Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 12.

Barbara Graziosi and Emily Greenwood (edd.), Homer in the Twentieth Century: Between World Literature and the Western Canon. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii + 322, incl. 7 halftone illustrations, an index of Homeric passages, and a general index. ISBN 978-0-19-929826-6. UK£55.00, US$99.00.

Richard Whitaker,
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Having recently completed a translation of the Iliad that attempted to bring out the parallels between Homer’s epic and Southern African society, I read Graziosi and Greenwood’s edited volume with keen anticipation. I was not disappointed. As with all such collective volumes (the book presents papers from a conference held in Durham in 2004) the quality of the contributions varies. But in this case, due to the scholarly standing of the contributors and the thoroughness of the editing, the standard is unusually high.

In their introduction (pp. 1-24), the editors discuss the main issues raised in the body of the book, summarize the contributions, and try to find common threads that unite the four parts into which the original conference papers have been organized. They state: ‘Our thesis is that shifts in the academic study of Homeric epic were part of a much broader re-positioning of Homer in the cultural landscape of the twentieth century’ (p. 3). This ‘re-positioning’, they argue, involved a move away from the notion of Homer as central only to the Western literary canon, and towards the idea of world literature; but it was precisely the ‘discovery’ by classical scholars of Homer as a poet who was oral (and thus comparable to oral poets of modern Africa or the ancient Near East) that helped bring about this shift. The editors suggest that their book is meant ‘not only for classicists but also for students of comparative literature, postcolonial studies, and cultural history’ (p. 15).

‘Part I: Placing Homer in the Twentieth Century’ (pp. 25-71) contains just two chapters. Johannes Haubold’s ‘Homer after Parry: Tradition, Reception, and the Timeless Text’ (pp. 27-46), is concerned with the reception of Milman Parry’s work not just by classicists but also, more widely, by twentieth-century literary and cultural theorists. Haubold points to a rift, since Parry, in the way that Homer is studied. On the one hand, comparative linguists, folklorists, and even cognitive scientists, now approached him as a traditional oral poet, so that Homer entered ‘a new arena of world traditions, where Achilles rubbed shoulders with Sunjata . . . and Gilgamesh’ (p. 35). Such scholars made Homer, in a sense, a timeless author. On the other hand, students of literature, reception studies, and translation, continued to discuss Homer as the first Western canonical author. Haubold shows how, anticipating this rift, there was already present in Parry’s work a tension between his sense of the profundity of the Homeric epics and his insistence ‘that no meaning in the usual sense of the word was encoded in the traditional aspects of Homeric poetry’ (p. 36). Many of his followers, including Lord, shared Parry’s ambivalence about the artistry of Homer. In a parallel but different way European classicists with some reluctance accepted Parry’s central thesis, but insisted that Homer wrote his epics, which made them comparable with masterpieces of the Western literary tradition. Thus they firmly situated Homer again in time.

In Chapter Two, ‘Singing across the Faultlines: Cultural Shifts in Twentieth-Century Receptions of Homer’ (pp. 47-71), Lorna Hardwick discusses the work of contemporary writers whose reception of Homer is not straightforward, but raises problematic issues. Her first subject, the Anglo-Irish poet, Michael Longley (b. 1939), often uses Iliadic material in his lyric poetry. Hardwick can be portentous in writing about this: ‘less an epistemological event than a performative transgression of the received frameworks of anthropocentrism, logic, and time’ (p. 60). She makes her point more clearly on the following page: ‘In Longley’s work as a whole, Homer provides the intertext in which the cultural memory of the First World War and the political realities and violence of the Troubles intersect’ (p. 61). Next, Hardwick examines Derek Walcott’s The Odyssey: A Stage Version, arguing that the play preserves something of the Homeric epic while applying to it new cultural and moral norms -- especially in the scene in which Penelope angrily refuses to countenance the maidservants’ execution. The chapter also touches briefly on the work of two other Caribbean creative figures, the novelist Wilson Harris, and the collage artist, Romare Bearden (a reproduction of whose The Siren’s Song adorns the dust-jacket of this volume).

