Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Felix Budelmann, Tom Phillips (ed.), Textual Events: Performance and the Lyric in Early Greece. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 315. ISBN 9780198805823. $85.00.

Reviewed by Dennis R. Alley, Syracuse University (dralley@syr.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

As editors Felix Budelmann and Tom Phillips observe in their new Textual Events: Performance & the Lyric in Early Greece, "Poems do not just communicate precepts, narratives, and attitudes that align with normative ideologies, knowledge, and beliefs, but they can also be exploratory, opening up new ways of encountering realities and of understanding emotions and ideas."1 So, how should scholars confront the je ne sais quoi experience of engaging Greek Lyric poetry? In so many words, this is the intervention editors Budelmann and Phillips hope to make with Textual Events: to encourage a more holistic approach to Greek Lyric, one that reintegrates and reorients the experiential quality of lyric poetry in scholarly discussions of it. Perhaps the book's most impressive accomplishment is the ease and grace with which it accomplishes this goal. Presented not as a corrective on contemporary methodologies, but as a complementary approach that draws on many of them, Textual Events extends a valuable literary counterbalance to the social-science heavy approaches that have dominated lyric studies for roughly three decades. To be sure, individual chapters are more or less successful at offering compelling cases for their own readings as "textual events," but editors Budelmann and Phillips deserve ample praise for the clarity, organization, and force with which they make their case for the concept throughout the volume. Having considered the book's general aims, let us now turn to its components.

The volume begins with an exploration of occasionality, which is itself commences with Giambattista D'Alessio's "Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Lyric: The Case of Sappho." D'Alessio describes his approach to Sappho as a focus on, "the way in which words are used to evoke deictic coordinates which may or may not be meant to coincide (historically) with any sort of 'external reality'" (p. 34). Touring the poetess's fragments, D'Alessio examines key passages that have been used to reconstruct Sappho's world and culture. In his discussion, D'Alessio demonstrates that often the poetry's language does less to inspire conviction in its interpretation as a freeze-frame of the socio-cultural practices and conditions of Sappho's world than it participates in a complex and intensely self-referential poetic reality—often unique to itself. Even if these findings may seem somewhat discouraging for those wishing to, for example, reconstruct cultic activity in Sappho's world, or illustrate the gender dynamics of her poetry, D'Alessio's study does less to silence these discussions than exhort a healthy skepticism and cautious awareness of poetry's status as poetry. The astonishing caution, balance, and philological command of Sappho's poetry D'Alessio demonstrates are superlative and make the article not only a pleasure to read but a true standout in recent lyric scholarship.

"Sailing and Singing" by Anna Uhlig is among the volume's more challenging entries. Questioning the ubiquity of the ship of state allegory often seen in the poetry of Alceaus, Uhlig argues that as a member of a seafaring society Alcaeus may have composed songs about the sea and seamanship to be perfectly intelligible and, indeed, enjoyable to others in his community without the need for complex allegory. Moreover, on Uhlig's view, the allegorical reading posited in antiquity by Heraclitus (pp. 70–2) and revived in modern scholarship by Bruno Gentili had limited appeal or even accessibility to ancient audiences. She cautions that this, in turn, should cause us to re-think our convictions in it, or, at least, temper our expectations of its pervasiveness in Alcaeus. Despite the work she does to erode her reader's confidence in the extent of the ship of state allegory in Alcaeus, Uhlig is cautious to avoid calling for an outright rejection of it. Instead, she suggests multiple registers of meaning may be overlapping. She leaves the door open to a mixture of allegory and actuality in the extant poems and fragments.

Continuing the former chapter's interest in the poetry of Alcaeus, "Materialities of Political Commitment? Textual Events, Material Culture, and Metaliterarity in Alcaeus," by David Fearn begins with an overview of recent movements in lyric studies of literature generally (pp. 93–5), before settling on the lenses of deixis and ecphrasis to engage the poetic realities of Alcaeus' verses (p. 98). Theoretically, this chapter could have served as a corollary to D'Alessio's entry; however, Fearn's interest in, or perhaps, defense of, the use of literary devices as a heuristic in Alcaeus' poetry at times distracted from his initially promising premise of examining the poetry's cultural elements through deixis and ecphrasis.

