BMCR 1996.03.02

1996.3.2, Lateiner, Sardonic Smile

, Sardonic smile : nonverbal behavior in Homeric epic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. xxi, 340 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780472105984. $47.50.

L. introduces us to the vocabulary and analyses of the scholarship on human behavior as mode of expression and communication. He does not claim to have found among the psychologists, ethologists, ethnologists and sociologists a consistent terminology or a well-ordered field of study, but he has found the means to attempt a reading of Homer that, more fully and at least somewhat more systematically than we are accustomed, takes into account the richness of the descriptions of the character’s actions, and, especially, interactions. The book combines, not entirely happily, a Herculean mastery of an alien field with a thorough grounding in Homeric studies.

An opening glossary offers the jumble of jargon (alter-adaptors), neologisms (coverbal gestures), specialized usages (regulators: “nonverbal behaviors … that establish and control conversational turn-taking and precedence”), and technical redefinitions (face: “the person or character an individual presents to his or her public(s) and the standing or respect this wins the individual in the community”) that often makes it hard for us to take seriously the work of certain other departments. My favorite is “leakage”: “Accidental and unintentional revelation of information … that is neither intentionally nor consciously communicated to other parties in an interchange.” Nonverbal behavior is a wide net. L. is looking to enrich our reading, not to create a subdiscipline, so he excludes only the actual content of speech (but not interjections or tones of voice) at one end, and instrumental acts—such as killing Antinous—at the other. Both to illustrate the essentials and to make his case for the value of these concepts he offers a categorization under four, not mutually exclusive, headings (in chapter 1), and uses, especially, Iliad 24 (in chapter 3) to demonstrate them.

“Ritualized and conventional gestures, postures and vocalics” include feasting, oath-taking, and, most importantly, supplication. Both the activity as a whole (greeting the stranger), and its individual components (chin-grasping, exchanging gifts) can be studied. Priam enters Achilles’ tent, lowers his body, seizes the other’s knees, kisses his hands, but initiates the conversation; he is finally met with a touch on the arm and raised to a seated position (but sitting is a behavior which contradicts Priam’s own impulse to mourn). Here, as often, L. takes a feature of the poems much studied—the type scene—and makes us look at it from a different vantage.

“Affect display: psychophysical, out-of-awareness emotional signs” are distinguished from “subconscious, out-of-awareness gesticulation and vocalics” out of deference to modern behavioral studies, but then treated as a single category. That is just as well, since the distinction is never made clear. (“Out-of-awareness” refers to the “emitter” of the behavior.) Here are blushes, baleful and blazing looks, tears, sobs, and sighs, cries and shivering. Achilles is stupefied at Priam, later scowls at him; they both weep. The sounds and gestures of grief fill Iliad 24; of anger, Iliad 1.

“Objects, tokens, clothes (external adaptors)” belong to every situation: scepters of authority, clothes that identify the wearer and rags that disguise him, the bed at the end of the Odyssey, and gifts of hospitality. Priam wears rags of grief, hesitates to sit in a chair, and offers gifts of ransom to secure a corpse.

“Social manipulations of space and time (proxemics and chronemics)” are comprehensible from abundant contemporary sociological and cross-cultural studies. At an intimate distance Thetis speaks to Achilles, Hecuba to Priam, Priam pressures Achilles. Achilles pushes him back to the personal distance normal for friendly exchange between two people. Several persons or gods at the same table or in the same hut or courtyard communicate at a social distance; Priam in his anger had refused to allow comfort this close when he assembled the gifts, but with the body readied for return, stays so near Achilles. The book ends with the public ceremony of cremation. (L. attends less to manipulations of time; neither in the initial illustrations nor in the appendix urging further work on “chronemics” does he distinguish the actions of the characters—interruptions of conversation, speaking out of turn, lingering over a newly strung bow—from the poet’s pacing of the narrative.)

