BMCR 1997.04.18

Response: Nagy on Powell on Nagy, An inventory of debatable assumptions about a Homeric question

Response to 1997.03.21

[format: in Greek transliterations, E = lower-case; e with macron on top; O = lower-case _o with macron on top]

The occasion for this inventory, which I hope will be useful to those who are interested in Homeric questions per se, is a review of my book Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge 1996). It appeared in BMCR 1997.03.21, and the reviewer is Barry Powell, hereafter “P.” Much of what P. writes seems to me based on various kinds of assumptions that I have already challenged in Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996a)—hereafter PP—as also in my Homeric Questions (Nagy 1996b)—hereafter HQ. The question is this: was there a text dictated by Homer? The assumptions that I propose to debate here concerning this question are hardly unique to P., and in fact my debates in PP and HQ were not with P. but with others who have proposed various dictation theories. Still, P.’s own version of these assumptions, as he formulates them in his BMCR review, provides a convenient framework for organizing the present inventory. Each entry begins with the wording of the given assumption (= P.), followed by my objections (= N.).

(1) P.: “My own bias is plain: I accept the familiar Parry-Lord model as plausible and see no reason, through N.’s arguments, to abandon it. When you wish to offer controversial views, you must provide hard, sensible fact, and this N. does not do.”

N.: P.’s “bias” may be plain, but his assertions about “the familiar Parry-Lord model” are confusing. P.’s own theory concerning the dictation of Homeric poetry is not the same thing as “the familiar Parry-Lord model.” Further, there is no single “Parry-Lord model.” Finally, nowhere in my writings (including PP) do I argue for the abandonment of any “Parry-Lord model.” The central observations of Milman Parry and Albert Lord concerning performance as an aspect of composition in oral poetics have always remained for me the foundation of my own work on archaic Greek poetry.

(2) P.: “Despite N.’s repeated claims to work within traditions of the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition, he denies the theory of the dictated text, a keystone in the Parry-Lord model” (italics mine).

N.: There are many current theories of a dictated Homer text, including the formulations of Janko (1982.191), Jensen (1980.92), and West (1990.34). No theory about Homeric dictation can be called a “keystone in the Parry-Lord model.” Even the most plausible of the dictation theories, the original formulation of Albert Lord himself, is not a “keystone” of his model of oral traditional composition. Rather, it is more of a parergon. The original theory appeared in an article, Lord 1953, which was later reprinted in Lord 1991 (pp. 3-48, with an appendix), a book published in the “Mythology and Poetics” series that I have edited. As for Milman Parry, he never formulated any dictation theory. My own evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry (HQ 29-112), the first version of which was published in a Festschrift for Albert Lord (1981), is not at odds with dictation models per se. I deny not the idea of dictation but the application of this idea to various hypothetical scenarios posited by various scholars. In principle, my evolutionary model explicitly allows for a variety of historical contexts in which dictation could have taken place, resulting in “a transcript, or a variety of transcripts, at various possible stages of the performance tradition of Homer” (HQ 100). Since Lord made it his policy to avoid unfounded speculations about any unique occasion for Homeric dictation, my disagreement is not with his model. On the other hand I do indeed disagree, in varying degrees, with the dictation theories of Janko, Jensen, and West, who posit various mutually irreconcilable scenarios; my disagreements are spelled out in HQ (31-34, 36-37, 100). Nowhere before, however, have I spelled out my disagreements with the most extreme of dictation theories, that of P. himself (Powell 1991.221-237: “Conclusions from probability: how the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down”). I take this opportunity to do so.

(3) P.: “But the Iliad and the Odyssey that we possess are not oral poems; they are texts based on oral performance, which is not the same thing. The monumental labor and expense required to record the Iliad and Odyssey ensure for most Homerists that the poems were recorded a single time, that there was an original text. What is the problem with such an assumption?”

N.: The biggest of many problems I have with P.’s assumption is that his dictation theory forces him to think of Homeric poetry, once dictation takes place, as a written Ur-text that can only be disseminated as a text.

