BMCR 1998.01.25

98.1.25, Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance, and the Epic Text

, , Written voices, spoken signs : tradition, performance, and the epic text. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. 1 online resource (viii, 305 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0674020464 $39.95.

This collection of papers issues from a Center for Hellenic Studies colloquium organized by Egbert Bakker and Ahuvia Kahane which was held at the Center in June 1994. It is the first volume in a new series devoted to CHS colloquia forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Of the nine papers collected here (arranged alphabetically by the authors’ last names), those by the editors, John Miles Foley, Andrew Ford, Richard Martin, and Gregory Nagy focus on Homeric questions; contributions by Franz Bäuml, Wulf Oesterreicher, and Ursula Schaefer address questions of orality and performance in medieval texts. What these diverse studies have in common is what the editors call a poststructuralist approach to language and discourse: “Attention to strategies, means, and modes, rather than simply to contents” (4). This is perfectly true of each essay, on occasion to a fault, though there surface in course some useful solutions to particular interpretative problems as well, especially in the papers dealing with Homer. What perhaps makes the volume most useful as a volume is that it samples the work of major players in the field of oral poetry and linguistics who have written more extensively elsewhere on similar topics, using similar approaches. In each case the interested reader will probably want to have recourse to the more extended treatments. That said, these essays hang together well enough, and the editors have taken pains to cross-reference them to one another where appropriate.

In “Storytelling in the Future: Truth, Time, and Tense in Homeric Epic” Bakker seeks to explain Homeric enargeia (narrative “vividness” or “immediacy”) in terms of verb tenses. Where other oral traditions often use the historical present to convey the immediacy of the epic past, Homeric Greek notoriously lacks this feature, and encourages us to look elsewhere in the Homeric langue for ways in which the performing poet reactivates the past. Deftly handling a complex argument, B. explores the significance of the verb μέλλειν by means of which, he suggests, “the Greek epic tradition aims at something other than mere vividness or pretended immediacy” to recreate the past—more than “a referential relation between sign and referent, a word and its object”—but rather, “the verbalization of a consciousness that spans past and present” (23). B. objects to the usual translation of μέλλειν in the past tense with a complementary infinitive in the future as “destiny in the past,” and argues instead that μέλλειν (often accompanied by the inferential particle ἄρα) expresses the mental state of the character who uses it, and thus, by extension, the perspective of the poet himself. This is not a temporal relation “between an event and its consequences in the future,” but a semantic contrast “between the ignorance of the original experience and the understanding of the present” (35) (hence the “Truth” in the title). B. also offers here an interesting discussion of another peculiarity of Homeric Greek: the frequent absence of augment in past tenses of the Homeric verb, which he takes as evidence for the essential “tenselessness” of epic discourse, a quality it shares with the language of myth and ritual (26-30).

Bäuml (“Writing the Emperor’s Clothes On: Literacy and the Production of Facts”) argues that “no discourse requiring a performance can produce ‘facts'” (42). Combing evidence in Carolingian documents, B. argues in particular that “the development of literacy in the Middle Ages went hand in hand with the growing belief in the existence of ‘facts’ as independent entities” (37). “Writing eliminates the presence of an author from the public, the public from an author, and the consciousness of either on the part of the text,” he writes (42); it encourages institutional manipulation of “reality” and of “what actually happened” to serve the purposes of a new social organization founded on “facts” and not on the traditional “truths” (52) described by Bakker and others in this volume.

In “Traditional Signs and Homeric Art” Foley reiterates his theory of “metonymic reference” which he has expounded elsewhere in several books and articles, notably Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (1991). Succinctly put, a sign in Homeric epic, according to Foley, “… names the tangible, concrete part that stands by contractual agreement for a larger immanent whole, and as such it mimics a central … strategy of Homeric poetry: representation by metonymic reference” (56) “… pars pro toto, as it were” (63). For those who know Foley’s previous work there is not much new here besides good use of Laura Slatkin’s important The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad (1991), though F.’s illustration of metonymic reference in the “sign-language” exchanged between Penelope and Odysseus in the final scenes of the Odyssey is well done: Odysseus’ scar, called a σῆμα in Homer, stands in for an “emergent reality” in the poem larger than itself, namely that the hero has truly returned home. Similarly, the σῆμα of Odysseus’ bed, like the scar-σῆμα, points outside the poem, “far beyond the reach of explicit textual signification” (79).

