BMCR 2000.09.03

When A Gesture Was Expected. A Selection of Examples From Archaic and Classical Greek Literature

, When a gesture was expected : a selection of examples from archaic and classical Greek literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. xiv, 154 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691002630. $32.50.

“The matter of this book could be described in summary form as an extended demonstration that ‘gesture here’ is often implied on the manuscript page. We only need to be alert for the signs by which those gestures are indicated” (p. 4). In this neatly organized, well written, and lucid study of non-verbal communication in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature, Professor Alan Boegehold offers interesting and helpful insights into the understanding of passages in both poetry and prose where something is apparently missing that would have completed the thought. And that something is a gesture. “Although we cannot recover the gestures themselves in all their actuality, we may become better readers if we try to intuit their effect” (p. 5). This extra dimension that we are invited to consider when reading ancient texts is as necessary in some cases for understanding what is said as it is crucial for sensing what is meant. As the author warns, this is not a systematic review of all Archaic and Classical Literature, but a collection of examples whose “cumulative effect could nevertheless prompt readers and editors of the great ancient Greek texts to try while they read to imagine living, breathing presences whose words their authors saw being delivered with expressive movements of heads, eyes, hands, and torsos” (p. 10).

In Chapter One (Nonverbal Communication), Boegehold sets the groundwork for his study by reviewing descriptions of gestures and postures in ancient literature, depictions of these in sculpture and painting, and gestures used by people in modern Greece and the Mediterranean, insofar as these can reasonably be imagined to represent ancient practice. The survey begins with Iliad 1.527-28, where Homer specifically states that, in response to Thetis’ request for help, Zeus expressed his approval by nodding his head in a downward motion, a way of expressing agreement still employed in Greece, as is the opposite motion for signifying denial. Boegehold is particularly convincing where he has been able to match pictorial image with verbal description, as in the case of a red-figure painting by the Andokides Painter (Figure 17), which features two warriors opposite each other at a low table (pp. 25-26). One of the figures holds out his right hand with index and middle fingers extended, while the other two fingers are folded within the palm. This is precisely the same gesture ascribed by Quintilian (11.3.98) and Apuleius ( Meta. 2.21). Boegehold reasonably concludes that this slight movement of the arm localizes one who is about to speak, a motion particularly useful for actors; comparison to a photo of Ronald Reagan with Andre Gromyko in 1984 (unfortunately not provided) is a nice touch. Equally witty and persuasive is the photograph of an audience attending a lecture at Wellesley College, several of whom have assumed the Thinker’s pose (Figure 16), which is compared to the red-figure kylix on which Oedipus, hand under chin, ponders the Sphinx’s riddle (Figure 15).

In Chapter Two (Some Attic Red-Figure Scenes), Boegehold analyzes several scenes employing the methodology established in the first chapter. On Douris’ rendition of the vote for the arms of Achilles (Figure 22), he argues convincingly that Athena’s outstretched arm does not signify her support of Odysseus, who stands with arms raised in victory to her right, as has been argued, but that she is indicating the result of the vote. In support of this, Boegehold offers Euripides Iph. Taur. 965-66, where Orestes says “‘Pallas with her arm certified the counting of the ballots as equal for me.'” (p. 30). I have some reservations, however, about the interpretation of one of the five figures represented on a different piece (Figure 23, British Museum E 51, also the book’s jacket illustration). The scene features two groups of two and three people. In the group of two on the left, a man offers a small bag to a woman who carries a much larger bag. She holds her right hand up, with her thumb and index finger almost touching and the other three fingers folded within her palm. Appealing to Quintilian (11.3.101-3), who states “When you touch the middle of the right-hand edge of the thumbnail with the tip of your first finger, and the other fingers are loose, it is a nice way to express approval and relate episodes and make distinctions” (p. 33), Boegehold concludes that the woman is accepting the man’s offer. Two factors argue against this reading, at least to me. First, the larger money bag carried by the woman so dwarfs the man’s as to suggest that she might well be saying “you call that a deal? I could buy and sell you two times over!” Second, and more importantly, Quintilian adds the following (quoted by Boegehold): “The Greeks these days especially use a similar gesture, except that the three fingers are folded in, whenever they round off their syllogisms with their gesture as though chopping” ( ibid.). Concluding a syllogism is not the same as expressing approval. Also, the differences between the two gestures described by Quintilian are slight but potentially significant. The first one reads like the American A-OK hand motion, with thumb and index finger touching and forming a circle while the other three fingers are open and usually pointing skyward with no motion attending the gesture (exactly the gesture assumed by the man at the center of the scene); the Greek alternative, to which Quintilian assigns a different function, is reminiscent of the Italian gesture where the thumb touches both the index and middle fingers, with the other two folded into the palm, while the hand makes a chopping action ( caesim, however, could mean “in short clauses” as OLD s.v. caesim 2). This gesture typically asks “what do you mean?” or “what does this mean?” Such a stance, particularly in the context of a financial arrangement, suggests to me that woman is dismissing the current offer. If we are to imagine that she is arguing by way of syllogism, it might run as follows: All men with small money bags are not to be taken seriously; you have a small money bag; you’ve got to be kidding.

