Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.57

Glenn W. Most, Larry F. Norman, Sophie Rabau (ed.), Révolutions homériques. Seminari e convegni 19.   Pisa:  Edizioni della Normale, 2009.  Pp. vii, 162.  ISBN 978887642362.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Constanze Güthenke, Princeton University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Since antiquity, Homeric questions -- of which the Homeric Question over single or multiple authorship is only one manifestation -- have in effect been a litmus test in the reach of cultural or literary debates. This elegant edited volume, which is the result of an international colloquium held at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in March 2006, may look at first sight like a collection covering a broad chronological range, from Lucian to Joyce; at closer inspection, though, it is intelligently conceived around a central axis that in the French context is indicated by the terminology of the Querelle des anciens and des modernes, but that really deals with the question of how Homer has been read, and under what conditions he could have been read, in relation to notions of modernity. Though French in language and in tone, it is a volume that deserves a wider readership ready to think with the issues it raises about classical reception and the history of literary studies more generally.

In 1817, the young Victor Hugo noted down with conviction that "Ilion fut. Homère existe". Hugo's was not only a stubborn voice heard over the rising continuo of the claim that an "origin" or single author of Homeric epic, as an oral phenomenon, could not ever be recovered from the textual sources, a claim that had been most effectively articulated in Friedrich August Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum of 1797. Hugo's short and sharp belief about the historical Homer also sits at the centre of a larger web of issues linked to one another: the terminology of literature as an independent field; the assumption of original genius and its revolutions and repetitions across different epochs as a motor of literary history (think Shakespeare); the question of historical truth and precedent; the role of authority and of the author figure; the poetic function of such a figure, and the increasing need to personalize such a figure. That none of these component parts are self-evident, that to think of Homer as an "author", for example, brings with it a whole body of assumptions and implications integral to each historical and cultural context, is not only the position of Marie Blaise, whose contribution deals with the French Romantic Homer of Hugo and others; it is a general priority of the volume and it is summarized well in Sophie Rabau's excellent introduction, which gives thoughtful coherence to the eight contributions despite their wide chronological range.

The Homer of Révolutions homériques is deliberately understood as a paradox, not least in the sense that the "revolutions" of the title mark an important element of his tradition. Homer stands for the possibility of an absolute beginning as much as for his adaptability across time; for an "originality", however it is conceived, as much as for his character as both a timeless and a historical repository. Of course, from the perspective of a post-Romantic understanding of literature such as ours (if that is where we are, at least chronologically), the importance of Homer in the cultural debates between broadly speaking the seventeenth and the nineteenth century lies in his function as a barometer of a modern age: one in which originality is prized above imitation, and where the symbol takes over from allegory as the central paradigm of figurative language and of modern theories of understanding. The querelle itself is the name of the debate over the validity of ancient texts as artistic, linguistic and scientific models, which left a paper trail well beyond Charles Perrault's work of that title (1688) and well beyond its French confines across Europe. The querelle is a historically specific and a transitional moment (albeit one that lasted a hundred odd years); however, Rabau's introduction offers a larger reflection on the link between revolution and repetition. All periodic returns to Homer as exemplary in some way have, since antiquity, expressed a similar paradox: Homer is an origin as much as he is a marker of a "rupture littéraire et aesthétique" (3). In other words, whenever a return to Homer was programmatically suggested, the assumption of a break usually lies beneath. A revolution implies a return, even if it is a return to a tradition of ruptures. Hans-Robert Jauss, whose work on the querelle Rabau and others take up, has suggested that the binary of ancient and modern which distinguished the querelle manifested itself also as the opposition between the atemporal or classical on the one hand and the ephemeral on the other hand, a notion that brings into focus how much the sheer anxiety of time passing was a factor in the debate.

Rabau adds an anecdote, which comes to her via Walter Benjamin, of the 1830 July Revolution in France, itself a "re-revolution" to do away with the monarchy reinstated after the French Revolution: at the very moment when the revolutionaries intended to invoke a new order, they took aim at the clock towers, as if to stop time altogether (6). This "chronocide" suggests to Rabau a structural parallel with Homer as he appears in his various "revolutions" across time: in the claim for an atemporal eternity that is assigned to him, but that is perceived at the moment of greatest acceleration. By the same token, it is the gesture of absolute beginning, of instituting a "new order" that is seen to be a Homeric gesture itself -- as the contributors show for their respective Homeric revolutions since antiquity. From classical antiquity to Lucian, from the Renaissance to the querelle, and from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde and Joyce's Modernism, we encounter in the periodic returns singled out in this volume a heterogeneous Homer, who reflects our notions of Homer as much as of literary revolutions. The Homeric encounters presented here comment on authorship and changing notions of reading, interpreting and writing, gravitating around the crucial eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and their lasting effect on the critical language in which we still "do" and study literature. Appropriately, all of the authors are scholars of literature, most of them of comparative literature, some of them both comparatists and classicists.

Glenn Most here offers a detailed yet synoptic essay on the multiple Homers of antiquity, indicating the strands of modern reception of those ancient sources and hitting on all the topics that will recur throughout the volume. He acknowledges that inconsistencies between those multiple, often local Homers, are certainly perceived in the classical sources, but that a pre-modern notion of authorship also changes the need for a coherent single author of the type we are accustomed to in terms of our modern critical premises.

Michel Briand approaches the issue of Homeric imitation by concentrating on Lucian's "ironic mimesis", especially in the Vera Historia, and with additional reference to his How to Write History; Homer's function as a double model, for poetry and for history, suggests a complex notion of stylistic imitation, and one, in addition, that leads Briand to reflect on the image of the spiral instead of the repeating cycle -- the cycle that is opened up by the consciousness of historical repetition and of a relatively modern position.

