BMCR 2000.06.07

The Invention of Literature: From Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book (Trans. Janet Lloyd)

, The Invention of Literature: From Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book (Trans. Janet Lloyd). Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1999. xi, 287.

Florence Dupont is already known to scholars on this continent, primarily from her article ” Recitatio and the reorganization of the space of public discourse” (1997). L’acteur roi (1985) and La vie quotidienne du citoyen romain (1989) are among her frequently cited works. The Invention of Literature is a disappointing book whether or not one wants to dwell on the details (cf. D. Feeney’s review in the Apr. 28 issue of TLS). The disappointments are naturally more numerous if one chooses a detailed approach, as I have done in this review. Published in French in 1994, The Invention … has a somewhat misleading title, because it actually demonstrates how literature was NOT invented in antiquity and how the “reading-writing pair was unable to accede to a culturally autonomous existence” (247). According to D. only the ideology of literary culture was invented (98). The argument of the book rests on a projected consensus about what literature is, a consensus that does not actually exist. The field of defining literature as an institution and the search for what literature is and does has been steadily growing since the seventies: Dubois (1978), Hernadi (1978), Eagleton (1983), Lambropoulos (1988) are just a few of the names engaged in this exploration. D.’s only frame of reference in this regard is B. Cerquilini (1989), to whom she owes the realization that literature in the modern sense is a value term and therefore, historically and ideologically conditioned and that it is a construct of the turn of the eighteenth century. In addition, she formulates her own criteria for what makes literature, namely the existence of a sizeable audience which reads for pleasure and the existence of interpretive readings or aesthetic and polysemic hermeneutics as used today (169). She is right to resist projecting modern theoretical constructs onto the ancients, but goes too far in viewing the various phases of the progression from orality to literacy as a steady process of decline.

The book examines closely three ancient texts: Anacreon’s Cleobulus poem, Catullus 50 and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, and argues for their unreadability. That is, they are unreadable within the protocols of modern literary institutions, but they are accessible (as she tries to show) to reconstruction with the tools of literary pragmatics (Mainguenaus and Recanti), cultural anthropology (Calame, Cerquilini, Goody, Svenbro) and the understanding of oral poetry (Nagy and Zumthor). Therefore, her method of analysis, informed by pragmatics and cultural anthropology does not consist of reading the text but in reconstructing the event of which it was a part, or in reconstructing the fictional speech act which it tries to imitate. D. has a clear agenda: she seeks to undermine the aetiological fantasy of “Western civilization” as “the cradle for the arts and literature” and sets out to rediscover the otherness of the ancients that would lead to the rediscovery of ourselves in all our “repressed diversity”(2). She sees herself as part of the project of demystifying the “Greek miracle” started by Jean Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. She sets out to show that the mainstream association of oral = primitive and written = civilized cannot be justified within the frame of reference of the ancients themselves. The minority popular cultures of today are heirs to the living, oral version of Greek and Roman culture as much as our literary culture is heir to the culture of books and libraries that originated in antiquity. Since modern culture is witnessing a comeback on the part of orality, the recovering of our oral origins can help us “project ourselves forward to the future by acknowledging that “the deficiency, if any, is not on the side of orality and traditional poetry, but rather on that of writing and the poetry of books” (16), which are deprived of the voices and bodies that gave birth to them.

A note on the use of terminology is needed for the reader who has access only to the translation. D. uses a communicative model for ‘the literary’ and is equally interested in both sides of the communicative process. For describing the source of the communicative act, she uses énonciation rendered into English with ‘speech act’, of which the statement ( énoncé) is a part. She is also interested in the recipient, user, interpreter of the signs recorded in writing. Who used the texts under examination and how are questions that drive the argument of the book forward. According to D., a public that enjoyed reading as a recreational activity is not among the users of the texts. Instead, she sees writing and reading as social performances fulfilling the following functions: 1. To create archives of knowledge through collection, categorization and compilation. 2. To preserve books as funerary monuments to the great men who wrote them 3. To serve as models for the few scholars, orators, poets, storytellers who wished to imitate them. 4. In Rome, to build social ties through the institution of recitatio.

For D. each new reading, as it constitutes a new speech act for the same statement, proposes a new pragmatic meaning. Texts not created for readers do not convey meaning but action and are best understood through the reconstruction of their original speech act with the methods of pragmatics and cultural anthropology and via the remake or staging, which recreates the original event. The real, contextualized speech act implied in the production constitutes the moment when the statement lived and served the purpose of mythical exploration. The second, fictional speech act implied in the reception recontextualizes the statement, which has been decontextualized in the writing. The second speech act is not necessarily a literary reading but a commemoration of the original event, a citation. So, Virgil’s references to Homer were intended as citations (13). According to D., one cannot speak of intertextuality in connection with ancient texts, for intertextuality is a procedure not only of writing but also of reading (13). D.’s views in this regard will sound extremely simplistic to those who have invested some thought in the distinctions between the Alexandrian footnote (Ross 1975), the reference (Thomas 1986), the allusion, self-annotation and intertextuality (Hinds 1998).

