BMCR 2006.06.28

Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics

, , Pointing at the past : from formula to performance in Homeric poetics. Hellenic studies ; 12. Cambridge: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2005. xiii, 205 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0674019555 $17.95.

With this book, Egbert Bakker (hereafter B.) further establishes himself as a leading authority on the “poetry of grammar and the grammar of poetry.” Except for the ninth and last chapter, Pointing at the Past is a collection of previously published material.1 B. has reworked the individual essays to give his book, first, a prismatic quality. He looks at archaic Greek poetics through a number of lenses, though each vantage point draws from linguistics, pragmatics in particular. Through close-grained analyses of studiously regimented aspects of archaic Greek poetics, B. models a variety of philological methods. B.’s book also has a telescopic quality, generally moving from small to large, on the one hand, looking first at the Homeric formula and concluding with a study of narrative vividness. On the other hand, each chapter isolates problems that bear upon both major Homeric questions and questions of still greater scope, such as: What is grammar? What is orality? What is a text? B. has produced a volume that is immanently imitable in the sense that a clear presentation of theory, method, and evidence make it easy for readers to apply his methodological models to their own research interests and to re-present his findings in the classroom. His book deals mainly with Homeric epic, but will also be of interest to students of the Homeric hymns, Greek Drama, Herodotus, Hesiod, Pindar, and Thucydides. In what follows, I summarize the contents of Pointing at the Past.

Chapter One, “Peripheral and Nuclear Semantics,” recasts Milman Parry’s conceptions of length and thrift or economy by looking at formulaic systems in terms of a nucleus (e.g. a noun) to which a peripheral element (e.g. an epithet) attaches. As a case study of what aspects of Homer’s idiom can be treated as peripheral to a nucleus, B. explores whether dative expressions for “spear” are peripheral to verbs that mean “to kill” or “to wound.” There are three conditions for peripheral elements: (1) “neutrality with respect to context” (pp. 5-6); (2) “metrical diversity” (pp. 6-7); and (3) “the meaning of ornamental adjectives” (pp. 8-10). For present purposes, the last condition for peripheral elements will illustrate how semantics, always central to B.’s discussion, comes to bear in this chapter. In order for the expressions “shining spear” and “sharp spear” to be peripheral elements, the epithets “shining” and “sharp,” specifically in a context where those spear-expressions are peripheral to verbs that mean “to kill” or “to wound,” cannot (semantically) oppose one another in a way that would require or prevent the use of either epithet. More important is the capacity of a singer of tales to adapt a peripheral element to a prosodic environment, to metrically extend the nucleus, so that meaning is subordinated to function. In fact, as B. demonstrates, it is systematic adaptation of a set of peripheral elements (e.g. dative expressions for “spear”) to prosodic environments that distinguishes “oral, spontaneous versification” from “written, planned versification” (p. 2; cf. p. 21) Yet, this is not to say that meaning is irrelevant. B. rounds out the chapter with a compelling description of how the contexts in which dative expressions for “spear” occur determine whether those expressions are peripheral or “significant.”

Dative expressions for “spear” also serve as the case study in Chapter Two, “Formula, Content, and Synonymy,” where B. stresses the importance of context and emergence, over and against strictly formal criteria, for understanding how formulaic systems work. The Parryan concept of economy concerns, in part, how Homeric language generates sets of synonymous items that have equivalent meaning but metrical variety. A “violation” of economy occurs when two or more items in a set of expressions are synonymous and prosodically equivalent. The set of dative expressions for “spear” contains a number of pairs that have the same metrical composition. According to strictly formal criteria, these pairs violate the rules for economy. B. introduces diachronic, semantic, and poetic aspects of synonymy to demonstrate that apparently synonymous and metrically identical dative expressions for “spear” actually have different meanings and, so, do not violate the rules for economy. What we can take away from this study is, first, a more inclusive conception of synonymy that validates Parry’s identification of the importance of synonymy for Homeric verse-making, and, second, a greater awareness of the role of context in the description of formulaic systems.

B. undertakes the herculean task of answering the question “what exactly does ‘oral’ mean?” (p. 38). In Chapter Three, “How Oral is Oral Composition?” B. makes a preliminary theoretical distinction between language medium (oral versus written) and conception of language (oral versus literate). Whereas, in terms of medium, there is a relatively distinct opposition between “oral” and “written,” in terms of conception, “oral” and “literate” are two poles on a continuum. Actual discourses can be located along this continuum, showing that in practice they “will display both oral and literate features in varying ratios” (p. 39). B. exposes the cultural bias implicit in the very designations “oral” and “literate”: orality assumes contrast with a norm, namely literacy. This cultural bias even informs how we conceive of enjambment, one of the often-invoked litmus tests for orality. Given that the sentence is a stylistic norm from the point of view of a cultural outlook that privileges writing and literacy, if we conceive of enjambment as the failure of verse and sentence to coincide, then we impose stylistic criteria upon Homeric poetry that are alien to the medium. Drawing from the field of discourse analysis, B. recommends that we instead approach enjambment in terms of “intonation units,” the segmentation of spoken discourse into cognitively digestible parcels. He goes on to describe the poetic effects that occur when intonation units extend from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. The example of enjambment conceived of in terms of intonation units demonstrates that the poetic effects of enjambment depend upon the voice, not writing. A significant consequence of this finding is that, even if we are presented with Homeric texts in a written medium, we can recognize that these texts were composed on the basis of an oral conception of language.

