Text and reperformance: do you really need a text for your reperformance?

2022.12.31 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The text of this essay was originally posted on June 24, 2021 (https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/text-and-reperformance-do-you-really-need-a-text-for-your-reperformance/) as a virtual “performance” that turned into a “reperformance” on July 3, 2021, as announced at https://greece.chs.harvard.edu/conferences/performing-texts. I have rewritten and reformatted that text here, dated December 31, 2022, which I submit as a pre-edited and “preprint” version of an ultimately printed version that will be included, it is hoped, in a volume bearing the title Performing Texts. In my essay, I offer friendly criticism of the views of classicists who use such terms as “text” and “reperformance” without fully taking into account various comparative perspectives that have for some time been made available by way of typological descriptions of “live” performance as observed and analyzed in a wide variety of ethnographical studies.

Athenian red-figure cup: symposiast singing a line “from” Theognis (Scroll 2, verse 1365). Athens, National Museum, inv. no. 1357. Image after Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung 9 (1884), Plate 1.

§1. For my topic, I focus on questions about current uses of the term reperformance—and about a more fundamental idea as expressed by the term performance. As I will argue, a reperformance did not necessarily need a text for performance in ancient Greek song culture. Those who presume the necessity of a text for reperformance are likely to believe what can only be assumed in terms of our own modernity, as when, for example, I read out loud a text such as this one, thus presenting a semblance of a performed speech. Such assumptions, I argue in general, impede our understanding of performance in the ancient world, including the world of ancient Greek song culture. To pursue further my general argument here, I will focus on one specific example of songmaking in ancient Greek song culture where, perhaps more obviously than in other examples, there is no need for us to posit a pre-existing script, as it were, for singers to be singing their songs. The example will come from a description, in a text attributed to the poet known as Theognis, of festive singing at a symposium. This text, as we will see, describes most revealingly the pleasure of the occasion where a song is sung, without “script,” just for the pleasure of singing and of hearing what is being sung in the company of fellow symposiasts. But before I show this text, I must make three points in order to clarify my argumentation.

§1.1. First, I offer an apology, which is most relevant to the topic of reperformance: I apologize for the fact that I had been preparing too long for my presentation as announced at https://greece.chs.harvard.edu/conferences/performing-texts-program-abstracts, which, as I already said, turned into a “reperformance” on June 30, 2021. Already in April of 2021, the text that I was preparing to present for performance on the last day of June was getting to be too long, much too long. Already back then in April, I had finished writing not one but three texts in preparation for my would-be performance, and, in an attempt to be proactive, I submitted preliminary versions of those three texts for posting in the online journal Classical Inquiries, where the posts took the form of a three-part essay of sorts, appearing sequentially in three parts: Part I (Nagy 2021.04.17, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/on-the-idea-of-dead-poets-as-imagined-by-t-s-eliot/), Part II (Nagy 2021.04.24, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/on-the-idea-of-dead-poets-as-imagined-by-t-s-eliot-compared-with-ideas-about-reperformance-part-ii/), and Part III (Nagy 2021.04.30, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/on-the-idea-of-dead-poets-as-imagined-by-t-s-eliot-compared-with-ideas-about-reperformance-part-iii/). What I now propose to do here is to compress those three texts, which had added up to over twenty-five paragraphs, into a much shorter text—shorter by half, more or less. And, in the process of making the text shorter, I experiment with various different ways of epitomizing. 

§1.2. Back in April of 2021, I had started Part I of my three-part essay as posted in Classical Inquiries by already epitomizing relevant arguments formulated much earlier, twenty-five years earlier, in a book bearing a most relevant title, Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:213–223), and then I continued from there in Part I by epitomizing some further relevant arguments that I have presented over the last five or so years, especially in Classical Inquiries (the “incept-date” for this online journal was 2015.02.09). Such epitomizing, I have found, is most useful for advancing the arguments I will make, since each new epitome of mine takes shape here in different and therefore new contexts of argumentation. In a sense, the composition of each such epitome would be a recomposition—if it were performed. But of course any notional performance of such a recomposition by me, creature of modernity that I am, needs a pre-existing text. By contrast, as I already noted at the beginning of this essay, what I am arguing here is different. I am saying, basically, that a pre-existing text was not necessary for the performance or the reperformance of a song in ancient Greek song culture.

§1.3. The wording I have used here is derived from a fundamental insight of Albert Lord, articulated in his book The Singer of Tales (1960/2000/2019). On the basis of his comparative ethnographic studies centering on traditions of songmaking in societies where the technology of writing is not needed for the actual making of songs—or where such technology does not even exist—Lord arrived at a formulation that describes most clearly and simply the process of composing songs in such social contexts. This formulation can best be epitomized in just three words: composition-in-performance.   

§2. In terms of Lord’s formulation, a song is recomposed at least to some degree each time it is performed anew in the process of composition-in-performance, or, let us say, the song is recomposed each time it is reperformed. I speak here of recomposition “to some degree” because the degrees of recomposition can be expected to vary from tradition to tradition, from society to society, in accordance with the various different kinds of song that are sung. And I should add that I make allowances here not only for the singing of song but also for the reciting of poetry—since “poetry” in a wide variety of different societies can be analyzed as a modified form of song. And here I include the evidence of early Greek poetry, as I argued at length in a book I published over thirty years ago, Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990).

