Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics

  Bakker, Egbert J. 2005. Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics. Hellenic Studies Series 12. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BakkerE_Pointing_at_the_Past.2005.

Chapter 4. Mimesis as Performance

The reputation of the first chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis among classicists has risen and fallen with the tides of fashion in Homeric studies. The notion of Homeric privileging of the part over the whole, argued for in the essay on Odysseus’s scar, gained wide currency at a time when scholars were concerned with parataxis and paratactic composition as the hallmark of Homer’s oral style. But the influence of Auerbach’s essay has diminished in recent years with the renewed interest in “literary” interpretations: we are now prepared to see more silence, more elliptic moments, and more “unplumbed depth” in Homeric poetry than Auerbach granted with his insistence on Homeric style as a “uniformly illuminated foreground.” [1]

Without questioning these developments, I propose to consider Auerbach’s chapter from the perspective of Homeric studies and in light of recent advances in the study of oral poetry. Fifty years after the first publication of Mimesis, Auerbach’s interpretative shortcomings are clear; but his account of Homeric style still contains a powerful core that, if reformulated, may continue to say something important about the flow and quality of Homeric poetry.

Vision and perception will also be central in my attempt to reappreciate Auerbach’s criticism. While essential to the study of the Homeric representation of reality, perception is at the same time a highly critical concept that contains all the tension inherent in the paradoxical fact that Homeric poetry is an oral tradition that has come down to us in the form of a written text. Our stance, faced with this peculiar situation, entails a crucial choice that has divided Homerists for decades: can or must we apply the standards of written literature to Homer, or does Homeric criticism require a different notional apparatus? In what follows, I will cast Auerbach’s interrelated notions of foreground and perception against the background of this dilemma. In the process, we will reconsider the very concept of mimesis and ask what it means for Homeric poetry to represent the reality on which its force depends.

Oral Poetry

Parry was able to show that the use of these phrases obeys certain rules imposed by the structure of the verse. His first conclusion was that such a poetic “grammar” could not have been the personal style of any single person. Homeric style, Parry argued, was traditional, independent of its poet’s “free will.” In a second step, Parry came to view this more or less mechanical style as a response to the specific demands of oral poetry, which had to be composed “live” before an audience, by way of improvisation: “traditionality” had yielded to “orality.” Extensive fieldwork on the South Slavic living oral tradition provided rich comparative material for the study of Homer under this new critical paradigm.

Auerbach (1953:23) viewed the Iliad and the Odyssey (and the Old Testament) as “finished products,” a conception of their style that may seem literate and textual, especially when one considers his silence on their origins, or on their functioning in the contexts for which they have been originally designed. Yet the substance of his vision squares strikingly with the critical paradigm that sees in textlessness the essence of Homeric poetry, locating the aesthetics of the absolute present in the production of epic verse.

“Orality” in its original form necessarily implied a key role for the oral formula as the specific difference between oral and written composition, the theory’s prime axiom. Yet no two oralists could agree on the definition of the Homeric formula. On a narrow, precise definition of the concept, oral-formulaic theory could be seen by its opponents as the branch of Homeric studies mostly concerned with mechanics, structure, and production, as opposed to the literary branch, where meaning and poetic intent dominate. The Homeric poems, it was argued, were simply too good, and their overall narrative architecture too unmistakable, to be amenable to a simplistic analysis based on formulas and parataxis.

On the other hand, a broader, more flexible understanding of the formula allowed the orality hypothesis to be subsumed by an avowedly literate literary criticism: the oral background of the poems was simply taken for granted, without any real implications for criticism and interpretation. Neither definition gave much room for an independent oral poetics: In the widening split between the oralists and the “scripsists,” the concept came to be considered by the latter camp as mere terminology. In hailing parataxis as a virtue when it had previously counted as a vice, the oralists, it was thought, were paying undue attention to an unfortunate stylistic inconvenience and thus impeding the appreciation of the Homeric poems.

Though Auerbach’s ideas on Homer were conceived independently of the orality hypothesis in its original form, they shared in its decline. Yet, for all the similarity between Auerbach’s and Notopoulos’s formulations, one difference is clear: the importance of vision and perception in Auerbach’s conception. It is this aspect that comes to the fore in the revision of “orality” to which we now turn.

