Sunday, October 19, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Rainer Friedrich, Formular Economy in Homer. The Poetics of the Breaches. Hermes Einzelschriften, 100. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007. Pp. 159. ISBN 978-3-515-09065-0. €35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Deborah Beck, Swarthmore College and Harvard University

Milman Parry's work on orality and the Homeric poems is arguably the most important development in classical studies in the last century. Parry showed that the system of repeated phrases, or formulas, in the Homeric epics were characterized by the property of economy, also known as thrift. That is, for any formula expressing an "essential idea" (the bare-bones meaning of a given expression, without any poetic flourishes or optional adornments like epithets), there should be just one expression of a given metrical length. This system is also characterized by extension, insofar as there is only one way to say each essential idea, but there are many different essential ideas that the formulaic system can represent. Parry pointed out that the occurrence of the exact same formula for "Odysseus answered" one hundred times in the Homeric epics bore no resemblance to the practices of literate poets like Vergil or Apollonius, both of whom vary their word choice more than the Homeric epics do and who also make free use of metrical equivalents for semantically equivalent ideas. This was the basis of Parry's claim that the Homeric poems were oral. After a thirty-year period of inaction, the classical world took notice of these ideas and of the work of Parry's student Albert Lord, and a vigorous discussion began that has continued to the present day about the implications of these findings.

One of the most central topics, and the most hotly debated, has been the extent to which Parry's work is compatible with the kind of individual creativity and subtle aesthetic effects that readers have generally associated with "art" or "poetry" in general and with Homeric poetry in particular. Initially, the answer given by such scholars as Combellack was "not at all," but it soon became clear that in fact this was not the case. Hainsworth and Hoekstra were the most important of the first generation of scholars to robustly contest the idea that formulas were immovable and unchanging blocks of artistic stone that prevented a poet from saying whatever he might want to say. They explored various ways in which formulas changed and evolved in response to the surrounding language or the needs of the verse.1 A number of scholars such as Fenik, Nagler, Reece and Segal obtained excellent results by focusing on the formulas for a particular activity or scene and showing how the formulas varied with great subtlety and effect in relation to the specific narrative contexts in which they appeared. Often these variations were among different traditional elements, not between a traditional formula and a unique expression, suggesting that oral aesthetics consisted of a skillful use of traditional elements rather than the invention of new material. These and other studies persuaded most people that oral poetry and aesthetics could coexist, a state of affairs reflected in the articles in the New Companion to Homer (1997). Thus, work in recent years has tended to focus on exploring how orality and aesthetics coexist more than on whether they do.3

Rainer Friedrich's monograph on the relationship between formular economy and the orality of the Homeric epics is the latest in his recent publications on various aspects of poetics and orality. For example, Friedrich has put forward a very effective reading of the different vocatives for Agamemnon, showing how they both respond to and shape the narrative in Iliad 1.4 Friedrich's main contention in this volume, which is part of the Hermes Zeitschrift für klassische Philologie series (Heft 100), is that the economy of formulas has been vastly overestimated in previous scholarship. Therefore, we must posit a post-oral Homer in order to explain the frequency with which apparently formulaic language displays a kind of subtlety and suitability to its narrative context that Parry's work had apparently shown was incompatible with traditional oral poetry. The monograph is divided into two parts, each of which contains several sub-sections. Part I, "Formular Economy in Homer. Observance and Breach", first lays out Friedrich's view of what Parry and Lord's theories say about formulas, thrift and economy, and the relationship of these ideas to oral poetry. Then it gives a list of all the formulas that in Friedrich's view violate the principle of formular economy. Part II, "The Poetics of the Breaches", discusses these formulas from a poetic standpoint. The conclusion, which forms the last sub-section of Part II, argues that formulas in Homeric epic violate economy so pervasively that the poems cannot be oral. It suggests that the Homeric epics occupy a middle ground between oral and literate poetry. The work also contains a brief subject index and an index locorum. Although this monograph is clearly the result of long thought and attention to its subject, it bases its methodology primarily on scholarship from the earlier stages of the oral aesthetics discussion. This study is useful as a compendium of phrases in Homer that are metrically equivalent and refer to similar ideas, and it puts forward individual observations about many of these that readers will find valuable.