The first of three chapters in ‘Part II: Scholarship and Fiction’ (pp. 73-142), Richard Martin’s ‘Homer among the Irish: Yeats, Synge, Thomson’ (pp. 75-91) is mainly a literary- and cultural-historical essay. It looks at the ways in which the study of Homeric epic influenced and was influenced by the work of three Irishmen: the poet Yeats, the playwright Synge, and the classical scholar George Thomson. Martin discusses two styles of handling the Homeric model, which he calls ‘import and export’. Yeats was an ‘importer’: ‘What Homer represents for Yeats is a lost epoch, a greater age when heroic men and women (and, by implication, their devoted client bards) held sway . . . The poet imports -- he takes Homer to Ireland and bestows him like a blessing on the select few’ (p. 77, his italics). Synge, on the other hand, was an ‘exporter’ in the sense that when he wrote about the people of the Aran Islands he viewed them (though he never explicitly says so) through a Homeric filter. The final subject of Martin’s chapter, George Thomson, is well known as a Marxist scholar of Greek culture. What is less well known is that he was a passionate Irish nationalist whose intimate knowledge of the inhabitants of the Blasket islands powerfully influenced his understanding of Homer as an oral-traditional poet.

Next, a scholar of English literature, Stephen Minta, in ‘Homer and Joyce: the Case of Nausicaa’ (pp. 92-119), reviews the problematic reception of Odysseus in Western culture, arguing that he was always polyvalent, difficult to ‘read’. An index of this is the different ways -- positive and negative -- in which translators have rendered the hero’s characteristic epithet, polymetis, as ‘resourceful’, ‘versatile’, ‘sage’, or ‘crafty’, ‘of many wiles’ (p. 95). Minta discusses in some detail Odysseus’ sojourn among the Phaeacians, concluding: ‘In general, the Homeric narrative suggests a range of contrasts: comedy and high seriousness, erotic possibility and formal propriety, pastoral fantasy and intruding realism, the touching and the cruel, experience and innocence’ (p. 105).[[1]] He examines the reception of the Nausicaa episode from Pope on, showing how anxious (male) translators were to ‘preserve’ the virginal modesty of the Phaeacian princess. It was against this trend that Joyce reacted. Minta quotes the novelist’s wonderful description of the tone he was trying to achieve in his Nausicaa episode: ‘a namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy (alto là!) style with effects of incense, mariolatry, masturbation, stewed cockles, painter’s palette, chitchat, circumlocutions, etc., etc.’ (p. 109). In Ulysses Nausicaa is transformed into Gerty, ‘heroine’ of a bad sentimental novel; Odysseus, into the furtively masturbating Bloom. Whereas Homer seems to have admired his Nausicaa, Joyce savagely undermines his. So savagely that, as Minta demonstrates, recent commentators have tried to ‘rescue’ Gerty, one even arguing, improbably, that ‘Her voice is that of “her nation struggling to be born,” of the everyday battle to keep going “in the face of domestic violence, social invisibility, and colonial repression”’ (p. 114).[[2]] I found Minta’s one of the most focussed and interesting of the contributions.

The last chapter of this section, Barbara Graziosi’s ‘Homer in Albania: Oral Epic and the Geography of Literature’ (pp. 120-42), falls into two distinct (and in my view insufficiently related) parts. In the first, she discusses the way in which Homer’s place ‘in the literary and cultural landscape of the twentieth century has been deeply contested’ (p. 120). On the one hand Homer is compared with epic poets of the Western canon; on other, with oral poets the world over. Parry and Lord’s assimilating the Homeric epics to worldwide traditional oral narratives was explosive because it seemed to undermine their quality. And this tied in, later, with the extensive questioning of the Western canon in the 1980s. The discussion then shifts to recent ideas of the importance of performance in judging epic. Graziosi examines the debate, prompted by Ruth Finnegan, as to whether there is epic in Africa, and, if there is, how we are to evaluate it and other epic traditions. Graziosi argues that there seems now to be a convergence between different approaches: those that stress the oral-traditional aspect, and those that concentrate on the skill and artistry of the individual performer. The second part of her chapter deals with the fiction of the Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, especially his novel, The File on H (published in various editions 1980-1997), which had its origin in a brief meeting between the author and Albert Lord in 1979. Graziosi’s view is that Kadare’s novel engages with issues of modernity and with the politics of the Balkans -- including the politics of the production of oral poetry there -- in ways that the work of Parry and Lord did not.

