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.

Part I. Preface

The challenge to define as fully as possible the cultural environment in which a work of literature was produced presents itself with every examination of an ancient text. In the case of the extraordinarily complex phenomenon of Attic drama the task is perhaps facilitated by the survival of more complete documentation about the conditions, if not of its genesis, at least of its evolution and reception during the fifth century, as well as by contemporary commentary on it, as in the plays of Aristophanes. Drama, moreover, has continued to flourish as an art form with many of its conventions intact, and through our own experience of it in practice we appreciate much about how it realizes its aesthetic effects and meaning. Still, modern understanding of ancient drama is handicapped by ignorance of many of its integral features, such as music and dance. It is true nonetheless that readers of these works offer powerful and stimulating analyses of them; and it is by no means certain that if we were suddenly to find ourselves enlightened about ancient music and choreography we would need to alter our readings of the plays in a radical way. But a new awareness of these dimensions would entitle us to reconsider the plays interpretively, because it would mean that we would be able to hear and see them as their audiences did, to gauge more responsively the scope and complexity of their achievement. {19|20}

Is there anything comparable that, as readers of Homer, we do not “hear” and “see”? The researches of Milman Parry and Albert Lord and others who have studied the mechanics and artistry of Homeric verse making have pioneered an awareness of its essential oral characteristics and altered our perception of the bases of its formal structure. Formulas, type-scenes, repeated episodes, have been fruitfully mapped; but the oral, traditional poet depends as well on other compositional techniques and resources alien to a literate culture, which are crucial to an understanding of the meaning of his poem.

Direct attention needs to be paid to the oral poet’s orchestration of the mythology out of which his narrative is composed. The poet, it appears, constructs his narrative using myths that are not related in full, but only in part. Why should this be so? Is he inventing, but abridging, limiting the compass of his inventions? Is he attempting novelties and abandoning them unelaborated? Are these preparatory sketches awaiting further development? How are we to understand the poet’s use of those fragments within the larger story?

The mythological corpus on which the poet draws, taken together, constitutes an internally logical and coherent system, accessible as such to the audience. The poet inherits as his repertory a system, extensive and flexible, whose components are familiar, in their manifold variant forms, to his listeners. For an audience that knows the mythological range of each character, divine or human not only through this epic song but through other songs, epic and nonepic the poet does not spell out the myth in its entirety but locates a character within it through allusion or oblique reference.

He thereby incorporates into his narrative another discourse, one that makes its appearance on the surface of the poem through oblique references, ellipses, or digressions, evoking for his audience themes that orient or supplement the events of the poem in particular ways. What becomes instrumental in this mode of composition is not only what the poet articulates by way of bringing a given myth (with its associated themes) into play, in relation to his narrative, but also what is left unsaid; for his audience would hear this as well.

In the continuously reversible shift of emphasis from explicit to implicit meaning, how does the poet activate the implicit? For an audience to whom this fundamental compositional resource is foreign or to whom the myths in their essential multivalence, flexibility, and systematicity are unfamiliar, the task of hearing as Homer’s audience did requires the apparently paradoxical task of listening for what is unspoken. {20|}