BMCR 2000.06.20

Nine Essays on Homer

, , Nine Essays on Homer. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. 241.

If one did not know that the authors of these varied essays were graduate students, one would assume from their uniformly high quality that one were reading the work of distinguished scholars with whose names one were somehow unfamiliar. The genesis of the collection is an interdisciplinary seminar at Harvard University presided over by Gregory Nagy and Emily Vermeule, with Charles Segal keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. Those three must be as proud of this volume as of their own distinguished contributions to Homer studies.

The articles are from different perspectives but share a set of historical and critical assumptions and each one of them manages to reveal resonances of meaning in the rich thought-world of epic performance that have hitherto escaped us. That shared set of assumptions is not in itself surprising: excising supposed interpolations, for example, is out of tune with these times and in particular with the work of these students, who, like this reviewer, have been influenced by Prof. Nagy’s view of ‘Homer’ as diachronic process. The approaches are not ‘trendy,’ however, in the sense of being overly concerned with theory (either deconstructive or oral) or very strongly ideological: Andrea Kouklanakis is well aware that Thersites and his various ineptitudes “can be seen as a linguistic metaphor for the Homeric construction of rebellion” (45; though Thalmann’s work on Thersites is not mentioned in this essay), but she does not reduce the epic to a tract on social control systems or contort the overlay of Thersites’s social and speech-performative handicaps into some kind of post-modern theory that would deflect attention from any reality beyond the text itself. Though I, for one, found myself more often in disagreement with this essay than with most of the others, it is, like them, as balanced as it is revealing.

The collection is ‘interdisciplinary’ in the sense that it reflects the ample range of disciplines in which Profs. Nagy and Vermeule have worked, and then some, but the end result is not the kind of book where an archeologist would only read one part and a literary person another: an interesting coherence has emerged. Anyone interested in seeing more deeply into how Homer worked (what- or whoever one takes ‘Homer’ to be) will likely read it with uniform interest from cover to cover. In the introduction, Editors Carlisle and Levaniouk articulate a number of sound methodological principles which characterize the essays: etymologies, for example, “can be abused by being applied arbitrarily, but they can also become relevant when they have demonstrably poetic associations and cohere with other elements of the narrative”; and “if an etymology is “confirmed” by the context, it becomes a powerful tool for uncovering a diachronic depth of associations that enrich our understanding of Homeric poetry” (xv and xix). This is ‘clarifying Homer from Homer’ in the best sense, and all nine of these writers demonstrate that repeatedly, not only in connection with etymology (around which two of the essays revolve) but in other ways as well.

One is tempted to get into a detailed engagement with all nine of these studies, but perhaps it would be more practical to highlight a few points in a some of them — a hard enough choice since, as mentioned, they are uniformly rewarding.

Olga Levaniouk’s essay on Penelope, beginning with the “complex interactions between the pênelops of poetry and mythology and the pênelops of natural history” (96), systematically, and with admirable sensitivity, traces the idea of the weeping bird in Greek (and I might add, Indian) poetic associations through the meandering, branching and reconnecting synapses of the mythology, that lead — as mythological associations ultimately do when pursued with due tenacity — to ‘first things’, in this case the solar mythology of the Odyssey with which we are most familiar from the work of Douglas Frame. Today we tend to be most interested in the social relevance of these ‘cosmic’ themes, and Levaniouk in fact treats the liminal status of Penelope with great empathy. Again, what is noteworthy is the balance of all these dimensions, and L. treats them as an organic whole, which is exactly what they are, for poetry, myth and the tensions of human social interaction gain richness of association from each other at every point. The essay gives us exactly what we would want from good criticism and searching scholarship: recovery of lost associations, a great gain in our appreciation of ‘the poet’s’ richness. It would have been admirable enough as a mature piece of research that leaves no reference unturned (as far as I can see); but it is also full of nuanced observations. To cite just one: “The expression οἴκτρ’ ὀλοφυρομένη‘piteously weeping’, used here about Penelope … is a metrical doublet of παῖδ’ ὀλοφυρομένη‘bewailing her child’ used to describe the nightingale in Book 19″ (109), a topos brought into constant association with the state of Penelope as a woman caught by conflicting loyalties and uncertain future, and a ‘reading’ of that state.

Yet, as L. points out, Penelope’s halcyon / nightingale / pênelops identity has other dimensions, and there are resonances with other bird ‘species’ (or topoi) which broaden the protectiveness of birds toward their young in a way that is equally relevant to Penelope’s typology in the Odyssey. Here one is reminded that geese (one of the birds brought into resonance with Penelope) were known in antiquity not only for “guarding their nest” (97) but for guarding cities: most famously Rome. This is much later than the Greek sources relevant to Homer, of course, but the fact is that Penelope and Odysseus together ‘save’ not only their well-built home and its holdings (taking the text’s viewpoint, or one of them, that the suitors are disruptive interlopers): in doing so they emblematically save the world-order itself.

Several of the essays deal with animals and birds. John Watrous (“Artemis and the Lion: Two similes in Odyssey 6,” 165-177) argues, intriguingly, that Circe’s theriomorphic transformation of Odysseus’s men brings into the ‘tenor’ of the narrative line what is elsewhere always left in the ‘vehicle’ of simile (a reversal, one might add, that is typical of the mirror-world of the Adventures), so that “the spells of the goddess threaten to collapse” these poetic worlds and “It is only through the timely intervention of the master shape-changer Hermes that Odysseus is able to resist Circe’s spells and force the goddess to restore tenor and vehicle to their rightful places by returning his men to their human forms” (175).

Brian Breed (“Odysseus Back Home and Back From the Dead,” 137-164) shows that the returned hero’s apparently harsh and unnecessary test of Laertes which has bothered critics for millenia is mandated by the demands of a partly-concealed theme, the dreaded alternative ‘return’ of Odysseus as avenging hero. Thomas E. Jenkins (“Homêros ekainopoiêse: Theseus, Aithra and Variation in Homeric Myth-Making”, 207-226) shows that Iliad 3.144 cannot be excised from the Teichoscopia because it is part of a ring-composition by means of which Helen summons up what is a poignantly impossible story in this context: her rescue from abduction by her Tyndareid brothers. Jenkins is doing much more than saving one line from the athetizer’s dagger, he serves up eye-opening repercussions for our understanding of the handling of myth and even more generally ‘innovation’ in oral epic composition, and of the way the skilled performer can invoke themes into a subtext which plays against the main (selected, ‘true’) narrative without being fully realized in it.

These are only examples of the rich work offered by every one of the nine contributors to this volume. Outside of a very few tiny mistranslations ( ἔχω, on p. 3, is probably subjunctive; φίλος, φίλη is the ‘inalienable possession marker’, not ‘dear’) this is fine, mature work. One would indeed have liked to be a fly on the wall in that seminar room. But for those of us who did not enjoy that privileged coign of vantage, this book will do nicely.