Emily Greenwood’s ‘Logue’s Tele-vision: Reading Homer from a Distance’ (pp. 145-76) leads off ‘Part III: Distance and Form’ (pp. 143-227) and is most welcome to those of us who teach the reception of the Odyssey by modern writers. Greenwood argues that, in his ‘versions’ of the Iliad comprising the series War Music (1962-2005 and continuing), Logue tries to recreate the experience of reading Homer as poetry; but that, at the same time, his works measure the distance that separates us from the Greek poet. In a manner different from other translators of Homer Logue does not try to conceal the relationship between Homer’s and his own text, and he allows ‘interference’ in that text from the many already-existing versions of Homer. Logue creates a sense of immediacy by frequently introducing into his versions of Homer ‘anachronisms’[[3]] such as space rockets, photographs, tungsten, references to twentieth-century wars, and by his use of cinematic technique: close-ups, long shots, jump cuts. Greenwood suggests this latter practice is appropriate, given that Homer’s own narrative can often be effectively analyzed using ‘film syntax’ (p. 163). She sees Logue as taking into account scholarly views of Homer as an oral poet: War Music is an ‘oral/aural poem that proclaims itself as music’ (p. 147). Greenwood’s chapter further contains an interesting discussion of issues of ‘ownership’ of the Homeric text and ‘fidelity’ to it in translation; and a comparison of the synaesthetic quality (involving elements of seeing, hearing, and physical processes) of Logue’s work with that of Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. (Logue of course shares with Keats the fact that neither knew Greek).

A brief chapter by Oliver Taplin, ‘Some Assimilations of the Homeric Simile in Later Twentieth-Century Poetry’ (pp. 177-190), considers similes in the work of three contemporary poets, Christopher Logue in War Music, Derek Walcott in Omeros, and Michael Longley in his poetry published since 1991. Taplin proposes that Homeric similes do their work ‘through dissimilarity no less than, or even more than, similarity’ (p. 178, his italics), and that, far from referring to the poet’s own world, most Homeric similes are ‘neither fixed in time nor located in place’ (p. 179). Taplin comes up with a useful term ‘time-tension’ (instead of the too blunt ‘anachronism’) to capture the procedure, very common among contemporary writers, whereby they juxtapose in their texts elements drawn from different historical periods. He discusses in Logue’s similes the play of similarity / dissimilarity, as in Homer; characteristic ‘time-tensions’, as when contemporary practices and technologies are referred to; and Logue’s manner of drawing readers into the world of his similes by ‘buttonholing’ them with such phrases as ‘Consider how . . .’ or ‘You know . . .’ As for Omeros, Taplin points out that the poem achieves its effects more through striking metaphor than simile. But, he argues, the few developed similes that do occur serve to mark crucial points in the poem. In the case of Longley, Taplin examines two Homeric similes in his poems, one of which picks up the ‘mismatch’ between fertility and the sterility of death in the poppy-simile of Iliad 8.300ff., while the other introduces the specificity of County Mayo place names into the poet’s reworking of the famous starlit-night simile at the end of Iliad Book 8.

