Even in the starry and distinguished group that comprises the recipients of the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit, this year’s winner stands out. Blending cultural poetics, rigorous philology, textual criticism, sociopolitics, and an enviable expertise in the literature both of ancient Greece and of modern scholarship, Leslie Kurke – Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature in the University of California at Berkeley – has written a masterful exploration of the ancient dialogue between high and low traditions, between philosophy and non-philosophical wisdom. Aesopic Conversations finds in the figure of Aesop – trickster, slave, parodist – a vehicle for critique from below of all kinds of hierarchical structures: religious, philosophical, social, rhetorical.
Kurke’s book has its own hierarchical progression, from the philological basis of our profession to a rich analysis of the Aesopic work at play in the development of the highest genres of Greek prose, philosophy and history. Richly and explicitly theorized, it analyses the ancient Vita of Aesop with the tools of source criticism and textual criticism, then moves to examine Aesopic critiques and the poltergeist of fable via a set of readings of Pindar, Aristotle, Babrius, Solon, and many others, using the tools of structuralism and post-structuralist literary theory. She returns then to the Life to construct what she calls an ‘anthropology of sophia,’ establishing Aesop as a pre- or non-philosophical sage, in her words, participating in the field of high wisdom and also critiquing or parodying it from below: “for insofar as Aesop embodies a distinctive sophia of the abjected and disempowered, the Aesop tradition contests the established form of high wisdom … [this] parody often works by exposing how such claims to high wisdom endorse and enable inequitable power relations and the oppression of the weak by the strong.” In the final chapters on Plato and Herodotus this ‘voice of resistance’ reappears in the Socratic gadfly, and in the first historian’s famous qualities of ‘indirection and obliquity’ that act as a challenge to its readers.
To say that Aesopic Conversations is a tour-de-force of literary and cultural criticism is to say the obvious. To say that, in it, Kurke shakes us up, offers us readings that are both complex and dazzlingly simple, and proposes no less than a completely new way of approaching the conversation between fable and high genre, between prose and poetry, between power and its opposite – that is to say why, and with what admiration, we are proud to present the 2012 Goodwin Award to Leslie Kurke.
Christina S. Kraus, Chair
James E.G. Zetzel