John F. Garcia

title.none: Reichl, Singing the Past (John F. Garcia )

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.003 04.02.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John F. Garcia , University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Reichl, Karl. Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry. Series: Myth and Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 221. $43.00 0-8014-3736-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.03

Reichl, Karl. Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry. Series: Myth and Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 221. $43.00 0-8014-3736-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John F. Garcia
University of Iowa

Karl Reichl has emerged as our foremost interpreter of traditional Turkic poetry. This makes him master of a family of folklores spanning a vast crescent from Anatolia to Siberia, transitting Central Asia along the way. As such, he follows in the illustrious footsteps of W. Radlov and V. M. Zhirmunsky, the former having been a major inspiration to Milman Parry in his own studies of orality; the latter best known in the West as the continuator of the Chadwicks' monumental The Growth of Literature in Turkic domains. But like his predecessors, Reichl is an accomplished comparativist who moves as freely among the many traditional heroic poetries of the European Middle Ages; he is in fact Professor and Chair of English Philology at the University of Bonn. If UNESCO could declare a mortal 'patrimony of humanity,' then Karl Reichl should be nominated. Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry is his tour de force, but a work of modesty at the same time: Reichl is clearly not interested in parading his learning but in shedding a comparative light on certain cruces of interpretation in some of the most-studied heroic songs of medieval Europe.

Now, as Reichl himself is surely aware-- though he seems gallantly unconcerned about this-- a comparative project such as his, collating, as it does, non-cognate traditions, carries the peril of its own unraveling. For the standard of justification for any attempt to liken disparate phenomena must be high: to precisely what end do we say that what this people does or says is like what that people does or says? Any act of comparison that proposes a homology by definition guides our attention away from the systemic coherence of discrete traditions. Acts or institutions that carry meaning within a cultural setting are therefore made-- by the analyst-- to carry meaning outside that setting. But exactly how is the new meaning determined? These questions should be central to any such project. How does Reichl address them?

On the whole, he does not, though he reveals in two telling passages that he is aware of them. (Universals, post- modernism.) The first follows Reichl's acknowledgment that "[c]omparing different traditions, especially traditions that are neither genetically related nor geographically contiguous, raises a number of methodological problems" (7-8). Why do similarities crop up between unrelated traditions? "As research on folktales has shown, motifs and plots can easily travel over large stretches of time and place" (8). It is vaguely inconsistent, then, for Reichl to invoke a methodology specialized for studying languages in which such diffusion is ruled out:

While comparative philology is the methodological paradigm for a comparative approach to the interpretation of genetically related epic poetry and area linguistics for the study of geographically contiguous epic traditions, the theoretical model for the kind of enquiry conducted here comes from linguistic typology. In a typological approach to linguistics, languages are classified into linguistic types, irrespective of their genetic or geographical relationship, and it is assumed that languages belonging to the same type share essential characteristics. These characteristics are in the final analysis explainable only by positing universals of language. Linguistic research on universals and within a typological framework has become fairly sophisticated, and it is not my main aim to transfer linguistic terminology to the study of literature. I do, however, find it useful to adopt a basically typological (and universalist) stance when engaging in comparative interpretations of Turkic and medieval epic poetry. It frees the interpretation from false hopes or claims about common origins or mutual influences, and it clears the way for questions of poetics and aesthetics (8).

But once the act of universalist analysis decontextualizes the exotic comparandum, it is tempting to ask, whose poetics and aesthetics are we talking about? In Reichl's defense, it is only fair to point what he is up against. The "false hopes or claims about common origins or mutual influences" are indeed powerful and possibly still supply the dominant coloring in the study of dead traditions. I can attest to this in my own home field of classical studies. And Reichl, who candidly admits that "my interest in living oral epic poetry is that of a medievalist" (9), is clearly searching for a way beyond the impasse. But is linguistic typology the theoretical model he needs? Reichl's turn to this cluster of methods comes across as ill-considered and superficial. He never cites a methodological discussion of typology to which the reader could turn for further enlightenment or which could build a following for what he clearly regards as a theoretical innovation. This could have helped dispel the unfortunate impression that he is mainly hoping for a sturdy peg on which to hang his "universalist stance." I doubt that it is so sturdy: linguists do not (or should not) turn to typological studies for license to posit universal meaning; for meaning, they turn to the systemic coherence of languages and the cultures in which they are embedded.

This brings us to the second passage. Within a discussion of the essential orality (vs. literateness) of Beowulf, Reichl would like to argue that "there is no denying the fact that the epic as we have it is already the product of a particular reading of earlier epic poetry" (146), but to do this he seems to feel a need to apologize, because "[t]he present critical climate favors readings of texts that put the emphasis on the reader rather than on the text" [ibid.], where it (presumably) belongs. And it is in this way that Reichl characterizes the "postmodernist point of view," in which "a Freudian reading of Beowulf is just as legitimate as a Marxist one" [ibid.]. Readers who may have learnt a thing or two from postmodernism may be astonished to hear this, but let that pass. What I find most intriguing is that postmodernism is mentioned at all. Critics were surely talking about reception, inheritance, and even 'reading' (in the sense he applies to Beowulf) well before the 1960s? I wonder if this rapier thrust is occasioned, rather, by the author's repeated, and perhaps defiant, use of the term 'author' in passages such as the following:

Furthermore, although no one will doubt the formulaic character of the epic's language, skeptics have not been convinced that this is proof of the orality of Beowulf. There is therefore much to be said for the view that the epic is the work of an author (ibid.).