In Chapter Four, “Mimesis as Performance,” B. explores the relevance of the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s monumental work Mimesis for contemporary understanding of Homeric style.2 Auerbach’s “static” conception of mimesis focuses upon the relationship between the foregrounded written text and the backgrounded world that such a text represents. Here, mimesis is a matter of treating a text as a sign that points or refers to some reality. What Auerbach found remarkable about Homeric mimesis, so conceived, is the lack of a referent for the text; instead, the style of Homeric narrative filled out the foreground so completely that it, in a sense, occluded any backgrounded reality. Another way of putting this is to say that, for Auerbach, Homeric style did not operate like a linguistic experience, characterized by the capacity of a sign to point to something else, but like a visual experience through which the narrative presents itself immediately to the senses. Extending his discussions of formula, orality, and intonation units to his evaluation of Auerbach’s view of Homeric narrative, B. invites us to think about Homeric mimesis from the point of view of speech and performance. This shift in perspective makes it possible to conceive of mimesis in dynamic terms as the relationship between the foregrounded “current” speech process in performance and the background of prior performances. While recognizing the inappropriateness of Auerbach’s assumption that Homer’s was a written style, B. astutely calls attention to the aptness of Auerbach’s observations about the visual quality of Homeric narrative in light of the perspective of speech and performance, writing that “[t]he poet’s ‘seeing’ of reality is a remembrance of earlier poets’—and ultimately the Muses’—seeing of that same reality. The vision of the Muses was detailed and specific, which in less mystic terms amounts to emphasizing the importance of imagery for the Homeric performance as a cognitive act of re-creation” (p. 70). Corresponding nicely to his discussion of Homeric mimesis, in Chapter Five, “The Poetics of Deixis,” B. explores how in Homeric and Hesiodic narrative the deictic demonstrative houtos simultaneously points to distant experience and links that distant experience to the present of performance, the immediate context of interaction between performer and audience.

B. next addresses what he identifies as “a central issue in Homeric scholarship,” the question of whether Homeric tradition represents a “truth” or a “fiction” (p. 92). Chapter Six, “Storytelling in the Future,” jettisons an absolute or wholly objective (and modern) conception of “truth” in favor of a multidimensional perspective. Such a point of view enables a Homeric audience to witness the dynamic relationship between past narrated events, which can be viewed as completed and, so, “objectively,” and the present action and process of performance, which is a matter of mutual belief in a speech act comprising the capabilities of memory and word-power.

In Chapter Seven, “Similes, Augment, and the Language of Immediacy,” B. takes up another Homeric question, the stylistic differences between similes and the narrative that frames them. One influential tendency among attempts to explain these stylistic differences is the view that the language of similes represents a diachronically later stratum of Homeric idiom than the language of the framing narrative. By exploring the function of verbal augment in Homer’s language, B. demonstrates that at the stage of development in ancient Greek language represented by Homeric texts, verbal augment served to signal proximity, not pastness, as in later Attic usage. In other words, if we take morphology and deixis to be (relatively) discrete domains of grammar, in Homeric idiom verbal augment has a dominantly deictic function. Similes then, which, as B.’s statistical analysis shows, favor the use of verbal augment with aorist verbs, are constituted by the “language of immediacy.” One implication of this finding is that an empirical analysis of the communicative functions of grammar in similes should take precedence over attempts to read our Homeric texts as a stratigraphic record. Another implication is that the language of immediacy in similes gives us a glimpse of the Homeric singer of tales in performance at the moment when the poet turns to the audience and uses a register that acknowledges their presence and contribution to the emergent work of art.

