Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.24

Response: Marylin A. Katz on Olson on Katz

In his recent review of my book on the Odyssey, Penelope's Renown, S. Douglas Olson grants me the validity of only one "point" -- the very one which, as it happens, he himself recently has advanced -- namely, that the Agamemnon story operates as a disruptive alternative in the poem. Otherwise, he claims, "errors, omissions, and misstatements of fact" (373), along with "careless treatment of the primary text" (377) vitiate "everything else" I have to say about the Odyssey and about Penelope within it.

Ten of these "errors and misstatements of fact" are appended to the review; a few more appear in its body. As comparison with my text shows clearly, they are manufactured either by misrepresenting what I do say, or by construing differences of opinion as factual errors. I have appended below a detailed discussion which will show that the representation of my book in this review is careless and untrustworthy, and that in every case but one the alleged errors do not exist. What Olson's string of allegations amounts to is this: one minor error of fact, a stylistic infelicity or two, some instances I might have included but whose omission does not materially affect the argument, and a major disagreement about the interpretation of Penelope's representation in the poem. This certainly does not amount to "a careless treatment of the primary text" which vitiates everything I say about it. So why does Olson claim that it does?

Let me return to my opening observation. The operation of the House of Atreus paradigm in the Odyssey is not a "point" (373, 374) that I make. It is the backbone of a book which argues that this paradigm is the controlling narrative device of the poem. When the page proofs of this book were being returned to the printer last February, the 1990 TAPA arrived containing Olson's article on "The Stories of Agamemnon in Homer's Odyssey." I saw immediately that we had covered the same ground, even to the point of a virtual duplication of secondary sources. We had cited the same lines of the text, and we had drawn many of the same implications from them, albeit in the service of entirely different interpretive enterprises.

Olson's article aims to show that "Agamemnon's death and the way it functions in the epic ... becomes a paradigm not just of the saga of Odysseus and his family, but also of the complexities of the interrelated processes of telling and listening to stories" (TAPA 1990: 57-58), and Winkler's Actor & Auctor is referenced for terminology and inspiration. But Olson's treatment is ultimately altogether conventional, restricting discussion and analysis to those points in the text where the Atridensage is mentioned explicitly, and concluding that "the Mycenean tales' most basic and repeated function in the epic ... is to create suspense and irony through a series of deceptive hints and foreshadowings, false leads and suggestive dead ends" (TAPA 1990:70). My book goes well beyond this kind of theme-and-motif analysis, and expands treatment of the Atridensage into a narratological analysis of the poem as a whole. I may have done this well or badly, successfully or not, but I have done it, and in so doing I have completely reconceptualized the interpretive issue of the House of Atreus motif in the Odyssey.

Furthermore, Olson is concerned with "the poetic processes of manipulation of the expectations of an audience listening to an oral poem" (58; cf. 57, 63, 70), and with the "creat[ion of] suspense and irony" (70). I make clear my lack of interest in the functioning of audience reception (17, 17 n.26), and I also state unambiguously that "I do not regard the generation of irony ... as an explanatory or interpretive principle that is sufficient to define either the meaning or the function of thematic and structural parallels" (17). So O.'s claim that his objections to my book "do not have to do with ... methodology" (377) are disingenuous, to say the least.

I exercised the option available to authors in the final stages of production not to cite new work, because I could not do so without incurring prohibitive costs and seriously disrupting the production schedule. (In addition, it was not my judgment that this article added significantly to the literature on the question.) In reviewing my book, Olson did not have the same opening available to him. Once he took on the responsibility of the review he was obligated to acknowledge that we had simultaneously discussed the same set of texts, and to defend his reading against mine. He has not done this. Instead, he has manufactured a set of errors which do not exist, in the service, it seems, of an attempt to legitimize dismissal of an interpretation that seriously contests both the validity and the importance of his own.

Readers of BMCR unfamiliar with both texts would in fact have no idea that the article of his that Olson cites in his first footnote discusses in detail the same passages that make up the textual basis of my book's central premise. And so they would have no way of knowing that Olson might have personal reasons for wanting to discredit my book. Fortunately, however, both sets of arguments are now in the public domain, and I invite interested scholars to compare them and to draw their own conclusions.

Olson's scorched-earth approach to the task of reviewing other scholars'work -- e.g., Gentili and Goldhill -- does not, in my view, produce results that are useful, although they may be entertaining to those for whom Schadenfreude is still die beste Freude. But reviewers ought above all to feel themselves obligated to the highest standards of integrity and responsibility in reading and reporting. Carelessness in this regard does not bring credit upon an important new journal which has otherwise distinguished itself for its timely, judicious, and informative assessments of new work in Classics.


The alleged errors are these (citations from my book are in each case taken from the page to which Olson refers the reader for substantiation of his points):

374: I do not say -- nor does Nagy or Edwards -- that Odyssean kleos "accrues only to those who die in battle or have a successful homecoming," but that "in the Odyssey, a successful nostos confirms kleos, and a disastrous one destroys it" (22), and this is not at all "difficult to square with Penelope's [remarks about Odysseus' kleos]."

