BMCR 1994.02.03

1994.02.03, Svenbro, Phrasiklei

Two thought experiments: Suppose you live in a culture new to reading, and you always read aloud, and then one day you come upon an inscription under a statue that reads:

“Sign of Phrasikleia maid shall I be called always,
instead of marriage from the gods receiving this name”

What happens? Is it in an eery way the statue that is speaking, and do you as reader disappear for the moment? Whose voice is it? Are you “acting”?

Now again: Suppose you live in a culture highly sophisticated in reading, and you come across, on screen or paper, a review of a scholarly tome written by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and you begin reading it in silence. What voice speaks the second person singular in those/these sentences? Is that me inside your head nattering away? My apologies, I’ll leave as soon as I’ve had my say! (Oops, and who’s the me emphasized just there? Readers of the paper copy may not even know who this is until they come to the end of the review; we used to ship the electronic copies that way, but readers objected and so now we put the reviewer’s name at the head. Why is it important to know who is writing?)

These are the issues that give a point of departure for Svenbro’s consistently stimulating study of Greek reading habits roughly from the earliest point at which they can be descried down to Plato. The book is entirely Parisian, consisting of ten seminar papers read under the egis variously of Vernant, Detienne, and Loraux, and mediated into English in a series edited by Gregory Nagy. Each paper is a minutely close reading of one or a few telling texts, from the collection of which an implicit history of early Greek reading, and of the writing that shaped that reading, emerges. The maid Phrasikleia’s inscription spoke for her in the first person (even if written by a different hand, and read by many voices); but the inner voice of the reader begins to emerge and the possibilities of reading grow immeasurably complex. Svenbro reads Sappho frg. 31, for example, as evoking a “you” who is not some woman of whom S. is jealous but indeed the poem itself, the poem that speaks to the lover and endures the lover’s gaze. The weakest part of the book is the concluding essay, only because by this time yet one more reading of the Phaedrus will find few patient readers after Derrida, Nussbaum, and Ferrari, to mention only the most distinguished. But throughout, individual acts of reading are lovingly and painstakingly imagined, with every specificity of place and time. The written word was already an object of fetishistic attention, and indeed though devotion would strengthen in after years, some of the initial idiosyncrasies of that fetishism were the most striking, such as the tattooed body of Epimenides, who was not quite a lawgiver but now an interpreter, a man whose life was already the mediation of the written word, and who in death presented written words to eyes whose subservient voice would reanimate for a moment the psyche of the dead man.

The book merits study and will offer bedeviling frustration. Is S.’s reading of Sappho an overreading? Or have our conventional readings of such texts too blithely assumed that our reading practices are the right reading practices? We know shockingly little about ancient reading habits, and the evidence that must be brought to bear for any such study is extraordinarily thin. It is not fair, I think, to expect any study of the subject to lead to conclusions that evoke the kind of consensus we can give to an investigation into the date of the battle of Pharsalus. Rather, we need to be prodded into calling into question our own reading habits and keeping as open a mind as possible about the ways in which these old texts worked. (Compare Fred Ahl’s recent study of the Oedipus, which arose when he discovered that if you disguised the play, student readers concluded that Oedipus didn’t really kill his father. It’s far from certain that we can reconstruct any Athenian reading or viewing of that play, but it is at the same time indisputable that Ahl has shown something of how the play works, if only its dependence on the conventional story already known to the audience.)

For a consistent, linear notion of reading is one of the implicit assumptions that has helped us shape our profession and through it our notion of a single homogeneous western civilization descending from the Greeks (but not, horrescimus referentes, from the pictographic Egyptians). If Homer is pretty much the same thing to Plato and to us, then we are all one big happy family and can act accordingly. There are many reasons to think that such a “western civilization” is more an etiological fantasy invented for self-justification in the nineteenth century, but however that debate is played, it deserves to be carried out with as clear a view as possible of what had to be the case in antiquity, what might have been the case, and what could not have been the case. What is most impressive about Svenbro is the ferocity of minute attention he brings to the individual texts. It is a book that is equally instructive for those who accept its arguments and for those who reject them vehemently.