Part I begins with a very brief introduction that describes the four tests of orality that Lord advocated in his 1960 classic The Singer of Tales, asserting that the test of formular economy "has never been formally applied to the Homeric epics" (9). The next section, "The principle of formular economy," gives an extensive overview of these terms of Homeric scholarship, primarily in reference to Parry, Lord, and the first generation of scholars who grappled seriously with the implications of their work, such as Kirk and Hainsworth. I was surprised that Nagler, Reece, and Visser were absent from the bibliography, and that Mark Edwards' decades of outstanding publications on these issues were represented only by two articles from the late 1960s and by his volume of the Cambridge commentary on the Iliad. Gregory Nagy appears several times in the bibliography but -- like many other scholars working from an oralist point of view whom Friedrich cites in his study -- Nagy's work is not as extensively discussed by Friedrich as the magnitude of his contributions might lead one to expect. Moreover, the bibliography contains no items published in the last ten years except for Friedrich's own publications and M. L. West's recent work on the text of the Iliad. As a result, Friedrich's view of formulas and oral poetry as presented here is more narrowly and relentlessly "Parryist" than most Homerists today would find reasonable. It retains Parry's now superseded ideas about the relative lack of meaning in formulaic epithets, and views as interchangeable many pairs of expressions that are very different in meaning (see especially pp. 23-26).

Subsection 3 of Part I, "The Breaches of Formular Economy in Iliad and Odyssey" lists the different expressions for Achilles and for Zeus in all the different cases, noting how many metrical equivalents there are among them (Tables I and II). Next, "I deemed it advisable to include in Table III all instances that can formally pass for breaches according to the criteria laid out in this study, irrespective of their apparent relevance or irrelevance. Thus the items of the table are not all of equal weight, significance, or scope" (40, emphasis original). I was eager for Friedrich to explain why he thought this was advisable, both because that is an important aspect of his methodology and because I found the tables somewhat difficult to use as a result of this choice. Because of its very inclusiveness, his list of formulas is hard to make sense of: individual entries simply contain the relevant formulas. They do not say how many instances of them occur or where they occur. Thus, a pair of formulas listed in Table III looks the same to the reader whether each appears once, one appears once and one appears fifty times, both appear twenty times, or one of them appears several times but only in one episode. Moreover, individual pairs are not always comparable: some doublets of speech introductory verses have the same name-epithet formula and different verbs of speaking, while others contain both different verbs of answering and different name-epithet formulas. Although Friedrich analyzes many of the individual examples in Part II, during which he discusses these specifics, the table on its own is difficult to use without these details. 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).

Part II, "The Poetics of the Breaches," analyses the expressions in Table III from an aesthetic or poetic point of view. Section 1, "Introduction. Three Avenues to the Poetics of the Breaches," offers three explanations for what have been characterized in Part I as breaches of formular economy: deliberate variatio, avoidance of stylistic infelicity or contextual unsuitability, and (the flip side of the previous explanation) affirmative desire for felicity or contextual suitability. Sections 2-4 examine specific examples of Homeric language that Friedrich ascribes to each of these explanations, of which Section 4 is the longest. Individual discussions are headed by the group of phrases from Table III that are being discussed and generally do not relate to other discussions. The goal of this section of the monograph appears to have been to cover as many phrase groups as possible rather than to discuss just a few of the most interesting or important examples in detail. This has the advantage of covering a lot of material; the heterogeneity of the evidence discussed here, and the lack of explicit connection that is made between individual examples, give this material the tone of a commentary more than of a sustained argument.

The sections discussing specific phrase groups offer a number of illuminating and worthwhile points. Friedrich discusses the clustering of the expression "old Priam" in Iliad 24 (in Section 2, deliberate variatio) and the contextual dependence of the metrically equivalent name-epithet formulas for Hera (in Section 3, avoidance of infelicity) and for Aphrodite (Section 4, pursuit of justness of expression).5 Other points, discussing in two or three sentences a pair of phrases that appear once each, make less of a contribution to the reader's understanding of Homeric language. Section 5, "Beyond Schematization," discusses pairs of metrical doublets that are not breaches because one of them does not refer to a specific person, such as πηλείωνος and παιδὸς ἑοῖο for Achilles in the genitive case. This section concludes with Friedrich's excellent analysis of the vocatives for Agamemnon, although he does not cite his 2002 publication of this material in his footnotes to this particular part of the monograph. Finally, Section 6, "Conclusion. Toward Schema-Free Composition" sums up the results of the study by arguing that because all of Lord's four tests of orality have inconclusive results when applied to Homeric poetry, Homeric poetry cannot be considered oral and should instead be described as "post-oral." Friedrich then speculates on how a post-oral Homer might have operated.

