Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 12.
Mary Depew and Dirk Obbink (edd.), Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. vi + 346. ISBN 0-674-00338- 1. UKú35.95.
Classics, University of South Africa
This volume consists of a collection of eleven papers on genre and generic definition in Greek and Roman literature. The contributions are divergent in both subject and approach, ranging from seldom considered, even single-instance genres, to the reception of generic traditions in Hellenistic and Roman poetry.
In a joint editorial introduction (pp. 1-14), Depew and Obbink ask for a reconsideration of ancient genres and their constituent criteria from a historical perspective, through which two models emerge: genre as enabling literary production, performance and communication, and genre as a set of metadiscursive rules inferred by philosophers, scholars and critics. As the second model emerged only later, genre in -- predominantly oral -- archaic and classical Greece should be approached as performance-based in real-life situations, during which generic communication was negotiated between the conventions expected by an audience, and their enactment during the performance itself. As a common point of departure, genre is defined as `a conceptual orienting device that suggests to a hearer the sort of receptorial conditions in which a fictive discourse might have been delivered' (p. 6).
The set theoretical parameters apply best to early Greek literature. Closest are perhaps the contributions by Joseph Day and Mary Depew, both focusing on genre as emerging from performance. Day, `Epigram and reader: Generic Force as Re-activation of Ritual' (pp. 37-57), attempts to define dedicatory epigrams as a poetic genre meant to activate and reactivate an original ritual offering to a god. As the epigrams were meant to be read out aloud and to be heard in the sanctuary, the genre should be defined in terms of this context of performance, negotiated between text, reader, and audience, and hinging on the element of XA/RIJ. Depew, `Enacted and Represented Dedications: Genre and Greek Hymn' (pp. 59-79), explores the performative context of hymns, and how the deictic language typical of hymns is intended to draw attention to their celebratory context. Hymns should rather be paired with sacrifice and libations than with prayer. The genre is unified by its character as a dedicatory A)/GALMA presented to a deity on behalf of a community, implying that hymns have cultic functions parallel to other dedications within cultic spaces. Cultic deixis should be understood as an element of the agonistic culture of archaic Greece, causing the god to delight in the gift and to acknowledge the status of its giver. Deictic language characterizing hymns poses a radically open invitation to enactment, and hymnic performers link a shared past moment to the communal present.
The majority of contributors, however, remain within established paradigms of genre research. Ironically, the stronger contributions are apparently not equally optimistic about, and even tend to neglect, performative context. These are, in my view, those of Boedeker, Rutherford, Csapo and Hinds. Deborah Boedeker, `Herodotus's genre(s)' (pp. 97-114), in an old-fashioned textual analysis, explores the views of Herodotus on various kinds of narrative, in order to establish his own `avowed parameters, methods, and intentions' (p. 98). Herodotus is consciously engaging in the process of finding a new discursive form. Owing much to Homeric epic, he claims that his incipient genre differs from epic in having more exacting standards with regard to truth. He often criticizes the trustworthiness of poetry, as poets tend to conceal their sources rather than reveal them openly to the inspection of their audiences, while their genres often compel them to distort facts. He hints at a hierarchy of credibility in archaic poetry, and views himself as in competition with prose contemporaries, making an effort to differentiate his own voice from theirs. When Hecataeus (the only prose author mentioned by name) is criticized for not being critical of his sources and for not acknowledging the limits of his information, Herodotus sets up markers for his own genre. Although tolerant of digressions, he guards against straying too far from his stated purposes, and remains careful to include only material `worthy of commemoration within the framework of Persian-Hellenic relations' (p. 109). Within the included material, various levels of credibility are retained and explicitly referred to. Unresolved issues, references to his own ignorance/limits of knowledge, and evaluating the truth-claims of contending reports, all testify to the authority of the author and the superiority of his genre. Boedeker neatly aligns the rules of Herodotus' budding genre with the politics he admires: giving many voices their say, being aware of the constraints of likelihood and plausibility, and linking success to good information/quality sources and correct/critical assessments.
