Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece: Heroic Reference and Ritual Gestures in Time and Space

  Calame, Claude. 2009. Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece: Heroic Reference and Ritual Gestures in Time and Space. Hellenic Studies Series 18. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_CalameC.Poetic_and_Performative_Memory_in_Ancient_Greece.2009.

By Way of Conclusion: Returns to the Present

Truth loves to prevail,
and all-conquering time
always fosters the deed that is well done

Bacchylides 13.204-207 (translation by Campbell 1992:201)

Inserted into a poem by Bacchylides which celebrates the victory of an athlete of Aegina in the Nemean games, this aphorism on truth (alḗtheia) which always triumphs with time (khrónos) might well serve as the very foundation for the representation of time we might attribute to any good classical Greek. Variations on the theme can be found throughout Hellenic culture, not only in the poems of the poet of Keos, but in those of his Theban colleague Pindar, who also sang of victory in the Panhellenic games. Praises for one young winner in the Games of Olympia include this variation:

And at that founding ceremony (of Zeus’ shrine at Olympia)
the Fates stood near at hand
as did the sole assayer
of genuine truth, Time . . . [1]

Pindar Olympian 10.51-55 (translation by Lattimore 1947/1976:35)

From the Homeric poems on, this truth guaranteed by time fits into a tensive continuity among past, present, and future. In the first book of the Iliad, the seer Calchas is introduced as one who, through the divinatory arts granted by Apollo, “knows what is, what will be, and what was”; in the long and poetically-inspired scene which opens Hesiod’s Theogony, the Muses confer on the poet the power to glorify the past, and future, and the eternal present of the gods, those Muses who in unison sing “what is, what will be, and what was.” [
2] In each case, the place where this truth is set forth in its temporality is far from indifferent: the assembly of the Achaeans in the Iliad, the sacred mountain of Helicon in the prelude to the Theogony. There is one basic difference, since in the Iliad, among the assembled heroes, reorientation of the future as it relates to the past comes about through human action: they must appease the wrath of Apollo by making up for the affront to the god committed in the abduction of the daughter of Apollo’s priest Chryses. In the song to the Muses which opens the Theogony, on the other hand, the temporal dimension of the truth revealed by the Muses to the young shepherd and poet is annulled in an eternal present; the past genealogy of the blessed gods leads to a stable present it includes past and future in a divine eternity, in contrast to the hazards of the ephemeral destiny set aside for mortals.

But in both cases, truth as related to divinity is revealed by an inspired voice, the voice of the seer who speaks for Apollo in the Iliad, or the voice of the poet inspired by the Muses of Helicon in the Theogony. The same is true of the (less narrative than ritual) compositions of Bacchylides and Pindar: aphorisms about time as the guarantor of truth must be placed within their intended contexts. In the epinician composed by the poet from Keos, the work of time, which makes great deeds triumph and ensures their truth, fits into the dialectic of praise and reproach which is at the basis of all classical Greek poetics. If critical words by badly intentioned people lose their force, it is thanks to works of justice by the wise man (sophós), who finally corresponds to the speaker of the poem, singer of hymns inspired by the Muse Clio. And Pindar attributes the revelation of Herakles’ founding of the Olympic Games to the very tradition claimed by those who perform his poem.

The four examples of spatial-temporal poetics and practice studied in the preceding chapters must all be placed within this conceptual frame, this ensemble of representations. In each of these configurations, the present voice of the historiopoietes ensures the effectiveness of a representation of the past in a precise geographic and historical situation, to ensure its orientation in the immediate future: the voice of the didactic poet who hopes to resolve the conflicts of political justice by narrating the succession of different kinds of mortal men accounting for a present situation, the choral voice orchestrated by a lyric poet who makes of the Athenian national hero and his companions the ambiguous heroic model for the choral group performing in worship which under Apollo’s aegis celebrates and consecrates the city’s control over a maritime domain, the voice of the people inscribed on a stele and consecrated to the same god in order to re-found a colonial city whose origins are oracular, the voices of officiants allowing the previously initiated deceased to escape from the hazards of mortality and to attain beyond Hades, through ritual memory, an eternity close to that of the gods.

