The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays

  Slatkin, Laura. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies Series 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Introduction to this Volume

[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

The Power of Thetis and the several essays included here are minimally revised (including some updated footnotes) from the form in which they were first published or presented. They thus stand as a record of their own moment in Homeric studies, a moment that they both reflect and, I hope, helped to further. The late decades of the twentieth century saw a general reckoning among Homerists with the powerful heuristic provided by the fieldwork of Parry and Lord as it was brought to bear upon research developed by ‘neo-analysis’—an approach through which the Iliad and the Odyssey were studied not as singular unities but rather as narratives shaping themselves in relation to traditional myth and to material given narrative form in the Epic Cycle. [1] The transformative encounter of oralist and neo-analyst perspectives on the Iliad’s adaptation of pre-existing materials and recombination of mythological motifs reinforced an awareness of the scope of oral poetics and attuned students more closely to its supple resources. [2] In its attention to the complex hearing that the Iliad encourages—a hearing of tradition within and against the highly shaped and selected texture of the poem—The Power of Thetis aspired to join this conversation and the broader, increasingly nuanced and resonating choral hearing of the poem: hearing within, around, before, and between the very specific poetic power of the Iliad.

Throughout the Iliad, the equivalence on which exchange is based is repeatedly presented not as a given but as a problem, a matching or measuring to be contended, worked out, fought over, thought through. Warriors on the battlefield refer to their cohort as philoi, a term that expresses the bonds of equality among the heroes, their horizontal equivalence or exchangeability one for one. [10] Yet, however equal they are in their collaboration on the field of battle, the heroes are also inserted into a hierarchical social order, which {3|4} the poem presents as coexisting with their lateral warrior bonds. This project is concerned in part with the tension between orders (e.g., vertical v. horizontal bonds), with the way the Iliad refuses to simplify or settle the claims of any pole of disputed valuation. [11] The poem begins with the question of whose authority shall prevail—Agamemnon’s polemical assertion of what Donna Wilson calls “fixed-rank” authority versus Achilles’ model of fluid, agonistic authority. [12] Their dispute introduces questions of judging, calibrating, and transacting: questions that invite us, as they invited its earliest auditors, to consider what “equal” means. For what should be unambiguous—that this “A” is equal to that “B,” that “A” is owed for “B,” or even that “A” and “B” might be compared—is not. In the course of the poem, whenever a hero is called “equal to a god,” it is precisely when he is about to be vulnerable, that is, when he is revealed to be exactly not a god. [13] To invoke the language of isos is in the Iliad to invoke its opposite or, more precisely, to destabilize the transparency of the equation, the congruence of the conjunctions. As Jakobson and his successors have taught us, figural comparisons—similes, metaphors, and more extended tropes—bear within them the shadow of disjunction, which the surface conjunction of terms apparently belies. If in the Iliad someone is said to be like a god only if he is, in fact, not a god, then we see a similar double movement encoded in every transaction at the level of social exchange and valuation: a woman might be worth two tripods or four oxen, [14] and in that sense “equal to” those items, but that is only because she is not tripods or oxen.

This is not to rehearse the logic of exchange value in its archaic moment; I hope rather to point to a mode of reflection often pursued in these pages. The exchanges and imagined equivalences presented and interrogated in the {4|5} Iliad partake simultaneously of linguistic/figural operations and ideational movements. The problematic of commensurability finds its systematic expression in those figures and tropes in the Iliad that themselves encode matching operations—the figural/ideational complex of anti for example, or that evoked by isos or philotês.

My question has been, what is the ground for such exchange language, or exchange ideation? My work has required, in part, an extended defamiliarization of the logic of equivalence: in this sense such a reading responds to the logic of the Iliad, which itself consistently interrogates equivalence. As my discussion thus far suggests, this study arises partly out of an anatomy of language and partly out of a focus on Iliadic situations: crises of exchange, of judgment, of measurement, of value. Throughout the poem we see that crises of exchange, for example in Iliad 1, are also simultaneously crises of cognition.

It has sometimes been charged that structuralist readings of texts, myths, or situations all too often lend themselves to the production of a rigid combinatoire or grid of binaries, and that there can be a crude structuralism is certainly true. The work of the scholars mentioned above is, however, nothing but subtle. (For an appreciation, see the final essay in this volume, “Remembering Nicole Loraux Remembering Athens.”) The essays in this volume do not offer an analytic formalism; my unit of analysis is typically not the term or the concept but rather the movement of the trope—thus my somewhat cumbersome invoking of “figural/ideational complexes” and movements. To find structuring principles in the Iliad, or in Hesiod’s Works and Days, to take each poem provisionally as a self-enclosed (but not rigid) system: these seem to me the methodological presumptions least likely to distort the poem, depending of course on the mix you take as evidence for the structure. I assume one looks at the language of the poem for evidence.