In Chapter Three (Homer), Boegehold introduces his discussion of the tendency to omit the apodosis of a conditional clause, when something like “it is well,” “it will be well,” or in one case “beware,” is to be understood; there are also cases where the protasis is to be supplied with a phrase such as “if you like.” Ancient grammarians called the first ellipsis anantapodosis; Boegehold employs the phrase “‘incomplete’ conditional sentence” and provides numerous examples throughout the book. For instance, at Il. 1.134-39 Agamemnon states: “Are you telling me to give her back? Well, if the great-hearted Achaians will give me a prize, fitting to my liking, so that it is of equal value —. But if they do not give , then I shall go and take your prize or Aias’s, or I shall take Odysseus’ and lead ” (p. 40). An apodosis such as “it will be alright,” it is argued, would have been communicated by means of a gesture that the poet would make in performance, though the nature of this gesture is not defined or hypothesized. In his commentary on the passage (cited by Boegehold), Eustathios identifies this as an ancient mannerism, and an effective one at that, but does not mention any movement that would have accompanied the omitted phrase. While I find no compelling reason for rejecting the introduction of a gesture of some sort in this and in other cases, I wonder if the tone of the speaker’s voice might also, or even by itself, call attention to the unstated apodosis, the effect of which is to force the reader to supply the missing words.

Six passages from Archilochus and two from Pindar are examined in Chapter Four (Archaic Poets). Boegehold reasonably imagines that Archilochus’ lively verse would have been accompanied by gestures that dramatize his statements. For instance, in Archilochus 89, when the poet states “I wish I could get to touch Neoboule,” he may have touched his own breast or he may have pointed when reciting “Glaukos, look: waves are troubling the deep sea” (Archilochus 103). The two passages taken from Pindar (N. 4.79-81 and O. 2.56-60) are further examples of “incomplete” conditional sentences. In the first case, I don’t sense that a gesture is necessary, though I would not necessarily exclude it. Pindar states: “But if you are telling me still to erect a stele / whiter than Parian stone for your mother’s brother, Kallikles, . / Gold refined shows all its bright shine but a hymn to brave deeds makes a mortal / equal in fortune to kings” (p. 50). While the thought “No, I will not do that” is indeed implied, the interjection of a complementary gesture seems overly prosaic and certainly unnecessary in a genre as highly compressed as lyric. An explanation of how the gesture, whatever it was, might have been executed in performance would certainly be helpful in making a case for its use.

Turning to Tragedy in Chapter Five, Boegehold argues that faith in particles alone as a way of interpreting the tone of an utterance is too limited. He counters that “by imagining the actors’ non-verbal communications, [we] can answer questions that have been raised in the past, and for which traditional philology has not provided fully satisfactory answers” (p. 53) . Representative examples from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are offered, one of which I shall briefly examine. At Agamemnon 1060-61, when Cassandra does not respond to Clytemnestra’s order to enter the palace, she states “But if, because you have no understanding of Greek, you are not receiving my words… / instead of speaking, make an indication with your barbaric hand” (p. 55). The first part of the sentence is treated as another “incomplete” conditional sentence (though this is not necessarily so if we read δέ in the following line as apodotic, as Page does). But more is needed here than a gesticulated “so be it” if the statement is to be realistic instead of ridiculous. Whenever we encounter people who we think do not speak our language, we instinctively continue to talk but also make exaggerated gestures in order to communicate. In the present scene, Clytemnestra reasonably concludes from Cassandra’s silence and lack of movement that she does not understand what is being said, and so she tries to elicit a hand motion from her that acknowledges her request, continuing to speak even though she is sure that the Trojan princess does not speak Greek. Whatever the nature of her body language, we can be sure that it was purposefully and carefully exaggerated. Far from being nonsensical, this brief moment provides one of the many remarkable touches of realism in the play. Aeschylus’ portrayal of Clytemnestra’s frustration both suits her imperious and impatient manner and is of a piece with the intimate characterization of other figures in the play, such as the watchman, the herald, and even the chorus, who reveal themselves in their idiosyncrasies and make the play more three-dimensional. A gesture is surely expected here.

