Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix II. The Discourse of Disputation: Three Comparative Typologies

Formalized speech events involving insult and games of verbal dueling reproduce in microcosm the social and cultural values that give them meaning. In order to elucidate those meanings, however, the “internal” and “external” frames of the game need to be kept especially clear. The external frame comprises the rules of social (viz. polite) discourse and interaction that must be violated to make the game possible. The internal frame comprises the particular rules of the verbal game itself, according to which players are judged for victory. Three examples will serve as illustrations.

The first is a speech event in Guyana called busin. [1] This type of encounter takes place between socially equal, working-class women as a result of an eye-pass dispute, which occurs when one woman passes another in public without showing the proper respect. The cultural or external rules at work here are that social equals should be treated equally but when an eye-pass has occurred, the social equilibrium has been imbalanced. The busin exchange then involves the revelation by each woman of successively more embarrassing personal detail, including the sexual liaisons of each woman, until one party declines to continue the exchange. For the abuse to be effective, the opponents must know each other and either have witnessed or heard rumors of the other’s activities; for the same reason, busin sessions do not take place between parties that have no personal knowledge of one another. The significant point about this type of abuse is that the busin contest presupposes that the charges leveled by each party are true, or at least plausible. Unlike other forms of ritual insult in Guyanese communities, the internal rules of busin prevent the competitors from admitting any of the charges because that would forfeit their position. The winner of the busin session is the woman who most successfully reveals the immoral behavior of her adversary in the eyes of the public presiding over the session as judge, while the loser will be the woman who is caused the greater embarrassment. As Edwards notes, the public airing of the charges between the women makes them available for future comment and consideration, which in turn has the socially regulative effect of restoring the status equilibrium between them. [2]

A second illustration involves insults in eighteenth-century Paris and is based on a study of court records of the commissaires au Châtelet, the local police officials of eighteenth-century Paris. [3] Unlike ethnographic research, historical studies of this kind are complex, not least because the “meaning” of a given insult must realistically be gauged by degrees, while further clues such as nuances of intonation and gesture are lacking in the sources. Even so, by sampling a range of insults found in the Parisian court records consistent patterns emerge. Sometimes the insults are epithets, but just as commonly they are expressed in phrases or whole sentences. Of the many examples that could be cited, I will limit myself to two basic patterns that emerge along gender lines. For women, the most common charges involve sexual promiscuity, so that a baker can call a surgeon’s wife a cul pourri “rotting ass” and further claim that her son n’ étoit pas de son mary, mais bien un bâtard “was not her husband’s, but a bastard.” Of another woman it was said that elle avoit affaire à plusieurs prêtres de St Médard … qu’il ne voudroit pas que son chien habitât avec elle parce qu’elle luy donneroit la vérole “she was involved with several priests from St. Médard … that he wouldn’t want his dog to live with her because she would give it the pox.” [4] For men, the most common charges involve criminal offense, especially theft or dishonest business practices. Thus of a plaintiff it was said that receloit ce qu’il voloit “he sold off what he’d stolen,” or of other men it was said il avoit volé tout son bien “he had stolen all his goods” or in more direct terms, te voilà donc gueux et voleur “there you are, you villain and thief.” Of men in business it could be said that one was a vendeur à faux poids “seller by false weights, voleur et banqueroutier “thief and bankrupt,” mauvais payeur “bad debt-payer.” Finally, other insults specific to men refer to general criminality or criminal association. Thus a man could be called a reste de Bicêtre “leftover from Bicêtre” (a notorious prison), a reste de gibet “leftover from a scaffold,” or a man could be targeted with an open charge of criminal activity: il avoit été affiché “he had been shamed publicly” or [il] avoit été fouetté et marqué “he had been whipped and branded.” [5]

More such colorful examples could be cited, but these are sufficient to give some preliminary indication that the insults derive at least in part from common social stereotypes of male and female behavior. As in the evidence from Guyana, here too the abusers and abused are from the same community and tend to know one another as neighbors or colleagues. [6] The contests of insult typically take place in some public or partially public location, and once again the degree of public embarrassment of the abused can be used as an indicator of the success of the insult. For our purposes what is most important about the dynamics of these abuse events is their functional consequences. Effective insults, if the court records themselves are an indication, invite outside mediation for the disputants and challenge the aggrieved party to justify his or her actions and opinions. Insulted parties are forced to give way through public shaming, which testifies to the socially regulative nature of this kind of ritual insult. It serves to maintain a status equilibrium between parties who may disrupt that equilibrium by inappropriately asserting a social superiority. The patterns and preoccupations detectable in the insults strongly suggest that “the behaviour they condemned was that most inimical to survival in the social and economic context of eighteenth-century Paris.” [7] Therefore on one level the verbal insults reflect the social and cultural values held by a given community at a given time. But they do not just reflect them. It is also important to see that the occasions of insult are socially regulative moments, and that the insults constitute the institutional values that are considered important.