As previously suggested, over the past two decades, “exchange,” both as an economic mechanism and a linguistic-symbolic transaction, has become a fertile topos for classicists, as it had earlier for anthropologists, sociologists, and other students of culture. Sitta von Reden’s Exchange in Ancient Greece is an example of this interest; she observes that the “shift of interest from production to exchange is an attempt to overcome the cultural parochialism in which economic history traditionally unfolds.” [23] She, like Hans van Wees in {7|8} his compelling Status Warriors, takes up and extends the discussion advanced by M. I. Finley concerning the representation of economic life in ancient Greek poetry. [24] A half-century of anthropological and economic work, partly inspired by Marcel Mauss’s discussion of gift-economies, has informed attention to ancient Greek poetry as evoking an “embedded economy,” in Karl Polanyi’s terms: that is, the ancient Greek epics can be seen as representing or indexing a community in which “the economic” is not yet disaggregated from social, political, and ritual forms of life. I should reiterate here that my discussions of exchange language do not ground themselves in, or rely on, extended analyses of, say, “the gift” or “the commodity form,” nor do they explore historical questions; [25] ancient Greek poetry appears here, not as a possible archive for historians (as it does, in the first instance, for van Wees), but as a field of representation and cognition, provisionally a world unto itself. This is a methodological restriction of the field of inquiry that I hope will bear fruit.

It is important to observe that Iliadic emotions are social, not private, however individually and somatically located the representation of emotional experience. [32] To put it another way, it is a mistake to understand pity, anger, or grief as opposed to the cultural value of kleos; pity, anger, and grief partake just as profoundly of the social-symbolic code. Jean Baudrillard is one of the theorists who has taught us not to reduce “the symbolic” to “the psychological”: my discussion of Archaic poetics tries to bear that lesson in mind, focusing as it does on the logic of representation. Iliadic representation of subjectivity is always social, even and perhaps most profoundly when the poem locates cultural conflict or contradiction in an individual, most famously in Achilles. Bonds of reciprocity underlie and propel affect; exchange language structures the representation of emotion as much as the representation of combat or trade or sacrifice. Baudrillard writes: “The symbolic must never be confused with the psychological. The symbolic sets up a relation of exchange in which the respective positions cannot be autonomized.” [33] Every position implies a relation and thus a process. Extending this insight to Archaic poetry, we observe that there is no singular hero, there are heroes and contexts: one may be the Best of the Achaeans [34] —one is never solely the best; there is no solitary farmer in Hesiod—there are neighbors and brothers, getting along badly or well as they may; there is no unilateral sentence of justice—there is measuring, weighing, balancing.

The Iliad sustains a many-sided exploration of its constitutive predicaments, diagnosing its own impasses. In the founding dispute of Book 1, when Agamemnon declares that he is going to take Briseis, claiming that he is owed her for the loss of Chryseis, Achilles moves immediately to the question, why are we here? From Achilles’ perspective, what is being violated in the imminent seizure of Briseis is the imperative of reciprocity; yet Agamemnon articulates his claim through an apparently similar language of owed honor and goods. By shifting the plane of the immediate dispute to the broadest question of the war, Achilles orients us to reciprocity as a system: the Achaeans have come to Troy because they have acknowledged and honored their reciprocal obligations to the sons of Atreus. Agamemnon, by contrast, looks at the {10|11} local transaction, considering Briseis as rightful compensation for the loss of Chryseis.

We confront here not only a dispute about authority but more profoundly an impasse between levels of analysis—Agamemnon preoccupied with the immediate exchange; Achilles countering with a vision of the larger, cultural system of exchange that enables and subsumes all particular transactions. Achilles’ question introduces a significant element into exchange language and exchange dispute: the dimension of temporality. For, in the oath on the scepter or when he contemplates his two alternative kêres, Achilles considers the long view. Through Achilles the poem constantly signals its awareness that reciprocity as both a material and a social-symbolic system exists in time and over time. In Book 1, Achilles declares that prizes should not be redivided or redistributed now; he assures Agamemnon that if he waits until the war’s end he will be recompensed three times over. The mindfulness of temporality here is both Achilles’ and the poem’s. Thus we see that disputes over exchanges have as much to do with their timing as their contents.

