BMCR 2008.02.10

Homer in the Twentieth Century. Between World Literature and the Western Canon

, , Homer in the twentieth century : between world literature and the western canon. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiii, 322 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780191538308. $99.00.

Table of Contents (also listed at the end of the review)

Barbara Graziosi and Emily Greenwood choose their opening gambit with precision and thoughtfulness. Introducing this edited collection, which appears in Oxford University Press’s recent series Classical Presences, they take issue (p. 1) with one of Harold Bloom’s maybe less immediately prominent but, to their mind, quietly far-reaching statements that “everyone who now reads and writes in the West, of whatever racial background, sex or ideological camp, is still a son or daughter of Homer”.1 Justifiably weary of the smooth genealogical, organic metaphor, Graziosi and Greenwood, together with the other contributors to this volume, prefer a conceptualization of Homeric reception in the twentieth century that comes closer to the Irish poet Michael Longley’s increasingly often-quoted image of “Homer’s Octopus | yanked out of its hidey-hole, suckers | Full of tiny stones, except that the stones | Are precious stones or semi-precious stones”. Longley’s octopus, itself yanked from Od. 5.432-5, stands in for poetry, and it is one of the strengths of Homer in the Twentieth Century that it gathers methodological momentum from the insight that Homeric imagery itself has played a programmatic role in acts of Homeric reception in the twentieth century, whether scholarly or creative. In looking at acts of self-positioning in relation to Homer, by academics, writers, film-makers, poets, and the creators of syllabi, Graziosi and Greenwood focus on ruptures, on distances, on faultlines and on contradictions, and they aim for a framework that goes beyond the case-study and has traction not just for Classicists but also for those in the fields of Comparative Literature, Cultural History, and Post-Colonial Studies.

That they achieve this to a great extent, especially in their well-paced introduction, is because they do not simply envisage replacing the imagery of the family tree of Western literary tradition with a more fractured range of receptive practices. Instead, they offer a more heterogeneous model for those twentieth century self-positionings vis-à-vis Homer, in that they take seriously the force field that opens up between two axes: that of a linear, Western conception of reception on the one hand, which sees Homer as the fountainhead of a literary tradition; and that of alternative, multiple epic, oral and literary traditions across the world on the other hand. This is a force field the editors take seriously both historically and methodologically. In other words, for Graziosi and Greenwood it is precisely a hallmark of the twentieth century that the notions of the Western Canon and of World Literature between them shape the multi-dimensional, though at times uneven landscape in which academic and creative receptions of Homer have taken place, often within each other’s horizon.

In the last few years, there has been a slew of companion volumes to Homer, some of them with deliberately differing outlooks. Among them that edited by Ian Morris and Barry Powell in the mid-nineties focussed mainly on epic techniques, comparative epic and oral traditions, and the material culture context of Homeric poetry;2 the most recent one, edited by Robert Fowler, seemed to foreground literary contexts, style and literary techniques, literary filiations, and a programmatic section on later, Western reception, which was in the review literature often criticized for its Anglocentric, canonical focus.3 Graziosi and Greenwood, who in their introduction give a good overview of recent work on Homeric reception and comment on the orientations of such recent companion literature, do not side with either approach; rather, they treat the tension as paradigmatic of the defining shift in the larger cultural landscape of the twentieth century, where the notion of epic as a literary genre became complicated from several sources. In this landscape, a model of epic genealogy and literary filiation is intersected by a new scholarly and cultural interest in epic parallels, originating from various geographical places, compatible also with a general early twentieth century Modernist tendency to go beyond standard models of culture by seeking out such notions as exoticism, primitivism, or cosmopolitanism — even though Modernism is not an explicitly addressed focus of the present volume. To use one of the editors’ own images, if Homeric poetry were a CD, it could in the twentieth century be marketed both under ‘classical’ and ‘world music’ labels. The variable categorization of Homer in the often overlapping fields of scholarship and artistic reworking is itself what is critically examined in this volume, and it is one of its advantages that it seeks to understand scholarship as itself part of reception and as engaged in a wider cultural dialogue.

