To: Professor Daniel L. Selden
From: Earl Jackson, Jr.
I’m really enjoying teaching the „Histories of Meaning“
course, and have been thoroughly immersed in Greek Antiquity. I still feel
more than slightly hybristic about my position in the class, however, and
wonder at times where I reasonably derive the right to comment on any of
the texts we’re reading. I work this out myself at least in pseudo-Husserlian
epoche in most cases but there were a couple things that struck me in reading
Ion I’d like to run by you to see what you think or to ask you where I
might continue looking for the answers.
Of course, like anyone else who’s ever read the Ion, I
find Socrates’s conflation of the poet and the rhapsode less than helpful.
I assume, however, that this is only a conflation if seen from a paradigm
outside of the socratic one. While I’m tempted to see the relation of Ion
to Homer in a manner structurally comparable to an actor and a dramatist,
I also realize the conceptual anachronism there. Socrates is, I venture,
working from a paradigm in which the poet and the rhapsode are members
of a common semantic class, characterized as „persons who generate utterances
for the public while under the control of an extrahuman force.“
The divine mania inspiring both utterances relieves the
agent of that utterance of any responsibility for that utterance, including
the responsibility of knowing what it means. This theory of poetic inspiration
provides a ground for a disclipinary distinction between the poet who „produces“
the poem and the interpreter (who remains within rationality). That we
don’t go to Homer to explain Homeric verse is not the problem I have with
the Ion, however. It’s the question regarding what either Ion or Socrates
means when they speak of the rhapsode „interpreting“ the poem.
The rhapsode is fundamentally a performer. If we could
use my actor-dramatist model to describe the situation, we could also develop
one interpretation of „interpretation“ here too: the way the rhapsode reads/performs
the poem would be an „interpretation“ of the poem in much the same way
as Lawrence Olivier’s performance of „Hamlet“ is an interpretation of „Hamlet.“
[If I were to illustrate this premise in class my ideal would be to show
a tape of a traditional performance of the Kate’s last monologue in Taming
of the Shrew followed by a tape of the same monologue as Danny
Scheie directed it a few years ago at Shakespeare Santa Cruz – it was
brilliant and demonstrates how much the direction/performance can change
the meaning of those [or any] lines. With this, however, there are at least
two major problems: (1) as already mentioned – the actor-dramatist model
is not symmetrical with Socrates’s single semantic category for the similarly
ec-static poet and rhapsode. (2) the actor’s „interpretation“ introduces
a third agent – the director.
My question is ultimately pretty prosaic, at least at
this stage. Basically: how much do we know about what the rhapsode did?
Did they really interrupt their recitations with explanations or expositions?
Did they insert oral glosses? Given what we know now about the mnemonic
devices of oral poetry, I find it difficult to believe that reciters could
(or would dare) to break their rhythm with extraneous speech – it seems
as though it would rend the patterns they rely on for memory. Has there
been work done on this? I’ve looked several places so far but haven’t come
up with anything.
I’m particularly interested in Ion’s comments – what does
he mean when he describes what he does as „expounding“ or „interpreting“?
And here is my next hybristic venture – Nearing the close of the dialogue,
after Socrates has pretty thoroughly browbeaten Ion into admitting his
disqualifications on every field of expertise, Ion snaps back defiantly,
insisting that as a rhapsode he would make an excellent general. And he
takes the crossexamination with more self-assurance than anywhere else
in the dialogue. Although Ion doesn’t really make explicit his reason for
this certainty, I wonder if it could partially a reference to the verb
exŽgomai . In Homer (as far as I’ve found it so far) – it almost always
means „to lead a group; to be in command; to lead the way, to rule over.“
But of course in Plato it often means „to expound“ or „to interpret.“ The
closest thing to that I’ve found in Homer so far is exaudao – „to
declare,“ to say out. – which of course isn’t interpret at all.
My point here is that Ion’s suggestion that rhapsodes
make good generals could be a fusion of the Homeric meaning of exŽgomai
[lead/command] with the later meanings „expound/interpret“ – the two
meanings are copresent in that verb in the Ion when referring to what the
rhapsode does. Is this totally out of left field? Is this an example of
why non-classicists shouldn’t do classics material?
I also wondered if Socrates‘ devalorization of both mantic
poets and rhapsodes might be a model for the disapproval of anyone who
speaks only the words of others instead of their own. I know that rhapsodizdein
is sometimes used as a derrogatory term for „saying cliche’s from memory“
or „parrotting by rote,“ but this use of the verb may be after Plato (but,
if so, certainly inspired by the Socratic line on the rhapsodes).[Sophocles
has someone call the Sphynx a rhapsode, but this doesn’t seem pertinent
to my line of inquiry at the moment].
Thanks for reading this – I hope it didn’t wear you out.
Particularly because I have another question – on the Seventh
Letter. But I’ll spare you for now.
Meno reading one
Meno reading two
Meno reading three
Why and how to read
Class Summaries of the Meno