Arguably the most straightforward question posed in the volume is the title of the fourth chapter, "What is Setting?," by G. O. Hutchinson. Hutchinson aims not to produce a definition, but rather; "to investigate the notion and bring it in contact with other aspects of the poem" (p. 115) While reading Hutchinson's article, I found myself astonished when I realized how rarely I had seen the concept of setting addressed in studies of lyric. To be sure, aspects of it have been well explored in individual poetic contexts, but Hutchinson deserves praise for recognizing the need to examine the topic broadly, as well as the work he does to offer his intervention on the subject. Looking closely at Alcaeus and Horace, Hutchinson offers a capacious view of setting, which "goes beyond reality, and often beyond even the fictionally immediate. The same spatial context often alters and evolves. The poems are full of life and mobility, and they often develop beyond prediction" (p. 132).

"Sappho and Cyborg Helen" by Tim Whitmarsh begins the book's second section, "Conceptual Contexts" with an examination of Helen's agency in lyric. Using "cyberfeminism" as a heuristic to understand lyric representations of Helen, Whitmarsh suggests Sappho's depiction of Helen—overcome by desire and willingly departing for Troy—and failure to pass judgement on her, "retains and indeed revalues, the cyborg messiness of her epic equivalent. She is both subject and object of desire, a transient mode of identity" (p. 143). Alcaeus (fr. 283), by contrast, in Whitmarsh' view, reacts and responds to Sappho's representation of Helen by reducing, if not denying, the agency given to her by Sappho: "whereas Sappho celebrates Helen's erotic autonomy, Alcaeus holds her qua lustful woman, responsible for the wrongs done to men. In doing so, Alcaeus, takes over Sappho's emphasis upon Helen's agency and subjectivity, but subordinates it to what we might call male "significance': female action has meaning only insofar as it has an impact on the world of men" (p. 148).

"Event and Artifact: The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Archaic Lyric, and Early Greek Literary History" by Henry Spelman is a true standout, and perhaps offers the strongest case for the adoption of the methodology proposed by the volume. Examining the Delian section of the Hymn, Spelman uses the literary traditions of Homeric biographies and the authorial personae of Greek lyric poets—particularly Pindar and Bacchylides—to argue that the author of the hymn intended for audiences to construe the poem's authorial persona as the great bard himself. To be sure, the use of literary tropes and rhetoric as a kind of archive for both scholars and ancient poets alike has a long tradition in lyric scholarship, but Spelman's balance of literature, literary history, philology, and context is a powerful and convincing way of approaching the longstanding problem of the text's persona. This was a pleasure to read.

Oliver Thomas' short chapter, "Hermetically Unsealed: Literary Genres in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes," explores the interconnections between the Hymn to Hermes and lyric poetry. Contextualizing the poem in its likely sympotic performance context, Thomas sees lines 425–33 of the Hymn as engaging in a sympotic left-right style capping response (177–8) which signals its ludic qualities to listeners. The mixture of context and content addressed here is valuable for considerations of lyric's relationship to the symposium, and authors' potential awareness of this likely environment for re/performance. In particular, Timocreon's poetry came to my mind after thinking about Thomas' discussion.

"Polyphony, Event, Context: Pindar, Paean 9" by Tom Phillips is another standout. Exploring the voices in this Paean, Phillips uses the literary topos of eclipse poetry (especially intertextuality with Archilochus' eclipse poem) to argue that Paean 9 fuses Pindar's poetic persona with the image of the sun. The significance of the observation is not limited to the paean, as the radiance of the sun is particularly important in epinicia as well.2 The article's second section, "Tradition, Mimesis, Musicality," (193–200) is especially insightful for its demonstration of generic expectations and how Pindar positions his work among them.

The book's third and final section, Lyric Encounters, opens with a challenging article, "Echo and the Invention of the Lyric Listener," by Pauline A. Leven. Using the dual images of Echo in Daphnis and Chloē (3.23) and the early recording device of the gramophone to conceptualize re-performance, Leven fascinatingly wonders what re-engagement with ancient lyric poetry would have looked, felt, and sounded like. She finds the notion of Echo, and the repeated phrase δηὖτε as an entrance point for understanding how Greeks responded to existing compositions, and how new poems engaged with or (re)position themselves in the wake of old ones. I fully expect this to be among the more controversial entries in the volume, as many of the thoughts, ideas, and questions it poses are inevitably unanswerable. Still, this should not suggest these are not significant questions to consider when approaching lyric; rather, like D'Alessio's warnings on the context of Sapphic poetry, they remind us of how much we do not know about the original context and performance environment of Greek lyric.

