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Friday, April 16, 2004

Book Reviews

Darkness Visible

Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity, and the Classical Tradition by John T. Hamilton. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2004, 348 pages, $27.50.

This book will interest anyone who cares about poetry; what is more, Hamilton’s style makes his argument accessible to any reader who is willing to spend the time working through the interesting and challenging propositions and analyses that are the delight of every page. Hamilton does not indulge in postmodernist critical jargon nor lay about with ponderous academic talk, a manner akin to that of an elephant crashing through a forest of fine bamboo. Interestingly enough, as a critic unafraid to confront and accept poetic obscurity, Hamilton himself can be pretty dense at times, even occasionally a little obscure, sometimes veering close to opacity. Still — and this is what so recommends the book — it is an exciting intellectual challenge page after page.

Hamilton, an assistant professor of German and comparative literature at Harvard, invites his reader to consider texts in Greek, Latin, German, and French, as well as in English. Of all these, he has made excellent — because clear — translations that do not pretend to be more than serviceable. There is a kind of transparency in the undertaking that is as refreshing as it is unusual in contemporary academic studies.

Hamilton begins with the surviving texts of the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who was born in Thebes in the penultimate decade of the sixth century BCE and died as a very old man in 438 BCE. Thebes, for which Pindar always had a native son’s affection, took the side of the Persians at the time of the great invasion of 480-479 BCE, and thus was a loser when the Persians withdrew after the Athenians and their allies had defeated them in several battles on land and at sea. Pindar’s surviving poetry is called “epinician,” which describes a choral lyric presented at the victory celebration in a variety of festival competitions. In what is sometimes a surprise to moderns, the poet centers his praise on the man who paid him for the lyrics rather than on the actual winner. Many of his songs are for the rulers of Sicilian cities (usually called “tyrants,” a Greek term for an absolute ruler unlimited by law or constitution, a “strong man,” as we often say, but not necessarily the brute of our imaginations). Pindar’s kind of festival choral song was losing popularity in the fifth century; aristocratic in origin, it did not reflect the social values of the emergent democracies. Pindar’s Thebes was already old-fashioned, as always seems to be the case with the losing side.

Almost from the time they were composed, the Pindaric texts have been problematic. They are characterized by exceedingly complicated grammar, imagery that does not often seem to cohere with the ideas, ideas that do not seem to go anywhere, maxims that seem often to be jarring intrusions into the verbal flow, and digressions into myth stories that seem to skew completely any natural balance in the poems. The difficult academic work of interpretation is a major industry. Pindar’s readers tend either to give up in despair or to work out arbitrary systems of interpretation into which they straitjacket the wayward poetic language. Since Western esthetic theory — or perhaps esthetic instinct — insists upon some kind of unity, despair and straitjacketing are logical responses.

Classical antiquity has been an obsession in the Western world since its rediscovery in the Renaissance. Nineteenth-century classical philologists sought to establish and identify ancient texts as artifacts of a specific moment in time, and consequently separate from the contemporary world. The project of nineteenth-century humanists, on the other hand, was to find in these same antique texts certain truths valid for all time, rendering the texts themselves in a certain way contemporary. In his opening pages, Hamilton argues that Pindaric obscurity makes the texts exceptional. Already in antiquity, Pindar’s poems seemed to derive from a context that no longer mattered or was understood; it was already too late to try to understand the poet, and this belatedness was compounded for subsequent generations of readers by the poet’s mystifying allusions and references, which required the philologist to surrender the texts to a kind of historical void. The humanist, on the other hand, was defeated in the search for timeless truths by the exceedingly vague and infinitely arguable meaning of each line of every poem. But the world cannot let Pindar go. Hamilton argues that it is the very indecipherability that keeps Pindar fresh. No one can successfully translate Pindar, no one can successfully explicate Pindar, no one can successfully locate his writing in time. In this way, the texts never surrender to another time, become at any time contemporaneous; they remain always alien, always apart from this time: it is always too late to know Pindar.

Hamilton gives a marvelous reading of the use of Pindar in Renoir’s great antiwar film, La grande illusion. The character of Demolder, who is always shown studying his Pindar in the prison camp (and usually in the central foreground of the frame), is exactly a representation of this notion: The Pindar text is a constant presence, always needing to be interpreted and translated precisely because it cannot be, lying on the table in this film among men who represent a world that itself is gone, or about to go (aristocratic French and Prussian). This gesture to nobility, and belatedness — to the eternal freshness of that which cannot be understood — is a brilliant maneuver on Renoir’s part; Rauffenstein’s behavior is the human counterpart to it: irrational, aristocratic, alien to the time. For the same reason, Hamilton introduces the great German classicist, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, himself an aristocrat, whose book on Pindar closes with an impassioned expression of love for the poet after the critical observation that Pindar had held himself aloof from the major cultural thrust of his era, that is, the world of fifth-century Athens. Hamilton suggests that it is as though Wilamowitz sensed that his own life had been lived apart from the historical movements of his time. Certainly the latter’s vocation, humanistic scholarship and pursuit of higher culture, was about to be swept away in the mass society that was enveloping the industrialized nations in the nineteenth century.