“Informal, in-awareness gestures, postures, and verboids” comprehend our deliberately communicative motions, facial expressions, and noises. A nod signaled the start of the speech-making in book 9. Thetis strokes her son; Achilles’ companions share their amazement at Priam’s arrival by looking at each other (Book 24, L. notes, is short on informal intentional behavior). The topic of gesture, or “body language,” has perhaps become trivialized and L. is at pains to reassert its importance; curiously, he never actually provides a full set of explicit examples from Homer.

Most of this volume is about the Odyssey. Part Two (pages 65-136) undertakes to use the categories of nonverbal behavior to explore the “limited” topic of the “wordless, or word-supplementing, communicative channel of bodily expressions of respect and disrespect” in that epic. One chapter is devoted to “Heroic Etiquette” and, corresponding to the first category above, explores scenes of “Salutation, Encounter, and Valediction” (including hospitality). “Leaking Heroic Sentiment” is a grab-bag of instances of how Odysseus (in his various guises), Polyphemus, and others acknowledge or challenge each other’s status: the suitors blanch at the twang of the bowstring. This chapter corresponds to the second category above. “Standing Tall” shows how characters express their relative status by their postures and by their relative elevations. A discussion of the ways in which deference and disdain are displayed leads to some general remarks on the different expectations surrounding guests and beggars, and how Odysseus as Aethon manipulates these.

The final chapter of this part, “Heroic Proxemics,” offers anew a discussion of this topic in general, and studies the use of space for depicting three characters who work from a disadvantaged status. L. charts the maturing of Telemachus through his movement in and out of royal spaces. Odysseus advances from the position of public beggar through social and personal distances to final intimacy with Penelope. She, all along, has made use of her ability to move in and out of various privileged zones of the house, to make the most of her circumscribed freedom to control her life and the household’s fate. An awareness of the house and of proxemics shows us how “Odysseus’ stringent self-regulation allows an out cast on Ithaka to become an in vader. His mobile gestures and cryptic bodily surfaces enable him to exchange placelessness for the most coveted position on the island” (p. 130).

Nonverbal expressions have to be understood. L. wrestles throughout the book, and especially in the second chapter, with the problem of the addressee in a “multichannel” communicative system reduced to text. The ubiquity of “body-talk” in human culture guarantees that fictional characters can be expected to understand each other, but will the audience? And how do we explain the poet’s use of bodily signals that speak to the audience but are unobserved by the actors (the suitors turn out to be particularly obtuse). At several points L. proposes—indeed, insists—that the very fact of live, oral performance, with its inevitable gestural accompaniments, allowed the poets to refine a system to which their audiences responded: they used a living system (and he calls on the ethnologies of modern Greek expression to validate its reality). This revivification of Ion strikes me as a distraction that is worse than useless. Nobody spoke Homer’s dialect, and we do not need to suppose living gesticulators to verify the text’s particular usages. It runs into another observation that L. makes, that the expressions recorded (so to speak) by Homer are just a selection of what real humans use. The position from which he actually works is that the epics do present a coherent system of literary nonverbal expressions, one which he means to demonstrate by his accumulation of repeated detailed observations; left at that, it seems to me unnecessary to argue over how audiences could learn to understand it.

The more important question is what nonverbal language conveys to the audience. While the most obvious cases are actions that advance the plot, such as Odysseus abasing himself at Arete’s hearth, the fullness and detail go beyond that. The descriptions of behavior inform us of something, and that something turns out to be a central problem of Homeric studies: character. L. takes seriously the argument that a textual “person” constructed of circumstance and formula has no inner life or consciousness for us to impute. Homer does not offer psychology; however, he provides a richly nuanced description of the emotional reactions which his characters display in the situations in which he places them and of the emotional pressures or responses they communicate to each other as they try to alter their situation. “Reading the face’s expressions and the positions and movements of the limbs as cognizable text, Hellenes communicated much that our psychological century allots to novelistic psychological analysis” (p. 136). The third part of the book (the whole second half), is devoted to “Nonverbal characterization in the Odyssey.” L. devotes chapters to Telemachus, Odysseus as Aethon the beggar, the suitors, and Penelope. Some reflections on the case so far are in order.

