Monday, February 23, 2004

Two or More of You

Back in 1990, I met a charming grad student at a Thanksgiving party in Berkeley. I recognized her last name, and asked her about it. Sure enough, she really was a descendent of a certain Austrian military man. The general in question was notable for almost defeating Napoleon in Italy in1800. Indeed, by the afternoon of the critical battle, Melas had his army in full pursuit of the routed French. Unfortunately, as the wounded but apparently triumphant general was getting his head bandaged, an exploding caisson and a spontaneous cavalry charge reversed the results of the day, thus ensuring the young Napoleon would go on to become Emperor of the French, terrorize Europe for another decade and a half, and get his cook to invent chicken Marengo. My encounter with the general’s descendent was also fated thereby, along with the advice she gave me about a scholarly question. She was (and is) a comparative literature maven and an expert, among other things, on Greek literature. I asked her about recent work on Homer, and she recommended Gregory Nagy’s Best of the Achaeans. As much as I would have desired it, personal circumstances prevented me from encountering the lady again; but I’ve been reading Nagy ever since.

Homer has been important to me since childhood. I didn’t pull a Schliemann and dedicate my life to a search for the historical Troy because I had happened to hear a drunk German reciting the Iliad in Greek from a tabletop in a Latvian saloon; but sometime after I found my sister’s paperback copy of the Rouse prose translation, I determined to learn enough Greek to read the poem myself and eventually I did, sort of—my linguistic abilities were almost as feeble then as they are now. I may have inherited my taste for the epics from my father, who loved the Odyssey and whose memory was so remarkable that he could forget the poem entirely in two years and thus give himself the pleasure of reading it for the first time over and over again. (On the odd years he read Don Quixote.)

Granted my reverential attitude towards Homer, it was a shock to learn that many scholars believe that the epics were not written by a single author. The Homeric Question has been a live issue since Frederick William Wolf published his Prolegomena to Homer in 1795, but it was news to me in 1962. I thought it was an infamous heresy, an outrage to my youthful romanticism—I didn’t know anything yet about the Volkish variety of romanticism that actually celebrates collective authorship of the epics. But over and beyond wanting to keep my faith in genius and the productive imagination, I had a more substantial reason to reject the thesis of many Homers. The traditional argument for multiple authors has always depended on contradictions in the poem, but what struck me at 16 was just the reverse—the impressive consistency of the works, the perfection of the design, the unwavering objectivity of vision. Like Jesus in the Gospels, the heroes in the Iliad always seemed to say things in the best possible way on every occasion. I was much less impressed by gaffes like the three ambassadors to Achilles who turn into two in Book Nine. It didn’t strike me as particularly surprising if a single author made mistakes like that. If Cervantes, who presumably was an individual man and not a folk tradition, could get Don Quixote’s ass stolen and then mysteriously restored, a single, real Homer was likewise entitled to nod.

When I actually read the Greek text, my ideas gradually changed but not because of the often discussed contradictions. I came to believe in the collective authorship of the epics for the same reason I used to deny it. If the poems had a very specific kind of perfection, I decided, it was precisely because many years or centuries of singers and listeners had worked over the material. That’s where Nagy comes in. Working in the tradition of Albert Lord and Milman Parry and partly on the basis of their field observations of living traditions of oral poetry in the Balkans, Nagy fleshed out a performative theory of the origin of the epics and explored its implications. Nagy understands the current text of the Iliad as the outcome of a long series of creations and recreations of material from deep in the Indo-European past—he’s famous, or infamous, for finding a semantic and metrical cognate for the epithet kleos aphithiton (unperishable glory) in the Vedic Sanskrit sravas aksitam, which means the same thing. As speculative as these Dumezilian details of may be, Nagy’s general view of the origins of the epics is a revelation. In any case, having changed the terms of the debate without writing the last word, much as Noam Chomsky seems to have permanently changed linguistics without coming up with an adequate grammar of any language, the further ifs, and, and buts don’t seem so important.

In ancient literature at least, perfection seems to belong to those works that were essentially communal and oral. The works of the scribes are much less consistent. The authors of the various segments of the Jewish Bible are supposed to have been divinely inspired. It is a more stringent test of one’s faith to find the hand of God in the hacks who edited the final product, however, though their efforts were vastly better than whoever is guilty of the received version of the Koran. Meanwhile, the parts of scripture that do reflect a long oral tradition—some of the Psalms rework older non-Jewish poems we know from archeological digs at Ugarit and elsewhere—have the same inevitability as Homer’s language. I also believe that the great literary merit of the King James translation derives from its long incubation in a tradition of speaking. Generations of preachers worked on earlier versions of an English Bible so that the final product reflects an immense body of pulpit experience. The great old literary works were cooked up slowly in a broth of performative tradition.

The old joke has it that a camel is a horse built by a committee. The joke, like many others, is at best misleading. Most things produced by committees are outlandish or mediocre, but so are most things produced by individuals.

No comments: