BMCR 1992.01.13

Response: Goldhill on Olson on Goldhill, The Poet’s Voice

Response to 1991.05.09

Response by

The editors of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review have asked me if I wished to reply to the review of my book The Poet’s Voice by a Mr. Olson of Illinois (BMCR 1991.05.09). Well, not really; but one can see why they do not wish such sub-Paglia-esque spleen to pass without comment, as if it were condoned as a house style. So a few words…

Mr. Olson of Illinois finds my book hard to understand, and it makes him angry. There are, it is clear, rather a lot of things Mr. Olson of Illinois doesn’t understand and so he must be getting angrier by the minute. Oh well, I think we can live with that. He makes two substantive points about readings, and one general point worth discussing.

Substantive point one: ‘The precise syntax of Ibycus fr 263.16-17 [Page] … may be obscure on the written page … but this was a performance piece and one can safely assume that Polycrates could hear where the commas were.’ Poor Mr. Olson of Illinois has confused things rather. The fragment is about the kleos of the poet and the kleos of the patron. It is the first passage in extant Greek literature to link the poet’s and patron’s fame directly. How they are linked depends on how you understand these lines. My argument isn’t so difficult. First, I note that this is a difficult passage for editors—Fraenkel, for example, said flatly that he didn’t understand its grammar—and I outline the two main lines of interpretation, which conceive the relations hip between poet and patron in quite different ways. In one interpretation, the fame of the tyrant for his deeds is said to be like the fame of the poet for his songs; in the second interpretation, the fame of the tyrant is said to be ‘according to the poet’s fame’—that is, dependent on it. The two readings offer a small but crucial difference of view on the poet-patron relationship. Second, I point out that the choices editors make between these two readings are based ‘not merely on linguistic usage but inevitably also on their assumptions about what is suitable praise for a tyrant’ (p. 118). The point of my discussion, however, is not that this is a ‘hermeneutic aporia’—though, of course, it is a hermeneutic crux, unless, like Mr. Olson of Illinois, you conveniently don’t actually say what you think the passage means; rather, my point is that the lines’ syntactic obscurity and how editors have read them betoken a key question in encomiastic literature, namely, (p. 119) ‘To what degree is the kleos of the subject of the poem subject to the kleos of the poet/poem?’. It is a question differently raised by both interpretations of the poem, and by the editors’ indecision between them. Lyric poetry, unlike Homer, offers praise of living figures, and in my chapter I trace the changing rhetoric of kleos that such a change of circumstance involves. I discuss the Ibycus fragment as an early and important example of the ambiguities and tensions between the fame of the contemporary poet and the fame of the living patron. These tensions and ambiguities are significant in the changing language of praise in Greek culture. [I wonder if Mr. Olson of Illinois has got the point yet.]

Second substantive point. He complains that I, like many modern critics, set the kleos of the Odyssey against the kleos of the Iliad: he writes: ‘The idea that the Underworld scenes in the Odyssey mark a reevaluation of Iliadic kleos is an old one, of course, but not a very good one. That the Odyssey is dependent on the Iliad, first of all, is highly debatable and finds no obviously direct support in the text of either poem, as the immense subtlety of most modern attempts to establish a relationship between the two makes apparent’. It is an old idea: the scholia, Longinus, Plato even, all have things to say about an opposition between the Iliad and the Odyssey, between Achilles and Odysseus, between Achilles’ views on death in the Odyssey and his expressions in the Iliad (this last is generally taken to be a Hellenistic zetema; and, of course, Mr. Olson of Illinois might be right, and all these ancient readers wrong—at least on his terms—but since I am dealing also with Hellenistic ideas of kleos, he might allow the ancient readings some relevance). The complaint: ‘The basic idea that Odysseus avoids Achilles’ choice of ‘life or glory’ so that the two figures can be seen as contrasted is simply wrong’. This is how he argues for this position: Odysseus rejects immortality with Calypso, where he is without kleos, and returns home where he will die. (True, and I say so.) Teiresias predicts this death. (True and I say so.) So, he concludes, ‘the idea that the hero must die is fundamental to Teiresias’ prophecy to him (Od. XI 129-36), and the oar he is finally to plant in the ground (Od. XI 129) is simply the mark of the sailor’s burial and his one hope of being remembered (Od. XI 75-8), which is to say of kleos.‘ This whole argument doesn’t cut much ice. 1] Achilles’ choice, as I make quite clear, is not ‘life or glory’ but a choice between a young death producing immortal glory and a long life without glory. 2] What Teiresias foretells is not death and burial with the oar, but a gentle death that will come from the sea to Odysseus ‘in a sleek and wealthy (liparos) old age; and around you will be people in prosperity and happiness (olbioi)’ (Od. XI 135-7). Odysseus is to die as an old and wealthy ruler; Achilles as a young warrior. As Heubeck and Hoek stra write in their edition ad loc; ‘135-7 present an ideal, corresponding to the inner telos for the Odyssey, which is conspicuously very different, indeed opposed to that of the Iliad. The one epic depicts the young hero, crowning a life of brave deeds with an early, glorious death on the battlefield; the sequel portrays the conquering hero as a ruler of men, returning from war to rule long and wisely over a happy country blessed with riches’. The fates of e.g. Agamemnon, Menelaus and Nestor are also relevant to this picture. 3] An oar is used, for sure, on the tomb of Elpenor; but how can Odysseus’ oar be ‘simply the mark of a sailor’s burial’, when there is no tomb or burial at this point? And indeed when it is in a place with no knowledge of the sea? (It has been seen as a somewhat less simple symbol by many more careful readers.) 4] If the tomb is his ‘one hope of being remembered … which is to say of kleos‘, why is there so much talk about the poet’s immortalization in song? Why is Odysseus made the subject of song by Demodocus? What of Phemius’ remarks in Od. XXIV? Why does Odysseus introduce the apologoi with the claim that his kleos reaches heaven?