Philip Ford moves to the French Renaissance specifically, but shows here in exemplary fashion how the rupture between Catholicism and Protestantism leads to a relecture of Homer, which coincided with the insight into the impossibility of still reading Homer allegorically in a consistent fashion. Part well-documented history of the book, part intellectual and religious history, Ford traces the shape shifting of the allegorical tradition in the figures of Achilles and Odysseus, as much as in the fascination with Homer as the singer figure himself.

Sophie Rabau's own contribution moves in the larger environment of the querelle, while focussing on the specific poetic motive of the "shade of Homer", who appears to the modern poet advising for or against a specific attitude towards his epic poetry. She traces how across even opposing positions in the querelle, Homer can be appealed to not only as a writer or singer, but also as a critical reader of his own works. If the querelle indeed signalled a change in the notion of imitation, one way to articulate that change was in the gradual shift from the reader-cum-writer to the critical, "receiving" reader -- a phenomenon, incidentally, that will increase throughout the eighteenth century.

Larry Norman, like Sophie Rabau, draws far-reaching conclusions starting from a specific episode: a print conversation between the two translators of Homer, Anne Dacier (in 1711) and Alexander Pope (in 1715), which revolved around competing garden metaphors for Homer's style – the wild paradise versus the well-appointed French garden. Not content to blame national difference, Norman explores the ramifications of the "aesthetic schizophrenia" (85) particular to the period, which can postulate Homer as natural -- that is to say as simultaneously unrestrained and ordered. That this is an opposition intertwined both with the pairing ancient versus classical and with notions of the sublime leads Norman to a fuller account of the "new primitivism" of the eighteenth century, in which the aesthetic pleasure of the reader, too, is crucial.

Marie Blaise, as mentioned above, also reflects on the shift from imitation to reflection of temporal development as the parameter that is operative in Romantic notions of the author and of an understanding of literary history as dependent on the author; within this shift, Homer becomes newly important as a function of authorship itself. Incidentally, the question of where Romanticism begins and ends is a vexed issue (and a function of Romanticism in its own right); for an English-speaking audience French Romanticism may extend comparatively late (well into the middle of the nineteenth century and even beyond). The virtue of this collection, when read outside its French-oriented framework, is that the Homeric parameter allows that such questions of literary history are thrown into much stronger relief, but not left unaddressed -- since the focus on Homer brings out precisely how authority, periodization and strong author figures are structurally linked in literary historiography. If not all of these implications are addressed by the contributors, it is for a broader readership of this volume to take some of the leads developed here with a view to the French cultural sphere, and to explore their ramifications for Homeric receptions elsewhere. The prompts are all there.

The last two contributions, by Nathalie Piégay and Daniel Ferrer, move into the twentieth century and into the sphere of Modernism and the Avant-Gardes, where notions of originality and secondarity were deliberately exploded. Piégay's piece on Louis Aragon's Adventures of Telemachus (1922), which is itself a rereading of François Fénelon's Adventures of Young Telemachus (1699), underlines the pattern that a return to a marked tradition serves to interrogate the very stability of origins, and a language of origins, in a time of crisis. That Aragon uses Fénelon's classic work of educational prose to reflect on the authorial and his own historical self associates Piégay's analysis with the important function Homer holds in the constitution of modern authorship.

Daniel Ferrer finally offers a fine account of the "retrospective Homerization" (141) of Joyce's Ulysses (1922), both by its earliest critics and by Joyce himself. In detail, he presents evidence for the deliberate strengthening of a Homeric substructure after the publication of the work, and for a willingness of readers, critics and writer to underline that tendency. Like Piégay, Ferrer stresses the wilfulness with which the anxiety over Homeric originality is replaced with an exploration of the "secondary" nature of authorship – though neither Aragon nor Joyce would go back behind the importance of the author figure as strongly functional in their understanding of literature, however much the orientation may have changed.

Joyce's retrospective Homerization feeds also back into the insight shared throughout the collection, namely that a return to origins, or a postulation of origins, is by definition a retrospective act, one that reconfigures those origins and the present alike. It should not come as a surprise especially to an audience of classicists and Homerists, even if that is certainly not the only audience targeted here, that repetition is not the same as faithful reiteration and that, subsequently, imitation stands in a complex and productive relationship with invention. That this is not a surprise does not mean that it does not bear spelling out and considering the implications. The volume is therefore also a plea for a more differentiated understanding of imitation, especially in the context of thinking through the revolutions and repetitions involved in conceptualizing literary history in a post-Romantic age.

Table of Contents


Introduction. La jeunesse d'Homère ou de quelques hypotheses propres à fonder la révolution homerique (Sophie Rabau)

Combien d'Homères? (Glenn W. Most)

Lucien et Homère le sophiste ou les ambiguïtés d'une 'mimesis ironique' (Michel Briand)

Achille vs. Ulysse: la réception de l'Iliade et de l'Odyssée à la Renaissance (Philip Ford)

Portrait d'Homère en lecteur moderne: Houdar de la Motte et Marivaux (Sophie Rabau)

Homère transplanté: luxuriance antique ou classicisme moderne? (Larry F. Norman)

Homère: "n'a jamais existé" (Marie Blaise)

Aragon/Homère, via Fénelon (Nathalie Piégay)

Ulysses de James Joyce: un homérisme secondaire (Daniel Ferrer)

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