Ford’s paper, “The Inland Ship: Problems in the Performance and Reception of Homeric Epic,” is the most historical and arguably the most important contribution. The title refers to Wolf’s classic observation in the Prolegomena that a monumental written epic in an age of illiteracy would have been about as useful or intelligible to a Homer and his audience as “an enormous ship, constructed somewhere inland in the first beginnings of navigation.” “If we are approaching a time when it will make little [aesthetic] difference whether the Homeric poems were composed orally or not,” Ford muses, expanding on Wolf, “another, and older, question becomes more pressing: how could such large-scale poems as the Homeric epics ever have been presented to an audience?” (83). Concentrating on the reception of the Homeric poems in antiquity, Ford provides ample evidence that “it is not only improbable but distorting to posit a full performance of a complete epic as the normative presentation against which all partial (or eccentric) presentations were measured” (86). Ford answers the recent arguments of Oliver Taplin ( Homeric Soundings [1992]) and Keith Stanley ( The Shield of Homer [1993]) for a continuous and regular performance of the monumental Iliad with a review of explicit quotations of Homer in archaic and classical authors. He concludes that “Not before the time of [the Socratic] Antisthenes do we clearly see Greeks basing interpretations of Homeric epic in the play of whole texts, notionally true and stable, rather than excerpting them ad lib. or vesting authority in the lore of the performer” (107). As to the bearing of this evidence on the actual performance of the epics in this period, Ford does not seek “to prove the negative thesis that Homer was never sung, heard, or read all the way through in archaic Greece” (102), but rather to give us reason to “doubt whether our ideals of epics as literary wholes were equally important to the Greeks of the archaic age” (101). Wonderfully written and convincing, this paper is a must read for anyone interested in Homeric questions.

Kahane’s study, “Hexameter Progression and the Homeric Hero’s Solitary State,” attempts to describe the semantics of rhythm in Homeric epic. Focusing on this “non-textual aspect” of Homeric poetry, K. sees in the rhythm of the hexameter a way for early (i.e. oral) and archaic Greek communities “to satisfy their need for fixity and continuity” in a world without texts (112). The tendency for words and traditional phrases to be “localized” within the hexameter reinforces this sense of regularity, though to call it a “cyclic” regularity, as K. does, struck me as odd, since the progression of the hexameter—a stichic meter—is fundamentally linear. In fact, its linearity is suggested by K.’s own recognition that the marked pause at the end of each hexameter provides regular “interstices of silence” (116), though here again I was left perplexed since this is not so much because of “the final anceps syllable,” as K. claims, but rather because the dactylic hexameter is catalectic. Indeed, the notion of rhythm itself is inadequately addressed, as there is no discussion of pitch here, which is what the ancients meant by prosody (προσῳδία). The best part of K.’s study, however, is not marred by this shortcoming, for his analysis of the strongly localized words οἶος and μοῦνος and their “deictic” (i.e. semantic-referential) potential demonstrates a theme shared by all the essays in this volume: how “epic words relate to and recall, not so much this or that fixed point elsewhere in a text” but how “rather they activate a whole ‘theme,’ a ‘myth,’ a ‘node’ in the tradition” (136).

In “Similes and Performance” Martin argues that Homeric similes stem from a non-epic genre familiar to both the performing poet and his audience. In making this argument Martin follows the lead of French linguist Michel Bréal, but seems to be unaware of Leonard Muellner’s excellent study, “The Simile of the Cranes and Pygmies: A Study in Homeric Metaphor,”HSCP (1990) 93:59-101, where a similar conclusion is reached, and more extensively argued. In lieu of “a chronological history of critical stances” on the question, M. surveys three typical modes of interpreting the function of the similes in Homer: the rhetorical mode (characteristic of interpretations of the similes advanced in the Homeric scholia, where “the text is still imagined, in some dim way, as a sort of performance”); the thematic mode (characteristic of Homeric scholarship in an age where “the poems are taken up as artifacts rather than enactments”); and the rhythmic mode, M.’s own contribution to the discussion, which he calls a “marriage” of the previous two modes. By “rhythmic” M. refers to the way the similes “punctuate the narrative … providing episodic definition” (144). Based on a sample analysis of “one of the Iliad‘s longer books”—Book 11 (though not identified as such in the text)—M. concludes that similes “do not occur in the middle of an action: they draw attention to the start of an action or to its finish.” They are “not like freeze-frames or slow-motion sequences in film, but like transition shots” (146), whose function is reminiscent of the function of the chorus in Athenian drama (147). A short survey of how non-epic song-genres often demarcate narrative segments in living performance traditions, followed by a discussion of the so-called “late” linguistic elements in the Homeric similes leads M. to conclude: “the genius of this ambitious supergenre” we call epic “appears to be its inclusion of every other form of song-making” (166).