Is it the famous French coroner who pronounced this author dead that troubles Reichl's sleep? Maybe it is unfair, again, to lay any emphasis on this phraseology, but it does seem to square with Reichl's universalist turn. Those who control styli and ink in their hands are authors; those who make their songs with a mouthful of air are...comparanda for the former. The inconvenience of a postmodern point of view is precisely that it calls such ideology into question.

But do these overt commitments of Reichl's affect his larger argument? They do, I find. Yet many single discussions and close readings remain valuable. Here follows a brief summation. Chapter One, "Turkic Bards and Oral Epics," offers a summary introduction to the Turkic peoples and their traditional song. Readers familiar with Reichl's superb standard survey, Turkic Oral Epic Poetry: Traditions, Forms, Poetic Structure(1992), will not find much new here, but it will furnish survey courses with a highly concentrated and authoritative account. Reichl also puts to good use some material that he has collected in field work after the 1992 book, including a return appearance of Zumabay-ziraw Bazarov, a skilled Karakalpak singer of tales. (Turkic names are transcribed from Reichl without diacritics.)

With Chapter Two, "Variations on Epic and History," the main burden of the book, the relationship between oral or oral- derived epic and history, is explored and the 'typological' method is displayed. Reichl begins with a very thorough discussion of the OE "Battle of Brunanburh" with respect to what is known from chronicles and other sources about the events there described. The very sensible conclusion is that small-scale historical poems such as "Brunanburh" "reflect a personal point of view, whether narrated in the first person or not; and they are couched in the language and style characteristic of (heroic) epic poetry. While the narrative elements put these poems in the vicinity of heroic narrative poetry (heroic lay or heroic epic), their personal voice affilitates them with such genres as eulogy, lament, or heroic boast" (70).

How useful a document like "Brunanburh" is for historiography depends on what one means by the term. For Reichl:

Historiography, however logically and philosophically remote from the event it attempts to formulate, is based on the presupposition that it is the goal of historical narrative to give a true representation of extralinguistic events. As soon as we have an awareness of the difference between historiography and poetry (however descriptive and factual the latter might be), as in the works of writers such as Henry of Huntingdon [for whom poetry was merely an auxiliary to historiography], the presupposition of historical writing no longer holds true for 'historical poetry.' Poetry here comes into its own. It lingers on the confines of historiography only in those cases where the 'poetic' is reduced to the outer form of language, as in the metrical or rhymed chronicles (55).

What did native poets say they were up to? Later in his study, Reichl himself addresses the matter of the singer's authority before his audience:

The 'ethnographic present tense' I have been using in this chapter is, alas, a 'historic present': while the use of 'national epics' as symbols of nationhood continues, the singer's voice of authority is about to become silent (or has become silent). What he and his traditional audience regarded as truth is literature, on a par with other works of poetic imagination, and like them nowadays more often read than listened to" (143, in general 136-43).

So it is that when Uzbek singers retail (to use the ethnographic present) the deeds of the famous bandit Namaz Primkulov (60-70), they deploy the rhythms and diction of their heroic epic traditions. We might say, in semiotic terms, that style here is indexical, pointing to a collectively held attitude towards truth that is conventionally held within the performance settings of heroic song. Furthermore, style is a particularly creative index in that it triggers this attitude, rather than merely standing for it. It is, then, Reichl's own evidence that raises the question What is gained by speaking of 'history' in universalist terms when such a rich vein of culturally-specific ideas of 'truth about the past' lies largely untapped?

Chapter Three, "In Search of the Heroic Lay" presents three main examples of what Reichl calls "short heroic narrative poem[s]" (100). These include the Kazakh singer Muslimbek Sarqitbay-uli's Tawke the Hero(a 152-line poem reproduced in an appendix and translated on pp. 79-84), the OE "Finnsburh," and the OHG "Hildebrandslied." Reichl identifies instances of flyting ("boastful and scornful dialogue between opponents" (9)) in each, and indeed it is striking how widespread this heroic trait is. Reichl is clear that "there is no room for purism and dogmatism in genre studies" and that "even similar poems exhibit a surprising variety" (100). But if he concedes this much, what of his comment that "[w]hile an important element of this kind of poetry, it can be elaborated quite differently in different traditions" (ibid.)? This illustrates the hazard of his attempt to 'typologize' western genres. For the picture that he creates is of a concept or category -- we'll call it 'flyting'-- being taken up and modified by each culture or tradition. But precisely what is the "it" that is " different traditions"? What is Reichl imagining here and where do poets (cultures?) go to get it?