Ian Rutherford, `Formulas, Voice, and Death in Ehoie- Poetry, the Hesiodic Gunaikon Katalogos, and the Odysseian Nekuia' (pp. 81-96), investigates the probable generic features of catalogue poems, which may throw light on generic antecedents of the Homeric catalogues. Rutherford argues that the Hesiodic Gunaikos Katalogos (hereafter GK) represents the culmination of a tradition of catalogue poems which adhered to certain formal and thematic features, such as the epic hexameter, the ehoie-formula, rapid presentation, narration rather than speech, and the predominance of female characters. These warrant the identification of a separate genre. The discrepancy between the distinguishing the ehoie formula and the genre's genealogical structure can be explained by postulating earlier stages of development from an initial list of heroines included in a god's aretalogy. The Nekuia in the Odyssey 11 preserves such an earlier stage in the development of ehoie-poetry. Rutherford posits four stages in the evolution of the genre: (i) loosely arranged catalogues of prominent women, (ii) a stage where these are crossed with genealogical poetry, (iii) the canonical form in the Hesiodic GK, (iv) a final stage of creative reuse of the genre in Hellenistic erotic elegy.
Glenn Most, `Generating Genres: The Idea of the Tragic' (pp. 15- 35), also deviates from the set parameters by restricting himself to ancient and modern theorizing. Most argues that the notion of `the tragic' contaminates a clear view of the ancient examples of `tragedy', and that the two notions must therefore be conceptually divorced. The modern term `tragic' refers, in more or less complex forms, to a particular view of the human condition as defined by notions such as fate, blindness, guilt, personal responsibility, and nobility over against an arbitrary universe. In contrast, the Greek adjective is used most often with the negative connotations of `splendid, grandiose' (as opposed to `clear'), `magnificent, pompous' (as opposed to `plain'), `mythical, fictional, philosophically unserious or historically unverifiable' (as opposed to `scientific'). This proves the quite different associations with the genre in antiquity. Aristotle does not give any indication of knowing anything like `the tragic'. Only Romantic concentration on the emotions ideally elicited by `proper tragedy', brought Schiller to consider the genre as the supreme vehicle for expressing `the tragic'. This idea fundamentally influenced modern notions of the genre through the various directions on the issue taken by German philosophers.
Eric Csapo, `From Aristophanes to Menander? Genre Transformation in Greek Comedy' (pp. 115-33), challenges the traditional division of comedy into three distinct historical phases. This division, he contends, is due much more to the method of canonical selection than to the transformation of the genre itself. Csapo also touches on the issue of the role specific authors play in genre definition, as each so-called phase of comedy is virtually tied to one author only (significantly, the distinction between Old and New Comedy is only attested well after Menander, and only in scholarly literature). Perhaps overestimating the influence of Aristotle, Csapo contends that the philosopher's view, that comedy evolved through the progressive purging of political content, determined canonical selection. This elevated Aristophanes, Cratinus and Eupolis into the chief exponents of the genre's initial phase ('Old Comedy'), while Menander, Philemon and Diphilus `were canonized precisely because they were least political' (p. 116). Stemming from the Aristotelean evolutionary model, Menander's `superiority' is not so much the reason for his canonization as its result. The era of Old Comedy suggests a variety of styles, even within the oeuvre of a single author. What is referred to as Old, Middle and New Comedy designate synchronic styles rather than epochs. Therefore, an era should be characterized by its preference for a particular style of comedy, more than by a supposed stage in the evolution of the genre. Csapo levels legitimate criticism against the biogenetic evolutionary model of genres which divides their `lifetime' into stages of youth, maturity, and old age. Rather, a genre's evolution should be seen as `continuous adaptive change toward a more efficient performance of art's social function' (p. 128).
