Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Carlo Brillante, Il cantore e la musa: Poesia e modelli culturali nella Grecia arcaica. Studi e testi di storia antica 18. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2009. Pp. 309. ISBN 9788846721716. €26.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University

Table of Contents

This series of studies outlines a history of Greek conceptions of poetry from Homer through the fifth century. Seven of its eight chapters have been previously published (between 1990 and 2003), but Brillante has revised and expanded them to form an integrated whole. Each takes up a central text or topic in the history of criticism and explores it by combining close philological study with anthropological analysis in the vein of Detienne and Vernant. The combination yields the "cultural models" of the subtitle, and that these changed radically in the late archaic period is the running argument of the book. Even those who will not subscribe to the overall historical narrative will find here informed, stimulating and in-depth readings of passages that are on any account vital to understanding how the Greeks understood their own poetry.

The opening two chapters extract a "traditional model" of the poet from Homer and Hesiod. The first treats the relationship between Muse and singer and argues that they were seen as "collaborators" (23), elaborating an archaic psychology of inspiration that recognized the artistic abilities of individual poets. Chapter 2 takes up the praise of poets and kings in Hesiod's Theogony to argue that the "participation of the Muses in communal life" extended beyond sponsoring poetic performances (74). The Muses favor both poets and kings, Brillante argues, because their specially effective language ("parola...efficace," 67) was valued by communities in which knowledge of the past and of shared values was entrusted to oral tradition. Here, as often, structuralism's wide net bring fascinating tidbits to the surface: not many will think of Pittheus of Troezen in connection with the history of rhetoric, and yet Pausanias (2.31) tells us that a shrine to the Muses was near his tomb and that he wrote a rhetorical manual (a logôn tekhnê). Noting the play on peithô, Brillante convincingly presents him as an avatar of Hesiod's just king of inspired speech (70-71).

The second pair of chapters proposes Archilochus and Thamyris as positive and negative models of the singer. In chapter 3 Archilochus' encounter with the Muses in the Mnesiepes inscription is shown to follow a traditional pattern for poetic initiation that can be discerned from Hesiod on. Brillante focuses on the time and place of the encounter, taking the mysterious Lissides to be a numinous Parian place tentatively to be connected with the Ilissus, the locale of Socrates' enchantment in Phaedrus. The antitype of the ideal singer is propounded in chapter 4, which sees in Homer's Thamyris not a simple story of hubris but a psychosexual drama. Representations of Thamyris as the inventor of male-male love or as aspiring to sleep with the Muses hint that he is "blocked" (116): his "congenital incapacity (or refusal) to establish acceptable relations in the sexual sphere" (115) is antithetical to the Muses' art of exchange with "the other," and so the punishments with which he is visited (Brillante is agnostic on pêros at Il. 2.599) can be seen as forms of communicational pathology.

Poet and Muse are regarded in isolation from one another in Chapters 5 and 6. The first focuses on Alcman's intriguing but corrupt Fr. 39 PMG, in which the speaker says he has composed a song by listening to/putting together (sunthemenos) the voice of partridges. Leaning heavily on its ten words (of which more than half are emendations), Brillante addresses the issue of the relation between human song and birdsong from Homer through Herodotus (the prophetic "doves" of Dodona) to Aristotle. Chapter 6 discusses Hermes' invention of the lyre in the fifth Homeric hymn. A classic structuralist analysis of Greek tortoises argues that this animal, linked like Hermes to death but also to crossing borders, is an appropriate natural origin for the lyre and its power to transport us. The hymn's narrative shows the uncanny beast being effectively gutted of its frightful aspects by Hermes before being passed on to Apollo and mortals. Brillante adds that the active and inventive Hermes of this account is a richer and more authentically archaic figure than he is in later versions, including the fascinating Persian romance, Vamiq and Adhra, which tells how a wise man called Hurmuz invented the barbat (i.e. barbitos) from a tortoise.

The final two chapters elaborate the "crisis" suffered by the traditional model in the late archaic period as epic's authority weakened. Chapter 7 discusses the much-debated history of poetic "verità, menzogna e finzione" (bibliography in footnotes 33 on 187 and 61 on 203). Brillante rejects the idea that Hesiod's "lies like the truth" implies an idea of fictionality (187) since the "traditional model" relied on an ideal of reciprocity, of correspondence between declared truth and event, that precluded ambiguity or intentional falsehood from inspired speech. He argues that Ionian rationalism drew increased attention to mismatches between the poet's speech and (social and moral) reality and that as a result more attention was paid to the means by which poetry produced pleasure than to its divine source. In this way the ancient idea of inspired speech became "laicizzata" (211) and poetry was increasingly regarded as an autonomous form of discourse expressing its own truth with its own forms. A cardinal figure here was Simonides: his Plataea elegy grants Homer authority but consigns him to a past no longer seen as continuous with the present; the fame of the Trojan war is not credited to the efficaciousness of song on the traditional model, but to the quality of Homer's poetry. In addition, Simonides' dictum equating poetry and painting inaugurates a trend toward stressing poetry's artificial character and its place among the productive arts.