Performance and Mimesis

This may lead us to consider Homeric poetry not as oral poetry against a conceptual background of literate poetry, but as special speech against a background of speech, language as it functions in actual spoken use. In an earlier monograph (Bakker 1997a), I have studied Homeric poetry in this light, arguing that the conception of Homeric poetry as a reified, textual product should cede to an understanding of it as a process, a flow that must be seen in terms of speech and spoken language. We shall see below that the distinction between “product” and “process” is crucial for the discussion of perception and to Auerbach’s notion of foreground.

The second aspect of performance in its new understanding is that what makes a Homeric performance possible is not only the system of formulas described by Parry and his followers but also, from the standpoint of the performers and their audiences, the desire to recreate the heroic events of the past. In practice, this is listening to the “rumor” of the past, called kleos in Homer (Iliad II 486). Kleos encompasses the contribution of the present poet’s forebears to the tradition as well as his own, in the form of the memory of the previous performance. It is here that mimesis, the representation of reality, comes into play. Auerbach uses the term to designate the relation between a text and its referent. Yet when “performance” rather than “text” becomes the primary reality of the Greek epic tradition we may wonder what the consequences are for the concept of mimesis. In other words, what does it mean for Homeric poetry to represent reality when its own primary reality is an epic performance, which is modeled on a previous performance?

Memory and Visualization

We observe, then, that in its prehistory as a literary term, mimesis denotes not the properties of a textual artifact but a certain type of poetic action: the representation, re-presentation, of the previous performance, with the performer playing the role of Homer the quintessential narrator. With this new understanding of mimesis, let us now return to Auerbach’s ideas on foregrounding and realism. If Homeric poetry is primarily concerned with the dynamic business of reenacting its own previous occurrences, then what are we to do with its compulsory preoccupation with concrete, externalized detail as noted by Auerbach? First, let us examine an example of such foregrounded narrative. I have chosen a passage from the digression on Odysseus’ scar: during a hunt, young Odysseus receives the wound whose eventual scar will later be the title of Auerbach’s chapter:

τὸν δ᾿ ἀνδρῶν τε κυνῶν τε περὶ κτύπος ἦλθε ποδοῖϊν,
ὡς ἐπάγοντες ἐπῇσαν· ὁ δ᾿ ἀντίος ἐκ ξυλόχοιο,
φρίξας εὖ λοφιήν, πῦρ δ᾿ ὀφθαλμοῖσι δεδορκώς,
στῆ ῥ᾿ αὐτῶν σχεδόθεν· ὁ δ᾿ ἄρα πρώτιστος Ὀδυσσεὺς
ἔσσυτ᾿ ἀνασχόμενος δολιχὸν δόρυ χειρὶ παχείῃ,
οὐτάμεναι μεμαώς· ὁ δέ μιν φθάμενος ἔλασεν σῦς
γουνὸς ὕπερ, πολλὸν δὲ διήφυσε σαρκὸς ὀδόντι
λικριφὶς ἀΐξας, οὐδ᾿ ὀστέον ἵκετο φωτός.
τὸν δ᾿ Ὀδυσεὺς οὔτησε τυχὼν κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον,
ἀντικρὺ δὲ διῆλθε φαεινοῦ δουρὸς ἀκωκή·
κὰδ δ᾿ ἔπεσ᾿ ἐν κονίῃσι μακών, ἀπὸ δ᾿ ἔπτατο θυμός.

Odyssey xix 444–454

As the men advanced, urging on the hounds, the noise made by the feet of both reached the boar from this side and from that. Leaving his lair he came out to face them, his back bristling all over, his eyes flashing flame, and he stood at bay confronting his enemies. Odysseus rushed forward first, his long spear raised in his sturdy hand, eager to strike; but the boar was quicker, and thrusting sideways with his tusk he gashed Odysseus above the knee and tore away a great strip of flesh, only stopping short of the bone. Then Odysseus’ thrust went home, entering the beast’s right shoulder and making the point of the gleaming spear pass right through. With a shriek the boar fell straight to earth, and the breath of life fled away from him. (trans. Shewring 1980:238)

The optic quality of Homeric epic, however, is much more than a mere pretense of its performers; it is the dimension in which poetry transcends human limitations. In a famous passage, Homer contrasts the typically human medium of kleos, which is based on hearing, with the divine faculty of seeing:

ἔσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾿ ἔχουσαι—
ὑμεῖς γὰρ θεαί ἐστε, πάρεστέ τε, ἴστέ τε πάντα,
ἡμεῖς δὲ κλέος οἶον ἀκούομεν οὐδέ τι ἴδμεν

Iliad II 484–487

Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos. For you, who are goddesses, are there, and know [literally: “have seen”] all things, and we have heard only the rumor [kleos] of it and know nothing. (trans. Richmond Lattimore).

