TEXTUAL EVENTS: Performance and the Lyric in Early Greece

Edited by Felix Budelmann & Tom Phillips

OUP (2018) h/b 336pp £65.00 (ISBN 9780198805823)

This is a magisterial volume whose scope is as great as its ingenuity, as befits its subject, the capacious and variegated genre of Greek lyric. Its appearance auspiciously follows the reappraisal of lyric by the renowned literary theorist Jonathan Culler (Theory of the Lyric Cambridge, MA, 2015). Culler is regularly invoked, but the book mostly frames itself against the work of scholars such as Bruno Gentili and Eva Stehle. Those scholars, and the political and gendered readings they advocate, have laid the groundwork for modern approaches to ancient Greek lyric, opening up those poems as privileged sites of sociological commentaries on contemporary events. Hence the modern fascination with ‘original’ audiences and the contexts in which those first performances took place (in town, nature, after a war, commemorating an individual, a polis-wide ritual, at a symposium, or a personal lamentation for a deceased relative). Textual Events aims to problematise and move beyond these productive approaches. Did lyric poets only respond to an event and audience ‘now’? Is lyric a sociopolitical cri de coeur? Or is there more to be said? 

The scope of this review prohibits any kind of detailed discussion of the volume’s eleven contributions, but a look at the Table of Contents is sufficient proof of the book’s overall high-quality. Each essay is written by an expert scholar; all the major lyricists (Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Bacchylides, Pindar, Sappho, and so on—even some Horace) are represented, as are some unexpected guests (notably the Homeric Hymns). Cumulatively, the contributors deftly show that the lyric poets were very much aware of their own place within existing traditions. Upon closer inspection, archaic lyric seems to shape, command, and manipulate conventions, tropes, and traditions much as we have come to expect and appreciate from Hellenistic and Roman poetry. In this sense, the lyricists in many ways anticipates later poets, with whom such strategies are more commonly associated. Archaic lyric therefore is neither as ‘archaic’ nor as ‘isolated’ a genre as sometimes is thought and more ‘literary’ and ‘textual’ than often has been recognised.

The book’s title plays with, and problematises, notions of space (textual) and time (event) more, and sometimes less, commonly associated with lyric. Due to Romantic imaginings of lyric performance, we are primed to think of this poetry as being designed for a specific, singular occasion and audience (hence the ‘event’ of the title). But as this volume powerfully argues, lyric itself envisions a wealth of audiences and occasions (events, plural) and so promotes a concept of the genre as being directed from a present (the actual performance) to a (multitude of) past(s) and future(s). In the future, when the ‘original’ (or originary) occasion will be past, these songs can have survived only through transmission (whether in oral or written form); similarly, in reflecting on the past, including epic, lyric, mythological, cultural traditions, those preterite moments are recast as (inter)texts (hence the ‘textual’ in the title). Lyric has always posed challenges for persona theory: we want to believe that the songs are about ‘real’, true experiences (cf. Budelmann’s contribution), but, as the contributors show, the idea of performance is often manipulated within the narration of events. Similar ‘lyric’ strategies that play with notions of occasion, time, and duration—a feature notably absent from the narratorial world of the singer-poet of, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey—pervade the Homeric Hymns (cf. O. Thomas). In that sense, Hesiodic epic, beginning from hymnic openings, bridges the gap between epic and lyric performance.

As noted, lyric’s ties with epic, its playing around with traditions, occasions, temporality, and fictionality receive ample attention. Given the volume’s interest in the aesthetic value and ‘literariness’ of early Greek lyric and the Introduction’s frequent framing of lyric against the background of later Hellenistic and Roman poetry, it is perhaps surprising that C. Martindale’s Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste (OUP, 2007) is not referenced. The volume’s interest in fictionality (and fictionalization) would have been furthered by reference to Chr. Gill and T.P. Wiseman’s Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Exeter, 1993). Because it is the volume’s project to break away from ‘first performances’ as the primary focus of lyric research, it is perhaps logical that music and dance receive less attention.