In Part I, Friedrich consistently puts forward an almost hyperbolically Parryan notion of the "essential idea," asserting that pairs of metrically equivalent formulas should be considered semantically interchangeable even when their meanings are extremely different. For example, Friedrich asserts that "if the law of economy strictly obtained" (43), ἀπαμειβόμενος could substitute for other context-specific participles in speech introductory formulas (such as μεγ' ὀχθήσας or ὀλιγοδρανέων ). This seems to me, in contrast, to be a perfect example of the widely accepted notion that Homeric formulas use expressions that mean different things in a slot of a given metrical shape. "Spoke, answering" and "spoke, angry" are not the same essential idea. And yet in Part II, Friedrich very cogently and ably dismantles this extreme position and instead puts forward the view that metrically equivalent phrases do vary because of the meaning of the words in each phrase in relation to the context.

At pp. 87-88, Friedrich quite appositely inquires, if epithets are really as meaningless as Parry had proposed, why do not all heroes whose names are metrically equivalent have the same epithets? He asks, "why have distinctive epithets at all, if their union with a noun in the distinctive formula renders them meaningless?" (88). This is a concise and effective statement of a critical question in Homeric studies. I wondered why Friedrich had not started his book with it and engaged in more detail with the numerous scholars who have explored this very problem in the last thirty years. His overview at pp. 89-90 of others working on the responsiveness of epithets to context is rather brief and too much oriented toward older scholarship, but the more important question is, does the approach that Friedrich takes here to the relationship between meaning and context not vitiate the strenuously hard Parry stance toward the "essential idea" taken in Part I? Does this not mean that much of the language in Table III is not, in fact, violating formular economy, since Part II shows that many of these expressions mean different things and are not semantically interchangeable in the specific contexts in which they occur? Friedrich never reconciles these two approaches to "essential idea," or grapples with their implications for his claims about how widespread breaches of formular economy actually are.

The conclusion once again positions Friedrich's argument that widespread breaches in formular economy require a non-oral Homer mainly in relation to Lord and Parry, with less attention given to recent work. Similarly, the conclusion consistently uses language that sounds like that of a much earlier time in studies of oral aesthetics. For instance, Friedrich begins by saying that "formular economy is perforce confining the diction and limiting expression" (137, emphasis original), an attitude no longer held by most people working on Homeric formulas and aesthetics. A number of recent studies have shown that literacy is not required to explain the artistry so fundamental to the Homeric poems, and the traditional repeating language of formulas can and does comfortably coexist with aesthetics. Friedrich's claim that only writing can explain this state of affairs is significantly undercut by his failure to sufficiently take into account the advances in oral aesthetics over the last thirty years.

The book is well produced, with a small number of basically trivial typos. It would have been helpful if the subject index were longer and more detailed.


1.   Hainsworth, J.B., The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula (Oxford, 1968); Hoekstra, A., Homeric Modifications of Formulaic Prototypes: Studies in the Development of Greek Epic Diction (Amsterdam, 1965); more recently, on how formulas may be put together in different ways depending on various contextual factors, see Visser, E., 1988, "Formulae or Single Words? Towards a New Theory of Homeric Verse-Making," Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumsvissenschaft neue Folge 14 (21-37).
2.   Fenik, B., Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad: Studies in the Narrative Techniques of Homeric Battle Description (Wiesbaden, 1968); Nagler, M., 1967, "Towards a Generative View of the Homeric Formula," TAPA 98 (269-311) and Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study of the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley, 1974); Reece, S., The Stranger's Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene (Ann Arbor, 1993); Segal, C., 1971, "Andromache's Anagnorisis: Formulaic Artistry in Iliad 22.437-476," HSCP 75 (33-57).
3.   Such as Beck, D., 1999, "Speech Introductions and the Character Development of Telemachus," Classical Journal 94.2 (121-41) and Homeric Conversation (Cambridge/Mass., 2005).
4.   2002, "'Flaubertian Homer:' The phrase juste in Homeric Diction," Arion 10.2 (1-13), discussing the vocatives for Agamemnon.
5.   Based respectively, as the notes explain, on Hainsworth 1976, Beck 1986, and Boedeker 1974.

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