E. Anne Mackay, Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999. Pp. viii + 261, incl. 15 halftones and 7 line illustrations. ISBN 0169-8958. US$85.50
Barry B. Powell,
University of Wisconsin-Madison
This Mnemosyne supplement presents papers given at a conference 'Epos and Logos,' held at the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa in July 1996. In a fine introduction, 'What's in a Sign' (pp. 1-27), John Miles Foley reviews the current state of oral studies, providing an 'Almanac of Homemade Proverbs' (pp. 11-13) which synthesizes a lifetime of thought about the topic: e.g., 'Oral traditions work like language, only more so.' Foley refers to the 'revisionist perspective' of the volume, a fair characterization of work carried on sixty years after Parry, but growing from his discoveries.
In the first chapter, 'How Oral is Oral Composition?' (pp. 29-47), Egbert Bakker emphasizes how common definitions of 'oral' and 'literate' have harmed our understanding. He deftly explains how sentence- division in modern published texts of Homer depend on conventions of literacy unknown to Homer or to his audience. By rebreaking the lines according to expressive units and ignoring modern sentence- division, Bakker shows us how Homeric rhetoric works, how when narrative tension is high the units of sense and rhythm become disjoined to generate an emotional effect. Here is a superb essay with original thought.
Elizabeth Minchin's 'Describing and Narrating in Homer's Iliad' (pp. 49-64), explains how Homer's natural mode of expression is narrative, how even in explicitly descriptive passages of objects he returns almost immediately to explanations of cause and effect (Minchin's useful definition of a narrative mode). To illustrate her point she prints a chart of 21 objects that Homer describes, tabulating standard elements: summary description, material, workmanship, size, notable feature, and history.
Steve Nimis, in 'Ring-Composition and Linearity in Homer' (pp. 65-78), takes on Keith Stanley's recent book, its method and implausible conclusions.[] Far from proving 'literate' authorship, such elaborate structures as ring-composition reflect the poet's method in composition in performance. Iliad Book 8 offers a test example. Nimis shows how Homer strives to move his story ahead while backtracking in a way familiar to all forms of oral expression. The will of Zeus, which lies behind the action, is really the will of Homer, who must somehow, in spite of uncertainties and setbacks, get his story told.
In a somewhat inconclusive essay, Ruth Scodel investigates 'Odysseus' Evasiveness and the Audience of the Odyssey' (pp. 79-93). Why does Odysseus refuse to identify himself on Scheria for so long? Scodel reviews psychological and narratological explanations and the odd attachment of prophecy to Odysseus' recognitions by Cyclops, Kirke, and even the Phaiakians. Such elements may reflect intentional mystification by the poet, perhaps a feature of his genre.
Wolfgang Kullmann begins with a sensible overview of an antique problem in 'Homer and Historical Memory' (pp. 95-113). Making use of Jan Vansina's important book, to which classicists should pay attention,[] Kullman reviews the shallowness of memory in oral traditions (around 80 years). For this reason nothing real, including details of the Trojan War, can have been transmitted from the Bronze Age. He perplexingly concludes, however, that 'epic possesses a historical consciousness' (p. 112), which Kullman believes to derive from (1) visible ruins, inspiring poetic elaboration; (2) 8th century speculation by Aeolians in the Troad; (3) backward projection of contemporary events, and actual literate memories from the East. To my own mind, however, we should reserve 'historical consciousness' to historical periods, which Homer's was not. And it is hard to believe that no continuous tradition connected the visible Lion's Gate, or the ruins of Troy, with olden times, so that the Trojan saga had to be invented whole hog in the Archaic Period. Epic is old and a greater past was remembered, even if folktale has occupied the narrative high ground.