A final and very different example of verbal contestation involving poetic duels illustrates how the poetic structure of the dueling itself relates to institutional social structures. In a study of poetic dueling among the Gayo in the highlands of Sumatra between 1900 and 1945, Bowen has observed that there was a shift in the nature of poetic dueling that corresponded to a shift in the geopolitical structure of Gayo society. [8] The dueling of interest is known as didong, and there are three types: individual poetic duels performed at weddings, multiple duelers who perform while greeting guests, and group combats that involve teams. [9] The individual dueling at weddings resembles formal oratory insofar as it involves turn-taking between virtuosi who represent village or subvillage units. Without going into the detailed poetic structure of the wedding didong, we can observe that it is characterized by end-rhyme, parallelisms, and involves metaphors that encapsulate central cultural values for the performers. The relevant point about wedding didong is that prior to the 1940s, and especially before the achievement of Indonesian independence in 1945, the performance entailed a series of complementary exchanges that moved from initial opposition to a final resolution. In effect, the dueling diagrammed the marriage process itself as an exchange between equals. At the risk of greatly simplifying this verbal art form, we can summarize the event as follows: each performer evokes through the use of stereotyped and formulaic phrases the foundations of Gayo culture in steps that lead to the wedding itself. The performance ends with a duel through an exchange of riddles, each of which has a connection to the wedding. The duel is resolved when one performer fails to answer the others riddle or acknowledges defeat by claiming that he does not know the answer. [10] Like a marriage itself, then, in Gayo cultural terms the didong reproduces the social process of uniting different, complementary parties into a form of agreement based on equality. [11]

Among the major sociopolitical changes that took place after Indonesian independence in 1945, Dutch colonial and postcolonial regimes centralized political structure and social activities. They also created a more permanent division of Gayo society into two domains dominated by the two main rival political groups, Bukit and Ciq. Wedding didong performances were phased out in favor of group combats, notably between the two main political groups. More importantly the new government in the late 1940s began to sponsor public competitions both as a way of extending its own voice and of regulating what was perceived to be a potential vehicle for the expression of dissent. [12] The Bukit and Ciq didong competitions often involve ‘‘attack” songs that ridicule each groups socioeconomic characteristics and especially their sexual shortcomings. These “attack” songs are more openly aggressive than those of the earlier wedding didong. There are also differences in the rhyme scheme, but what is most significant is that the internal movement between the competitors toward resolution is lost. Instead, these public didong competitions sponsored by the government “became static, propagandistic combats between domains.” [13] Here then is a particularly striking example of a verbal dueling form that, as a result of political changes and of being given preference by a new government, became a predominant vehicle for the expression of political rivalry. Unlike the earlier forms of didong the public competitions are more topical, indicating another measure of their politicization. The newer competitions are more prone to criticize local officials and incorporate fewer traditional poetic forms, all of which comes at the expense of any internal movement in the competitions toward resolution and agreement. But the “static” political nature of the public combats in turn indicates that as a result of governmental sponsorship and control, dissent from government policies has been limited to an expression of hostility between the two main sociopolitical domains, Bukit and Ciq, rather than between them and the government. [14]

Each of these examples of ritual insult and verbal dueling—from modem Guyana, eighteenth-century Paris, and post-colonial Indonesia—illustrates the importance of locating both the “internal” and “external” frame of the speech events in culturally, socially, and politically specific contexts. We must be cautious in asserting general rules of verbal dueling across cultures, such as that the participants do not assume that the accusations hurled back and forth are true, since in some instances the truth of the accusations is presupposed by the game itself. On the other hand, as these studies show, ritual forms of insult and dueling are culturally salient because they crystallize the cultural values and sociopolitical structures that give them meaning.


[ back ] 1. For the following discussion, see Edwards 1979.

[ back ] 2. Edwards 1979:26.

[ back ] 3. For what follows, see Garrioch 1987.

[ back ] 4. All examples taken from Garrioch 1987:107.

[ back ] 5. All examples at Garrioch 1987:107–08. All translations are my own.

[ back ] 6. Garrioch 1987:115.

[ back ] 7. Garrioch 1987:117.

[ back ] 8. Bowen 1989.

[ back ] 9. Bowen 1989:27.

[ back ] 10. Bowen 1989:28.

[ back ] 11. Bowen 1989:30.

[ back ] 12. Bowen 1989:31.

[ back ] 13. Bowen 1989:36.

[ back ] 14. Bowen 1989:34, 36.