This week we will talk about attitudes toward writing, speech, and poetry in Ancient Greece. We’ll mainly look at two writers: Homer and Plato. We’ll discuss why the label “writer” may be a problematic description of Homer because, if such a person really existed, there is a chance that he did not write at all—the Odyssey and the Iliad may have been oral compositions.

We will read short passages from Plato (Phaedrus and The Republic) and Homer in translation, and we will listen to readings of Homeric verse in the original Greek. We will also read excerpts from Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond by Gregory Nagy.

I suggest reading the texts in this order:

Nagy, Gregory. Poetry as Performance: Homer and beyond. Introduction and chapter 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Havelock, Eric. Preface to Plato. Chapters 7-9. New York: Universal Library, 1967.

Plato. Excerpt from Phaedrus.

Homer. Excerpt from The Iliad. The opening lines in English. And a recording in Greek. (Just a little sample.)

Plato. The Republic. Book X. (This is optional, so only if you have time.)

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  1.   alee909

    I thought the reading from Phaedrus was the most interesting out of all of the readings for this week; the other ones were harder to grasp, and this reading was the one that sparked the most interest and emotion out of me while I was reading it. There seems to be this theme of trueness and falseness throughout the work that made me think of some situations we run across in our daily lives. I guess Socrates thinks that the reliance on writing instead of oral tradition would result in people, ‘having the show of wisdom without the reality?’

    I wonder what Socrates and Phaedrus would say if they saw this class discussing the topics that they’re speaking about. It seems like we can only discuss it because we have read it on paper. We didn’t receive the knowledge by someone telling us. So would Socrates discredit anything that we learn from it or think we didn’t get as much out of it because we had to read it instead of hear it? I’m not sure if I’m missing something.

    Towards the bottom of the second page, Socrates talks to Phaedrus about ‘handling arguments.’ It actually made me think about the nature of arguments. I hate arguments so much because I can usually prove myself to be right, but I don’t think quickly enough off the top of my head to say the right things. It’s worse if someone catches me off guard with something, because then I have to get past a slow reaction time. What annoys me so much about these situations is that, a lot of times, the person with the last word ‘wins.’ However, just because someone gets in the last word doesn’t mean that they’re right. They could be horribly wrong, but they’ll still get the satisfaction of ‘winning’ if their voice or logic leaves the other person speechless. So the ‘authority’ of the argument can be completely skewed. So our attitude towards arguments could be reflective of a culture in which we value the ostensible surface of things, like someone’s physical appearance over their character, etc. . . so it was just an instance I thought of where argument or persuasion is kind of meaningless. I’m wondering if this fits into the context of Socrates relating the ‘living word of knowledge’ with the soul and the written word with an image. Is this thought related to this passage at all?

  2.   Anonymous

    Beginning initially with Havelock’s analysis of Ancient Greek Orality, I found the evolution of oral tradition to be truly fascinating. Havelock posits that the formation of an oral tradition succeeded in “providing a setting in which to preserve the group identity of the Greek-speaking peoples”(118). With this in mind, one can begin to understand Havelock’s argument, and more importantly, the difficulty inherent in attempting to divorce Ancient Greek Orality with actual historic fact. Specifically, the hazards of memory; its ability to blur lines of fact, fiction, and myth that all coalesce to create an oral tradition that “moves”. Captured best here, “Living memory preserves what is necessary for present life. It slowly discards what has become wholly irrelevant. Yet it prefers to remodel rather than discard. New information and new experience are continually grafted on to inherited models”(122). I feel it is this idea of a continually shifting oral tradition that remains relevant in present day.

    Moving on to Nagy, this idea of a “moving” or “varying” oral tradition is further expanded on. Nagy’s analysis of “mouvance” is interesting in its marked separation from “variance”. What I garnered was “mouvance” applying more specifically to changes in strictly spoken performances. While “variance” arises when confusion occurs between a disparity amongst text that is then translated into performance. These two notions, conflicting in some respects, all point to the conclusion of spoken performances as constantly in flux. As Nagy states, ” ..each manifestation of a song must be considered to be, in its own right, as valid a whole, complete poem as any other versions”(25). I believe this to be the crux of the argument, the core battleground over which should retain prominence in academia: performance or text? While text generally remains static (with the exception of certain “variances) performance is in constant permutation. Whether it is used as a tool of memorization (as per the Ancient Greeks), or a vessel of expressionism that courts multiple interpretations, performance by its very nature is a more visceral experience.