An interesting art historical piece by Anne Mackay, Deirdre Harrison, and Samantha Masters, called 'The Bystander at the Ringside: Ring-Composition in Early Greek poetry and Athenian Black-Figure Vase-Painting' (pp. 115-142), returns to a topos in Homeric studies: the structural parallel between Homeric ring- composition and analogous patterns in Archaic Greek pottery. A potentially enlightening section on the François vase is hard to follow because there is no illustration (why?), but when the authors describe narrative conventions in the black and white plates included, the argument reveals much. Greek artists had a 'language' by which they told stories and we seem to be learning it. I remain unconvinced, however, that there are real connections between literary ring-composition and framing devices in Greek artistic narrative. With words, stories are told in a line, even if the words reminds you of something earlier; with pictures, you are not approaching the story sequentially, so we 'read' Greek pots, first, by recognizing the theme; second, the place of the illustration within the theme; third, details of identity, motion, and result. None of this is linear and there are different laws at work.
Niall W. Slater, in 'The Vase as Ventriloquist: Kalos-Inscriptions and the Culture of Fame' (pp. 143-161), tackles an utterly perplexing problem: what is the origin, meaning, and use of the thousands of kalos inscriptions on Attic vases, which appear around the mid-sixth century B.C., then peter out toward the end of the fifth? There is no simple answer, he pleads, but sophisticated evidence shows how such inscriptions must have heightened the kleos of certain young men; part of an erastic game no doubt, in many cases, yet there was always a broader audience than sender and receiver. Slater offers us much insight into the working of the all- male symposion.
Michael Gargarin, in 'The Orality of Greek Oratory' (pp. 163-180), presents an insightful analysis of stylistic distinctions between the speeches of Gorgias and Antiphon, attributing the difference to 'oral' and 'written' style. Unfortunately, 'oral' is too ill-defined for good results. Homer was an 'oral poet,' Gorgias presented his compositions 'orally,' hence both are oral, part of Greece's oral society. Thucydides, on the other hand, was meant to be 'read,' Gargarin argues. But Homer's 'orality' is different from that of Gorgias, who composed in writing; and Thucydides, too, must have been read aloud to listeners, hence was as 'oral' as Gorgias. Gargarin doesn't seem to see the problem and does not raise questions of composition (presumably the 'written' speeches were in fact dictated 'orally' by the composer to an amanuensis). Nor does he mention the role of memorization of written texts, nor the possibility that some surviving forensic speeches were read aloud in court, not memorized. 'Oral' is a treacherous word, easily obscuring more than it explains.
In 'Virgil's Formularity and Pius Aeneas' (pp. 199-220), Merritt Sale analyzes formular diction in Vergil, marshalling impressive statistics to compare formula-use in the two poets. Sale emphasizes Vergil's skill in using 'formulas', and claims that Vergil 'had mastered the style so thoroughly that he could have composed in performance.' I doubt this, but I do agree with Sale's last sentence that 'Virgil's very labour to acquire his formidable formulaic expertise ironically betrays the neo- Alexandrian scholar-poet' (p. 220). Can these two views be reconciled? Studies in 'formularity' seem to me in a jam when forgetting that word, phrase, and line, of which 'formulas' are composed, are figments of alphabetic literacy and did not exist in the mind of the oral poet (and may not exist in reality). By contrast, they did exist in the mind of Vergil, breaking down the value of the comparison.
In a refreshing essay, 'Two Levels of Orality in the Genesis of Pliny's Panegyricus' (pp. 221-237), Elaine Fantham provides an exemplary survey of what we know about the relation between written Roman oratory and speeches actually performed in public, then applies her general principles to Pliny's seminal Panegyricus. Hellenists, to whose lips, or pens, 'orality' and 'literacy' readily spring, can learn much from Fantham's description of the complex relations between spoken and written.
Here is a fine book of up-to-date criticism; no essay is bad, and some are fine, some original. Excellent too is what is missing: no gender-constructing discourse or sixth-century redactions of Homer. Attractively written and produced, any classicist will profit from it.
[] Keith Stanley, The Shield of Homer (Princeton 1993).
[] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition and History (Madison, Wisconsin 1985).