Freidenberg's Image and Concept

Image and Concept is for the most part devoted to the origins of Greek tragedy. Freidenberg's central idea is that it was the transition from the kind of thinking associated with mythological image to the use of formal-logical concepts that resulted in the appearance of literature. With the transition to conceptual thought the content of mythological images became the texture of the new concepts. The inherited forms were now reinterpreted conceptually: causalized, ethicized, generalized, abstracted. And with this reinterpretation poetic figurality also appeared. Folkloric material from the mythological image past also began to be differentiated into various disciplines: religion, philosophy, ethics, literature, art. Yet differentiated and reinterpreted as it was, this folkloric material was preserved formally in poetic image, structure, plot, name in its new conceptual context with a new function.

Some of Freidenberg's most interesting material concerns visual folk mime, balagan (low folk theater of the kind seen at fairs), and their connection both with tragedy and with mystery. The mysteries Freidenberg refers to as epideictic (showing) and epoptic (watching) originate in the mythological image of the disappearance and appearance of the sun. Freidenberg discovers a whole range of related image forms: the balagan with its showman who pulls the curtain aside to reveal a spectacle; the mystery which culminated in the revelation of a shining object, a "wonder to behold;" the circus magician who makes objects appear and disappear; riddles, with their concealment and revelation of the solution; scenes of opening and revelation (both physical and eschatological) in tragedy, comedy, Homer. These ideas help explain the connections between Socrates in the Symposium and the buffoon/sage: Socrates is ugly on the outside, a shining divinity within just like the statuette sileni which opened to reveal the shining gold figure of a god.

Freidenberg finds the oldest material to contain the most relics of this static "showing." Before concept expanded space and time, visual showing was the only means of presenting mythological images. This explains the prominence in Freidenberg's analysis of ecphrasis, the static descriptions of man-made objects common in epic. Prose narrative, with its discursiveness, its temporal sequentiality, its cause and effect, could only appear with concept. Drama as a genre appears early because it is pre-narrative visual demonstration. When concept separates past from present and here from there, story can emerge from vision and revelation. The messenger comes from "there" and speaks "here" in the present about the past. That he speaks "about" what happened rather than showing it also demonstrates the new distinction between subject and object. But there are still traces of visual show in tragedy. What the messenger speaks about is death. But the dead are also "shown" and "watched" as concrete spectacle: the eccyclema is wheeled in or the doors opened to show the dead body.

Also useful is Freidenberg's analysis of the distinction between melic, the choral songs in tragedy, and iambic, the solo parts in the episodes. Melic is archaic in thought, language, and syntax because it is built on pre-conceptual, pre-logical mythological-image thought. The songs of the chorus are "à propos"--thematically linked to the plot, but they do not move the action forward. They contain no cause and effect sequentiality and attain definition by piling image on image as a chain of attributes or epithets. Most often the chorus "mentions" the myth without telling the story. Myth-stories as we know them today are a product of conceptual thought: mythological image can produce only static, plotless, pre-narration, as tragic choruses show. It is characteristic of the Classical period that the solo-iambic principle developed through concept and was Atticized, yet the conservative choral song was preserved alongside.

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