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Two major editions of the Iliad appeared at the end of the twentieth century: Helmut van Thiel's for Olms (1996), and Martin West's for Teubner (1998-2000). They are radically different in their methodological assumptions, and hence in the texts they offer. Helmut van Thiel trusts the direct transmission, i.e. the best medieval manuscripts. He takes the position that ancient variants reported in the Homeric scholia are usually ‘suggestions’ of ancient scholars (for example Zenodotus) ‘towards the improvement of the text, or…deliberations about it’, and that they are therefore of little significance when constituting the text. He also insists that modern editors not indulge in conjectures of their own. What they should do, rather, is represent the medieval transmission as faithfully as possible. He concedes that this is a modest aim, but one which he considers appropriate, given what can and cannot be known about the Homeric text. According to him, ‘laurels in textual criticism are not to be won from the text of Homer’. Martin West would surely disagree: his edition offers a dazzling display of editorial ambition. He does not trust the medieval manuscripts, and sees his task as that of exposing and mending their shortcomings. In order to restore what he thinks was the original wording of the Homeric text, West makes use of weakly attested ancient variants; and, above all, employs his own critical acumen to weed out corruption and modernisation.
The true subject of the Iliad, Simone Weil famously wrote, is force. Time and again, ‘the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to’. Force turns men, perpetrators of violence and its victims alike, into things: objectification is its bane. Homer's clarity about the moral degradation of war, that machine of force, is what makes him, in Weil's accounting, not just the first but the greatest of poets.
At his greatest moment of triumph, Odysseus demands holy silence. The hero who has more to say about himself than any other Homeric character, who boasts that his fame resounds up to heaven, quiets his most ardent accomplice, the old, faithful nurse Eurykleia, as she is about to shout in joy at his victory over the suitors. Why this uncharacteristic circumspection, this apparent humility? Reaching an answer to this question will take us through several important topics in the critical study of the Odyssey. We will find greater nuance to Odysseus’ ethics than are usually allowed; certain words and phrases have underappreciated layers of meaning that are brought out by paying attention to other contexts and parallel episodes in which they are used; focalization can be deliberately obscured; several of Odysseus’ greatest triumphs turn out to have an ironic cast. The broader conclusion my investigation leads to is that, behind the surface, positive interpretation of his character, Odysseus casts a darker shadow connoting a more sinister evaluation. Odysseus recognizes the possibility of such a negative interpretation when he silences both Eurykleia and the darker, alternative evaluation of his character that her reaction ironically signifies. This conclusion should lead us to revise a prominent (perhaps even the prevailing) view that the Odyssey is essentially a univocal text. This study might best be thought of as an experiment in seeing how far we can take the possibility of multiple, countervailing interpretations of Homeric language. If my reading is even partly persuasive, the Odyssey will come to seem more sophisticated and more disturbing than we might have thought.
Bulwark of the Achaeans: living wall of the Greeks.
Schol. D. Il. 6.5 (on Ajax)
Now, still breathing, he is simply matter…
Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad or the Poem of Force’
The two quotations at the start of this paper, one from the D scholion on the Iliad and the other from Simone Weil's famous essay on force, both make of the Homeric warrior a kind of ‘breathing material’. Two references, then, to the liveliness of objects, but each meaning very different things. For the scholiast places man on the same side as materiality, as if humans and things can equally be infused with life and can exist in a sort of continuum, but Weil argues that a human who is reduced to mere matter, even if he is a still a thing that breathes, is as good as nothing. Unlike the scholiast, Weil's interpretation is predicated on a strong belief in the duality of body and soul in the structure of human life, and since objects do not have souls they are, for her, essentially dead. Throughout her essay, Weil visits again and again the materiality of Homeric man and his propensity to turn, under the crushing power of force, into what she calls alternately a ‘thing’, ‘inert matter’, ‘stone’, and even ‘nothingness’. But for the D scholiast, the comparison of Ajax to stone does not subjugate him or turn him into a ‘mere’ or ‘inert’ object. On the contrary, the gloss ἔμψυχον τεῖχος speaks instead to the lively and permeable boundary between human and nonhuman in early Greek epic, one that suggests that objects can have their own life form, their own energy, vitality, and even creativity.