§3. In the first chapter of the book I just cited, I delved into a comparative study of such variation in the process of songmaking. And, in describing the dynamics of variation itself, I used the term recomposition-in-performance—although I could also have said, redundantly, recomposition-in-reperformance.

§4. This terminology recurs in Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996), where I went on to argue what I am extending into my present argument. I now epitomize, in a single sentence, what I was already arguing in that book (Nagy 1996, especially p. 214): For a song culture like that of the ancient Greeks, where performance and reperformance are still needed to bring a given composition of a song to life, there is at least some degree of recomposition in every new performance, that is, in every reperformance, so that the reperformed composer can even become the recomposed performer.

§5. But this argument about the idea of reperformance actually goes further back, all the way back to Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990, starting at p. 18, 1§5, and continuing from there, especially at p. 81 2§53 and in Chapters 3, 12, 13, 14). Already in that book and ever since, my view of reperformance has been consistent. And this view, I must now emphasize, differs from a variety of alternative views presented by contributors to a recent book of essays edited by Richard Hunter and Anna Uhlig (2017), Imagining Reperformance in Ancient CultureI disagree with many of those views, except for what I read in the lead essay in that book, by Johanna Hanink (2017; I elaborate in Nagy 2021.02.27, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/some-variations-on-the-theme-of-a-recomposed-performer-in-ancient-greek-prose-and-poetry/).

§6. The differences emerge already in the introduction to Imagining Reperformance, written by the editors of this book, where they have this to say about my overall view of preclassical Greek poetry, citing especially my book Poetry as Performance (1996): according to the editors (Hunter and Uhlig 2017:10), I view such poetry as “a process of ritual re-enactment.

§7 [= Part II§2]. This description of my view is, for me, quite problematic, since the term “ritual” is not explained. Left without explanation, my approach to reperformance is thus made to sound quite mystical and even mystifying. But my understanding of ritual, as I define it best in Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990:44 1§49), is derived from a classical definition based on Aristotle’s thinking about mī́mēsis, hereafter written simply as mimesis, in the primary sense of ‘re-enactment’ and in the secondary sense of ‘imitation’. In making this point, I should add that I agree with the insights of Anastasia Erasmia Peponi about the earliest attested use of this word, in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (163: μιμεῖσθαι). And I now add a further point that is relevant to my present argument—that Aristotle’s programmatic definition of mimesis reveals something else that is basic to the idea of reperformance. The basic fact is—to put it in Aristotle’s terms—that the experience of mimesis is fundamentally pleasurable (for the relevant wording of Aristotle I refer to Nagy 2015.10.15, §§4–9, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/homo-ludens-in-the-world-of-ancient-greek-verbal-art/).

§8 [= Part II§3]. With reference to ritual, I will quote below at §10 a most elegant formulation once made by my late friend Stanley Tambiah. The first time I ever quoted this formulation was in Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990:44 1§49), at which time, I am fairly certain, most other classicists were not yet reading Tambiah. And then, many years later (Nagy 2019.05.03, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/can-we-think-of-centaurs-as-a-species/), I quoted him again, in the context of my analyzing further the meaning of the Greek word mimesis. In the next two paragraphs, §§9–10, I review this version of my analysis, featuring at §10 my quotation from Tambiah.

§9 [= Part II§4]. The word mimesis, as used by Aristotle in his Poetics 1449b24–28, designates the enactment of mythical action in tragedy. More generally, this word designates the reenactment, through ritual, of the events of myth. In the case of a highly stylized ritual complex like Athenian tragedy, the reenactment is equivalent to acting out the roles of mythical figures. The acting out can take place on the level of speech alone, or else, on the level of speech combined with bodily movement, that is, dance: it is in this broader sense of acting that we can understand the force of pros, ‘corresponding to’, in the expression pros ta pathea autou, ‘corresponding to his sufferings [pathea, plural of pathos]’, in Herodotus 5.67.5, describing the singing and dancing by tragikoi khoroi, ‘tragic choruses’, at the city-state of Sikyon in the time of the tyrant Kleisthenes, in reenactment of the pathea, ‘sufferings’, of the hero Adrastos. The fundamental meaning of mimesis, to repeat, is that of reenacting the events of myth. By extension, however, mimesis can designate not only the reenacting of the myth but also the present reenacting of previous reenactments. So, mimesis is a current ‘imitation’ of earlier reenactments. That is because the newest instance of reenacting has as its model, cumulatively, all the older instances of performing the myth and not just the oldest and supposedly original instance of the myth itself.

