CJ Online Review: Bonifazi, Homer’s Versicolored Fabric

posted with permission:

Homer’s Versicolored Fabric: The Evocative Power of Ancient Greek Epic Word-Making. By Anna Bonifazi. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2012. Distributed by Harvard University Press. Pp. x + 350. Paper, $24.95/ £18.95. ISBN 978-0-674-06062-3.

Reviewed by Alexander C. Loney, Yale University

The “versicolored fabric” of the title of Anna Bonifazi’s book refers to the way certain objects change color when viewed from different perspectives, which means they can truthfully be said to be one color for one viewer and one color for another. The situationally dependent status of such an object is an analogue for the aspects of Homeric language Bonifazi examines in her book. Using the tools of the field of linguistics known as pragmatics, she focusses on third-person pronouns and adverbs/particles with the element αὐ-. Although Bonifazi sidesteps the issue, simply defining pragmatics can be controversial. (See Mira Ariel, Defining Pragmatics (Cambridge, 2010).) But, essentially, pragmatics can be thought of as the study of the role context plays in generating meaning. All language, as actually used, is spoken (or written) by someone to someone in some setting.

In her first chapter, Bonifazi brings her pragmatic approach to anaphora. Following linguists Catherine Emmott and Francis Cornish, Bonifazi calls for a “radical change” (19) in how anaphora is understood. She calls this the “referent in the mind” model (20). Anaphors do not refer to words but to “mental representations.” Regarding the much-discussed first word of the poem, ἄνδρα, she finds it is not “vague,” though it has no verbal antecedent; rather, “the referent of ἄνδρα is in the mind” of both the poem’s narrator and audience “as a relevant shared knowledge” (66). This example is programmatic for Bonifazi. Just as Odysseus is on the mind of the poem’s external audience, whose sympathies lie with him right from the proem, so also is Odysseus on the mind of the internal characters and “emotionally near” them. In the first four books of the poem, Homer thematizes the anaphoric/deictic pronoun (ἐ)κεῖνος as a signal of Odysseus’ emotional and (imagined) visual significance as a “cognitive presence,” despite his physical absence.

In her second chapter, Bonifazi reads Odysseus’ visit to Eumaeus’ hut in Book 14 as a “layered” scene, in which multiple dramatic situations co-exist and are communicated by the same text. The traditional interpretation of the scene sees dramatic irony at work: the audience knows Odysseus’ identity and Eumaeus does not. Some interpreters, however, have seen Eumaeus as, on some level, aware of his guest’s identity. Though contradictory, these interpretations are not incompatible, according to Bonifazi. Both realities (plus a third ritual layer) are present in our text. They are “multiple readings that the performer deliberately enables for the multiple pleasures of the audience” (83). Bonifazi’s third chapter offers further layered readings of Odysseus’ encounters with allies and foes on Ithaca. In this context, she introduces a pragmatic analysis of Homeric αὐτός. It can act as an intensifier, marking out a center (the referent of αὐτός) distinguished from a periphery; it can also act as a demonstrative of identity. Bonifazi sees a dialectic between αὐτός and (ἐ)κεῖνος, which culminates in Odysseus’ self-revelation to Laertes at 24.321: κεῖνος μὲν δὴ ὅδ’ αὐτὸς ἐγώ, “That one is here, it is myself, here I am …” (Bonifazi’s translation). This coincidence of pronouns “summarizes a fundamental fact, which is personal and social, private and public, at the same time: Odysseus cannot be either κεῖνος or αὐτός; he is both” (180).

On Bonifazi’s “layered” reading, each interaction between the disguised Odysseus and his Ithacan subjects exhibits an unresolved ambiguity: they both recognize and do not recognize him. Although some of her readings are clever, I cannot accept Bonifazi’s argument in its entirety. Her insistence on the multiple status of these scenes depends on a slippage between the idea that, e.g., Philoetius could be imagined “as if” he “really had recognized his master” (162, emphasis mine) and that he actually had. The poem we have does allude to alternative narrative paths in which characters become aware of Odysseus’ identity at different points, but these remain hypothetical and unrealized alternatives. To be sure, Bonifazi would find my critique too literalistic and “unitary” (see 169–70). Despite my sympathy with her approach, I remain unpersuaded on this point, as I expect some other readers will as well.

