BMCR 2007.09.01

Penser sans concepts: fonction de l’épopée guerrière. Bibliothèque de Littérature Générale et Comparée, 61

, Penser sans concepts : fonction de l'épopée guerrière : Iliade, Chanson de Roland, Hôgen et Heiji monogatari. Bibliothèque de littérature générale et comparée, 61. Paris: Champion, 2006. 585 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 2745312774 €43.00.

In this comparative study, G. examines how martial epics from three different cultures (the Homeric Iliad, the medieval French Chanson de Roland, and the medieval Japanese Hôgen and Heiji monogatari) offer their audiences the intellectual tools to assess complex political situations. In her view, epic “thinks through characters” rather than “through concepts”; that is, the narratives dramatize the conflict between the rival ideological perspectives maintained by various characters in preference to advancing a linear argument toward a definite conclusion through the use of conceptual reasoning. The epics furthermore employ a series of structural devices, such as parallels, contrasts, and juxtapositions, to enable the audience to compare different characters, narrative outcomes, and ideological positions. According to G., the primary goal of each of these epics is to help the audience envision a new political situation: the development of the polis in Homer’s Iliad; the centralization of monarchal power in the 12th century Chanson de Roland; and the birth of a stable feudal system in the 13th century Hôgen and Heiji monogatari.

This lengthy book is divided into three roughly equal parts devoted to each epic. The Japanese epics are treated as a diptych, and the Chanson de Roland receives the briefest treatment. The section on the Iliad first examines how the epic initially imposes the appearance of order on the world of the battlefield. For example, the narrative ritualization of combat and the deployment of stories of the heroic past assist in making a potentially chaotic world intelligible. Battle now appears as a series of duels between clearly defined, opposed camps rather than the confused melee that obtains in real warfare, while the exploits of Heracles or the Seven against Thebes provide conceptual models for understanding the actions of the current generation of heroes. Yet the Iliad next proceeds to destabilize the appearance of order, employing a narrative movement that G. will later claim to be characteristic of epic in general. To continue the examples, melees eventually replace duels in the “Great Day of Battle,” and Hector’s donning of Achilles’ armor points toward “l’indistinction radicale”.

G. next examines Homer’s use of “parallel-homologies”. Agamemnon and Zeus face comparable challenges from putative subordinates (Achilles, Hera) who demand honor. Zeus’ response to insubordinate deities implies the threat of tyranny that could conceivably result on earth if Agamemnon were permitted a free hand against Achilles. The epic’s references to discrete events from the career of Heracles offer conceptual models both for assessing Achilles’ behavior and for comprehending the interpenetration of divine and human worlds. Hera’s hostile interventions against Heracles are efforts to protect the social order against Zeus’ arbitrary promotion of his favorite. The interpenetration of divine and human worlds in the Iliad has given rise to famous problems of interpretation. Here, unfortunately, they are treated far too dogmatically and not placed in the context of any relevant scholarly discussions.

Lastly, G. considers “parallel-differences.” She traces the different narrative trajectories of Hector, Diomedes, and Paris, whom she associates respectively with the three Dumézilian functions. Achilles and Zeus are both separated from their communities, but the former is eventually reintegrated while the latter maintains his superior distance. The section concludes with an examination of the evolution of values in episodes such as Agamemnon’s reconciliation with Achilles and Achilles’ administration of the funeral games. G. attempts to add nuance to the Dumézilian template by acknowledging that characters discharge multiple functions simultaneously. For example, Hector both fights and leads, and he shows the superiority of his royal function over his warrior function in passages such as Il. 22.99-110, where he rebukes himself not for cowardice but for a poor tactical decision. There is no introduction to Dumézilian theory for the uninitiated or unsympathetic, however, nor any response to the substantial body of scholarly criticism of trifunctionalism.

Despite the considerable length of the Iliadic section of this book, as long in itself as many monographs on Homer, the non-specialist reader is generally given an artificially simplified view of the problems in interpreting Homer and the alternative approaches to the questions set out by G. Though G. provides copious citation of the Iliad, the Odyssey is rarely cited for evidentiary purposes, and Hesiod is noticed only briefly. Further consideration of the diverse visions of the relationship between the leader and his society provided in these texts would have been extremely valuable for G.’s argument. The lone reference to Nagy’s magnum opus, which G. renders as “The Best of [sic] Acheans [sic]”, is only mobilized to reject ritual interpretation (Vernant and Detienne are cited, but for quite different purposes). While the evolution of the polis forms the telos of the Iliadic section of the book, only the briefest discussion (pp. 217-20) attempts to place this development in its historical or archaeological contexts.

