BMCR 2001.09.06

Response: West on Nagy and Nardelli on West, Homeri Ilias

Response to 2000.09.12

BMCR 2001.09.06

Response: West on Nagy and Nardelli on West, Homeri Ilias

Response to 2001.06.21

Response by

The two volumes of my Teubner edition of the Iliad have been honoured in BMCR with reviews of exceptional length, totalling over 31,000 words ( 2000.09.12, by Gregory Nagy; 2001.06.21, by Jean-Fabrice Nardelli). I am grateful to the reviewers for their pains, and for the generally positive character of their evaluations. There are many points of detail on which they disagree with me, and the reader will not need to be explicitly advised that on these same points I disagree with them. But it may perhaps be of interest to some observers (whether or not they have digested the reviews) if I comment on certain matters of principle and attempt to dispel some misapprehensions.

My critics are both (though it takes them in different ways) devotees of the Oralist faith, and they reproach me for not paying sufficient regard to the Good News. Thus Nagy remarks disapprovingly that in my Praefatio I “ignore altogether the work of Parry and Lord”, and that throughout my edition “there is a noticeable lack of engagement with oral poetics”. Nardelli finds that I “refuse the critical consequences of the Parry-Lord theory”; I show this by marking as spurious a number of verses “which, in their great majority, are easily accounted for in the oralist framework”. I have “a keen feeling for Homeric Greek but no sound command in oral linguistics.” “He cannot be well acquainted with Parry’s principle that rhapsodes would modernize their diction wherever meter does not prevent it since it is his contention that ‘Homer’ wrote.”

Let me take up the last point first. I do not actually commit myself as to whether the poet wrote with his own hand or used an amanuensis, but I do make him responsible for the writing down. Both reviewers imply that there is something controversial, even extreme, in this view. But it is an inescapable fact that we are dealing with a written poem, a text fixed in the course of the writing process (in Parryist theory it could not be otherwise). It cannot be treated as the transcript of a series of oral performances, for even if the poet was capable of creating our Iliad in performance, the means to capture it were not available in antiquity. (I have exposed the inadequacy of the “oral dictated text” theory in a recent paper in Acta Antiqua Academiae Hungaricae 40 [2000], 479-88.) Nardelli declares: “That ‘Homer’ … wrote is a mere guess depending on another unconventional belief of West’s, that ‘Homer’ is post-Hesiodic.” But it does not depend in the least on the relative date of Hesiod; and it is by no means “a mere guess” but a logical necessity. As Adam Parry pointed out, if the poet had not written (or caused to be written), we could not have his poem. But we do have it, because “he” is by definition the author of the poem we have.

Once the text was written down (“the text” being by definition the original of the Iliad we have), there began a written tradition, vulnerable to corruption by interpolation, modernization, and misunderstanding. My Praefatio is concerned with the history of this written tradition; that is why it is not adorned with references to Parry and Lord (and Nagy). If it sounds dogmatic, it is because its purpose is to explain succinctly to the user the presuppositions on which the edition is based and to give an indication of the reasons for them. It is not meant to be a history of Homeric philology, and the accusation that I have failed to cite this or that scholar, or suppressed views with which I do not agree, is thus beside the point.

If we want to get back to the original—and that is what I want—we must endeavour to identify the corruptions of the written tradition. “Oral poetics” is a red herring. Yes, constant modernization is characteristic of the oral poetic tradition; but that does not mean we have to accept all the modernizations we find in the written tradition, because written traditions also modernize. How do we distinguish modernizations of the tradition from those of the original poet? When the tradition itself is inconsistent as between an older and a younger form, the likelihood is that the poet more consistently used the older, and that the other has crept in subsequently. When the tradition shows no trace anywhere of a theoretical older form, we shall work on the assumption that it was already obsolete in the poet’s time, unless there is some special reason to think otherwise (as in the case of the genitives in -oo). Again, how do we decide, in the absence of external evidence, whether a redundant verse, repeated from another context, is due to the poet or is a later intrusion? Not, at any rate, by preaching that such repetitions are typical of oral poets and therefore to be accepted; for they are no less typical of non-creative rhapsodes, and of Homeric copyists down to the Middle Ages. The question is which of these was responsible in the given instance.

