- Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose by Leslie Kurke
This is a very long and serious book on a subject which proclaims itself to be low, derisory, and the stuff of slaves and children—Aesop’s fables. It takes its start from the Life of Aesop, which comes to us primarily as a text of the Roman Empire. The life is a fable in itself and made up of fabulous tales of the disturbingly ugly, frighteningly clever, slave, Aesop, who starts dumb and learns to speak, and proceeds to trick and twist his way through the master-slave relationships of Greco-Roman society, finally to find himself put to death at Delphi for one smart-ass remark too many. The book’s argument ranges far and wide around a central claim that Aesop represents an unrecognized but integral strand in the invention of prose in antiquity, a self-avowed humble, carnivalesque, challenging, otherness that cocks a snook at the elite world of ancient society. To make this case, Kurke has a very capacious notion of fable—including, for example, the famous speech on the origin of justice by the arch-sophist Protagoras in Plato’s Protagoras—and finds hints of fable especially in Plato and Herodotus, and, most importantly, hints of fable being repressed or manipulated. It is a book that chases this shadow of repression and exuberance across centuries and continents.
Kurke’s is a very distinctive voice. Her scholarship is always trenchant, thoughtful, and articulate. Her argument is clear, even when intricate and extended, and it has no Aesopic aggressions or sleights of hand. She loves a fragment and the game of putting fragments together to create a lavishly rich tapestry from unpromising gewgaws. This is both a great strength as Kurke has the intellectual scope to pursue such fleeting quarries with bold creativity, and a potential risk, as the argument can become either diffuse or too much of an imaginative construct. It is always worthwhile arguing with Kurke, however, because the work you have to do to disagree will make for an educational experience in itself. Scholars who work on Plato and Herodotus, as much as those studying Aesop or fable, will need to read this book.
There is much to admire and enjoy here, then. When the invention of Greek prose is so associated with the new intellectual vibrancy of the fifth century—its elite, scientific, critical scholarship—it might seem unpromising to use Aesop of all people as a lens through which to look at such cultural development, but Kurke takes the reader on an intriguing and finally, for me, beguiling journey (even if not all her cases are equally persuasive: I remained quite unconvinced [End Page 298] that Herodotus’ story of Hippoclides dancing away his wedding was a manipulation of an Indian animal fable). I did remain puzzled, however, by the sense of history that the book provides and which is central to her argument—a sense of history marked by the book’s professed commitment to a structuralist methodology (a theory, Oh Best Beloved, mostly popular in the 1980s). For Kurke does not analyze the Life of Aesop as a text which speaks strongly to its specific Empire context. Rather, her strategy is to take some of its elements to (re)construct a model for an archaic or fifth-century Aesop from the precariously slight and fragmented references to Aesop in the earlier Greek period—the influence of which constructed model is then traced through later texts. It is actually extremely hard to get any sense of what Aesop meant in archaic or even classical Greece just from the exiguous comments on him in our sources, but there is too little consideration of how difficult it is to take the Aesop of the Life as a guide for the far earlier period. Kurke wants us to hear the Aesopic note...