BMCR 1994.09.06

Essays on Homeric Epic

Essays on Homeric Epic. Waterville, Maine: Colby College, September 1993. Pp. 290.

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This issue contains essays of varying quality on Homeric epic. The guest editors, Hanna M. Roisman and Joseph Roisman, hope the essays will “provide the reader with a sense of the multitude of conceptualizations and interpretations that modern scholars use in dealing with the Homeric epics.” Walter Donlan and Donald Lateiner approach the epics from a sociocultural perspective, while Michael Lynn-George, Richard P. Martin, Michael N. Nagler and Pietro Pucci adopt a more literary approach, studying the use of repetitions and of individual words. Carol G. Thomas proposes to alter the metaphor from which we approach the text. It is not clear what “reader” the editors have in mind: some contributors seem to be addressing an academic audience, others the uninitiated. Some readers, therefore, may find themselves awash in the mire of scholarship and contemporary literary theory.

How the expectations and response of Homer’s audience should influence our interpretations concerns Donlan in “Duelling with Gifts in the Iliad : As the Audience saw it.” He makes “a sociocultural reading that puts the original audience in the foreground and tries to imagine the action as they might have imagined it” (155). He feels that the epics are about status and power relationships. Therefore a sociology of Homer is necessary so that interpretation may come not “from an artificial, totally self-contained poetical universe”, but “from the empirically verifiable institutions of the living society” (158). He finds it remarkable that critics have preferred the former. Among reasons for doing this would be, I think, scepticism about the reconstructions of archaeologists, distrust of the theories of anthropologists and hesitation before a sociology extracted from texts which themselves so self-consciously look to the past. The verities of these disciplines are hardly more certain than those of literary criticism. Here there is the added difficulty that Donlan asks us to imagine what his reconstructed audience would themselves imagine. Elaborating on Redfield, he argues that Homer’s audience would have judged Achilles the loser if he had accepted Agamemnon’s superficially generous offer made through the embassy and that Achilles’ refusal of the warrior’s role is an affirmation of the heroic code. Donlan thinks Achilles’ extravagant gift-giving at the funeral games confirms this. Thus his sociology is justified. But do we need the help of a sociology to explain why a man whose woman has been taken from him by a lesser warrior should be angry? Homer makes it quite clear that it is the excessive anger of Achilles that motivates the poem. What counts is that Achilles’ angry withdrawal is a denial of his obligation to fight. Is not the question whether he is following “the code” or denying it really only an example of scholarly narcissicism?

Lateiner’s paper, “The Suitors’ Take: Manners and Power in Ithaka”, builds on Ian Morris’s statement ( CA 5 82) that the institutions, modes of thought and social behaviour were ultimately derived from the world in which Homer and his audience lived. It looks then suspiciously as if Lateiner is to follow a similar path to Donlan, particularly when he begins to apply the jargon of sociology to the Odyssey. Later, however, he qualifies this: “We should only cautiously surmise ideology from (assumed) contemporary expectations, since we confess ignorance about the composition of Homer’s audiences” (188 n 46). His aim in the paper is “to provide suitable social context for the suitors’ comedy of manners” (173), “particularly inverted management of rules of heroic reciprocity” (174) and faulty nonverbal behaviours. He shows how the suitors’ behaviour perverts the heroic paradigm of the Iliad. Telemakhos and Odysseus show up the blunders of the suitors who “exist to prove the heroes’ merit, courage, prudence, and martial skill” (193). Regrettably Lateiner’s language catches the attention more readily than the content: “ballistic footstool” is tolerable once, its repetition tedious. What is gained by referring to Kalypso as “Goddess second class” or having Telemakhos “shunted aside” or referring to the suitors “as a team with obvious coaches and directors”? His use of quotation marks is mystifying. Then there are sentences such as “Mightily does this display of affect override verbal communication in the ensuing lethal interaction” (196), a sentence which could serve as a judgement on his own paper.

In “Aspects of the Epic Vocabulary of Vulnerability” Lynn-George inverts the concept of the Iliad as a poem of force. The use of chraismein at Iliad 1.28 spotlights, for him, right at the beginning “one of the most pervasive concerns of Greek society, literature and thought: the basic primordial need for help and protection as a fundamental condition for survival” (198). He sees significance in the use of the verb “to roof over” for Chryses’ roofing of a temple for Apollo ( Il. 1.39) and for the thatching of a hut for Achilles ( Il. 24.450). As the hut also protects Priam, Lynn-George can state that an arch of protection spans the epic.

The need for protection is reflected in the final image of Priam, “a figure whose uncertain survival serves to magnify the fragility of all human existence” (207), emphasizing the “profound futility” Lynn-George finds in the poem. He continues “If this persistent note continued to haunt Greek literature, it was because, like the epic in its conception, that literature sought to meet a profound human need, to confront the silence of emptiness without surrendering to the knell of futility”. He has moved from the use of one word in the Iliad to a generalization for all Greek literature.

Lynn-George then investigates the vocabulary of vulnerability elsewhere in Greek literature. He concludes “we might state that the epics do not so much assure and preserve an existence as seek to protect, in their constitutive vulnerability, those premises from which human existence derives significance and value—to protect, to celebrate certainly, and, quietly, to justify” (221). Lofty thoughts indeed. How different Lynn-George’s reading of the poems is from that of first-time readers for whom violence is the Iliad‘s outstanding feature.