As the Iliad thinks through the complexities of exchange, we see that the poem imagines its system of reciprocity not as a series of static, algebraic operations—this death for that one, this woman for that one, this insult for that one—but rather an experience of transactions in and through time. This temporal element forces all actors to take the measure of their predicaments: not only what would suffice, but when. Satisfaction that comes too late is not, of course, satisfaction; payback too early may similarly disappoint. The deep structure of cultural reciprocity—whether positive (philotês) or the negative reciprocity of debt or death-as-payback—must be seen, then, as requiring the ongoing work of measuring, thinking, figuring.

It is these notions that I have been concerned with over the past years, in thinking about why it matters that the basileis don’t know how things add up—that is, in thinking about the role of measuring, and its contribution to the representation of exchange, in the Works and Days. I suggest that the paradox of the half being greater than the whole, as stated, draws attention to a problem that has fundamental and pervasive application in the Works and Days: namely, the meaning of equivalence, proportionality, and equilibrium and their function in social relations—considered in a register that is at the same time figurative and pragmatic.

Like The Power of Thetis, the essays in this volume are marked by their time of composition. I hope that the readings in these pages will be of use to students of early Greek epic, and that readers will accept them as conditioned, contingent offerings on a common field. {12|}

Works Cited

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[ back ] 1. See the full discussion in Burgess 2006. For early examples, see Fenik 1964 and Kakridis 1949.

[ back ] 2. Nagy 1979, 1990.

[ back ] 3. Burgess 2001, Clay 1997, Felson 1994, Katz 1991, Peradotto 1990, Pucci 1987.

[ back ] 4. Ballabriga 1998, Burgess 2001, Danek 1998, Finkelberg 1988, Foley 1991, Hunter 2005, Malkin 1998, Muellner 1996, Nagy 1979, Petegorsky 1982.

[ back ] 5. See the considerations laid out in Morris 1986.

[ back ] 6. A founding figure in this realm of inquiry in the early twentieth century was L. Gernet, whose work was fundamental for his student, J.-P. Vernant, and Vernant’s own students and associates. Innovative research in recent years has helped us to uncover the cultural preoccupations encoded in ancient narrative: especially illuminating studies have been those of M. Detienne; W. Donlan; C. Dougherty; D. Frame; F. Hartog; L. Kurke; B. Lincoln; N. Loraux; I. Malkin; L. Muellner; G. Nagy; P. Vidal-Naquet, F. Zeitlin.

[ back ] 7. Iliad 13.446.

[ back ] 8. Iliad 14.470ff.

[ back ] 9. Iliad 12.310ff.

[ back ] 10. Iliad 9.197–198:“χαίρετον· ἦ φίλοι ἄνδρες ἱκάνετον—ἦ τι μάλα χρεώ—οἵ μοι σκυζομένῳ περ Ἀχαιῶν φίλτατοί ἐστον.” [ back ] Iliad 9.628–631: αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺςἄγριον ἐν στήθεσσι θέτο μεγαλήτορα θυμὸνσχέτλιος, οὐδὲ μετατρέπεται φιλπότητος ἑταίρωντῆς ᾗ μιν παρὰ νηυσὶν ἐτίομεν ἔξοχον ἄλλων … [ back ] Iliad 11.284–287:Ἕκτωρ δ’ ὡς ἐνόησ’ Ἀγαμέμνονα νόσφι κιόντα Τρωσί τε καὶ Λυκίοισιν ἐκέκλετο μακρὸν ἀΰσας·Τρῶες καὶ Λύκιοι καὶ Δάρδανοι ἀγχιμαχηταὶἀνέρες ἕστε, φίλοι, μνήσασθε δὲ θούριδος ἀλκῆς. [ back ] Iliad 15.560–562:Ἀργείους δ’ ὄτρυνε μέγας Τελαμώνιος Αἴας·ὦ φίλοι, ἀνέρες ἔστε, καὶ αἰδῶ θέσθ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ, ἀλλήλους τ’ αἰδεῖσθε κατὰ κρατερὰς ὑσμὶνας.

[ back ] 11. For a brilliant analysis of warrior philia, see Loraux 1997; also Vernant 1968, Sinos 1980, King 1997, and Kim 2000.

[ back ] 12. See Wilson 2002: “. . . we have in the Iliad two different ideological models for determining social hierarchies and leadership: a zero-sum fluid model based on timê in which a social hierarchy, hence a best (aristos), is negotiated through ritualized conflict, and a fixed-rank model in which the best is politically authenticated and maintains his power in part through redistribution of spoils” (36). Wilson’s book pursues many of the same themes and problematics pointed to here; her work represents a valuable furthering of the scholarship on Iliadic reciprocity and exchange thematics.

