Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.09

G.M. Wright, P.V. Jones, Homer: German Scholarship in Translation.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997.  Pp. viii, 346.  ISBN 0-19-814732-5.  $86.50.  

Reviewed by Andrew S. Becker
Word count: 2616 words

Novelty, innovation, the most recent tale, all these are good; but they can, at times, seem too good. This volume is a reminder of scholarship that is good and, in the world of literary study, fairly old. But, what can you say about articles that are classics in Homeric studies? They have been discussed, embraced, revised, renewed, rejected, many times before. Some are dated -- the focus of debate has changed in the last generation; some are less convincing; some seem almost quaint, making assumptions that are no longer simply assumable without argument; most, however, are a bracing reminder of what we gain from scholarship written in German in, roughly, the first three-fourths of our century. These articles are not just of historical interest. While they helped shape the current discussions of things Homeric, and for this they are useful, they also give excellent readings of individual passages and exemplify practices that we can still use. (Jones himself makes this point on p.21.) This is neither a book for the general public, nor even for scholars in other fields. This is a book for the professional classicist, or those training to be such -- a book for experts and those who wish to become experts. The book assumes a careful knowledge of Homeric Greek. It may seem a bit odd that a book of translated articles is designed for an audience that could and should read them in German. This may further limit the audience to scholars and graduate students whose German is still not comfortable enough, or advanced undergraduates. Having said this, I myself admit that there were essays that I hadn't read, and this collection brought them before me in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise. This itself may be no small service--if this book encourages those who have not read some of these articles to go now and read them in German. It also will encourage us to go back to the more familiar articles, and deal with them anew. There is good in this.

The translations are well executed, and as clear as can be expected when dealing with sometimes monumental German sentences. I did not do a detailed comparison with the original for each article, but I did do some spot-checking on important passages from selected works I have on my shelves (Schadewaldt and Reinhardt). I noticed nothing that I thought misleading (with perhaps one exception, noted below), and much that I thought brought out the sense of the German efficiently and well. The comparisons I did in key passages gave me confidence in the rest of the translations.

The volume begins with Jones' Introduction, which is a very good outline of many issues dealt with by the articles in this volume; Jones elaborates on these issues, bringing the debates up to date, and he includes a useful modern bibliography. I did miss references to a few important modern works, notably the near omission of Nagy's books (mentioned briefly in a footnote). Agree or disagree, we cannot justifiably ignore Nagy's significance. Jones is very good at arguing to join individual artistry with an oral tradition, arguing that verbal dexterity within an oral tradition is an admirable kind of invention:

In a formular system, the poet has no option but to work with his formulae. But this does not deny him the ability to be inventive. He can be inventive in their manipulation and recombination. There is more to this than dexterity. It is the point at which art and craft cross. (p.29)

This introduction is a clear statement of a modern unitarian position. Now to the individual articles.

First comes Hermann Strasburger "The Sociology of the Homeric Epics" (1952). The article focuses on the place of work in the aristocratic Homeric world. He sees the sociology of the epics as that of the 8th century BC, and discusses a "balancing" of agricultural attitudes and heroic nobility. (This is the one article in the collection that slipped, on occasion, into an unwieldy translation-ese; e.g., p.48, "Although ... non-material and material values.") This is a solid opening article, followed by D. Lohmann "The 'Inner Composition' of the Speeches in the Iliad" (1970). Lohmann discusses ring-composition and concentric structure, organizing the article around individual discussions of 13 speeches, followed by some reflection on these, then closing with 4 more passages. He then discusses parallel composition (6 speeches). (In Jones' introduction to this article, I missed mention of Keith Stanley's The Shield of Homer, with its elaborate and detailed outlines of ring composition and parallel composition in the Iliad).

The third article is H. Fränkel "Essence and Nature of the Homeric Similes" (1921). From this paper we still have much to learn. Fränkel moves us away from reductive definitions of simile or digression, and focuses on the local effects of these passages in the epic. The individual discussions are excellent, and he provides a good example of a healthy approach: e.g., "the result ... cannot be dogmatically predicted, but can at best only be described afresh for every single case." (p.111) This is a good statement of the primacy of particularity over (often sterile) over-generalization. My only quibble is that the assumptions are, not surprisingly, dated at times, such as "primitive man" (p.118). As Jasper Griffin has pointed out in a recent New York Review of Books, we have moved beyond the age where we can use this adjective unselfconsciously, since it does far more than describe.