In “Telemachus and the Last Hero Song” Martin tries to bridge the crevasse between scholarship and the common, uninformed response. He reminds critics about the importance of Homeric poetry as “the product of a living, oral folk art” (223). Modern “Analysts” and “Unitarians”, although they may work from “an informed literary-critical perspective”, avoid two issues “Why the poem is shaped, overall, in the way it is, and how the poem relates to the world of oral composition-in-performance” (223). He fin ds Jasper Griffin’s “commitment to taste and sense as the standard for judging our literary impressions” inadequate because it provides “no usable understanding of technique, or any explication that would aim for a much needed ‘unified field’ theory of Homeric poetics” (227).

Martin boldly confronts contentious issues: the formula, characterization, performance and the responses of Homer’s audience. He thinks we can replicate the audience’s experience by using mechanical searches because Homer’s listeners each had, he believes, the mental equivalent of a CD-ROM containing recollections of previous performances. These recollections lead to a sensitivity to repetitions that justifies arguing for the meaning of a scene to be drawn from a repetition of a few phrases in, say, Book 1 and then again in Books 20 and 24. Telemachus is the centre of his search. Here Martin faces the problem of characterization: the theory of the Analysts that there can be none contradicts one’s awareness at first reading of “three-dimensional, deeply felt characters” (226). For him the solution is that “the ‘character’ of any given person is not constructed anew in each performance, but neither is a set value known to all in the audience” (228).

Martin, concerned that Homer, a traditional poet, makes Telemachus say “People celebrate more the song which comes latest to hearers” ( Od. 1.352), also observes that Telemachus does not become a trickster-hero like his father, and he feels that Homer’s audience would have noted this. For them then the poem would speak of the end of a tradition: “the metapoetic reading” shows a “poet concerned about the very social conditions that might (but eventually, in fact, failed to) allow epic art to grow. Telemachus is the emblem of that ending” (240). On the other hand, Homer may have thought one trickster-hero sufficient.

In “Penelope’s Male Hand: Gender and Violence in the Odyssey” Nagler dips his thumb into the Homeric pie and pulls out a plum: “Really to assert her influence against the ruinous paradigm of competition, to proclaim the priority of life over all social roles, identities, and constructs, woman would have to be rebelliously and dangerously herself. In this highly realistic, sophisticated, and compelling poem, that does not happen” (257). His method is very much that of the preacher taking at random a text as a source for an unrelated sermon. Nagler sugars his sermon with patronizingly platitudinous references to contemporary politics: to McCarthyism, to “teflon” Presidents and to “what is now euphemistically called the ‘Department of Defense'”. In the end one learns more about Nagler’s views than about Homer.

For the rest, Nagler concerns himself with a leader’s use of violence against members of his own community which he sees, wrongly, as “the central ethical topic of the Odyssey” (241). He passes on to the test with the bow and Penelope’s suggestion at 21.337-42. Then he considers those passages in which women are remanded to their places. Penelope’s “thick” hand ( Od. 21.6) is seen as “almost physically” masculinizing her. It is easier to sympathize with his idealization of women as instruments for peace and with the repugnance he feels for violence than to find justification for his search for these views in the Odyssey.

Pucci in “Antiphonal Lament between Achilles and Briseis” calls attention to some unnoticed points of contact and difference that illustrate an unsuspected relationship between the two in Iliad 19. He makes some thoughtful observations about oral performance. He explores the impact of repetitions in greater theoretical detail than the other essayists. In discussing Achilles’ repetitive emphasis on “heart” Pucci points out that while repetitions can have an enriching emphasis, the opposite can also be true, so that they become “a mere ornament,” leaving it up to the reader to choose the stronger or weaker reading (267). The effects of repetition have to be activated to produce a full and meaningful reading. Pucci demonstrates that both lamentations “move from a posture of marginality, express an intense emotional force, and point to the mourner’s own death.” Achilles’ lament also emphasizes his earlier marginal position in the poem, his “relative detachment from the political allegiance, his commitment to kleos rather than time and his unique leaning to private attachments” (272).

Carol G. Thomas in “The Homeric Epics: Strata or a Spectrum” tries to find the rainbow in the Homeric Question (273n). She begins with a survey of the strands which, interwoven, make up the Homeric Question. She wants scholars to see these not as “layers” as archaeologists would, but as hues of the rainbow. This would help prevent the disappearance of “poetic beauty” which results from too much emphasis on the “layers” of the poem. The superiority of this rainbow metaphor rests “in its appreciation of the relationship of a single entity to its parts” (278). To support her views Thomas adduces three pages of verse by John Woodson Stewart.

What then would a reader discover from this collection? Inevitably there is no consensus as to how to read the poems: the theoretical problems raised by orality for composition, performance and consequently for the criticism of the texts have not been solved. Some scholars see the evidence from other oral societies for performance and audience reaction as being important. The essayists offer insights into sections of the poems. They are eager to supply interpretations that lie well behind the surface meaning of the texts. Some use the texts to display their own interests and emotional responses: it is noteworthy that despite the detail and narrow focus of their arguments they manage at the same time to see in the epics universal themes which reflect problems of our times: vulnerability, the break-up of a traditional world, the control of violence, life at the margins.