The contributions, which all arose from a conference on Homer in the Twentieth Century held at the University of Durham in the summer of 2004, have all, so it would appear, been carefully revised in mutual dialogue with each other and the editors during and after the event, and are arranged into four parts. Given the overall framework of the new and, so its authors hope, more far-reaching introduction that aims to encourage new directions in research, quite literally too in a geographical sense, the range of contributions must inevitably display a certain selectivity, but they nevertheless can all be seen to shed light on the central concerns of the collection.

To summarize, before going into a little more detail about individual contributions, Part I, ‘Placing Homer in the Twentieth Century’, examines more generally the role Homeric poetry played in the evolution of concepts such as tradition, reception, literature, orality, and epic; it does so in two articles by Johannes Haubold on Homer after Parry, and by Lorna Hardwick on alternative conceptualizations of reception.

Part II, ‘Scholarship and Fiction’, looks as the intersecting of academic and artistic perceptions of Homer, including the radical redefinitions of literature that can emerge from that relationship; Richard Martin in this section illuminates ‘Homer among the Irish’; Stephen Minta adds a specific episode in Joyce; and Barbara Graziosi lets Ismail Kadare interact with Albert Lord and with the re-evaluation of traditional epic poetry elsewhere.

Part III, ‘Distance and Form’ (although variously called ‘Distance and Genre’ in the introduction), looks at how understandings of distance from Homeric poetry affect choices of genre and form, including the horizontal expansion to media other than writing. In this section are included Emily Greenwood’s analysis of Christopher Logue’s ‘Tele-Vision’; Oliver Taplin’s reflection on Homeric simile in contemporary poetry; Gregson Davis’s tracing of homecomings in the works of Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott; and Françoise Létoublon’s reading of Homeric features in the films of Theo Angelopoulos.

Part IV, ‘Politics and Interpretation’, closes with the political and sociological implications of reading Homer in the twentieth century; first in an account of Homeric figures in the poetry of the Greek Civil War, by David Ricks; followed by an examination of the deliberate and involuntary politics of epic cinema by Simon Goldhill; and rounded off by Seth Schein’s compact but precise history of Homer in the rise of Western Civilization courses in the American educational system.

To go into a little more detail, Haubold first offers a historical contextualization of Milman Parry’s linguistic work on Homeric poetry in the early 1930s, and his subsequent fieldwork with Albert Lord in Yugoslavia to find comparative and corroborating evidence for his findings in a modern, South Slavic oral epic tradition. Identifying the tensions and ambiguities in Parry’s work, of viewing Homer both as a traditional, quasi-timeless poet whose individual voice is much less important than mastery of the generic demands of oral epic poetry, and as an individual creative voice that forms the normative origin of a linear, canonical literary tradition, should force us, Haubold suggests, to think and critically rethink all-too broad notions of tradition and reception in relation to each other.

Hardwick, similarly, starts from the point that ‘reception’ and ‘tradition’ are a set of terms that require and reward more careful and constant rethinking both in a descriptive and a prescriptive way, if they are to offer any real conceptual and methodological pay-offs — or this is at least how I would like to read her. She shows especially with regard to contemporary artistic practice how ‘reception’ alone is an insufficient umbrella concept for the complicated, crisscrossing dialogue between Homeric epic and twentieth century culture, and she focusses for her examples especially on poetry (predominantly that of Ireland) and on the writings and stagings of Derek Walcott, informed by the cultural issues of a post-colonial world. In line with one of the overall concerns of the collection, she is also keen to point out that some of the techniques of such a much less smooth, less linear, and more fractured understanding and practice of reception, such as foreshadowing, multiple temporal perspectives, switches and doublings, can also be interpreted (and are in twentieth-century scholarship being interpreted) as constituent parts of Homeric epic poetry and epic technique to begin with. It is the often circuitous routes of a Homeric text creating an intertext (for example Romare Bearden’s visual cycles), in turn creating a new text (to follow the example, Derek Walcott’s writings, who has referred himself repeatedly to Bearden), allowing for a feedback-loop to actual classical scholarship (such as Carol Dougherty’s work on ethnography in the Odyssey, or, as a more general example, the reference to ‘filmic’ techniques as a language to describe Homeric style).