Here is P.’s Ur-text scenario, starting with a hypothetical “adapter” who supposedly flourished in Euboea around 800 BCE (Powell 1991.232-233): “Once we accept that the adapter and the man who wrote down Homer are one and the same man, we will loosen the exasperating tangle of contradictions that has puzzled generations of Homeric scholars. According to my hypothesis, there was originally a single text of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the adapter’s. At first only he could read them. Copies of the poems, or parts of the poems, first circulated among Euboians, who may have carried them even to Italy. With the poems were disseminated their rules of alphabetic writing. Not long after the adapter recorded the Iliad and the Odyssey, an early possessor of alphabetic writing (or the adapter himself?) wrote down the poems of Hesiod, who according to his own testimony had sung in Euboia at the funeral games of Amphidamas (Erg. 654-5).”

For P., any performance of the Homeric poems, once they have been dictated, is merely a matter of memorizing the dictated text. Such assumptions are similar to the ones rejected by Lord in formulating his own dictation theory (1953=1991.44; see further in HQ 32-34). P. is contradicted by Lord’s own words (p. 44):

“The singer has no need of a mnemonic device in a manner of singing that was designed to fill his needs without such written aids. A mnemonic device implies a fixed text to be memorized, a concept unknown to the oral poet.”

Lord adds (p. 44): “A written text would be useful to the reciter or rhapsode of a later period who is no longer an oral poet, but simply a mouthpiece.” It is clear, then, that Lord associates the idea of a fixed text only with rhapsodes “of a later period.” In terms of my evolutionary model, such a stage of evolution can be located at period 4 in my posited five-period scheme (PP 110; cf. HQ 42), which I date from the end of the fourth to the middle of the second century BCE. By contrast, P.’s model assumes, anachronistically (I think), that the idea of a fixed text for performances of Homeric poetry must go all the way back to 800 BCE or thereabouts.

(4) P.: “Aristocrats, who learned how to decipher texts that began as oral poetry, discovered how to create, in writing, new forms of poetry, lyric and choral song (how do you train a chorus without a written text?); Sappho and Euripides composed for reperformance from a written prompt in just this way.”

N.: To assume that “new” forms of poetry like lyric and choral song were “discovered” through the technology of writing is to ignore the history and pre-history of ancient Greek song culture (cf. Parry 1971.347-361). Albert Lord’s model of composition-in-performance applies not only to epic but also to lyric traditions (1996.22-68).

(5) P.: “N. does not accept that an oral poem ceases to be an oral poem when it becomes a text.”

N.: Turning an “oral poem” into a text does not by itself stop the oral tradition that created the “oral poem.” The oral traditions of composition-in-performance can be independent of a writing technology that turns compositions into texts. This fundamental thesis is evident throughout Albert Lord’s last book, The Singer Resumes the Tale (1995, especially chapters 1, 8 and 10). It is supported by a wealth of comparative evidence drawn by various scholars from various historical contexts, some of which are adduced in PP. P. ignores this thesis, assuming in general that comparative evidence is not “hard, sensible fact.”

Further, in the case of a complex performative form like Attic tragedy, the written text of the composition can indeed serve as a script for performances, but those performances are rooted in earlier traditions of composition-in-performance. My model does not rule out the concept of “script” in performative traditions, especially after the middle of the sixth century BCE (HQ 34-43). It is not necessary for P. to inform me that Euripides “wrote” the Hippolytus.

(6) P.: “[N.] fatally denies an essential difference between the singer who composed in performance (the aoidos) and the reciter (the rhapsOidos), who memorized a written text for public reperformance.”

N.: There is no evidence for the making of any distinction, at any given historical moment, between aoidos and rhapsOidos. No doubt these two words represent relatively earlier and later stages in the prehistory and history of performance traditions, and I do indeed posit distinctions in form and function, over time, between aoidos ‘singer’ and rhapsOidos ‘rhapsode’ (PP 59-78). My reconstruction of these distinctions is a far cry, however, from P.’s blanket assumption of an “essential difference” between aoidos and rhapsOidos. There are points of convergence as well as divergence between the two words, and my evolutionary model posits a historical continuum linking one to the other. P.’s definition of the “reciter” is by contrast ahistorical. He equates the “reciter” with the rhapsOidos or ‘rhapsode’, assuming that such portrayals of rhapsodes as we see in Plato’s Ion can serve to define the meaning of rhapsOidos throughout this word’s history. This is to ignore evidence for changes in the form and function of the rhapsode in the course of historical time (cf. HQ 75-76, especially n37, with bibliography).