L. ‘s decision to build his case for the importance of nonverbal behavior on respect and disrespect conforms to the bias of his material. The study of nonverbal behavior as he presents it appears to occupy a border zone between behavioral psychology and sociology (including anthropological sociology): it is a social science. An analysis stressing it will necessarily involve the categories of social science, in this case in particular the description of individuals as member of a group and of their fundamental concerns as concerns about affiliation and, especially, status. It is not hard to find these concerns all over Homer. Overall, proxemics is L.’s strong suit (“trump” is his favorite verb for achieving superiority). It is easily traced in the texts and the social science literature on it appears to be abundant (L. not only lists, but incorporates into his presentation a formidable bibliography on nonverbal behavior). I think most modern readers have been aware of the cinematic quality of Homer’s narration, but L. makes clear how much of the action and how many attitudes are precisely articulated in spatial relations. What is less clear to me is whether it is equally effective to read character in these terms as a general rule. L.’s discussions of Telemachus are particularly revealing; but Telemachus’ problems are explicitly problems of status and he is given the dramatic role of being awkward at expressing himself. As an adolescent, he wears (or leaks) his affect on his sleeve, so he is a special case for this type of analysis. When L. steps outside the Odyssey to discuss scenes involving Achilles—who is as emotionally expressive as any adolescent and could not be more concerned about his status—his analysis seem to me flat and insufficient.

But it is difficult to evaluate L.’s case for reading for status conflicts, or to decide whether his method is fundamentally reductive. For the book, especially the first half, is ineffectively presented and so badly written that only my obligation here kept me reading it. The overall structure of the argument is fine: a thesis explained with one set of text, then tested and demonstrated on another. But in fact, the presentation is quite undisciplined. We get lists and assertions instead of patient demonstrations. The examples are repetitive; the episodes of Od. 16-23 are purposefully revisited throughout, but few whole passages of text are subjected to complete analysis. The explanations of each type of behavior occur at any time in the exposition, or not at all. Despite the outline of chapter and section headings, topics of discussion appear haphazardly. An important general conclusion (italicized in the text), “[t]he more thoughtless, uncontrolled or uncontrollable a character’s nonverbal behavior, as reported by Homer, the less admirable the person displaying it,” is buried in a subsection on “posture.” This observation illustrates well the promise of L.’s book—to give precision to the general impressions that most readers form and make it possible to incorporate them into a criticism—but the terms are never made distinct and precise enough to provide the tools. The Preface, Chapter I (“Introduction”), and much of Chapter Three, as well as numerous scattered paragraphs elsewhere, are repetitively devoted to advertising the importance of the material and reiterating fundamental assertions about it (I recommend them in reverse order; the jargon decreases). These assertions often involve comparisons to everyday behavior. It is difficult to find a stylistic mode for incorporating popular culture and high-style epic into the same critical framework, and L. usually misses the mark (“The resonant extended simile of 8.523-31, describing Odysseus’ visceral pain as he audits Demodokos’ third song of the Trojan Police Action, …” p. 170). In general his expression is awkward. He is alternately jokey and earnest about the use of jargon, unnecessarily complicating the exposition (“horripilation,” p. 53, isn’t in the glossary, and for L.’s serious mention of the unique instance in Homer, look in the index s.v. “hair”). What use is: “Beetling brows signify a violation of etiquette, … The darkly looking interactant nonverbally signifies a breach in acknowledged manners” (p. 77), or “Odysseus disguised as a beggar must control his gaze intensity and brow … Children, when angry at their siblings, are adept at glare production and control—until parents turn their backs and more damaging symbolic speech can be mobilized” (same page)? “The handiwork appears eloquently equivalent or superior communication to verbal claims for Penelope’s ‘hand'” (p. 71, his emphasis) is not English; a couple of articles will fix it. Their absence is also a token of L.’s fondness for an oracular style. Some repetitions are inevitable in the draft of a book written over time: compare “Teenagers represent a seriously disadvantaged group, as my fifteen-year-old son Ulysses often reminds me” (p. x, note 5) with “Adolescent males represent a permanently mocked and seriously disadvantaged group, as my sixteen-year-old son, Ulysses, often reminds me” (p. 166). Their persistence here goes beyond bad editing to serious disorganization. The computer-driven index of names and subjects is inadequate (“capital” captures the suitors’ usurpation of the position of “dispenser of Laertid capital,” p. 210, but misses Penelope’s effort to “replenish Laertid stores,” p. 255). Style and form are the gestures of writing; here the prose, grimacing and waving its hands in the reader’s face, obstructs its own message.