In part II, the complex interaction between scholarly and literary contexts informing each other is shown by way of some new and unexpected material. Martin discusses Ireland, but deflects from the dominant focus on Joyce, the Modernist ‘mythical method’, or Yeats in isolation, by pointing up the powerful interplay of perceptions of Homeric poetry and of the peoples of the Irish Aran Islands and the Blaskets, in the works of the playwright John Millington Synge and the scholar George Thomson. Martin makes Yeats and Milman Parry two other players in this line of argument, giving them a relevant contextual role, but one that is refreshingly less exalted.

In contrast, Minta does talk about Joyce’s Ulysses, but suggests a new contextual, albeit a little wandering, reading of the Nausicaa episode as a reaction not just to Victorian sexual morals, but to Victorian knowledge and interpretations of Nausicaa within the Homeric economy of social values. It takes a while to get to some actual examples of Victorian scholarship and readings of Nausicaa, which are hidden in between references mostly to late twentieth century translations, but when they appear they make themselves felt, even though Minta gives disappointingly short shrift to Samuel Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) and his thesis that the female author of the work cast herself as Nausicaa. While Joyce may not have engaged directly with Butler’s deliberately maverick and hard-to-place thesis, he was certainly, like many of his contemporaries, much taken with Butler’s radically readable prose translation of the Homeric epic.

Graziosi offers a very subtle and well-informed reading of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s satirical novel File on H. (1980; 1990; 1996), whose plot of two young American scholars travelling the Albanian highlands in the 1930s to record oral epic performances is directly inspired by the figures of Parry and Lord (there was in fact a brief encounter between Lord and Kadare at an international conference in Ankara in 1979). Before analysing with great precision the layers of political complexity both of Parry and Lord’s work and of Kadare’s literary reinvention of such an undertaking, Graziosi prefaces her argument with an introduction to the at times very acrimonious discussion that has sprung up in the last decades over the relative definition, value and categorization of African epic poetry in relation to Western models. Her argument is well-structured enough to make that discussion feed effortlessly into the issue of how Homeric epic can be called upon to bypass an exclusively Western tradition and validate local ones, while operating with its categories at the same time, which is a question relevant to the characters of Kadare’s strangely and characteristically timeless and historical cosmos, too, American and Albanian alike. At the same time, and while Graziosi refers to that discussion about non-Western epic in the introduction, her account might deserve a more visible platform than as an elegant subsection in her already rich example of ‘Homer in Albania’. As for the implications of Parry and Lord’s ostensibly timeless local epic tradition, Graziosi, like Haubold, rightly highlights some of the problems of their search for parallel epic oral traditions and their implicit privileging of Homer nonetheless. One such problems is that classicists, Parry and Lord included, have tended to ignore, or chosen not to speculate on, the contemporary political implications of such an undertaking — traditional oral poetry was neither a self-evidently existing, apolitical category, nor a unified body of work in the new multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia in the 1930s. What is more, Graziosi suggests that especially in a context of epic research that overly stresses the perceived timelessness of traditional poetry, be it African, Balkan, Caribbean or Indian, an “omnivorous interest in oral traditions can ultimately silence the intricacies of local history” (132) — and underestimate them.