(7) P.: “Rhapsodes declaimed at the Athenian Panathenaea, dressed in elaborate costumes and holding a staff, a rhabdos, whence their name must derive.”

N.: P.’s proposed etymology for “rhapsode” lacks any morphological foundation. The etymology that I defend, on the other hand, is backed up by morphological evidence (details in PP 63-64, with bibliography): basically, rhapsOidos is to be explained as a compound formation built from the verb rhaptO ‘sew, stitch’ and the noun aoidE ‘song’. This etymology is dismissed by P as “false.” For P., the linguistic analysis of words on the morphological as well as the phonological levels is a matter of “etymologizing and comparative methods.” This is to ignore the disciplines of historical and comparative linguistics. Further, P.’s wording reflects some unfounded assumptions about the very concept of etymology in linguistics. My critique of such assumptions can be formulated this way (HQ 9-10): ” An etymology may be a ‘key’ to the diachronic explanation of some reality, as in the case of a cultural continuum, but it cannot be equated with some clever novelty in literary criticism.”

(8) P.: “Does N. therefore think that the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung by Homer, not taken down in writing, then sung by a successor nearly verbatim (except for such minor variations as poludeukea/poluEkhea), still not written down, then sung by someone else, with still more mouvance and a shifting of lines here and there, new particles creep in, then in the sixth century BC sort of written down, and then in the fifth century BC really written down, but still mouvance going on, until the Alexandrians at last established our text? Yes, N. does believe this.”

N.: No, I do not believe what P. says I believe. Here, as elsewhere, P. misreads my arguments and then declares his misreadings to be facts. I invite the readers of BMCR to compare P.’s breathless paraphrase of my book with the book itself. His wording “sung by Homer” and “nearly verbatim,” marking what he thinks are successive stages extending from one individual singer to the next, reveals to me that he has missed the essence of what I formulated in PP 109-112 concerning a progressive movement from fluidity to rigidity in an ongoing historical process of recomposition-in-performance (see also HQ chapters 2-3, especially 111-112).

In closing, I call on P. to reconsider his assumptions concerning my book. In particular, I call on him to correct his claim that I reject “the Parry-Lord model.” He repeats that claim in a chapter that he wrote for A New Companion to Homer (Leiden 1996), a book that was actually edited by P., in partnership with Ian Morris. I will not object here to P.’s privileging of his own theories in what is supposed to be a general handbook about Homeric studies, but I do take exception to his unfair treatment of at least one of his contributors (I wrote a chapter entitled “Homeric Scholia” for the book). At p. 30n54 of the New Companion, P writes that my “evolutionary model” of the formation of the Homeric poems “cannot stand”; after this pronouncement, he describes me as “rejecting A.B. Lord’s theory of the dictated text.” For the record, let me repeat what I said earlier: nowhere in my publications do I write that I reject Lord’s theory. I am all for collegial debate and disagreement in the quest for truth, but P.’s statement is something else. I can understand why he would want to become some sort of authorized representative of models developed by Lord, but I object to his setting me up as an opponent of these models. I therefore call on P. to correct, at the very least, his statement at p. 30n54 of the New Companion. As I contemplate the list of authors who contributed to P.’s New Companion, I am struck by a pertinent detail: I happen to be the only person on that list who can legitimately claim Albert Lord as a mentor. Certainly P. cannot, nor can anyone else on that list—not even John Foley (Foley has been effective in summarizing and restating the theories of Lord, but he was never a student at Harvard and he was never a student of Lord). Since my whole scholarly life has been connected with Albert Lord, from my first year as a graduate student in 1962 all the way till the time of Lord’s death in 1991, it is with the utmost seriousness that I view the importance of setting the record straight concerning what I have and have not written about my mentor’s work. I argue for a correction of the record, sub specie aeternitatis.