- Pindar’s Library: Performance Poetry and Material Texts by Tom Phillips
What was it like to read Pindar in antiquity? To sit before a scroll and contemplate the opening priamel of Olympian 1 (Ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ . . .) as a series of marks formed by ink on papyrus? This is the question that Phillips poses in this engaging and thought-provoking volume, which invites us—modern readers trained to envision Pindar’s compositions as performance texts, as vibrantly danced choral spectacles whose meaning was determined by the geographic, political, and social contexts of their premieres—to turn our attention to the other ways in which these poems were experienced in the ancient world, as written texts that formed part of an established canon of lyric poetry.
Phillips seeks to trace the evidence that remains to us of ancient reading practices. What kinds of question did readers ask of these poems? What framing information was available? But also, how did the practice of reading transform these texts? What kind of Pindar emerges from the page, as opposed to the dance floor? The primary focus is on the Hellenistic period, when reading practices were being shaped and consolidated in the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, though Phillips allows himself some leeway in this historical frame, drawing on theoretical and scholarly interventions that run well into the imperial age. His approach is sensitive to the limitations of evidence and the challenges of reconstructing readers’ experience, offering a range of possibilities rather than demanding a single, definitive conclusion.
The book covers a wide range of topics, exploring, inter alia, the ways that works of later authors, such as Longinus (chapter 1) or Pausanias (chapter 2), might have shaped ancient readers’ expectations; the influence of marginal commentary and paratextual markers (chapter 2); and the effect that the categorization and ordering of poems in books would have had in encouraging connections [End Page 576] between certain poems—and presumably discouraging links between others (chapters 5 and 6). But Phillips’ guiding interest is in the contrast between the “material” (that is, written) form in which readers encounter Pindar and the “performative” nature of the poems’ content. Ancient readers, Phillips argues, were acutely aware of the disjunction between the written texts before them and the choral performances that original audiences witnessed.
The prominence of performance, and Phillips’ characterization of Pindaric reading as a self-consciously belated and artificial endeavor, raise some methodological questions. In his introduction, Phillips presents his study as the fruit of theoretical advances in reception studies, and in particular the model of anachronistic intertextuality that is normally attributed to Julia Kristeva (who, surprisingly, is absent from Phillips’ bibliography). Such a revisionist conversation is evident in, for example, Phillips’ exploration of Pindar’s role in the Homeric scholia (chapter 4). But in privileging what is unmistakably the texts’ “original performance context” as the site from which to understand the experience of subsequent readers, Phillips seems to edge away from his theoretical claims. This is especially marked in the book’s final chapters, where lengthy, and often quite compelling, interpretations of Pindar’s poems in their (“original”) performance contexts serve as the foundation for Phillips’ readerly insights. The chronology of interpretation here is distinctly linear, and there can be no doubt that ancient readers are dancing (or rather, wishing they could dance) to the tune of their auditory predecessors.
Ancient readers were undoubtedly preoccupied, as we are, with dating the historical victories that inspired Pindar’s epinician compositions, and perhaps even longed, with Antipater of Sidon, to “hear his song” (18 Gow-Page = AP 7.34); but I can’t help wondering how many really pondered the “complexity of the opposition between performance and writing” while reading Pindar’s work (285). Our scholarly interest in questions of performance is so all-encompassing, particularly when it comes to Pindar, that it is easy to forget that the “modalities of performance projected by [Pindar’s] texts” were, until quite recently, almost entirely opaque to us. Phillips’ interest in the tension between...