Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.11.8

Frederick Ahl and Hanna M. Roisman, The Odyssey Re-Formed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. 341. $19.95. ISBN 0-8014-8335-2 (pb).

Reviewed by James J. O'Hara, Wesleyan University,

The title of this interesting and important book tells prospective readers too little about what the book has to offer. A more informative title would be something like Speech, Rhetoric and Survival in the Dangerous World of the Odyssey. As the Preface notes (ix-x:), Ahl and Roisman "discuss the Odyssey more or less book by book ... focusing particularly on instances in which the narrator or an internal speaker seems to be contradicting something stated authoritatively as fact elsewhere in the epic, for our central concern is with what we would describe as Homeric rhetoric." I complain about the book's title because I think it would be good for the book to receive a broad readership among Classicists working on authors other than Homer (like me), although I'm not sure I would go so far as to put it on the top of my list of books recommended to non-specialists, even though the book's format -- an attractively priced paperback with fully translated Greek quotations,1 and much effort to explain things fully -- well suits the broad audience that Ahl and Roisman clearly hope to reach.

Ahl's recent books on etymological wordplay in Ovid and on the innocence of the protagonist of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus2 have offered interesting but occasionally unconvincing arguments while at the same time rhetorically grabbing the reader by the throat and suggesting that doubt about even the tiniest part of the book puts the reader on the side of deluded and foolish ignorance. The present book is different in tone, and the collaboration between Ahl and Hanna Roisman, author of Loyalty in early Greek epic and tragedy (Königstein/Ts. 1984) and a number of articles on the Odyssey that buttress or anticipate parts of this book, is a happy one. The book's methodology and arguments bear some resemblance to those of Ahl's earlier work on Latin epic and on the "art of safe criticism at Greece and Rome."3 Some readers might be initially skeptical about the application of methods apparently originally developed for the reading of Neronian and Flavian literature to the study of archaic Greek epic, but the strategy makes more sense than one might have thought. The authors do not draw this out as explicitly as they might, but the key premise is that the world of the Odyssey is a dangerous place in which cautious and indirect speech and the ability to understand the cautious speech of others are as important as they ever were under a tyrannical ruler. In a sense, we are asked to imagine the world of the Odyssey (and perhaps of most of Greco-Roman antiquity) to be as dangerous as the world depicted in (this is my analogy, not theirs) the crime novels of Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosley, or in the near-future of the "cyberpunk" fiction of William Gibson.

After an introduction laying out the theoretical underpinnings of the book (on which more below) Ahl and Roisman trace the consequences of imagining such a world in a series of chapters that move through the poem in sequence, offering many valuable suggestions both on points of detail and on larger questions. They begin by arguing that while the Odyssey's proem suggests that Odysseus' companions died due to their own foolish eating of the Cattle of the Sun, many details in the poem, even those provided in Odysseus' own narrative, "undermine that tradition of Odysseus' total innocence" (24) in their destruction. When Telemachus visits Helen and Menelaus, everyone speaks cagily, guarding knowledge and postponing recognition for maximum personal benefit (33-39; this will be an important theme when Odysseus is back on Ithaca). When Helen and Menelaus tell conflicting stories about Odysseus, they are engaged in the kind of struggle for power that will recur throughout the epic (39-42; note how Menelaus' story of Proteus focuses "on how much more blessed Menelaus is than any other returning hero" [40]). So too during the "complex 'cat-and-mouse' game between Odysseus and the Phaeacians" (49). Everything Odysseus says to the Phaeacians involves "establishing himself as the lost hero of the Trojan War" (72), stressing his own formidable abilities4 even to the point of suggesting he may have a ship nearby, as he did when he told Polyphemus his ship had been destroyed (114), or "exculpat[ing] himself from blame for the loss of his troops" (86), by stressing that they suffered from "failure to follow his advice" (89) or that he was, oddly, off praying on the opposite side of Thrinacia when his men ate the cattle (90-91, 150; in President Bush's term, he was "out of the loop" on that Cattle of the Sun thing). The Phaeacians also come off as less naive an audience than I had thought (Alcinous' famous comment that Odysseus is not a lying thief [11.363-67, p. 67] looks less fatuous to me now), and as possibly both less peace-loving than Nausicaa says (49, 56-58; cf. perhaps the conflicting references to the peaceful Latins at the start of Aeneid 7) and less accomplished at sailing and travel than they themselves claim (63). Like Menelaus and Helen, Alcinous and Arete also struggle for power, this time with Odysseus cleverly playing one off the other: Nausicaa sends Odysseus to her mother because she knows that Arete will like the idea of his marrying her daughter, while the king, after hearing Odysseus' stories, will want to get this troublesome visitor off his island as soon as possible (65-68). Most of these ideas are put forth by Ahl and Roisman in a more careful and cautiously non-dogmatic way than the introduction might lead readers to suspect; they also offer a far more detailed reading than I can properly indicate here.

