'Harvesting Homer'

Andrea Capra

This is my first post, so let me introduce my research project. I am working on a book-length study provisionally called “‘Harvesting Homer’: the voice of epic in Plato’s dialogues”. Here is my general premise: Plato’s dialogues are often seen as an all-encompassing blend of all previous literary genres, “the boat on which” – to quote from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy – “the older forms of poetry, together with all her children, sought refuge after their shipwreck”. It is far from surprising, then, that Platonic studies are increasingly oriented towards a literary interpretation of the dialogues, either as a means to better grasp Plato’s philosophy or as an object of interest in its own right. The debate that accompanies this shift is very lively, yet today few would deny that Plato’s ambition was not only to put forward his ideas, but also to provoke and persuade. A literary/rhetorical dimension is thus crucial to Plato’s dialogues.

Now, Plato’s notorious attack on poetry is balanced by his willingness to ‘harvest’ and cross-fertilize all literary genres. The individual voices of traditional genres are thus engaged in a ‘dialogue’, to quote from Nightingale’s seminal work (Genres in Dialogue, 1995). However, the voice of epic is missing in Nightingale’s book, and she focuses on Plato’s intertextual mode mainly as a “strategy for marking the boundaries of philosophy”, despite “rare but pointed alliances with traditional genres of discourse” (12). The purpose of my project is to grasp the ‘voice’ of epic in Plato’s dialogues and to evaluate its relations and “alliances” – certainly pointed but not so rare in my view – with other generic ‘voices’. This promises to shed light on two questions: how Plato conceptualized his writing and what kind of literary pedagogy he envisaged for his Kallipolis (including how he envisaged the complex antithesis orality/literacy).

Generic dialogue being the focus of my research, I shall not consider the occasional echoes from archaic poetry: I am not interested in epic ‘embellishments’ (so abundant in any Greek prose-writer), nor do I want to reconstruct “l’Homère de Platon”, to quote Labarbe’s superb philological book (1949). Rather, I propose to focus on stronger ‘markers’, revealing a genuine preoccupation with generic dialogue, inasmuch as each genre expresses its own Weltanschauung as against other genres. So far, I have been working mainly on the Phaedrus, and especially on the motive of poetic initiation and the opposition epichoric/panhellenic in Plato’s appropriation of poetry. This amounts to roughly a third of my original project, but as is often the case – especially with Plato – things are proving (even) more complex and fascinating than expected, so that I am now pondering the possibility of turning it into a monograph on the Phaedrus, complete with some more general conclusions.

In the first months of my stay, I also gave a paper at Bryn Mawr college (“Socrates’ poetic initiation”, 10-28-2011) and worked at the (more or less) final stages of three articles, which are now due to appear shortly:

1) Detour en route in the Aegean sea? Xen. Eph. 5.10.2, «Classical Philology»107.1, 2012 (proofs stage).

2) Con l’occhio oltre l’ostacolo: la filologia è un’arte fantastica’? Le Donne al parlamento alla luce di un allestimento moderno, «Dionysus ex Machina» 2, 2011 (proofs stage).

3) Riding from Elea to Athens (via Syracuse). The Parmenides and the Early Reception of Eleatism: Epicharmus, Cratinus and Plato, «Methexis» 24, 2011, 153-193 (in press).

This is proving one of the most rewarding and peaceful periods of my life, so let me thank everybody here: I’m having a wonderful time.




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