BMCR 2007.04.05

Pratiques poétiques de la memoire. Représentations de l’espace-temps en Grèce ancienne

, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire : représentations de l'espace-temps en Grèce ancienne. Textes à l'appui. Histoire classique. Paris: Découverte, 2006. 321 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 2707147982. €29.00 (pb).

In this ambitious book Calame (henceforth C.) invites the reader to examine the role of time in ancient and modern thought, using case studies to re-evaluate specific hermeneutic models. Many recent works of scholarship have examined Space, Time and Space/Time as topics in their own right, as forces which interact with, and shape, cultures and ideologies, rather than forming unproblematic contexts for specific instantiations. Over several decades C.’s work on myth, ritual and identity has made a significant contribution to ways of thinking about the classical past, so he is in a strong position to critique the field. Several themes from his earlier scholarship are reworked and developed in this book, which build towards the general thesis that the study of Greek temporality provides an ideal window into our own processes of creating history. C.’s interest in the subject/object divide and the creation of identity is combined with a self-reflective approach to the critical processes of scholarship. The book is well produced, with a detailed table of contents. While it is probably not feasible to provide an index for such a densely structured set of arguments, an index locorum would have been helpful for those who may approach this work with an interest in particular genres or periods.

Chapter 1 provides an eclectic analysis of modern thought, combining anthropological and historical perspectives. Modern and ancient historiography is juxtaposed with philosophical reflection, and comment on the role of memory, performance and poetry in the spatio-temporal discourse of particular communities. This chapter also explains the role of comparative material in C.’s thought, creating and collapsing oppositions to create a locus for negotiation of issues of identity. The chapter closes with brief comment on the four paradigms which C. regards as central to modern thought, namely structuralism, gender studies, new idealist philosophy, and neo-mysticism. The following chapters suggest that each of these approaches can be reconfigured, opening up new avenues for investigating ancient and modern modes of thought.

Chapter 2 begins with a detailed analysis of temporal process in Hesiod’s ‘Ages of Man’ in Works and Days, expanding on C.’s earlier analyses of the power of poetry to deflect future violence in the mythological narrative as presented in the text. This chapter presents a series of interlocking discussions, beginning with a challenge to traditional terms of debate, with particular attention to structuralist methodologies. C. argues that the term ‘races’ misses the key point of the passage, which is its focus on ‘generations’ or ‘families’. The passage can only be understood with its own temporal logic in the context of the larger narrative, and the ‘Ages of Man’ should not be viewed as a mythos but a logos, forming part of a sequence of logoi in the overall didactic framework of the passage and the poem as a whole. For Calame, the logoi build towards a consistent message about the correct attitudes of justice and morality that underpin a prosperous society. Detailed linguistic analysis follows, highlighting changes in patterns of vocabulary as the focus moves from the generation of gods to the creation of mortals. C. sees the process of temporal distortion beginning with the men of gold, where the narrative conflates ideas of closed temporal states, the aorist in chronological sequence, with an awareness of the ever-renewed, eternal present of poetry. The discussion is extended to consideration of the relationship between the narrative voice and the development of the stages of the logos, inviting comparison with the passages of direct address to Perseus. The ‘Ages of Man’ has often been seen as anomaly amongst more traditional Greek uses of the past, but, as C. points out, our lack of evidence about the practices and beliefs of the period should advise caution. C. draws parallels between the Hesiodic structures and the sequencing strategies of early biblical time, and concludes by suggesting that Hesiod’s poem displays a far greater literary and philosophical sophistication than is often credited to archaic poetry

Chapter 3 considers the figure of Theseus, who has been the subject of C.’s interest from his earliest work. This examination of the role of Theseus in Bacchylides 17 suggests that the myth builds into a temporal framework centred around the Athenian empire. C. discusses the tensions between linear and circular representations of time, and the relationship to gendered ritual spaces. The material in this chapter often suffers from elliptical expression, as it moves from archaic poetry and vase painting to comparison with initiation rituals from Papua New Guinea. The analysis takes an approach which C. developed more fully in his 1996 volume on Eros,1 and not all readers will be persuaded. The anthropological perspective here fails to take adequate account of recent work on Greek spatial dynamics, and the ways in which C. characterises the current state of ‘gender studies’ struck me as curiously outdated. His remarks seemed aimed at the style of work on gender which was typical of the late 1980s. Since the 1990s there has been a school of gender analysis which has provided exactly the sort of sophisticated engagement with other disciplines that C. here calls for. The questions which C. raises, such as the birth/rebirth mythological schema in the Theseus myths, would have benefited from more explicit comment on analyses of the female voice, and the gendered aspect of mortality in Greek thought.2

