The Origins of Criticism Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece
By Andrew Ford
Princeton University Press Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-691-12025-6
DEFINING CRITICISM FROM HOMER TO ARISTOTLE
CRITICISM as an instinctive reaction to the performance of poetry is as old as song," writes George Kennedy in beginning the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, and Kenneth Dover reminds readers of the Frogs that "in pre-literate cultures the composition of songs is a process in which discussion and criticism, often passionate, play an important part-and inevitably so, because aesthetic reaction implies preference and preference implies criticism." As the Greeks were surely singing long before our first literary texts appear in the eighth century B.C.E., this means we cannot hope to trace criticism to its beginnings. But such broad perspectives should not lead us to neglect the fact that what Kennedy calls the "instinct" for criticism is always exercised in a social context-that the "aesthetic reaction" of which Dover speaks begins to acquire a history the moment it is uttered before a particular group on a particular occasion. Criticism may have no discernible beginning, but it does have a history, and this book is dedicated to tracing how the tradition of Western talk about stories, songs, and plays was crucially changed in Greece between the end of the sixth and the fourth century B.C.E. In speaking of this development as "the origins of criticism," I mean to highlight the emergence, within the manifold activities that might be called criticism, of a specific set of presuppositions about the nature of poetic language and ways of analyzing it that continues to shape our approaches to literature. Acknowledging that Greek song culture has continuities that reach into prehistory, we may still take notice when early statements about poetry are not assimilable to classical norms and when, and under what circumstances, these norms are first attested.
One sign of the success of classical criticism is that its cornerstones-its admiration for works that marry style to content, that exhibit harmony, proportion, and appropriate ornament in effecting a special emotional and cognitive response in the audience-may seem to be valid in all periods. Histories of Greek criticism have tended, partly because of the limited evidence available, but partly, too, because of the overwhelming influence of the developed classical paradigm, to emphasize early texts that adumbrate this essentially rhetorical approach to poetry as a verbal artifact. Classicizing criticism's regard for poetic form, after all, held out the promise of a perfect work of art, a formal harmony whose appreciation is independent of time and place, of party or creed. From this vantage point, Homer can stand as the father of Greek criticism (as he can for so much else) when he praises the power and pleasure of song. In his wake, the next proto-critics usually identified are the sixth-century philosophers who were concerned with language, truth, and deception. An evolving "self-consciousness" among poets is often postulated as well, especially in connection with the many references to the power of song found in the high lyric of the later sixth and early fifth centuries. Around this time, on the prevailing account, Xenophanes' critiques of Homer and Hesiod, the first shot in Plato's "ancient war between poetry and philosophy," provoked defenders of Homer to respond by interpreting his texts allegorically. But a saner and more fruitful response is credited to the fifth-century sophists: their rhetorical and grammatical studies, according to a common interpretation of the sophist Gorgias, made possible a literary appreciation for poetry's deceptions and even a theory of tragedy as therapy through art. By the time of Aristophanes' Frogs in 405, the art of criticism had arrived, and the main task left to Aristotle was to redeem the art of poetry after Plato's aberrant moral attacks.
A different view of each of these turning points will be given in this book by highlighting the social contexts and institutions within which criticism was practiced. In this way we can move beyond discussion of how far early Greeks anticipated the views of Plato and Aristotle on poetry and recover the broader issues their responses to song addressed. To extract from a narrow sample of earlier literature an implicit evolution toward Platonic-Aristotelian poetics turns history into a too orderly array of disembodied theoretical positions, engaging only with each other, and only on a narrow range of rhetorical concerns. Similarly, the "self" in literary "self-consciousness" is too easily reduced to a song's awareness of its rhetorical elements, neglecting many other aspects that singers were equally eager to express. My history obviously depends on how criticism is defined, and so I begin by defining, with a minimum of justification, what I will count as criticism, as literary culture, and as poetic theory. Defining literary terms is notoriously thorny, but the following definitions can at least claim not to be based on principles developed in the late classical age.