    This leads to my final point brought up in the reading of “Phaedrus”. When viewing all the readings in tandem I’ve arrived at the notion that orality and memorization are closely twined. While some critics have pointed out the cons of such a practice ( blurred, manufactured, and incorrect history), Socrates brings up a valid point:

    “for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

    While the histories of the Ancient Greeks were susceptible to misinformation (via the hazards of memory), Socrates argues how truth is equally muddled in the realm of letters. It brings up the questions: Is there really such a difference in the mediums, so as to give one prominence over the other? Both succeed in telling a story, conveying information, or recounting history, yet performance and text are equally flawed in their ability to filter out fiction from truth. It leaves me pondering: should the “moving” nature of performance truly be viewed as a liability to its authenticity, or rather, should we acknowledge it as an inexorable aspect of human nature?

  3.   Nick Matthews

    Not to double post, but I realize i forgot to “login” before posting my comment. The above “anonymous” entry would be mine, apologies.

  4.   jaygwelsh

    While going through the readings, I noticed two very-incompatible ideas. Havelock argues in his text (chapter 7) that, following the Grecian Dark Age, culture relied on the oral tradition to educate each succeeding generation. The Greeks would learn about all of their society’s mores and ways, disguised within Achilles fighting Hektor and Odysseus fighting the suitors. Havelock goes on in Chapters 8 and 9 to explain how there was a prevailing rhythm in social circles at the time. Everyone thought and spoke and acted in this same, unifying rhythm. Not only did this give the poets the necessary tools to remember and – when necessary – improvise the poems, but it also created a sort of interconnectedness between the poet and the audience. To put quite simply, written word was inferior under these circumstances, as everyone seemed to speak with one, understanding voice.

    In “Phaedrus”, Socrates takes this idea even further by not only saying that orality is better than literacy, but that the written word actually makes people lazy. Socrates bluntly says that writing robs people of the need to memorize. After all, would someone rather try and memorize thousands of lines of poetry or let a book take care of that effort? If people leave all of that information in the books, then they won’t memorize it. If they don’t memorize it, then it can’t be ingrained in their psyche. And thus the Greek culture won’t be unified in understanding their own culture. That is why in Socrates’ eyes, writing cannot hold a candle to the power of speaking.

    All of this is nice, but there’s a problem that jumps out in Nagy’s text. In Chapter 1, Nagy says that spoken poetry in ancient Greece was never finished in a sense. Whereas today where publication ensures that there is some stability to the text, the oral tradition is never complete. Instead, it was being constantly revised and revised and revised by the poets as they spoke. This, of course, is understandable – after all, anyone who claims to have memorized all of the Iliad is a liar. The thousands of lines of metaphors and similes make it all but impossible to remember every word. So the poets improvised, introducing their own literary conceits along the way. Not only that, but as time wore on and the initial audience became poets themselves, they gave their own slant to the poetry. In the end, you’re left with countless poems that are networked together under a basic plot and little more. Nagy defends this ancient telephone game by saying this evolution of poetry over time ensured its strength and, ultimately, its survival. All of those eventual variations of the initial text serve only to make the culture more vibrant and energetic. Whoever said too much of a good thing was a bad thing?

    Of course though, this proliferation of different versions clashes with what Havelock and Socrates said in their respective texts. Namely that oral poetry served as a didactic vehicle for the Greeks. If the intent of the poetry is to educate, why not standardize it by compiling it into a manuscript that has one author? Why have the poetry be performed by countless poets over countless years? Variation is generally a good thing, but here you have the problem of an audience getting conflicting lessons on life as they knew it. So while creativity is a necessary driving force behind entertainment, it is an impediment – and a dangerous one – if you’re looking to it as being a teacher.