On the positive side, it should be noted that L. is more than generous in giving credit for interpretive insights to the first place he read or heard them and that his copious notes strive throughout to document all sides of an argument under discussion. (He gives special, overall indebtedness to M. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition, and N. Austin, Archery at the Dark of the Moon; I notice especially P. Pucci, Odysseus Polytropos in the notes). The book ends with a compact, 12-page bibliography, and a 9-page “Index of Passages Cited.” Some of the disorder in the text and notes arises from an enthusiastic recording of all sorts of useful observations about a poem L. clearly loves; I would not want to give up his note on the multiple resonances of the song of Ares and Aphrodite (p. 195 n. 41) or his compilation of all of Telemachus’ complaints against his mother (p. 276 n. 61). And by the book’s midpoint the sheer accumulation of detail provides a working basis for his new survey of the text as a portrait of character.

In Part Three, the opportunity to expand on a defined subject smoothes out the exposition; L.’s style occasionally develops a little brio (the suitors’ “faux pas highlight the heroic couple’s pas de deux”). In it’s first chapter, “Youth,” (which also shows his jokiness at its worst), L. returns to Telemachus and offers a richly observed portrait of the changes in his behavior as he learns to control his expression and manipulate those around him. “Status” focuses on Odysseus and explicitly shifts the emphasis from discrete nonverbal behaviors to the human body as expressive vehicle. L. examines the effects of Odysseus’ presentations as his “true” self, the veteran of war and sea, as the enhanced handsome apparition, and, especially, as the debased beggar. The examination is full, incorporating word, deed, and looks; he makes the most of his earlier observation that Odysseus is especially marked by his control of his nonverbal presentation. “The Suitors’ Take” incorporates an economic analysis of the situation as well, to show how their behavior is meant to advance their goals, “to eliminate Telemakhos’ tenuous (at best) political influence—namely, his redistributive capacity—and for one of their number to marry the ‘widow.’ … The redistribution of [Odysseus’] surplus is Telemakhos’ only chance to build prestige from his slight hereditary edge and to gain personal authority in a gift-based society” (p. 215). L. documents the suitors’ failure to cope with Aethon’s stratagems even before he shoots the bow. The final chapter, “Gendered Weapons” explores in the case of Penelope one of his most important recurrent themes, the power the weak—suppliant, beggar, woman—can wield against the stronger. L. is guided here by some of the most recent scholarship on Penelope (especially Marilyn Katz, Penelope’s Renown; and he thanks Nancy Felson-Rubin for comments on the draft). He discuss again the problem of constructing a “psychological” portrait of Penelope (his final note: “at this moment of interpretive aporia, let us conserve paper” p. 267 n. 47), and then, carefully, constructs one. He makes the case anew for a “prescient” Penelope, following carefully her speeches as well as her every gesture and use of space, and he works out in detail how she returns to her traditional subordinate role only on her own terms. This is the best chapter of the book.

By the end, L.’s book has become less a book about non-verbal behavior in Homer than a demonstration of how complete and full a reading of the Odyssey he can produce by reading the poem as an epic about characters seeking a social place. The completeness is a consequence of his reading all indices of thought and feeling, but the explicit reliance on non-verbal behavior is not so significant a factor as L.’s openness to the full complexity of the situations presented by the plot and by speech, and his ability to incorporate the observations of a century of Homeric investigations.