BMCR 2022.11.04

Homer: the very idea

, Homer: the very idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. Pp. 280. ISBN 9780226675893 $27.50.


Porter’s objective in Homer: The Very Idea is to provide readers with a deeply philosophical consideration of Homer; to view the epic poet through his cultural incarnations in select literature and art from antiquity to the present. It is a goal that his book, for the most part, delivers on. Porter presents us with a complex view of evolving “Homers” instantiated at various points in time through what he portrays as socio-cultural binaries. Among the Homers that show themselves in literature and art are “the blind Homer; the seeing Homer; the Homer of Vergil; the Homer of Alexander Pope; the Homer of Schliemann…[a] profusion of Homers” (171).

Porter begins by asking and then answering, “Why Homer?” He elucidates Homer as a cultural icon that must be built and rebuilt for each successive generation. Porter focuses more on the person than the poems. He reasons that it is one thing to read an epic and quite another thing to read it as the work of “Homer,” a poet who has had various ideas attached to his name over time. I am not as convinced as the author that the idea that the name “Homer” evokes overwhelmingly or even necessarily always deeply affects a reading of the Iliad or Odyssey. Yet, the book still persuades me in much of what it says. Porter convinces me that the ideas attached to “Homer” did affect certain audiences.

Porter notes that when readers attempt to situate the poems in time and space, they “extrapolate an image of the poem’s creator or creators” (4) that gains a life of its own: a portrait that produces an idea, “Homer,” that gains lives of its own. Homer was a cipher; in some ways, then, a created “fiction” (34) or “invention” (40). “Homer,” this culturally created idea, is envisioned by Porter through many binaries: near-divine and awe-inspiring at one time, a fallible human perjurer at another. Porter emphasizes that Homer was never universally admired, a point he wants to drive home (which results, however, in his giving Homer’s admired monumentality short shrift in places). “Homer,” for Porter, stands as “shorthand for all that we do not know about the poet (if he ever existed)” (8).

Porter asks why the question of Homer arose and exerted so great a fascination for ancients and moderns alike, a question that his narrative answers in part. Yet, I think one would have to talk more about the contents of the Homeric epics to give the full story. After all, a counter argument could be made that what really makes Homer at all interesting or even a topic of concern, is instead the central place that the poems’ contents, their stories and themes, held over time. But this is not Porter’s focus. Instead, Porter centers on the poet as a concept, how his image was manufactured over time, and the contradictory portraits that emerged. Homer has fascinated posterity, which has sought out his voice and his connection to Troy’s traumatic past.

Chapter Two asks, “Who was Homer?” and begins with a quotation: “the most famous men will forever remain the least known” (41), an apt introduction to the book’s emerging argument. Porter observes that we cannot really know who Homer was, but that we can consider the way he has been represented in art. Porter touches briefly on ancient images of Homer before considering Ingres’ painting, Homer Deified, to which he devotes a fair number of pages. Ingres’ Homer, “calqued” from Zeus, is represented as a living poet, but of course, the poet is long dead. This binary becomes a pivotal question for Porter’s central quest: “Is Homer a mortal poet who is becoming a god for Ingres, or is he an immortal becoming a mortal figure” (54)? The goal that Porter seems to be aiming at here is to consider the way Homer was envisioned in particular time periods. What Porter’s discussion presents is a series of snapshots rather than a full diachronic view of Homer.

Porter next turns to a focused consideration of the past in both art and literature. Portraits of Homer (as a “type”) often show him either old and blind, listening to divine voices, or else sighted and reading. These opposites are a “confession of ignorance,” Porter concludes, and a reification of the mystery of Homer. Pliny knew, Porter argues, that visual representations of Homer were imaginary, “fetishistic illusion” (58). While I do not think that most ancients were thoughtful Homer doubters (especially early on), the overall point, that they were fetishistic, stands (even if overstated). Further, the Lives of Homer are said to “hoover up” (64) every conceivable fact about Homer. The Life of Homer attributed to Plutarch presents “a farrago of disparate claims” (69) about Homer’s birthplace, and yet Homer also became a diasporic figure assimilated to environments from Egypt to Rome (Antipater notes that no place gave birth to Homer). Homer is at once real and fiction. He is, as Porter concludes with a return to Ingres (via Kantorowicz), both alive and dead. Homer was both an empty figure of tradition and yet the “quintessence of antiquity” (82).

This “quintessence” acts as the focus of Chapter Three (“Apotheosis or Apostasy?”). Homer could experience apotheosis (as in Archelaus of Priene’s relief sculpture from the Hellenistic period). Argos and Chios had shrines to him; at Delos, Homer’s texts inscribed on wood were sacred relics. Alternatively, Homer could be treated like a social outcast, reviled, or viewed as morally flawed. Poets like Archilochus or Hipponax showed the “underbelly” of epic. Homer’s grandeur and credibility could be challenged by “revisionism” (by the Greek lyric poet Stesichorus) or cut down to size, as was the case with Nestor’s cup, which is a tiny relic when compared to that noted as Nestor’s possession in the Iliad account. Homer, furthermore, could be deceived by boys who test and stump him with a riddle about lice (in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod), which represents, as Porter argues, an “anti-apotheosis scene if there ever was one” (106). Homer could see or be blind, both mentally and physically. Porter argues convincingly that from Xenophanes to Samuel Butler, Homer could be a celebrity or an embarrassment.

