Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Tom Phillips, Pindar's Library: Performance Poetry and Material Texts. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 330. ISBN 9780198745730. $125.00.

Reviewed by Chris Eckerman, University of Oregon (eckerman@uoregon.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


It might not be obvious from the title, but this book addresses issues related to interpreting Pindar's odes as texts that would be accessible as book poetry in the Hellenistic period and thereafter. Phillips is particularly interested in scholia, Hellenistic criticism, Hellenistic poetry, and ancient literary theory. With these materials, he considers how intertextual and paratextual phenomena (e.g. texts and interpretations) create and affect readerly experiences. And he is particularly interested in how familiarity with texts and contexts that post-date Pindar affect possible interpretations of Pindar's odes—he refers to this as diachronic reading. It is hard to say that the book has a specific argument: Phillips is generally intrigued by how familiarity with texts that post-date Pindar's odes can affect readers' interpretations of the odes. The length of this review does not allow me to address the book in detail; accordingly, I provide some reflections on material from Phillips' chapters in order to give the reader an idea of the subject matter of Phillips' text and how one may respond to it.

The introduction includes problematic argument regarding O. 10. Phillips focuses some attention on lines 1-3 where the narrator says that the Olympian victor, the son of Archestratos, has been written (γέγραπται) on his mind but that he has 'forgotten' (or 'been negligent'—the more likely interpretation, I think) to fulfill his obligation of praise. Phillips assumes throughout the book that Pindar's odes were performed by choruses (e.g. 3, passim), but we cannot make this assumption.1 The assumption of choral performance, however, encourages Phillips to conclude that "when sung by a chorus, γέγραπται also hints at the distinction between composition and performance, and between the poet and the chorus" (7). This is a problem: even if the ode was first performed by a chorus, it is not obvious that the narrator 'hints at' performance by saying that the child of Archestratos has been written/inscribed on his mind, and Phillips provides no evidence in support of his assertion. Furthermore, Phillips asserts that, "read in this way, the name having been 'inscribed on my mind' works as a reference to the processes of composition and training the chorus, which doubtless involved (a) written text(s)" (7). Again, Phillips does not provide evidence to support this assertion. The child of Archestratos, inscribed on the narrator's mind, does not obviously reference a process of composition or training of a chorus; and it is not 'doubtless' that the ode was composed with a written text for members of the chorus (again, we do not know that the ode was performed by a chorus, and, even if it was, it is possible that the training of the ode occurred orally). Thereafter (8-9), Phillips makes further assertions about the interpretation of O. 10 without reference to evidence that would sustain their validity.

As noted in the introduction, Phillips is interested in Pindar's odes as 'diachronic' texts, and Phillips provides an example of diachronic reading in chapter 1 in relation to 'sublimity' criticism, such as that witnessed in Longinus' On the Sublime. Phillips describes his concept of diachronic method by stating, "studies of literary reception tend to focus on the uses made by later texts of their models, or on how later texts interact, agonistically, cooperatively, or both, with previous ones. My method, however, will be (also) to reverse this practice and think about the ways later texts can resituate earlier ones and shift how they might be read" (33). With regard to his diachronic method, Phillips turns to Don Fowler (33), employing a quotation from Fowler in an argument from authority, but the excerpt that Phillips provides is not closely reasoned. Some readers will not be surprised to learn that Phillips does not provide adequate argumentation in favor of the diachronic method, as Phillips introduces it, since they will not be persuaded that one can easily sustain an argument that 'Callimachus is already in Pindar.' Turning to interpret Pindar, Phillips nicely shows how [Long.] 35.4 alludes to P. 1.21-24, Pindar's description of Aetna. Thereafter, Phillips considers how the scholion at N. 3.143 (iii 62 Dr), commenting on Pindar's κραγέται δὲ κολοιοὶ ταπεινὰ νέμονται ('chattering crows range below'), may be read in relation to sublimity criticism. Phillips suggests that, when the scholiast explains this passage with the phrase 'they are not able to rise to the heights' (οὐ δύνανται δὲ διαίρεσθαι εἰς ὕψος), the scholiast might be "reflecting the critical tradition surrounding ὕψος, but the absence of any specific articulation of such an argument urges caution" (78). The two examples cited here can be related to Phillips' articulation, quoted earlier in this paragraph, of diachronic reading: Phillips' discussion of Aetna represents a traditional scholarly suggestion that Longinus alludes to a specific passage of Pindar's poetry to serve a specific authorial intention; few to no readers will pause to question why Phillips thinks this is interesting. The second interpretation, however, will give some readers pause and encourage them to reflect on the value of such diachronic reading. Given that Phillips himself notes that 'sublimity criticism' may have little or nothing to do with the scholiast's statement that Phillips introduces, we may wonder what the hermeneutic payoff is in reading through Phillips' diachronic interpretation of these materials.

In chapter 2, Phillips focuses on depictions of book culture in Hellenistic epigrams and on depictions of Pindar in Hellenistic epigrams, cultic, and paraliterary materials. Thereafter, he reflects on critical signs, including paragraphoi and coronides. Phillips nicely shows that epigrammatists engaged with the textualization of previous poets' output and that Pindar is envisioned as an ideal citizen and a preeminent poet. Phillips also concludes that Pindar could be envisioned as 'semi-divine' in cultic contexts. Phillips theorizes critical signs, considering how readers might respond to them in various literary contexts. He conjectures, for example, that the different 'tones' of the discourse at the ends of O. 6 and O. 7 might be more noticeable to the reader when the endings of the odes are accompanied by asteriskoi. This might be true, but some readers may want to know that readers in antiquity experienced what Phillips conjectures; and Phillips supplies no evidence for such readerly experiences.

