BMCR 2003.12.26

Graceful Errors: Pindar and the Performance of Praise

, Graceful errors : Pindar and the performance of praise. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. 127 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472113305. $57.50.

In this short and readable book, Hilary Mackie sets out, as she puts it in her first sentence, to ‘study Pindar’s epinician poetry from the perspective of performance’ (p. 1). She starts from Bundy’s claim that the conventions of Pindar’s (and Bacchylides’) epinicia should be interpreted with a view to the function of the odes: praise for the victor (4). Like most scholars, Mackie shares Bundy’s belief that this function is key to understanding Pindar’s epinicians, and she also shares his interest in the conventions of epinician poetry. Yet like other recent studies, she widens the target audience from just the victor, to include his community, and also the gods. Therefore, at the heart of her book is the idea that the diversity of the audience makes the poet’s task awkward, and that this awkwardness explains some of the striking conventions of Pindar’s epinician odes.

After a short introduction setting out the project, the book is divided into three chapters. Each is devoted to a different aspect of Pindar’s rhetoric, but they are united by Mackie’s consistent approach. She seeks to elucidate the various conventions she examines by asking what they do for the different kinds of audiences that Pindar addresses. In particular, she looks for tensions between these audiences, and the effects these tensions have on Pindar’s rhetoric. This approach is often persuasive, and allows her to shed new light on some much discussed issues.

Chapter One, ‘ Koros in performance: appeasing the phthoneroi, the gods, and the victor’, focuses on what is usually called the ‘break-off formula’ or ‘Abbruchsformel’, one of many unwieldy terms that make scholarship on Pindar so hard to read, and arguably sometimes prevent a better understanding of his poetry. Break-offs are phrases such as ‘I will stop’, with which the poet interrupts himself in midflow, announcing a change of subject. They are a well-documented and a characteristic feature of Pindar’s style.

In line with her overall approach, Mackie is not content with putting break-offs down to Pindar’s literary tastes, and looks for their function, starting from the diversity of Pindar’s audiences. The citizens in general, the gods and the victor all have different expectations. Fundamental to pleasing each of these groups is the need not to be perceived as going too far or, in the terminology that Pindar sometimes chooses in these contexts, to avoid koros. The poet uses break-offs both to avoid the offence of going too far and to signal his dexterity in doing so. They serve to prevent envy among the citizens, which might be caused by too much praise for the victor; they serve to prevent envy among the gods, which might be caused by minimising differences between them and the victor; and they serve to prevent the victor’s anger, which might be caused by overshadowing his glory through too much emphasis on his ancestors or on mythical characters. Whenever the patience of one sector of the audience is in danger of running out, the poet ‘breaks off’ — and says so, thus drawing attention to his skilful composition.

Chapter Two, ‘The Muse: “former poets” and the problem of the past’, moves on to another set of poetic conventions, all related to the role of the past in the epinician odes: the invocation of the Muse to recall information on past events, and the allusions to rumor, tradition and earlier poets. Again Mackie starts from the complex constraints created by the genre of praise poetry and its audiences. This context, she suggests, leads to a tension regarding the past: on the one hand, the past is of crucial importance to the odes because mythical heroes offer a necessary point of comparison for the victor; on the other hand, such comparison must not eclipse the victor’s achievement. This tension sets epinician odes apart from epic, which repeatedly brings out the superiority of earlier generations. Unlike the epic bard, the epinician poet has a present-day victor to praise.

Invocations of the Muse illustrate this difference between epinicia and epic. Both genres can use invocations to the Muse to stress temporal remoteness or the idea that there is ‘too much to say’ for a mere mortal. Yet Pindar not only refuses the Muse pride of place at the outset of his epinicia; he also maintains a generally more complicated relationship with her than the epic poet. Repeatedly, Muse and poet are like companions or hetairoi (e.g., the poet riding in her chariot, the Muse standing beside the poet), a relationship that Mackie interprets as the need to combine past and present, rather than give priority to the past. In the same vein, she observes that, in Pindar, the ‘too much to say’ idea is not so much the starting point of a long exposition (which it sometimes is in Homer) as a form of recusatio, pulling the poem back to the present.

