Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.31

André Malta, Homero Múltiplo: Ensaios Sobra a Épica Grega.   São Paulo:  Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2012.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 9788531413292.  R$38.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by J. Marks, University of Florida (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of seven essays by André Malta, professor of Greek in the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Humanities at the University of São Paulo, explores the theme of Homer’s (and Hesiod's) “multiplicity,” which, as is explained in the preface, has always been balanced by a countervailing notion of unity. Thus, for example, ancient biographical traditions present both a monolithic author responsible for the two canonical epics and a diffuse author associated also with a range of other lost and/or ostensibly spurious compositions; similarly, the interpretive tradition has understood Homer both as an arch-traditionalist and as a bold innovator. The aim here is to balance the “Unitarian” nature of the texts as products of an oral tradition with the almost paradoxical fact that that tradition is itself the product of a multiplicity of voices, while insisting that perceived differences within the epic tradition — between the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer and Hesiod, and so on — are best explained in terms of the underlying unity of the larger tradition. The Homeric poems themselves in turn give rise to a multiplicity of meanings in other contexts in ancient Greece and in the cultures that have enjoyed Hellenic influence.

The first two chapters proceed from consideration of the Hesiodic “Hymn to the Muses” (Theogony 1-115, which receives a sonorous Portuguese translation in an appendix). Following the problematization of the dichotomy between myth and reason by Cornford, Kirk and Detienne, Malta identifies four principal characteristics of Greek myth (vocalidade, tradicionalismo, sacralidade, imagismo): myths are part of oral culture, though evidence for them is primarily textual; they are traditional, serving to preserve group identity; they are religious, addressing cultural and psychological themes in supernatural terms; and they are imagistic, capable of rendering abstract phenomena concretely. Consideration of myth in this way allows for a refined consideration of its relationship to reason, and helps to explain why, for example, a number of the Presocratics had recourse to hexameter poetry and its conventions to express proto-scientific thought, while later philosophers, conversely, subjected the epics to allegorical, rationalizing interpretations.

For Malta, such allegorization is precedented, and in a sense justified, by the kind of metapoetical reflection represented by the Hesiodic Muses, and, ultimately, by the complex and proto-philosophical mental gymnastics upon which myths, like oracular responses, rely. In the Muses’ representation of truth and falsehood (Theogony 27-28), the idea of similarity (homoios) in itself blurs the truth/falsehood dichotomy. Nevertheless, the Theogony as understood here is founded on a unified vision of “truth,” as opposed to an overlapping array of “truths.” The notion of falsehood is best understood in terms of the gulf that separates mortals from immortals: only the latter can distinguish it from truth, though privileged mortals, such as the inspired poet and king, owing to their proximity to the Muses, also have the potential for accurate perception. This relationship between truth and falsehood is in turn recreated on the level of character: thus, in the case of the opening of the Iliad, Achilles is normalized to the former and Agamemnon the latter. The Hesiodic Muses thus give voice to a rational way of thinking, but one that maintains many of the characteristics of myth. Where Malta challenges this well-established line of interpretation, or at least one vigorous strand of it, is in refusing to see in the proto-rationality of Hesiod an antithesis to Homer. Like Homer, Hesiod is approached here not so much as an author but rather as an instantiation of a type of poetry, specifically, one for which the first person and its close association with the Muses is particularly apt. Conversely, Homer’s poetry, like Hesiod’s, engages in self-reflexivity, and reinforces the connection between truth and the immortals.

In the third chapter, Agamemnon’s test of the Greek troops is analyzed as a paradigm of “language out of control." Finding much to be desired in both Analytical and oralist approaches to the widely discussed inconsistencies in the opening scenes of Iliad 2, Malta suggests that the entire sequence is best understood as a meditation on the theme of deceit. Zeus sends a deceptive dream to Agamemnon, who in turn delivers a deceptive speech to his troops—the consequences of which prove beyond his control. The motivation for Agamemnon’s test can thus be traced back to the plan of Zeus, Dios boulē, which is concerned, among other things, with undermining the position of the Greek leader, whose (self-)deception proves to be a recurring theme as the plot unfolds. As with the Hesiodic Muses, irony and drama emerge from the limited nature of mortal understanding in contrast with that of the immortals. Agamemnon is at length drawn into sharp contrast with Odysseus, the latter of whom, in preventing the test of the troops from destroying their unity as a fighting force, offers an example of a leader who knows how to control language and is in this respect comparable with Zeus in mētis (2.169, 186).