374: O.'s complaint about my development on an "alleged Helen-paradigm" for Penelope's behavior in the later books "which scarcely leaps out at one from the text" is peculiar in the light of his own recently published article (which I cite), arguing that "the Spartan tales ... prepare us for what is to come many books later, in another household, between another couple" (AJP 1989: 394).

374: I do not "attempt to show that [Telemachus] first accepts his father's death and then returns home to seize control of his house and thus consolidate his glory." On the contrary, I specifically attribute this argument to others ("The subject of Telemachus's kleos is ordinarily approached..." [64]), and then go on (pp. 66-70) to examine in detail Telemachus' kleos in relation to the Orestes-paradigm ("There is another dimension to Telemachus's kleos, however...." [65]). O could scarcely have misunderstood my argument here, since his own is quite similar: "[Telemachus] makes a close paradigmatic association between the two stories [Orestes' and his own]" (TAPA 1990: 64).

374: Olson chides me for failing to cite Combellack's 1956 review of Page's Homeric Odyssey ("which Katz seems not to know"), and did I not know better I would attribute such a charge to inexperience in handling Homeric scholarship. As it is, the idea that this constitutes a serious omission is too ludicrous to warrant response.

375-77: In this section O. presents a counter-reading of Penelope in order to show that she is "a far more consistent and coherent character than Katz has made her out to be" (376). This simple reassertion of the very unitarian argument against which my book is constructed -- for a full statement of it, see Thornton, People and Themes, 1970 -- does not amount to a demonstration that I have either "mishandled [or] misread the text" (375). It goes only to show that stolid literalism is alive and well and living in Urbana-Champaign.

375: I have not "simply mistranslated the Greek" of XVII.547. In 546 ke with the optative (genoito) appears; in 547 ke with the future indicative (aluksei) appears. As Ameis-Hentze-Cauer remark of the same construction (ke + apoteisetai) in line 540 (which they translate as "wird buessen lassen"): "grammatisch korrekter waere [ke + aor opt]; aber gerade die Abweichung macht anschaulich, wie Penelope durch 525f." (A number of the manuscripts in fact read aluksai for aluksei in 547.) My translation, using "would" for the optative in 546 and "will" for the future in 547 is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of the modal difference. (In the section of Smyth to which O. refers the reader ke...ereei in Iliad IV.176 is translated as "will (may) say").

377: I do not say that "Penelope is banished permanently to her chambers upstairs," but that she "appears in the megaron unprotected ... by the barrier ... of male presence" only once (in XVI), and that otherwise either Telemachus is present or the suitors have withdrawn. I do not, it is true, include the example of her appearance in Book XVII ("a passage Katz simply ignores"), although its inclusion would serve only to substantiate my point further.

I turn now to the "catalogue of errors" on page 378 of the review, and I take them up in sequence:

(1): I do not say that Odysseus' boast is made to Polyphemus, but that the dolos there mentioned refers to "the dolos of the encounter with Polyphemus" (23) -- I regret it if I did not make my meaning sufficiently clear.

(2): There are of course two public assemblies represented in the poem, as O. notes, but as the context shows I was referring to assemblies of the suitors.

(3): Antinous' speech in the assembly assuring Telemachus that the suitors will not leave until Penelope marries does not contradict Eurymachus' earlier recognition that Telemachus is lord over his own household -- on the contrary, it confirms it, by challenging Telemachus to exercise that claim to authority by marrying off Penelope.

(4): I do not say that "the ambush set in Book IV initially has nothing to do with control of Odysseus' property." I say that "the [first] ambush is designed only to teach [Telemachus] a lesson," but that "the proposal for a second ambush is specifically formulated around the issue of hegemony" (73), and I substantiate this claim with textual citations.

(5): Telemachos' remark at II.313 is indeed made in his own house, as O. points out, and not in the assembly, as I mistakenly claim (124); but this is irrelevant to the substantive point under discussion.

(6): That erethizo in XIX.45 "is an odd and exceptional usage" is precisely the point of the discussion in Russo to which I refer the reader, and whose judgment I indicate I am following.

(7): It is not the case that "goao, goos does not refer specifically to mourning for the dead," which it does; it is true only that it does not refer exclusively to mourning for the dead, as I point out on page 141.

(8): I do not claim that Penelope is "the only woman in the poem to give guest-gifts to a visitor;" I say that typically "the kyrios of the household presents [such gifts] to his xeinos" (151). I discuss Helen's gift to Telemachos on page 71; it does not in any case function as a xeineion in the technical sense (i.e. instantiating an inheritable relationship between host and guest).

(9): Telemachos' remark cited by O. (and discussed by me on p. 37) is very far from consituting an accusation of impropriety comparable to the ones of Odysseus and Penelope which I instance.

(10): That both Paris and Odysseus constructed their homes or bedchambers at the point of marriage was a plausible possibility when I suggested it, and it remains one. The Iliadic passage was not advanced as "proof" of the Odyssean one, but, as I say, because it happens to furnish a suggestive comparison (179).