BMCR 2005.09.36

Masks of Authority. Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Poetics. Translated from the French by Peter M. Burk

, , Masks of authority : fiction and pragmatics in ancient Greek poetics. Myth and poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. xiv, 248 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801438926 $49.95.

Collected in Claude Calame’s Masks of Authority are ten essays, all of which engage in some degree with the “enunciative mise-en-scène of poetic authority” (7). In a detailed introduction employing the subtle distinctions of semio-narrative analysis, Calame (hereafter C.) describes his task as “a matter of catching in action some of the fundamental aspects of different types of Greek “authorial” poetics by focusing attention on the profile of the enunciative I” (14). The field is ‘Greek poetics’ in the broadest sense; this volume comprises articles first published between 1986 and 1997, most of which have not previously appeared in English. They are grouped into three sections: ‘Poems as performative discourses in action’ spans ‘hymns’ from the archaic to the Hellenistic periods; ‘Gazes of authority’ covers the iconography of the symposium, tragic and comic masks; ‘Greek Poetic Authorities’ deals with the constructions of authoritative voices in the texts of Hippocrates, the Derveni papyrus and Theocritus Idyll 1. Several of the chapters reveal their origins in different contexts, but their juxtaposition results in an unfailingly thought-provoking book.

In his foreword, Gregory Nagy states that this collection complements The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece (1995) (hereafter Craft), in the ‘Myth and Poetics’ series by Cornell University Press. The semiotic approach and the scope of C.’s latest volume indeed correspond to those of his earlier contribution to the series. In its presentation, however, the theoretical material has been neatly summarized and the interpretations clarified in order to draw in a wider audience. This is evident both in the book’s formal features (endnotes rather than footnotes, cited passages provided in translation) and in C.’s introductory presentation of his agenda, which, while still challenging for non-specialists, seems concerned to retain such an audience.1 To the same end, Peter Burk’s precise and elegant translation is glossed with the occasional translator’s note. Revision of the essays appears largely a matter of reframing and clarifying; the earlier translations have been similarly amended (chapters 4, 6 and 9).

An especially stimulating aspect of C.’s preface, and indeed of the whole collection, is its self-reflective commentary on the critical enterprise. C. puts his operative concepts into a larger perspective, thoroughly aware of the arbitrariness of scholarly labelling. He first situates the discursive and enunciative construction of the ‘author’ (i.e. its assumption of authority) between the fictional (‘enuncive’) world created by linguistic utterances and the extradiscursive reality to which they allude. The rest of the introduction employs a critique of intertextuality and its subordinate concepts to emphasize instead the role of poetic memory in the production of Greek literature and to focus on its pragmatic dimension, so returning us to the topic of enunciative authority in all the flexibility of its profile. Bibliography is largely confined to the endnotes, so that C.’s well-honed strictures appear directed at the community of scholars in general before readers delve into the more specialized chapters.

Of the three sections, the first is the most wide-ranging chronologically, but content-wise it is the most tightly knit. An argument develops across the chapters about how hymns work and the place of ‘myth’ inscribed within performative compositions. The first essay, ‘Relationships with the Gods and Poetic Functions in the Homeric Hymns‘ might be helpful for undergraduates. Having summarized current approaches to the Hymns, C. elucidates their pragmatic force as centred on the relationship that they construct with divinity. They effect a transition from the intra- to the extra-discursive; the poetic authority of the speaker-narrator is (to be) granted by the god who is hymned.2

This transition is modified in the proem to Hesiod’s Works and Days, the focus of the next chapter. Tracing the enunciative shifts in this ‘prelude to a poetry of action’ and their affirmation of the speaker’s authority,3 C. shows how they determine the poem’s general lines of semantic development (‘isotopies’), such as rebalancing justice and the praise/blame polarity, which are echoed in the following myth of Prometheus-Pandora. The multitude of observations in this densely argued section demonstrates clearly how a focus on enunciative markers can be used to illustrate transitions. For example, C. usefully notes (43-4) that the genealogy of the good Eris (vv.17-19) causes the gnomic assertion to slide towards narration, and the deictic form at v.24 (‘This Strife’) heralds another transition from assertion to exhortation. Later in the chapter, he views the Pandora myth as part of the narrator’s argument for heeding his speech, i.e. the poem itself, as the corrective ‘straight judgement’. A similar analysis is sketched out for the myth of Ages as a warning against a future state of violence that can be warded off only by the poet’s speech. C. comments briefly on the way that W & D 174ff. positions the narrator in relation to his story4 and concludes with a very compressed reading of how the fable of the hawk and the nightingale effects the shift from narrative to gnomic exposition. He expresses dissatisfaction (n.50) with readings that identify the hawk as a divine warning to a Perses-nightingale. However, in view of C.’s emphasis on the transitional effect of the fable, compare the recent approaches of Hubbard and Nelson, whose (differing) interpretations of W & D 202-14 each highlight a related shift of audience.5