    -James Welsh

  5.   Sean Nicholson

    In his introduction Gregory Nagy makes the point that it would be more prudent when speaking of Greek archaic tradition to use the word song as opposed to the word poetry. I found this intriguing as I am currently teaching my students a unit I’ve personally developed titled ‘Music as Poetry’. The purpose of the unit is to teach students the concepts and ideas of poetry through the study of lyrics which tend to be far more engaging to my students. For our purposes in class, song or lyric becomes interchangeable with the word poetry as we study meter and literary techniques found in the everyday music students listen to on the radio. Therefore I completely agree with Nagy in his interchanging of words.
    While reading “Phaedrus” I was struck by the idea that the written word made people less connected with ideas than their oral counterpart. Socrates implies that it will be detrimental to society to lose the necessity for memorization. To take this a step further, in our current technology-based society there is hardly any need to memorize anything as I can be looked up on the internet in a matter of seconds. Many of us even have the internet on our phones making all that knowledge so readily available that one could argue there is no need for memorization.
    In an earlier posting someone commented that, “While text generally remains static (with the exception of certain “variances) performance is in constant permutation.” I believe that the variances on text, while limited in number, still have an effect on the reading or internal performance of the text. The font type, font size, paper size, number of pages, etc. can all have a tremendous effect on our interpretation as a reader. However, I agree entirely with the idea that performance is in constant permutation as our listening to Baraka at the beginning of the class illustrated.

  6.   gfl11131988

    Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 781
    Response # 2
    George Festin Lorenzo

    The writings of Ancient Greece become very interesting when the idea that Homer and Plato may not have actually wrote their own literature but rather, just spoke it in the oral format and had it converted into text on paper. Well, the writings of Ancient Greece are already interesting to begin with, but with that idea thrown into the equation, it does make readers wonder if the battle of Troy or adventures of Odysseus against the Cyclops were original works of Homer.
    In Gregory Nagy’s text, Poetry as Performance: Homer and beyond, Nagy helps explain the idea of replacing certain words or substituting phrases to help create a distinction between works and perhaps that may take away from the originality of Ancient Greece writings. For example, Nagy explains how one critic stated, “we have seen, however, that many conjectures were introduced by the ancients into Homer and that sometimes the original was replaced by a rarer and more difficult word” (8). This idea of swapping specific words out is unique in the sense that it creates separate works that become one of a kind. It also is relevant to point out that this critic Nagy refers to explained how the regular and less complicated term of a swapped word or phrase, would most likely be the original one, when speaking of Homer.
    Another interesting text is by Eric Havelock, entitled Preface to Plato. In this text, a very unique topic is spoken of, in his eighth chapter entitled “The Homeric State of Mind”. This chapter grabbed my attention the most out of the three chapters because of the argument it precided. Havelock writes, “Homer and Hesiod should be accepted in the first instance not as ‘poets’ in the precious sense of that term but as representing a whole state of the Greek mind” (138). The feelings and beliefs that Homer, as well as Hesiod, were moreso writing works that encaptured Greek culture, opposed to simply original pieces of writings is powerful, in the sense that it defines the way life in Ancient Greece once was. It is safe to say that Havelock has the mentality that most citizens of Ancient Greece had the mindset of the works of Homer and Hesiod and thus, the writings were vastly popular due to the similarity in thinking. Regardless of a reader’s feelings and opinions on whether or not Homer and Plato were writing original works in their poetry, or even if they were real poets to begin with, it is difficult to argue the relevance and importance of the epic poems in education and Ancient Greece.

  7.   sarahcoluccio

    One of the things which I most reacted to in the course of doing the readings for this week’s class was the Phaedrus excerpt. It got me thinking about a lot in terms of what the value of writing really is (or is not, I suppose). I was particularly interested by a quote from Thamus in Socrates’ story about Thoth and his discovery of letters and writing. Thoth, as Egyptian legend goes, had the head of an ibis and was the patron god of scribes, as well the god of knowledge and writing. I was surprised to read Socrates telling the story, but the passage in particular that struck me was Thamus’ quote,

    “…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

    I couldn’t help but wonder at that point – does writing really take away from our ability to access our memories? Not quite that literally, but in a more figurative way? The oral tradition of the ancient philosophers and “writers” was, more or less, the only way they had to keep track of information and pass it along, until later on when it became both easier, faster and more convenient to make written evidence of various pieces of information.

