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Woven and Severed

By (October 1, 2014) One Comment

Why Homer MattersWhyhomermatters
By Adam Nicolson
Henry Holt, 2014

“If one generation emerged after another like forest foliage,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “if an eternal oblivion, perpetually hungry, lurked for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrench that away from it — how empty and devoid of consolation life would be! But precisely for that reason it is not so, and just as God created man and woman, so he created the hero and the poet.”

Adam Nicolson’s new book about the Iliad and the Odyssey, titled Why Homer Matters in its US edition, could serve as a detailed defense of Kierkegaard’s claims about the hero and the poet. Nicolson is concerned to answer two questions: “where does Homer come from? And why does Homer matter?” His answer to the first question — that Homer comes from the southward, seaward migration of a bronze-age warrior culture — gives us heroes. His answer to the second question — that Homer is civilization’s recollection of what came before it and continues to lurk within it — gives us poetry. What Nicolson makes of the relation between them is a powerful exploration of the value of literature.

It was on a boat, appropriately enough, that Nicolson made his discovery of Homer:

Steering across the swells, holding the wheel against them as they came through, releasing it as they fell away, I tied the great Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey on the compass binnacle, holding it open with a bungee cord against the wind.

Ten years later, this picturesque literary encounter issued in Why Homer Matters. Discovering Homer “was like discovering poetry itself,” writes Nicolson. The book harvests the fruit of an amateur and passionate engagement. Nicolson has traveled to see for himself the locations speculatively identified with the Homeric geography. He has studied the reception of Homer. He has attended to the work of the detail-mongers, the classicists, who have tried to say all that can be said about Homer. And he has spent enough time with the stories themselves that he is prepared to interpret incidents from his own life in light of them.

Nicholson is at his best weaving essays out of the details of these sources, at his weakest attempting to summarize and explain what he is doing. Consequently, the introduction and conclusion are the worst parts of the book. One wishes he had chosen to package it as what it is: an eclectic series of literary essays about Homer. Instead he proclaims in the introduction, that he “felt Homer was a guidebook to life,” only to conclude at the end of the book that “Homer does not provide any kind of guidance to life.” Fortunately the “guidebook” idea is nowhere to be found except in these bookends. The first chapter swiftly lays to rest any fear that he is about to do to Homer what Alain de Botton did to Proust in How FaglesOdysseyProust Can Change Your Life. (To judge by the distressing proliferation of such books, it is an article of faith among commissioning editors that self-help is the spoonful of sugar for the medicine of book-talk. But the alloy turns out too often to be merely an adulteration.) With the rigor of good taste, Nicolson avoids mixing smarmy advice and literary criticism.

Instead, his usual practice is to isolate some trope or figure of the Homeric poems and interpret it in terms of his theory about the origins of Homeric culture. Nicolson believes that although the palatial settings and civilized manners of Troy are obviously Mediterranean, much else about the poem points to another culture. The warriors of whom Achilles is the archetype, Nicolson suggests, were originally denizens of “the Steppelands of Eurasia.” And the drama at the heart of the poems — especially the Iliad — comes from the confrontation of these horse-lords with a Mediterranean civilization that was both tight-knit by trade and advanced in military technology. Both the trade and the technology were a consequence of bronze, whose component metals, copper and tin, required an extensive network and specialized social functionaries to combine, and whose combination produced the instruments of death which made possible the Homeric hero.

The synchronicity is revolutionary:

[…] high-speed chariots, high-speed sailing ships and a warrior culture from the north all come together in the Aegean at the same moment, which is also the moment the Homeric poems are born. This newly energized world is the meeting of cultures that Homer records.

If this is true, then it would give a historical basis to the conflict of values on display in the war between Greeks and Trojans, the values, as Nicolson puts it, of the gang versus the city, of individual violence versus domestic order. If there is a thread running through the book, this is it: Homer as a civilized recollection of ancestral barbarity. Homer tells the story of what happened when the horse-lords met the sea.

That the recollection is one of barbarity Nicolson never lets us forget. His essays are splashed with the gore of Homer’s precise descriptions of violence:

There is no hiding in the Iliad, no deceit, no flinching from the view of horror, no reluctance to record the bitter jokes in the face of blood, no sweetening of dismemberment, no pretense that, when the stomach wall is cut, innards do not lurch out onto knees and laps, no forgetting that brains spatter from a spear-mangled head, nor the way wounded, dying men scratch and jerk their life out as they scrabble uselessly at their killers’ feet…

In one of the grimmest moments in his book, Nicolson illustrates the kind of threat a metal weapon poses. He remembers how, as a tourist in the Syrian desert, he was raped at knife point:

Women and children in Homer are always called foolish because they do not risk death by confronting the enemy; they submit and suffer like sheep under a worrying dog. I knelt in the dust as he raped me, a pitiable little doglike action from behind, the point of the knife jiggling in the side of my neck with his frantic movements, my mind observing this from afar and realizing that the moment of greatest danger was not yet over, that after he had done with me, all the possibilities of loathing, resentment and shame, not to speak of the chance that I would report and identify him, might mean he would kill me.