Using the section's title, "lyric encounters" as his starting point, Felix Budelmann's "Lyric Minds" wonders not who or what is speaking in lyric poetry, as many scholars of lyric have, but what the poet's self-representation achieves in the reader's experience. It is a subtle but huge shift on our prospective that illuminates, ultimately, how challenging the process of crafting a coherent and unimpeachable persona is: all perspectives shift or even crumble when pressed under serious scrutiny. Still, for Budelmann, the apparent inconsistencies we may perceive belie a more important facet of response to lyric: readers are expected to suspend their disbelief and fundamentally accept the narrator's narrative. Surely, Hipponax was not the debased, debauched, or impoverished figure his poetry crafted, but the experience of the reader's engagement with the persona demands that we accept that in this poem, at least, he was. Budelmann concludes with a further complication: the performer. What happens to this relationship when the poetic "I" is no longer possibly the author or original intended performer, but a singer at a symposium or even a professional classicist reciting the words 2,500 years after their composition. The answer, as Budelmann sees it, is that the performer, too, engages in the same relationship. Personae are crafted to refract aspects of the human experience in ways that allow us to identify with or respond to the things they say. The intervention feels remarkably important, and, indeed, the article left me thinking not only about my relationship to the voices in ancient lyric poetry, but the ways that lyrics of all genres and times can be remarkably resonant, powerful, and, at times, even haunting to its readers or singers.

The final chapter, "Fidelity and Farewell: Pindar's Ethics as Textual Events," by Mark Payne focuses on Pindar's poetic ethopoeia. Doing this, Payne examines fidelity, which he sees as "the ethical gesture that turns the real-world event into a textual event that can be experienced by the reader as such in the time of the poem." (p. 266), and farewell, which, "seems to want to free itself from fidelity in order to produce a different kind of statement-subject, without the king of moral obligation that fidelity enacts" (ibid.). Payne's grasp of contemporary theoretical approaches to lyric and "event" theory is remarkable. Unfortunately the space necessarily given to the article's theoretical framework leaves less room for an examination of the mechanisms in Pindar than some readers may desire. Nevertheless, the article's introduction of a new methodological approach to Pindar's traditionally assumed "piety" sets clear tracks for other scholars to follow.

How successful is the book at offering a new methodology for approaching lyric? To a great extent, no doubt, the answer will depend on the reader's investment in existing methodologies, but I, at least, was impressed with the clarity and utility of the concept of textual events editors Budelmann and Phillips present. Textual Events does not pitch some wholly new approach to lyric, but rather offers its readers a cautious methodological synthesis with an astonishing degree of flex and sway. Indeed, the title itself serves as a signpost for how the volume joins distant and formerly disparate methodological stars into a limpid new constellation. While, at times, individual chapters may seem to be located on distant edges of that constellation, observed from afar, they patently work together to form an impressive and clarion whole.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction: Textual Events: Performance and the Lyric in Early Greece
2. Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Lyric: The Case of Sappho. Giambattista D'Alessio
3. Sailing and Singing. Anna Uhlig
4. Materialities of Political Commitment? Textual Events, Material Culture, and Metaliterarity in Alcaeus. David Fearn
5. What is Setting? G.O. Hutchinson

6. Sappho and Cyborg Helen. Tim Whitmarsh
7. Event and Artifact: The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Archaic Lyric, and Early Greek Literary History. Henry Spelman
8. Hermetically Unsealed: Literary Genres in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Oliver Thomas
9. Polyphony, Event, Context: Pindar, Paean 9. Tom Phillips

10. Echo and the Invention of the Lyric Listener. Pauline A. Leven
11. Lyric Minds. Felix Budelmann
12. Fidelity and Farewell: Pindar's Ethics as Textual Events. Mark Payne


1.   Budelmann and Phillips 2018, 4.
2.   Arguably, the most famous example is found at the beginning of O.1.

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