Logos and Art:    

Response to Athens Dialogues: Logos and Art; Nagy, Martin, and Bierl


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Response to Athens Dialogues: Logos and Art; Nagy, Martin, and Bierl

The first papers presented at this session devoted to Logos and Art , or, rather, Logos kai Tekhnê , challenge us to consider what it means to think of the verbal art of archaic Greek poetry as a tekhnê , a question that has been addressed with regard to the visual arts by Damian Sutton. As Richard Martin reminds us in his contribution, the notion of tekhnê , understood as “craft,” is an “inclusive” concept that encompasses much more than the narrow, value-laden realm of “art” as that term has been conceptualized in the West since the Romantic period. What, then, does it mean to un-think our Romantic prejudices and recover a notion of verbal artistry, and in particular of that special form of logos that is poetry, as a kind of tekhne ? The papers presented by Anton Bierl, Richard Martin, and Gregory Nagy all have important things to say on this subject (as well as others). In the few minutes I have, I would like to highlight in particular what these papers have to say about one of the main themes of the Athens Dialogues—the theme of the diachronic connection between the culture of antiquity and the ongoing unfolding of that culture today. In highlighting some of the consequences of their arguments, I would like to take my cue from the great theorist and polemicist of tekhnê , Plato.

Plato, of course, vehemently denies that poets like the rhapsode Ion have a claim to tekhnê , largely on the grounds that their art relies too much on irrational “inspiration.” But Plato’s attack on the poets is in fact the first step on the path that leads, ultimately, to their Romantic apotheosis as artists possessed of a unique and unaccountable gift. Our task is to read Plato backwards, so to speak, to discover just what the artist and the craftsman have in common, before Plato forces them to part ways.

One of the central premises regarding tekhnê that Plato shares with his predecessors and rivals the sophists is the notion that a tekhnê must, by definition, be teachable. That is to say, a tekhnê must take as its object some human activity that is in principle repeatable, and not just by a single practitioner, but by a potentially infinite number of practitioners. This feature of repeatability is, in a way that comes across especially clearly in the papers by Bierl and Nagy, an essential characteristic of the performance medium that is archaic Greek poetry. In fact, it could be said that repeatability is the feature that distinguishes the artful logos of poetry from every-day speech: poetry is speech that is worthy of being remembered, which is to say, of being reperformed on another occasion. All the more interesting, then, that Plato chose to use the innovative prose format of the Sôkratikos logos —the “Socratic (dia)logue”—to stake out a claim in opposition to poetry for his own master tekhnê —the dialektikê tekhnê , or art of dialectic. The complexities of this choice and its execution in Plato’s dialogues are a fascinating subject in their own right, but far beyond the limited scope of my objectives here. Suffice it to say that there are potential parallels with Bierl’s image of Sapphic monody perpetually conjuring choral poetry as its virtual double, or Martin’s discussion of the way rhapsodes position themselves vis-à-vis their competitors the citharodes.

To return to the repeatability of tekhnê : repeatability also means, necessarily, transmissibility . Poetry, as the object of tekhnê , is something that must be capable of being communicated to others, which means, capable of being appropriated by them and embodied by them in subsequent performances. Bierl and Nagy offer the most instructive illustrations of this point, but all three of the papers amply demonstrate an all-important consequence of this notion of poetry as something fundamentally transmissible, a consequence that is too often ignored by many authoritative histories of ancient literature: the history of archaic Greek literature is necessarily the history of its reception. Even if we wish to retain, with Bierl, the possibility of access to a “primary” moment of production and reception, we must nevertheless recognize that no document we possess provides a record of this primary context but only the traces of one or many acts of reception, of the re-situation or mise-en-oeuvre of texts that were conceived with their own re-performance in mind.

Rethinking the logos of poetry as tekhnê , then, requires us to shift our thinking away from a Romantic notion of art as an unrepeatable act of genius, and toward a notion of art as practice, a practice that is fundamentally oriented toward transmission and reperformance, and that is supported by a variety of institutional frameworks. That is not to say that the notion of individual artistic excellence disappears from view. On the contrary, Martin’s fascinating discussion of the nexus between krisis and kritêrion , between judgment and the formulation of an aesthetics, reminds us that the institutional frameworks in question inexorably produce standards that are scrupulously applied to individual artists and performances.

Moreover, the repetition of tekhnê is not static, not locked into the mere reproduction of past performances. Nagy, evoking Kierkegaard’s remarks in his essay on Repetition , stresses that the mimêsis of archaic poetry is forward-oriented, looking beyond the present moment toward an eternal future of ever-new realizations. Indeed, the most striking thing about many of our archaic texts is the way that they convey an awareness of this ongoing process of reception in re-performance, and the way that they seem to look forward to their future reception as the context for a fulfillment that is perpetually deferred. I am thinking particularly of Bierl’s compelling treatment of the erotics of longing and absence in the New Sappho. As Bierl notes, “The deferral of love becomes its own song in the interruption and continuation of a reperformance.” The perpetual longing for an unattainable erotic fulfillment is a way of figuring the energy and dynamics of a medium that understands that it can never attain a definitive state of completion because it is always subject to a potentially endless series of future realizations.

Nevertheless, the longing for such completion is what drives the cycle of performance. The Alexandrian edition of Sappho set the entire Sapphic corpus under the sign of this erotic and performative longing, by beginning with the famous “Hymn to Aphrodite.” The hymn begins with Sappho calling on the aid of an absent Aphrodite, whose presence is then conjured, performatively, when the speaker channels the voice of the goddess herself. One gap is therefore bridged, one absence filled, but there is still a residue of erotic longing that looks forward to a future moment of completion: Aphrodite can only assure Sappho that if her beloved now flees, soon she will be the pursuer, soon she will give gifts, soon she will return Sappho’s love. The insistent deferral encapsulated in this repeated “soon” corresponds performatively to the desire to stage ever new realizations of Sappho’s voice, and textually to the desire to continue reading, in search of the fulfillment promised by Aphrodite.

I would like to stress that this dynamic of unattainable fulfillment pertains not only to Sappho’s lyric poetics, but also in equal measure to the rhapsodic medium of Homeric poetry. The erotic longing highlighted by Bierl finds its analogue in a powerful observation made by Johannes Haubold in his book Homer’s People: Epic Poetry and Social Formation (2000). Examining the way in which the communities represented in the Iliad and Odyssey are figured as the antecedents of the communities of historical Greek poleis , Haubold notes that, within the Homeric poems, communities never attain the kind of social stability and permanence they so clearly aspire to have. The fulfillment of this aspiration is instead deferred and projected into the world of the poems’ reception—the world of performance , in which the audiences of rhapsodic poetry—the descendants of the Homeric heroes—are engaged in the ongoing realization of their ancestors’ aspirations. This is our world.

The reality of ongoing performance, figured, as Nagy argues convincingly, in the quadrennial re-weaving of Athena’s peplos , brings the heroic and mythic past into the realm of history, which is to say, of change, development, and elaboration. To practice a tekhnê means precisely to take up the craft of another and to hand it on in turn in pursuit of a perfection that may be unattainable but is not for that reason any less compelling as a goal. This afternoon’s Dialogue is a testament to the power of the tekhnê of archaic Greek poetry to perpetuate itself in an ongoing process of reception. We are ourselves engaged today in the pursuit of that unattainable fulfillment that has always been the subject of great poetry.