There follow two chapters from W. Schadewaldt's Von Homers Welt und Werk (1959), the first of which is interesting, and the second of which is superb. First comes "Hector and Andromache." The virtues of traditional close reading come to the fore here: Schadewaldt's thoughts are grounded in philology but also free enough to speculate. This is a healthy combination, avoiding the Scylla of pedantic stagnation as well as the Charybdis of groundless fancy. There is a bit too much sexism for current tastes in the characterization of Hector (rational, calm, understanding) and Andromache (subjective, lack of understanding); their traits are treated as generally masculine and feminine. We now see that even in Homer there is more understanding and reason in Andromache's position than Schadewaldt acknowledges. This is to cavil, however, and the practices of a past age should not blind us to the benefit that Schadewaldt's scholarship has -- benefit that will come out more clearly in the next article. The editors chose not to translate the last two sections of this essay (pp. 229-233 in the original) on Sophocles' Aias and Schiller; while I can see that they are not central to the argument, they are still of interest, and can help us see the various contexts that helped shape Schadewaldt's arguments.

The best contribution in the volume, to my mind, is "Achilles' Decision." This is a great article. It is a tremendous example of the virtues of what my teachers in England called "practical criticism"; Schadewaldt focuses on what happens from line to line, passage to passage, giving excellent descriptions, characterizations, explanations, information, and implications. Schadewaldt's discussion is an example we should all use for our students (and ourselves), an example of exegesis that is both intelligent and passionate. The unfettered pleasure he takes in Homeric poetry is a far cry from the often useful but just as often over-used poetics of suspicion. Schadewaldt's essay also exemplifies what the linguist Haj Ross, after William Blake, calls the assumption of total significance, the assumption that everything and anything in our reading of the text may be, potentially, important: "These details ... show how close an observation Homer's art tolerates and demands." (p.153; "... diese Einzeldinge, die zeigen mögen, eine wie aufmerksame Beobachtung Homers Kunst verträgt und verlangt ..."). Schadewaldt consistently asks how we can find beauty and use in what we are reading, and this attitude extends to lists and catalogues: "But if you look at it patiently, this Homeric catalogue of Nereids reveals a symmetry and loveliness of formation ..." (p.154). We should all be in Schadewaldt's debt for "bei geduldiger Betrachtung" (translated as "if you look at it patiently"), which should hold the reader on the sound and pattern of the Homeric language itself, and keeps us from a too quick and too facile move to some world beyond the words. In this paper, even the parts that are questionable are well laid out and well used (e.g., the assumption that organic unity and complexity are necessarily the results of a single mind, p.165).

On the heels of Schadewaldt's masterpiece comes Karl Reinhardt's "The Judgement of Paris" (1960), the first of two selections from Reinhardt. It is a good example of philological archaeology, and hence another essay useful for our students (and ourselves). He shows that Hera and Athena's unremitting hostility to Troy is a result of the judgment, hence the tale of the judgment is not late, but is already assumed by our Iliad. Reinhardt does, I think, take the enthusiasm and appreciation found in Schadewaldt a bit too far; it becomes jingoistic (e.g., p.191: "awakener of the Western spirit").

Moving to the Odyssey, we have Friedrich Klingner "The Fight for Justice and Departure of Telemachus" (1944). He argues for the organic unity of Books 1 and 2 with the rest of the Odyssey. While an interesting essay, it suffers from its proximity to Schadewaldt: Schadewaldt's method is to share, in a detailed and engaged fashion, the experience of reading and thinking about a text, in the hope that we too will share his responses. Klingner, in contrast, gives us pronouncements, ordering his audience to agree, rather than convincing us. There is good in the essay, however, and I am convinced that he is right, in spite of his bullying rhetorical style.