To begin this study, criticism will be any public act of praise or blame upon a performance of song. Focusing on its public character reflects the practice of criticism as carried out in the predominantly oral culture of archaic and early classical Greece; it suggests that we should consider the critic, no less than the poet, a performer before a social group. "Praise" and "blame" are the Greeks' own general terms for what one says in response to song; they remind us that interpretation need not be the primary function of criticism and helpfully separate the history of criticism from the history of aesthetic response. What people felt as opposed to what they said about poetry is not only inaccessible to the historian but should not be accorded a priori the same importance it may have in modern, privatized notions of aesthetic experience. The related question of how far singers and storytellers themselves should be regarded as practicing a form of criticism in their works seems to me a legitimate and rewarding inquiry, since it is impossible to retell even the most traditional tale without strategic selection and emphasis. But a space must still be left for what I call "critical scenes," social occasions in which one person offered a musical performance and another the judgment upon it. I thus distinguish the artist from the critic not on the basis of a problematic Romantic distinction between "creativity" and "analysis," but as distinct social roles (even if the same person may play both in turn, and even if the criticism takes the form of a new song). I call the object of criticism "song" as did the early Greeks (aoide, humnos, melos, etc.): some limitation is needed, since proposals at an assembly or speeches in court were also performances calling for public praise and blame, but with different criteria from those applied to songs and with different consequences. To speak of "song" when the Greek texts do also signals the important fact that this category was significantly reconceived during the fifth century, when the words for "poetry," "poem," and "poet" (poiesis, poiema, poietes) rose to prominence. Finally, it is necessary to think of "performances" rather than "texts" as the objects of criticism, since Greek poetry did not become an affair of private reading until late in the fifth century (and even then only for a small minority of the population).
Criticism thus defined takes place within a larger set of practices that I call literary or "musical" culture. Although neither the word nor the notion of "literature" is ancient, "literary culture" is our closest equivalent to what the Greeks called mousike, a term more broad than "music" that included all the arts associated with the Muses, singing and dancing as well as music in its narrow sense. This term is needed to locate criticism within the many ways that songs were present in society-all the places where they were performed and reperformed, quoted after dinner or carried in the head, parodied or written down, on temple walls or on tombstones or scraps of papyrus. Needless to say, I cannot hope to give anything approaching a full description of Greek literary culture in this period, but I have been influenced by recent work on modern criticism that highlights the wider social arrangements within which it emerged. Setting criticism within "musical" culture will help us observe that something like the eighteenth-century notion of literature was formulated in the fourth century B.C.E., when that part of musical culture that was song was examined in isolation from the rest: once the further step was taken of separating the words of songs from the music and actions they had accompanied, the particular effects of poetic language could be studied in a form of criticism one may call "literary" insofar as it was specific to the poetic art.
Finally, I use the phrase "poetic theory" quite narrowly to refer to self-conscious attempts to give systematic accounts of the nature of poetry in the most scientific terms available. This is what the Greek word "poetics" (he poietike tekhne, "the art of poetry") means, and it is a main contention of this study that Aristotle's work of that title embodied a new conception of the task of criticism and not simply the inexorable working out of tendencies that can be traced back to Homer. In putting the rise of poetic or literary theory so late, I do not forget that any response to a work of art (Homer's no less than my own) may be said to imply a theory, and it would be naive to think of the rise of poetics as a fall from a primitive, unmediated enjoyment of song into self-conscious analysis. But to generalize from any statement about song the total theory it may imply short-circuits the historical study of criticism by identifying criticism with theorizing. My view tends in the opposite direction and holds that theory's insistence that everything be viewed under its ken was itself just one strategic move within a widely varied set of ways to respond to song. Once we regard theorization as a social activity, we will be better able to understand how the self-conscious and formal theorization of poetry triumphed at a particular time and place within the traditional song-culture of Greece.
My aim in attending to social contexts is not to reduce all criticism to bids for power or prestige, but to make more of its history visible and comprehensible, including early critical responses that may seem foolish from a classical perspective. Donald Russell forewarns readers of his insightful Criticism in Antiquity that they may be "bewildered, disconcerted, perhaps disappointed" by the ancients' judgments about their own literature, which often appear "inadequate and unsatisfactory if we compare them to our own responses to the same texts." We have a better chance of understanding such judgments on their own terms if we consider where they were proposed and what extra-rhetorical ideas might have made them important to their audiences. To illustrate my terms and approach, I take a speech from the first book of the Odyssey that has been called "the earliest literary criticism in Greek literature."
