Sunday, April 21, 2013


Anna Bonifazi, Homer's Versicolored Fabric: The Evocative Power of Ancient Greek Epic Word-Making. Hellenic studies, 50. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 350. ISBN 9780674060623. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Nicolas Bertrand, UMR 8163 "Savoir Textes Langages" (

Version at BMCR home site

For so many years the Homeric poems have provided a vast and ever fresh ground for diverse inquiries of various orientations—historical, literary and/or linguistic. One is often puzzled by the wealth and variety of interpretations scholars have come up with, even while dealing with the same texts, each of those interpretations modifying and enriching our reading of the poems. The elegant metaphor of a Homeric "versicolored fabric" that Bonifazi chose for her latest monograph's title encapsulates just that: the openness of the Homeric poems to different interpretations. While Bonifazi proposes many insightful readings of the Homeric epics (mainly the Odyssey), she does not just offer yet another interpretation: what she also does is providing a heuristic framework allowing for this very multiplicity of interpretations.

Bonifazi conceives her work in the line of E. Bakker and C. Kroon, since her book lies at the interface between linguistics and literary studies: her purpose is to study the "literary grammar" (p.13) of the texts, that is the way in which the use of certain grammatical forms may have consequences for the literary substance of those texts. While she is mainly concerned with the linguistic concepts of deixis and anaphora as conveyed by the pronouns αὐτός and (ἐ)κεῖνος, she uses these words as a key to uncovering some of the epics' meaning.

The book is organized into five chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. I found the introduction clear and efficient: the author explains both her methodology and the linguistic notions necessary to understand her pragmatic inquiry into the demonstrative pronouns. It is likely that her explanations of linguistic concepts, in that section and throughout the book, will be sufficient for readers with little linguistic background and will provide as well useful reminders for more linguistically-learned readers before engaging in technical discussions.

The first three chapters make up the first part of the book, devoted to the reasons why Odysseus is referred to in the Odyssey as αὐτός or (ἐ)κεῖνος. The first chapter focuses on Odysseus as (ἐ)κεῖνος in the first part of the Odyssey. Bonifazi's claim is that (ἐ)κεῖνος is not merely a distal demonstrative pronoun (i.e. "that one that is far away"), but may convey different other meanings, which ultimately boil down to the same cognitive process, i.e. recalling a referent that is known to the addressee and will be a relevant piece of information for the following speech. Bonifazi identifies several such nuances, which are not mutually exclusive. Thus, she remarks that (ἐ)κεῖνος may signal the visual presence of the referent, or its status as an object of veneration, especially funerary. Most specifically, (ἐ)κεῖνος is used by speakers in the poem to cross-reference Odysseus while he is absent or believed to be so.

The second chapter introduces the notion of layering, as developed by H. H. Clark: according to this model, an utterance can be understood at the same time in different communicative contexts, represented by different layers of signification. The author then proceeds with a careful and insightful study of the encounter between Odysseus and Eumaios in Book 14 of the Odyssey, according to three layers: (1) an encounter between a beggar and a faithful swineherd; (2) an encounter between a disguised master and a faithful servant who recognizes him; (3) a ritual and epiphanic encounter between a worshipper and the cult-hero Odysseus. All those layers of signification are present at the same time, and many a detail of the first layer has in fact a deeper resonance in the second or third layer. By representing the text's potential polysemy as unresolved, Bonifazi can maintain both an interpretation of the encounter in which Eumaios does not recognize Odysseus and one in which he does, while making room for her own —very appealing—reading in which the narrated events (the two meals, the piglet sacrifice, the round hut, the encounter with the dead hero) may be seen as elements of an archaic heroic cult. Formally, the interlacing of αὐτός and (ἐ)κεῖνος referring to Odysseus is one of the keys to access layering in that episode. While I found Bonifazi's insights in this chapter generally illuminating, I have some qualms about the pertinence of its position within the book: since it presupposes the claims on αὐτός that are to be explained only in the next chapter, the reading is often uneasy.