§10 [= Part II§5]. This line of thought corresponds to the celebrated description of mimesis in the Poetics of Aristotle as the mental process of identifying the representing ‘this’—in the ritual of acting the drama—with the represented ‘that’ in the myth that is being acted out by way of the drama. In Greek this mental process is expressed thus: houtos ekeinos / touto ekeino ‘this is that!’ (Aristotle Poetics 1448b / Rhetoric 1.1371b); such a mental process, Aristotle goes on to say, is itself a source of pleasure. This pleasure is not incompatible with an anthropological understanding of ritual as defined by Tambiah (1985:123):

Fixed rhythm, fixed pitch are conducive to the performance of joint social activity. Indeed, those who resist yielding to this constraining influence are likely to suffer from a marked unpleasant restlessness. In comparison, the experience of constraint of a peculiar kind acting upon a collaborator induces in him, when he yields himself to it, the pleasure of self-surrender.

§11 [= Part II§6]. This anthropological formulation by Tambiah, I argue, corresponds to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis (Poetics 1449b24–28):

ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι’ ἀπαγγελίας, δι’ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.

Tragedy, then, is the re-enactment [mimesis] of a serious and complete action. It has magnitude, with language embellished individually for each of its forms and in each of its parts. It is done by performers [drôntes] and not by way of narrative, bringing about through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] the purification [katharsis] of such emotions [pathēmata].

§12. What is said here about mimesis in the context of theater, I must emphasize, applies also to the other contexts of performance in ancient Greek song culture, including

(1) “choral” song, that is performing in a singing-and-dancing ensemble called a khorós
(2) solo singing at a public concert, to the accompaniment of a kitharā ‘cithara’ or an aulos ‘double-reed’
(3) relay singing at a symposium.

So long as the authority of mimesis continues, we must reckon with its power to reshape the identity of those who take part in the process of performing songs or poems in such contexts. Just as every performance becomes a potential re-creation in mimesis, that is, a virtual recomposition, so also the very identity of the performer stands to be re-created, recomposed. When the performer re-enacts an identity formerly enacted by previous performers, he or she is re-creating his or her own identity for the moment. That is to say, a performer’s identity is recomposed in performance.

§13. The symposium can serve as an ideal example of a setting for performance, since this institution happens to be more conservative than most in maintaining a continuum of traditional values in the history of Hellenism. And the stronger the continuity, the stronger we may expect to be the sense of potential identification between composer and performer. For example, as I argue in Poetry as Performance (1996:216–218), the sympotic persona of Alcaeus, conveyed in the varieties of ethos that are being acted out in the songs attributed to him, makes it all the more natural for any sympotic performer of Alcaeus to develop a relatively strong sense of identification with him in performance. The same can be said of monodic poetry composed in elegiac couplets: a case in point is Theognis. As I have argued in Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990:368 12§55n159), the figure of Theognis speaks primarily as a sympotic personality (for example, in Theognis 239–243).

§14. As we see in the text of Theognis that I will now show, only the pleasure of reperformance is truly lasting, since reperformance that is pleasurable is supposedly the ongoing achievement of mimesis, which therefore must be as exact and as exacting as possible. Otherwise, the pleasure elicited through changes being made in response to an immediate audience becomes ephemeral. In this text, which presents itself not as some kind of preliminary “script” but rather as an ex-post-facto record of countless previous reperformances, the persona of Theognis declares that only the one who is sophós, that is, ‘skilled’ in the decoding and encoding of ‘his’ poetry, can execute a correct mimesis of Theognis:

οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ἀστῶν ὅντιν’ ἔχουσιν·
οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἕρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς·
μωμεῦνται δέ με πολλοί, ὁμῶς κακοὶ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλοί·
μιμεῖσθαι δ’ οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀσόφων δύναται.

I am not able to decide what disposition it is that the townspeople [astoí] have towards me. | For I do not please [= verb handánein] them, either when I do for them things that are advantageous or when I do things that are disadvantageous. | There are many who find blame with me, base and noble men alike. | But no one who is not skilled [sophós] is able to re-enact [mīmeîsthai] me.

Theognis 367–370

§15. Here the notion of mimesis as re-enactment becomes an implicit promise that no change shall ever occur merely for the purpose of accommodating the merely local interests of a merely local audience in the here-and-now. Such an ephemeral audience would be merely the provincial astoí ‘townspeople’ of any given time and any given place. No, the authorized reperformance of a notionally original performance at a symposium must be universally accepted. There must be a universal reception of such a sympotic song. The reperformance of the song must be pleasing—pleasurable—not only to those who hear it at one time in one place but to all symposiasts who will ever be hearing the song being sung—and then singing it themselves. Such reperformance would be a true re-enactment or mimesis, and true mimesis would be the single requirement for authorizing a text as a transcript, as it were, of the notionally original performance. The notionally original performer, as self-authorized author, is saying about himself: no one who is not skilled [sophós] is able re-enact my identity—that is, my persona. Only those who are skilled in understanding such a sympotic persona can take pleasure in the performance of a song at a symposium. Such a persona is not only the performer of the moment at a symposium: it is also all the fellow-symposiasts who hear the performance and who will then be taking turns, each one of them, in becoming the next performer of the moment—in the next moment. All successive performers at a symposium must share in such a ‘skill’ of reperformance, but such perfect sharing can happen only in the pleasurable company of fellow symposiasts having the best time of their lives at a timeless symposium.


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