Study investigates "recognition" in Greek poetry | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

The Aristotelian concept of anagnorisis is the central theme of a book released by a USP literature professor

Study investigates "recognition" in Greek poetry

January 30, 2013

By José Tadeu Arantes

Agência FAPESP – Recognition or self-recognition, that is, discovering the identity of the other or one’s self, are recurring themes in mythology, folklore and literature, and are as old as the first epics and as current as the latest television shows. 
 
In the Mahabharata, the Indian epopee that describes the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas – two princely families united by blood ties but antagonized by moral conduct – one of the main characters fights the entire war on the wrong side because he does not know his true identity, which is only discovered later.
 
The book Cenas de reconhecimento na poesia grega (Scenes of recognition in Greek poetry), launched recently by Adriane da Silva Duarte, a professor of Greek language and literature at Universidade de São Paulo, is entirely dedicated to scenes of recognition in Greek, archaic and classical poetry. The work received FAPESP funding for publication.
 
Originally a thesis project, the book revolves around the concept of anagnorisis (recognition), as defined in Aristotle’s Poetics. Along with a theoretical reading of Aristotle’s text and the main commentators, the book investigates the anthological scenes of recognition that appear in such major epics as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and in the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander.
 
“In addition to being a structural resource for the narrative, which can underpin the unfolding conflict and can offer an emotional appeal, its vast presence, which is equally notable in myths, suggests that recognition is first a response to humankind’s unease about origin and identity,” wrote the author.  
 
Certainly, the most famous case of recognition in Greek tragedy, masterfully explored by Sophocles, is Oedipus, the Prince of Thebes, who, because he ignores his own identity, kills his father Laius and marries his mother Jocasta with whom he has four children. When he recognizes the man he killed as his father and his spouse as his mother, he gouges out his own eyes “to not have to ponder the consequences of being who he is,” explains Duarte.
 
The plot, as is widely known, deeply impressed Freud (1856-1939), who made the so-called “Oedipus complex,” which he considered universal, a fundamental part of psychoanalysis.
 
The recurrence of the theme
 
“Although still a poetic element, anagnorisis has a long history spanning to the present and manifesting itself in literature, cinema and other cultural forms,” says Duarte.
 
In the book, she mentions the fact that the term “recognition” is used in the legal universe when one refers to “recognition of evidence”, “recognition of a cadaver” or “recognition of paternity.”
 
However, her study focuses on Greek poetry. “I sought to explore the concept based on the Aristotelian perspective, which restricts recognition to identification among individuals. It excludes, however, cases in which the character recognizes an error or a truth – although Oedipus, in addition to recognizing Jocasta as his mother, becomes aware of the fact that she is,” comments Duarte.
 
Why does such an old theme, rooted in societies that are entirely different from today’s, continue to reverberate intensely in the contemporary world? “I understand this continued quest as a response to our need to know who we are and to determine our behavior in society,” she said. 
 
“Today, the idea of self-recognition has a strong appeal because of the impact of psychoanalysis. It presupposes that the individual never finds true recognition, not even with others or one’s self, having occult layers of the psyche that will emerge one day. It is the myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this manner, if recognition pertained to the other (and the relationship established with the other) in antiquity, today, it is centered more on one’s self,” notes the author.
 

 

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