Aristophanes provides the focus for Chapter Six. The first suggestion, that actors would have made a gesture of some sort to signal a quotation or parody, unsupported by ancient testimony, is not compelling, particularly since a shift to the stricter meters of tragedy, for instance, and the use of elevated vocabulary should suffice to signal the allusion. Moreover, it is hard to imagine what kind of gesture would be employed. Rather than a specific gesture (like our four-fingered dramatization of quotation marks), a slight change in the speaker’s voice or stance would suffice, though even this may not be likely given the brevity of many of the allusions. A stronger case is made in this chapter for the act of shaking out one’s clothes as a gesture accompanying a curse, something the Greeks still do, as Boegehold points out. The examples cited ( Acts 18.6, Esdras 2.15.13, and Lysias 6.51) clinch the point. I would be cautious, however, about identifying every act of shaking clothes as a curse. The instances cited on p. 76 (e.g., when the Clouds shake off the mist from their bodies at Clouds 287-90 or when the old men who have been doused at Lysistrata 401-02 act similarly) do not require a curse to make sense. Wet clothes sometimes need to be shaken dry.

Oratorical gestures are examined Chapter Seven. Appealing to Alcidamas ( On Sophists 13), Boegehold begins with the proposition that the most effective speeches in court are those which are articulated naturally, sometimes offending against basic rules of syntax, and accompanied by gestures. This must have been the case, with or without the help of Alcidamas, but some of the examples offered are problematic. For instance, Antiphon 6.23: “I told him to go with all the witnesses he wanted to the people who were present — I named each one — and question and test them, those who were free in a manner befitting free men, who for their own sakes and for the sake of the truth would tell the truth of what happened, and the slaves, if he thought upon questioning them they were telling the truth ; otherwise I was ready to give over all of my own for torture and whatever other slaves belonging to others he might order” (p. 81). Observation of the chiastic structure of the last part of the sentence eliminates the need for a gesture: the speaker told his prosecutor to question the slaves [A], if ( εἰ μέν) he thought this was useful [B], but if he did not think so ( εἰ δὲ μή) [B], he would provide his own slaves [A]. A stronger case is made for Antiphon 6.19: “Where in the first place the prosecutors themselves admit that the boy’s death was neither premeditated nor contrived, and where they admit that everything was done in the open and in the presence of many witnesses, both men and boys, free and slave, from whose presence any person who did anything wrong would be wholly visible and whoever charged an innocent person would be wholly exposed.” Apparent end of sentence. The text continues: “It is worthwhile to note both the intent of my opponents and the manner in which they came to this business” ( ibid.). There are at least four possibilities here: the apodosis has been lost; Antiphon lost track of a rather involved, though neatly balanced protasis and never finished it; the δέ of the following sentence is apodotic ( ἄξιον δ’ ἐνθυμηθῆναι); there is a conscious ellipsis in need of a gesture. Although the sentence “it is worthwhile to note …” could well function as the apodosis in this context, given that apodotic δέ is rare among the orators, a vivid gesture of some sort would mitigate this rather abrupt conclusion to an incomplete sentence.

Turning to Historians in Chapter 8, Boegehold argues that elliptical sentences, particularly in Herodotus and Xenophon, can be better understood by the gestures which would have been used in oral performances. This line of thinking raises a broader question regarding the reading public, which I am not prepared to engage. I would hazard to say, however, that an interpretive performance should not be necessary for a reading audience intimately familiar with the body language that typically accompanies certain ellipses. In any event, Boegehold has identified more interesting examples of “incomplete” conditional sentences and embedded quotations. With regard to Herodotus 9.60 and 5.20, the combination νῦν δέ before γάρ is said to require an accompanying gesture signifying “no.” The latter passage is interpreted as follows: “In this matter, give a sign as to what you want. But now because it is almost time for bed and I see that you are well fortified with wine, do please let these women bathe …” (p. 96). Yet the sense of the sentence is complete if we read γάρ, as Boegehold appears to do, as anticipatory (Denniston 69-70, cited in the next chapter, p. 114): on the one hand, let us know ( sc. if you want the women now); on the other hand, because it is late, let the women bathe and then you can have them. The same reading can be applied to other instances of this combination cited by Boegehold, a number of which are discussed in Chapter 9 (Plato). The passages studied in this, the final chapter, are similar to those examined throughout the book and so I shall forego further discussion, especially given the length of this review. The end matter includes a bibliography, divided into three sections (Editions, Translations, and Secondary Literature), an Art Index, Index Locorum, and a General Index, all of which are quite helpful.

In his brief conclusion, Boegehold recapitulates the basic thesis of the book: particles alone cannot bridge the verbal gaps found in Greek prose and verse; often a gesture is needed to complete the thought. Although I may disagree with some of the author’s readings, I nonetheless feel that this an important book. Reading ancient Greek literature without allowing for the use of non-verbal communication can, as Boegheld has shown, reduce lively colloquial scenes to static and lacunose tableaux or even lead to misconstructions of the text. By examining, and then inviting us to imagine, formulaic ellipses with the help of ancient testimony and works of art as well as the persistence of certain gestures in specific contexts, Boegehold shows us how to assume a more dynamic approach when reading ancient texts, one that fills in some of the gaps and exposes some of the action inherent in oral communication among the Greeks.