Karl Reinhardt's second piece comes next, "Homer and the Telemachy, Circe and Calypso, the Phaeacians" (1948). Reinhardt has an admirable ability to retell and characterize and paraphrase in a way that (a) shows hitherto unseen facets of a scene and (b) makes clear confusing aspects. While we may not agree with all of it, he is a master describer of what is going on in a given passage. The beginning of this essay is very good, on Goethe and Wolf and the like, giving a thumbnail sketch of analytical criticism. His purpose is a unitarian answer to the analysts (p.225), and he does this well. Reinhardt does this by showing how closely integrated these scenes are, not only in terms of the plot but in terms of their characteristic features as well. He also has a very good discussion of the different ways people treat one another in the Iliad and the Odyssey: alienation of the Iliad, integration or finding one another in the Odyssey. There are a few parts that are less convincing: e.g., he uses "psychological awareness" as a feature differentiating poetry or novella from folk-tale. These kinds of definitions by exclusion fall into two traps: irrelevance, if the definition is too obvious to be useful, or narrowness. Reinhardt also, at times, takes on the ex cathedra tone, ordering us to agree rather than showing us why we should agree: e.g., "It is obvious to any one who has eyes" (p.235, "liegt für jeden Sehenden vor Augen"). It was a different age. He ends with a fine final line, which is redeeming in terms of methods and approaches: "All methods, however they change, depend on what is seen in each case." (p.248; "Alle wie auch immer wechselnden Methoden hängen ab von dem, was jedesmal gesehen wird."). When the method and the text do not seem to work well together, which must go? Reinhardt gives us a healthy practicality.

We then come to Walter Burkert "The Song of Ares and Aphrodite: On the Relationship between the Odyssey and the Iliad" (1960). He treats the ways in which Odyssey 8 presupposes Iliad I, and, similarly, how the Iliadic Dios apate is presupposed in the Odyssean vignette of Ares & Aphrodite. Burkert makes much of the repetition of similar lines and phrases that are not clearly formulaic, and comes to a conclusion on p.257: "Again, the comparison has led from the linguistic to the factual: the gods' individuality in Demodocus' song has been formed under Iliadic influence." Burkert then takes this conclusion, and does what makes him the scholar he is: he asks the dreaded "So what?" question, exploring the implications of the conclusion he has just reached. He wants to know why the gods are so detached in this particular scene, when his general view is that the gods are detached in the Iliad but involved in the moral life of characters in the Odyssey. Burkert sees the fit of this passage in the Odyssey coming from its celebration of tekhne over phusis. Burkert ends by talking of the Odyssean focus of "divinity" in the figure of Zeus, which heralds later views. This article also includes a useful bibliography on the Homeric Question.

The final article is Hartmut Erbse "The Ending of the Odyssey: Linguistic Problems" (1972). Erbse discusses linguistic problems that others, specifically Page, have used to argue that the end of the Odyssey is an inorganic accretion. His point is that the language of the end of the Odyssey is indeed peculiar, but this does not mean that it is not integral or original. He spends many useful pages showing that linguistic peculiarity is a common feature of Homeric composition and is not limited to one section. Erbse sees Homer as a literate poet composing in an oral tradition (p.273) -- not surprising or very controversial; his reasons are somewhat dated (oral poetry could not have such organic unity, e.g.). Erbse, in fact, gives short shrift to oral composition and oral tradition, underestimating the complexity available to the bard composing in such a tradition. (In this he is not alone in this volume--even Schadewaldt's great piece approaches this.) For example, Erbse claims that improvised oral composition cannot explain the "perfection" of the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey (p.271) or that Homeric "brilliance" (p.271) refutes the claim of oral composition; these are not arguments, and they make assumptions about oral poetry that can no longer merely be stated as unproblematic truths. Welcome in Erbse, however, is his affirmation of a response more complex than merely to assume oral vs. literate; he suggests a literate poem posing as an oral one, but he still appropriates too much for literacy and leaves too little sophistication for oral poetry. The bulk of this article is thirty pages of very detailed refutation of Page's objections to the end of the Odyssey. As he argues for the coherence between the end of the Odyssey and the rest of the epic, Erbse gives us masterful examples of the use of philological evidence in interpreting individual passages.

This is a well produced, thoughtful, and useful volume, and it performs a service. For those who have not or will not read these essays in German, it allows some measure of exposure to these excellent articles. For those who have read them or will read them, it provides a stimulus to attend to their arguments (again), and a convenient way to use and refer to them. Reading the papers all together, along with Jones' introduction, also gives a useful perspective, allowing their concerns and methods to become clearer in relation to one another. In short, we all should read this book, even if we have read the papers before.

At the end there is an Index Locorum to the whole collection, which is valuable, as is the General Index (n.b. the entry under "Achilles, armour" should read p.122 n.34, and should add p.122 itself -- not just the note.).

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