ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - The Invention of Literature: from Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

The Invention of Literature: from Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book, by Florence Dupont. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp xi+ 287.

Reviewed by Elaine Fantham
Princeton University, New Jersey, USA

Perhaps this book should not have been given to an elderly Anglo-Saxon bourgeoise to review, and yet I approached it hopefully, with the same enthusiasm that I had felt on reading Dupont's splendid L'Acteur Roi: Le Théatre à Rome, (Paris 1985). In that study Dupont had combined a sometimes inaccurate survey of the history of Roman drama, with a masterly analysis of the theatrical in Roman public life, which brilliantly evoked the self-conscious culture of the first century C.E. At the time I supported the publishing of a translation for U.S. readers, but was overruled by scholars unable to accept the many inaccuracies as a price for the imaginative range.

This new volume came, then, as a shock and disappointment. Going back to Le Plaisir et la Loi: du "Banquet" de Platon au "Satiricon" (Paris 1977) and more recently Homère et Dallas: Introduction a une Critique Anthropologique (1991), three years before the original Invention de la Littérature, I find Dupont has been reiterating the same extravagant message for twenty years, always searching the phases of ancient banqueting to test them for jouissance, always combining brilliant Gallic eloquence and "imaginaire" with a certain indifference to the minutiae of ancient texts and even Realien.

After a preface setting out her credos, Dupont focuses on three texts, a "Toast" (proposis), the Cleobulus song attributed to Anacreon, Catullus' feverish "morning after" letter to his fellow poet and improviser Calvus (poem 50), and Apuleius' prologue to Metamorphoses, which she uses as a peg to discus the book itself: but alas, the book is seen not in all the ingenious complexity of its structure and Chinese boxes of embedded tales, but as a secondary hybrid derived from "Lucian"'s Greek tales of Lucius, a mere anthology of convenience from and for storytelling.

The treatment of these texts that follows is simultaneously naively romantic and elusively sophisticated: eloquently evoking a mythical pre- or extra- literary world of exquisite and noble young aristocrats (kaloi k'agathoi) communing with Dionysus and exchanging fragrant kisses in the symposium or -less plausibly- the comissatio-- she operates on a typically binary structuralist system in which only the oral event or speech act with its performative function is authentic (cf p. 22) and product of the true "hot culture" (pp. 14, 44, 173). Throughout the book she uses the commercialization of gypsy Flamenco dancing as a paradigm (again 14, 44, also 47,53, 86), of lost innocence, even to the point of treating both the marginalized gypsies and the spoiled young aristocrats of the symposium as minorities on equal terms. In contrast, of course, the written text is "cold culture (pp. 22, 97), a frozen and sterile monument.

Thus Rome "made no record of oral performances within the framework of banquets (how could it? Such a record would commit the sin of being a text), but did commit to writing an artificial poetry whose only purpose was to constitute monuments, without ever having been a part of events." (p. 103). But it is not only the Romans who are so misguided. The history of the Athenian theatre is a "politically organized cultural degradation" and Aristotelian mimesis and deprecation of spectacle "ignores speech as an act" and concentrates solely on the production of statement." He makes this representation "the final cause of poetic activity rather than the means of completing a religious or social ritual, such as a sacrificial offering or a dramatic spectacle." Aristotle's Poetics is not, as we all thought, a serious attempt to understand the basis of existing tragedy (or epic) but "a political manifesto, a program for the cultural unification of Greece under the Macedonian monarchy."

Of course our own culture must be degraded, since it "has forgotten how to make good use of collective drugs and is wary of excessive festivity." Our theater is degraded by "directors who opt out of creating a spectacular event" (I would have blamed them for a different set of intrusions), but in fifth century Athens too "the spectators did not feel the presence of the god within their individual selves, did not take the risk of losing themselves, driven to the limits of their humanity." (p. 82) No one would doubt this, but I wonder whether we should not seriously question whether this kind of ecstatic participation in the nature of Dionysus was practiced in the aristocratic symposium? Has Dupont never lived in a society of rich young men's drinking clubs?

No doubt as we are sometimes told, wine drinkers do not practice the brute drunkenness (ivresse sounds so much more spiritual and romantic) of beer or spirit drinkers. But if the archaic Greek parties of Anacreon, or on a more swashbuckling note, Alcaeus and Archilochus, were governed by an etiquette that enhanced rather than broke down decorum, these irrecoverable archaic young lords must have been very different from the symposia of the hetaereiae which gave us the Hermokopidae and revolution of 411, let alone the bourgeois decorum of Xenophon's feast, and verbal brilliance of Plato's Symposium. (What sort of speech act were the elaborate praises lavished on Eros? With the possible exception of Alcibiades' praise of Silenus-Socrates, the banqueters offer highly artificial set-pieces, rhetoric with no authentic "hot" performative role. Dupont is chasing a will-o-the-wisp.