The stylistic and formal effects wrought by contrasting definitions of epic as genre are the stuff of part III, all of whose contributors try to unpick how writers, poets and film-makers mix the defining features of epic with other genres and forms so as to measure their relative distance from Homer. Greenwood offers a detailed and very fine analysis (in every sense of the word) of Christopher Logue’s techniques of distancing and approach in his versions of Homer’s Iliad (as an extra, she also offers an enormously helpful account not only of their labyrinthine publication history but also of Logue’s own varied and changing terminology for his creative revisions). Despite the obvious and deliberate differences from Homer, Greenwood argues for Logue crafting equivalences of distinctive Homeric features in his poetry, an insight that allows her first to review and then to put into a less flattering light much of the criticism (often from the field of classics) that has in the past been levelled against Logue based on a somewhat short-sighted understanding of ownership and fidelity. Like some of the other contributors, she also exemplifies that the analysis of Homeric technique and the techniques of acts of reception can throw new light on each other.

The same is true of Taplin’s reflections on Homeric simile as a figure that operates on the basis of dissimilarity just as necessarily as on that of similarity to the main narrative. Reading examples of Homeric simile in the works of Michael Longley, Christopher Logue, and Derek Walcott, Taplin not only seeks (and achieves) a mutual commenting on simile between Homer and late twentieth century poetry, but he is also able to draw conclusions about simile as a way of thinking through creative acts of reception.

Both Gregson Davis and Françoise Létoublon choose the underworld journey ( katabasis) as a representative feature of ancient epic and of its reception. I say ‘ancient epic’ deliberately as both of them comment on the extended edges of the Homeric katabasis as it overlaps with other ancient Near Eastern epic and with the Orphic myth, in its various geographical and literary manifestations, and its potential for reflecting on the creative process. Davis is concerned with the written words of Walcott and Césaire, and with post-colonial returns as homecomings and infernal journeys alike, as comment on the present and on the weight of the past, on possession and dispossession. Létoublon reads Angelopoulos’ filmic recourse to the same motif as a way to upset the linearity of time and history — even though she is more and maybe surprisingly reticent on the nationally and politically charged contexts of the films and underworld journeys she focuses on, in Ulysses’ Gaze and in Eternity and a Day. Both films are not only concerned with the political and social upheavals in South-Eastern Europe in the 1990s, but also comment on the difficult, irritating, and challenging role of a national art.

The particularly fraught vision offered by Homeric reception in twentieth century Greece is also the subject of Ricks’s contribution to the section on the political and sociological implications of Homeric self-positionings. In the period of post-1945 civil violence that would affect Greek political and cultural expression for many years beyond the technical end of the Civil War in 1949, the poets who deliberately allude to Homer stress distance and the impossibility of easy assimilation. This is not least, one might suspect, because the Shade of Homer (both the title of Ricks’s 1986 monograph on Homer in modern Greek poetry, and also the title of a poem by the early nineteenth century ‘national’ poet Dionysios Solomos, who is incidentally one of the main characters of Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day) included also the shade of such poet figures as C. P. Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, and George Seferis and their own modernist dialogue with Homeric themes. (As an aside, although none of the contributions in this volume deals specifically with Seferis, his name keeps reappearing in several of them.)

The politics discussed by Goldhill are several. There are the social politics of the (post-) Thatcher London that form the backdrop of Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, for one. And there are also the cultural politics of generating and of recognizing explicit Homeric cues in film (with the Coen brothers’ comedy Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, released in 2000, as the complementary example), by film-makers and audiences alike. Goldhill discusses the generic advantages which the Odyssey offers to film-makers, and the models of fragmented and at times bristling reception that it encourages. His analysis of Naked‘s rejection of all social values implied in the Homeric Odyssey, however, together with the varied range of comments received from the producers, director, and critics on whether the Odyssey is a chosen intertext, leads him to ask the more charged question about “the place of narrative models in society and its picturing to itself of its past and present” (259), that is of the structuring power of traditional narrative forms, deliberately employed or not, for creating social visions.

