Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 12

John Miles Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. Pp. xvi + 278. ISBN 0-253-32216-2. US$39.00.

Anne Mackay
University of Natal, Durban

John Miles Foley’s approach to the decoding of meaning in traditional oral epic is based on a profound understanding of the theoretical discourse about the nature of text and the theory of reception. Consequently he views ‘meaning’ as essentially a participatory process rather than a purely textual phenomenon, an attitude informing his theory of traditional referentiality which is the focus of this book. The first two chapters are essentially theoretical, while the four that follow offer a series of examples of the application of the theory to three quite distinct oral traditions: Anglo-Saxon, ancient Greek and Serbo-Croatian, the latter subdivided into Moslem and Christian sub-traditions.

In the first chapter, ‘From Traditional Poetics to Traditional Meaning’, Foley starts from what he terms the false dichotomy of mechanism versus aesthetics, an impasse which he regards as symptomatic of a theory of verbal art which, when applied to oral traditional poetry, is inadequate. He advocates that before asking what a traditional text means, one must ask how it conveys meaning, and he postulates that the process of production of meaning is significantly different for oral poetry, whether orally composed or oral-derived. His theory of traditional referentiality is outlined on p.6, although the first and second chapters in their entirety are necessary for a full understanding.

Focusing first on the recurrent noun-epithet phrases which are the most striking characteristic of many oral traditions, Foley suggests that, rather than referring to the specific context in which they may happen to occur, these evoke the whole tradition by way of the entirety of contexts in which they have been used, and thus summon ‘a context that is enormously larger and more echoic than the text or work itself . . . ‘ (p.7). This process of meaning-generation Foley identifies as metonymic (part for whole), in the sense that the unspoken context, far greater than the textual context, is encoded in the referent. Foley makes a vital distinction between conferred and inherent meaning: the former is a feature of literary texts in which a poet seeks innovative expressions whose meaning is conferred by the context; the latter is characteristic of oral or oral-derived poetry, where the meaning of an expression has often little or no direct connection with the context in which it is used, but, being conferred by traditional usage, may be said to inhere in the phrase. Foley exemplifies his argument with a short discussion in turn of Serbo-Croatian (Moslem) oral epic, of ancient Greek oral-derived epic and of Anglo-Saxon oral-derived epic, examining each in the original language: Foley’s deep sensitivity to traditional nuances could not have developedÔ poetic material only through the mediation of translations. Briefly at the end of Chapter 1, again with reference to the different oral traditions, Foley adumbrates the application of his theory also to narrative patterns–this is discussed in greater detail in Chapters 3-6.

Although Foley specifically avoids adopting any other specific theoretical standpoint, in Chapter 2, ‘Traditional Referentiality. A Receptionalist Perspective’, he translates his theory into the terminology of Rezeptionsa:sthetik, particularly appropriate because of its emphasis on the collaboration between poet and receiver in the creation of meaning. This provides an alternative perspective on traditional referentiality, helpful because perhaps more familiar; it also allows Foley to introduce Iser’s concept of ‘gaps of indeterminacy’, references to which will recur in his subsequent analyses of specific oral traditions.

These first two chapters are very densely (albeit very well) written, with the result that they demand slow and considered reading; however the chapters that follow, by virtue of their focusing on a single tradition at a time, make the theory accessible in all its complexity through full and detailed exemplification: it must be observed that this is not a book for occasional consultation. In chapters three through six, Foley proceeds both in linear fashion to develop his theme, and at the same time laterally to provide exemplification from the different traditions: thereby he demonstrates the multi-applicability of the theory across diverse traditions, different cultures, even as the argument progresses.

In Chapter 3 Foley turns to a living oral tradition as exemplified in the Moslem epics of the Serbo-Croatian tradition. He focuses here particularly upon story-level referentiality, showing that the Return Song pattern provides a reception context, a map that brings to the audience the ability to bridge the ‘gaps of indeterminacy’ of the particular song. He then continues with analysis of the Negative Comparison structure, demonstrating that this too has a referentiality larger than the immediate context, the context of the work as a whole, and even the story-type (the Return Song) in which it recurs. Next he turns to traditional phraseology, examining the contexts in which a specific phrase (a od tala noge skocijo – ‘and he jumped up from the ground to his feet’) is used in the different compositions by different poets within the tradition; this is an excellent and convincing example of Foley’s methodology in the book, whereby he collects instances of a given phrase or narrative pattern and then identifies the extra-situational connotations they share, stripping away the denotative surface so as to reveal the deeper, metonymic structure of the tradition beneath. The same process is carried out for themes.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the Christian tradition in Serbo-Croatian oral epic, and it is observed that these (shorter) songs are in some ways more like literary works, with greater textuality than their Moslem counterparts, although the same oral heritage underlies both. There are detailed examples of various levels of compositional structure, and an analysis of the Death of Kraljevic structures, and thematic context (the full translated text appears in the appendix along with Kraljevic Marko Recognises his Father’s Sword). The conclusion to this chapter makes transparent the comparison between the Moslem and Christian traditions, emphasising that while the former are more ‘oral’, the latter more literary in certain respects, both share the same compositional and referential traditions.

Iliad 24 is subjected to comprehensive analysis in Chapter 5 according to a slightly modified version of the technique applied in Chapters 3 and 4. As only two very different epics survive from the early Greek tradition, comparison of the contexts and referentiality of traditional phrases and structures between different works and, more significantly, between compositions of different poets is impossible, and so Foley ‘reads’ sample features of the text against the whole in order to draw up an interpretative map (to some extent at least) for decoding both conferred and inherent meaning. He recognises that in this oral-derived text there is a spectrum of referentiality, with some traditional narrative and phraseological structures carrying heavy extra-textual and extra-situational associations, while others bear almost none. The result of this sensitive reconstructive analysis is to raise the ghost of the original tradition, and to situate both the fabric and the structure of Iliad 24 within it; the proof of the validity of Foley’s methodology here is that from both the aesthetic and the oral-theoretical standpoint it renders Book 24 more comprehensible as being more interconnected with the Iliad as a whole than do other, more conventional analyses.

Beowulf, within the context of the Old English poetic tradition, is subjected to the same approach in Chapter 6. In this tradition, culturally and methodologically divergent from both the Serbo-Croatian and the early Greek traditions, by analysing selected phraseological and narrative structures Foley succeeds in demonstrating a metonymic resonance behind the patterns. Here too, the result is access to a considerably enriched ‘reading’.

In his conclusion, Foley draws together the results of the previous chapters, and by so doing brings not only his study but also the reader’s understanding to completion. Foley’s approach indeed bridges the gap between mechanism and aesthetics, not by a feat of ingenious engineering, but by showing that the crevasse is a mere crack, viewed hitherto through the distorting lens of an inadequate theory of verbal art. Foley has defined a more appropriate theory and has demonstrated its applicability to a variety of oral or oral-derived traditions from different cultures, showing that in each case it leads to a substantially enhanced reception of the oral traditional corpus. This is a book deserving acclaim as a significant advance of oral theory, which seems set to serve as a blueprint for oral studies for some time to come.