When Odysseus is back on Ithaca, Ahl and Roisman stress the difference between "recognition," the elusive moment at which someone realizes that the stranger is or may be Odysseus, and "acknowledgment," the moment at which someone admits to having recognized him. Here Ahl and Roisman enter the long-running debate about what Penelope knows, feels, or wants, but they do so with a fair amount of circumspection, and also with the benefits of both close attention to detail (see, e.g., pp. 226-27 on Odysseus, in Penelope's eyes, as possibly likened by intertextual allusion to a Hector doomed to lose to Achilles), and an overarching theory of the poem into which uncertainty about Penelope fits fairly well. The problem that may separate "recognition" from "acknowledgment" for some characters is that to recognize the aged, unimpressive beggar as the returning king might be dangerous, for "there is no guarantee that [Odysseus] will be able to reestablish himself" and "it seems more likely that he will bring himself to ruin and will ruin anyone who allies himself or herself with him" (156). And so Odysseus must sound out and prove himself to each potential ally, and so he "tailors his Cretan narrative to each specific listener for a specific purpose" (165), wisely omitting implausible claims that he has been spending time with goddesses, witches, giants or sailors with magic boats. If Penelope recognizes Odysseus, she "must now choose between the youthful but feckless suitors and the wizened but intelligent older man. Her tears for the Odysseus who was young and handsome as well as intelligent are in vain. He will never return" (233). Ahl and Roisman have interesting comments on how "Penelope's heroism is more complex and subtle than her husband's" (271); they also strongly suggest that the need for Odysseus to leave home again almost immediately to follow Tiresias' instructions profoundly sours the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope (271, 284).

