BMCR 2000.05.09

Response: Foley on Wyatt on Foley

Response to 2000.04.07

Response by

Let me begin by thanking William F. Wyatt for his engagement with my recent book, Homer’s Traditional Art (hereafter HTA). I appreciate his perspective and am encouraged to hear about the ways in which he feels the volume helps us to read Homer. In that spirit, let me state from the outset that this response is meant not as an agonistic exercise but as a continuation of the discussion. What W. writes is thought-provoking and worthy of comment.

To start, we seem to agree on “the only really important question concerning Homeric orality,” that is, the difference it makes to our understanding of Homer’s poems as verbal art. And yet there may be a slight difference here. Proceeding in step with my introductory remarks explaining the book’s title and the absence of the key term “oral” from that title ( HTA, pp. xi-xiv), I would place emphasis not on “orality” alone but on the lexicalized phrase “oral tradition,” or even more simply on “tradition” alone. The reason is straightforward enough: I do not believe that in the present state of knowledge we can state with precision exactly how the received texts of the Iliad and Odyssey relate to prior or contemporary oral performances. And yet, as generations of scholars have shown, these great works stem in some fashion from such a tradition. My solution, then, is to eschew the positivism of this or that theory of text-production and to settle for what seems most important — to wit, the poems’ traditional language and its implications.

What difference does this specialized language make? In HTA I attempted a shorthand answer to that question by formulating a proverb, undeniably invented and inauthentic: “Oral traditions work like languages, only more so.”1 Of course, oral traditions are languages, and I depended on that fact when devising the phrase. If the homemade maxim does its job, it can rhetorically highlight the idiomatic force of language, that layer of meaning(s) that joins and enriches the literal sense of the language and narrative. In a living performance, such meanings may emerge in music, costuming, kinetic gesture, tempo, and myriad other modes. In dealing with texts that derive from oral tradition, which will have lost most such signals merely by their commission to and transmission within texts, we still need to be alive to other-than-lexical signification. LSJ will take us a crucially important part of the way, but it cannot plumb the depths of a poetry rife with implication on its own terms.

W. remarks that this kind of effect — the “more so” of the proverb — is not limited to epic, and he is certainly correct. Throughout the spectrum of living and textualized oral traditions, all sorts of genres, from the epic and lyric to the lament to more modest forms like the riddle or indeed the proverb itself, the same principle of “value-added” signification is evident. Nor is the effect limited to verbal art derived from oral tradition; literature in general depends on it, and W.’s analogy to modern television extends it even further. Indeed, the basic claim made by HTA and the pseudo-proverb is hardly absolute.2 My only point in applying the “more so” to Homer is to encourage us to ask whether the unexamined dynamics of “our words,” culturally reified on a daily basis even as we read our texts and compose our scholarly writings, is in every respect the same dynamics embodied in “Homer’s words.” I believe there are some differences, and that these differences matter. (Along those lines W. mentions that I see the phrase χειρὶ παχείῃ, “stout hand,” primarily as “a sign, not a literal description,” and that is so. But idiomatic meanings must have a literal logic as well, even if that logic is no longer active in the exchange of meaning between poet and audience, and so I have no quarrel whatever with his linguistic exegesis of the combination. There must be room for both perspectives in the understanding of Homer’s poetry.)

In several places W. challenges the pertinence of the South Slavic analogy: e.g., “Comparanda here are Yugoslav songs, and do not help this reader at least.” I have two responses, one concerning chapter 3 on the comparative analysis of structure and the other on chapter 5, which treats the Return Song in the two traditions. First, I spent a fair amount of time on the structural differences between the two poetries because, frankly, the comparative examination of formula, theme, and story-pattern across Homeric and South Slavic epic has, especially since Albert Lord’s writings, often left much to be desired philologically. Claims of near-congruency or stark difference between the two poetic languages have usually been overstated, and classicists have unfortunately been left with a distorted, dichotomous, and sometimes ideologically charged set of scenarios from which to choose. Chapter 3 attempts a calm, measured portrayal of what common sense should lead us to expect: namely, that Homer’s and the guslar‘s poetic languages are traditional, yes, but in their different, idiosyncratic ways. They compare quite closely on some scores—encapsulation of phraseology, for example—but much less closely on others. In fact, pushing the principle further, we can say with confidence that, had Parry and Lord been able do their fieldwork and collecting in Anglo-Saxon England (another well studied but sparsely preserved poetry derived from oral tradition), the differences would have been much wider and deeper.3 The simple lesson is to judge each poetry on its own terms, with allowances made for the natural language characteristics of each tradition.

