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Referential Verisimilitude, Narrative Necessity and the Poetics of Vision: Classical Greek Historiography between the Factual and the Fictional

  • Claude Calame (a1)


In Classical Greece, the first forms of historiography sprung from a preoccupation with memory: to memorialize and publicize the actions of men in the recent past. They also aimed to make sense of those actions: the order of human and territorial justice for Herodotus, and the anthropology of domination for Thucydides. In this discursive “shaping” of History, rhetoric played an essential role. It provided an opportunity to muse about modalities of “fiction,” which, etymologically, “makes” hence “fictionalizes” facts, and an opportunity also to think about the importance of verisimilitude in the narrative constructions torn between internal coherence and external references. Hence the oxymoron of “referential fiction.”



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1. Searle, John R., “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse,” New Literary History 6 (1975): 31932 , here 327 and 330; on this subject see also the references given in the article by Schaeffer, Jean-Marie, “Fiction,” in Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage, ed. Ducrot, O. and Schaeffer, J.-M. (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995), 37384 .

2. As indicated by the title of Max Pohlenz’s still classic book, Herodot: der erste Gesichichstschreiber des Abendlandes (Leipzig: Teubner, 1937); on Thucydides, see the critical study by Loraux, Nicole, “Thucydide n’est pas un collègue,” Quaderni di Storia 12 (1980): 5581.

3. See in particular the studies by Nora, Pierre, “Histoire et roman ; où passent les frontières ?” and Antoine Compagnon, “Histoire et littérature, symptôme de la crise des disciplines,” Le Débat 165 (2011): 6–12 and 62–70.

4. See in particular Borutti, Silvana, “Fiction et construction de l’objet en anthropologie,” in Figures de l’humain. Les représentations de l’anthropologie, eds. Affergan, F. et al. (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2003), 7599 , despite the criticisms by Schaeffer, Jean-Marie, “Quelles vérités pour quelles fictions?” L’Homme 175176 (2005): 1936 , made from a mentalistic position asserting the cognitive specificity of playful and artistic pretense; see also the decisive pages written by Borutti, Silvana, Filosofia dei sensi. Estetica del pensiero tra filosofia, arte e letteratura (Milan: Raffaello Cortina, 2006): xixlviii .

5. On the role of semi-figurative categories, in particular in anthropological discourse with its function of transferring an exotic culture into the Western scholarly paradigm, see Claude Calame, “Interprétation et traduction des cultures. Les catégories de la pensée et du discours anthropologiques,” L’Homme 163 (2002): 51–78. As well as the existence of a possible representational and fictional competence of a neuronal, cognitive order (see Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Pourquoi la fiction ? (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1999), 145–79) and a human mental-modelling capacity animating the aesthetic relation, mention must also be made of the capacities of discursive creation specific to our verbal activity.

6. The role played by emplotment in temporal configuration in the domain of history has been explored in particular by Ricœur, Paul, Temps et récit (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1983) I: 85136 , building on Aristotle’s reflections on poetic mimésis and on mûthos as an “arrangement of the incidents”; see infra n. 7, and also the critical reflections I have offered on this subject: Calame, Claude, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire. Représentations de l’espace-temps en Grèce ancienne (Paris: La Découverte, 2006), 1540 , insisting on the integration of space into memorial practices. The interpretative dimension of the possible world and constructed truth in historical discursivisation is explored in particular in the essay by Traverso, Enzo, Le passé, modes d’emploi. Histoire, politique, mémoire (Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 2005), 6679 .

7. Aristotle, Poetics 9.1451a.36–51b.10; on this singular meaning of mûthos, see Calame, Claude, Mythe et histoire dans l’Antiquité grecque. La création symbolique d’une colonie (1996; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011), 4249 ; concerning the role played by the necessary and the probable in the unity and the coherence of the mûthos, see Aristotle, Poetics 7.1457b.28–34 and 8.1451a.23–35, with the convergent commentary of Bérenger Boulay, “Histoire et narrativité. Autour des chapitres 9 et 23 de la Poétique d’Aristote,” Lalies 26 (2006): 171–87.

