(BEING CONTINUED FROM 10/02/15)
2.5.3. Dionysius on mimetic words (Comp. 16)
The passage where Dionysius has been thought to express a Stoic theory on the relationship between names and things is part of Comp. 16: this passage concludes the discussion of m°low (Comp. 14-16), one of the four means of composition (συνθεσις).
Dionysius has examined the phonetic values of the various letters (Comp. 14) and syllables (Comp. 15). Then, he states that great poets and prose-writers are aware of the different sound-effects of letters and syllables: ‘they arrange their words by
weaving them together with deliberate care, and with elaborate artistic skill they adapt the syllables and the letters to the emotions which they wish to portray.’113
Thus Homer expresses the ceaseless roar of the seashore exposed to the wind (Il. 17.265:ηιονες βοωσινetc.), the greatness of the Cyclops’ anguish and the slowness of his searching hands (Od. 9.415-416: κυκλωψ δε στεναχων etc.), and he portrays
Apollo’s supplication ‘when he keeps rolling before his father Zeus’ (Il. 22.220-221,containing the word προπροκυλινδομενος).114 It is clear that Dionysius thinks that, in the Homeric lines that he quotes, the poet mimetically expresses the things that he
describes, through the juxtaposition of certain sounds. According to Dionysius, ‘there are countless such lines in Homer, representing (δηλουντα) length of time, bodily size, extremity of emotion, immobility of position, or some similar effect, by nothing more than the artistic arrangement of the syllables; and other lines are wrought in the opposite way to portray brevity, speed, urgency, and the like.’115 He adds two more examples: in the first one, Homer describes Andromache halting her breath and losing control of her voice (Il. 22.476, containing the word γοοωσα); in the second one, he expresses the mental distraction and the unexpectedness of the terror of some charioteers beholding a fire (Il. 18.225: ηνιοχοι δ’εκπληγεν etc.).116 In both cases, it is the reduction of the number of syllables and letters’ (η των συλλαβων και γραμματων ελαττωσις) that causes the effect.117 The latter explanation seems to be related to the modification of syllables through subtraction (αφαιρεσις), one of the
categories of change that Dionysius has discussed in Comp. 6 (see section 4.3.1).118
It seems then that Homer does not only coin new mimetic words (e.g.πρππροκυλινδομενος), but also adapts existing words in order to portray the things that he describes (e.g. by elision of d°).119
Next, at the beginning of Comp. 16, Dionysius explains that there are two possibilities for poets and prose-writers who wish to use mimetic words: either they coin (κατασκευαζουσιν) these words themselves, or they borrow (λαμβανουσιν) from
earlier writers (for example Homer) ‘as many words as imitate things’ (οσα μιμητικα των πραγματων εστιν):120
‘Thus the poets and prose authors, on their own account, look at the matter they are treating and furnish it with the words which suit and illustrate the subject, as I said.
But they also borrow many words from earlier writers, in the very form in which they fashioned them — as many words as imitate things, as is the case in these examples:121
With thunderous roar the mighty billow crashed upon the shore.
And he with yelping cry flew headlong down the wind’s strong blast.
(The wave) resounds upon the mighty strand, the ocean crashes round.
Alert, he watched for hissing arrows and for clattering spears.’
Dionysius is still discussing the use of words that mimetically designate their underlying subject (υποκειμενων: for the term, see section 2.3). The Homeric lines that he quotes contain several mimetic words (ροχθει,κλαγξας,βρεμεται,σμαραγη), whose onomatopoeic character is also mentioned in the Homeric scholia.122 Whereas Dionysius previously quoted Homeric lines containing mimetic words that are produced by artistic treatment (κατασκευη), he now quotes some lines that contain words that later writers ‘borrow from their predecessors’ (παρα των εμπροσθεν λαμβανουσιν). Indeed, all the onomatopoeic words mentioned here are also found in later poets, such as Aeschylus, Pindar and Apollonius Rhodius. These later poets did not coin these mimetic words themselves, but they borrowed them from Homer.123 The important thing to notice is that Dionysius is thinking of a very limited group of specific words, which writers borrow from each other: the word οσα (in μιμητικα των πραγματων εστιν) has a restrictive sense. Dionysius does not say that all words imitate the things that they signify: it is clear that he supposes that there is a distinct group of mimetic words that can be used for specific purposes.
Therefore, this passage does not imply anything about the relationship between ονοματα and πραγματα in general. In the subsequent passage, nature (φυσις ) comes in:124
‘The great source and teacher in these matters is nature, who prompts us to imitate and to coin words, by which things are designated according to certain resemblances,which are plausible and capable of stimulating our thoughts. It is she who has taught
us to speak of the bellowing of bulls, the whinnying of horses, the bleating of goats,the roar of fire, the beating of winds, the creaking of ropes, and a host of other similar imitations of sound, shape, action, feeling, movement, stillness, and anything else
whatsoever. These matters have been discussed at length by our predecessors, the most important work being that of the first writer to introduce the subject of etymology, Plato the Socratic, especially in his Cratylus, but in many places elsewhere.’
At the beginning of this passage, Dionysius makes the transition from μιμησις as it is practiced by prose-writers and poets, Homer and his successors in particular, to the μιμησις that we (ημας), human beings in general, apply in our natural (that is daily)
language. In other words, he makes the transition from τεχνη to φυσις. In my opinion,the use of the word φυσις in this text should not be related to an alleged opinion on the natural origin of words, or on the natural correspondence between the form and
meaning of words.126 The thing that Dionysius wants to make clear is that the τεχνη of poets and prose-writers, who imitate the objects that they describe in the sounds of their words, finds a model in (human) φυσις, which makes that we ‘naturally’, that is
usually (not technically) use imitative, onomatopoeic words, such as ‘bellowing’ or ‘whinnying’. In the immediately preceding text, Dionysius does not use the term τεχνη itself, but he does use the word in φιλοτεχνουσιν (‘they arrange artistically’) when referring to the artistic skill by which Homer and other poets compose their syllables and words.127 In my view, the words μεγαλη δε τουτων αρχη και διδασκαλος φυσις provide a strong indication that φυσις is here used as opposed to τεχνη (rather than to νομος or θεσις): τουτων refers (indirectly) to the τεχνη of Homer and his imitators, and μεγαλη δε τουτων αρχη και διδασκαλος φυσις (Comp. 16) appears to be nothing else but a Greek variant of the well known aphorism natura artis magistra, ‘nature is the teacher of art.’128 Like other ancient critics,Dionysius regularly refers to nature as the model for art (and stylistic writing): ‘the greatest achievement of art (τεχνη) is to imitate nature (το μιμησασθαι την φυσιν)(see section 5.2).129
(TO BE CONTINUED)