CHS–International Olympic Academy Pre-doc Fellow in Sport and Society 2020–21
My project aims at an intra-relational consideration of the concept of perspective in literary studies, taking as a case study the genre of ancient Greek victory odes. The theoretical framework that underlies this objective combines narrative theory with optics and it attempts to nuance the distinctions between the subject and the object of perspective. To do so, my paper suggests integrating the Genettian concept of focalization into a broader constellation of factors that acknowledge the multilevel agency and patiency of perspective, these factors being the various vantage points, their sightline, and their focus on aspects of a given object.
In the epinician universe, the aforementioned factors of perspective are hierarchically ordered and interdependent. As for their power dynamics, the gaze of the lyric “I” appears to navigate the other human and divine vantage points; their interdependence, on the other hand, is exemplified by examining the body as the object of the epinician perspective. The shifting focus on its perishability or on its imperishability depends on the lyric gaze, yet the lyric “I” needs such rolling focus to accomplish its poetic mission of immortalizing human achievements, both in the athletic and in the poetic realm. Hence, the factors of perspective are reconsidered as distinguishable, albeit relative and entangled.
Subjects of perspective (focalizers, vantage points, or agents of perspective) are organized within a certain viewing arrangement (sightline) and focus on select aspects of a given object (patient) of perspective. The aim of my project has been to relativize these three factors within an intra-relational condition of perspectivity by analyzing the interaction among the subjects of perspective as well as between the subject and the object of perspective in the ancient Greek victory odes.
Specifically, among the three vantage points from which the athlete is viewed in the odes, namely the poetic, the communal, and the divine one, there are being developed relations of power dynamics. The poetic gaze needs the light of the gods in order to enlighten the athletic deeds and exorcize the community’s gaze that envies and darkens them; yet the perspective of the lyric “I” possesses a remarkable degree of independence in that it is the one entitled to steer the others’ gaze towards an object.
With the aim to examine closely the relationship between a vantage point and an object of perspective, I chose as a case study the athletic body, for it is an exemplary case of entanglement between vision and object. When the focus is on the body, it lies mostly upon its attributes. Purely physical depictions of the athlete’s body parts are conspicuously scarce in the victory odes and the concept of the body seems not to be restricted to the matter per se, but rather it accommodates the attributes of the matter: shine, beauty, youth, strength, and grace. These attributes enable actions of ‘excellence’ ἀρετή, leading ultimately to the victory of the athlete, and they are themselves manifested through such actions. At the moment of their manifestation, the athletic body approaches the divine one and it is described in epiphanic terms, namely in terms of divine revelation.
However, at the same time and often in the same breath, the lyric “I” shifts the focus and emphasizes the one attribute that distances the mortal body from the divine one despite their shared traits – the perishability. How can one bring to terms the subsequent focus on the perishability with the initial one upon the epiphanic revelation?
The athlete’s body does diminish, yet it does not consist only of matter but of ‘gleam of excellence’ φέγγος ἀρετᾶς as well. That very attribute can escape perishability and stand the test of time as long as the Muse, through the words of the poet, nurtures and preserves it. In a sense, one could consider the athletic body as perishable ‘by nature’ φύσει and imperishable ‘by position’ θέσει or, better still, by position within a certain perspectival system. Therefore, the body needs the epinician gaze in order to transcend its perishability and release its imperishable potential, which is fulfilled only by virtue of composition, performance, and further transmission of the victory odes.
In turn, the epinician gaze needs the athletic body, for, without it, it would not accomplish its own immortalization, after all. By preserving for posterity exceptional athletic accomplishments, the victory odes ensure their own survival through exceptional commemoration. It is the need for commemoration that actually gives birth and value to the epinician gaze – without such need, the poetic gaze is merely a human gaze with no immortalizing function. Hence, next to the function of the lyric vision to extoll the virtues of the lyric body, there is a reverse causality: the lyric body in turn gives value to the lyric vision.
What does such interpretation tell us about literary perspective? That the subject-object relation is more like a chicken-or-the-egg relation; it is impossible to isolate one and study it as if it has been there first. While trying to outline how the lyric “I” represents the athletic body, one needs to acknowledge that the very representation of the athletic body itself formulates the lyric “I” as epinician, that is the vantage point that celebrates the transcendence of the limits of the ephemeral. Therefore, the lyric vision and the lyric object are entangled and interrelated to such an extent that one cannot study the former without studying the latter, and vice versa, since each gives meaning to and is given meaning from the other. Literary light is thus shed both by the subject of perspective to its object and by the object to the subject.
In a broader, self-critical sense, it is worth ‘objectifying’ the concept of perspective and conducting research that puts it in focus in literary studies. Having in mind that the objects of perspective are patient of one’s own perspective, we can acknowledge our own fixations when we try to make sense of the literary texts. At the same time, should we accept that the objects of perspective in turn give meaning to their subjects, we may also try to discern the various ways in which the texts in turn give meaning to the readers and help us make sense of ourselves. James Elkins summarizes such a self-critical function of the ‘poetics of perspective’ as follows:
…writing about perspective is like struggling in a spider web. Surely the interest of perspective for the future is in attempting to do just that: it is the friction of our twisting against perspective that can best show us how deeply we are caught.1
The results of my research will be published in Classics@ as:
Podaropoulos, G. 2021. “Entangling Lyric Vision and Body: Agency and Patiency of Perspective in the Victory Odes.” First Drafts@Classics@.
Parts of my research were shared at the CHS 1st Annual Research Workshop and at the CHS-IOA 10th International Scholars’ Symposium on Sports, Society, & Culture.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude to my advisor Dr. Maša Ćulumović for her generous encouragement, her unwavering guidance, and her constructive remarks all through my appointment. Moreover, I would like to thank Professor Christos Tsagalis and Dr. Bram Ieven whose reading suggestions broadened my thinking. Finally, the support by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies and the International Olympic Academy has been invaluable.
Barad, K., R. Dolphijn, and I. van der Tuin. 2012. “‘Matter Feels, Converses, Suffers, Desires, Yearns and Remembers’ Interview with Karen Barad.” In New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, ed. R. Dolphijn, and I. van der Tuin, 48-70. Ann Arbor.
Baroni, R. 2020. “Comment réconcilier la focalisation genettienne avec l’étude de la subjectivité dans le récit ?” Nouvelle revue d’esthétique 26, 2:31-42.
Briand, M. 2016. “Light and Vision in Pindar’s Olympian Odes: Interplays of Imagination and Performance.” In The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual, ed. V. Cazzato, and A. Lardinois, 238-254. Leiden.
Elkins, J. 1994. The Poetics of Perspective. Ithaca, NY.
Epstein, N. S. 2019. Choral Orientations: Spatial Cognition and Geopoetics in Pindar, Bacchylides, and Simonides. PhD diss., Stanford University.
Genette, G. 1972. Figures III. Paris.
—. 1983. Niveau discours du récit. Paris.
Hawhee, D. 2002. “Agonism and Aretê.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 35, 3:185-207.
Niederhoff, B. 2001. “Fokalisation und Perspektive. Ein Plädoyer für friedliche Koexistenz.” Poetica 33, 1/2: 1–21.
—. 2013. “Focalization.” In The Living Handbook of Narratology, ed. P. Hühn, J. C. Meister, J. Pier, and W. Schmid. Hamburg. http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/focalization.
Peponi, A.-E. 2016. “Lyric Vision: An Introduction.” In The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual, ed. V. Cazzato, and A. Lardinois, 1-15. Leiden.
[ back ] 1. Elkins 1994:272