Nagy’s paper, “Ellipsis in Homer,” offers an overview of types of ellipsis in Greek from a diachronic standpoint, illustrates its use in Homer, and then proceeds to assess the synchronic implications of ellipsis for a composition-in-performance through a discussion of the elliptical dual form Αἴαντε. N. follows D. L. Page’s view that originally the dual form referred not to the greater Ajax, son of Telamon, and the lesser hero of the same name, son of Oileus, but to the Telemonian Ajax and his half-brother, Teucer. But where Page, an avowed analyst, speaks of the appearance of the Oilean Ajax in scenes where the dual form occurs (viz. Il. 13.177ff.) as a “confusion” and “jack-in-the-box intrusion”—an interpolation by a later, inferior poet—Nagy argues that these inconsistencies “are simply different levels of recomposition-in-performance, which are traces of an evolving fixity or textualization” (177). There follows a brief sketch of N.’s evolutionary model, for which the reader should consult N.’s recent Poetry as Performance and Homeric Questions where the model is developed in much more detail. N. concludes his piece here with what he sees as the ultimate ellipsis in Homer: “the Homeric ‘I’ which highlights the prototypical singer of tales, elliptically shading over an open-ended succession of rhapsodes in the lengthy evolutionary process of countless recompositions-in-performance over time” (186).

Oesterreicher’s “Types of Orality in Text” makes an important distinction between the actual medium of communication and the “linguistic conception” of texts. For O. orality “has nothing to do with the phonic realization of language,” but is “used to characterize the style or the mode of expression” and thus “refers to the linguistic conception of discourse” (191). Linguistic conception is measured by the degree of “immediacy” ( Sprache der Nähe) and “distance” ( Sprache der Distanz) present in a given text. O. lists nine “parameters that characterize communicative conditions of immediacy and distance” (194) which he then correlates to nine types of “communicative events,” ranging from an intimate conversation to a legal contract. Mixed types, such as an informal letter (which involves conceptional immediacy in written form) and a university lecture (which entails conceptional distance, even though it is conveyed orally) are also discussed (195). In the end, eight types of orality emerge, all of which are offered as a caveat, namely that evidence of orality in texts “… must be examined with caution because they normally do not reflect spontaneous or natural language but functionalize select features of linguistic immediacy” (206). In other words, the orality of texts is often an index of style, register, and representation. A useful, if difficult, theoretical discussion.

Schaefer’s contribution also is primarily theoretical. “The Medial Approach: A Paradigm Shift in the Philologies?” is an essay on the state of the art and concerns the study of language and literature in an age increasingly aware that “the media in which we communicate model our world” (215). “The Medial Approach,” as Schaefer describes it, “… does not ask so much what we understand but how we understand” (219). It informs a “New Philology” that derives from “the original spirit of philology in that both presuppose … the privileging of language over its referent in the production of meaning” (219, citing the medievalist R. Howard Bloch). S. is particularly concerned about charting the New Philology’s position relative to deconstruction, and to Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions, a venture largely lost on this reviewer, but surely not without its allure for other readers.

There are enlightening, even important essays in this volume. Alas (though perhaps inevitably in a book struggling to define the relationship between text and voice) there are also a fair number of typographical errors. A short list would include: p. 21 “way you were going … to glut” should be underlined in the translation of Il. 11.816-818; ditto for the phrase “nepios; for he was / imploring” on p. 31, and “And my fame, it will never die” on p. 33; also on page 31: in place of parentheses around the word “foolish” there should be square brackets; p. 23 omit “fut.”; p. 30: omit the first acute accent in the third line of Greek; a diagram is misplaced on p. 45; p. 139: the word “and” should not be italicized; p. 84: “like” should be “likely”; “Notopolous” should be “Notopoulos” ( passim in Ford’s essay, but correctly in the bibliography); p. 117: there should be quotation marks around the English translation of a formulaic line from the Odyssey; p. 120 should have three leader-dots before the half-line cited from Il. 5.302ff; p. 167: “kata should be kat’; p. 204: for “Augustin” read “Augustine”; on p. 209 “cotexts” should be “contexts”; p. 217: for “interference” surely “inference” is meant; p. 274 (in the bibliography): “Goidos” should be “Aoidos”; p. 298 (list of contributors): for “Komer” read “Homer.”