BMCR 1995.06.14

1995.06.14, Segal, Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey

, Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey. Myth and poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. xiii, 244 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780801430411. $34.50.

Charles Segal’s most recent book on Homer is a blend of old and new, with pieces ranging in date from 1962 to 1994. Nearly a third of the volume reproduces (slightly updated) essays that first appeared in the mid-1960s: a lengthy Arion article on “The Phaeacians and Odysseus’ Return” (Chapters 2 and 3) and a sequel (originally in La Parola del Passato), “Transition and Ritual in Odysseus’ Return” (Chapter 4), with “thematic affinities” to it. These discussions of the transitional qualities of the Phaeacian episode in the Odyssey are good examples of perspicacious and refined explication de texte. (In the ’60s, classicists, always a bit behindhand in adopting critical philosophies, were just beginning the third quarter of New Criticism, while students of modern literatures were nearing the end of its final overtime period.)

Segal notes that the narrative of Odyssey 9-12 describes a fantastic realm, “a constant source of inspiration for poets, from Stesichorus in the seventh century B.C. to today, and it continues to draw readers in whom the spark of imagination is still alive” (14). He sets out to explain this appeal by exploring the “aspects of the poem that involve the broad human experience of change, generational passage, loss and recovery” (14). Though he calls his approach psychological, this is true only in the broad sense that he has interesting things to say about what motivates Homer’s characters and how their behavior and attitudes resonate in the minds of modern readers.

In his illuminating discussion of the transitional aspects of the Phaeacian episode and of the Great Wanderings narrated within it, Segal shows that Odysseus “is on his way back to mortality but not yet fully involved in it and hence can reflect on and review his experiences in the nonhuman, ‘unreal’ world before reentering the reality of Ithaca” (18). Segal’s forte is thematic analysis (cf. his exemplary Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad [Leiden 1971]) grounded in careful assessment of language and imagery. Thus, in discussing the theme of “suspension and reintegration,” he demonstrates the contrast of loneliness and isolation on Ogygia with community and city on Scheria generally, but also examines the symbolic domain of repeated words for “joy” ( terpsis and compounds) and “pain” ( pema, pemainesthai)—meticulous concordance use here and throughout. Other topics include “Mortality and Hades,” “Sea and Land,” “Images and Death,” “Recognitions,” and “The Bow and Victory.” Chapter 4 adds useful treatments of the recurrent motifs of sleep, the bath, purification, and the threshold.

Chapter 5, “Kleos and Its Ironies” (1983; originally in Antiquité Classique), concluding Part One of the volume, is devoted to the ironies implicit in the notion of kleos, a term designating both the great deeds of a hero and the fame heard among men in the songs of bards. Segal shows that the older, Iliadic conception of kleos is anachronistic in the Odyssey, where achievement through dolos rather than battlefield prowess is often the norm. There are further complexities: in presenting Odysseus as singer of his own klea, Homer forges very ironic associations between, for example, lyre (instrument of kleos in its celebratory sense) and bow (instrument of kleos in its dynamic sense of heroic action). This chapter is especially good on the Sirens, whose song is shown to embody “a ghostly imitation of epic” in many ways. Segal maintains that the ambiguities of kleos that inform the epic are calculated: Homer “deliberately plays off against one another different perspectives on the heroic tradition” (109).

Chapters 6 (published 1992), 7, and 8 (both previously unpublished), comprising Part Two of the book, investigate aspects of story-telling within the Odyssey. In Chapter 6, “Bard and Audience in Homer,” after observing that “The Homeric poems repeatedly depict audiences listening to singers” (113), audiences ranging from deities ( Il. 1.602 ff.) to grape-pickers ( Il. 18.561-72), Segal reviews the contexts of tale-telling in the poem with particular attention to the disparate postures and reactions of audiences (especially the Phaeacians, Penelope, Eumaeus, and the suitors). The differences in the responses of audiences (rated for the quality of their attentiveness) reveal much about both the moral worth of various characters and the extent of their participation in the communal values reflected in and inculcated by the narrative. But, in addition to this intrinsic purpose, “The Odyssey‘s embedding of narratives that have different relations of closeness to or removal from a ‘mythical’ world forces the hearer to become aware of the work’s construction of its fictionality or mythicalness and thus of the disjunction between different levels of ‘reality'” (123). Thus, Segal discloses a distinctly self-reflexive property in Homer’s rendering of narrative performances in the Odyssey.

Chapter 7, “Bard, Hero, Beggar: Poetics and Exchange,” sets the performance of narrative against the background of socially meaningful rituals of bestowal and acceptance of gifts. The fact that the bard typically receives signs of respect (scil., food) in banquet settings indicates a double orientation of the performer: “In receiving these conspicuous tokens of honor at a feast … the bard approaches the status of a hero or noble (cf. 8.471-83 …); but in the wholly alimentary nature of this token, he approaches the beggar” (154). Segal analyzes a number of scenes that play on this twofold status, concluding that, in his “sustained triangular comparisons of beggar, bard, and hero” (159), Homer is indicating the vagaries that beset the individual in a world of abruptly changing fortune; he seeks “to ennoble the bard but also to protect the privileged status of the heroes” (162).