Schein, finally and very usefully, discusses the changing institutional contexts that created the place of Great Books and Western Civilization courses in the American educational sector, and that have affected readings, readership, and publication and translation history, in the USA. His richly documented conclusion sees a dominance of narratives of Western identity, individualism, and progress as shaping the perception of Homer, and, more importantly, a persistence of what he calls a presentist framework in which the study and teaching of Homer is often discussed and justified. The issue, in other words, might not be whether Homer has been killed in the academy, but that the rhetoric of that discussion assumes that he has to be alive in a particular way.

As mentioned above, the present collection is superbly carefully edited, cross-referenced and put into dialogue with itself. What is a little surprising, though, is that one of the features of its well-argued and self-conscious selectivity receives little explicit comment: that is the fact that of the cultural and geographical areas that receive the most attention, Ireland (several times over), the Caribbean, Greece, Albania, and (to be included in this category) America, almost all are areas where the challenge and the discourses of nationalism and national identity, often in relation to a Western, central, or other “canon”, have been of great importance in the twentieth century, which is, after all, also a century of national conflicts. Is it an accident of the contributors’ interests that Homeric reception should have a particular place where it intersects with assumptions and questions of what is particular and national? Graziosi and Greenwood, in line with recent discussions in the field of Comparative Literature, point out the beginnings of the terminology of World Literature in Goethe’s formulation, but Goethe’s is a notion that conceptually also complements that of national literature. We hear much about the local in the present collection, but little about whether the appeal to Homer may not also have had a function in either engaging head-on with or bypassing the tense and complex question of the national, and of its shifting definitions as a “genre”, not unlike epic, especially in the twentieth century.

This is not to take away from the value of the collection and of the impulses its editors want to give. What many of the contributors to this volume share is a weariness of “reception” as a self-evident term, tool, or category. What they suggest is that we need to produce a new critical idiom and a set of tools sharp enough to analyze the complex dynamic that opens in the triangle between classical texts and the scholarly and artistic knowledge of them; to talk simply about “reception” or the “classical tradition” does simply not seem to allow the fine-tuning that is sought. Taking what might look like fractious and uneven acts of reception seriously, while making the time, finding the ways, and daring to acquire and employ multiple areas of expertise and familiarity with a range of disciplines, histories, and techniques, artistic and scholarly, may be exactly what is required to do “reception” as a field of inquiry well.

Longley’s octopus meanwhile, if its popularity in the recent literature on Classics and reception is anything to go by, seems to have become a kind of heraldic animal for this growing and shape-shifting field. If it is a comfort, there is unlikely to be a shortage to be found in Homer any time soon of further creatures and of images of being shaken out of one’s habitat.

Table of Contents

Introduction (Barbara Graziosi and Emily Greenwood)

Part I Placing Homer in the Twentieth Century

1 Homer after Parry: Tradition, Reception, and the Timeless Text (Johannes Haubold)

2 Singing across the Faultlines: Cultural Shifts in Twentieth-Century Receptions of Homer (Lorna Hardwick)

Part II Scholarship and Fiction

3 Homer among the Irish: Synge, Yeats, George Thompson, and Parry (Richard Martin)

4 Homer and Joyce: The Case of Nausicaa (Stephen Minta)

5 Homer in Albania: Oral Epic and the Geography of Literature (Barbara Graziosi)

Part III Distance and Form

6 Logue’s Tele-Vision: Reading Homer from a Distance (Emily Greenwood)

7 Some Assimilations of the Homeric Simile in Later Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oliver Taplin)

8 Homecomings without Home: Representations of (Post)colonial nostos (Homecoming) in the Lyric of Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott (Gregson Davis)

9 Theo Angelopoulos in the Underworld (Françoise Létoublon)

Part IV Politics and Interpretation

10 Homer in the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) (David Ricks)

11 Naked and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Politics and Poetics of Epic Cinema (Simon Goldhill)

12 An American Homer for the Twentieth Century (Seth Schein).


1. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p.33.

2. Ian Morris and Barry Powell (eds.), The New Companion to Homer, Leiden: Brill, 1997.

3. Robert Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. See, for example, the review by Barry Powell in BMCR 2005.04.29.