BMCR 2007.07.30

Response: Compton on Lefkowitz on Todd Compton, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman And Indo-European Myth and History

Response to 2007.02.09

Response by

I was honored to have Mary Lefkowitz review my Victim of the Muses. Her book, The Lives of the Poets, is a key book for the study of the Greek poets, and I referred to it often in my research. I was particularly intrigued by her comments on phthonos. However, she and I sometimes approach the same subject from different perspectives (I have more of a history of religions focus), and I thought it would be worthwhile to explain my point of view on some of the issues she raises.

Lefkowitz writes, “Compton defines the notion of poet broadly, expanding it to include non-poets and certain mythical figures.” In my view, I do not include non-poets; if one allows me the broad definition, the figures I include are poets. In defense of my broad definition, I should mention that many ancient views of poetry are broader than modern definitions and also that my perspective includes non-Greco-Roman cultures. Morton Bloomfield, in grappling with the “broad” nature of archaic poetry, writes that early poets often wrote or recited poetry that by modern definition would be prose—see his quote in Victim, pp. xi-xii, see also p. 22 (the poetic consecration of Aesop, who wrote fables) and pp. 283-285 (the archaic Indo-European poetic categories of praise and blame in Greco-Roman oratory).

Lefkowitz writes, “The book’s title (reinforced by photograph of Marsyas on the cover) seems misleading. It is only characters in myth, like Marsyas, Thamyris, or Aeneas’ hapless comrade Misenus who get into trouble for being foolhardy enough to challenge the gods . . .” The life of Aesop, which I take as paradigmatic to a certain extent, explicitly compares Aesop to Marsyas, and Aesop’s enmity with Apollo is comparable to Marsyas’. They both had an ambiguous “positive” connection with Apollo also. Plato subtly links Socrates (mythical construct though the Platonic Socrates may be) to both Aesop and Marsyas. Yes, as Lefkowitz writes, the poet often honors the deity who has given him or her the gift of poetry, and then that gift causes him or her to be persecuted by “mortal phthonos.” Nevertheless, the legendary poets sometimes felt that the gods had persecuted them. The legendary Homer cries out, “To what a fate did Father Zeus deliver me as a prey . . . Yet I will endure the doom which heaven gave me even at my birth.” (See Victim, p. 72.) The fact that Aesop is judged and executed by the priesthood of Apollo at the god’s cult-center, Delphi, shows that sometimes the poets felt that deity was controlling the poet’s unjust persecution by society. Of course, in polytheism, often a hero may be pursued by one god and supported by another; a female deity and the Muses had earlier given Aesop a poetic consecration in the tradition of Hesiod and Archilochus.

Lefkowitz writes, “Compton also seems curiously reluctant to accord a determining role to history.” She then points out that Ovid was exiled because he offended a powerful person and that “the primary motive in the minds of his persecutors was not re-enactment of the ancient scapegoat ritual.” I should point out that I take Aesop and the pharmakos as a vivid starting point, but that my book has a much broader focus than the classic pharmakos ritual (and incidentally, I’m less interested in ritual than in narrative themes of exclusion and persecution that recur in poetic biography). Whenever a poet was exiled, adversely judged, or executed I tried to look carefully at the story, whether it was historical, legendary or mythical. The word “history” appears in my title, and the interpenetration of history and legend is a constant theme in my book. At Victim, p. 323, I state “in Rome we have entered history . . . All our Roman poets are certainly historical.” While Plato’s Socrates may be idealized, the historic Socrates was judged and executed by his polis. I wanted to investigate why a certain type of society tends to hate, judge, exclude or execute a certain type of poet. So, in my view, I accept an important determining role for history. Since Ovid was exiled, I sought to understand the historical and social reasons for the exclusion. He apparently offended one powerful leader, which is a prominent pattern for poetic exclusion (see, e.g., the Homer legend), another being the poet excluded by a communal action. I did not try to show that Ovid was beaten, or stoned or thrown over a cliff, or was a hunchback; instead, I examined the possibility that Augustus exiled Ovid because of offensive themes in Ovid’s poetry. I also looked at the theological ideology that Ovid drew upon in explaining his exile (here, once again, he blamed the Muses), and the experience of exile, as found in Ovid’s poetry.

Lefkowitz writes, “Once we start out by looking for a particular pattern, we are inclined to find it. . . . Although Compton helps us to see how the pharmakos myth might have played a role in shaping the narratives about some ancient writers, as he observes, it does not and cannot tell the whole story. Some writers are simply not pharmakoi. In his biography Sophocles never went into exile, but was honored with a hero cult after his death.” I fully agree with Lefkowitz’s statement that “Some writers are simply not pharmakoi.” My book does not try to survey the lives of all major Greco-Roman (let alone Indo-European) poets; I was selective, and my book consciously has a much narrower focus than that. I survey a certain type of poet, often the satirist or a blame poet. Many of the great poets’ legendary or historical lives follow entirely different patterns. Lefkowitz’s example of Sophocles is a good example, as is Horace or Virgil. As I write on pp. xii-xiii, “Many poets, in fact, even many satirists, are not in any way related to the [scapegoat-exile] pattern. Many seem to follow a different pattern, the bright mirror inversion of the dark scapegoat satirist, so to speak . . . However, the ‘dark’ pattern is found frequently enough to be an important pattern.” (For my placement of Sophocles in the positive, peaceful line of poetic biography, see p. 130.)

Lefkowitz writes, “If in the absence of historical information biographers sought to use myth as the framework of their narratives . . .” In my view, this clearly occurred, and often, but there are many other mixtures of legend and history in the biographies of poets. For instance, Plato mythologized history not in the absence of historical information, but as a first-hand witness to the relevant history; he added mythological embroidering to historical events very soon after Socrates’ death. The ancient poetic biography is a genre composed of all types and mixtures of myth, legend, ridiculous guesses and history.

Lefkowitz writes “What remains unclear, even after a review of all the disparate evidence that Compton has assembled, is why a basically demeaning narrative pattern was used to describe poets and singers. Aggression, ambivalence, envy, are all involved, but we do not yet know enough about the mythologizing process to come up with anything like a definite answer.” It is a remarkable feature of the ancient Greek outlook that the Greek mythological heroes so often lived lives of extraordinary misery, despite their heroic accomplishments—one thinks of Oedipus, Heracles, Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon. Greek tragedy—which generally took its plots from such stories—shows that the Greeks almost had a thirst for their heroes’ humiliation and sometimes horrifying misery. It is not surprising that the creator of legendary biography would apply to Greek athletes, or to Greek poets, stories of the sort that Fontenrose studied in his classic article “The Athlete as Hero.” So I would disagree with Lefkowitz that we are at square one in understanding Greek myth and tragedy as they apply to the lives of the poets (since we’re not at square one in understanding Greek myth and tragedy). If one is inclined to allow the sacrificial interpretations of Greek myth and tragedy advanced by such scholars as Walter Burkert, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Richard Seaford, and Helene Foley, the background of sacrifice may become increasingly relevant.