I mentioned briefly above Ahl and Roisman's theoretical introduction, and wish now to comment more on its strengths and weaknesses in a way relevant as well to evaluation of the whole book, in the context of some other recent work on Homer and other authors. Of the book's "two methodological assumptions" I begin with the second, that "the Homeric muse [their way of replacing the term 'Homer' or 'the poet' or 'the text'] presupposes the existence of a broad pool of mythic material known to the ancient audience from bardic and other traditions which she could modify or even replace with her new formulation" (2). Throughout the book Ahl and Roisman make a large number of interesting and attractive suggestions about ways in which the Odyssey covertly alludes to other versions of myths than the one it is telling, e.g., stories of Odysseus' sons by Circe or Calypso. The introduction's discussion of this topic is disquieting in two ways. The first, happily, is evanescent, for in the introduction I had a sense that I was being manipulated into lowering my standards of evidence for what constitutes a Homeric or post-Homeric version of a story, but actually throughout the book suggestions based on ambiguous evidence are made more cautiously and conditionally than the introduction led me to expect. My second complaint is that the introduction, striking a tone familiar from some of Ahl's earlier work, exaggerates the extent to which the book's position on this (and other matters) represent a stance of lonely and heroic scholarship. The failure to mention neo-analysis in the introduction is itself odd,5 even if neo-analysts discuss variant versions of myths in a way very different from the way this book does, but my larger complaint is that Ahl and Roisman have missed an opportunity to position their book in the context of major trends in the study of allusion to variant and often incompatible versions in both Homer and many later authors. For example, Gregory Nagy and Mark Griffith have talked about the way in which archaic poets tell one version of a story, but sometimes allude to a different, often contradictory version.6 Marilyn Katz (cited by Ahl and Roisman a few times on points of detail) has argued that contradictory details in the Odyssey's portrait of Penelope, who seems to be both loyal to Odysseus, and ready for re-marriage, are not to be explained away, but constitute "an indeterminacy of both narrative form and character representation."7 Latinists like me had thought that alluding to or combining contradictory versions was a particularly learned Alexandrian or neoteric thing for a poet to do, pointing to the classic examples in which Vergil or Propertius is describing one mythological character named Scylla or Atalanta, but makes unmistakable allusion to the other homonymous character, perhaps alluding to the work of earlier poets like Callimachus, Parthenius, or Gallus.8 Whether instead poets in all periods do this is a large and interesting question that deserves more attention than this book gives it, and which could alter our way of looking at a number of problems. One salient example comes to mind. In his earlier book Ahl argued that in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, inconsistencies in the case against Oedipus prove almost incontrovertibly that he is an innocent victim of a frame-up job by Creon and Tiresias. Like Ahl's work on etymologizing in Ovid, this argument has been completely believed by some, and completely dismissed by others. I would take the details to which Ahl and others have pointed in the OT and look at them in the light of what the scholars mentioned above have argued about archaic poets' alluding to variants, to come up with this formulation: Sophocles' Oedipus tells the story of an Oedipus who did it, who is guilty, but alludes to a version in which, or to the possibility that, he did not do it. The new Ahl and Roisman book seems closer to this approach, but makes no mention of the possibility of revising Ahl's theory of the Oedipus.

