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  • Past Future and Present Past:Temporal Deixis in Greek Archaic Lyric
  • Giovan Battista D'Alessio

A common assumption in recent criticism is that deictic reference in archaic Greek lyric (which was usually composed for an oral performance) should always be analyzed in relation to the place and time of the performance and to the persons of the performers, just as in ordinary face-to-face communication. In the first sections of this paper, Giovann Battista D'Alessio argues, focusing on temporal deixis and using comparative evidence, that this is not always the case, and that, on the contrary, the texts often emphasize the gap between the moment of composition and that of the performance, which can be projected into the future. In the final part, he examines some cases in which the past time of myth is reenacted in the ritual present through texts whose deictic references merge both temporal levels together.

Why, I wondermy song-to-be that I wish to usemy song-to-be that I wish to put togetherI wonder why it will not come to me?At Sioraq it was, at a fishing hole in the ice,a little trout I could feel on the lineand then it was gone,I stood jiggingbut why is that so difficult, I wonder?

Nestlik Eskimo song: Rasmussen 1931.517-18

Ordinary, face-to-face conversation works on the assumption that any uttered sentence has as its deictic center (origo) the person who utters it and as its spatio-temporal reference the moment and place of the utterance [End Page 267] itself.1 Even in non-literary discourse, however, things may not be so simple, and circumstances may allow for complex situations.2

Archaic Greek lyric is different from most modern lyric poetry in that it is more strongly related to an actual performance context. Its communication process, however, also differs from ordinary conversation. It originates with a composer of text and score, who usually creates a work meant to be performed at a different place and at a different moment. It is possible for the composer not to take part in (or even be present at) the performance of the text. This is, by any standard, a case of mediated communication. What sense might the use of deictic terms have in such a discourse?

Underlying much recent research on choral lyric has been the assumption that the deictic system should be interpreted as basically performance oriented.3 It is my intention to argue that the relation between the deictic reference system and the performance can be considerably more complex. Deixis in such texts may involve not only their (envisaged) performance situation but also the (representation of their) composition circumstances, and may even shift from one reference system to the other.

A preliminary qualification is probably needed. As with every literary communication, we must always bear in mind that part of the deictic setting may be fictional. There is no point in denying this possibility for archaic lyric, and quite a few texts may be invoked in support of this interpretation.4 Any deictic reference system in a text composed to be [End Page 268] performed at a different moment (and, possibly, place) is, strictly speaking, to be defined as fictional.5 Nevertheless, one should distinguish between two fundamental types of fictionality: a kind of necessary fictionality (implied by the fact that we are dealing with a text composed beforehand and not with a piece of ordinary conversation) and the capacity to evoke a fictional setting with no obvious link to either the composition or the performance context. These two types, of course, may well be seen as different in degree rather than in kind.6 I assume that, as a rule, archaic Greek texts staging or evoking their performance context are not to be seen as fictional in this second, stronger sense, but as referring to an actual performance setting through the unavoidably fictional medium of poetic words.

Ancient Greek lyric was orally performed on more or less formal occasions. In some less formal situations, poems may well have been improvised on the spot. It can be argued that a few of these...


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