BMCR 1995.11.02

1995.11.02, Becker, Shield of Achilles

, The shield of Achilles and the poetics of ekphrasis. Greek studies : interdisciplinary approaches. Lanham MD:: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995. xii, 191 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780847679973.

The transformation of the term “ekphrasis” would constitute a fascinating chapter in the history of the Classical Tradition. From its humble origins as a technical term in ancient rhetoric, “ekphrasis” has become a key-term in contemporary criticism. This meteoric rise is the result of some drastic surgery: the restriction of its ancient range of meaning to “descriptions of works of art”. The creation of this new “genre” was given its main impetus by Friedländer’s 1912 survey of ancient writing on art and architecture (although Friedländer himself scrupulously avoids using “ekphrasis” itself outside the original rhetorical context). 1 The modern development of ekphrasis as a genre corresponds to a diverse range of interests, from the referential readings of archaeologists in search of evidence for lost monuments, to more recent art historical readings of ekphrasis as viewer response to the visual arts or to purely literary analyses of the genre as mise en abîme, as a metapoetic reflection on the functioning of the text. 2

The present volume belongs to this last, literary category, although the first two are also discussed by Becker and are relevant to his approach. B. sees ekphrasis as a metaphor for poetry and the ekphraseis in the Iliad as teaching the audience how to respond to the epic itself. The examples of ekphrasis in the Iliad other than the Shield (e.g. the arms and sceptre of Agamemnon, Hera’s chariot) show that B. does not restrict his definition to descriptions of figural representations. But the notion of “art” is key to his interpretation of ekphrasis as a lesson, teaching us both to accept the illusion created by the verbal or visual artist and to admire the skill involved in creating that illusion.

B. thus provides a welcome challenge to the idea that a description should provide a transparent window onto its referent, never drawing attention to its own textuality. His reading of the ancient rhetoricians on ekphrasis (an enterprise which is however of limited use in understanding ekphrasis in its modern sense) draws attention to the importance of awareness of illusion and the barrier of language in ancient rhetorical theory. But in B.’s model this lucidity is only one aspect of response to art and literature. He interprets the rhetors’ claim that ekphrasis effectively ‘places its subject before the eyes’ as an instance of submission to illusion and thus argues for an “double movement of illusion and disillusion” (p. 38) in the ancient rhetorical texts.

This constant oscillation is central to B.s reading of ekphrasis and is expressed in two terms borrowed from Ricoeur (who however uses them in a rather different context and a different sense): “appropriation” and “divestiture”. Movement between absorption into the world of the representation and awareness of the artistic and material means by which that representation is created is seen as characteristic of the response to the visual arts in Homeric ekphrasis and thus of the response demanded of the poet’s own audience. The detailed commentary on the Homeric Shield which forms Section II of this book and the readings of other examples of ekphrasis discussed in Section I, illustrate this constant oscillation. (All Greek is translated, although slight variations in the English between text and commentary might cause confusion for the entirely Greekless reader.)

However, B.’s method of analysis is more complex than this initial duality would suggest. The originality of his approach to the question of ekphrasis lies in the development of four different levels of attention which can be detected in the Homeric Shield of Achilles. These are set out in Section I (the main lines of which will be familiar to students of ekphrasis from B.’s previously published articles).

The levels are: (1) the subject matter represented by the work of art, i.e. the problematic scenes on the Shield; (2) the work itself; (3) the artist and (4) a focus on the describer who reacts to the work and provides a further level of mediation (pp. 42-3). (B. strangely, and at times rather confusingly, invents Latin terms for these levels.) As B. makes clear, these levels partially correspond to earlier approaches to the problem: (1) reflects Lessing’s emphasis on the role of narrative in verbal description; (2) corresponds to the moments in the description which would satisfy the archaeologist’s quest for precise and plausible detail.

This model presents the enormous advantage of allowing for different foci of interest at different times and of reconciling various models of reading, cutting through some of the critical impasses noted by B., (in particular the curiously persistent “Homer’s mistakes school” to use B.’s apposite description of critics who resort to “misunderstanding” of a real image to explain inconsistencies in the Shield). B.’s multi-layered reading takes the analysis of ekphrasis beyond any simple dichotomies such as truth and invention or the rivalry of word and image. As such, B.’s model could usefully be applied to other ekphraseis of works of art in which the focus constantly shifts between the surface of the work, the subject matter and the viewer’s response.