Of course the ancient variants are predominantly oral (or mnemonic) in origin. That does not mean, as Nagy thinks, that they all have equal validity. He fails to see the difference between a genuine creative oral tradition and the reproductive tradition of the Homeric rhapsodes, whose business was to perform excerpts from specic poems recognized as xed entities. Their interpolations and “oral” variants may be valid and interesting as manifestations of their art, but they have a quite different and inferior status to the original, normative text that the rhapsodes were supposed to be presenting—the Iliad that is the object of my edition. Nagy calls for a “multitext” edition that would display all the variants without “privileging” any one version. That amounts to denying that “Homer’s” Iliad was any better or worthier of our attention than subsequent rhapsodes’ perversions of it. Nagy’s position is well criticized by Margalit Finkelberg in Classical Philology 95 (2000), 1-11.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to decide which version is the original. But there it is the editor’s right, and indeed duty, to exercise his best judgment on behalf of the public, drawing on whatever knowledge and experience he may have accumulated in the course of his life. This does not seem to be a familiar concept to Nagy, who complains that “the text of West’s Iliad contains many editorial judgments that go beyond the manuscript evidence and that atten out the textual history of Homer.” Nor does he appreciate that an editorial decision reflects a judgment of probability, not necessarily an assertion of certainty. Thus when he speaks of my “optimism about reconstructing the ipsissima verba of a prototypical poet”, or writes that “he seems confident that he has recovered the closest thing to the putatively original Iliad”, or that “for West, there is no need to go back to the edition of Aristarchus in order to recover the text of Homer. He thinks that the closest thing to an original Iliad is his own reconstruction of the text composed by the ‘primus poeta'”, he is imputing to me a kind of arrogance that I repudiate. Naturally my text consists of what I think is the closest attainable to the original; that is what editing a text is about. But I am not saying it must be so, I am simply offering my best efforts. When Nardelli calls my edition “the tentative account of an opinionated author”, I will accept the description, provided that “opinionated” is understood to mean “having decided views” and not “bigoted”.

However, I am afraid that Nardelli intends the more negative sense. Elsewhere he writes: “What actually concerns West is less the origin and putative vertical character of each reading in the tradition than their congruence, dialectal, morphological or orthographic, to his own idea of what the Kunstsprache tolerates in each case and of what the context of each passage allows. This promulgates the taste of the modern editor…” That sounds bad, does it not? Only it is not a matter of taste, but of informed judgment, not derived from some private revelation about the norms of the Kunstsprache but from the empirical data; a judgment not imposed without regard to the evidence of the transmission in each place, but deployed in conjunction with it.

I do not know what leads Nardelli to think that I have a special preference for Aeolic forms; his reference to “the Aeolic color of the Kunstsprache, in whose conjectural restoration West has indulged in many places, following the guideline of Payne Knight and Fick,” will give the innocent reader a very misleading impression of my practice. My choice of uncontracted τεύχεα at line-end in 22.322 has nothing to do with Aeolic: a bizarre misunderstanding of my apparatus here and at 24.7 has led Nardelli to suppose that the manuscripts give τεύχεη and ἄλγεη (so accented), and he informs us that these are the Ionic equivalents of Aeolic – εα (with long alpha). I confess to some bemusement at seeing my Iliad reviewed by someone who can be prey to such a fantastic misconception. His blood will surely run cold when he realizes what he has done.

Confusion in linguistic matters appears also in his remarks about my rejection of the graph ευ for the contraction of εο or εου. The epigraphic argument is not ex silentio; it is that before the fourth century BC these contractions were normally written EO in Ionic, as if they were uncontracted. There may be one or two earlier instances of EU, but the norm was EO. We must assume it was also the norm in poetic manuscripts and that EU is a modernization. To judge otherwise is to show irrational faith in the sincerity of the tradition. Nardelli muddles the issue further by referring to Ionic spellings of the inherited diphthong EU as EO, which is a separate matter. (The seven such forms which he lists as “unanimously attested in the medieval tradition of Herodotus” in fact come from other sources.)