References to rumor, the tradition or earlier poets further add to the complex relationship between past and present. Unlike Homer, Pindar repeatedly refers to sources other than the Muse for his knowledge of the past: (‘they say that’, ‘it is said that’, etc.). The poet has to select stories about the past from a range of sources, just as he has to find the right thing to say about the present. Thus we find him taking a stance and rejecting certain traditions (e.g. the idea that the gods ate Pelops’ shoulder). The important point in all of this, Mackie argues, is that the poet’s task, to praise the victor today, shapes the way he talks about the past. He is driven not by timeless notions of truth but by the need to perform an epinician ode and present himself as an adequate performer.

From the past to the future. The final chapter is called ‘Wishes and prayers for the future: the poet as prophet.’ Such wishes and prayers are frequent in Pindar’s epinicia, and are often coupled with statements about the uncertainty of the future. Mackie argues against Bundy’s view that they should, therefore, be regarded as a ‘dark foil’. Her argument turns again on the need to satisfy different audiences, divine and human.

The wishes and prayers, she suggests, are linked to the poet’s self-representation as a prophet-like figure. While, as a mortal, he is unable to predict the future, he none the less resembles a prophet, both in his ability to detect long-term patterns in past and present and in his ability to mediate between humans and gods. This is where statements about human limitations come in. Rather than being merely a ‘dark foil’, Mackie suggests, the poet’s understanding of the rightful place of mortals lends strength to his prayers. His careful phrasing is aimed, first, to ensure divine goodwill. As a result, second, it sends a signal to his human audiences, including the victors, that they may be hopeful about the outcome of his prayers.

The considerable merit of this book is first to bring together various elements of Pindar’s epinician odes that are often treated separately (such as break-offs, invocations of the Muse, and prayers at the end of poem); and then, even more important, to discuss them in the larger context of the overall function and performance of the odes. In this context, the individual elements are no longer pleasing or puzzling elements of Pindar’s style but clearly motivated aspects of the poet’s rhetoric. The concept of the fragmented audience is, of course, not new, but its systematic application to the conventions of the epinician odes is revealing.

The inevitable quibbles apart, I have two further comments. The first is not so much criticism as clarification of Mackie’s scope, and in particular of her concept of performance. As quoted above, her book is a study of Pindar’s epinician poetry ‘from the perspective of performance’. Yet names associated with the study of Greek lyric in performance like Gentili, Aloni or Stehle do not appear in her bibliography. As has probably become clear, Mackie takes performance in a fairly narrow sense, focusing on the ways in which the odes’ rhetoric is driven by the audience. She touches on, but does not pursue, various other aspects of performance. The question of choral versus single performer is relegated to a footnote (p.1 n.2), and Mackie speaks throughout of ‘the poet’, rather than ‘the chorus’, ‘the performer(s)’ or such like. Chapter 3 discusses some of the religious and ritual language of the odes but says little about their religious context (what exactly does it mean to speak of the gods as audience?). Chapter 2 refers to apostrophe and other means of making ‘the past seem vivid and immediate’ (p. 58), but does not really embark on a discussion of the pragmatics of apostrophe and other ways of communicating with the audience. Throughout, she has relatively little to say about the competitive element of Pindar’s performances and stances. The scope for performance-related work on Pindar remains large.

My second point concerns the level of generalisation. Mackie (reasonably) tends to starts from the most explicit passages, then widening out the argument to a range of other passages. As she points out herself, not all break-off passages refer to koros, or even allude to any audience’s displeasure. Similarly, the poet does indeed sometimes trace patterns, or links the past with the present; but on other occasions he notably fails to do so, and leaves the connection between past and present perplexingly unclear. And at the level of language, the word hetairos, which Mackie uses to describe the relationship between poet and Muse, is not so used by Pindar. The point is not that Mackie pushes her argument too hard in trying to make a point; on the contrary, I think she could perhaps have pushed it harder. In a discussion of the poet’s stance and the poet’s way of communicating with his audience, the difference between what is explicit and what is implicit must be significant. How much do the gestures the poet makes change from ode to ode? How much do they change within an ode? What (if anything) determines the variation? Revealing as Mackie’s argument is, perhaps it could be more revealing still.

That said, it must be stressed that it is Mackie’s disciplined focus on the main lines of her argument that keep the book admirably clear and uncluttered. And, in any case, none of these comments should detract from her achievement. Her book will make useful reading for both undergraduates and researchers.