8. Aristotle, Poetics 9.1451b.27–32, in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, vol. 23, trans. by W. H. Fyfe, (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press/William Heinemann, 1932); it is certainly no coincidence that, in this context, Aristotle refers to mimetic narrative using, not the verb légein, “to recount,” but poieîn, “to create”; see Calame, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire, 61–64.

9. See the references given in n. 6. According to Gérard Genette, Fiction et diction (Paris: Le Seuil, 2004), 227, the emplotment of historical material is tantamount to the quasifictionalisation of factual narrative; confronted with the danger of panfictionalism, Boulay, “Histoire et narrativité,” 184–185, proposes to distinguish a category of “serious (non-playful) yet shared pretense.”

10. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.4; in connection with this often cited passage see Hornblower, Simon, A Commentary on Thucydides I. Books I–III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 5962.

11. Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus 1.1–7; Id., The Life of Numa 1.1 and 7; on the controversy surrounding the question of the historicity of Lycurgus, the legendary legislator of Sparta, see Manfredini, Mario and Piccirilli, Luigi, Plutarco. Le Vite di Licurgo e di Numa (Milan: Mondadori, 1980), xixxvii ; see Aristotle, fragment 533 Rose. As for the importance of eyewitness accounts in Greek historiography, see for instance the study by François Hartog, Évidence de l’histoire. Ce que voient les historiens (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2005), 45–88.

12. Plutarch, The Life of Theseus 1.1–2.3, see also Id., The Life of Romulus 2.4 and 3.1; on the principles of Plutarch’s “archaeology”, see the excellent commentary in Carmine Ampolo and Mario Manfredini, Plutarco. Le Vite di Teseo e di Romolo (Milan: Mondadori, 1988), ix–xvii and 195–97; concerning arkhaîa and historical truth, see Calame, Mythe et histoire dans l’Antiquité grecque, 49–76.

13. Plutarch, The Life of Theseus 28.1 (see also 26.1, for the expression pithanótera légontes) and 31.1–2, in contrast with the narrative of the sack of the city of Troezen by Hector, which is considered as an alogía; see also Id., The Life of Romulus 3.1; on the meaning of the Greek pláttein, see Calame, Claude, Poétiques des mythes dans la Grèce antique (Paris: Hachette, 2000), 3847 , and on “fiction” in the etymological sense of the term, see Borutti, “Fiction et construction de l’objet en anthropologie,” 75–78; concerning Plutarch, see again M. Manfredini and L. Piccirilli, Plutarco. Le Vite di Licurgo e di Numa, xi–xv.

14. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.4; concerning the translation of the expression hos eikós, there is a hesitation among English commentators between “as was likely” and “as was natural”: see Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides, I, 22 and 33. See also the study by Payen, Pascal, “Préhistoire de l’humanité et temps de la cité : l’‘archéologie’ de Thucydide,” Anabases 3 (2006): 13754.

15. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.9.4–5 and 8.46.4–5. Without calling into question the historical truth of the heroic past, the expressions tà palaiá and tà arkhaîa refer, in both Herodotus and Thucydides, to what has become, for us, a “myth”: see Claude Calame, “La fabrication historiographique d’un passé héroïque en Grèce classique : Arkhaîa et palaiá chez Hérodote,” Ktema 31 (2006): 39–49.

16. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.10.1–3, and also the well-known passage in 1.21.1; on the parameters of Thucydides’ indexical history, see Calame, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire, 46–57, along with certain convergent remarks by Hartog, Évidence de l’histoire, 76–80. The indexical paradigm was first formulated, it should be recalled, by Ginzburg, Carlo, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” in Clues, Myths and Historical Method (1986; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 96125.