The contention made in the last sentence of this extract is highly questionable and would be rejected by most modern Homerists. What interests me here, however, is the phrase that I have emphasized, the statement that the reality deployed in the Homeric poems is there for its own sake. Auerbach’s observation that Homeric reality is self-sufficient is powerful already, but in light of the present discussion we can go a step further. Given the function of visualization that I just reviewed, we have to say that Homeric realism is there for the sake of the recall of the story and thus for the very survival of the epic tradition: its transmission or re-performance. The “externalization of phenomena” that Auerbach so eloquently described is not a stylistic choice on the part of an author, but a phenomenon intimately connected with the functioning of the epic medium of performance.

Perception and Consciousness

At this point one might object that visual detail is, in and of itself, not at all confined to narrative that is to be remembered and re-presented. To stay within Greek literature and to anticipate the last chapter of this book, we may mention here famous passages in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, such as the account of the great naval battle between the Athenian and the Syracusan fleet in the latter’s harbor:

Because of the narrowness of space, it often happened that a ship was ramming and being rammed at the same time, and that two, or sometimes more, ships found themselves jammed against one, so that steersmen had to think of defence on one side and attack on the other (…). While the issue of the battle at sea still hung in the balance, great was the stress and great the conflict of soul among the two armies on the shore, the Syracusans being all on edge to win an even greater glory than before, and the invaders fearing lest they might find themselves even worse off than they were already.

Thucydides 7.70.6–71.1, trans. Warner 1954:523–524

1. ὁ δ᾿ ἀντίος ἐκ ξυλόχοιο, and he [the boar] against them from his lair,
2. φρίξας εὖ λοφιήν, his back bristling all over,
3. πῦρ δ᾿ ὀφθαλμοῖσι δεδορκώς, glaring fire with his eyes,
4. στῆ ῥ᾿ αὐτῶν σχεδόθεν. he stood opposite them,
5. ὁ δ᾿ ἄρα πρώτιστος Ὀδυσσεὺς and he as the very first, Odysseus,
6. ἔσσυτ᾿ ἀνασχόμενος he rushed forward raising ,
7. δολιχὸν δόρυ χειρὶ παχείῃ, the long spear with his heavy hand,
8. οὐτάμεναι μεμαώς· eager to stab,
9. ὁ δέ μιν φθάμενος ἔλασεν σῦς but he struck him before, the boar
10. γουνὸς ὕπερ, above the knee,
11. πολλὸν δὲ διήφυσε σαρκὸς ὀδόντι and much flesh with his tusk he tore out,
12. λικριφὶς ἀΐξας, Thrusting sideways,
13. οὐδ᾿ ὀστέον ἵκετο φωτός. but he did not reach the man’s bone.
14. τὸν δ᾿ Ὀδυσεὺς οὔτησε And him Odysseus stabbed,
15. τυχὼν κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον, hitting him in the right shoulder,
16. ἀντικρὺ δὲ διῆλθε and right through it went,
17. φαεινοῦ δουρὸς ἀκωκή· the point of the shining spear,
18. κὰδ δ᾿ ἔπεσ᾿ ἐν κονίῃσι μακών, and he fell in the dust shrieking,
19. ἀπὸ δ᾿ ἔπτατο θυμός. and away from him flew his life.

So, finally, what does it mean for Homeric poetry as performance to represent reality? To Auerbach’s static sense of mimesis, the referential quality of words and text, I opposed a more dynamic understanding of that concept, the relation between the poet’s performance and the earlier occurrences of the same discourse. The poet’s “seeing” of reality is a remembrance of earlier poets’—and ultimately the Muses’—seeing of that same reality. The vision of the Muses was detailed and specific, which in less mystic terms amounts to emphasizing the importance of imagery for the Homeric performance as a cognitive act of re-creation.