Hamilton has much to say about Wilamowitz’s contemporary, the classicist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who fastened on the study of Pindar as the noblest intellectual pursuit. He did this, not as a philologist would, but through surrender to the poet’s opacity. Arguing that the Pindaric line, “become what you learn that you are,” demonstrates that we are not until we become, Nietzsche could also insist that the reader approach the Pindaric text without preconception, without a project of translation, of control, of assuming the text. This sense of Pindar also motivated the great nineteenth-century German poet Hölderlin, who was obsessed with meeting Pindar’s Greek with his own German language, but not trying to bring Pindar over into German. This mystical idea of translation was influential on generations of Pindar’s readers, including Walter Benjamin and George Steiner.

One could say that approaching Pindar in this way is not unlike coming to Matisse. Identifiable objects painted on a canvas are to be viewed in their totality as a composition of color made in shapes on a flat surface. The chair, the table, the person, the view through the window, has no integrity apart from the overall design. Matisse took the idea of ornamentation very seriously; that is what the assembly in his paintings is all about — and that, one might say, is what Pindar was doing as well. Homer strove to tell a story in phrase segments. Pindar rejects narrative but uses phrase segments for their arrangement in meter; they ignite in the hearer or reader a series of images and notions that are esthetically pleasing in the explosion of their sense, and in their rhythm — but they don’t necessarily “mean” anything. It is almost impossible for the critic to convey this idea in language; while an art critic can talk of color, line, or form, it is difficult to describe the cognitive experience that lies beyond or apart from meaning. Pindar defeats meaning. Readers of the Pindaric text often forget that the occasion of performance — in which a group sang the lyrics and danced to their rhythms in an open-air venue to another group that constituted the audience — certainly made the kind of fierce concentration that readers and scholars now bring to the written words absolutely alien. Choral performance is a form of impressionism: the irrational and esthetic reception of the verbal line is basic. Twenty years ago, David Byrne famously proclaimed, “Stop Making Sense.” One could argue that the platitudinous fortune-cookie truths of the surviving texts of choral lyrics in ancient Athenian tragedies speak to the very impossibility of a large, open-air audience hearing more than the occasional phrase, helped along by its obviousness.

Our experience of the Pindaric text is analogous to Biblical studies. The text of the Bible remains a great presence because it is a mystery, unknowable and contradictory, compelling endless study from those who have the humility to accept its majestic authoritative elusiveness and unknowability. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Pindar studies constitute the great alternative for an atheist.

Hamilton’s discussion of Pindar’s European reception begins with the Roman poet Horace, who established the Greek poet’s later image. The simile in the second poem of the fourth book of Horace’s Odes is part of his argument for rejecting an invitation to write in the grand style for Augustus.

monte decurrens velut amnis, imbres
quem super notas aluere ripas,
fervet immensusque ruit profundo
Pindarus ore

Like a river rushing down the mountain
which the rain has fed till it is over the natural banks
he boils, huge, without limit,
he rushes, Pindar,
with his deep mouth. (my translation)

Limitless, deep (ore profundo), Pindar threatens to overwhelm; Horace, working with a much neater, smaller scheme could not and does not strive for this. This is the Pindaric mode as later ages imagined it: on the one hand, a kind of inspired frenzy; on the other, the deep thought of the maxims, the didactic phrases, the staple of anthologizers. European poets seem to have gone in one direction or the other, either romantic flamboyance or didacticism. Nonetheless, they had to confront the fundamental opacity of the Pindaric texts. The effort to bring a text that resisted such importation into another cultural and poetic tradition is a constant of Western poetic practice. Goethe’s Wandrers Sturmlied, discussed at length by Hamilton, bespeaks a young man’s despair at arriving at Pindaric sublimity, held back, as it were, by the storm, mired in the mud, an image perhaps of the obfuscation into which the Pindaric text ensnares its readers. From Horace’s roaring stream to Goethe’s raging storm is a measure of the influence of Pindar on European poetry.

Still the reader must not forget that Pindar is also celebrated for the intricate meters in which he composed these choral pieces, meters that the system required him to repeat from strophe to antistrophe. It can be argued that identical metrical responsion in each poem constitutes enough of a fundamental unity to make any further search for it in language or thought quite unnecessary. The metrical scheme was not discovered, however, until very late in the day. Hamilton’s eleventh chapter, “Foreign Rhythms,” is an account of the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and, more particularly, August Böckh, whose De Metris Pindari (The Meters of Pindar) in 1811 revealed the formidable metrical genius of these dance poems, thereby establishing the shapes that the poet had crafted for them. It is a fitting end, and actually a new beginning, to the long history of these mysterious poems that loom as impregnable now as they seem to have been at their creation.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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