Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.11.11

Jonas Grethlein, Das Geschichtsbild der Ilias. Eine Untersuchung aus phänomenologischer und narratologischer Perspektive. Hypomnemata, 163.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.  Pp. 381.  ISBN 3-525-25262-5.  €69.90.  

Reviewed by Barbara Patzek, Universität Duisburg-Essen, Germany (
Word count: 3080 words

The question of history and the Iliad has been tackled by the minds of many ever since antiquity. Especially in Germany, the question of the historicity of the Trojan War has always been the centre of vivid debate. However, there is more to the question of history and the Iliad; in fact, there are quite a few opinions about what history in the epic really means. Besides the historicity of the story, there is the question of the historical Homer and his historical background. In addition, we inquire into the influence of epic poetry on later historiography and here, besides the influence of the epic on historiography itself, the question arises of whether we can already trace an element of historiography in the epic, i.e. if there could be an element of historical awareness and thus historical narrative in the Iliad. Grethlein's (henceforth G.) study aims at introducing a new phenomenological perspective into this. Hence, the term "historicity" (Geschichtlichkeit) here describes an elementary human consciousness of the past as an existential and cognitive condition. G. distinguishes this "idea of history" (Geschichtsbild) from the essentially cognitive historical consciousness of the modern historian. This opposition in fact is one of the basic parameters of this study. G. refers to Reinhardt Koselleck's influential treatises on the formation of modern historical thought and his semantics of historical time, which demonstrated a radical transformation in the experience of time after 1750 AD and which stresses an all-pervading difference between modern historicism and earlier ideas of history. The essential difference would lie in the modern understanding of the flow of time as progress resulting from a succession of actions and unaccountable but causal contingencies shaping the future, and the individuality of any historical context resulting from this. In contrast, pre-modern European conceptions of the past would rely on the use of history as "vitae magistra" in exemplary and traditional narrative. They would recognise contingency as an unpredictable awe-inspiring turn of fate, which usually offers a meaningful theological explanation of the limits of human existence.

G.s phenomenological approach is not altogether new to German Homeric research. The phenomenological school in the tradition of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and the anthropological and behaviourist branch of Helmut Plessner and Frederik J. Buytendijk, had in fact influenced post-war German humanities. Phenomenology helped change perspectives from national based cultural and historical concepts to the more critical approach by means of existential, anthropological, social and environmental explanations. Accordingly, history became recognised as the product of the complex conditions of life in all its aspects, the "life-world" of the phenomenologist. By introducing the question of historical perception into Homeric studies, Wolfgang Schadewaldt and Alfred Heuss came forward with new contributions to the question of history and the Iliad. They distinguished between a general awareness of the past in earlier myth and an early historical awareness in the Iliad, which they termed as "Zeitbewusstsein" i.e. the cognisance of the poet and his audience of living in their own peculiar and therefore distinct historical present, which determined their identity in time and space. This in turn conditioned their recognising the past as a separate historical era in time and space ("Vergangenheitsbewusstsein"). The in the terms of Hermann Strassburger "quasi-historical" recognition produced the typical archaising of heroic culture in the Iliad. Transposed into the spatial difference between Greeks and Trojans this recognition could even result in an early orientalising as cultural colouring of the Trojans and their allies in the epic past. Now G. attacks all this as based on modern historicist premises and tries to introduce a more general theoretical foundation for the Homeric idea of history by reference to the phenomenology of the experience of time as well as to its connection with narrative.

The volume is organised into nine parts with an introduction (chapter 1) a summary (chapter 8), an appendix listing all the exempla in the Iliad (9) an extensive bibliography (10) and indices of passages and general topics (11). Most chapters divide into extensive subchapters; carefully placed summaries try to bring home the often quite abstract reasoning of the author. The book is very nicely laid out in clear typesetting with few and unimportant printing errors. The introductory chapter presents a brief critical account of the previous German scholarship on the notion of history in the Iliad. Chapter 2 ("Theoretische Überlegungen I: Geschichte, Geschichtlichkeit, Geschichtsbilder") introduces the phenomenological approach. It lines out the German philosophy of history from Hegel to Dilthey and the early formation of phenomenology in Wilhelm Dilthey's correspondence with Paul York von Wartenburg and the foundation of phenomenology through Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and goes on to current philosophical discussions about how to define historical perception. Of primary importance to this perception would be not only the experience of temporality but also the temporality of experience itself, i.e. the reversal from anticipation to realisation in the temporal structure of human action and intention. The central idea of history would therefore connect to this basic realisation of contingency. Whereas moderns would be interpreting contingency as futile ("Beliebigkeitskontingenz"), the pre-modern mind would conceive contingency as fate ("Schicksalskontingenz"). Besides these two different aspects of temporality, G. brings up Jörn Rüsen's four different modes of historical memory, the traditional, exemplary, critical and genetic historical narrative. The last two would be typical of modern historiography whereas exemplary and traditional narrative would fit the pre-modern historical narrative.

