Q&A with Anna Bonifazi

We recently had a chance to talk with Anna Bonifazi about her research, Homeric diction, and her new book, Homer’s Verisicolored Fabric: The Evocative Power of Ancient Greek Epic Wordmaking.
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CHS: Your book examines two main subjects: 1) the pronominalization of Odysseus as ἐκεῖνος and as αὐτός 2) the treatment of particles and adverbs deriving from αὐ- and from αὐτός with a focus on the notion of discourse markers. Why was it important to consider these two subjects together?
Bonifazi: There is a specific and a general reason. The specific one is that the au– adverbs I discuss and autos share some discourse functions (which supports the hypothesis that autos derives from *au-, by the way); sometimes grammatical distinctions do not help identifying cognate significances. The general reason is that both groups of words are particularly sensitive to the context of their utterance; far from having a stable (univocal) meaning, they contribute, together with their verbal environs, to signal different communicative intentions, a situation which prompts purposive rather than mechanical usages.

CHS: Your analysis questions the traditional idea that (ἐ)κεῖνος  indicates something distant. In fact, you’ve found that (ἐ)κεῖνος works to create connection. Specifically, you argue that “the substantial act underlying many utterances of (ἐ)κεῖνος is to establish a visual relationship between the speaking “I” and the (ἐ)κεῖνος- subject. The (ἐ)κεῖνος-subject is initially far way or absent or unseen, and through the utterance (ἐ)κεῖνος that subject becomes—all of a sudden—close or present to the speaking “I” ’s vision.”  (p. 56) You give particular attention to the use of this word in the first four books of the Odyssey, where you feel it encourages the recipients of the poem to “perceive Odysseus in their consciousness” despite his absence in the narrative at that point.  (p. 13) Given your findings, does this word teach us something about the cognitive reception of oral poetic works? Can this word teach us how to think about themes and formulas that are traditionally related to a character or type scene but aren’t present in a given multiform?
Bonifazi: I like your phrase “cognitive reception of oral poetry”; it captures the deep link between processing actual words and making sense of them in light of a larger traditional backdrop. What I find intriguing about the usages of keinos is the possibility to condense in the utterances including keinos the cognitions of the internal characters as well as those of the recipients, without these cognitions being necessarily the same. Thus, what I’m indirectly suggesting in terms of traditional themes is an additional significance possibly encapsulated in recurrent phrases or special words, that is, an additional reference to the shared experience of reception at the moment of the performance, which in ancient times supposedly had an active character (e.g. cult practices connected to epic telling).
CHS: Chapter two highlights “performative layering as a working feature in Homeric epic” and in particular you argue for reading a layer associated with hero cult. For instance, you see “a link between the odd detail about the wild pear in Odyssey xiv, Demeter cult, the aulē, and hero cult. According to the hypothesis of Mühlestein, the name Eumaeus is a variant of Eubuleus, the swineherd who was eye-witness to Persephone’s abduction.” (p. 111)  Is your reading of the pear related to your reading of (ἐ)κεῖνος? Do they both show us how the cult hero is brought into the consciousness of the listener? If so, do you see a connection to the interaction between cult hero and initiate presented in works like Philostratus’ Heroikos?
Bonifazi: Yes, my readings of the pear and of keinos independently point to the same potential of epic utterances, that is, to evoke meanings that transcend the story line and hint at the listeners’ experiential knowledge of special objects or the listeners’ special connection to cult heroes. Symbols and attitudes of worship are hardly overt in the Homeric poems we have; nonetheless, as I’m trying to show, some verbal gestures and lexical choices in the Iliad and the Odyssey may strategically be inclusive of hero cult values; it’s up to worshipers, then, to realize and enjoy them. The relatively rare apostrophes to heroes by the primary teller may resemble forms of interaction between cult hero and initiate, but only as one possible color of the versicolored fabric.
CHS: In chapter five you note “αὐτός is not only a third-person pronoun, and it not only indicates corpses and live bodies in the Iliad, but it also triggers pragmatic and cognitive inputs, such as thinking the referent of αὐτός to be the visual center surrounded by a periphery.” (p. 291) Your title also points towards the connection between cognition and visualization. Why are these two so inseparably linked, and do we need to focus more on visualization in order to understand the transmission and reception of ancient Greek poetry?
Bonifazi: Visualization is a fundamental process we are engaged in when we read/listen to narrative texts. With our mind’s eyes we zoom in on items; we shift from scene to scene; we track ‘entries’ and disappearances of characters. Ancient Greek epic and lyric seem to enhance visual processing, because of the highly imaginative force of tales, and because the memory activated while the performance unfolds greatly relies on visual memory (as surviving oral traditions demonstrate). In fact, focusing more on visualization leads us to investigate the imaginative force of tales more deeply, and to grasp the process of composition more closely.
CHS: Throughout this book, you cite the speaker and the audience when quoting a passage. Why is this so integral to your approach to these poems?
Bonifazi: I just decided to make explicit what we implicitly (and often unconsciously) tend to do with literary passages. In order to understand an excerpt, we need to recall the fundamental coordinates that allow us to situate the passage, that is, at least who is speaking to whom. Such a systematic way of reporting a text fits the linguistic perspective I am adopting, which holds that communication cannot ‘mean’ but in context. Homeric poetry is no exception.
CHS:  Your research offers valuable new ideas about high frequency words, and as a result this book can alter the scholarly readings of every Greek text. It can also directly impact how we teach and translate these works. This is especially apparent in your section on αὐ- discourse markersWhy was affecting this layer of scholarly performance so important, and what can we do as teachers to more quickly incorporate new research into existing pedagogical tools and paradigms?
Bonifazi: I believe that the work done on ancient Greek linguistics over the past two-three decades little by little will complement–if not modify–the existing grammars, as long as they incorporate accessible terms and views of contemporary linguistics. Mine is an attempt in that direction. As for teaching: the scholarship that gave rise to the monumental grammars we grew up with taught us to pay attention primarily to syntax. But syntax cannot explain a number of phenomena that are equally or even more important. So, an ability that teachers may develop or improve is that of systematically combining the syntactical reading of texts with the relevance of lexical/semantic choices and with the communicative value of sentences/clauses. That would make them (and their students) more intrigued than displeased by broken rules, for example. In the case of discourse markers,  oral translations in classes might profit from the intonational marking and paraphrases that allow the target language to render the function of the original Greek word.
CHS: What are you working on now?
Bonifazi: I’m working on particles, on what they contribute to in terms of discourse strategies, or, in other words, on how they guide us to a better understanding of texts. The corpus (8 authors) includes epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, and historiography. I have the great pleasure of doing research at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany, together with Annemieke Drummen and Mark de Kreij (PhD students). We form a little team. Here is the link to our homepage: https://www.uni-heidelberg.de/fakultaeten/philosophie/skph/emmy_noether/index.html