In Chapter Eight, “Remembering the God’s Arrival,” B. shows that by looking at the operation of cognitive dimensions of poetics we can identify how the Delian and Pythian portions of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo constitute a whole, integrated work. The key aspects of cognition that B. focuses upon are memory and perception. Starting with the former, B. stipulates that we would do well to approach the “conception of memory in archaic Greek poetics as a function of the dominant medium of communication of that culture: speech and performance” (p. 141). Keeping this at the fore of his discussion, B.’s study of the semantics of Homeric language concludes that “remembering is making present” (p. 145). Turning to the question of perception, B. examines how contextualized use and morphological features of verbal tenses have the pragmatic force of locating events that the act of narration relates within the perceptual field of the speaker. B. goes on to describe how the semantics of noêsai“to recognize” informs the enargeia“vividness” of the opening to the Hymn to Apollo; here, I cite B. at length:

The poet is capable, due to his noos, of “remembering” the god, which implies both seeing him and accomplishing his presence. The god’s arrival is at the same time a speech act and a mind act: the speech act of mnêsasthai [ Hymn to Apollo l. 1] is the fulfillment of the mind act of noêsai. The god’s presence now, with his terrifying bows and arrows, is a visualization of the poet’s noêma. (pp. 151-152).

After recapitulating his arguments and convincingly demonstrating how the opening of the Hymn to Apollo and the second arrival scene at the start of the Pythian portion of the song complement one another, B. concludes his analysis by deftly demonstrating how such an integrated Homeric Hymn to Apollo is a reflex of the integrated performance of the song.

Chapter Nine, “Mohammed and the Mountain,” takes its title from a formulation for a complex problem in deictic reference, the kind of reference entailed when a deictic element of language points to an item that only memory or imagination can access. The question then becomes one of the deictic “trajectory.” Does deixis shift the item from memory or imagination to the context of interaction in a speech situation? Or, does deixis shift the speakers from the hic et nunc of their speech situation to the locus of the item in memory or imagination? As B. puts it: “either the mountain comes to Mohammed or Mohammed goes to the mountain” (p. 156). B. is here following the formulation of Karl Bühler for the phenomenon of what that seminal linguist called Deixis am Phantasma.3 B. applies Deixis am Phantasma to a study of the differences in the way that epic and historiography, two narrative genres, effect the quality of enargeia“vividness.” Through a very careful and illuminating study of verbal tense and of how Homer and Thucydides connect their audiences with past events, B. demonstrates that, whereas Thucydides takes us to the mountain, Homer brings the mountain to us. We can then understand enargeia empirically as a matter of locating the deictic center of narration in the here and now of performance in the case of Homeric poetics, in contrast to Thucydides, whose enargeia locates the deictic center of narration in the past events, so that his audience members become virtual spectators of those events. “The difference,” B. tells us, “is in the final analysis one between speech and writing, between the deictic orientation of performance and that of written narrative designed to be received in reading” (p. 175).

To conclude this review, I notice errors in presentation only, all minor.4 My largest complaint about Pointing at the Past is also minor, in addition to being, finally, a positive evaluation of B.’s latest book. Because B.’s use of linguistics and approaches to narrative, textuality, and orality have so much to offer the disciplines that nourish his work—e.g. sociolinguistics, ethnopragmatics, folklore, and anthropology—I would prefer to see all key Greek words transliterated for the sake of user-friendliness for readers who do not know ancient Greek. This is a small way to enable the transdisciplinary cross-fertilization that can result in the kind of first-rate contribution to scholarly dialogue that B.’s book is.


1. Chapter One = (with Florence Fabbricotti) “Peripheral and Nuclear Semantics in Homeric Diction. The Case of Dative Expressions for ‘Spear’,” Mnemosyne 44 (1991): 63-84. Chapter Two = (with Nina van den Houten) “Aspects of Synonymy in Homeric Formulaic Diction: An Investigation of Dative Expressions for ‘Spear’,” Classical Philology 87.1 (1992): 1-13. Chapter Three = “How Oral is Oral Composition?” in Signs of Orality, ed. E.A. Mackay (Brill: Leiden, 1999), 29-47. Chapter Four = “Mimesis as Performance: Rereading Auerbach’s First Chapter,” Poetics Today 20 (1999): 11-26. Chapter Five = “Homeric ΟΥΤΟΣ and the Poetics of Deixis,” Classical Philology 94.1 (1999): 1-19. Chapter Six = “Storytelling in the Future: Truth, Time, and Tense in Homeric Epic,” in Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance, and the Epic Text, eds. E.J. Bakker and A. Kahane (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 11-36. Chapter Seven = “Similes, Augment, and the Language of Immediacy,” in Speaking Volumes: Orality and Literacy in the Greek and Roman World, ed. J. Watson (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1-23. Chapter Eight = “Remembering the God’s Arrival,” in Epos and Mythos: Language and Narrative in Homeric Epic, eds. M. Malamud and C. Higbie, Arethusa 35 (2002): 63-81.

2. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. W.R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).

3. Karl Bühler, Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache (Stuttgart and New York: Gustav Fischer, 1982 [1934]).

4. Here I list a sampling of such errors, randomly selected. A singular verb “lies” appears in a sentence with a plural subject (p. 7). One use of the expression “zero-anaphora” is hyphenated (p. 17), another is not (p. 18 n. 41). One quotation has an opening quotation mark but lacks a closing quotation mark (pp. 56-57).