Chapter 3 focuses on αὐτός as an anaphoric device. Again, Bonifazi appeals to pragmatics and cognitive linguistics for explaining exactly what this pronoun does: her idea is that with αὐτός the discourse world is constituted into a center and a periphery, the referent of αὐτός being at the center. Thus she provides a satisfying account of the different forces of αὐτός in Homeric Greek: intensification, marking sameness and true identity and even (in)direct reflexivity are but a consequence of this basic center-periphery effect. Her convincing view of αὐτός is then exemplified by a review of the instances of the pronoun referring to Odysseus throughout the Odyssey. During this study, in order to account for the multiplicity of readings that the text allows, the author introduces the concept of 'polyphony', as developed separately by M. Bakhtin and O. Ducrot, i.e. the simultaneous presence of more than one speaking voice in a given utterance. To my mind, Bonifazi's use of this concept is somewhat too loose and rather untechnical, since what she seems to mean by polyphony is merely the ability of a given word or phrase to be understood according to different layers of signification. Thus, she can conclude this chapter by saying that "polyphony enhances layering, and layering enhances polyphony" (p. 183), which seems quite meaningless since polyphony is but polysemy (she uses both terms interchangeably p. 160).

The second part or the book, consisting of Chapters 4 and 5, focuses on discourse markers built on the root αὐ-; this etymological link, along with the pragmatic approach to both literary and linguistic matters, is indeed what unites the whole book. In Chapter 4, after briefly discussing the literature on discourse markers and particles, the author studies the functions of αὖ, αὖτε and αὐτάρ, distinguishing between presentational and interactional functions. The former are connected with vision: they mark a shift from one side of the visual field to the other side, whence their use in organizing the narrative; some instances are more specific and involve the singling out of an individual with a group. At the interactional level, these discourse markers indicate emotional discontinuity.

The fifth and last chapter deals with the remaining αὖ-discourse markers, for the sake of completeness. Here again, Bonifazi tries to detect additional presentational and interactional functions besides representational ones. Several such functions are claimed to be at work with αὖτις and αὐτίκα, but less so with αὐτοῦ and αὔτως.

At the end of Chapters 1 and 4, Bonifazi confirms her conclusions by studying occurrences of the words in focus outside the Homeric poems, especially elegiac, lyric and dramatic poetry. While her analyses are interesting per se, I wonder if they really add much to the book's overall value; at least their virtue is to show that the uses she has identified are not constrained by dialectal, diachronic, generic, or even idiolectal preferences, but are part of Ancient Greek in general.

Bonifazi's writing is generally free of intricate technicalities, and her use of linguistic terminology is restricted to what is necessary. One exception, which I found unnecessarily heavy, is the phrase "primary speaking 'I'", by which she refers to the main narrator of the Homeric poems (p. 8), that is, the one who says 'I' in the narrative parts of the text. A simpler locution, such as 'main speaker', maybe preceded by a methodological caveat to prevent any theoretical misunderstanding, would have been preferable.

The book is quite elegant and generally free of misprints.1 It contains an index locorum and an index of subjects, which I found rather handy, and also an appendix with all the instances of Odysseus as κεῖνος and as αὐτός in the Odyssey. Maybe I would have gathered the four tables in a second appendix rather than located them at the end of the chapter which they pertain to, but I guess this is a matter of personal taste. Anyhow, I doubt all of them are very useful: for instance, Tables 3 and 4 (p. 262 and 292) merely give the distribution of the relevant discourse markers in epic and lyric poetry, without any qualification; and as far as I can see, the reader is referred to those tables only twice (p. 251, n. 188 and p. 264, n. 1).


1.   Of course, some misprints remain; here are the main ones that I noticed: unnecessary star in "*IE *yo-" (p. 29); "Μυρίνες" instead of "Μυρίνης" (p. 109, n. 134); "yet it as presumed" (p. 186); "Frontisi-Ducrot" instead of "Frontisi-Ducroux" (p. 188, n. 9); "futher" (p. 227); missing spiritus on "αυτάρ" (p. 219) and "επεί" (p. 235).

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