    In a way, although writing does help us make and keep lasting evidence of past knowledge and pass information along from one person to the next, in a way it does cause of to rely less of our own memories and more on the “external written characters.” Think about this – if you go to the grocery store without a list of the things you need, you have to make sure you remember everything, and ensure that your memory holds all the information you need. To do so, you’ll probably keep repeating everything to yourself, or come up with some tricky or creative way to remember it all. In this way, you’re *thinking,* and relying on your brain. But if you write it all down, there’s no need to remember it or think about it at all – you just look at the list, and five minutes later you’ve forgotten everything. The same goes for a person giving a speech or a lecture. If you have notes in front of you, you still have to use your brain to remember what to do with those notes, and in what order, etc. Again, you’re using your brain power. But if you have the entire text of what you’re going to say written down word for word in front of you, there’s no need to use your brain or your memory.

    Sure, it may be easier to write everything down for convenience, or to make sure you have it all. But who’s to say that as time goes on, the more we write things down and the less we use our brains, we don’t risk losing the ability to remember things at all?

  8.   joshualindenbaum

    I find The Preface to Plato quite disturbing and hard to imagine. The fact that history, law, and events were preserved orally seems like a Hitler-type’s wet dream. This is complete and utter control over what people hear, and not to mention, what they think. These walking “tribal encyclopedias” can change anything they seem fit . . . they could even change the past. For if nothing is written — how can you dispute what they say? They could’ve used this type of society in Orwell’s “1984.”

    These poets were the politicians of their day. Poetry was used not for entertainment, but to doctrinate the community. It wasn’t an art, but rather a manipulative tool where rhythm was used for mere memorization purposes. I’m glad I live in a time where there’s an alphabet that’s used, and information can be obtained in various ways. If today was like back then . . . rappers would be running our country. Imagine thousands of people going to the capital repeating after a politician: “where my dogs at?” or “back that ass up!”

    The fact that only a select few could read the written tablets is reminiscent of the catholic church when it use to only have its sermon in Latin when most of its followers knew nothing of Latin. To keep restrict what a people can do and know is about power and control . . . control is power.

    An art that’s used to control your thinking and not getting you to think is an abomination. Knowledge is like food, everyone should have access to it. And to continue off that line of thinking, power should be distributed amongst the many and not the few. Too much power is not healthy for most human minds.

  9.   mooneydanielle7

    The preface by Havelock emphasized the importance of charisma and public speaking ability. Due to the importance of memorization in Greek politics and record keeping, those who could quickly and effectively recall the information were held in high regard. This is an interesting test of intelligence because it seems to value memorization over problem-solving abilities. The ancient Greeks had to use their minds the way we use the “My Documents” folder on our computers.

    Performance ability and charisma also come up when considering Nagy’s excerpt and the concept of variation and “mouvance”—assuming I understood it correctly. Once an authentic audience witnessed the telling of a lyric poem, they could then go recite it to others. Small things would vary and slowly the piece would adapt. The poets were aware of this and would address it in the openings of their poems and hope that it would be improved and not “broken.” The second wave of audiences, the ones who hear a lyric from someone other than the original troubadour, might hear a better or worse version than the “original.” I say “original” but after reading these I know it’s impossible to find an original so I say that loosely. The second performer might exaggerate certain parts of the lyric, or put a different spin on something. On the other hand, the second performer might do the lyric a disservice and relay it in an uninteresting way or forget some parts, kind of like a person who tries to tell a long joke but forgets an important piece of information in the middle, and then tries to backtrack, and by the end its confusing and no longer funny.