It is remarkable that, while much of the volume compares lyric to later poetry (sometimes coming quite close to assimilating the former to the latter), we find the assertion (pp. 18-19) that ‘[w]hereas the [sc. Hellenistic or Roman poetry-] book imposes an order on poems through its materiality, the [sc. lyric] song sequence does so through the unfolding temporality of the performance.’ This, the editors aver, results in the latter’s variation in reperformance and the listener’s way of ‘reading’ a lyric song, since the performance is fleeting and memory is thought to play a greater role. This may seem true, but overlooks the fact that much book-poetry in antiquity was read to an audience rather than by the audience: reading—especially aloud, as was the norm, whether privately by a slave to a master or in a public symposium or recitatio—necessarily unfolds in time, while the metre ensures that the duration of ‘reading’/‘performing’ would be similar (a point stressed, for example, in a different context by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whose hermeneutics feed into the volume’s figuration of reading-as-performance and vice versa as ‘events’).

As an ‘event’ then the ‘reading’ of Greek lyric and later poetry may be much more similar than this somewhat reductive binary suggests. At any rate, the performativity of the former, in the social contexts that, for instance, Gentili so carefully surveyed, should not blind us to that of the latter. Indeed, even modern theories of intertextuality (not spurned in the volume under discussion, even though this requires a slightly more capacious notion of ‘text’) stress the sociological aspect of semiotics, or rather, that the semiotics are primarily determined by their actual usage within various social contexts.

Similarly, it is somewhat disconcerting to find the assertion that ‘music […] is non-semantic, and that the same is true for the ‘musicality’ of language itself […]. Music can be given political meaning, but such meaning will only ever capture one aspect of what music does for its listeners. The sensory complexity of lyric performance and its resistance to being understood in exclusively or even predominantly semantic terms make any purely socio-political account reductive.’ (p. 23, original emphasis). It is undeniably true that any reading, including the type of socio-political readings against which this volume militates and the aesthetic readings it substitutes, is ultimately reductive: could any article or book ever fully capture and communicate the full realm of experiences one and the same reader (let alone all readers, ever) may derive from a text, during one or multiple readings? And could any other human ever fully ‘receive’ those experiences? 

The idea that music is somehow non-semantic and so devoid of ‘meaning’ (which the listener/reader instead must project onto it) strikes me as counterintuitive and, given the book’s project of opening up other avenues of understanding Greek lyric and so finding further ‘meaning’ beyond the socio-political sphere, a tad self-defeating. The editors give as an example the final words of Bacchylides’ poem 3, in which the singer calls himself a ‘Cean nightingale’, thus comparing his singing to a bird’s: in their reading, Bacchylides ‘[b]y characterizing himself in this way, […] makes the nightingale symbolize human subjectivity as informed by, and able to contain, a non-semantic alterity.’ Thus he is ‘adumbrating the sense that, in a performance, listeners, performer(s), and indeed the words of the poem are inhabited by a music that has more in common with birdsong than with human language’ (both quotations p. 24). 

Bacchylides’ words stress the similarities and the differences between his poem (and the music accompanying it) and the nightingale’s singing, but that comparison breaks down if a nightingale’s singing is not somehow meaningful and therefore ‘semantic’. (Here the point is that, despite the mortality of both poet and laudandus, Bacchylides will still receive satisfactory compensation for his poem: Hieron and he will die, but like the nightingale, often associated with mourning, Bacchylides’ beautiful song, and his reputation, will live on.) Why not argue that Bacchylides is ‘re-semanticizing’ human speech? Perhaps it is more productive to approach the semantics of music through a semiotic lens, namely as being capable of bearing multiple meanings, both socio-political and otherwise, depending on the performance-context and the background of the listener/reader.

I hope this necessarily brief review, including the few criticisms voiced here, has made clear just how much I have taken away from this volume. As one expects from OUP, the volume is edited well (merely a few, mostly unintrusive, typos). Most importantly, though, this finally is one of those mythical conference volumes whose sum is greater than its parts. Upon perusal the reader will have a much-enriched understanding of the pragmatics, modalities, and temporalities of performance and the interactions between poet, text, and audiences past, present, and future. For this the editors and contributors are to be congratulated.

Gary Vos

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