Perspectives from the ancient world varied both inside the academy (Alexandrian scholars) and outside the academy (Timon of Phlius). Homer could be mocked in different registers: through tropes that made him the sublime Ocean from which lesser rivulets flowed; or vomiting up verses in the underworld while ferried by Charon. The presence of Homer in prose, Porter notes, suggests a narrative of Homer’s “contamination by the present” (107). All in all, Homer came to be treated as no longer remote, Porter argues, but rather present, receiving approval and criticism as coexistent responses even in the same author (Dio Chrysostom). Prose could pare Homer down to hypothesis, a sort of CliffsNotes approach. This development, along with scandalous accounts of Homer falling in love with Penelope (e.g., in Hermesianax’s Leontion) and plots in other parodic works both before and during the Roman imperial period, “turned Homer on his head” (115).

In early modern Europe, Homer could be elevated beyond reproach or be represented in burlesque travesty by “the most vulgar language” (the French playwright Pierre de Marivaux) (117). The second perspective is given greater space in Porter’s argument. Butler’s whimsical work, part of a genre of Homeric apostasy, could act subversively in bringing Homer down to size. The Odyssey, in this telling, was written by a woman who was “young, self-willed, and unmarried;” it was “cobbled together by an amateur” (119). In Butler, Homer is “tar[red] with Homer” (120), so to speak. Porter argues that “Figures like Homer came to be overwritten like a palimpsest” or “a reissued blank check” (129). Porter convincingly shows that Homer could incite debate and straddle both sides of the canon, especially in high literary circles.

Porter next considers Homer in relation to the archeological site of Troy (Chapter Four, “What Did Homer See?”). “To revisit Troy is to revisit Homer” – and to visit Troy for readers, literary critics, archeologists, and others meant trying to picture the place as Homer did, to “relive the now-dead past”(132) and see it as it appeared to Homer’s eyes. But, in antiquity, Homer was often blind and saw nothing at all. This may have been a mark of divine inspiration. Yet, Homer’s blindness created more problems than it solved when it came to Troy. Homer could be viewed as creating realities about Troy rather than merely reflecting them. Homer’s blindness could be regarded as a failing (as it was from Stesichorus and Heraclitus onward) and lead to innuendo. How could his poetry, or his ideas about Troy, be so visual when he could not even see? Blindness became a metaphor for what he did not know and what his readers could never verify. Porter presents these alternative ancient perspectives, which prove interesting, but not entirely surprising, since myth, as a corollary, has never been univocal either. The view of Homer that Porter rightfully seems to be rejecting, then, is the monolithic. Of course, that said, that there existed disparate views of Homer tells us little about actual belief in his reality as an historic figure for the ancients (or various groups of ancients, to avoid generalities).

Porter further notes that Troy in later literature, mostly reliant on Homer for an account of the city, could be represented as flourishing or in ruins. Yet, Troy was “un grand absent” (149) when Homer offered his poems. Porter presents evidence from writers like Eustathius, Vico, Goethe, and Herder to suggest that Homer’s triumph as a poet was to trump reality itself, by, in a sense, creating something that was no longer there, albeit, not, he argues, in any detail. Troy loomed even larger, however, in later ancient and more modern imagination and representation than its actual topographical and archeological footprint would support. The author seems to be arguing, then, that Troy, like Homer, was in some sense also a fiction in how it was represented over time.

Chapter Five (“Why War?”) begins with an antithesis, this time between war and peace. Various authors, Winckelmann, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, and Auerbach among them, develop a tranquil aesthetic that eclipses “bloodshed and danger” (177), an approach that became part of “Weimar classicism.” Homer “is a model of sublimination, and therefore also of forgetting” (178). To avoid Homer’s gruesomeness, Homer’s admirers shifted attention to his artistry. Another way that Homer was envisioned (and this was used to obscure his connection with the horrors of war), was as a Philhellene and a patriot. He was a champion of the Greek view of barbarian Asia. This picture emerged after the Greeks first stopped the Persians in 480 BCE, when Persians became Trojans (a reading of Homer that also found its way into modern fascist ideologies). In the third century CE, Homer could even be regarded as a fellow soldier (Philostratus). It was as though Homer was gaining apologists.

The final topics in the chapter are at times a bit disjointed. We hear of literary critics like the first century CE writer Longinus and much later Goethe as apologists for Homer and the futility of war. The eloquent idea of “a beautiful death” (203) is problematized by the waste it leaves in its wake, a value that is questioned in Homer, according to the author. In this view, the brilliance of Homer is mired in bloody warfare, which is all part of Homer’s contradictions. Porter is right, of course (in adding his own view) that both strains, literary brilliance and beauty, but also the horror of war, are present in Homer. One might further add to Porter’s account, that warfare was a necessary contradiction in Homer, as it was in ancient — and still is in modern — society. It is a reality of life with possibilities both of great epic stories, and of equally great destruction.

Porter’s is a fascinating and erudite book with a penchant for striking prose. While some of Porter’s conclusions are less supported by the evidence than others (and a few are a stretch), the reader is nevertheless given a generally convincing narrative of the idea of Homer through the ages, one that is thoughtfully presented and with perspectives that range beyond those found in standard works. In short, Porter’s book is worth reading. Seminars in early Greek epic and the classical tradition would benefit from it.

Porter’s discussion, however, in some respects, distractingly tips its hat to the place of oral tradition in the timeline of ideas about Homer. Since the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, especially, most Homeric scholars have asked a different set of questions, ones not represented in the vast array of sources that are the focus of Porter’s labor. While this area was clearly not the primary objective of Porter’s otherwise careful study, I am not sure that it should have been left out, since the evolving identity of Homer, for much of the last century, has centered on issues related to his role as aoidos (epic singer) within a tradition.