BMCR 1994.09.15

1994.09.15, Leclerc, La Parole chez Hesiode

, La parole chez Hésiode : à la recherche de l'harmonie perdue. Collection d'études anciennes, 121. Série grecque. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1993. 350 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9782251326436.

In the recent literature on Hesiod there is general agreement that speech, language, and specifically “the language of poetry” (to borrow the phrase from Piero Pucci’s title) are central issues in the Hesiodic corpus, whether we view that corpus from without, for the light it can throw on the evolution of archaic Greek poetry, or from within, in terms of its internal dynamics and thematics. Hesiod proclaims the invention of the poet, the individualized poetic persona. He invents the poetic speaker and repeatedly calls attention to the originality of that innovation.

Not only is it inevitable, then, that any comprehensive study of Hesiodic poetry come to terms with this aspect of the corpus, but Hesiod’s insistently self-referential diction, his poetry that addresses the terms of its own generation, has been central to most esthetic responses to the poems in this century. By singing himself singing his song, this bard (or tradition of bards) introduces into hexameter poetry a complexity foreign to Homeric epic, a play of interactions between poetic voice, addressee, audience, and subject that situates the speaker in the center of his fiction and so shifts the esthetic balance of the poetry to privilege that complex of relationships.

Marie-Christine Leclerc makes a very substantial contribution to our understanding of these and related phenomena in her study of Hesiod’s language. Her book came into being as a thesis for the doctorat d’Etat and, true to the genre, foregrounds a methodologically unimpeachable, deeply conservative approach to the topic by way of a classification and analysis of the relevant vocabulary in the Theogony and Works and Days. The flavor of the academic thesis is sustained in a number of elegantly concise catalogues of the positions of earlier scholars on a variety of problematic issues (e.g. poets and kings [179-180], truth and lies [204-212], and Olympian vs. Heliconian Muses [191-193]). These are extremely valuable in themselves and provide Leclerc with the foundations for her own, often original, solutions.

The book is organized with exemplary clarity into four sections, each with a closing summary, followed by an overall conclusion. The opening section presents, in tabular form followed by discussion, all instances of vocabulary designating speech and related matters in the two poems central to the corpus. The reader has to wait quite a while for any real payoff here and, the constraints of the genre of the philological thèse d’Etat aside, much of this catalogue of data might well have been relegated to an appendix, or to the deeper oblivion of the unpublished accumulation of evidence from which the study has emerged. I do not mean this as gratuitous negative criticism, but rather as due warning to the reader that what is to follow is of far greater substance and interest, and as an encouragement to persevere to reach the meat of the study. Even here, larger issues are set in relationship to the inquiry as defined: the speech of gods and the speech of men are distinguished and the latter defined as the locus of the moral vision central to the corpus. Speech emerges in the Works and Days as an alternative, destructive or seductive, to the industry to which the poem encourages its fictive and external audiences. The second section is built on a catalogue of the instances of direct and indirect speech in the two poems, but what emerges from the evaluation of these data substantially advances the emergent theme of the distinction between human and divine speech. Hesiod’s world, unlike Homer’s, is one in which these spheres of discourse are cut off one from another, one where communication between men and gods is a matter for specialists, namely the Muses and the poet (106-107).

The third section sets out in search of a history (or an anthropology) of human speech and though the Hesiodic text is reticent on these matters, Leclerc concludes (126) that before Pandora (or, one might say, before mankind was anything we might recognize as such) human communication was “less opaque”. She draws an interesting and original comparison between the two Hesiodic versions of the Pandora story, observing that in the Theogony we find a nameless female who brings named evils into the world, while in the Works and Days nameless evils deprived of any voice are introduced by a named female, herself endowed with a voice. The Hecate “hymn” emerges unexpectedly as a watershed in the Theogony : of nine mentions of human vocalization in the poem, humans are represented as nominative performers of acts of speech only in the portion of the poem preceding the Hecate passage. Now it is clear that Hesiod does not represent these matters in the context of a historical (or temporal) sequence, but Leclerc proposes that we may nevertheless recover an implicit sequence from the order of presentation (“l’ordre du texte est porteur de sens” [253]). One may resist this notion, but the results are nevertheless engaging: what enters the world of discourse in the poem with Hecate is prayer and from that point (in the narrative organization of the poem and by implication in the projected anthropology that results) “speech is inscribed in a hierarchical order of the world” (154). The great divorce between men and gods at Mekone (expressed in Zeus’ retribution in the form of Pandora) is precisely what opens up the niche for the invention of the poet, who will build there his “empire” as the great and privileged communicator (156).

The fourth and final section, by far the longest and richest, focuses on the relationship of the poet and his Muses and the installation of his privileged poetic discourse that mediates between the mortal and the divine spheres: the trajectory of mankind toward progressive alienation from the gods, characterized by further fragmentation and opacity of speech, is countered by the “divine voice” of the poet, restoring the prelapsarian fullness of speech characteristic of the age of direct and immediate communication between god and man (181). There is evolution of the Muses themselves, Leclerc would have us believe: from the very human and corporeal conception of the Heliconian Muses (they bathe!) to the Olympian Muses “on the immortal plane” (231), a progression in turn representing the elevation of poetic speech to those realms, leaving behind the Heliconian shepherds, those bestial, alienated γαστέρες, sleeping under the stars (231-232). The final chapters (10 and 11) are again studies of vocabulary, but now the issue is not representation of speech but the very act of naming—the “new” common and proper nouns that form the building blocks of the Hesiodic representation of the world of gods and men and of the place of the divine voice of the poet in that divided sphere.

This summary has, of necessity, been confined to a few highlights of a study that pursues numerous lines of argument and explores many issues, some familiar, some less so, in the interpretation of the Hesiodic poems. It is a study that rises above its methodology and delivers a satisfying synthesis out of parts that are sometimes disparate. One might wish for more in some areas. There is, finally, no satisfying account of the role of formulaic language and composition here—only a defensive tendency to deny that a given phrase is formulaic, as if every formula were an “empty formula” (e.g. on οὐκ ὀνομαστός etc., 263-264). Her study might have benefited tremendously from the incorporation or at least the acknowledgement of the sort of analysis of speech and speech-acts in archaic poetry undertaken by Richard Martin in The Language of Heroes, but most of Leclerc’s work was apparently complete before that suggestive study appeared.

Finally, on the matter of indexing, the good news is that there are both an index of “the principal citations” and a general “index nominum et rerum”, and for this we should be thankful. The bad news is that the latter is utterly inadequate, with less than 70 entries, and selected according to no recoverable principles (the only proper nouns are Apollon, Hélicon, Hermès, Mnémosyne, Muses and Orphée—you’ll search on your own for the scattered references to Pandora). Moreover, the absence of a Greek index to a work that presents itself as a vocabulary study is incomprehensible. These technical shortcomings should not, of course, be laid at Leclerc’s door. Perhaps we shall never meet each other’s expectations in these matters across the lines of language and culture. But it is clear to me that this would be a much more useful book if provided with better tools to help the user locate or relocate specific parts of the inquiry.

This said, there is a great deal to recommend here. What begins as an all-too-modest vocabulary study blossoms into a rich and extended meditation on the role of language in the anthropology, theology, and poetics of the Hesiodic poems.