To complete the methodological framework used by D, a metaphor borrowed from thermodynamics plays a key function in the way in which she conceives of cultural developments. On one side she sees ‘hot culture’, which consists of the wine and the kisses that enflame Roman drinkers at the commissatio. It is associated with orality, live events, speech acts, recomposition, pragmatic meaning and thrives when it is not mainstream but marginal. Cold culture, on the other hand, incorporates tombstones, monuments, books, or a group of friends attending a public reading; it tends to become institutionalized, written. The central thesis of the book is that “hot culture” cools and degenerates into the cold culture of writing and monuments in a down-spiraling process of cultural entropy. The reduction of complex phenomena to this mechanical model accounts for many of D.’s absurd conclusions.

Part One: The Culture of Intoxication: Singing with nothing to say

It is a feature of the book throughout that it abounds in tenuous rhetorical generalizations which, while aiming to correct an extreme, themselves fall into the opposite extreme. For instance, “This Western literary view of Greek lyric constitutes one of those famous ‘appropriations of orality’ by writing that are among the greatest cultural crimes of our civilization.”(22) Some examples of this crime (various translations of the Cleobulus poem) are collected in an appendix at the end of the book.

In this chapter, D. does not promise a reading of Anacreon’s Cleobulus poem because the text was not intended for a literary reading. Instead, she offers to reconstruct the lyric event of which it constitutes a trace so as to recover its “pragmatic meaning” (22), an endeavor which “will lead us to discover … that the texts today published as ‘Greek Lyric Poetry’ are, in truth, unreadable … If the reader does derive some meaning from them, it will be one that he has himself implanted there.”

1. The Song for Cleobulus.

D. takes this poem as an archaeologist would pick up a shard of pottery and attempts to restore its place within the rituals accompanying the symposion and to relate it to other banquet songs of the same type(28). She concludes that Anacreon’s Song for Cleobulus is part of the proposis at a Dionysiac symposion, representing the words that accompanied a ritual gesture of offering a cup to a fellow symposiast in a first act of symbolic sharing. Of course, the greatest problem with this hypothesis (which this explanation must remain) is the fact that the poem contains not even a hint of the performative propino, not even a distant equivalent of it. If the poem is a performative, why is its key performative formula absent? The suggestion that the “gesture of supplication is simultaneously the gesture of the drinker offering the cup to Cleobulus”(38) is not convincing. According to D., as a gesture of politeness and a religious act the poem is empty of any semantic content that can be isolated from the context and therefore cannot be “read” or claimed by literature. Song in a symposion embodies for D. the highest degree of “hot culture.” It conveys not meaning, but action, cannot be read but can be imagined, and the description of the flamenco comes to the aid of the reader’s imagination. The chapter concludes with a vivid description of the setting in which the gypsy flamenco was performed originally: D. sees in the divine rapture in which the fiesta culminates a parallel to the Dionysiac ecstasy of the symposion. The line of reasoning is entirely hypothetical and the reader is left with conjectures that are not rooted in any kind of evidence.

2. The Invention of Anacreon

This seems to be the most important chapter in the book, as it is the most extensive. Its conceptual framework is largely based on a simplified version of Pindar’s Homer of G. Nagy. The chapter explores how the Dionysiac intoxication at the banquet, best represented in Anacreon’s poetry, starts cooling through the transfer of Dionysus to the institutionalized theater. The theater for D. is a cold institution because “Athenian imperialism set up the plays of some poets as models, fixing the text once and for all and reperforming the ‘classics'”. This made the history of Athenian theatre into a ‘politically organized cultural degradation’ (82). Other stages of entropic decline include the performance of poetry at festivals and competitions; at the symposium, where the participants cite great authors; in the schools, which trained free citizens how to contribute to the symposium; and, finally, the lowest point of this decline is the canonization and monumentalization of all these speech-acts in the Alexandrian library. Anacreon made his way to the shelves of the library because he represented a paradigmatic experience of intoxication through wine, love and song within the Dionysiac symposium with which most Greeks identified. As a result, he acquired a biography, became an author, under whose name further Anacreontic speech acts (the Anacreontic vases and the Anacreontics) were generated. For D., the Anacreontics represent a model for how the genuine poems of Anacreon originated as well. Still, Anacreon, even if “invented” in antiquity, did not become a literary figure then but only a musical genre, catalogued by Aristarchus. The philological activity, including the Alexandrian literature created in the library, did not benefit a reading public, which according to D. did not exist. It benefited solely book professionals, commentators, philologists, professors, poets, librarians and editors. Of course, one cannot help but ask oneself what the papyrological finds of literary texts in villages or military camps mean for D. (For a catalogue of literary papyri, see the Leuven Database of Ancient Books, Leuven, 1998.) Some of the activities surrounding the editing and explication of earlier authors must have benefited a broader circle of readers.

