A. von der Decken: Sprachliches Handeln in der archaischen Lyrik

Sprachliches Handeln in der archaischen Lyrik. Sprechakte und ihre außertextuelle Welt in der polisbezogenen Lyrik des Kallinos, Tyrtaios, Alkaios, Solon und Theognis

von der Decken, Agnes
Hamburger Studien zu Gesellschaften und Kulturen der Vormoderne
Stuttgart 2022: Franz Steiner Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
352 S.
€ 62,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Krystyna Bartol, Institut of Classical Philology, Adam Mickiewicz University

In the book “Sprachliches Handeln in der archaischen Lyrik. Sprachakte und ihre außertextuelle Welt in der polisbezogenen Lyrik des Kallinos, Tyrtaios, Alkaios, Solon und Theognis” Agnes von der Decken analyses the texts of the archaic Greek poets, which have been examined by many scholars in both the past and present. She examines several elegies by Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Solon, and Theognis that are related to the polis, as well as melic poems by Alcaeus. She approaches these works as historical documents that reflect the processes and developments of ancient times, which are characterized by crisis and upheaval. Following Bruno Gentili’s and Wolfgang Rösler’s groundbreaking ideas, she reminds readers that the poetry of archaic Greece, which was recited orally under various circumstances, was a political means of shaping civic attitudes and achieving specific sociopolitical effects.

Agnes von der Decken’s approach of applying the strategies and key concepts of speech act theory, which were introduced by J. L. Austin and developed by J. R. Searle, constitutes a new way of reading archaic Greek poetry as historical documents that strongly reflect the ideology of the society in which they were produced. She draws on the scholars’ ideas regarding performative utterances in a consistent and systematic manner. The basic categories of analysis that she employs are locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. The first denotes the actual performance of meaningful utterances. The second refers to the intentions and communicative objectives of locutionary acts. Finally, the third indicates the actual effect(s) or goal(s) achieved by both locutionary and illocutionary acts. For many years, scholars interested in the oral mode of poetry have been using instruments from the analytical toolbox of pragmatics to study ancient Greek poetry. Agnes von der Decken’s approach is novel in that she attempts to explain the social interactions between early Greek poems about the polis by drawing on concepts presented by J. L. Austin in “How to Do Things With Words”. In this way, she presents a faithful application of J. L. Austin’s ideas regarding the functions of language in relation to the response or reaction they evoke.

In addition to the “Prolegomena,” “Closing Remarks,” “Appendix,” and “Bibliography,” Agnes von der Decken’s book consists of two parts. The first part includes an explanation of the theories and methods used in the book. The second part, which is divided into seven chapters, consists of a collection of case studies. The ”Prolegomena” begins with a brief explanation of the scope of the work, its objectives, and its position within the relevant body of literature. Although the exposition of the main assumptions of speech act theory is comprehensive and accurate, it is somewhat uninspired and unnecessarily detailed in places. The framing of the subject matter in this section of the book reflects the fact that the book began as a doctoral thesis that is governed by a separate set of conventions. The book also includes nine case studies (Callinus, Fr. 1D; Tyrtaeus’ elegy Eunomia and Fr. 7D; Alcaeus, Fr. 6V, 43D; Solon’s Salamis and Eunomia; Theognis, lines 39–52W and 53–60W).1 The analysis of each piece strictly follows a consistent structure composed of four dense subsections (“Extra-Literary Context,” “Analysis of Speech Acts,” “Results,” and “Perlocutionary Repercussions”). The analyses of the individual case studies are followed by a chapter that synthesizes all of the findings. This chapter identifies four types of speech acts that can be found in ancient Greek lyric poems related to political crisis: critical poems, poems of warning, motivating poems, and poems providing specific instructions. The Appendix contains a table that categorizes the individual verses of the works analyzed into individual speech acts. This Appendix also includes an extensive list of related studies, many of which are in the German language. However, many of these sources are often poorly related to the topic dealt with in the book, which demonstrates the wide scope of Agnes von der Decken’s literature review.2

After reading the book, I asked myself the following question: “Has the application of speech act theory to the study of Greek lyric poetry related to the polis proved fruitful?” Or, more precisely, “Do the observations presented in the book represent an important advance in research on these early sociopolitical poems?” Unfortunately, reading the book left me with too many doubts to answer these questions in the affirmative. While Agnes von der Decken has succeeded in demonstrating that it is possible to precisely describe the content of politically engaged ancient Greek poetry and analyze how it functioned in early society using a modern conceptual framework that had not previously been used to study these texts, she was much less successful in offering a new approach that can change how scholars see and understand literary production in ancient Greece. For the most part, the analyses presented in the book repeat ideas that can be found in other scholars’ works; that is, it is only the way that the ideas are applied that is new.3

It is important to note that there is a crucial drawback to limiting the scope of the research solely to the functioning of a given piece of poetry within the surrounding society (or, as Agnes von der Decken says, to the “Moment ihrer primären Aufführung”). When studying the artistic phenomena of ancient Greece, omitting the question of the reperformance of poetical texts in Greek song culture is a significant oversight. Moreover, such an approach also fails to take advantage of an opportunity to further apply J. L. Austin’s speech acts theory to ancient literature. Indeed, J. L. Austin’s distinction between “felicitous” and “infelicitous” speech acts presupposes the existence of certain linguistic conventions and conventional contexts for using utterances. In his opinion, repeatability is one of the conditions of felicitousness. Therefore, the problem of riuso could enrich the analyses presented in the book.

It is also unfortunate that Agnes von der Decken decided to omit the aesthetic aspects of the works of poetry studied in her research. Instead, she focuses on an uninventive classification of speech acts performed by the poems. It is crucial to remember that prodesse and delectare were two components that make poetry work in ancient Greece. My beliefs more closely resemble the attitude of Gerhard Pfohl, who once said that real life and poetry cannot be subordinated to rigid divisions drawn along the lines of arithmetical-geometrical rules.4 Agnes von der Decken appears to share the predilections of those whose systematizing procedures are bound to be somewhat tedious to listen to and digest, as Austin himself once argued in a lecture.5

1 I label them following the numbering used in the book. However, it is unclear why, in the case of some elegies, Agnes von der Decken uses the old numbering of fragments from Diehl’s edition. In the case of other elegiac pieces she uses West’s edition commonly used today.
2 I hope that, at this point, insisting on citing H. J. Shey’s article titled “Tyrtaeus and the Art of Propaganda,” which is important to the topic of the book, will not be considered excessive. See H. J. Shey, Tyrtaeus and the Art of Propaganda, in: Arethusa, 9, no. 2 (1976), pp. 5–28.
3 As Thomas A. Schmitz jokingly puts it, such a treatment of Greek poetry is, in a sense, equivalent to pouring new wine into old wineskins. See Thomas A. Schmitz, Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts: An Introduction, Oxford 2007, p. 7.
4 Gerhard Pfohl, Die griechische Elegie, Darmstadt 1972, p. 2. See also his comment on this diagnosis: Das ist das Schönste an ihnen.
5 See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Oxford 1962, p. 163.

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