17. To borrow the title of the essay by Veyne, Paul, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes ? Essai sur l’imagination constituante (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1983), 10512 ; Veyne shows that in Pausanias, the indigenous criticism of myth was still inspired by piety.

18. Aristotle, Poetics 9.1451b.15–18; for the rest, see n. 5 and 6.

19. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.9.3, and also 1.3.3 and 1.10.3 and 1.13.5; see also 1.1.2 and 1.3.1, echoed, in ring composition, by 1.20.1.

20. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex 316–462; see Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 117–35, and the present author’s remarks concerning puns on Oedipus’ name in Claude Calame, Masks of Authority: Fiction and Pragmatics in Ancient Greek Poetics, trans. Peter M. Burk (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

21. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.4; see on this subject Gentili, Bruno and Cerri, Giovanni, Storia e biografia nel pensiero antico (Rome/Bari: Laterza, 1983), 512 .

22. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 2.48.3 and 1.72.1; Thucydides’ description of the epidemic which swept through Athens is tinged with medical diagnostic terms; see Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides, I, 319–25; on the references to vision and revelation with which the Athenians punctuated the scheduled speech, see the various references in Calame, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire, 50–61.

23. Herodotus, Proem. On the meaning which can be attributed to historía on the basis of its etymology, see the various references in Calame, Pratiques poétiques de la mémoire, 57–61 together with n. 46; see also Hartog, Évidence de l’histoire, 58–61.

24. Herodotus, The Enquiries 3.17.1–26.1 and 3.68.1–70.1; see Heraclitus, fragment 22 B 93 Diels-Kranz; on the modes of enquiry within the Historía itself, see the examples analysed by Paul Demont, “Figures de l’enquête dans les Enquêtes d’Hérodote,” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa: classe di lettere e filosofia IV, no. 7 (2002): 261–86.

25. Herodotus, The Enquiries 1.5.3, and then 1.6.2, 1.14.2, 1.23, 1.94.1, etc. The various motivations for historical action configured by Herodotus are cogently analysed by Darbo-Peschanski, Catherine, Le discours du particulier. Essai sur l’enquête hérodotéenne (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987), 4383 .

26. Herodotus, The Enquiries 1.20 and Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.4; see Payen, Pascal, “ Historia et intrigue. Les ressources ‘mimétiques’ de l’Enquête d’Hérodote,” in Jeux et enjeux de la mise en forme de l’histoire. Recherches sur le genre historique en Grèce et à Rome, ed. Guelfucci, M.-R. (Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2011), 13960.

27. Herodotus, The Enquiries 1.5.3 once more, and then 2.147.1 and 2.99.1; the enquiry into the sources of the Nile and the reasons for its floods: 2.19.2–26.2, and in particular 24.1; the same use of this future performative form can be found in 2.51.1 and 3.103.1. On the topic of Herodotean modes of argumentation, see the chapter by Darbo-Peschanski, Le discours du particulier, 127–63.

28. As well as the prelude, see Herodotus, The Enquiries 1.16.2 (said of actions “demonstrated” by a protagonist of the history), 1.174.1 (in a negative manner), 2.18.1 (egò apodeíknumi tôßi lógôi: a demonstration by means of discourse; see also 2.15.1 and 16.1), etc. In Herodotus, the language of proof combines with that of vision and demonstration (in the literal sense of the term): see, on this topic, the helpful comments of Nagy, Gregory, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 21730 , and the excellent remarks made by Thomas, Rosalind, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 190200 and 221–28, together with the observations of Bakker, Egbert J., “The Making of History: Herodotus Histories Apodexis ,” in Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, eds. Bakker, E. J. et al. (Leyde/Boston/Cologne: Brill, 2002), 332 . See also Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.6.6.