“Modern time has only been conceived as such since expectations have moved away from all previous experiences.” [5] It was in these words that Koselleck, thirty years ago, defined the feeling of accelerating time which characterizes modernity, in a work he devoted to defining the historian’s “horizon of expectation” as it relates to history’s “space of experience.” With Lamartine especially (“The speed of time compensates for distance”), the hopes placed in progress during the Enlightenment, after disconnecting the future from the past, have contributed to erasing the substance of a present regularly projected into the future. In classical Greece, on the other hand, it is through recalling a past in a space shared with the gods and through different modes of the poetic word in its present ritual force that one attempts to orient both the development of the community and the future of individuals subject to the hazards of mortality; it is in this way that one may attempt to reduce and overcome the distance placed between mortal men and immortal gods by the fragility and mobility of space-time situations. In the elegiac poetry composed for groups of citizens often meeting together in symposia, for example, Solon at the beginning of the sixth century takes up a Homeric formula on the oracular revelation of past, present, and future deeds and applies it to the social and civic reality of contemporary Athens. But in attributing awareness of these acts to Justice, who records them silently, the Athenian legislator reorients the epic formulary expression, setting aside a future whose revelation and realization he seems to reserve for the poet’s voice. Though it is through time that Díkē makes citizens pay for their misdeeds, we learn at the end of the poem that the reestablishment of justice and order among men, through the straightening of “twisted” speeches, belongs to Eunomia: this beautiful civic order is attributed to the teachings of the one who sings the elegiac poem. [6]

“Presentism” as characteristic of post/hypermodernity was defined by way of prelude to the definition of several practical regimes of Hellenic spatio-temporality, but the feeling of being out of breath from full immersion in the immediate really dates only from the transition between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Drawing in particular on the thought of Charles Péguy, Jean Chesneaux recently called on the community of historians to become part of the Copernican revolution proposed by Walter Benjamin, reversing the traditional relationship between the past and the present. “The Copernican revolution in history’s vision is this: the Past was considered the fixed point and the present moved gropingly to try to bring knowledge closer to this fixed element. From now on, the relationship must be reversed and the Past must become dialectic reversal and irruption of awakened consciousness. Politics now takes precedence over history.” [7] The proposed reversal of perspective makes the present, not the past, the point of reference. A revolution all the more necessary in that it allows us to break with the ideology of continuity and with the evolutionary (even teleological) progress of history; a revolution which is all the more engaged in that by postulating “compenetration” of privileged moments of the past and the present, it allows the present to be shaken up by the past, to make action on the future a revolutionary act. Chesneaux himself concludes, “For Benjamin as for Péguy, the relationship with the past has no meaning except to the extent that it challenges the present and opens up a different future.”

We have seen that calendar time, conceived of as one of those third times which allows us to articulate world time with lived phenomenological time, seems (as Benveniste suggested) to be situated in relationship to an axial point at the beginning of its linear and measurable development. But we added that this time, when only barely grasped in its discursive representation, is automatically situated in relationship to a second pole, that of the moment and the place of its putting-into-discourse. Which is to say that if there is a “third time,” it must be sought in the present putting-into-discourse of our spatial-temporal configurations; they are based on the work of the individual and collective memory, along with the processes of archiving and preparing documents in a order to produce a historio-poetic memory. Even more, it means that we must add to this Copernican revolution brought about by a view of the past centered on the hic et nunc of its production yet another reversal, in reaction to the aporia of a phenomenology of time, far too marked by Heideggerian metaphysics: and thus a reversal between this invented time and space which make up the spatio-temporality of the lived, and the physical space-time of the world; quite apart from any transcendence (even phenomenological), it is in this spatial-temporal frame that the present moment and the present place belong, in the perception we have of them, in the experience we make of them, in the ways we have of configuring them and of inserting them in a memory of a the past they come from.