[ back ] 13. Daraki 1980, Sacks 1987, Nagy 1979:161–163, Muellner 1996:12–13.

[ back ] 14. E.g., Iliad 23.702–705.

[ back ] 15. Iliad 18.80–82:ἀλλὰ τί μοι τῶν ἦδος, ἐπεὶ φίλος ὤλεθ’ ἑταῖρος Πάτροκλος, τὸν ἐγὼ περὶ πάντων τῖον ἑταίρων, ἴσον ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ-

[ back ] 16. Translation is that of Lattimore 1953–1956.

[ back ] 17. See, for example, van Wees 1992, who takes as his first methodological assumption the coherence of the poem, arguing against those who adhere to a “patchwork” theory of the Iliad (15): “First, one should reconstruct the heroic world as a whole…” (9); “we shall see that a variety of traditional material has in fact been welded into a consistent image of the practices and norms of Akhaian warfare” (168). The most rigorous and elegant accounts of the poem and its workings—however different their thematic and linguistic preoccupations—have addressed the poem as a totality.

[ back ] 18. Ferrari 2008.

[ back ] 19. For a representative selection of some of the work of these scholars, see Loraux 2001; for a discussion of the historical development of the ‘Paris School’, see F. Zeitlin’s introduction to Vernant 1991. For a polemical account of some aspects of the interface of Classics and structuralism in post-war French thought, see Leonard 2005.

[ back ] 20. At the start of my current project, I found support for my concerns in Loraux 1987.

[ back ] 21. Among scholars who have pursued this line of inquiry, see von Reden 1995, Allen 2000, Loraux 1981, Vidal-Naquet 1981, and Vernant 1965.

[ back ] 22. See, for example, Heraclitus fr. 9 D-K: Ἥλιος οὺχ ὑπερβήσεται μέτρα· εἰ δὲ μή, / Ἐρινύες μιν Δίκης ἐπίκουροι ἐξευρήσουσιν.

[ back ] 23. Von Reden 1995:4.

[ back ] 24. For van Wees’s divergence from Finley, which is based on his rejection of what he sees as Finley’s misguided attempt to isolate fantasy from fact in the poem, see 1992:9; for von Reden’s relation to Finley’s work as well as to Mauss on the gift, see her introduction, 1995:1–9. See also Finley 1954, Mauss 1925, and Polanyi 1944.

[ back ] 25. And here this project diverges quite profoundly in conception from von Reden 1995, in which distinctions between “gift” and “commodity” structure her analysis, and distinctions between public and private exchange are diagnostic: see, for example, her Introduction, 1995:7, and Chapter 1: “The Scope of Gift Exchange.” It does not detract from the value of von Reden’s book to observe that the deployment of categories like gift, commodity, and property may at times impose retroactively a political-economical analytic and ideology that is partially foreign to the world of the poems: on the deformation caused by such “exporting” of concepts, understood to be in themselves historical and ideological formations requiring critique, see Baudrillard 1975. His “central argument” states: “Does the capitalist economy retrospectively illuminate medieval, ancient, and primitive societies? No” (86–87). So too, he suggests, the categories of the analysis and critique of capital—production, commodity-form, and so on—have limited explanatory power.

[ back ] 26. Von Reden 1995:1.

[ back ] 27. We see in the dialogue between Glaukos and Sarpedon at Iliad 12.310ff. an idealizing version of cultural motive delivered in a kind of backformation; see van Wees 1992 on the legitimacy of acquisition as a motive for raiding and battle.

[ back ] 28. Wilson 2002.

[ back ] 29. Wilson 2002:10.

[ back ] 30. Wilson 2002:10.

[ back ] 31. Wilson 2002:15 systematically tracks “when a character manipulates the poetics of compensation”—Agamemnon polemically offering Achilles apoina, not poinê, for example; Lykaon’s plea—his remembrance of previous apoina—moving Achilles instead into giving a bleak poinê; Priam’s supplication for apoina and Achilles’ acceptance, the profoundly significant resolution of the poinê/apoina problematic.

[ back ] 32. On the cultural and historical specificity of the map of emotions in the Iliad, see Muellner 1996. For the status, dispersion, and figuration of pity in the poem, see Kim 2000.

[ back ] 33. Baudrillard 1975:102-103.

[ back ] 34. Nagy 1979.

[ back ] 35. West 1978 and Verdenius 1985.