Gregson Davis’s contribution,‘“Homecomings without Home”: Representations of (Post)colonial Nostos (Homecoming) in the Lyric of Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott’ (pp. 191-209) aims to explore links between four compositions: Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal and ‘Spirales’ by Aimé Césaire, and Walcott’s ‘Homecoming: Anse La Raye’ and Omeros. Davis states: ‘I shall be concentrating on the broader strategies by which certain central Homeric motifs are recodified in contemporary terms’ (p. 192), especially the motifs of homecoming and katabasis. He prefaces his account with some rather nebulous observations on katabaseis in ancient Near Eastern epic, the movie Orfeu Nègre, Walcott’s Omeros and Virgil. Discussing Césaire’s Cahier which traces the poet’s return from Paris to Martinique, Davis argues that although we might expect this journey to be towards a sunlit land of the living, all the metaphors and images of the poem make the island seem like a land of the dead, the journey like a katabasis. In Walcott’s poem ‘Homecoming: Anse La Raye’ Davis finds a combination of katabasis and the nostos of a disillusioned returning poet, unrecognized by his own people. ‘Derek Walcott’s dazed poet-hero whose nostos is marred by alienation and rejection has deep affinities with Aimé Césaire’s disillusioned speaker who confronts a moribund human landscape in his native Martinique’ (p. 206). I feel that Davis tries to do too much in this chapter, which, consequently, becomes somewhat ‘bitty’ and disjointed.

One of two chapters in the book dealing with cinema, Françoise Létoublon’s ‘Theo Angelopoulos in the Underworld’ (pp. 210-27) identifies in Angelopoulos’ films motifs of the Odyssean nekuia (Od. Book 11) -- such as mist, rain, rivers, encounters with dead figures, punishment of offenders -- blended with motifs from the katabasis of Orpheus. In a detailed discussion of the Greek director’s Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Létoublon finds in the movie ‘two different models for the reception of antiquity’ (p. 216), one static and frozen, the other dynamic, as the past is taken up and reused. ‘It is possible that Angelopoulos’s model of Homeric reception lies somewhere between these two poles, and that meaning is to be found in the tension between a frozen, static, lost past, and a past that nonetheless continues to be used and resonate in the present’ (p. 217). In her account of the same director’s Eternity and a Day (1998) and Voyage to Cythera (1984), Létoublon points out further Odyssean elements such as the importance given to the protagonist’s dog (in the latter film, explicitly named Argos). But, for me, this chapter and the preceding one have a similar weakness: both discuss any reference by their respective artists to ‘death’ or a ‘journey’ in terms of an Odyssean nostos or nekuia -- even where the connection with Homer seems very tenuous. (Létoublon’s title at least acknowledges this, in that it includes no mention of Homer or his epics.)

The book’s final section, ‘Part IV: Politics and Interpretation’ (pp. 229-85), opens with David Ricks on ‘Homer in the Greek Civil War (1946-1949)’ (pp. 231-44). Ricks had already traced in The Shade of Homer (Cambridge 1989) Homer’s influence in Cavafy, Sikelianos, and Seferis. ‘The aim of the present chapter is to introduce some main lines of the story as it developed during what has been called a Thirty Years War, 1944-74’ (p. 232). He quotes a wonderful poem of Aris Alexandrou that warns, through the image of Troy in ashes, against macho nationalistic identification with Greek heroes such as Achilles. Ricks poses the question: ‘If adopting certain personas . . . was a mark of false consciousness, then to which Homeric figures might recourse be had during or after a civil war . . .?’ (p. 233). He discusses the poet Frangopoulos’ use of a Lycaon-figure to evoke ideas of hostage-taking and reprisals in civil war, and analyzes the way in which the same writer’s novel, Teichomachia (1977), rather clumsily endows a student, killed in the clash between Left and Right, with all the characteristics of a very human Hector. In Ricks’s view the hapless Odyssean Elpenor was the most significant Homeric figure in the period under discussion: ‘There is little doubt that Elpenor in post-war Greek literature . . . has had staying-power precisely because of his lack of character; and perhaps for his operating as a symbol of the miscarrying of tradition, a case of a figure who does not benefit from -- but who also escapes the trammels of -- a grand narrative’ (p. 242). Finally, Ricks reads the well-known poem, ‘Penelope’s Despair’ (1968), by Yannis Ritsos, ‘as a post-Homeric postscript to the Civil War’ (p. 243) in which ‘the blood-spattered hero of Odyssey 23 takes on some of the characteristics of the political detainee of the 1940s and after’ (p 244). A satisfying and stimulating chapter.