And so the space-time of the physicists replaces the atemporal eternity and the ubiquity of the Greek gods; space-time with its curvature which includes us is subject to this “unpredictable determinacy” which in turn substitutes for the immortal will of Zeus to bring to its conclusion the moîra, the inevitable destiny which falls to the lot of every mortal man, realized in all its vicissitudes and in an ephemeral time. As Chesneaux himself recognizes, the present cannot be assimilated to a simple fixed point. Not only does the present illuminate the past by reflection, then to be subjected in turn to the past’s reflection; not only can this optic metaphor be extended forward, since this movement of “reflexion” continues toward the future; but in the Copernican revolution in history proposed by Benjamin, the fixed point into which the present seems to be transformed proves to be a mobile point. [8] The present, our individual and collective present, is inevitably both situated in and drawn along by what the layman might understand as the arrow of physical and cosmic space-time. Seemingly subject to the second law of thermodynamics which states the irreversible degradation of energy through entropy, space-time encompasses and integrates these cyclical manifestations within its curve. [9] Within the tiny room for maneuver left to him in an unpredictable causal determinism, there remains to man the possibility of imprinting on a largely unpredictable future some slight reorientations in light of the past; a past undoubtedly based on lived and individual memory, but maintained and configured by the work in an efficient and shared of those historians most engaged in a present which is fundamentally unpredictable and elusive; and that in spite of the predominant power exercised by the agents of neo-imperialist economic development, naturalized as determinism.

What we have tried to illustrate here is precisely that inevitable intermingling, within the flux of both the world’s spatial-temporality and of university teaching, between the spatial-temporal logics of several “anthropopoietic” processes of ancient Greece and the hermeneutic paradigms dependent on regimes of truth which are themselves subject to fluctuating (academic) historicity and geography. The spatial-temporal impact of Hesiod’s didactic poetry which substitutes for the word of Zeus in reestablishing justice to recover a civic time rooted in the golden age permitted us to test the structural paradigm of academic France in the 1970s. In the sexual and poetic ambiguities of a national hero, the protagonist of an episode intended through religious celebration of Apollo to justify the present and the immediate future of a policy of territorial and economic expansion, it was the perspective of sex relationships widely adopted by the American academic world in the 1980s which was illustrated. In the founding act of a colony established by the will of Apollo and his Delphic oracle, the practical spatial-temporal regime offered by a decree of colonial citizenship appeared as a political and religious act of civic memory which escapes the philosophical and idealistic concepts of cyclical time which European scholars throughout the twentieth century attempted to attribute to the Greeks. Finally, the gold funerary lamellae, in their pragmatic function as passport, proposing a spatial-temporal itinerary with initiatory meaning and permitting the deceased to pass from the ephemeral and unstable regime of temporality of the mortal’s life to a form of immortality near that of the gods, allowed us to confront the mysticizing hermeneutics which for the past half century has marked the history of Greek religion throughout its expansion in the west.

Together with the four comparative approaches proposed here, this confrontation should lead us to attempt to establish in the human sciences generally a position of relativist modesty; such an attitude finally takes into account our own insertions and spatial-temporal orientations, as producers of new configurations which model time and space, intended to integrate and to clarify actively the “anthropopoietic” actions of men.