In a brief subchapter (p. 61-63) D. introduces the distinction between Real Speech Acts and Fictitious Speech Acts. It seems that the distinction is very important for her core thesis since she suggests that the “origin of literature lies not in writing, but in the switch from real speech acts that produced statements to fictitious ones.” One wishes that she had developed, unpacked and illustrated the concept in a more explicit way. “Fictitious speech act” is defined on p. 13 in an obscure fashion, made a little clearer on p. 62 where the competition and festival is a real speech act that accommodates lyric and epic poetry, while the Homeric banquet is a fictitious speech act for epic. The term is not explicitly used until later, when she briefly discusses the philosophical banquet as a kind of fictitious speech act (162). The reader is left to fill the gaps and holes in this construct on his/her own.

Part Two: The culture of the kiss: Speaking with nothing to say

When moving to the analysis of Roman culture, Dupont works again only with generalizations, e.g. that ‘Rome unlike Greece, did not make record of its oral practices and kept its live practices separate from its monumental practices. Rome committed to writing only artificial poetry which was never part of events,’ a statement which clearly conflicts with the case of the Carmen Saeculare, to the performance of which an inscription attests (Dessau 5050).

3. The Games of Catullus The text for analysis is Catullus 50, a poem in which the speech act has completely effaced the statement because not a word of the songs exchanged at the banquet between the two friends has been transmitted in the poem. Anacreon’s Cleobulus song at least preserves the statement (the address to the beloved), while Catullus 50 transmits only the memory of the event and the absence of the beloved in a written statement, which involves the fiction of two real scriptural practices, the letter and the epigram. Lines 14-17 evoke the fiction of a letter while lines 18-21 evoke the fiction of an epigram. If this chapter was designed to prove that Catullus’ poem was unreadable, the argument is very weak and unconvincing. If “the poem that we possess here and have now read was from the start preserved in a book, published under the name of Catullus” (126), why is this not a readable piece of literature? In a footnote (20, p. 126) D. notes that books did have some lectores, ending the chapter with the weak statement that the poem was only meant to testify to “the epigrammatic productivity of the Romans and that it was a museum piece and expected to be received as such.” (127)

4. Kisses in the Greek Manner and Roman Cuisine

Only the last part of this chapter contributes substantially to the main argument of the book: the invention of literature. The first part is devoted to the analysis of the specific features of the Roman commissatio. D. draws upon a mixed selection of banquet lyrics in order to argue for the kiss as a civilized, asexual gesture of exchanging breaths, converted into an end in itself in the context of the commissatio. This discussion of the pleasurable commissatio is not fully integrated into the main argument but serves only as a background to the discussion of the learned commissatio which celebrates the monuments of the official culture by citing them.

D. analyses “an episode in the invention of Roman literature”, a banquet described in Aulus Gellius 19.9, where the participants do not sing banquet songs themselves but listen to a performance of Anacreon and Sappho by slaves and instead of engaging in the ritual of conviviality display their academic skill by commenting on the qualities of the lyrics. The concert fulfills the role of a ceremonial that confirms the group’s image of its own identity, as leisure devoted to the sophisticated pleasures of love, wine and poetry was regarded as a criterion of civilization. The poetic performances at Trimalchio’s banquet in Petronius with their imitative and inept quality confirm the impression that citing Greek and Latin poetry at banquets was a way of affirming one’s cultural and social identity. But this celebration of fixed texts does not bring about the birth of literature as an institution because “books played an important part in Rome but did not provide pleasure from words” (164). Roman readers admired style or absorbed knowledge but did not engage in interpretive reading or an aesthetic and polysemic hermeneutics such as we use today, which is what makes something written down function as a text.”(169). To define literature around something as intangible as the presence or absence of reading for pleasure is quite absurd, to say the least.

5. The Golden Ass Stories.

This is the first chapter of two within the third and last part of the book, entitled The Story Culture: Books that were not for reading. The chapter simply continues the theme of unreadability, which in the case of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses D. supports with the conjecture that stories were part of the living, oral culture. But then she has to confront and answer the question: if the stories in the Golden Ass were not meant for a public that reads for pleasure, what was the purpose of writing them down? Stories served the purpose of the exploration of cultural margins and as a compendium that provided storytellers with material that they could then reuse, thus they were there to create orality out of writing. Of course, this (as D. herself admits) is nothing but a hypothesis (216), which conveniently fits into her overall concept of cultural entropy.

