Saturday, February 18, 2006

Do We Really Have to Distinguish Sharply Between the Narrative Persona of an Ancient Work and its Real-life Author of the Same Name?

'...[Y]ou can use personal experience in your work without necessarily having it pour out in profuse strains of unpremeditated art. And contrariwise, a poet who is a careful and conscious artist in the Callimachean tradition can still be exercising that art of material which has been lived and not just imagined. I repeat: if he uses his own name for the protagonist in the drama, and if his readers--innocent of our type of theory--take it as the report of his own experience, then I think the onus of proof is on those who say it can't be.

'That conclusion no doubt makes me an empirico-positivist. So be it, but it is no help to me: like Erridge [a character in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time], I would not know one of those from an anarcho-syndicalist.'

--T.P. Wiseman, in 'Erridge's Answer: Response to James Zetzel' (p. 64), from The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics?, pp. 58-64. The rest of the brief essay is worth reading in tandem with Zetzel's 'Roman Romanticism and Other Fables', pp. 41-57.


dennis said...

I do think it's an important distinction because otherwise we run the risk of believing that Hesiod really talked to the Muses, that Dante really went to hell, or at least that they believed they did or wanted their audience to.

I don't think ancient audiences were as unsophisticated as we generally take them to be.

In his Palinode on Helen, for example, Stesichorus supposedly claimed that Helen blinded him when he told the lie about her going to Troy. Immediately upon composing the palinode ('This is not a true story ...') he regained his sight.

According to the testimony, he wrote two palinodes, one denouncing the lies of Homer and one those of Hesiod. It seems much more likely to me that Stesichorus is talking about the nature of poetry in the same way that Hesiod does in the beginning of the Theogony and Gorgias does in the Defense of Helen. Poetry is capable of truth as well as specious falsehoods.

Just as the poets can tell lies about divine and mythical beings, he can tell lies about himself while acknowledging the ambiguous power of poetry.

This extends elsewhere. A poet can become a part of his poem and cease to tell true things about himself. One reason he might want to do this is to be immortalized in song.

Did Pindar ever really travel through time on a chariot of song?

eric said...

I don't come down hard on either side of this issue at the moment, though some Formalist tendencies often lead me not to be incredibly concerned about supposedly autobiographical elements of poetry. I think it's a distinction that can be helpful at times and perhaps used a little too extensively at times. But, as I said, I haven't come to any firm conclusions about it. Here, for what it's worth, is what Wiseman has to say about ancient audiences:

'So I wonder whether it is any less "high priori" to assume that Catullus' implied narrative is fictional than to assume that it is autobiographical. What is the evidence? Well, poem 16 presents Aurelius and Furius evidently assuming that the kiss poems told the something not about an implied narrator but about the author himself. And Ovid, making a serious case to exculpate himself in Tristia 2, evidently assumed that his readers understood Catullus' love poetry as a confession of the author's adulteries. St. Augustine wasn't sure whether Apuleius' Metamorphoses were a true record or an invention; that should warn us not to be too confident about ancient readers' sophistication when the narrator or the protagonist bears the author's name.

'Even sophisticated moderns can shoot themselves in the foot on this question, as Edmund Wilson did when he assumed that Henry Miller's narrator in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn was an ironic portrait. Miller replied: "The theme is myself...if he means the narrator, then it is me...I am the hero, the book is myself." In the ancient world the concept of fiction was still very little explored, as may be seen from a commen in Lucian's How to Write History (ch. 40): "Homer indeed in general tended towards the mythical in his account of Achilles, yet some nowadays are inclined to believe him; they cite as important evidence of his truthfulness the single fact that he did not write about him during his lifetime: they cannot find any motive for lying."'

At any rate, I think these are interesting questions to think about on both sides, because they take us back to a very fundamental question indeed: what is it, exactly, that poetry does or is supposed to do?

eric said...

Oh, I should have noted this as well regarding the broader context: over the course of the essay Wiseman is not attempting to show that we should take every detail (such as ol' time-traveling Pindar) as baldly autobiographical, but that we should not operate with the a priori assumption that everything in a Catullan poem, for example, is pure fiction.

dennis said...

I think we're in agreement.

But I also think it's easier to criticize the narrator than the author because we really don't know anything about the lives of ancient poets.

That fact means that we can say very little about which elements are autobiographical and which are purely fictional, suggesting that arguing for one or the other in any particular case is just a matter of persuasion.

But if Henry Miller believed that his narrator was himself, so did James Frey.

With that in mind, I don't think it's all that important to distinguish how much is drawn from life and how much is purely imagined, because both are dependent upon the author's intent. I think criticizing the literary production is more useful than trying to understand the man, which is probably why I don't get into biographies and criticism of modern writers.

Whether Catullus really did X or Y matters less (and I think is less fruitful) than trying to determine what the significance of X and Y is to the piece.

eric said...

Yes, as I said, I don't have really strong opinions on this, as I often don't think a whole lot about autobiographical considerations when reading.

I think the point (in the Wiseman essay) about the narrator is that, while we can't make a one-to-one correlation between narrator and 'real-life author', we shouldn't assume either that it has nothing at all to do with his 'real life'. as you say, with so little information, it's difficult to separate between fact and fiction in an ancient poet, and it's often not very fruitful. I think Wiseman's main concern was to assert that we can't make a prima facie assumption that Catullus 34 wasn't written for an actual hymnic performance simply because we find it in a 'literary' collection of poems.