The other "assumption" announced in the introduction is that "the manipulative power of language is central to the construction and art of the Odyssey"; this assumption "prompts us to a rhetorical reading of the Odyssey along the lines of ancient practice, which preferred artful and oblique expression, figured speech, to plain and blunt statements" (2). The words "ancient practice" here might seem to be referring to ancient ways of reading Homer, but in fact they refer to ancient rhetorical precepts found in Aristotle, Hermogenes' On Invention, Plutarch, Quintilian, and Demetrius' On Style, which talk about "safe criticism," as Ahl's earlier article put it, or "formidable speaking" or deinotes, which "relies on the listener to adduce details omitted by the text (or the speaker)" (14). The discussion of these sources in the introduction, repeating or supplementing Ahl's earlier articles, is interesting and informative, as are the suggested links between early oral theory, Matthew Arnold's desire for "transparency and translatability" in poetry (9, quoting Lynn-George), the way that "the criteria of textual criticism ... have passed over into the literary criticism of ancient authors," and the intolerance of many critics for ambiguity in Homer (9). But I am disappointed that there is not more discussion of the "ancient practice" of reading Homer. Ancient rhetoricians may be "the 'lost' literary critics of antiquity" (13) and their discussions of the use of language are invaluable, but for the reading of Homer they are extremely indirect evidence; the most accurate description of their effect on this book is to say they have enabled Ahl and Roisman to escape from certain modern ways of looking at the Odyssey and develop a way of looking at the poem that may make sense of the text itself. But in fact I believe that actual study of the "ancient practice" (or some ancient practices) of reading Homer would support Ahl and Roisman's notion that many contradictions or inconsistencies within the poem can be explained by looking at the rhetorical goals of the speaker. Since much of the introduction seems to have been cut-and-pasted from earlier work, let me cut and paste a bit of material on Homeric readers I published in a study of Vergil perhaps not seen by most Homerists.9 Aristarchus seems to be the source of the idea, found in the Homeric scholia and elsewhere, that the prosopon, the character who is speaking or the persona, is the source of many inconsistencies in Homer. Porphyrius' term for this critical maneuver is lysis ek tou prosopou ("solution from the character speaking"). A scholiast on Il. 6.265 (Aristonicus, perhaps drawing on Aristarchus) notes the apparent contradiction between Hecuba's claim that wine gives strength, and Hector's idea that wine weakens, but explains "the characters (prosopa) who speak are different." Porphyrius Quaest. Hom. p.100, 4 Schrader used this passage to speak at length on the general principle: "It is no cause for wonder if in Homer contradictory things are said by different voices. For whatever things he himself says speaking in his own prosopon must be consistent and not in conflict with one another. But whatever he gives to other prosopa to say should be thought to be not his own words, but those of the persons speaking." A scholiast on Il. 17.588 (again Aristonicus), where Hector calls Menelaus a soft warrior, explains the apparent contradiction between this passage and others where Menelaus is shown to be a good fighter: "the character, who is hostile to Menelaus, speaks slanderously." Athenaeus Deipn. 