As this memory shows, Nicolson appreciates that Homer’s is a civilized recollection of ancestral barbarity, a recollection harboring a judgment. Homer shows violence from the perspective of those who suffer helplessly as well as those who glory in their death-giving power. Nicolson evokes the image of women weaving against that of men cutting to symbolize the two perspectives. Both images pervade Homer. Through “the woven and the severed,” Nicolson describes the moment of redemption at the heart of the Iliad:

It looks as if everything the city enshrines means nothing in the teeth of the Greeks’ triumph [after Achilles has killed and desecrated the body of Hector]. Priam [Hector’s father, king of Troy] resolves to go to their camp across the plain to find Achilles and beg him for the body of his son. The old king slowly prepares and gathers carts full of the best that Troy can offer, including beautiful clothes: robes, mantles, blankets, cloaks and tunics, as if wanting to drown Achilles in the woven. But that is the point. Priam is going to take the city out into the plain.

FaglesIliadThis momentary reconciliation within the epic poem points, according to Nicolson, to the ultimate fate of those northern horse-lords who descended in violence upon the rich cities of the sea. As would later happen when the Romans met the Greeks, the barbarians conquered by the sword and were, in turn, conquered by the suasions of peace. Achilles avenged his kinsmen with fury. Priam honored his slain son by securing the respect of his nemesis. Though the Greeks carry the day, for Nicolson the encounter of Priam and Achilles marks the true and ultimate victory of the city over the plain.

In connecting such powerful moments from the kairos of the poem to the chronos of history, Nicolson follows a pattern of “demythologization” peculiar to the modern interpretation of myth. Textual criticism, archeology, anthropology, modern science — all combine to undercut the authoritative aura of ancient, civilization-founding texts, like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet we find ourselves helplessly responsive to their stories. The hero and the poet snatch life from the jaws of oblivion whether – as Kierkegaard claimed – God made them or not. Our problem is understanding how such texts can do their work without being historically accurate or living up to their own claims to omniscience. Nicolson’s answer is that they symbolize the collective memory of an archetypal past.

What is it about these violent heroes, regardless of their genuine historical roots, which so grips and moves — possesses, in fact – new readers in every generation? Several of Nicolson’s chapters depart from his usual pattern to explore the reception rather than the origin of Homer. They are among the best and oddest things in the book. In one chapter, Nicolson tells of two historical encounters with Homer. First, he reconstructs a lively 19th-century dinner conversation between French intellectuals, cultured and cynical, who nevertheless passionately defend the unquestionable greatness of Homer. Then, he tells the story of Keats’ encounter with Chapman’s Homer, the encounter which produced a famous sonnet and ultimately earned the young poet the backhanded compliment that he was “the Cockney Homer.” More opposite readers could hardly be found than these rational Frenchman and this romantic Englishman. Yet both found something stirring, irresistible in Homer. What was it?

Nicolson locates the source of that fascination in the fact that Homer’s poems capture the transition from oral to written culture. Many things about them suggest that they represent a selection and crystallization of the spirit of a vast oral tradition. My favorite chapter in the book follows the career of Milman Parry, who found in the mountain villages of Yugoslavia what he believed to be contemporary analogues to the ancient Homeric rhapsodes. Parry determined that “just under a third of all the lines in Homer” involve phrases repeated elsewhere that “had been evolved to fit the metrical pattern of the hexameter.” In the mountains of Yugoslavia, he found Turkish bards who rhapsodized with similarly evolved phrases to tell thousand-line tales to living audiences.

Parry listening to these men and their grating instruments, their sawing voices, heard in them the transmission of epic across the generations, the thousands of years. It was the moment in which the vacuum of life before the written word had suddenly acquired a substance.

So not only the heroes presented in the Homeric poems, but also the poetry itself, comes from a primal source and represents a pivotal conflict. As the gang against the city, the violent against the domestic, so the speech against the text. Nicolson finds this conflict, too, dramatized in the Iliad. At one point two warriors are conversing when one tells the other the story of his ancestor, who offended a king. That king gave him “some fatal token, scratching many deadly soul-tormenting signs in a folding wooden tablet, and ordered him to show them” to another king, so that he would die. This means, most likely, that he, unable to read, was given his own death warrant to carry.

This story is, in other words, an illiterate description of something written, seen more as an object than a message, its means of communication arcane and beyond ordinary understanding.

The Iliad — and its phrases, and its metre — is a message from such a time. Unlike a single- or even co-authored text, it possesses a perfection of use and collective development. The unity or multiplicity of Homer himself is not ultimately the source of his poetry’s power: that power comes from the long oral tradition he inherited.

This poetry can be thought of in the same light as weaving patterned cloth or building wooden ships. The past, through endless tests, successes and failures, came up with ways of using and joining materials that work, that are robust, reliable and true, that can cope with seas and storms at night, that have a grace and commodity about them, whose threads can glitter in the candlelight and which are, of their essence, inherited.

At the end of Nicolson’s wonderful book, it is hard to doubt that he has found something basically true to say about the hero and the poet. Nicolson proves Kierkegaard’s point about the role of those figures in our lives. Homer matters because his poem succeeded in wrenching from oblivion its prey — his success guarantees for all his readers that our lives will not be empty and devoid of consolation.

Robert Minto is a PhD student and teaching fellow in philosophy at Boston College. He blogs at www.robertminto.com.

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