Chapter 3 ("Interpretationen I: Das Geschichtsbild der Helden") confronts this with the text of the Iliad. G. claims that the speeches of the heroes would offer an unobstructed insight into the epic idea of history. A careful reading and interpretation of the Glaucus-Diomedes-scene develops the foundation of his major points. The example of Lykurgos, which Diomedes brings forward to show that no mortal should fight against a god (6. 130-140), opens the discussion of the first issue, the exemplary mode of historical narrative. All examples serve as models for action; they are authoritative but within limits, also open for criticism. The heightening of the past creates distancing and objectifies the example. The past would serve as an archive for exempla. G. stresses the point that the distance of the heroes from their own heightened past would be as great as the distance of author of the Iliad from the heroic past of his narrative.

A review of the genealogies of the heroes serves to illustrate the second issue, the traditional mode of historical memory in the Iliad. G.'s observations indicate that genealogies establish legitimization, explanation, or obligation and above all identity among the heroes. Among the genealogies, the exceptionally critical utterance of Glaucus is of special importance to G.s research because it widens the traditional notion into a further and broader meaning of time and tradition. Glaucus' famous words that the generations of men are as ephemeral as those of leaves emphasises the impact of contingency on the steady flow of tradition and the regular recurrence of the exemplary. The discordance between the contingencies of fate and the continuity of tradition and regularity of exemplary history would in fact be the essence of the heroic idea of history. Especially the fate of Achilles indicates to G. how strongly the theme of contingency shaped the heroic idea of history. Achilles escapes mortality because he deliberately chooses battle and death in exchange for fame ("kleos aphthiton"). In Achilles singing about heroic "kleos" the author of the Iliad would be reflecting his own task meta-poetically. From here, G. turns to other, in his opinion lesser, media of "kleos" esp. grave monuments, relics and walls. In his opinion, monuments figure above all as carrier of memory but do not transport independent historical messages.

Chapter 4 ("Übergang: Vom Geschichtsbild in der Ilias zum Geschichtsbild der Ilias") turns from the idea of history of the characters of the narrative to that of its narrator or singer, which as G. recapitulates would equal that of the epic heroes but extend to the broader scale of a complex narrative structure. Since the story of the Iliad recalls the heroic past, the question of past and present in the epic and that of the narrator's devices for creating this epic distance are crucial. Accordingly, the chapter contains a long and not very new or stimulating discussion about all the items connected to the so-called Archaeologia Homerica. In the end, G. dismisses any suspicion about early archaeology in the epic. His argument is that any recognition of the antiquity of a monument or any deliberate archaizing by the poet would be based on modern historicist assumptions on the uniqueness and individuality of historical cultures. Borrowing from Droysen's distinction about relics, sources and monuments G. affirms the hierarchy of the text over any other monumental source. In his opinion, relics and monuments would be equivocal and perishable; only the epic as text and tradition would overcome transience and escape contingency. However, would not tradition also perish under certain circumstances and not be decipherable to later generations just as the ancient monument on the racecourse which Nestor is unable to identify (23. 326-333), an observation on which G. grounds his argument? In addition, how would G. explain the ubiquitous habit of deliberate destruction of monuments to blot out memory? What I miss here is a reference to the phenomenology of the object and human intentionality towards it, especially to the perception of the object as evidence of a past even without a tale attached to it as Nestor's utterance shows! In his preference of text over monument, G. in my opinion uncritically joins with the much-criticised modern historicist!

Chapter 5 ("Theoretische Überlegungen II: Geschichtlichkeit und Erzählung") centres on cultural and historical narratology and draws attention to David Carr's theory of the temporal and narrative structure of experience. G. refers to Carr's theory of a non- or pre-thematic awareness of the past, as opposed to the thematic kind of knowledge that the historian seeks to accumulate, and to Carr's theory about the configurational character of temporal experience, which would mirror the means-end structure of human action. After outlining Paul Ricoeur's theory about the reciprocity between narrative and temporality and his description of the relationship between historical explanation and understanding narrative, G. defines his premise. The structure of narrative would refigure historical time; historical time understood as human time featuring temporal experience in the tension between anticipation and realisation. The temporality of human action would be experienced in literature by the characters of the stories themselves as well as by the recipient in the as-if of the story. Narrative fictional competence and everyday historical knowledge would relate in the act of the performance of the singer of oral poetry. The epic would thus be re-figuring the historical and social experience of historicity of the singer and the audience of the epic.

