BMCR 2009.02.29

Response: Friedrich on Beck on Rainer Friedrich, Formular Economy in Homer. The Poetics of the Breaches

Response to 2008.10.27

Response by

I should like to clarify a point which I obviously did not sufficiently emphasize in my book.

The reviewer, Professor Beck, writes: “Friedrich offers a brief conclusion to Part I at the end of the list in which he asserts that the breaches of economy occur in Homer to a greater extent than has been hitherto supposed (65).” This is how the complete sentence on p. 65 of my monograph runs: “The evidence presented in Tables I to III has confirmed G.P. Edwards’ surmise that breaches of economy occur in Homer to a greater extent than has been hitherto supposed.” It’s not post-oralist Friedrich’s assertion but oralist Edwards’ surmise (paraphrased on p. 65 and previously quoted on p.30 in my book). I mention this because two leading oralists, Richard Janko and Gregory Nagy, seem to share Edwards’ surmise: as a result, both have demoted formular economy from “most decisive factor” in an oral diction (as Nagy originally, in line with Parry and Lord, had categorized it) to a mere “trend toward thrift” (Nagy) and “tendency of economy” (Janko). This demotion may explain why relatively little has been written on formular economy after Parry and Lord; and I think the little that has been written I have covered in my monograph.

Nevertheless, the reviewer takes me to task for having ignored (and possibly for being ignorant of) the rich literature on the oral formula and on the aesthetics of oral poetry. Yet these are not the topics of my book; its topic is specific and limited, namely formular economy. What I say beyond that on post-orality is only tentative and designed to adumbrate the possible larger conclusions from the evidence concerning the roles of orality and literacy in the composition of the Homeric epics. Here I have to stress what I seem not to have stressed vigorously enough: that my monograph on formular economy is only the prolegomenon to, and thus a subordinate part of, a larger work in progress, with the working title Post-oral Homer: Orality and Literacy in Archaic Greek Epic (most likely a mega biblion mega kakon). That will be the proper locus where the secondary literature, which Professor Beck finds missing in my monograph, is to be discussed, especially the various concepts of the formula and the poetics of oral composition.

It is one of the blessings, when focusing on formular economy, that one need not deal with formular theory and its many definitions of the formula (I have so far counted more than a dozen)— for one simple reason: the oral principle of formular economy applies to only one concept of the formula: the verbatim repeated and metrically equivalent expressions, those answering to Milman Parry’s well-known definition. This, I think, says something about the other concepts and definitions. But that is another story to be dealt with in the larger piece.