BOOK REVIEW Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar

Review of Louise H. Pratt Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press (1993)
pp. viii + 180
[Reprinted from Electronic Antiquity
1994 II 2  (August)]
University of Tasmania, Australia

This revised University of Michigan dissertation from 1988 offers the reader some interesting and well-spoken observations on the labile nature of the concept and pragmatics of veracity as it applied among the archaic poets of Greece. Although I wish below to address a few passages not confronted by P, her discussion is arguably thorough in its analysis of relevant extracts from early antiquity speaking to an awareness of what have also become very modern preoccupations. Even in our day questions and concerns about the reliability of the text have enjoyed, at least for a period, a resurgent fashion.

The delicious problematizing of discourse has been co-opted by post-modern savants and, misleadingly, announced without end to a breathless world as startling discoveries about textual indeterminacies, lexical equivocations and syntactic amphibolies – without end, that is, until David Lehman’s 1991 Signs of the Times began the deconstruction of this rank academic garden now largely gone to much deserved weed. After all, all of this was already old hat for Cicero by 45 B.C. when the querulous old essayist gave vent, in the second book of the Academica (XIX.61) to his impatience with a contemporary hippie [read Sceptic] philosophy quae confundit rem cum falsis, spoliat nos iudicio, privat adprobatione omni, orbat sensibus (‘that confuses fact with falsehood, strips us of our judgment, deprives us of every ability to give approval, robs us of our senses’); and Lucretius, no paronomastic slouch he, commented wickedly a generation or so earlier (de Rerum Natura  4.469-70) that denique nil sciri siquis putat id quoque nescit / an sciri possit quoniam nil scire fatetur (‘in the final analysis, if anyone thinks nothing is known, nor does he know whether that (itself) can be known since he admits he knows nothing’)

P’s book is divided into five chapters (1. Aletheia and Poetry: Iliad 2.484-87 and Odyssey 8.487-91 as Models of Archaic Narrative; 2. Odysseus and Other Tricksters: Lying Kata Kosmon; 3. Other Models of Archaic Narrative and Poetic Truth: Hesiod’s Etetuma , Lies Like Truths, and Other Aenigmata ; 4. Truth and Lies in Epinician; and, 5. Lying Not Well: Other Critiques of the Tradition), Epilogue, Bibliography, General Index, Index Locorum and Index of Scholars. In the following comments I will restrict myself largely to a consideration of the Homeric material; P’s discussion of Hesiod, the lyric poets and, briefly, early prose writers further illuminates positions adumbrated in the treatment of epic material.

Among the many admirable pleasures of P’s book savored by this reviewer is her unobtrusive but piquant capacity for invoking contemporary culture and parallels from it that never fail to flavor the ingredients of her argument about the ancient material. Thus, for example, on page 151 she takes intelligent note of useful analogies between Plato’s views on the negative aspects of poetry and the modern debates about the possibly harmful effects of some vehicles of popular culture. And on pages 112-113 P invokes a Navaho take on hierarchies of what may count in the telling of tales, thus wishing to disabuse us of unexamined certainties regarding appropriate categories for evaluation of narrative.

While ostensibly, and thoroughly, dealing with the question of whether ancient poets lied or told fictions or were innovative or did a little of everything (and did these things knowingly or innocently), P’s book broaches what seems to me a fundamentally more important point, one balanced on the proposition that perhaps the truth-value of the poetic discourse was not, for either the ancient poet or that audience, as primary a gauge and as final an arbiter of poetic excellence as was poetic novelty and aesthetic criteria. One should not, for example, judge poetry by the same rules that one judges testimony in a court of law: the telos if you will of poetry is not veridical but aesthetic (e.g., telling the tale kata kosmon ) and, to a certain extent, ethical.

P does a skillfully undogmatic job of disentangling for the reader the scholarly thickets in which grows the luxuriant literature on distinctions held among moderns and ancients alike about aletheia, alethes and etetuma, etuma . Seeing “a certain amount of overlap between the two concepts” (101), P nonetheless comes down on the side of aletheia as what a speaker says who “has fully in mind what really happened and wishes to speak it forth honestly and fully” (100); the speaker of etetuma , on the other hand, need have no such [subjective] knowledge or intention. An eighth-century poet singing about the war at Troy obviously was not present at Troy and will instead sing something that is plausibly like what happened there. In this sense the poet is perhaps a “liar” because he is either drawing unimaginatively on what has become part of a traditional oral canon, or he is a liar because he knowingly embellishes or elaborates or makes up new material that will fit the general outlines of the familiar narrative.

Odysseus himself is a prime example of the innovating bard who, like the trickster he is, is surely as cunning in word as in deed (for whatever purpose: to entertain, relive his past, be cautious around strangers, etc.). Once he starts spinning out differing tales (seemingly of a traditional type) about himself and his own history to different people in the last half of the Odyssey, we as audience may legitimately wonder how much a part, if any, of the crafty laudatio sui that occupies books 9-12 was in any sense true. And we may further wonder if it matters. Odysseus is not in a court of law, nor pretending to be an objective historian. He’s just putting his spin on events he knows about firsthand.

P’s second chapter (55-94), which I found the most interesting section of the book, addresses some of these problems in a fruitful way.