5.178d faults Plato for saying, based on this line, that Menelaus is a soft warrior (Symp. 174B), saying that "it is not true that if something is said in Homer, it is Homer who says it"). At Od. 9.107, Odysseus describes the Cyclopes as "trusting in the immortal gods." A scholiast on 106 reconciles this with Polyphemus' statement that "the Cyclopes do not care about aegis-bearing Zeus" (9.275) by noting, "consider that the character speaking is the flesh-eating, savage Polyphemus." Most of these sources deal with more trivial matters than does most of Ahl and Roisman's book, but they offer more direct evidence for ancient reading of Homer than do the rhetoricians, and it may be important to know that I just cobbled these sources together from a couple of old German dissertations while writing my own dissertation on Vergil. I did not have then the Indices to Erbse's edition of the scholia to the Iliad, which offer a half-column of citations of the word prosopon, or the new "D" disk from the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, which unlike earlier version contains the Homeric scholia, and on which a quick search for prosop- finds over 300 examples, several of which look promising in terms of getting a handle on the "ancient practice" of reading Homer.

As with Ahl and Roisman's suggestions about allusions to variants, their central argument -- that contradictions in statements made by different characters in the poem should make us think about each speaker's rhetorical goals and incentive to lie or mislead -- should also be viewed against the backdrop of much recent work on re-intepreting rather than explaining away inconsistencies in a number of ancient authors. The introduction does refer helpfully to Vergil a couple of times and to Lucan once (with the keen observation [ p. 16] that the deaths of both Vergil and Lucan provide an "escape hatch" or way to avoid dealing with their epics' inconsistencies), but much can be gained by properly situating the present work in the context of other recent work, in what is a growing and I think under-analyzed trend in Classicial Studies, in which inconsistencies in texts are being interpreted rather than explained away. The works on Homer by Nagy, Griffith, and Katz mentioned above deal with the presence of or allusion to contradictory variants within the same poem; in a sense they combine what is kept separate by the two main "assumptions" of Ahl and Roisman's introduction. We could also mention the following (this list admittedly includes works on a range of different types of inconsistencies): Nagler's suggestion that the Iliad and the Odyssey offer "representational inconsistency as a reflection of ideological uncertainty"; Morrison's book on Homeric Misdirection: False Predictions in the Iliad; Heiden's Tragic Rhetoric: An Interpretation of Sophocles' Trachiniae; Heath's important if unsatisfying Unity in Greek Poetics; Winkler's work on Heliodorus and Apuleius; Weber and Gaisser on the contradictory chronology in Catullus 64 suggesting that the Argo both is and is not the first boat; Zetzel and Freudenberg on "contradictory structures" (Zetzel's phrase) in the first book of Horace's Satires; Lyne's argument that in his prophecy to Venus in Aeneid 1 Jupiter, to quote Lyne, "is adapting the facts to suit his immediate needs" and "prophesying rhetorically"; and Masters' claim that Lucan's Bellum Civile offers a "fractured" narrative voice so that in this poem about Roman civil war "Lucan is at war with himself."10 I would also mention papers given at the last two meetings of the American Philological Association, Ruth Scodel's 1995 discussion of the function of inconsistencies in statements about the removal of the arms from the hall in the Odyssey (brief mention of this problem in Ahl and Roisman p. 222), and Ralph Hexter's 1994 paper arguing that the "cumulative and often contradictory commentary" on ancient texts presented to the "post-Aristarchan scholarly reader" a "polyvocal" text in which conflicting views are presented side by side.11 As a cautionary tale, I should also mention an interesting if somewhat cranky book by a textual critic of American literature named Herschel Parker, who has some pretty funny examples of elaborate theories worked out to interpret inconsistencies in Twain, Melville, Crane, Fitzgerald, and others, where he can prove, using diaries and other documents, that the inconsistencies were introduced by lazy revisions, poor or puritanical editing, or even typesetting errors.12 In a book running over 300 pages that one hopes to offer as a paperback for less than $20, clearly choices had to be made about pruning references to secondary material. But more could have been done, in a concise way, to position the book among current trends in Classical Studies for its intended audience.