Given the brevity of my account of the early tradition (Praefatio V-VI), it is remarkable in how many details Nardelli contrives to misrepresent it. I said nothing of “a bard called Homer” who “composed…both the Iliad and the Odyssey” “sometime between the seventh and the sixth centuries BC”; nor did I mention “the Homeridae of Chios”. I did note that a few corruptions in the text seem to have their origin in copies written in the Attic alphabet, but I did not, as Nardelli implies, suggest that all copies were written in that script down to 403/2. On the contrary, I believe that the Iliad was written from the start in an Ionian alphabet of 25 letters (with qoppa). When I synchronize the division of the poem into 24 rhapsodies with the organization of the Panathenaic recitations in the time of Hipparchus, I am not in the least influenced by “the tradition first represented by Cicero” (De Oratore 3.137: Pisistrati, qui primus Homeri libros confusos antea sic disposuisse dicitur ut nunc habemus). The argument is that that was the moment when a division into “recitations” was needed, no earlier and no later.

In the Praefatio I could only state summarily my finding that the readings of the “city editions” and other early copies cited in the scholia were accumulated by Didymus and not by Aristarchus. As the arguments had not yet been presented, Nagy and Nardelli may be forgiven for cleaving to the conventional view, which I regard as mistaken. I can now refer those interested to my Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Munich & Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2001). There they will also find ample and reasoned presentation of my views on the pre-Alexandrian tradition, on the nature of Zenodotus’ text (where my position is by no means “a mere adaptation of Van der Valk’s conclusions”, as Nardelli has it), and on numerous textual questions.

Even without these fuller explanations, however, my two critics might have taken my point (to which they give short shrift) that when Didymus reports the reading of Aristarchus, he does so because the reading is somehow at issue; in other words, he must be aware of a different one, with which Aristarchus’ is tacitly contrasted. We can usually identify this different reading, and then it is appropriate to say of it “novit Didymus”. This should be obvious, and it is not dependent (as my critics seem to suppose) on my view of Aristarchus’ use of manuscripts.

The deployment of “novit Didymus” does not throw up new variants, because we have to know the reading from somewhere else before we can label it in this way. But it does provide a guarantee of antiquity that may not otherwise be available. This is also the principal value of the ancient quotations that I have collected in such numbers. I am sorry that Nagy and Nardelli are not more appreciative of their utility. To the latter I am grateful for a few addenda, though three of the items he claims I have overlooked are actually there in my apparatus, and it is not true that “the references for quotations collected by La Roche and Ludwich were not updated”.

A further misunderstanding on Nardelli’s part concerns my bracketing of lines. He lists a number of these lines and speaks of my “refusal to delete” and of cases where “West may well be overcautious and this reviewer would have wished to see the lines properly removed” … “those retained in the text with braces are no less certainly spurious than the deleted ones, but West was not confident enough (or did not dare) to delete them.” My list of sigla says plainly enough, “{ } interpolata videntur”. The choice between bracketing and omission is not an index of my confidence, but simply reflects the lines’ status in terms of the transmission. The ones I omit from the text are those that appear in only a few sources and are absent from the main tradition; they are not part of the paradosis. The ones I bracket are well attested, though not necessarily in all sources.

When it comes to my choice of readings in the text, both critics hold it against me that I do not formulate or follow some mechanical criterion. Thus Nagy: “West’s approach…does not seem to me systematic. That is, his decisions about good or bad textual traditions are not based on external evidence… Ultimately, the ‘goodness’ of the given tradition depends on whether West thinks that the given reading is ‘right’ in the first place. He is not concerned whether a reading comes from an ancient source or from a conjecture, ancient or modern, as long as it is ‘right’.” Of course! That is what textual criticism is about: rightness! Which does not mean treating the external evidence in a cavalier fashion, but treating it critically, not giving systematic preference to some particular source or type of source. This brings us back to the axiom, which my critics find so disconcerting, that the editor should be a thinking being, not a puller of levers.