How about the Return Song? Why compare the Odyssey to a group of Odyssey-like oral epics from the former Yugoslavia? The answer is simple and direct: we have no parallels in the ancient Greek texts (unless one counts the Hymn to Demeter, a distinctly different genre, or projects the shards of the cyclic Nostoi into a finished artifact). On the other hand, we have quite literally hundreds of such tales of return in the neighboring Indo-European tradition of South Slavic oral epic. Were there as extensively recorded a collection of analogous material in another epic tradition, and if I were able to pursue the works in question in the original language, I would certainly have included them in my comparison. The fact is, however, that South Slavic epic has no peers in the size and variety of the extant sample, although we do have versions of the Return Song from Russia, Bulgaria, medieval England, Albania, central Asia, and elsewhere ( HTA, p. 298, n. 2). In choosing this particular comparison with the songs of the guslar, I plead agnosticism on the matter of whether an Indo-European precursor is necessarily involved or whether diffusion principally accounts for the remarkable similarities in narrative content and sequence (heroes called away to war, wives or fiancees left to deal with incursive suitors, extensive flashbacks within apologoi, lying tales, returns in disguise, selective self-revelations, riddle-driven denouements, and the like). I merely suggest evaluating the South Slavic witness as a comparandum, focusing on the rich morphology that hundreds of recorded versions—rather than a single text — can illuminate.

More to the point, that morphology offers a perspective on some troubling and longstanding problems of poetics in the Odyssey, and that, as W. and I concur, is “the only really important question concerning Homeric oral [tradition].” I speak here of three interrelated challenges: (1) Why does the Odyssey“begin in the middle”? (2) How do we explain the brilliant, stubborn, ambivalent Penelope as a character? (3) Where does the Odyssey really end, at 23.296 with the so-called telos or at the end of Book 24? The morphology of the Return Song in its South Slavic avatar can shed light on all three of these significant problems: (1) the story-pattern conventionally proceeds in precisely this out-of-chronological-order sequence; (2) many such songs dissolve the ambivalence of the heroine not into a positive and faithful Penelope-type figure but into a negative and perfidious Clytaemnestra-type figure (a revelation postponed until just before the equivalent of the telos but, as the ten references to the Agamemnon-Clytaemnestra paradigm in the Odyssey seem also to hint, always pending); (3) such songs typically reach their telos before reaching the actual end of the story. Comparisons like these, which can open a window on the morphology of the Return Song, only deepen our sense of what a magnificent poem and performance the Odyssey is.

Let me close with a few additional points of agreement with W. Like him, I cannot see “tradition” as a monolithic inheritance, but must credit it with a (rule-driven) pliability in development over time and a natural variability in the hands of different poets.4 Indeed, the South Slavic analogue makes it evident that tradition consists of idiolectal, dialectal, and larger versions of the basic medium, depending on whether we are speaking about the performances recorded from a single individual, a single geographically defined region, or some larger, more generalized area. For such reasons I think the best analogy for oral tradition is simply language, which varies within limits and which draws its strength precisely from the combination of idiomatic regularity and individual invention. Also like W., I would have to see (and in the case of the South Slavic epic poets have experienced) a corresponding variability on the receiving end. Not every member of the audience is created equal, and differential experience leads inevitably to variant receptions. Against that necessary heterogeneity, however, stands the idiomatic integrity of the traditional language in which the poem is made and remade, heard and reheard, and (as best we can) read and reread.5

As for W.’s judgment that I have perhaps unnecessarily stressed that Homeric “words” — formulaic phraseology, typical scenes, and story-patterns — do not always correspond to our words, I can only answer that the history of scholarship seems in fact to call for an increased emphasis on units of utterance and their idiomatic meaning, if only to offset our unexamined modern assumptions. His respelling of “greenfear” ( χλωρὸν δέος) as a single word, which I admire very much, makes that point quite economically. Instead of parsing Homer only in our own cognitive units, we might well pay more attention to the tectonic units in which Homer actually composes and the implications revealed by collation of their recurrences, even within our limited corpus. Cruces of many kinds can be addressed via this method, which draws its logic and strength from the internal consistency of Homer’s and his tradition’s poetic language. Finally, as for W.’s verdict that my “spirit discusses, it does not soar,” so be it. In my mind it has always been Homer who soars; what is left to us who try to grasp his genius is to mark his trajectory by more clearly hearing his song.


1. Or, as I had reason to phrase it at a recent conference on the formula convened by Philippe Rousseau and Georges-Jean Pinault at Lille, “La tradition orale fonctionne comme une langue, et bien plus.” My thanks to colleagues at the colloquium for their helpful reactions.

2. If scholarship of the past decade or so has taught us anything, it must be that categorical distinctions like “orality” versus “literacy” are untenable, and that a wholly disparate poetics for oral tradition ignores the fundamental continuity of verbal art (cf. HTA, pp. 17-18).

3. Cf. the comparison developed in Foley, Traditional Oral Epic (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990, rpt. 1993), espec. chaps. 3, 6, and 9.

4. HTA, p. vii: “… a tradition is always evolving within certain rules or boundaries, always proving a somewhat different ‘thing’ from one performance to another and from one practitioner to another, always remaining a process larger and richer than any of its products. Varying within limits, the Homeric epic tradition proves dynamic rather than static, explosively connotative rather than restricted in focus, bristling with idiomatic implication rather than claustrophobically cliched.” For examples of idiolect, dialect, and pan-traditional language in South Slavic oral epic, see Foley, Traditional Oral Epic, chaps. 5, 8.

5. See further Immanent Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), and The Singer of Tales in Performance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Of course, the modern reader can never mimic the mother-tongue fluency of an ancient audience member, but incremental gains in understanding the poetic idiom remain a worthy (and achievable) goal.