Others more qualified than this reviewer will have to evaluate G.’s discussions of the Chanson de Roland and the Japanese epics. I shall offer a brief summary here. The Chanson de Roland has been criticized for its repetitive, simplistic structure and for its apparent purpose as propaganda for the Crusades. G. argues that the structure is in fact perfect for its role as an “outil intellectuel” rather than a straightforward narrative, and that any propagandistic purpose is secondary to the primary purpose of redefining the political relationships obtaining in medieval Francia. Like the Iliad, the epic relates archaic events in order to set forth a new political vision: that of a powerful monarchy rather than one where local seigneurs reign supreme. Parallel-difference and homology are the principal narrative devices employed here. Thus, for example, Roland thinks in terms of personal glory while Olivier thinks in terms of service to Charlemagne and his country. Charlemagne replaces the collection of unruly, feuding heroes like Roland with a cohesive army fully subordinate to himself, a “substitution” which suggests the contrast between monarchal power and seigneurial divisiveness. Yet, as G. justly observes, we focus on the lone hero Roland and his “apparat mythifiant” (357) rather than Charlemagne’s anonymous troops and the new political relationship between subject and leader that they signify.

The Japanese epics differ from the other epics discussed in this book in that they address recent, historical events and include non-heroic characters. They relate the “troubles” of the years 1156-60, when conflicts erupted between different factions for control of the imperial government. The outbreak of civil war destroys the normal relationships that enable social and familial stability. Subjects turn against their emperor, hereditary vassals murder their lords in the bathtub, and family members take up arms against one another. The texts place their central characters in extraordinary conflicts of obligation. For example, the loyalist Yoshitomo is ordered to execute his own father, the rebel Tameyoshi. The specific question of whether this particular order should be obeyed introduces the general question of when and under what circumstances a subject should obey his emperor.

G. makes the convincing argument that these texts gain in nuance from being viewed as a diptych. Yoshitomo’s decision to execute his father in obedience to the emperor, the subject of a debate with his underlings in the Hôgen, is revealed in the Heiji monogatari as a terrible mistake. The commission of parricide, the ultimate crime in the patriarchal Confucian system governing this epic world, is never justifiable. It is the emperor’s error to make such a command, not the subject’s should he choose to disobey him. Rather than offer blind obedience, it is the subject’s obligation to adhere to traditional morality. Another difference between the Japanese epics and the other texts is that non-heroic characters are able to contribute to the vision of a morality available to all. Yoshitomo’s young brother Otowaka, for example, displays the values that would later come to be known as bushidô when he and his other younger brothers are condemned to death.

A twelve-page “Conclusion Générale” sums up the results of the lengthy discussions. The comparisons remain at the level of grand structure: the texts use similar structural devices (parallels, contrasts) to advance their inquiry; they champion the values of the defeated (Hector, Roland, the family of Yoshitomo); and in a two-fold narrative movement, they impose order on the chaotic world of warfare and then proceed to undo simple oppositions. G. writes in a lucid, if often repetitive style, and endeavors to make the texts of multiple cultures accessible to the non-specialist through translation, summary, paraphrase, and prosopographical tables. The elementary indications on reading Old French and Japanese (pp. 225-6, 383) were helpful for this classicist, though the Greekless reader is not offered a comparable introduction to reading Homeric Greek.1 G. also criticizes the translations on which a non-specialist reader might be expected to depend. She points out, for example, that each of the three translations of the Iliad which she uses (Mazon’s Budé edition and the popular translations of Meunier and Fagles), psychologizing terms are employed that obscure the social dimensions of the argument of Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 1.2 Though salutary, these efforts are often taken too far in a book that is not aimed primarily at Hellenists.3

The main argument of this book is weakened by a series of extreme and unpersuasive claims regarding the purposes of epic. G. maintains4 that epic’s primary role is to enable political thought and that all other considerations (such as, for example, literary pleasure, establishment of communal identity, etc.) are secondary. This argument is implausible on its own terms, ignoring as it does epic’s vast repertoire of literary devices that have no direct bearing on enabling political thought. It is also implicitly contradicted by a second implausibly extreme claim: that the audience’s demands determine the fixed version of the texts deriving from an oral tradition, the Iliad and the Japanese epics (p. 364). No allowance is made for artistic independence, nor is evidence provided to support the claim that the redactors were giving their publics exactly what they wanted. In order to preserve the earlier claim that the primary purpose of the epic is to enable political thought, we are also obliged to imagine audiences composed entirely of political thinkers, rather than those in search of literary pleasure, involved in a ritual performance, or subject to political control.5