Remarkably in a poem so concerned with warfare, there are prominent moments in the Iliad when it seems possible that the Trojan War can be settled and peace restored: for example, Agamemnon's three proposals that the Akhaians abandon the war and go home (Books 2, 9, and 14), the truce and single combat in Book 3, and the proposal in the Trojan assembly of Book 7 that Helen be returned to Menelaos. These episodes form a pattern of resistance, or potential counter-narrative, to what would otherwise seem a relentless progression to Troy's destruction. For the most part, therefore, they occur relatively early in the poem, when the course of events seems less determined than it does later. But twice in the late books, a character says something that, if pursued, might have led to peace. These later moments are striking because they occur even after the death of Patroklos, when alternatives to war and destruction appear to have been stripped away, and because they arise when Akhilleus has recognized something essential about human vulnerability. In both cases, the possibility of peace glimmers only faintly and then fades. But that it is raised at all so late in the narrative exemplifies how the Iliad makes a problem of violence while depicting it.
There are dangers and pleasures in reducing stories to universal themes. The Odyssey seems all too aware of this. Part of its appeal comes from whether this tale of a single man returning home can stand for far greater questions of what it means to be human. Our pleasure as we recognize these familiar stories mirrors the delight of the poem's characters as they recognize Odysseus. We want such events to be universal, because the pleasure of the familiar helps us on our own journey through the dangers and uncertainties of life. But, as an increasingly vast scholarly bibliography reminds us, recognition in this poem is far from simple. The poem's delight in riddles and trickery means that the joy of any delight in recognition conflicts with its rhetoric of suspicion and the almost paranoid need of its hero for self-preservation. This to and fro is also part of the poem's wider economy of thrift, as if we must pay for any pleasure we gain in recognition with the pain of belated reflection.
I begin this exploration of characteristically Iliadic and Odyssean attitudes toward the traditional language in which these poems are composed by treading again a well-rutted path in the field of mid-20th century Homeric studies. In formulating his radical revision of the aesthetics of Homeric poetry, Milman Parry took as one of his guiding principles Heinrich Düntzer's notion of a contradiction between the compositional utility of the fixed epithet and its semantic value: if an epithet could be shown to have been selected on the basis of its utility in versification—and Parry's detailed examinations of extensive and economical systems of noun-epithet formulae were aimed in part at demonstrating this point—then it would be proven by that very fact that the epithet's meaning was irrelevant to its selection. Moreover, Parry asserted that the success of poetry composed in such a manner would depend on a corresponding indifference on the part of the audience, an indifference that must be, by his reasoning, categorical and absolute.
Was Homer sublime? The question is rarely asked today. Sublimity was once a staple of the ancient intellectual traditions, as Homer is perfectly suited to show. The present essay will take up the question of Homeric sublimity by examining four case studies drawn from ancient astronomy to literary criticism to Homer himself, who not only licensed but also inaugurated these later traditions. Longinus will lurk everywhere in the background, but part of the point of this essay is that Longinus, while broadly representative, is in fact a minority voice in the wider landscape of ancient thought, as is the purely literary critical perspective that he is usually assumed to represent. Just as sublimity transcends customary frameworks of experience by putting these radically into question, so does it challenge the ways in which we tend to carve up antiquity into domains and disciplines that are artificially removed from one another. Sublimity by its nature crosses over genres and discourses and brings out the underlying patterns of thought that they share. But now to our case studies, which will give us a clear entrée to the problem, and will supply us with criteria of what should or should not count as ‘sublime’, as we follow each case in turn.
In 1773, the celebrated enlightenment thinker G.E. Lessing discovered in Wolfenbüttel's Herzog August Library a manuscript which contained a previously unknown Ancient Greek poem. The manuscript identified the author as Archimedes (c.287-212 BCE), and the work became known as the Cattle Problem (henceforth CP). On the surface, its twenty-two couplets capitalise on Homer's depiction of the ‘Cattle of the Sun’ in Book 12 of the Odyssey and its numerical aspect. A description of the related proportions of black, white, brown and dappled herds of cattle, which are then configured geometrically on Sicily, creates a strikingly colourful image. The author's decision to encode a number into the figure of the Cattle of the Sun styles the poem as a response to, and expansion of, Homer's scene. Reading through the work, though, it becomes clear that the mathematics is more complex than that of Homer's Odyssey.