    The excerpt from Phaedrus demonstrated a very interesting perspective that the new idea of writing was seen as a lesser, even lazier mode, than the oral tradition. The men described writing as something flat that cannot defend itself beyond the words on the page. While reading Havelock’s chapters it sounded like the lack of, and early use of an alphabet and words, was a weakness of the Greeks. However Plato’s excerpt makes it sound like the strength of a wise and highly intelligent society to be able to relate, argue, and persuade people orally without and dependence on written language. This is a surprising reversal to the value placed on the written word. Everything is documented and recorded, and it is not fathomable to think that we would need to commit everything in order for it to survive. Not even beginning to think about the many books on the shelf next to me of which I can’t recite a single line from memory, I first think about the fact that I only have about seven people’s phone numbers memorized since I can depend on my cell phone. What amazes me about the copious amounts of history and ancestry that the ancient Greeks had to memorize is that they memorized it for the duration of their life. Thinking back to elementary school and high school when I’d need to memorize various things, like the order of the inception of the 13 original American colonies, I’m aware of how quickly the information dissolved out of my mind once I was done taking the test. Once I no longer needed that information, my brain discarded it. It was the necessity that made the ancient Greeks so adept at memorizing large amounts of information. Now we can rely on the convenience of books, the internet, and cell phone search engines like Cha Cha, but maybe if we lacked the technological means, we’d be capable of just as much memorization. In face I’m confident our society would fare just as well if we had to. I keep falling into the trap of thinking these ancient Greeks had some supersonic memorization abilities to hear a lengthy list and be able to repeat it back after hearing it once. I have to remind myself of Havelock’s chapters. These people were trained from childhood to recite and recite over and over again to their elders, and then to train their children and grandchildren to do the same. If we were trained in this way we’d be just as capable of using the oral mode instead of the written mode of record keeping.

  10.   Sean Rogers

    Sooo…you’re a self-actualized adult carrying out the quotidian functions of a prosaic life. Speaking in the language of convention, happy to communicate with the man in front of you with the bad tie given to him by his son (both too young to know a good tie and too young to insult), this man is with you forty hours a week and his lunch produces a lingering odor of unspecified origin in the lounge that has the microwave and coffee pot. It is with other co workers that you hold surreptitious colloquys regarding what it could be that he shoves first in the microwave and then into his mouth. But for now you forget that, because you have achieved a certain stage of consciousness, a level of maturity, a purification of soul that allows you to hide the opinion of this man’s diet as there is business to conduct. Something about a meeting tomorrow with this guy from a bigger office with a better microwave (maybe even a toaster oven) who makes decisions about something or another. Anyway, while exulting in the fact that you can do this as a full fledged adult, that is conduct business in all of its complete sentences while ignoring the portion of yourself that is participating in a sort of dramatically ironic way, your focus is bombarded. “I’m lovin’ it.” First you’re not sure of this little phrase that comes in this up and down register, delivered over an innocuous little jingle. And then you recall the radiant yellow and gold, the smiles of 20 somethings laughing and eating, not one of them at all overweight, the rush of the scenes, splicing the narrative into unrecognizable portions, leaving you only with a covetous pit in your stomach that’s punctuated with that “I’m lovin’ it.” So now you plan, as the dark horse has completely run away, dragging the white horse and it’s impotent whinny’s to a drive thru (so far only imagined as you are simultaneously carrying on this discussion of a meeting with a man who eats some unnameable thing). And you plot, the clandestine scenario gaining momentum as you approach the speaker and it’s garbled welcome. Requesting a moment to consider and finally order, not wanting to waste this chance to reproduce the culture, to participate, be a part of it’s cathartic rejoicing (and to do this you must expertly maneuver your way through the dollar menu so as to maximize variety and minimize expenditure). The tangibility of this poetry written by faceless authors, occurring tacitly below the scrim of consciousness is near and the senses salivate as the promise of this economic verse is here, sustaining itself and letting you be a part of it, to surrender yourself for a moment and revel in the arrival of a double cheese with mac sauce (because in this society, in return for your love, you can amend the status quo within the paradigmatic continuum). For now you return from the voyeurism of poetic wandering to the man in front of you, appeased by the knowledge that this fantasy is within your reach in only a couple of hours and you really are lovin’ it, everyone loves it, because it is good. So forgive Plato’s petulance as it is bred of a man and time where 5 dollars and some loose change in a cup holder could not procure you 2 Mcchickens, 2 double cheese’s (with mac sauce) and the fries that come in the paper not the plastic.