It seems as if performative contexts are even more difficult to establish in later literature. Ineke Sluiter's claim, `The Dialectics of Genre: Some Aspects of Secondary Literature and Genre in Antiquity' (pp. 183-203), that commentaries assume a classroom setting, borders on the obvious. Focusing on non-literary commentaries, Sluiter finds that while the ancient commentators resorted to generic distinctions of source-texts, they rarely reflected on their own work as belonging to a particular genre. Nonetheless, from a modern perspective the parameters of the ancient commentary are easily recognizable. Commentators associated distinctive objectives and tasks with their work, themselves trying to maintain a dual professional affiliation between the grammarian true to his text, and being an original thinker in his own right.
In Hellenistic and Roman literature, the focus falls on definition and redefinition of generic types. Stephanie West, `Lycophron's Alexandra: "Hindsight as Foresight Makes No Sense"? (pp. 153-66), feels her text is nowadays neglected precisely because of its generic elusiveness. The genre's essence should be linked to the post eventum prophecy containing references to Roman matters. Such prophecies are also found in apocalyptic literature of the Hellenistic era. Lycophron is generating a new hybrid genre by isolating, and elaborating on, the traditional messenger speech of Attic drama. Unlike Herodotus, however, this new genre did not find followers, and died with the Alexandra as its solitary example.
In regard to the bucolic and encomiastic poetry of Theocritus, Marco Fantuzzi, `Theocritus and the "Demythologizing" of Poetry' (pp. 135-51), argues that the poet deliberately excludes the characters, gods and heroes of hexametric poetry from his work as a poetic strategy to create credible human-rural contexts. This feature explains Theocritus' insistence to write hexametric encomiastic poems for contemporary men and not for gods and heroes as required by tradition.
Alessandro Barchiesi, `Rituals in Ink: Horace on the Greek Lyric Tradition' (pp. 167-82) is concerned with the differences in tenor between `typical' Greek poetry, and Augustan poetry, which he finds in three features of the latter as exemplified in the lyric Horace. By the notions of thematization and dramatization, Barchiesi refers to the fact that genre itself becomes a theme in literature, a problematic but productive condition for literary output. The poetry also betrays a sense of rift and loss from what the genre used to and should be. Finally, genre becomes `politicized', meaning that particular genres start to imply specific political and social values.
In a seminal article, Don Fowler, `The Didactic Plot' (pp. 205-19), isolates the typical plots underlying or implied in didactic poetry, such as the progress of the student from ignorance to knowledge. Taking his cue particularly from Epicurean texts, Fowler discusses various metaphors and myths by which this plot is textually structured, such as the journey, the path, following in the footsteps of the teacher/guide, the (investigative) hunt for the truth, the child growing up, initiation, homecoming, conquest, and so on. Fowler draws the general implication that generic analysis cannot be divorced from wider systems of social construction, and that both primary and secondary notions of genre play a part as guidelines in composition.
Stephen Hinds, `Essential Epic: Genre and Gender from Macer to Statius' (pp. 221-44), attempts a fresh approach to genre in Roman poetry by exploring the recurrent unepic elements of women and erotic love in the Roman epic tradition. Scholarship in the previous century oscillated from asserting the genre-specific features of a literary work (which necessarily involves down- playing the work's non-generic features), to stressing hybridization, regarding genre as irrelevant to interpretation, and the invention of new genres, back to reasserting the identity of genres, but now without being embarrassed by generic discrepancies. Hinds, a self- confessed supporter of `dynamic impurity' (pp. 222, 235) argues that the actual distinction lies between Roman generic theory/ideal and practice. Roman poets thought about genre in essentializing, normative terms, but in practice consistently incorporated themes considered to be foreign to the genre. In theory, mostly specified in the opposing genre of elegy, epic was expected to be restricted to res gestae regumque ducumque et tristia bella (Horace A.P. 73). Even after the rapid institution of the Aeneid as the Roman `code model', Virgil's epic was not considered an achieved hybrid. Female and erotic elements were still treated as threatening genre identity a century later, in Statius' Achilleid, in which a cross-dressed epic hero still challenges audiences to renegotiate (and reassert) generic boundaries.
Despite the occasional indulgence in jargon, the volume contains scholarship of a high standard with stimulating contributions both in the higher and lower genres. It can be recommended to all interested in this apparently flourishing branch of literary analysis.