Chapter 4 looks at the Cyrene foundation decree and the interplay between Delphi and Cyrene. C. has previously discussed the role of Apollo in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo and here considers further aspects of the role of architecture as a reflection and constitutive factor of community identity. The process and the moment of foundation as a city has an aoristic aspect referring to a mytho-historical event, in which the city is seen as a fixed object. From the other perspective, the understanding of the city as a process, or a series of processes, creates a repeated aspect of foundation, problematising the idea of foundation as a point of origin in a system of cause and effect. C. draws our attention to the different ways in which the citizens of Cyrene may have conceptualised their city and history as part of an evolving social and spatial matrix. The act of colonisation and the journeys which led to the settlement could be considered together with an awareness that divine favour centred around particular points in the city, and that oracular pronouncements worked with a particular temporal landscape, where the ‘here and now’ took second place to a broader perspective. C. argues that scholarship has tended to compartmentalise the different aspects of community identity. By examining the verbal and performative aspects of foundation C. demonstrates how the creation of time is essentially a political act, both in the sense of wider ‘polis-identity’ and in the negotiation of individual political decisions and strategies.

Chapter 5 explores the temporal orientation of language in the gold leaf tablet from Hipponion (Pugliese Carratelli I A 1).3 This text, together with the Derveni papyrus, has attracted considerable attention because of the eschatological schemata implied, and the social contexts of projecting identity into an afterlife.4 C. discusses the awareness of future reading in the original conception of the text, and situates this in the wider context of mortality and individual identity, linking philosophical shifts with literary self-reflexivity. C. explores the ambiguous relationships between Dionysus, Orpheus and early Christian thought, and considers ideas of collective identity in death. While individual salvation becomes more prominent than in earlier periods, the community is still central, as the individual can join a privileged elite after death, be it as a literary giant or as a beneficiary of divine favour. This chapter works well with the previous chapter’s discussions of perception of self in the temporal continuum and the interplay of individual and divine focus. Mnemosyne emerges as a central figure looking in both directions, bringing the heroic past into the present and looking forward into a future which becomes a form of eternal present.

In a brief conclusion C. comments on the way modern spatio-temporal nodes reflect our political realities, and how the idea of time is a fundamental factor in what we call humanity. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book which has something to offer to those who have been influenced by C’s work, while also providing useful lines of enquiry for those who wish to reflect on the processes of scholarship linking the ancient world to the 21st Century.


1. Claude Calame, L’Eros dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Éditions Belin, 1996.

2. Work on the female voice and gaze has been a subject of considerable attention in the past 20 years, as indicated by the sophisticated methodological approach taken by M. B. Skinner ‘Ladies’ Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas, and the Gendered Gaze’ in André Lardinois and Laura McClure (edd.), Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, Ch. 11. Beaumont’s work on artistic representations of adolescence has indicated the complexities of dualistic ideas of mortality and gender; see, for example, ‘Born Old or Never Young? Femininity, Childhood and the Goddesses of Ancient Greece’ in S. Blundell and M. Williamson (edd.), The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. NY: Routledge, 1998, Ch. 5. There may be an issue of national emphasis here, as Ellen Greene’s 2005 edited collection, Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005 was described as ‘typically an American one’ in Viarre’s review (BMCR 2005.11.05).

3. G. Pugliese Carratelli, Le lamine d’oro orfiche. Milano Adelphi, 2001.

4. See, for example, Glenn W. Most, ‘The Fire Next Time. Cosmology, Allegoresis, and Salvation in the Derveni Papyrus’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 117, (1997), pp. 117-135.