The new eighth chapter discusses fifth-century theories of poetic possession as an outgrowth of the new interest in poetry's effect on its audience. Brillante first sifts the doxography on Democritus' enthousiasmos in light of his atomism and then tracks Plato's adaptations. He shows that Plato extended Democritus by minimizing the poet's autonomy and maximizing the role of the divine. Drastically revising the traditional model in which the poet was more than the Muses' mouthpiece enabled Plato to show that the poet, like the rhapsode, knows nothing about how to criticize poetry. An Appendix on "L'invidia del Telchini e l'origine delle arti" brings the Telchines into a discussion of the natural and the artificial in a work of art, stressing their connections with the evil eye and "melting" (têkein). There are substantial indexes of passages and subjects.

Despite the off-beat approach of many chapters, Brillante's general story is familiar, with acknowledged debts to the work of Detienne and Svenbro. His conception of archaic "efficacious speech" yielding before an increasing "secularization" of poetry resembles the career of Detienne's "archaic truth," and like Svenbro Brillante sees a turning point in the "laicized speech" of Simonides, renouncing older claims to truth (209).1 His history is offered as a corrective to evolutionary accounts of Greek poetics as the gradual emergence of artistic self-consciousness (22); he rather sees a story of punctuated equilibrium, with the late sixth century as a sudden break in which "poetry from the past came to be analyzed in objective terms, with reference to its formal aspects, the means utilized in composition and to its effects on the hearer" (213). Brillante thus also challenges those who would trace to Gorgias and the sophists the revolution that founded Greek rhetoric and poetics.2

Though Brillante presents his case with learning and intelligence, I found the overall picture unsatisfying as history because his anthropological perspective drew his close readings onto an abstract plane in which "models" interact mainly with each other and mainly on their logical merits. Whereas Detienne set his history of truth within that of the archaic polis and Svenbro in its exchange economy, Brillante's history occurs against a background vaguely defined as "Ionian rationalism" (214) or "the development of thought" (211). His project is thus fundamentally a history of ideas; he derives from texts, myths and images their implicit "models" of what poetry is for and how it works, and then sets these models into a sequential argument in which new, more adequate positions eventually displace the old in a centuries-long debate about the nature of poetic truth.

To be sure, ideas count in the history of Greek criticism, for would-be experts on poetry had to propound and defend their views publicly to have influence. But Brillante seems to forget that the plausibility and significance of a given idea at a given time also depended on social, political, and economic considerations. Focusing so strongly on ideas, on poets and philosophers with little attention to practices, can lead to one-sided or distorting interpretations. The range and limits of tekhnê, for example, were questions of wide import when the sophists proposed to teach arts of success in the fifth century; it is thus a cause for concern that Brillante has to work so hard to reconstruct Homer's views of the matter, pressing Phemius' autodidaktos and extrapolating from Snell on the phrenes to vindicate the importance of a singer's "compositional abilities" in archaic poetics. A similar concern is raised by his presentation of Simonides as "not only a poet but an original thinker as well" (14, 203, which is rather a slap at other poets). To read Simonides as the forerunner of Gorgias may tell us less about his place in sixth-century culture than about how sophists were wont to treat this ageing lyric corpus in the fifth and fourth centuries, when "wise Simonides" came to be enrolled among the Seven Sages.

A related weakness in the history-of-ideas approach is that, in abstracting models from his texts, Brillante tends to lose sight of their genre. This is ironic since the neglect of genre is a key reason to agree with Brillante in rejecting evolutionary accounts that see in Hesiod's poetic self-advertisements an advance upon Homer's humble anonymity. Brillante rightly points out that the time-lag between Homer and Hesiod may have been very small or non-existent (22), but should note too that the contrast between the two poets' stances is best understood as a matter of generic decorum. An overview of archaic epos makes it clear that the poses Homer could strike as authoritative narrator of the heroic past were not the same as those available to Hesiod in a hymn to the Muses or in his gnomic sphrêgis. For these reasons Brillante ought to pause before jamming passages from epic against Simonides or Pindar to show the "traditional model" of a Muse-inspired singer being challenged in late archaic poetry. Lyric passages about song must be assessed within their own traditional rhetoric of public praise and celebration before it can be assumed that they represent a new "riflessione del poeta sulla propria arte" (193).

A great part of the value of the collection will be in Brillante's detailed and thorough examination of texts and traditions about poetry. But his larger history of ideas, plucked from their discursive contexts and set into play mainly with each other, is less satisfying as an account of early forms of Greek criticism.


1.   Marcel Detienne, Les Maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque, Paris 1967; English tr. by Janet Lloyd, The masters of truth in Archaic Greece, New York 1996. Jesper Svenbro, La Parole et le marbre: Aux origines de la poétique grecque, Lund 1976; revised Italian translation by Pierpaolo Rosati, La parola e il marmo: Alle origini delle poetica greca, Turin, 1984.
2.   Citing inter alios (203 n. 61) Wolfgang Rösler, "Die Entdeckung der Fiktionalität in der Antike," Poetica 12 (1980) 283-319.

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