But there is another obstacle to the unsuspecting reader. We have more or less lived through structuralism with its emphasis on ritual, and deconstructionism with its delight in meaninglessness (cf. the subtitle "singing with nothing to say," and pp. 90-91). Many of us have even benefitted from what is fruitful in reader response theory. Dupont, who declares her purpose as showing that her three texts "are quite literally unreadable," has other gurus; basing herself on Michel Charles La Rhétorique de la Lecture, she is not content with giving the lion's share of creativity to the reader: but denies that writing produces a text; "rather it provides a statement for readings that will turn this into a text. Each new reading insofar as it constitutes a new speech act for the same statement, since the subject and conditions change, proposes a new pragmatic meaning, providing also that the new pragmatic meaning does not stem from a prior speech act that has already produced one, …and provided that the statement is incomplete, not the transcript of a real or fictitious event."(p13) We have barely recovered from this, when she assails us on Bernard Cerquilini's authority with the news that "the notion of literature is ideological and historically dated."

Perhaps the meaninglessness and decadence of the written text, (as opposed to performative speech acts based in events) justifies the careless writing and/or proofreading of this book. My first reaction on p. 25 was to regret that Dupont had not printed the text of the Cleobulus lyric; since we were to go on discussing it for 50 pages it seemed a pity to miss the lyric essence of the song, that was its original words and mele. But the multiple misprints in the 12 line Anacreontic text cited from Gellius (p. 72, likewise in the French original (cf. also p. 129, where the French text suffered from an untranscribed computer font) convinced me that the omission of Greek was a kindness. Latin is more freely quoted and virtually never without misprints or the omission of punctuation or syntactically necessary words. This is partly the fault of the usually careful Johns Hopkins Press. But only partly. Checking the original I noted that Dupont omits virtually all punctuation, but commits less than half the errors to be found on pp. 98, 110, 114, 116, 118, 130, 137, 138-9, 143, 146-7, 158, 234 and 236. And though Janet Lloyd is a superb veteran translator of Vernant, and other scholarly texts, her version needed monitoring for false conversions of French forms such as Thespis for Thespiae and Phalerus for Phalerum, Calvo for Calvus, (the vox nihili Calivinius twice for Calvisius is the fault of the French text), Byrrhenus for Byrrhaena, and Stacius for Statius. ( Also note that Charançon, p. 275 conceals Plautus' Curculio.)

The same exaggerations and factual inaccuracy that offended readers of L'Acteur roi recurs in this book: e.g. "The Ptolemies ordered all existing books in Greek, in Athens, Rhodes, and elsewhere to be seized" (for the Library at Alexandria, p. 96); "Catullus was a professional, an entertainer only invited to banquets of the high and mighty because he could amuse them" (p. 113); a Roman banquet host, "if young enough, would even go so far as to dance and sing for the amusement of his guests," (p. 107); while her description of the comissatio matches usage in Plautus and Horace, it hardly matches the intimate occasion à deux between Catullus and Calvus. But then this intimacy itself gives the lie to her previous account of Catullus' low social standing. Again the Sibylline prophecies were not controlled by decemviri but quindecimviri.

Of course the book is extraordinarily rich in ideas: I cannot evaluate Dupont's account of the invention of the Anacreontic corpus, but I suspect the poet's (or poets') very inaccessibility is part of his/their appeal to her. Again Dupont is strong on reading Roman sexuality of all kinds (but does this still need explication?), and perhaps at her best on the novel (whether her favorite Petronius or say Achilles Tatius) and the second century of our era, on the world of Gellius and Apuleius. Her attractive reading of Apuleius' tantalizing prologue (close to that of S.J. Harrison's recent article) can soon if not already be compared with the 30 odd readings and variations edited by Andrew Laird and Ahuvia Kahane. But she seems happier with the genesis of the novel than with any attempt to interpreting it in its own right.

I cannot end this review without confessing my inability to follow and therefore judge her final, metacritical epilogue, "The entropy of cultural change." But it is difficult not to be alarmed by its last subheading, "The future belongs to the recycling of written texts within a framework of festivity," and even more by its parting / Parthian proposal: "Our own postmodern culture might … take over all the "masterpieces of literature," as is being done today in Francophone Africa, and reinvest them in music, dance, rap …" This book needs either a very sober reader or one who has already embraced the delights of intoxication.

by Kaavya Giridhar