BMCR 2005.07.05

Omero anti-Omero: Le incredibili storie di un trickster giullare alla corte micenea

, Omero anti-Omero : le incredibili storie di un trickster giullare alla corte micenea. Filologia e critica ; 91. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2004. 269 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 888476016X €56.00 (pb).

Maiullari, a practicing Adlerian psycho-therapist who has written extensively on classical, especially Greek, literature, offers here a bold and sweeping reading of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. He argues that the epics contain comic, humorous, or ironic moments, and that serious and comic elements co-exist within each poem, and especially within the Odyssey. There is, of course, nothing terribly new in this; after all, it is Aristotle who sees in Homer the origins of both tragedy and comedy. M.’s claim is much stronger. He argues that, while most readers tend to subordinate the comic (also the oneiric, the ludic, the ironic and the parodistic, a series of categories that M. believes overlap) to the serious or tragic elements of the poems, an exactly reversed reading would be closer to the truth. To quote from his concluding chapter, “the Iliad is a burlesque and comic poem, in which serious matters can also be found” (255-6) and “the Homeric epics were transformed from transgressive, anti-institutional, even subversive works, into edifying works” (252-3). He sees this transformation as happening chiefly from the fourth century onwards, in an attempt to recuperate the poems from the Platonic desire to banish epic poetry from the ideal city. There is something salutary in this attempt to invert what M. sees as unchallenged assumptions concerning the nature and function of Homeric epic, and the book contains a number of valuable observations and intriguing theories concerning Homeric matters large and small. As a whole, however, it suffers from an excess of confidence in its conclusions, conclusions which are all too often inadequately substantiated and which at times seem to rely too heavily on equating modern experiences of authorship and reading with those in the ancient world.

The book is divided into two broad sections, the first of which is titled “Il sogno e lo scudo: aspetti onirici, ciclici, parodistici, dell’Iliade” (The dream and the shield: Oneiric, cyclic, and parodistic aspects of the Iliad), and the second of which is titled “Sogno e parodia nella lettura anamorfica dei poemi omerici” (Dream and parody in an anamorphic reading of the Homeric poems). Over the course of the first section, M. develops the claim that the Iliad is structured as a series of concentric circles, therefore structurally resembling the shield Hephaestus builds for Achilles in Book 18, and that the dream forms the structuring principle for these narrative circles. The innermost of these circles consists of the first ten lines of the poem, which begin and end with mentions of the rage of Achilles and in between look prospectively at the future damage to be caused by this rage and retrospectively at the Plan of Zeus behind it. Lines 1.11-1.32 form a second circle, in which the back-story (antefatti) of Agamemnon’s quarrel with Chryses is retold. Lines 1.33-1.305, which include Chryses’ prayer to Apollo on the shore, the plague, Calchas’ prophecy, the assembly and Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis in compensation for the loss of Chryseis, become for M. the “dream-vision of Chryses,” for reasons which will become apparent. The final two circles, which are obviously much larger in scale, carry us through the remainder of the poem; M. refers to these circles as the first and second parts of the “dream-vision of Achilles,” and views 9.655-669, in which Achilles falls asleep in his camp following the embassy scene, as the dividing-line between the two halves of this dream. In other words, the vast majority of the poem, from Achilles’ appeal to Thetis in Book One through to the end, is for M. an extended dream-sequence, beginning with a dream of motivated vengeance in the first part, then, after the transition in the embassy scene, moving to a dream of excessive (perissos) vengeance in the second part.