The next two chapters develop the idea that an inserted myth contributes to a poetic argument. First comes ‘Fiction as Narrative Argumentation’ in Sappho fr. 16 Voigt. Helen, initially the ‘most beautiful’ object of love, is transformed into the (actantial) Subject of a micro-narrative, which reorients the narrative of the Trojan War into a story about love, erasing Paris’s role and the destructive consequences. In the fragmented fourth strophe, this is made analogous to the narrator’s own desire for Anactoria, who (C. presumes) herself became a lover of someone else. The poem’s unusual treatment of the abduction is well set in the context of Helen’s guilt as a live question in archaic poetry. C. next shows that the ‘parable’ linking the heroic past to the enunciative present functions as an instrument for creating belief: the concrete situation of the I (loving Anactoria) determines the reorientation of the legendary story brought in to validate it. In its new context, this last point picks up C.’s remarks (53) on the strong enunciative intervention at Works and Days 174ff; now, the story is situated with respect to the narrator.

In Chapter 4, the story is Apollo’s founding of Cyrene in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo. C. views this hymn as reactivating with a twist the ‘prelude’ function of the Homeric Hymns; it now paves the way for a poetic programme, a cult of learned poetry, rather than a specific cult celebration. This chapter appears very little altered, but C. has clarified and expanded several points, such as the way that the authority of the poetic voice oscillates between the poet’s I and the chorus (79, 83, 87). Moreover, the reminder in both these chapters, that “myth [in Greece] exists solely in forms of literary expression … i.e. linked to precise types of enunciative circumstances” (71 and cf. 60), is timely within the argument of the current volume.

The second section draws out the self-reflective aspects of enunciation with three studies in visual arts. It begins with ‘Learning to Drink, Learning to Sing’, a reading of the scenes of poetic pedagogy on the Douris cup, which serves as a companion piece to that on vase paintings in Craft (ch. 5). C. argues that linguistic and figurative art simultaneously begin to bear ‘signatures’, traces of their enunciation as performance. Turning to the Douris cup, he focuses on how the papyrus roll depicted in one of the scenes has been made to face the viewer, and its inscription made to read horizontally, in a double enunciative ‘shifting out’ ( débrayage). Having noted that this inscription mixes melic linguistic forms with epic meter and does not make syntactical sense, C. suggests that its awkwardness could indicate a school exercise, a phonetic transcription of the launch into oral performance. The ‘narrative’ of the whole scene thus encompasses the writing, but, further, becomes ‘discourse’ (directed at an audience) because the outward-facing inscription refers to its own ‘performance’ for the benefit of the cup’s viewer. In conclusion, C. suggests that the erotic inscription, hipodamas kalos crowning each scene of adult and adolescent points to the context of the symposium and its potential for actualising asymmetrical, homophiliac relationships of the kind presented on the cup. Douris’ cup thus creates an invitation to the symposiast to place himself in relation to the ‘narrative’, in what is effectively a transfer of poetic authority.

The next two chapters focus on the use of masks in conferring authority on the actors. In its previous incarnation, Chapter 6, ‘Vision, Blindness and Mask: Enunciation and Emotion in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus‘, focused rather on engendering emotions; the relevance of several sub-arguments for the present topic is in consequence difficult to spot. C. analyses Oedipus’ self-blinding as an annihilation of identity illustrating the limits of the dramatic illusion and so successfully refutes Aristotle’s separation of visual from verbal technique in analysing dramatic effects. Several revisions cater for an undergraduate audience, such as the inserted explanation of ‘double motivation’. There are too many issues for easy reading, but several are suited to their new context. For example, the idea of ritual (gestures) as equivalent to narrative resurfaces from Ch. 4 of Craft, and from the reading of Callimachus’ Hymn in this volume (84) — an analogy between verbal and visual certainly clarifies enunciative ‘levels’.

C.’s stimulating remarks about the distancing effect of the mask on the voice and gaze of the actor (115) are developed in the next chapter, ‘Enunciative and Pragmatic Effects in Aristophanes’. An enjoyable read, this essay focuses on how the comic mask works with costumes and accessories to effect a double ‘disengagement’ ( décrochement) from the civic identity of the actor who wears them; he is made both an agent of Dionysiac ritual and, beyond that, an individual protagonist of the story played out on stage. Disguises and fictions are superimposed before the audience, and illusions are deliberately broken. C. warns against describing the function of the mask through binary oppositions: since comedy aims at provoking laughter, “the mask serves neither to identify a figure completely nor … to cause “radical” alienation” (129). Finally, he observes that the enunciative ‘disengagements’ of the mask mean that the parabasis is not the only place where the extradiscursive author addresses the audience.