Critical Scenes: Telemachus
The scene is the dining hall of Odysseus' palace, where Penelope's suitors sit over their wine while Phemius, a professional singer (aoidos), entertains them with a rendition of "The Disastrous Return of the Achaeans from Troy"(1.326-27, 339-40). Penelope appears with her maids at the threshold and bids the singer to switch to some other theme because his present song is painful to one whose husband has yet to return (1.328-44). At this point Telemachus intervenes with a speech that can be said to counter Penelope's blame with praise: reproving his mother, he tells her that if anyone is to blame for the fates men receive, it is Zeus, not singers. Phemius has only been performing the latest song, which is what everyone likes to hear; Penelope should therefore steel her heart and go back to weaving with her maids. That is her place and her task (ergon), he concludes:
But making speeches (muthos) is an affair for men, one that concerns all the men here, and me especially, for mine is the authority (kratos) in this house. (1.358-59)
This exchange includes several suggestive statements about the nature of poetry, as Stephanie West remarks when she says that Telemachus is "the poet's spokesman in his plea for artistic freedom and his emphasis on the importance of novelty." One could go much further and suggest, for example, that the contrasting responses of Penelope and the suitors to the same song dramatizes the aesthetic paradox that artistic representations of painful events can give pleasure. But before converting Homer into the father of Aristotle, it is useful to put the speech in context, since it would be a reductive account of Telemachus' criticism that did not note that the most basic issue at stake in Book 1 is who shall call the tune. As Telemachus' words make clear, speaking up about poetry at a feast is a way of claiming a social role and asserting authority (kratos) over others. Up to this point, Telemachus has been hesitant and ineffectual before the suitors, but now he seizes his role as prince by taking command of the singer who had been performing for the suitors "under duress"(1.154; cf. 22.331). The singer is answerable to the head of the house, and Telemachus has implicitly taken up this role, which he will give back to the true lord of Ithaca when he returns and summons the bard to a life-and-death critical appraisal (22.330-77).
In addition, to become a man among men, Telemachus asserts himself as a man over women. His peremptory dismissal of his mother from speaking in this context is given the accents of male heroism: "This is an affair for men" is what a warrior says in setting off to battle. Publicly pronouncing on song will remain a male prerogative from the time Penelope retires with her maids through the fourth century, when, in Plato's version of an ideal dinner party, a gentleman dismisses the flute girl "to go play to herself or among the women inside" (Symp. 176E). During the centuries this book traces, women practiced a musical culture of their own in places now mostly hidden from the historian. As ladies and their maids worked over looms and as peasant women worked in fields or at washing places, they sang and talked of the songs they had learned from each other and from the poets who composed for women's choruses. What Circe sang at her loom is not beyond all conjecture, but it was public, civic, and male discourses that issued in formal literary criticism.
Before leaving this scene, it is worth considering its place within Telemachus' coming-of-age story that opens the Odyssey. His speech, which amazes his mother (1.360), is but the first of a number of bold actions undertaken by the newly confident young man: it is immediately followed by his "high speaking and bold address"(1.385) to the suitors, and the next day he takes it upon himself to summon the Ithacans to assembly and air his grievances. Book 1 traces these developments to the arrival of the family's patron goddess Athena. Taking human form as an old family friend aptly named Mentes ("mentor"), Athena tutors the courteous but disconsolate young prince by taking him aside and "inspiring" (1.320-22) him: Mentes chides the boy (1.252), gives him fatherly advice about his rights and duties (1.308), and exhorts him in a tone similar to that of Greek gnomic poetry.15 Upon Athena's departure, Telemachus, now described as wise and prudent (1.345, cf. 306), takes control of the situation by speaking up at the feast. It may be inferred that his attentive sitting at table beside a good man, which was the standard archaic setting for a nobleman's musical education, has played a part in preparing him to take an active role as speaker in his house and in the city.
Homer shows pronouncing about poetry as part of a male citizen's repertoire of public performances, and he suggests that it was something they learned from well-disposed elders and kin. As the roles open to citizens and singers will change in the coming centuries, new mentors and new views of song will also appear. In the following chapters, I trace these changes through a succession of critical scenes in which song is praised or blamed. Reading these scenes with attention to their social and cultural backgrounds reveals not a progressive series of "discoveries" in which the philosophical and rhetorical nature of poetry comes to light, but instead a fundamental and broad shift from early responses to singing as a form of behavior regulated by social, political, and religious values to a conception of poetry as a verbal artifact, an arrangement of language subject to grammatical analysis, formal classification, and technical evaluation. This shift was completed in the fourth century, and the Poetics is its most conspicuous monument.
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