logique binaire qui la sous-tend…. Ainsi l’exemple du drame satyrique dont nous traiterons sous l’un de ses aspects devrait montrer la nécessité d’introduire au moins un troisième terme et de préférer une logique ternaire. Cela étant dit, une évidence demeure: l’intermédiaire ne peut se concevoir qu’à partir de pôles préalablement définis et dès lors notre analyse se situe à n’en pas douter dans le prolongement d’une approche structurale (pp. 33-4).

The author here shows an admirable awareness of the problems inherent in the “self vs. other” approach; but his solution is only to prop it up by adding the third term “intermediary.” This curious procedure reminds one of the epicycles and deferents used by ancient cosmographers to rectify the geocentric theory of the universe. Voelke recognizes the weaknesses in his critical foundation, but his solution is to apply buttresses rather than to modify the foundation.

Voelke’s essay is also troubling in that it shows how structural terms and concepts can become overextended and self-referential, thereby losing their ability to illuminate the texts they deal with. Structural thinking, by its very nature, implies a spatial arrangement of ideas; thus it works best in cases like those of geography and ethnography, literatures which are governed by the arrangement of physical space. When one begins to talk of “dramatic space” or “poetic space,” the coordinates becomes murkier, and when one reaches “representational space” one hardly knows where one is. In this essay the French term “espace” is used so pervasively that we read of an “espace de Polyphème,” an “espace satyrique,” an “espace dionysiaque,” an “espace de pâturages” (a different place than simple ‘pastures’?), and the question is asked: “Espace décentré: espace de l’altérité?” Such overinflated use of a single term cannot help but devalue the critical lexicon from which it is derived. The author’s ideas about satyr play certainly have merit, but they lose their force when expressed in such hazy terms: “L’examen des rapports entre espace dramatique et espace de représentation met à jour une ambivalence … définie comme intégration d’un espace de médiation au sein d’un espace de l’identité” (p. 33).

By contrast, the strongest essay of the collection, Anne Julia Voillat Sauer’s “Entre exotisme et héroisme: Les Celtes de Posidonios,” provides a good illustration of both the problems inherent in structural analysis and the way in which that analysis may ultimately become stronger when they are faced. The author examines an ethnographic text which has generally been understood as an instance of alterity or opposition, Posidonius’ description of the Celts. It becomes clear from her analysis, however, that the terms “self” and “other” cannot be applied easily here: Posidonius’ Celts are indeed “anti-Greek” in some ways but not in all, and in fact they often bear a striking resemblance to the thoroughly Greek heroes of Homer’s Iliad. The author goes on to show that a temporal scheme, whereby the Celts represent for Posidonius an early stage in an evolutionary process that governs all mankind, Greeks as well as barbarians, proves far more illuminating than that of bipolar opposition. There is no attempt at interposing a third term or intermediary, since in fact the paired opposites which would create that category no longer exist. This seems to me one of the most valuable services that can be brought to the critical approach derived from structural anthropology: After several decades of ascendancy, especially in France, it has by now grown vigorous and widespread enough to require pruning.

However, the temperance of Voillat Sauer’s essay is often in short supply among the other contributions to this volume. Christine Yerly’s essay on “Figures du tyran archaïque,” for example, attempts to show a deep bipolarity in early Greek images of the tyrant: Ranging over a wide array of evidence, Yerly demonstrates that this figure could be depicted either as a monster whose behavior placed him outside society or as a thoroughly civilized sage. An unfortunate weakness in her argument, however, is that the two poles which are here opposed are also separated by chronology: As Yerly herself acknowledges, the traditions which place tyrants like Pittacos and Periander among the Seven Wise Men date from a later period than the archaic texts which portray them as monsters. Rather than reverting, like Voillat Sauer, to an evolutionary scheme, Yerly tries to bridge the temporal gap by assuming a body of early texts that have become lost: “A défaut de témoignages écrits, il devait exister une tradition orale, favorable à certains tyrans et aux changements … qu’ils apportaient” (p. 20). Yerly’s obvious fudge here seems to reveal an overreliance on the structural approach she takes as her model: She is loath to abandon an instance of the bipolarity on which that approach so often depends.

The other two essays in Figures grecques de l’intermédiaires are themselves intermediate, sharing neither the best nor the worst of the features discussed above. The contribution by the volume’s editor Claude Calame, as its title indicate—”Espaces liminaux et voix discursives dans l’Idylle 1 de Théocrite”—again relies heavily on a spatial scheme of organization that does not always clearly apply to the poem under consideration; though at times it seems that “espace” in this essay may translate to “setting,” which would render it far more natural and intelligible than in Voelke’s piece. The final essay in the collection, by Danielle van Mal-Maeder, concerns “Les détournements homériques dans l’Histoire Vraie de Lucien,” and hence ends the volume on the merry note which the True Histories never fails to impart. The author’s point here, concerning Lucian’s duplicitous use of Homer as both a model and a target of parody, seems to me a valid one, but overstated: One would like to see more evidence for points such as Lucian’s use of epic-style formulae in prose, and the quoted examples that are supplied are often given in translation when the original Greek is at issue.

There are many strengths to Figures grecques de l’intermédiaire, not least of which is the originality of its insights. But its authors seem overcommitted to the structural concepts they take as their starting point, and this leads them into dangerous errors of judgement.