The commentary on the Shield and the close readings of other Homeric descriptions of art works elicit many keen observations. Even when one is not in total agreement on every detail, the interpretation is thought-provoking and constantly challenges the reader to a closer consideration of the text. However, I have some reservations about the way it is applied. Often, a great deal of weight is placed on individual terms. An exclamation such as thauma idesthai, “a wonder to behold”, can quite reasonably be said to draw attention to a describer’s response to the sight, (level 4) and thus to the presence of a mediating interpreter. However, the reading of a lone adjective such as kalos“fine, beautiful”, or even the intensive particle per (to cite just a couple of examples), as a sign of aesthetic appreciation or as drawing attention to a describer’s response is not always so convincing. Similar points could be made with respect to other levels.

These are very minor points of emphasis and interpretation but further questions emerge when one tries to reconcile the levels, as discussed and applied in this book, with the workings of the Iliad as a narrative text. In particular, the treatment of level 4, the focus on the describer/responder, raises certain problems. The description as a whole is frequently referred to as a “response” to an image, the describer is said to “translate the images into words” (p. 99). Such phrases have the unfortunate implication that there was some pre-existing image to which the text is in some sense a response—unfortunate because B. himself more than once states his belief that the Shield is imaginary. Indeed his whole analysis points to the literary function of the description.

This ambiguity arises from the lack of a clear and consistently maintained distinction between the internal, fictional viewer whose responses are represented in the text, and the poet or author himself. The distinction is obscured partly by vocabulary, by B.s use of the term “ekphrasis” to stand for the text, its referent, an internal viewer, and the poet’s response. This elision is clear in the programmatic discussion of ekphrasis as “a metaphor for an audience’s response to poetry” (p. 4). B. goes on to explain:

The relation between the ekphrasis and the (imagined) work of visual art can be read as analogous to that between reader (or listener) and the poem. To put it in less abstract terms, the bard’s response to visual images becomes a model for our response to the epic.

Here as elsewhere in the book, the terms “ekphrasis” and “bard” are made to bear a heavy load. In the set of comparisons laid out in this passage, ekphrasis is made equivalent to audience response to poetry, the responding reader, and to the “bard’s” response to visual images. Indeed throughout the book “the ekphrasis” is hypostasised. It is not simply a fragment of a text but subsumes some of the characteristics of the viewer/narrator in such phrases as: “the ekphrasis responds to the images with imagination and sympathy” (p. 83); “the ekphrasis … gives itself over to the suggested world of the images without forgetting that they are images” (p. 104).

This lack of clarity, leading to the impression that the shield (the object) exists outside the ekphrasis in the same way as the poem (the Iliad) exists apart from the responding audience, is not incidental. It is at least partly the result of B.’s argument that the Iliad represents an aesthetic in which the visual arts are placed on an equal footing with the art of poetry and in which the visual artist is celebrated as the equal of the poet. B.’s emphasis on ekphrasis as response, rather than representation of response, masks the single inescapable fact about the Homeric Shield: that it is a purely verbal artefact.

Becker’s analysis is frequently challenging and thought-provoking, his levels a flexible and potentially valuable tool for the analysis of descriptions of works of art. But his own application of this interpretative model is, to my mind, flawed by the lack of attention to the larger workings of the Iliad as narrative text. One would also have liked to see more discussion of key questions such as the nature of the audience envisaged, modes of reception and, crucially, the concept of art embodied in the text. To what extent do the Shield, chariots, sceptres, armour and poems belong to the same category? Theon, the only one of the ancient rhetoricians discussed by B. to mention the Shield, did not categorise it as a description of a work of art but placed it alongside other accounts of the preparation of military equipment. 3 Of course, ancient rhetoricians tell us about ancient rhetoric, not Homeric poetry. But Theon’s apparent eccentricity does serve to underline the fact that the classification of all these objects as “art” cannot be taken for granted.

Certain of the problems I have mentioned can, I think, be attributed to the concept of ekphrasis within which B. is working. The assumption of a pre-existing “genre” to which the Shield belongs makes it easy to ignore vital questions. The modern usage of the ancient rhetorical term has proved to be extremely useful tool “to think with”, opening the way to sophisticated analyses of strategies of verbal representation in ancient texts. But as a modern creation it needs to be used with caution in the search for an understanding of ancient aesthetics.

  • [1] P. Friedländer, Johannes von Gaza, Paulus Silentarius, Leipzig, 1912. [2] See most recently P. Galand-Hallyn, Le reflet des fleurs: description et métalangage poétique d’Homère à Erasme, Geneva, 1994. [3] Theon classes the Shield as an example of ekphrasis of tropoi. In this particular rhetorical context, tropos must mean the “manner” in which something is done (Latin, modus), and not “customs” as in B.’s translation, p. 2, n.1.