BMCR 1996.07.12

1996.7.12, Falkner, Poetics of Old Age

, The poetics of old age in Greek epic, lyric, and tragedy. Oklahoma series in classical culture ; v. 19. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. xxi, 342 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780806127750. $40.00.

I am tempted to keep this review short by saying only that The Poetics of Old Age is one of the most illuminating books of criticism to appear in the past few years and is as important for the form of the scholarship as for its content. But this assessment needs some expansion.

Readers already familiar with Thomas Falkner’s previous scholarship will welcome this volume. Falkner has already established himself as an astute literary critic whose scholarship is graced with an exquisite prose style and whose skilled application of critical theory consistently produces a lucid and persuasive argument. The persuasiveness of Falkner’s previous scholarship has also derived in large measure from the scope of his vision and the strength of his comparative methodology, and The Poetics of Old Age in Greek Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy is no exception.

Falkner was one of the first Classicists in this country to take aging seriously both as a phenomenon of ancient life worth studying, and as a lens through which to consider ancient texts and culture. Relatively few literary critics are doing what Andrew Achenbaum has called “humanistic gerontology”, and Falkner has used some of the best theoretical work in gerontology, among other fields, as he examines the complex picture of old age in Greek literature. The audience for The Poetics of Old Age will include gerontologists, Classicists, historians, and those engaged in a range of cultural and literary studies.

In the Poetics of Old Age, Falkner proposes that the traditional understanding of old age as a time to be dreaded, a time of loss, suffering, and alienation from society, may in fact be undercut or perhaps subverted by a literary tradition which provides a wider range of representation. This tension not only reflects a good deal about Greek society, but challenges us to consider how genre and culture evolve in Greece. While many of his texts assume that the norm for human society is male experience, Falkner’s discussion includes the representations and evidence for old women as well. This broader view is especially valuable as feminist scholarship in general (that is, outside of gerontology) persists in its reluctance to speak about old women.

The result is an impressive and compelling examination of Greek texts by a scholar who not only understands the culture which produced those texts, the language in which they were composed, the literary contexts to which they belong, and the audiences for which they were intended, but who has combined the methodological strengths of classical philology with the perspectives of such fields as gerontology, anthropology, and cultural studies.

Readers already familiar with Falkner’s work will recognize some of the chapters as containing material previously published and brought together here to support his argument. His discussion ranges from the end of the Odyssey and age-grading in Hesiod and Solon to Sappho and lyric poetry to Euripides’Children of Heracles and the Phoenician Women and Sophocles’Oedipus at Colonus.

The first chapter, “Homeric Heroism, Old Age, and the End of the Odyssey“, illustrates the strength of the book as a whole. It is no small thing to tackle a text as venerable and as frequently analyzed as the Odyssey, of course, but Falkner brings to his reading more than a sure understanding of Homeric style and habits and the secondary scholarship written on the poem. Falkner incorporates into his analysis current gerontological theory, including recent discussions of modernization and disengagement. In addition, he has learned a good deal from the influential work of Butler, Neugarten, and Guttman.

Beginning with a reminder of “Longinus'” assessment of the Odyssey as the poem of an old man whose poetic powers are declining, Falkner reconsiders the Laertes episode in Book 24. He concludes that rather than regarding the end of the Odyssey primarily as proof of Homer’s dwindling strength as an aging poet, we see in this episode, indeed in the Odyssey itself, the transition from one kind of heroic world to the changing world to which the aging hero Odysseus has returned. Falkner illuminates Homer’s poem at the same time that he provides a model of how to apply to such a text the perspectives of other fields, and thus to emerge with an intelligent, humane, and important reading of the Odyssey.

And that is precisely what is so exciting about The Poetics of Old Age; this is a book to be reckoned with. Falkner provides valuable insights into the interrelationships of age, gender, class, social institutions, and literary genre. He enriches not only our understanding of some of the most significant Greek texts, but enhances our understanding of the societies which produced them. It now remains for someone to do the same for Latin literature.