  11.   dsykes

    Gregory Nagy’s exploration of the significance of originality and authenticity reminds me of the debate regarding the validity of paraphrase from the perspective of the linguist. Interchangably replacing a signifier under the presumption that another conveys the sentiment in the same manner is highly disputed, as each word in a language system finds its significance in negative terms, through not being another word. However, conjecture regarding the preference for what is appropriated as the “original” is revealed as unsubstantiated in the case of an ancient text with many different versions or resoundings of a similar narrative exist. Variant readings or different versions of the same text, provides what Nagy describes as the “incessant vibration is a fundamental process of instability (9.)” Conflate and obscure differences in word choice open up the availability for interpretation of intent. It allows readers with disparate experiences to substantiate the experience of their reading under the premise of undulating expression in text and performance.
    I found particular significance in Nagy’s observation of the nature of mimetic storytelling.Nagy reveals that the experience of hearing the performance of a text or song allows the audience a sense of authoritative composition- he suggests that they acquire “dual authorization of composer and audience (20.)” As the performance of a work is social and reactionary in itself, it is not without grounds to expect that the oral tradition merits growth and further transmission in social spheres. As the performance itself is authoritative, the experience of a performance provides a social dynamic in which the elements of the story are open to the reiteration by intermediary sources. The necessity of social interaction is suggested as also significant within the text and performance itself, as the chorus of an epic has the capacity to reveal the qualities of a character under the presumption of the impositions of social conventions. Nagy explains, “group dynamics in performance help explain solo dynamics more effectively than the other way around (3).” As the chorus of an epic presents environment and qualities of a character that are ideologically inherent but not obviously presented by the character, it is not without basis to presume that the influence of disparate versions of storytelling by different social sources reveals an ideology in the work that would not obvious without the influence of multiple narrators and disparate versions of text.

  12.   Matthew Mullin

    The Nagy article was the passage this week that I most understood. I really liked the emphasis on whether or not an original version of a text xan eally ring true as orginal, or even found. The terms thrown around like “mouvance” and “variation” made for an interesting topic on the ways that a text can be altered by the person performing it. The points about “authoritative” performances interested me because it seemed that the original text being altered by the performer creates a new, but altered version of its original. So much can be taken away from a performance by an audience, so the references to the “nightengale” trying to make his performance as accurate the original makes the performance itself that much more imortant. The emphasis on oral tradition in this week’s passages interests me because I personally think that performing or conveying something orally does the content so much more justice than someone reading what you’re thinking.

    -Matthew Mullin

  13.   coreyfrost

    Andrei, I think your observations about arguments are very relevant to our discussion of orality. In Plato’s writing, which is almost entirely composed of dialogue (that is, argument, in a sense), it is assumed that argument is the best way of getting at the truth (this is the “Socratic method”). But as you point out, argument is also affected by rhetoric. Even if you’re wrong, you can “win” an argument by being more rhetorically effective.

    The question for our purposes would be: is this more true of speech or writing? In Phaedrus, Socrates argues that what makes speech more “true” is that people can be interrogated about their assertions, whereas you can’t interrogate a book. Or can you?

  14.   coreyfrost

    Another idea I’d like to discuss that came out your comments: our readings this week portray a shift in modes of communication that happened in Ancient Greece between the time of Homer and the time of Plato, the shift from oral tradition to written tradition (it was ongoing at Plato’s time, and that’s why Socrates expresses his skepticism of writing). But there is a significant and analogous shift happening right now, in our time, in which we are beginning to rely more and more on networked knowledge. Our memories are being replaced by Google. Sean N brought this up, and Danielle talked about how she doesn’t need to remember phone numbers because she always has her cell phone. What are the ramifications of this shift for our memory, for knowledge, and also for our relationship to print and reading?

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  • Listening “Literature” implies a written text. But what about the audiotext? Why do we refer to the “audience” (from the Latin audiens, listening) of a literary work? This course is about listening to literature and reading performance. ____________________________________
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