For the most part, Penser sans concepts draws its conclusions from the analysis of narrative structure, by isolating the parallels and contrasts discussed above and situating them within the epic’s larger persuasive scheme. The book also, however, employs a subsidiary group of methodologies of varying relevance and coherence. Much space is devoted to the rejection of psychologizing investigations of the texts (pp. 104-6 provides a characteristic example) in favor of anthropological and political approaches. G. never states, however, why psychological approaches are a priori invalid. Arguments in the first two parts of the book often lead to conclusions employing Dumézil’s theory of trifunctionalism, without (as noted above), any indication of why this theory should be viewed as relevant. Surprisingly, there is not a single mention of trifunctionalism in the discussion of the Japanese epics, in spite of the frequent reminders that the emperor’s ritual role takes precedence over his temporal one.

The scholarly apparatus is insufficient for a project of this ambition. Much of the 8-page bibliography is taken up by editions, translations, general introductions, and broad surveys. References to preceding scholarship are extremely light to begin with (an average of three citations per 20-page chapter) and are often irrelevant or imprecise. G. most often cites entire books rather than specific sections or pages in support of particular points. These books are most often general introductions rather than studies focused on the point at issue. The footnotes often allude to scholars without attributing works to them or presenting the necessary information in the bibliography. While specialists might be able to fill in the blanks (though they should not be required to), the non-specialists to whom this book is presumably addressed will be left without needed resources. Thus there is a slight irony in the fact that the only index provided is of the names of scholars cited in the text. While the lack of an index rerum is partially compensated by the careful organization and subdivision of chapters, the lack of an index locorum is regrettable in a book with such a large quantity of quotations from the primary texts.

G.’s choice of texts for discussion is fully justifiable, and (as noted above) the comparisons available between them await much further development and exploitation. Though it does not form part of Penser sans concepts, it appears that inclusion of Roman epic would also be a productive extension of the project introduced in this book, and on the penultimate page G. indeed advertises her forthcoming study of the Aeneid. Through prophecies, aetiologies, and direct narratorial interventions, Vergil’s Aeneid offers far more explicit statements regarding the relationship that it wishes to construct between mythical past and the current political situation of its audience than do any of the epics discussed in this book. A different series of comparisons could be exploited between the Japanese epics and Lucan’s Bellum Civile. These texts narrate the events of relatively recent history rather than mythical events; they were redacted roughly a century after the events they describe; and they occupy a lower position in the canon of epic. Their subject is a civil war which involves conflict between family members, challenges to the central virtue of filial piety, competition between novi homines (and the traditional aristocracy, and consideration of the exercise of imperial clementia (for the latter cf. p. 500). Furthermore, Hôgen gives major roles to anti-heroic characters and leads its audience to question the value of performing traditional deeds of martial prowess in the context of civil war (compare Lucan’s Pompey and Scaeva respectively); it transforms historically attested individuals into symbolic figures through “une pure construction rhétorique” (p. 464); and it alludes to the Buddhist concept that degenerate behavior speeds on the end of the world in a manner reminiscent of Lucan’s comparisons of civil war to the final cataclysm. On the level of individual details, it includes a suasoria whose multiple positions are argued by different characters (the specific question of whether Yoshitomo should obey the emperor’s command to execute his own father leads directly to the larger question of the moral justification of authority); and it even displays a similar interest in the recovery of enemy heads for the sake of reward (cf. p. 379 n. 1). There is evidently rich material available here for the comparatist interested in pursuing convergences between these non-canonical epics of civil war, and several of the central topics of this book’s inquiry appear to be addressed even more directly by Roman epic than by Greek.


1. Greek is often, though not uniformly, cited first in Romanized transliteration and then in Greek characters; Japanese is only cited in romaji.

2. Pp. 83-7; other examples e.g. at p. 97 n. 2.

3. The discussions of translations of πειράω /”tâter” (112 n. 2), ἁφάω /”toucher/palper” (151 n. 2) are lengthy and digressive, as is the three-page discussion of σχέτλιος at Il. 5.403 (pp. 135-8). G. does not indicate what philological problem necessitates an inquiry into the meaning of terms such as διίστημι, γέρας, and τιμή (pp. 100-1); she then asserts their contextual meaning without supporting evidence or reference to parallel texts or scholarly tools.

4. The claim is first made on p. 19 and then reiterated passim.

5. In making her argument for epic’s “adéquation aux demandes du public” (p. 364), G. takes the “Peisistratean recension” as the occasion of the production of a “fixed” text of the Iliad. The historicity of the “Peisistratean recension” remains unexplored, as do the ritual context and the political control over text and performance maintained by the dynasty.