Mr. Olson of Illinois may wish to disagree with me on how the Iliad and the Odyssey relate to each other. It is a contentious subject. He will have to do a little more thinking and reading, however, and make fewer sweeping claims, before his arguments have any likelihood of convincing. I discuss more intelligent and informed disagreements on this subject on p. 105 and with n120; and where Mr. Olson of Illinois says I assert that Achilles’ words at XI 488ff ‘mark a sharp reversal of that hero’s position in the Iliad‘, I actually conclude ‘Achilles’ speech is not a rejection of heroism tout court, but it does represent a redefinition of the terms in which heroism is conceived for Achilles in the Iliad‘. ‘Sharp reversal’ is not quite the same as ‘redefinition’. Perhaps that was one of the sentences Mr. Olson of Illinois found too hard to understand.

The one general point that seems to need another airing is the belief that runs through the review that there is an opposition between reading primary texts and critical theory. Theory, for Mr. Olson, seems to be ‘critical navel-staring’. What he advises, however, is to ‘go off to read … the Iliad and the Odyssey instead’. Indeed, it would be quite hard to know from his review that there are over two hundred passages of Greek poetry quoted and discussed in detail in this book. My explicit strategy in the book (p. x) is for ‘discussion of poetics to be focused on the texts of the ancient tradition; it is only in the detailed work of reading that these problems of poetics can be adequately formulated and analyzed’. The principle implicit in this is one that has been much discussed by modern critics—though not apparently by Mr. Olson of Illinois—namely, that theory is not something that can be tacked on to reading after you have decided to ‘go off to read the Odyssey‘, but rather, that all reading has theory implicit in it; theory makes reading possible. Reading is a theory-laden activity. The question is how far and in what ways to make such theory explicit and the subject of discussion. The answer for Mr. Olson of Illinois would seem to be ‘Not much, please’. He prefers things to be ‘simply wrong’, ‘simply wrong-headed’, ‘simply the mark’ (‘right’, ‘simple’, ‘straightforward’ etc., etc.). The question ‘what does this poem mean?’ can never be simple: it will always involve questions of ‘how do we determine that meaning?’, ‘meaning for whom?’, ‘and when?’. It must involve you in complex issues of philology—and of an awareness of the historical nature of that philology. It will involve you in questions of implicit and explicit significance. Of whether poems just have meaning or also effects; what does this poem do and to whom? It will involve issues of context; how do poems’ meanings change with the circumstances of performance? It will involve you in ideas of intention, of literary history, of the politics of literature. If you are satisfied with a white, middle-class, mid-western, male assumption of what is obviously clear to a sixth-century B.C. tyrant, you are probably a friend of Mr. Olson of Illinois, and probably like to imagine that reading ancient poetry is indeed a simple and straightforward thing.

No-one should publish literary criticism without an awareness of the contentious nature of the field. No-one, I suspect wholly represses a thought of what a good or bad review of his or her work might look like. And I, for one, quite like a decent discussion, however agressive. Perhaps even to excess. The squib of Mr. Olson from Illinois, however, just isn’t up to its task. Not only does it show little evidence of the skills or knowledge to site the book adequately within contemporary classics, but also it has neither the wit of a Paglia; nor the scholarship of a Lloyd-Jones; nor the rhetoric of a Page. Indeed, it was just poor, angry Mr. Olson of Illinois.[1]

[1] The ‘barbarous neologism’ instauration is not only quite common in some quarters, but is first attested in 1603.