In Chapter 8, “The King and the Swineherd: Rags, Lies, and Poetry,” Segal narrows the focus of his inquiry to the relatively neglected books 14-15. In general, he sees a transitional function in both the mise en scène and the subjects of the hero/beggar’s conversations with his servant Eumaeus: “Eumaeus’ hut stands between the Phaeacians and the suitors and so is the right place to introduce the hero to the prosaic details of his daily life on Ithaca, the smells, sights, and sounds of his island” (166). In a penetrating discussion of the two life stories, Segal highlights such recurring themes as false appearances, shifting identities, and return and renewal. In the many ironies pervading the situation and the tales of Odysseus (the wandering liar who speaks and performs the truth in various ways) and Eumaeus (the putative slave whose probity attests an aristocratic moral sensibility), he detects “a self-referential allusion to the mixture of falsehood and truth that constitutes much of the pleasure … that the poem as a whole conveys” (182).

Part Three of the book comprises two essays originally published in 1992 and 1993. Chapter 9, “Teiresias in the Yukon,” examines changes Homer rings on “The Story of the Sailor Who Went Inland.” Segal traces the contribution of Teiresias’ prophecy of Odysseus’ ultimate demise to major themes of the epic, particularly divine vengeance. Homer’s rendition of the motif possesses a depth and aptness unexampled in its purely folkloric transformations: the disparity in perspective between Teiresias, who takes a long-range, eschatological view of the course of a human life, and Odysseus, who is more interested simply in speaking with his mother, “belongs to the poem’s large concern with the nature of mortality … expressed in the different attitudes of a shade in Hades and a living man from the upper world” (191).

Chapter 10, “Divine Justice: Poseidon, Cyclops, and Helios,” addresses the thorny issue of the nature of divine justice in the Odyssey. Segal begins by noting the much discussed discrepancy between the “higher” morality of Zeus (enunciated especially in the proem) and the “anthropomorphic vindictiveness” of Poseidon and (seemingly) Helios. He then argues that this is not a symptom of artistic inconsistency, grist for the Analysts’ mill. Rather Homer deliberately accentuates the differences in moral premises and the shift from the primitive ethos of vengeance to the more evolved justice of Zeus: “The Odyssey as a whole tries to bring the polycentric, polytheistic world order under the unified morality of Zeus” (204). Segal concentrates here on the particulars of Odysseus’ involvement with the Cyclops, the Phaeacians, and Helios on Thrinakia, offering detailed analyses of specific images and verbal and thematic repetitions. He is most compelling on Odysseus’ reactions to Polyphemus’s atrocities; the hero’s boast and the monster’s curse; the Phaeacians’ ambivalent relations with Poseidon; the differences between Helios’ wrath and Poseidon’s; and Odysseus’ bloodlust in book 22 and his failure to adapt fully to conditions of the justice of Zeus at the very end of the epic. Throughout, the presence of “morally recalcitrant elements” fosters a certain tension, “a disturbing but also dynamic force in the poem” (225).

Taken as a whole, the essays in this book furnish very astute, unswervingly literary interpretations of key themes in the Odyssey. Segal says in his preface that “readers … may find it interesting to observe how a single interpreter’s work may undergo changes in method and emphasis over a period of scholarly activity that moves from New Criticism to structuralism and poststructurialism” (xi). Perhaps so, but the author has not moved very far from New Critical categories of analysis in these particular essays. He characterizes Chapters 2-4 as evincing a “more individual-centered psychological orientation,” but does not explicitly invoke the theories or terminology of, say, Freud, à la Bennett Simon and others, or Lacan, as in Thomas MacCary’s ingenious Childlike Achilles (New York 1982), or anyone else. And, too, the later chapters are “social and anthropological” in approach only in a very general way (passing allusions to Gernet, Vernant, et al.).

In the context of twentieth-century Homeric scholarship, there is a somewhat old-fashioned air about Segal’s reading of the poems. For example, in his brief introductory chapter, “The Landscape of Imagination,” he takes Erich Auerbach to task for his celebrated but oversimplified representation of the lack of depth in Homeric narrative, something already done by others; see, for example, Adolf Köhnken, “Die Narbe des Odysseus. Ein Beitrag zur homerisch-epischen Erzähltechnik,”Antike und Abendland 22 (1976) 101-14, reprinted in J. Latacz, ed., Homer. Die Dichtung und ihre Deutung (Darmstadt 1991) 491-514, with a “Nachtrag 1990.” On another front, Segal makes the mandatory acknowledgement of oral poetry theory and sometimes alludes to the peculiarities of formulaic composition, citing Albert Lord (but not Milman Parry). He takes no account, however, of the indispensable revisionist work of Adam Parry or Anne Amory Parry or, in more technical areas, of A. Hoekstra, Bryan Hainsworth, and more recently, David Shive (in Naming Achilles [Oxford 1987]) and Edzard Visser (in Homerische Versifikationstechnik. Versuch einer Rekonstruktion [Frankfurt/Bern/New York 1987]). Thus, Segal sees a “latent tension between the formulaic language of the Odyssey on the one hand and the richness of the hero’s experiences and the fabulousness of the poem’s farflung geography on the other” (67), as if the two things were still thought incompatible at a time when the titles of studies of the Homeric epics include terms like “indeterminacy,” “intertextual,” “focalizers,” “difference” [à la Derrida], “semiotic,” “gender and internal audiences,” “bricolage,” etc.

Despite (or because of) its somewhat dated literary theoretical posture, Segal’s book provides refreshingly straightforward criticism of a consistently high order, written in a style that is, apart from rare inelegancies (“mythicalness”), both pleasing and undisfigured by jargon. A.E. Housman, in his 1911 Cambridge inaugural, claimed that literary critics appear at intervals longer than the period of revolution of Halley’s Comet. While that is an unduly cynical reckoning, we must be grateful to be witnessing Charles Segal’s course in the firmament of twentieth-century literary criticism. His finely modulated studies always enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of classical literature as literature.