It is not far from New York and the Island of Manhattan, in nearby New Jersey, a city on the banks of the Passaic River, crossed on one of those railroad lift bridges which only North American industrialists could have imagined. Newark, which carries within its name the mark of its recent creation, offers a strange map to the visitor who is not afraid of seeing the social problems brought about by the democracy of economic liberalism. Leaving Penn Station, the visitor feels a difficulty in orienting himself which is not normal in American cities. This is because in Newark the usual orthogonal plan of the colonial city is combined with a diagonal orientation: Central Street does not intersect Broad Street at a right angle, and Broad Street itself, like Broadway in New York, runs obliquely from a “green” which is triangular rather than rectangular. References in archives show that the usual paradigm of European and colonial urbanism in New York was influenced by the Indian trail which led from Hackensack, the site of the Lenni Lenape Indians, to the little port on the Passaic. [12] History inscribed in space, in the very country of presentism, within an organic spatial-temporal configuration which puts greatest emphasis on the most soaring and transparent contemporary architecture. At the intersection of Broad Street and Washington Street is a modest obelisk which commemorates the construction of the first bridge over the Passaic. Leaning against it on one side is an Indian, wearing a loincloth, his long hair held back by a headband, and on the other side a Puritan, wearing long straight trousers, lavallière, and high hat. Their gazes are high, and both are looking along the axis of the street, but their backs are to one another: one looking toward the past and the other toward the future? Even in the simplification of sculpture, the process of configuring an anthropopoietic history can only be symbolic, and holds multiple meanings.


[ back ] 1. Bacchylides 13.204-207; Pindar Olympian 10.51-55, see also Olympian 1.30-34 or fragment 159 Maehler (“Time is par excellence the savior of just men.”)

[ back ] 2. Homer, Iliad 1.68-72; Hesiod Theogony 24-40; on the affinities between the seer’s words or truth and the inspired words of the poet, see especially Nagy 1991:57-62.

[ back ] 3. Simonides fragment 531 Page; cf. also fragment 645 Page (at Olympia, Simonides praised time, presenting it as the wisest of all; see also Thales fragment 11 A 1, 35 Diels-Kranz) with a moral meaning, see also Theognis 963-970; see now Bakker 2002.

[ back ] 4. Simonides fragment 521 Page, cf. also fragment 527 Page; on the hazards of the temporality of human mortality, see above chapter V, section 2.3.1. Often commented on, the form of immortalizing memory conferred by the poetic word is well described by Bouvier 1999:1134-1140, with references to the numerous works on the subject.

[ back ] 5. Koselleck 1990:323, in a study programmatically entitled in its original version “Erfahrungsraum und Erwartungshorizont – zwei historische Kategorien,” in U. Engelhardt, V. Sellin, H. Stuke (edd.), Soziale Bewegung und politische Verfassung. Beiträge zur Geschichte der modernen Welt, Stuttgart (Klett) 1975:13-33. English translation of quotation from Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, translation by Todd Samuel Presner et al., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 128); see also Hartog 2003:19-28.

[ back ] 6. Solon fragment 3.14-17 and 30-39 Gentili-Prato; cf. also fragment 1.25-32 on the idea of the vengeance of Zeus which takes place over time and finally touches each man. On this see commentary by Noussia 2001:247-249 and 255-257.

[ back ] 7. Benjamin 1989 (1982:405-406), in a quotation taken from K1; see Chesneaux 1996:135-150 as well as 173-184 (quote on 183).

[ back ] 8. Chesneaux 1996:141-142.

[ back ] 9. See Paty 1993:172-186.

[ back ] 10. The innumerable processes through which man makes himself in a constant effort to compensate for his innate incompleteness have been the object of research conducted collectively by Affergan, Borutti, Calame, Fabietti, Kilani, and Remotti 2003; see also Remotti 1999:20-30.

[ back ] 11. Recently Revel 2001:59-64, reminded us of the consequences of the double historicity of the situation of knowledge which is that of the social sciences generally: historicity of the object and historicity of the observer.

[ back ] 12. Here I follow an as-yet unpublished study completed several years ago by the architectural historian Jacques Gubler, a sensitive critic of American city planning.

[ back ] 13. Aeschylus, Prometheus 981, in a statement addressed by the hero Prometheus to Hermes. See on this topic the semantic study proposed by Fränkel 1960: 9-22, who concludes: “Von der ‘Zeit’ wird immer nur im sinne der Zukunft gesprochen, oder der sich weiter vorwärts en strenchen den Dauer, oder der späteren Zeit-also den relativen Zukunft.” (10-11)