Chapter 6 ("Interpretationen II: Das Geschichtsbild der Ilias") explores how this is laid out in the Iliad. The first section of this chapter reassesses the latest scholarly debate about its (many) anticipatory and (few) retrospective devices. G. first turns to the prolepses (announcements of future events by the narrator or Zeus) principally aimed at the fate of the main characters. At moments of high suspense, author and god, and with them the audience, not only notice the heroes' fatal limitation of knowledge but also cry out to call them fools. In the utterance of "nepios" G. recognises the essential formula for the idea of history of the Iliad. On this narrative level, the tension of the means-end structure of temporal experience cumulates in total insight into the human condition of restricted and time-bound knowledge. G. demonstrates that contrary to this, the prolepses voiced by characters of the narrative do not offer comparable closure. In a second section, G. considers the question of whether the complete narrative structure of the Iliad could also have started a perception of contingence. Going back to James Morrison's work about Homeric misdirection, G. outlines how the audience of the Iliad is not only reassured by auctorial foreshadowing but also deliberately mislead by false predictions. G. draws attention to the fact that all prolepses that foreshadow the end of the story indicate two main events: the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy. He concludes that every recipient unfamiliar with the story of the Iliad, which really is the story of Achilles, would have expected the death of the hero at the end of the narrative. In the light of such dramatic expectation, the pensive scene of reconciliation between Achilles and Priam would have been not only surprising but also reassuring in bringing closure to the experience of contingency. The recipient who goes through almost the same emotional change (catharsis) as Achilles and turns from anger to pity with the hero would achieve a deeper understanding of his own temporal existence and of the human condition in general. In G.'s opinion, reconciliation, mourning and pity as the themes of the 24th song of the Iliad would directly have aroused everyday religious experiences. G. goes even further: Achilles himself as singer of the end of the poem turns the action around to pity and mourning and thus brings a closure to the narrative which would enable the audience to at least partly overcome contingency, the central idea of history of the epic.

The seventh chapter ("Ausblick: Die Ilias in der Geschichte") closes the study by finally linking the epic idea of history with the historical background of the Iliad. G. is not explicit about the definition of the poem as oral or written poetry and in turn, he is not very precise about the date of the epic, which he places between the middle of the eighth and the seventh century B.C. The goal of all his arguments is to show that the epic does not relate the ideas of an individual poet, but mirrors the real-life experiences of a historic people transformed into narrative understanding. After discussing the latest historical scholarship on early Archaic Greece, G. draws the general conclusion that the socio-economic and demographic changes of the time, the social experiences of insecurity would directly have brought up the idea of history of the epic. Under the impression of Koselleck's dichotomy between the modern and pre-modern experience of time, he strongly dismisses any scholarly speculation on a beginning of historical awareness or consciousness in the early Archaic period or of quasi-historic intimations in the Iliad. He refutes any awareness of the temporality and difference of cultures, which previous scholarship had identified in the poet's archaising and orientalising colouring of the heroic past, as based on the historicist's premise on the individuality of cultures. Instead, Homer's Iliad would offer a full-scale notion of the historicity of all humankind and in this would equal early Greek historiography such as Herodotus' Histories.

This learned study will be of interest to Homeric scholars, narratologists and those interested in narrative understanding, and especially the structural similarities of narrative to historical thinking and explaining. However, I fear that the reception will sometimes turn out to be controversial, and especially so with historians. Reading this book, I felt very uncomfortable with G.'s method of deducing from theory what would be historically possible or not. His observations on the conception of contingency in the Iliad are interesting but not altogether new, and not everybody would associate the concept of history with this basic awareness of the temporality of human existence even though it is an elementary component in the structure of historical narrative. Ever since Herodotus, the term "history" has been linked to the research of the factual past. It has been rewarding to apply this more precise component of historical interest to the more ancient source heuristically to find an element of proto-historiography in the epic. Here, we have discerned a general reflection on temporality and fate on the level of the general narrative structure and on the level of the single episode, and besides this a kind of historical surplus in the typical historical colouring practised by the poet of the Iliad. I think that G. misinterprets the use of Koselleck's distinction between modern and pre-modern conceptions of time. This has indeed been of much help to draw attention to the significantly systematic concept of modern historiography. Nevertheless, pre-modern historians like Herodotus and Thucydides were interested in the sequential nature of human actions and its causalities. Yet they did not employ the observation systematically nor did they use it as argument against the existence of fate or even divine interference as the modern historian would do. It is true that the idea of the individuality of a cultural system is central to historicism, but we know from experience that pre-moderns like the Greeks were able to recognise differences in the cultures of their neighbours not systematically but by cumulative observation. Built up on this, the term archaising had until now been useful to describe a cultural colouring the poet of the Iliad employed unsystematically to distinguish the heroic past from the present. This colouring consists of an amalgam of cultural traits and has nothing to do with modern archaeological procedure. This awareness of the difference of cultures should be consistent with the life-world of the Ionian Greeks of the time of the Iliad or the early colonists who did live in the middle of cultural exchange.

As phenomenology studies conscious experience from the first person point of view, I am also puzzled over how to distinguish between individual and social experiences of temporality. Alternatively and more bluntly expressed: can we really consider that an individual in everyday Archaic Greece would have thought about his or her personal experiences in the terms of heroic fate? In addition, does the complex narration about the actions of the gods in the Iliad really express ordinary religious experience? I further miss criteria to distinguish between the literary topic of contingency in the Iliad and everyday experience, the more so as the relation of these Homeric topics to oriental epic is obvious. Finally, concerning the function of the object in historical narrative an assessment of visual phenomenology is conspicuously absent in G.'s study. Is the description of an object just an optional accessory to narrative as G. maintains, or does the object transmit a message of its own? What property can an object have besides being a device of memory? In my opinion, the object at least may be capable of opening to the observer an experience of the presence of the past, an authenticity, which the narrative by itself cannot as easily evoke.

Read Latest
Index for 2007
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:25, Friday, 03 April 2009