BMCR 1998.05.03

Response: On Simon Goldhill’s review (BMCR 98.2.5) of L. Edmunds and R. Wallace (eds.), Poet, Public and Performance in Ancient Greece.

Response to 1998.02.05

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S. Goldhill’s review of Poet, Public and Performance in Ancient Greece, edited by L. Edmunds and R. Wallace, is disappointing and without substance. According to Goldhill, it lacks unity: quite a senseless remark, since the book itself is a miscellany of essays (derived from a conference held in Rome in 1994) which doesn’t pretend to deal systematically with its subject; otherwise the same criticism—provided it is well-grounded, which I doubt—should be addressed to every miscellany. It seems rather odd, for instance, that Goldhill should deplore that the two contributions of Aloni (about Simonides’ elegy on Plataea) and Edmunds (on Theognis’ seal) don’t show any connection between them; why not, then, blame the poets themselves, who composed their respective poems without first consulting one another? Besides, any scholar has the right—or rather the duty—of freely drawing his own conclusions. Goldhill’s criticism is groundless in any case, since the unity of this volume is due both to its subject-matter (classic and archaic Greek poetry) and to a methodological approach which is based on Gentili’s studies and thus gives top priority to the relationship between public and poet in its different forms, examined also from a diachronic point of view (as in the case of M.G. Bonanno’s—whose name Goldhill misspells as Bonnano—article, which seems to scandalize Goldhill because of its references to Heidegger, the French theatre and Pasolini, also clumsily misspelt as—Passolini—two mistakes in two lines, a rate more suitable to a medieval copyist than to a modern scholar: italicum est, non legitur?).

Furthermore, the entire review is full of mistakes and oversights and shows a disconcerting naiveté in its critical instruments. I won’t presume to speak on behalf of the other authors; for my part, I wish to answer to the criticisms addressed to my contribution. In my article, I have maintained that the episode of the Odyssey that I discuss (20.345ff.) describes a phenomenon of psychic alienation (what once anthropologists termed loss of the soul). In this episode some people—the suitors—lose control of their bodies and their minds all together; they eat flesh bedabbled with blood and since the ancient Greeks did not love steak Tartare, I think that the reference here may concern raw meat, as in the cultural and ideological system of Dionysism (= omofagia). In my opinion, in this case the poet has drawn his narrative patterns from the cultural sphere of the Dionysiac rites; this is a phenomenon of collective trance (the only explicit one of its kind in Homer). Therefore it’s possible to resort to comparative references; it’s precisely in connection with the typical infectiousness of these phenomena that I have referred to ethnographic material in my article. My analysis of this scene may be wrong, but certainly not on the grounds advanced by Goldhill.

Goldhill asserts that the arguments I use suffer from:

1) lack of references to Dionysus in Homer;
2) lack of connection between Asian and Greek patterns of possession;
3) lack of parallels for this scene in Homer and elsewhere.

All three points are untenable.

1) It’s false that Dionysism was unknown to Homer. I really didn’t imagine that such a widely accepted fact could possibly need to be further discussed; as everybody knows, in Il. 6.132-3, Dionysus is pursued by king Lycurgus and is forced to dive into the sea with his thusthla (thyrsi) and his followers (and who are they, if not the maenads?). In Il. 22.460 Andromache is compared to a maenad; it’s difficult to maintain that this is not a Dionysiac reference (“Homer knows about maenads” remarks on this point N. Richardson, in the sixth volume of the Cambridge University Press commentary to the Iliad). Moreover, even freshmen know that on several Mycenaean tablets appears the name of Dionysus. If Goldhill wishes to learn more about Dionysus in Homer, I recommend to him G. A. Privitera’s book, Dioniso in Omero (1970), where he’ll find extensive documentation, which since then has further increased. Therefore, it’s not so much a case of lack of Dionysiac references in Homer as a display of incompetence in one who can still maintain that Dionysos isn’t present in Homer—unless we have here the trite positions and preconceived ideas typical of a certain kind of philology, which still can’t rid itself of nineteenth-century prejudices.

2) It’s wrong to state that there aren’t any connections between Asian and Greek patterns of possession. Actually, forms of possession—as regards both their psychological and cultural significance—answer to widespread patterns, in perfect conformity with the Greek ones; it would take too long to enumerate here all the scholars who have dealt with this subject; suffice it to refer at least to the books of H. Jeanmaire or I. M. Lewis. Besides, a striking number of cases of actual correlation between Asian and Greek forms of possession can be found in G. Rouget’s essay “La musique et la trance” (which I quote in the notes to my article), that makes wide and clever use of the relevant ethnographic material. As regards patterns of possession and connections between their Dionysiac form and other and different ones, Goldhill might satisfy his curiosity by leafing through the works of De Martino—a must for any anthropologist, also quoted in my notes—or those, for instance, of Culianu and Grottanelli, which deal with phenomena of ecstatic trance both in Greek and Asian context. And what about Eric Dodds, Karl Meuli or Walter Burkert? In my contribution I quote also Erika Bourguignon, who has examined these behavioural patterns from the point of view of a social anthropologist. Even if it’s understandable for a philologist not to be familiar with studies of ethnopsychology, in the case of phenomena of this kind, in my opinion, Goldhill should anyway consider the opportunity of supplementing the traditional methods of philology with an analysis of transcultural type. Finally, as regards comparative studies and the connections between Asian and Greek cultural patterns, I understand that a predecessor of Goldhill’s at Cambridge, J. G. Frazer (whose memorial tablet hangs in King’s College), has gathered some material on this subject more than a century ago.

3) Goldhill says that in Homer there aren’t any parallels for this scene; in this he’s right. Still, it’s exactly in order to explain why this scene is unique that I have put forward my proposal of interpretation. The narrative proceeding which I have referred to is anyway known and (with Goldhill’s permission) closely connected with the problems of poetic performance; referring to the great Gilbert Murray and his fundamental book The Rise of Greek Epic, suffice it to recall how Murray, in his fifth chapter, analyses the censorial behaviour of the rhapsodes towards phenomena of a savage kind such as beheadings, tortures and the like. The argumentum ex silentio is always a bit crude, and all the more so as far as Homer is concerned, since we know that his line of epic was one of the many which were performed in ancient Greece. For instance, Homer doesn’t mention any initiatory rites; should one infer that there weren’t any? Moreover, it’s once again inaccurate to state that scenes of the kind I have examined don’t turn up elsewhere in Greek literature; one has only to quote several passages of the Bacchae, such as the one which describes the Dionysiac madness of Agave, and the great madness scene in Euripides’Herakles. In both these examples the pathology is strongly reminiscent of the episode of the Odyssey I have analysed (the dossier on this subject could be much more extensive). Mr. Goldhill, in his review, shows a certain amount of arrogance and not a little conceit—but even conceit, like ambition, should be made of sterner stuff.