She rightly points out the cultural inferiority attributed to storytelling in contrast to the Dionysiac intoxication through analysis of Ovid, Metam. 4.4-56, a passage which highlights the important distinction between singing and speaking (p.185ff). However, she omits the opportunity to relate this distinction to an emerging notion of literature, as has been done, for instance, by Habinek (1998). It is also not clear how the case of Scheherazade contributes to the understanding of the story-telling practices in Graeco-Roman antiquity.

6. Writing Sandwiched between Two Voices

The title of this chapter fits well only the story-culture discussed in ch. 5. The chapter contains an interesting discussion of the institution of recitatio, which manifests the reverse relationship between writing and orality to that of stories: it is an oral gesture sandwiched between two kinds of writing. D’s discussion of the recitatio is illuminating, but it inconveniently does not dovetail with her general thesis. The recitatio is part of a social system of gift-giving and gift-receiving, but it is also an important part of the pre-publication process (Horace, Ars Poetica 435-8) and fulfils the goal of improving upon the written work, as many of Pliny the Younger’s letters attest. Why would Roman writers meticulously polish their work and elicit feed-back on work in progress, if they did not expect to be read? Ancient writers were not only concerned with being monumentalized, but also with being internalized. Statius, for instance, without resorting to any of the metaphors used by his predecessors, plainly expresses his worry whether his epic is going to be READ after he dies ( Durabisne procul dominoque legere superstes, Thebaid XII, 810). It is again a tenuous generalization that comes to the aid in salvaging D.’s theoretical construct: D. postulates that after the recitatio the public never read those books, thus producing a literature without readers. “The Romans did not like literature, except when they themselves had written it” (243). Perhaps she comes up with this conclusion by observing her own attitude to literature.

A number of technical features make the book difficult to read. The table of contents does not include the subchapters, which are included in the French edition. There is also no comprehensive bibliography to complement the extensive annotated endnotes. The index consists only of proper names (mostly ancient and some modern) and does not include key-words, which is a must for a book containing such a large number of technical terms. It is also unfortunate that the original for the majority of the Greek texts is not included. Where it is, as in the case of the Bathyllus poem on p.72, it is full of errors in the breathings and the final sigmas. Misprints occur also in the Latin text: on p. 110 for poterus read poturus.

In a few instances the translator confuses the names of ancient authors, e.g. at the end of the subchapter on Kisses, Breath and Wine, p.134 For Catulus read Catullus; for Petronius in the last paragraph on p. 165, read Seneca; for Stacius on p. 232 read Statius. Also, the source of some quotations is not clearly marked, e.g. the note to Catullus 50 on p. 271, when the poem is first introduced, omits to mention the number of the poem. It is unfortunate that in some cases the translations of the Greek and Latin texts are made from a French translation, e.g. the quotes from Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus in ch. 5, n. 8&9. Nevertheless, the overall quality of the translation is lucid and precise.

In her zeal to discover the otherness of the ancients and to draw simplistic dichotomies between oral-written and “hot” – “cold”, D. goes to the extreme of excluding all similarities. She concludes that “ancient writing was a statement in quest of a speech act,” and that “writing was fated to draw attention endlessly to the absence of orality” (248). What about the fact that fictional, feigned orality is often inscribed in works ranging from 16th century prose to the modern novel as well, although these works were created within the framework of a literary institution in the modern sense of the word (see Goetsch 1985 and further bibliography)?

The poor organization and the amount of unsupported generalizations make this book a frustrating reading experience. Perhaps the exploration of the limits of bad scholarly writing was among the points that D. wanted to make.


Dubois, J. (1978) L’institution de la literature. Paris.

Dupont, F. (1997) ” Recitatio and the reorganization of the space of public discourse,” in: Th. Habinek, A. Schiesaro, edd. The Roman Cultural Revolution, Cambridge.

Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary Theory: An Introduction, Blackwell.

Goetsch, P. (1985) “Fingierte Mündlichkeit in der Erzählkunst entwickelter Schriftkulturen,” Poetica 17, 202-218.

Habinek, Th.(1998) “Singing, Speaking, Making, Writing: Classical Alternatives to Literature and Literary Studies,” in: Stanford Humanities Review 6.1(1998): 65-75.

Hernadi, P. ed. (1978) What is Literature? Bloomington, IN.

Hinds, S. (1998) Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry, Cambridge University Press.

Lambropoulos, V. (1988) Literature as National Institution, Princeton University Press.

Ross, D. (1975) Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus, Elegy and Rome. Cambridge.

Thomas, R.(1986) “Virgil’s Georgics and the art of reference,” HSCP 90: 171-98.