The next essay explores how Plato reacts to the Homeric representations of Achilles and Odysseus in the Hippias Minor. His Socrates calls into question the opinio communis voiced by the Sophist Hippias that Achilles is superior to Odysseus, and, by implication, that the Iliad is superior to the Odyssey. Underlying this inquiry is the question of whether that which is “good” (agathos) is necessarily frank, direct, and opposed to that which is false and multiform (polutropos). This “oposição tradicional” has obvious implications for the categories of truth and falsehood in the Iliad and Theogony: it is the element of choice, the ability to dispense either truth or falsehood at will, that defines the truly wise person, and associates this person with the gods. A negative character such as Agamemnon, by contrast, is driven to falsehood by his own ignorance. Like Socrates, we may conclude that, from the Homeric perspective, both Achilles and Odysseus are depicted as adept at deception, but the former’s actions seem less a matter of choice, and he at least at times appears no more able than Agamemnon to control his own discourse.

The hermeneutic of multiplicity is next applied to a reading of the openings of the Homeric epics. Going over some very well-trodden ground, Malta explores the resonances between these prooimia with a focus on the poetics of multiplicity. This theme recurs at the beginning of Cyclic epics as well, but is especially concentrated around the figure of Odysseus. The Odyssey proem thus characterizes the poem’s hero, rather than summarizes its plot. Multiplicity is nowhere more evident than in the programmatic andra with which poem and proem begin, which signifies simultaneously humanity in general, mortals in contrast with immortals, the male role in society, and the corporeal absence of the hero.

The last two chapters are concerned with the translation of Homeric epic. First the work of Alexander Pope in the early 18th century is compared with that of the Brazilian statesman and man of letters Odorico Mendes in the late 19th, in particular the literary success enjoyed by the former as contrasted with the latter's relative failure. (Mendes knew, but disparaged, Pope's translation.) Both share some surface features: each is composed in a decasyllabic meter (canonized separately in the epics of Milton and Camões, respectively), each approaches the Homeric texts through the lens of Latin, especially Virgilian, epic, and each disregards the integrity of the original verses and embellishes freely. Beneath these similarities lie important distinctions. To begin with, Pope's heroic couplet proves to be more adept at capturing the swift movement of the original than Mendes' blank verse, which becomes mired in a kind of tortured, hyperclassical Portuguese. Comparison of Mendes with contemporary bucolic poets (José Bonifácio, Elpino Duriense) reveals that these tendencies are personal rather than cultural, or, to be more precise, that Mendes comes close to attaining the ideal of concision (if not clarity) to which his contemporaries pay only lip service. Herein again Homer's multiplicity is evident: as trends in 18th and 19th century thought, fostered in part by nationalism, led to the increased valorization of the indigenous and vernacular over the ancient and Greco-Roman, Homer is transformed from the exemplar of classical literature to something like a timeless vox populi. As a consequence, whereas Pope's aim was to show Homer to be Virgil's equal, Mendes' was to show Virgil to be Homer's. In a sense, the Brazilian translator was trapped between a desire to convey Homer's supposed direct connection with "primitive" peoples everywhere on the one hand and a contemporary (that is, Late Romantic) emphasis on the value of vernacular poetry on the other.

In the final essay, Malta suggests that a useful way to explore the consequences of these opposing positions lies in a comparison of the translator with the rhapsode. The translator, in choosing a substrate for the translation, must come to terms with the work of philology, and in so doing join the search for the ideal Homer. In like manner, the ancient rhapsode inherited a somewhat amorphous narrative tradition that he rendered in a single, monovocal interpretation that was tailored to the circumstances of the performance. The liberties taken by some translators — removing catalogues and repetitions, digressions, and so forth — were likely also taken by rhapsodes, and are indeed reflected in some manuscripts.

The theme of multiplicity proves to be an effective one through which to explore ancient Greek epic in situ as well as in reception. Malta's work here represents something of a departure from the approach, often rigidly philological and continental-European in outlook, that has tended to characterize classical studies in Brazil. As such, this book is a must-read for students and professors in Brazil, whose numbers are growing at a rate perhaps faster than anywhere else in the world as the country invests heavily in all sectors of its higher education system. The book will also reward non-Lusophone readers, in particular the fourth, sixth and seventh chapters, which offer fresh insights into the ever-fluid concept of Homer. (I note that academic Portuguese presents no difficulty for anyone trained in Latin and one or more Romance language.)

Table of Contents

1. Mito, Razão e Enigma
2. Verdade e Mentira na Poesia
3. Agamemnon e a Linguagem Fora de Controle
4. Aquiles x Odisseu: A Ilíada Lida por Platão
5. Multiplicidade no Proêmio da Odisseia
6. De Pope a Odorico: Homero em Dois Tempos
7. O Tradutor e o Rapsodo Redivivo
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