[ back ] 1. See, for example, the assessment of Auerbach’s importance in Segal 1994:6–9; the paradigmatic importance of digressions in Homer (such as the passage on Odysseus’s scar) has been stressed since Austin 1966. The application of narrative theory to Homer has further undermined Auerbach’s authority; see, e.g. Sternberg 1978: 84–85 (arguing against Auerbach’s elimination of the factor “suspense” in Homeric narrative), and, within Homeric criticism proper, de Jong 1985a (interpreting the episode of the scar as a recollection not of Odysseus but of Eurycleia), and, more generally, de Jong 1999.

[ back ] 2. Auerbach 1953:6.

[ back ] 3. Auerbach 1953:6–7; my emphasis.

[ back ] 4. Parry’s original work in French has been translated and edited by his son in Parry 1971. The most recent assessments of Parry’s achievements are Edwards 1997, Russo 1997b, and Bakker 1999b.

[ back ] 5. Lord 1960, recently (2000) reprinted.

[ back ] 6. Auerbach 1953:4; Notopoulos 1949:15.

[ back ] 7. Notopoulos 1949:15.

[ back ] 8. Notopoulos 1949:16.

[ back ] 9. The existence of the Homeric text, at first sight a paradox in his perspective, was explained by Lord (1953; 1960:124–128) as the result of oral dictation: an illiterate bard, was alleged to have dictated the poems to a scribe at the request of a third party; see also Janko 1990, 1998. For discussion of the critical issues involved, see Bakker 1993b; 1997a:21–22, 28 as well as Chapter Three above, Nagy 1996a:68–70.

[ back ] 10. For an overview of the changes in the study of Homer as oral poetry, see Bakker and Kahane, eds 1997:1–10, Bakker 1999b:164–176. Nagy 1996b argues that the dimension of performance is an important factor in the transmission of Homeric poetry before the final and definitive redaction of the texts in the Hellenistic period.

[ back ] 11. See further Bakker 1993b; 1997a:25–32; Chapter Three above. In characterizing the relation between a discourse and writing, Oesterreicher (1993) employs the term Verschriftung: the simple transcoding of one medium (speech) to the other (writing). This operation has to be distinguished from more advanced processes of textualization, in which not only the medium of a discourse but also a “conception” of discourse is involved (Verschriftlichung). The important difference is that in the first case there is a discourse that precedes the text in time, and was composed and presented without writing and its requirements playing a role.

[ back ] 12. See also Vernant 1991:165–166.

[ back ] 13. This role model, according to Nagy 1996b:74, is less a historical figure (“author”) than a strategy on the part of the tradition to ascribe itself to a prestigious predecessor, serving as model for all performers.

[ back ] 14. Nagy 1996b:59–86.

[ back ] 15. On the “vividness” of Homeric narrative, see also Ford 1992:49–56 as well as Chapters Seven through Nine below.

[ back ] 16. Bakker 1997a:55. In Chapter Nine, the notion of “eyewitness” will be specified and qualified.

[ back ] 17. E.g. Fleischman 1990:265–266.

[ back ] 18. See also Nagy 1996b:61.

[ back ] 19. For a discussion of the “internal” conception of memory and remembering in Homeric poetry, see Chapter Eight below.

[ back ] 20. Rubin 1995:62. For a cognitive study speficially of Homer, see Minchin 2001.

[ back ] 21. Rubin 1995:59–60; quoted from MacDonald 1978.

[ back ] 22. In Bakker 1997a:54–71 (see also 1997c:297–300) I argue that the idea of movement, the implicit conception of Homeric discourse as a process, is apparent in its very syntax, with its various particles and discourse markers (previously largely seen in terms of the logical relations between sentences; see also Auerbach 1953:6).

[ back ] 23. Havelock 1963:187–188.

[ back ] 24. Auerbach 1953:13; my emphasis.

[ back ] 25. See further Bakker 1997d:40–42 and Chapter Nine below.

[ back ] 26. For Rubin (1995:85–88; 183–84), rhythm is one of the multiple constraints to which oral traditions owe their stability (another being imagery as discussed above).

[ back ] 27. Buswell 1935:142.

[ back ] 28. Chafe 1980:15, quoting the above passage from Buswell.

[ back ] 29. E.g. Chafe 1980; 1987; 1994:29, 62–81.

[ back ] 30. Chafe 1980:12–13; 1994:53.

[ back ] 31. Bakker 1997a:147.

[ back ] 32. Bakker 1990a; 1997a:49–51; 1997c:291–93; see also Chapter Three above.

[ back ] 33. See Bakker 1997a:54–85 for more detail.

[ back ] 34. Bakker 1997a:67.