29. Aristotle, Poetics 17.1455a.22–b.2; the ambiguity in the manuscripts surrounding the morphology of ene/argéstata is significant of the force in action attributed to images; see the references I gave on this topic in Calame, Claude, “Quand dire c’est faire voir, l’évidence dans la rhétorique antique,” Études de Lettres 4 (1991): 322 (re-published in Sentiers transversaux. Entre poétiques grecques et politiques contemporaines (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2008), 191–204), and also the commentary by Dupont-Roc, Roselyne and Lallot, Jean, eds., La Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980) 27879 .

30. Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.1404b.1–2, with reference to Poetics 22.1458a.18–20.

31. Aristotle, On the Soul 3.431a.14–b12; and also 434a.6–15; see, for instance, on this topic Sophie Klimis, Le statut du mythe dans la Poétique d’Aristote. Les fondements philosophiques de la tragédie (Bruxelles: Ousia, 1997), 164–71.

32. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 1.9.3 (see supra n. 18) and Plutarch, Theseus 1.3 and 5.

33. Plutarch, On the Glory of the Athenians 346f–7c. On this topic, the interpretation offered by Adriana Zangara is dubious, see “Mettre en images le passé. L’ambiguïté et l’efficacité de l’enargeia dans le récit historique,” Mètis 2 (2004): 251–72, who, with reference to phantasía, constantly underestimates the role played in discursive obviousness by lógos with its mimetic po(i)etic potential; see, on the other hand, the excellent study by Alessandra Manieri, L’immagine poetica nella teoria degli antichi (Pise/Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1998), 105–12 and 155–72.

34. Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.1410b.29–36, 1411b.1–10 and 1411b.21–12a.10; enérgeia, “force in action” by opposition to dúnamis as “potential force,” see Metaphysics 8.1048a.25–29; on enérgeia and enárgeia, see the present author’s study “Quand dire c’est faire voir,” 18–20, together with Manieri, L’immagine poetica, 97–104.

35. Pseudo-Longinus, On the Sublime 15.1–2, trans. T. S. Dorsch in Classical Literary Criticism, ed. T. S. Dorsch (Harmonsdsworth: Penguin, 1965), 121 (Greek terms added by the present author), quoting, in particular, Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 291–292, in which Orestes is described as seeing visions, inspired by the Furies, and which constantly change form; see Sandrine Dubel, “Ekphrasis et enargeia: la description antique comme parcours,” in Dire l’évidence. Philosophie et rhétorique antiques, eds. C. Lévy and L. Pernot (Paris/Montreal: L’Harmattan, 1997), 249–64, and, on the development of the notion of fantasias, see Manieri, L’immagine poetica, 51–60.

36. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Lysias 7.1–2; on the rhetorical conception of evidentia developed out of that of phantasiai, see Quintilian, The Orator’s Education 6.2.29–32; and also Manieri, L’immagine poetica, 126–49.

37. On the meaning of apódeixis, see n. 28; on the dual anaphoric and demonstrative reference of the deictic hóde, see my remarks in Claude Calame, “Pragmatique de la fiction : quelques procédures de deixis narrative et énonciative en comparaison (poétique grecque),” in Sciences du texte et analyse de discours. Enjeux d’une interdisciplinarité, eds. J.-M. Adam and U. Heidmann (Genève/Lausanne: Slatkine/Études de Lettres, 2005), 119–43.

38. The references can be found in Calame, “Quand dire c’est faire voir,” 21–22.

39. I have examined this concept in more detail on the subject of the heroic narratives which we apprehend as “myths” and narrative fictions in Claude Calame, “La pragmatique poétique des mythes grecs : fiction référentielle et performance rituelle,” in Fiction et cultures, eds. F. Lavocat and A. Duprat (Paris: SFLGC, 2010), 33–56; see also Calame, Claude, “Fiction référentielle et poétique rituelle : pour une pragmatique du mythe (Sappho 17 et Bacchylide 13),” in Mythe et fiction, eds. Auger, D. and Delattre, C. (Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2010), 11735.


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