P I N D A R ' S

Short posts, I've noticed, are harder to write than long ones. This one ought to be a piece of cake, because all I'm going to do is yammer at you out of Pindar's Homer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990) by Gregory Nagy--in particular Chapter 1, "Oral Poetry and Ancient Greek Poetry," where Nagy outlines the ritual markings that distinguish the various modes of speech from one another:

"In small-scale societies--rather than complex ones--we can observe most clearly the symbiosis of ritual and myth, how neither is to be derived from the other, and how the language of ritual and myth is marked--let us call it SONG--while everyday language, speech, is unmarked. To repeat, the perception of plain or everyday speech is a variable abstraction that depends on the concrete realization of whatever special speech is set apart for a special context, let us call it an occasion. In small-scale societies, the setting apart is normally a matter of ritual and myth, and the idea of ritual includes not only such basic activities as sacrifice and prayer but also such diverse occasions as meeting, eating and drinking, courtship, hunting, gathering, farming, building and traveling. The marked speech-acts associated with the special occasions of ritual and myth are what we are calling SONG"(31).

"In complex societies--and the situation in Archaic Greece can already be described as such--the pervasiveness of myth and ritual, as well as their connectedness with each other, may be considerably weakened. Still, the marking of speech, that is the turning of unmarked speech into marked SONG, may persist as the basic way to convey meaning in the context of ritual and myth. There is a reflex of this pattern in the usage of the Greek verb muo, which means 'I have my mouth closed' or 'I have my eyes closed' in everyday situations, but 'I say in a special way' or 'I see in a special way' in marked situations of ritual. The latter meaning is evident in the derivatives mustes 'one who is initiated' and musterion 'that into which one is initiated' (Latin mysterium).' So also the word muthos 'myth,' it has been argued, is a derivative of the same root from which muo is derived; its special meaning seems to be 'special speech' as opposed to everyday speech" (31-2).

"From an anthropological standpoint, myth is indeed special speech in that it is a given society's way of affirming its own reality through narrative. In Homeric diction, we see that the ancestor of our word "myth," Greek muthos, actually designates speech-acts, such as formal boasts, threats, laments, invectives, prophecies, prayers, and so on [footnoting ch. 1 of Richard P. Martin's Language of Heroes (Ithaca: Cornell, 1989)]. Let us for the moment take as a given, then, that the function of marked speech is to convey meaning in the context of ritual and myth.

"In most societies, not only the smaller-scale but the more complex as well, the pattern of opposition between marked and unmarked speech takes the form of an opposition between SONG and speech respectively, with the 'singing' of SONG being marked by a wide variety of patterns resulting from the constraints on available features of speech in the given language"(32-3). Nagy goes on to list the formal features by which SONG may be marked off from speech, starting with melody "(stylized tone or intonation)" and rhythm "(stylized duration and/or intensity),"and moving on to the "many other available types of stylized phonological patterning, such as isosyllabism, rhyme, assonance and alliteration... Moreover, there is a potential reinforcement of SONG with motor activity, as minimal as muscular tension or as maximal as corresponding movement of the body in the form of dance" (33).

In addition to setting "special speech" apart from everyday discourse, it would seem that the above-listed markings are also what set language's fictive double apart from language itself. In Nagy's SONG we find the verbal substance of "everyday speech" (not limited to words, but words mostly) re-intoned in a stylized way that announces its mythic or "special" status. I think this re-intonation is what we call performance, and that it's the origin of all speech art. If you think that's a wild leap, better duck where Nagy explains the origin of poetry: "From the standpoint of the Greek language, what potentially sets SONG apart from speech is a differentiation in patterns of duration/intensity (eventually rhythm) and pitch (eventually melody). In a later stage of development what sets song apart from poetry is a further differentiaion on the level of pitch (melody), so that song is plus melody while poetry is minus melody or reduced melody"(34-5).

In order for Nagy to get this point across, I'm going to have to dismantle some of what I wrote yesterday about Homeric performance qua post-prandial entertainment. Or let me just let Nagy do it: "[T]he epic poetry of Homer refers to epic poetry as a medium that was performed in the context of an evening's feast. Yet we know that the two epic poems of Homer, by virtue of their sheer length alone, defy this context. If we look for the earliest historical evidence, we see that the actually attested context for performing the Iliad and Odyssey was already in the sixth century not simply the informal occasion of an evening's feast, but rather the formal occasion of a festival of Panhellenic repute, such as the Panathenaia in Athens. The performers at such festivals were rhapsoidoi 'rhapsodes' "(21-2). It is Nagy's contention that the rhapsodes "did not sing the compositions that they performed but rather recited them without the accompaniment of the lyre"(24), and that this de-melodized SONG was the origin of poetry. "The point I am making about the context of Homeric performance applies also to the medium of performance: just as the Homeric testimony about the performance of epic by singers at feasts belies the synchronic reality of the performance of epic by rhapsodes at Panhellenic festivals, so also the Homeric testimony about the singer's singing to the accompaniment of the lyre belies the synchronic reality of the rhapsode's reciting without any accompaniment at all"(23-4).

If you're still reading, you're primed and ready to take in this passage by ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, quoted on pp. 39-40 of Pindar's Homer (brackets Nagy's, boldface mine): "My own theory is based on the assumption that an undifferentiated mode of communication existed in remote times, one which was neither speech nor music [=SONG] but which possessed the three features that they hold in common: pitch, stress [which I reinterpret in the specialized sense of intensity], and duration.... There must have been a long, gradual stage of differentiation and specialization in culture, during which the two [=language and 'music'] became distinct.... This theory, then, postulates three stages in the development of music: (1) undifferentiated communication, (2) differentiation between language and music, and (3) differentiation between various musical styles. The last stage is, of course, the only one for which we have any data at all, and even that... is fairly recent." Music in Primitive Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1956), 136.

I guess what I'm saying is that I share Nettl's theory, and am quite persuaded by what Nagy does with it. All I would add is that the long-ago moment when SONG and speech became distinguished from each other might be coterminous with the "decisive ontological event" Foucault locates at the dawn of the "work of language": the moment when language spins off a stylized likeness of itself in order to commemorate its habitual struggle against oblivion. Which am I nuts? Or did Nagy and Nettl just take us there?


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