This claim, that the entire action of the Iliad is to be understood as a wish-fulfillment dream dreamed by Achilles on the seashore, is startling in its boldness, and will, I suspect, excite both curiosity and skepticism in the readers of this review. Regrettably, the latter emotion is more warranted by the evidence offered. The principal point offered in defense of M.’s claim is that when Thetis arises from the sea to speak with her son she is characterized (at 1.359) as rising “like a mist” ( ἠΰτ’ ὀμίχλη), and for M. “it is possible to infer a connection among wind, shadows, puffs of wind, as means of entering a dream” (39). This seems tenuous enough evidence on which to base a reading of the Iliad, but there is in fact less to this point than meets the eye. As evidence, M. offers two principal passages, Theogony 9, where the Muses are characterized as shrouded in mist ( κεκαλυμμέναι ἠέρι πολλῇ), and Odyssey 6.20, where Athena appears to Nausicaa in a dream “like a puff of wind” ( ἀνέμου ὡς πνοιή), and mentions additionally three Sophoclean passages (fr. 13 R., fr. 65 R., and Ajax 126). As M. himself acknowledges (39), one of his two archaic passages mentions mists (using, incidentally, a different term) without specifically connecting them to dreams, while the passage that is explicitly about a dream does not mention mist. This seems an inadequate basis on which to interpret a broad range of atmospheric phenomena as markers of a dream-state, still less as a means of establishing the endurance of a dream-state throughout the poem. This sort of argumentation is rather too common throughout the book and necessarily weakens the reader’s conviction of the soundness of the argument. Just as importantly, however, the book never quite manages to account for why we must interpret the Iliad as a dream; little if anything in the second half of the book depends directly on this claim.

It is to the second, and on the whole more successful, half of the book to which I shall now turn. Its argument is more diffuse than that found in the first half, using a variety of thematic chapters to construct a reading of the Homeric epics as fundamentally (rather than incidentally) ironic, parodistic, ludic and oneiric works. Through chapters concerning dreams, omertà, the anti-heroic, Thersites, doubling, Odysseus (and the poet) as trickster figures, and the blindness and professionalism of the poet, M. seeks to overturn what he sees as the normative modern reading of the epics (and especially of the Iliad) as serious, even tragic works. There is much of interest in these chapters, beginning with the catalogue and discussion of dream-scenes in the Odyssey. Frustratingly, while Penelope’s dream of the geese is discussed at various points in the book, neither the dream itself nor the theory of dreams Penelope develops in Book 19 are ever given the sort of systematic treatment afforded the other, less celebrated, dream sequences.

In the chapter on the anti-heroic, M. offers an intriguing reading of Diomedes’ wounding of Ares, arguing that Ares is in fact wounded in the scrotum, and that the scene is intended as a sort of parody of the role of gods in human affairs. The key evidence M. uses to support this reading is the phrase at 5.857, where Athena guides Diomedes’ spear νείατον ἐς κενεῶνα, ὅθι ζωννύσκετο μίτρῃ, Lattimore’s “into the depth of the belly, where the war belt girt him.” M. argues, relying on a somewhat dubious inference from the other occurrence of the word at Iliad 4.216 that the contextual meaning of μίτρη, should not be “belt” or “girdle” but rather “athletic supporter” περιζῶμα. M. goes to some lengths to demonstrate that the latter word unambiguously refers to a jockstrap, though it is a term used of blacksmiths, priests and cooks as well as of athletes, and in any event is not found in Homer. He has succeeded in demonstrating a possible meaning for a term other than the one he is seeking to gloss but does not demonstrate a necessary connection between the two terms, still less a necessary reading of the Homeric passage. Moreover, he fails to establish why the wounding of Ares’ scrotum would necessarily be understood as parodistic and subversive by a Homeric audience. One can certainly imagine other reactions.

His argument that the conventional reading of the scene is merely the “refined, edifying” version, as opposed to the “allusive, ironic, parodistic” reading he takes as primary (154) opens up what is arguably an intriguing possible interpretation, as well as a line of inquiry that would be worth pursuing further. He has not, however, managed to demonstrate, here or elsewhere, the necessity or even the likelihood of his readings. His eventual claim will be that the preponderance of episodes such as the wounding of Ares shows that the parodistic elements of epic outweigh the serious. Each of the episodes he discusses is, however, at best only potentially ironic or parodistic, and only provided one accepts the rather tenuous interpretations he gives for individual lines and the audience reactions he assumes.

This book may have some appeal if it is read as a series of engaging speculative readings of individual scenes, and as a means of inspiring further thought on possible ironic readings of Homeric epic. M.’s goal, to us that the Iliad and the Odyssey are fundamentally subversive and only incidentally serious or tragic, may be too ambitious for such a slender book. In any event, the book cannot be judged a success by these self-imposed standards both because the evidence supporting its readings is generally inadequate and because the readings themselves never seem essential to an understanding of the epics.