I began this review by noting that the title The Odyssey Re-formed tells the reader too little about what the book has to offer. I'd like to end by pondering what the title does mean. I'm not sure I know the answer to this question. Some aspects of the book's theoretical approach might suggest that the poem is "re-formed" with each new reader or auditor, but this is never made clear. I don't think there is any explicit reference to Homeric "multiforms," nor do "metaformations" (the title of Ahl's book on Ovid) play any central role. The conclusion presents an interesting catalogue of the "no fewer than five Odysseuses" present in the poem (282), and ends with speculation on how the main Odysseus of the Odyssey supplanted the hero of earlier versions, but this would be Odysseus, not The Odyssey, Re-formed. The only plausible explanation I can think of is that the title is referring rather grandiosely to this book's own potential for supplanting all the other recent scholarship on the poem: the Odyssey is "re-formed" by this wondrous reading. This is true to a certain extent, and in keeping with the agonistic spirit of the Odyssey itself, and with the supreme confidence of its hero. But rather than replacing all other studies, this one must merely take its place as a fine contribution to the study of the Odyssey and of ancient narrative more generally.


  • [1] The book's first footnote, however, cites Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum without mentioning the fine translation with introduction and notes by A. Grafton, G. W. Most, and J.E.G. Zetzel (Princeton 1985).
  • [2] Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets (Ithaca 1985), Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction (Ithaca 1991).
  • [3] Frederick Ahl, "The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome," AJP 105 (1984) 174-208, "Homer, Vergil, and Complex Narrative Structures in Latin Epic: An Essay," ICS 14 (1989) 1-31; both are cited several times, but it is not made clear how much the introduction owes to them. The latter article includes a fine "rhetorical" reading of Aeneas' narrative in Aeneid 2 complementary to the new book's reading of Odysseus' Phaeacian narrative; on Aeneas cf. too Ralph Hexter, "What Was the Trojan Horse Made Of?: Interpreting Vergil's Aeneid," Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (1989-90) 109-31.
  • [4] I miss a reference to Anthony T. Edwards, Achilles in the Odyssey (Königstein/Ts. 1985), especially in Chapter 5's discussion of Odysseus' story of his visit to the Underworld.
  • [5] Contrast the full acknowledgment of the work of the neo-analysts, prefatory to departing from their methods, in M. A. Katz, Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton 1991) 13-16.
  • [6] Cf. Mark Griffith, in "Contest and Contradiction in Early Greek Poetry," pp. 185-205 in Cabinet of the Muses: Essays ... in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde, eds. (Atlanta 1990) 185-205, G. Nagy, "Mythological Exemplum in Homer" pp. 311-31 in R. Hexter and D. Selden, eds., Innovations of Antiquity (New York/London 1992); my favorite brief example is Nagy's idea that at Il. 21.237 when the river Xanthus "bellows like a bull" this is a "conscious acknowledgement of a variant tradition" in which the river actually takes on the shape of a bull.
  • [7] Katz (above n. 5) 192.
  • [8] Cf. D. O. Ross, Jr., Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus, Elegy and Rome Cambridge (1975) 62 on Propertius 1.1.15, R.O.A.M. Lyne, Ciris: A Poem Attributed to Vergil (Cambridge 1978) on Ciris 54-91 (p. 125), R. Coleman, Vergil: Eclogues (Cambridge (1977) on Ecl. 6.74ff., A. Barchiesi, "Discordant Muses," PCPS 37 (1991) 1-21, esp. 8 ("the juxtaposition of alternative and incompatible versions seems to originate with Callimachus"), Stephen Hinds, "Medea in Ovid: Scenes of the Life of an Intertextual Heroine," MD 30 (1993) 9-47, esp. 14-16.
  • [9] J. O'Hara, Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid (Princeton 1990) 123-27 (="Appendix to Chapter Three: Inconsistencies in Prophecies and the 'Solution from the Character Speaking.'") (I drew principally on A. Roemer, Die Homerexegese Aristarchs in ihren Grundzügen. Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums 13, edited by E. Belzner [Paderborn 1924] 223, 253-56; H. Dachs, Die LU/SIS E)K TOU= PROSW/POU: Ein exegetischer und kritischer Grundsatz Aristarchs und seien Neuanwendung auf Ilias und Odyssee [Ph.D. diss., Erlangen 1913]).
  • [10] M. Nagler, "Ethical Anxiety and Artistic Inconsistency: The Case of Oral Epic," pp. 225-39 in Cabinet of the Muses: Essays ... in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde, eds. (Atlanta 1990); J. Morrison, Homeric Misdirection: False Predictions in the Iliad (Ann Arbor 1992); B. Heiden, Tragic Rhetoric: An Interpretation of Sophocles' Trachiniae (Bern/Frankfurt am Main/New York/Paris 1989); M. Heath, Unity in Greek Poetics (Oxford 1989); J. Winkler, Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius's The Golden Ass (Berkeley/Los Angeles 1985), "The mendacity of Kalasiris and the narrative strategy of Heliodorus' Aithiopika," YCS 27 (1982) 93-138; C. Weber, "Two Chronological Contradictions in Catullus," TAPA 113 (1983) 263-71; J. H. Gaisser, "Threads in the Labyrinth: Competing Views and Voices in Catullus 64," AJP 116 (1995) 579-616; J.E.G. Zetzel, "Horace's Liber Sermonum: The Structure of Ambiguity," Arethusa 13 (1980) 59-77; K. Freudenberg, The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire (Princeton 1993); R.O.A.M. Lyne, Further Voices in Vergil's Aeneid (Oxford 1987); (cf. also O'Hara [above n. 9] passim); J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Cambridge 1992; cf. my review in CJ 89 [1993] 83-86). I have begun to discuss this material in "They Might Be Giants: Inconsistency and Indeterminacy in Vergil's War in Italy," in Studies in Roman Epic, edd. H. Roisman and J. Roisman, Colby Quarterly 30 (1994) 206-26, and am working on a longer study.
  • [11] Ralph Hexter, "Commentary, Reading, Writing," One Hundred Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association: 1994 Abstracts (Worcester, Mass. 1994) 278, Ruth Scodel, "The Removal of the Arms in the Odyssey," One Hundred Twenty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association, 1995 Abstracts (Worcester, Mass. 1994) 3. For Hexter's point cf. now Gregory Nagy, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge 1996) esp. 107-52.
  • [12] Herschel Parker, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction (Evanston, 1984).