Chapter 3 includes more diachronic readings. Phillips begins by providing a diachronic reading of O. 1, while discussing Xenophon's Hieron and Dionysius of Halicarnassus' famed disparaging comments on Hieron. Thereafter, Phillips interprets O.1 and P. 1 as 'documentary texts' and considers how the odes resonate as programmatic odes (given their prominent position within their books) for other odes in the Olympians and Pythians. Whether one will be sympathetic to these sections will largely depend upon one's sympathy for Phillips' diachronic method. The chapter concludes with reflection on the manner in which Pindar's Kharites provided generic motivation for Theocritus' Pindaric Idyll 16; I interpret Pindar's Kharites differently than Phillips.2

In chapter 4, Phillips examines how commentators interpret allusions and intertexts between Pindar and other authors. Phillips shows that diverse literary and historical factors affected the commentators' interpretations and he considers how these commentators' interpretations construct parameters for readers' intertextual interpretations. Phillips shows that commentators, unsurprisingly, comment on the manner in which Pindar responds to previous texts and the manner in which latter authors respond to Pindar. But Phillips also insightfully notes both how commentators can become as influential as authors in the construction of meaning (208) and how Pindar's texts were not used by Alexandrian commentators to affirm the ideology of the Ptolemies (this practice might be surprising to readers who are familiar with the manner in which Vergil, for example, exploits Theocritus' texts to suit an Augustan agenda).3

Phillips turns to O.14, the last of the Olympian odes, in chapter 5. He suggests that Echo's journey to the underworld, at the end of the ode, provides a strong closural function to the Olympians as a group and that "Echo would have acted as a metaphor for reperformance" (211, cf. 217) in the 5th century. Some scholars will find Phillips' reading of Echo as a metaphor for reperformance unpersuasive, given that Echo is most obviously to be interpreted, in relation to the angelia-motif, as a non-metaphorical, literal divinity. Phillips also suggests that O.14 was likely first performed processionally. I would disagree, as Phillips notes. Nothing in the ode provides evidence that the ode was performed processionally, and we have no good text-internal or text-external evidence for processional performance of epinician odes. It seems unlikely to me that epinician odes would have been performed processionally, since processional performance would not be an ideal vehicle for getting the epinician argument across to an audience (audience members would have to follow the performer(s), trying to hear and comprehend a new song). Furthermore, the 'procession-hypothesis,' I believe, largely derives from misunderstanding the denotation of kômos in epinician poetry.4 Finally, processional performance generally assumes the validity of the choral hypothesis, and, as noted above, this is not a given. The chapter then presents an overview of uses of Echo in Classical and Hellenistic literature; having already suggested that Echo can be read as a metaphor for reperformance, Phillips now suggests that, within the context of the book, Echo can also be read as a metaphor both for the book and for the reader (225). At this point, there are probably too many metaphorical Echos for some readers of Phillips' book. Again, Phillips provides no evidence to suggest that anyone other than himself has interpreted Echo in these metaphorical manners.

The final chapter focuses on Pythians 11 and 12. Phillips considers how Clytemnestra, in P. 11, and Danae, in P. 12, can be read against one another in the context of the book and he develops a reading of P. 11 wherein he suggests that "the poem emphasizes the non-identity of Thrasydaeus and Orestes, and thereby creates a distinctive hermeneutic situation that produces a particularly calibrated mode of praise, but also prompts listeners to reflect on their own interpretative mechanisms" (242). The chapter closes with a rich discussion of auletic mimesis in P. 12 and with a discussion of paratextual materials, including Theon's commentary, on P. 12.

As noted above, the book contains descriptive and argumentative sections: the descriptive sections are sound and will be of aid to readers unfamiliar with these materials (e.g. overview of Dionysius of Halicarnassus' description of the severe style, 70-73). Some of the argumentative materials, however, as noted above, will be problematic for scholars who expect scholarship to contain argumentation that is supported by evidence; Phillips is content to develop an interpretation if it seems sensible to him, even if there is otherwise little or no evidence in favor of the interpretation (see his comments on p. 28); furthermore, readers may find other argumentative materials underwhelming due to their relatively small payoff (see e.g. my comments above on ch. 1). Other parts of the book, however, employ a traditional argumentative method, and it is in these sections that Phillips is at his best (e.g. much of ch. 4). As Phillips himself notes (288), there is relatively little Pindaric criticism in this book, and this may surprise some readers. However, I did learn much from Phillips in regard to scholiasts' interpretations of Pindar.


1.   For discussion, see C. Eckerman "Notes to a Recent Edition of Pindar's Olympian Odes." A Review Article to Accompany Michel Briand, Pindare. Olympiques (texte établi par A Puech). Exemplaria Classica, 19 (2015) 193-202.
2.   For discussion, see C. Eckerman 2015 (fn.1).
3.   See e.g. C. Eckerman, "Freedom and Slavery in Vergil's Eclogue 1," Wiener Studien, forthcoming.
4.   For my thoughts, see "The kômos of Pindar and Bacchylides and the Semantics of Celebration," Classical Quarterly 60 (2010) 302-312.

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