As an entertainer (who may admittedly be as good at delectare as at docere) wishing to please the audience (in this connection P quite rightly, in my view, addresses the importance of thelxis , apate and peitho in the poetic performance), the bard will operate within the tensions and constraints of, on the one hand, telling a tale that must remain recognizable in its larger outlines and, on the other, having the flexibility to be just different – that is, innovative – enough from other performances and performers to capture and hold the attention of listeners. Is the innovating poet then a liar? Hardly more so, it would seem, than a competent jazz pianist who can play a version of, say, ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is recognizable as such yet unlike any played by any other pianist – or even the same pianist at a different time. Indeed, if this be the charm, deception and persuasiveness of jazz, play on! (Cora Angier Sowa has written with great intelligence on this point in her book Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns [Bolchazy-Carducci, 1984] pages 1-38; and, more recently, Viv Edwards and Thomas J. Sienkewicz discuss the pragmatics of performance in their Oral Cultures Past and Present: Rappin’ and Homer [Basil Blackwell, 1990], esp. pages 36-64 and 143-166). Traditionality hardly means rigidity.

One passage from the Odyssey that P might have discussed is 1.351-352. Telemachos, it will be recalled, has rebuked his mother for rebuking Phemius for singing, in singing the noston … / lugron … of the Achaeans (1.326-327), the wrong kinds of thelkteria (1.337). The young man defends Phemius for doing what any sensible bard would do: ten gar aoiden mallon epikleious’ anthropoi, he tis akouontessi neotate amphipeletai. (‘For people prefer to praise whatever song is freshest that envelops the audience.’)  Now, since songs about the return of the Achaeans can hardly be characterized as neotate ‘freshest’ some twenty years after the fact, I assume that Telemachus (and Homer) is not referring here to thematic novelty but performative innovation. It goes without saying, in other words, that any performer worth his keep has a certain discretionary control over his presentation and will, if you will, “lie a little” in order to charm even the most boorish audience. As that great spinner of seamless tales, Ovid of the Metamorphoses, knew so well, the key to the entertainer’s art of mixta[que ] cum veris passim commenta ‘fabrications mingled here and there with truths’ (M.12.54) is (M. 4.284) …dulci[que] animos novitate tenebo ‘I will hold their interest with pleasant innovation’. There is mention of a similarly motivated description – this one by the bard herself, Helen at Odyssey 4.239. After she has cranked up Telemachos and Menelaos with her pharmaka metioenta ‘clever drugs’ [4.227], she tells them kai muthois terpesthe, eoikota gar katalexo ‘and just enjoy my tales, for I shall recite what is probable/likely [to have happened]’. I’ll tell you guys eoikota ! Helen had been there, and Menelaus had been there too. Yet she qualifies, without embarrassment or apology, the tale to follow by saying it will be ‘kind of like the way it was, plausible, likely’. This passage, too, certainly would seem to support P’s general argument about the central importance of the bard’s (and audience’s) preferring of aesthetic criteria to veridical ones for tales. The reaction of Menelaus to her words fits the notion that Helen told her tale – whatever its ontological veracity – in an aesthetically pleasing fashion [4.266]: nai de tauta ge panta, gunai, kata moiran eeipes ‘wow, woman, you’ve told the whole thing just right’. Cf. also P’s cautious comments about the famous Hesiodic phrase pseudea etumoisin homoia ‘falsehoods resembling realities’ [Th. 27] at 110-11.

But, in suggesting some applicable passages that might well have entered the discussion, I do not mean to adopt that most odious of lazy critical stances, telling the author how she or he should have written the book. P needs no such help. Readers will no doubt think of many other applicable passages themselves that merit inclusion in any such discussion as P has here undertaken. Hers is in fact a work that raises with elegance and courtesy some fundamentally important issues particularly about verbal art and, by gentle nudge here and there, generally art in society.

There are a few misprints and one serious if venial error. On page 17 (line 14) I would use ‘who’ for ‘whom’; and on page 42 (line 22) the sentence beginning “I might add …” seems unclear to me. The reference to the “golden workmen” of Hephaestus at Iliad 18.417-418 is incorrect: these creatures (amphipoloi ) were clearly female ( [418] chruseiai, zoeisi neenisin eioikuiai. / [419] teis … // [421] hai men …); long antedating androids in Western literature, these are the first gynecoids (although the Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama calls his spectacular portfolio of recent airbrush art The Gynoids [Toppan Printing Co., 1992]) and deserve to be so remembered.

This book is timely. Again, although perhaps without overtly meaning to do so, its central thesis about the fluid nature of fiction (< fingo ‘shape, fashion, mold, shape’) and an at times toying awareness of this seemingly obvious fact by ancient poets, makes, at least for me, a powerful connection with modernity. For it comments obliquely on the unhappy fact of our own day’s ideological earnestness that has put to flight from public discourse all sense of humor and any possibility for irony. We seem to have lost the linguistic sophia of the ancient (and our own very recent) audience; irony has been put to flight from the earth by political correctness.  We no longer seem to have, in P’s words, “the ability to interpret narrative, to distinguish meaning from what is indicated on the surface, to unravel paradox and riddles, and to construct them. In claiming to be sophoi, the archaic poets do not claim always to speak aletheia, but to be capable of other valid, but more elusive, forms of speech.” (113)

I look forward to reading more of P’s stimulating work in the future.

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One Response to BOOK REVIEW Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar

  1. heather says:

    Great review………. but are you lying (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

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