In the final two chapters, Bonifazi gives pragmatic accounts for adverbs beginning with αὐ-. Eschewing the term “particle” (properly, in my view), she classifies αὖ, αὖτε, and αὐτάρ as discourse markers. They do not affect the propositional content of language, but function at two other levels: the “presentational” level, relating an utterance to what comes before or after and the “interactional” level, relating speakers and interlocutors. At the presentational level, these words “primarily mark a shift from what is ‘on the one side’ to what is ‘on the other side’” in the addressee’s “visual framework” (218). This applies especially to characters in different locations (e.g., across a battlefield), but can also apply to different threads of narrative (e.g., in transitions from one scene to another). At the interactional level, these words can indicate the emotional force of an utterance. The other adverbs beginning with αὐ- are more likely to have propositional functions, but they can still function at the presentational or interactional level: e.g., αὐτίκα can propel the action of a narrative.

In the end, Bonifazi succeeds at providing a richer account of how, why, and to what effect speakers of the Homeric texts use these pronouns and adverbs/particles. As a result, now anyone interested in the Homeric usages of these words will want to consult this book closely. Bonifazi has advanced our appreciation of the nuanced pragmatics of Homeric diction.

Marathon Odyssey Reading at CU-Boulder

From the Daily Camera:

One of Nick Romeo’s favorite moments in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” is when the protagonist, Odysseus, ventures into the underworld and encounters the spirit of Greek hero Achilles.

While Odysseus observes Achilles is blessed in death as he was in life, Achilles responds that he would rather be a living slave to the worst of masters than king of the dead.

“It’s a very poignant moment,” said Romeo, a graduate student in the University of Colorado’s classics department. “It’s obviously a very different picture of the after life than the Christian heaven.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Romeo got to hear the passage read aloud by classics professor Peter Hunt, who was among nearly 70 volunteers who read 10-minute portions of the epic as part of a marathon, 12-hour reading performed in the lobby of the Eaton Humanities building.

The reading, an idea of Romeo’s, was done to tell the tale the way ancient Greek bards would have performed it almost 3,000 years ago, and also to heighten the profile of CU’s classics department on the campus.

“We don’t know much about how Homer performed ‘The Odyssey,’ but we do know it was an oral epic,” Romeo said. “We thought it would be nice to do something that creates an echo of that today.”

Romeo read several times during the marathon event and was joined by classics professors, undergraduate students from various majors, area residents and even a middle school student. He called the epic “sort of the original story,” noting Odysseus longing to return to his family and homeland resonates with people to this day, while the sex and violence of the story make it “very HBO.”

Beth Dusinberre, a professor of Greek and near Eastern archaeology, helped Romeo organize the live reading and brought one of her classes to the Eaton lobby to participate. She said she thought it was fitting the event took place the same week as the Conference on World Affairs because, “In terms of world interaction in antiquity, what could be better?”

To her knowledge, Tuesday was the first time people had come together on the CU campus to read the epic in its entirety.

Dusinberre said the noise of the Eaton lobby mimicked the crowded public places bards may have performed the poem in antiquity.

Angie Wolfrum, 22, was among the people sucked into the reading by free Greek-themed snacks. The snacks, delivered by UMC Events and Catering at 3 and 6 p.m., were referred to as goat sacrifice in fliers handed out about the event.

“I think it’s really cool,” Wolfrum, a French major, said of the reading. “I didn’t really know what was happening the first five minutes, but then I read the signs and decided to sit down because it was interesting.”

Classics major Gordon Magne, 23, took part in the reading in the morning and then returned in the afternoon to listen to more of the poem.

“This is really great. I think they should make this an annual thing,” Magne said. “It’s fun to hang out and be classics nerds.”

… well of course it is! The original article includes a short video of a bit of the ‘performance’ … That said, lest these marathon readings get repetitive, maybe we should have a Marathon reading of the Satyricon … or maybe Horace’s Satires … or Juvenal … (hint, hint)

Classical Words of the Day