The third and final section begins with ‘The Well-tempered Racism of Hippocrates’, which explicates for the general reader the sometimes surprising shifts of focus in Hippocrates’ On Airs, Waters, and Places. It exposes the treatise’s multiple oppositions between ethnic groups, placing Hippocrates in a tradition of “generous and accommodating” Hellenocentrism stretching back to Homer, whereby ‘uncivilized’ foreign communities are also partially utopian. Refuting the claim that ethnocentrism is a universal attitude (141), C. is again concerned to nuance oppositions of ‘self’ and ‘other’. Here, his critique of Hartog on Herodotus (n.21) now seems outdated, but the general reminder works well with his explication of Hippocrates’ enunciative stance as lacking a well-defined ‘point of view’.6 For C., this has its roots in Hippocrates’ ambiguous territorial and social position as, like Herodotus, a Greek from Asia. The origins of this chapter in a volume on racism are evident; two excursuses on modern racism (137, 155) jar slightly with the focus of the current collection, but tellingly urge self-awareness of both our academic attitudes and our racial ones — C.’s effective warning is that we should be careful with our own masks of discursive authority.

In the penultimate chapter, ‘Orphic Voices and Initiatory Functions’, C. approaches the Derveni Theogony and its commentary as “the sole developed example of a critical procedure already in use at the end of the “archaic” period for the interpretation of narrative poems in the Homeric diction” (158). He argues that the commentator’s didactic interests result in a goal of a scholarly rather than a ritual initiation; this echoes the foregoing analysis of Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo, so reinforcing the metapoetic aspect of the former. One potential difference might now have been highlighted; the voice of the commentary, destined for the flames, has an unintended afterlife. This point, which Nagy picks out in his foreword, is in C.’s chapter made only in passing (169). This time, full citations of the papyrus are provided only once or twice (probably because the text and translation preceded the chapter in its original context)7 so the reader needs to have an edition to hand.

The final chapter brings to an anglophone readership C.’s presentation of ‘Liminal Spaces and Discursive Voices in Theocritus Idyll 1′. Beginning from the way that the poem twists ‘bucolic rules’ (better, ‘expectations’?) of confrontation, C. confirms from an enunciative standpoint the equivalence commonly found between the goatherd’s description of the ivy cup and Thyrsis’ song of Daphnis’ death. He aims to show through a focus on the ‘marginal’ how the poem transcends a simple contrast between these discursive spaces. A complex reading of the ways that the embedded voices effect shifts of space within Thyrsis’ song is used as a way into the mimetic, and hence ‘fictional’ quality of this poem (as opposed to ‘fictive’, i.e. ‘dependent on an external reality’).

C.’s insistence on nuancing oppositions emerges as a preoccupation of this collection, along with his emphasis on how “in Greece, at least, there is no such thing as an essence of a myth…myth is a category created by modern anthropology” (70-1). His course through enunciative modes of authority illuminates strategies of both ‘Greek poetics’ and contemporary critics. The original diversity of agendas and (probably) audiences results in a slightly uneven texture, but the collection, in all its formidable scope, should have a wide readership, since most of the non-essential jargon/technical material has been relegated to the endnotes. These, although tedious to use, do clear the page. A selected bibliography and an index of subjects are provided; in the whole volume, few errors were noticed.8 For the international community of classicists, this volume provides an accessible and inspiring cross-section of C.’s recent work.


1. C. efficiently introduces from scratch terms such as ‘instance of enunciation’ (3) and ‘isotopy’ (7), perhaps heeding cautions about the accessibility of his approach — cf. e.g. Eric Casey’s review of Craft (BMCR 1997.06.04).

2. A useful addition to C’s bibliographical notes here would be Haubold’s treatment of two shorter examples as self-justifications of their hymnic status. Cf. Haubold, J. (2001) ‘Epic with an end: an interpretation of Homeric hymns 15 and 20′, in Budelmann, F. & Michelakis, P. (eds.) Homer, Tragedy and Beyond: Essays in honour of P. E. Easterling. London. 23-41.

3. Recently, however, it has been argued that the proem’s conspicuous removal of the Muses establishes a deliberately ‘unreliable’ narrative persona for the Works and Days — cf. Stoddard, K. J. (2004) The Narrative Voice in the Theogony of Hesiod. Leiden. 191ff. and forthcoming.

4. C. does not mention his recent analysis of the Myth of Races in Kernos 17 (2004) 67-102, which fleshes out his points in more detail.

5. Cf. Hubbard, T. K. (1995) ‘Hesiod’s Fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale Reconsidered’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 36: 161-71, and Nelson, S. (1997) ‘The justice of Zeus in Hesiod’s fable of the hawk and the nightingale’, Classical Journal 92(3): 235-47.

6. For an emphasis on how Greek ethnic identity did not become polarised until after the Persian wars, see now Hall, J. (2002) Hellenicity: between ethnicity and culture. Chicago. On racism, cf. now Isaacs, B. (2004) The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton.

7. In Laks, A., & Most, G. W. (eds.) (1997) Studies on the Derveni Papyrus. Oxford. For a text and interpretation, see now Betegh, G. (2004) The Derveni Papyrus. Cambridge, with Richard Janko’s review (BMCR 2005.01.27). Note that Betegh disagrees (116 n.61) with C.’s assumption (160, 168) that oracular voice is that of Night.

8. Those spotted consisted largely of missing spaces, e.g. on 13, 74, 93, 148, 149. The reverse of the dust-jacket erroneously states that the volume includes a piece on Pausanias.