Simon Goldhill’s contribution, ‘Naked and O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Politics and Poetics of Epic Cinema’ (pp. 245-67), raises thought-provoking questions about the ‘reception’ of Homer in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Western culture. By way of introduction, Goldhill writes ‘It is striking that in ancient literature the Odyssey feeds into both tragedy and comedy. . . . This is matched by my two films, where one is as brutal and difficult to watch as any modern film, the other a successful mainstream comedy’ (p. 245). He asks apropos these films ‘how much Homer is being cued and by what cues?’ and ‘how much Homer is being received and by whom . . . ?’ (p. 246). In the discussion that follows of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), Goldhill points out the many Odyssean references in the film. These may be as blatant as the protagonist holding up to the camera Rieu’s Penguin Odyssey, or they may be more subtle and indirect. So too the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) emblazons the first lines of the Odyssey in its opening credits, but also, much more subtly, alludes to the oral transmission of Homeric epic through the hero’s recording of his own song for radio. But no single audience-member will pick up all the allusions. ‘What is fascinating to me’ (Goldhill writes) ‘is that in this comedy, no less than in Leigh’s epic, there is a game with split audiences: fragmented comprehension’ (p. 264). And he concludes with the challenging assertion: ‘This why “reception” is a poor model for Classics today, unless reception can escape from an assumption of a passive or necessary receptivity of an audience, uniformity of comprehension, and unidirectional transmission of unified meaning’ (p. 267).

In the final chapter, Seth L. Schein, ‘An American Homer for the Twentieth Century’ (pp. 268-85), examines the uses and abuses of Homer in the USA over the last century or so. He examines the role played by the Homeric epics in the growth of the ‘humanities’ as a discipline from the late nineteenth century on, and in the development of ‘Great Books’ courses. Schein interestingly shows that a ‘main reason for the rise of great books courses was not so much academic as ideological’ (p. 273), since they came into being during the First World War as part of an educational programme designed to explain why the war was being fought and how it represented a struggle of civilization against barbarism. After the war, ‘These courses continued to serve patriotic purposes, presenting Western Civilization, especially the civilization of the United States and western Europe, as in effect the telos of world history’ (p. 274). At the same time, classical learning came increasingly to be regarded as a commodity of high social value. Hence the popularity of series of uniform ‘sets’ of classic texts, including the Iliad and Odyssey, that could be purchased by middle- and lower middle-class families to display their culture and status. Schein points out that very often, in great books courses in the USA, the Homeric epics are taught as expressions of very generalized ‘values of Western culture’ -- such as ‘freedom’ or ‘individuality’ -- without history or context; and he calls for a more nuanced and contextualized historical reading of the Homeric epics in such courses.

Taken all in all, this is a rich and stimulating collection of essays that should open many avenues for future research into the uses (and abuses) of the Homeric epics in contemporary culture -- not just in the West but world-wide. The extensive bibliography on its own will prove most useful. It is a pity that the high price of the book will put it out of reach of many individual scholars (certainly those in the developing world); but all should ensure that their library orders the volume.


[[1]] Minta makes much of the varying translations of parthenos at Od. 6.33 as ‘virgin’ or ‘unwed’. He writes as if parthenos can only, mean ‘virgin’, and as if translators have consciously or unconsciously suppressed the element of ‘sexual awareness’ here (p. 102). But the Greek word is itself ambiguous and can quite legitimately be translated either way.

[[2]] Citing Wicke, J., ‘Joyce and Consumer Culture’, in D. Attridge, James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Casebook (Oxford 2004) 234-53.

[[3]] Greenwood prefers the less blunt term, ‘time-tensions’, used by Oliver Taplin in his contribution (see below).