Chapter Four, "Heroic and Tribal Roots," is the most satisfying, probably because here more than elsewhere, the zone of observation is widened to take account of the cultural contexts outside the texts under study. After some interesting notes on the contexts of performance, Reichl offers a tantalizing glimpse of a fascinating text, the Karakalpak song Ormanbet-biy as collected by the author from the singer Zumabay Bazarov in 1994. The poem narrates how, upon the death of Ormanbet-biy, patriarch of the Noghay Horde, his youngest daughter prophesies the sorrowful future of her people. Reichl's historical commentary is most helpful, "[a]lthough the interpretation of [Ormanbet-biy] as solely a historical song misses, in my opinion, the point of the poem" (111). "[I]n focusing on this particular point in the history of the Karakalpak people (their dispersal and migration after the death of their Patriarch), the listeners are invited to share in their cultural and tribal identity, an identity that is permanently endangered in a hostile environment" (114).

Ormanbet-biyforms the sad epilogue to the glorious days of unity under the Golden Horde, when the hero Edige, issue of a miraculous union of holy man and river sprite, performed his exploits of cunning and prowess. Reichl's discussion of the epic of Edige may well prove to be the book's strongest feature. "[F]or singer and audience, the narrative is a poetic representation of their tribal past, of a heroic age, into which the roots of their own ethnicity reach. The authenticity of the tale is guaranteed by the authority of the singer and the tradition behind him" (177).

Further, "What makes the epic into a heroic epic is not only the text, but also (and possibly even primarily) the context" (127). A full theory of Turkic epic constructed on such a basis is urgently needed, but Singing the Past was not meant to fulfill it. (Reichl promisingly cites Dell Hymes and Richard Bauman, but the trail goes cold; for a model, see J. M. Foley's Singer of Tales in Performance.) Still, a good beginning is made. I suggest that the next step should be a congress of specialists that would examine and critique the following position of Reichl's:

[I]t is the cultural context ('conditions determined by special conceptions of manhood and honor,' 'a view of existence') that makes possible the creation and cultivation of heroic poetry. While this cultural context can be studied on its own-- from a sociological, historical, anthropological, or ethnographic point of view-- it can studied from a more narrowly literary point of view insofar as this context is also part of the poetic code: it can be written into the poetry as text and expressed through poetry as event" (127).

While I admire Reichl's insistence on a functional approach to genre, an approach like the one enunciated here threatens to narrow the circle of context that had been encouragingly widened by the focus on context in the first place. True, cultural information is encoded in cultural products, but not by any reasoned or predictable procedure. In the artifacts of the tribe, you cannot expect phylogeny to be recapitulated by ontogeny. In other words, as Plato observed, written artifacts do not answer when you question them; if you have contact with a culture, then use it to decode the messages it leaves in its products. Reichl's readings of Ormanbet-biy and Edige intimate that a deep yield of Turkic riches awaits our cognizance, not only to "help to stimulate our imagination and provide it with an empirical basis" for "recapturing [the] orality" of medieval epic (180), but in its own right.

Finally, Chapter Five, "Heroic Past and Poetic Presence," raises many of the same difficulties that I have already discussed. Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland are both separated so far from datable events that they portray that Reichl rightly wonders about the role they played in the lives of their hearers (or readers). "The question to be discussed not how central the events of the past are to the plot of the poem but rather what the relevance of the poetic reflection of the past could have been to a contemporary audience" (155). Whether we claim to have adequate tools to undertake such an inquiry depends chiefly on the kind of results we profess to expect. Without ethnographic access to the people of the Beowulf poet's day, for example, we can only hope to assemble methods that lead to ethnographically plausible results. It appears that much work remains to be done to replace the toolkit of medieval philology with that of ethnography. "[T]he 'historical nucleus' in Beowulf has been overgrown by legendary motifs. Nevertheless, discussions of the historical dimensions of Beowulf... are possible and meaningful" (147). We cannot begin to divine "the relevance of the poetic reflection of the a contemporary audience" in these terms. To begin with, what reason do we have to think that a member of that audience might care to distinguish between 'legend' and 'history,' 'truth' and 'fiction' -- all within the same performance (assuming that something like Beowulf was once performed)? Does Reichl not elsewhere-- rightly and skillfully-- teach us to sense the poet's authority and the authenticity that his audience found in their experience of his art?

In his "Conclusion" (165-80), Reichl belatedly introduces and briefly discusses a number of new topics: the music of epic (166-75), the idea of 'generic context' (175-77), and, towards the very end, Andreas Heusler's reflections on mythic vs. historical components of Germanic heroic epic (178-80; 180 being the last page of the book's main body). It reads like a hasty attempt to tie loose ends but-- such is Reichl's learning -- manages to maintain the reader's interest all the same.

The upshot, for me, is that Reichl has undertaken an investigation of major theoretical import to which his profound mastery of empirical methods was only part of what was needed. This book should move his successors to return to fundamental theoretical and methodological questions in Turkic studies, medieval philology, and comparative poetics that receive, in Singing the Past, cautious but enthusiastic attention.