Friday, July 21, 2006

Dalby Strikes Back

Andrew Dalby has commented on an earlier post in which I was skeptical of the very idea of his book (i.e., that the Homeric poems were written by a woman) and specifically challenged the claim that no ancient author ascribed the Iliad or the Odyssey to Homer. This, incidentally, didn’t require that I read his book. I was responding to ideas, and specifically to a direct quote by Dalby that 'the idea that Homer was the author was first proposed in "one ill-informed post-classical text -- the anonymous Life of Homer, fraudulently ascribed to Herodotus".’

Dalby accuses me of misquoting him and takes umbrage with the word ‘author’, though he never makes it clear what’s wrong with the word. I can only assume that he thinks ‘author’ presupposes writing. (Incidentally, since I quoted the writer who quoted him –notice the quotes within quotes there--, Dalby is incorrect to claim that I misquoted him.)

In his response Dalby focuses almost exclusively on oral theory, which says nothing to the testimony I offered in response to his claim about ps.-Herodotus. Dalby actually restates the same misinformation reported in the article cited.

But I’m sure that Homer-as-oral-poet is central to the argument of the book and was neglected in the article. The problem is that oral theory changes nothing on this question. In this case, Dalby insists that ‘all the earlier authors insist he [Homer] worked purely orally. Right?'

Wrong. As I pointed out in my post, there are countless examples of direct quotations from Homer that imply a standard written text. I say imply because none says anything whatsoever about Homer’s compositional technique, despite Dalby’s desire to see ancient support for oral composition theory.

The earliest authors who offer testimony on Homer lived centuries after the likely period of composition, and this span of time is marked by a distinct lack of critical historical record. This was a time in which statesmen still claimed mythic origins and propagandized their own past to legitimize rule by tyranny, for example. This was a time when Greeks still believed in kings who slew dragons and thought themselves not far removed from an age filled with demigods and sea monsters. Whether the writers of the classical period considered Homer to be an oral poet or one who composed verse in writing is no test of historical truth, and I can’t see how it would lead one to argue that the author of the Homeric poems was really a woman or to think it a worthwhile endeavor to reconstruct prehistoric persons out of scattered, inconclusive, and inaccurate testimony. In this case, Dalby’s grasp of ancient sources seems to be unacceptably slim.

However, no one to my knowledge *insists* that Homer was an oral poet. Dalby suggests that the ancients believed Homer to have taught his poems to his family (these would be the Homeridae) who continued to repeat and teach his poems orally. I ask you to show me one ancient author who *insists* that Homer composed his poems orally in accord with the Parry-Lord thesis.

I still don’t know how oral theory justifies the book, but I have to take issue with Dalby’s claim that oral theory is proven and legitimate. I think it’s short-sighted to say the least to believe that poems of such length with all their subtlety were both spontaneously composed and taught orally.

Oral theory argues that the poet composes as he performs, not that he composes orally and then memorizes and teaches his songs. The oral poet is believed to compose his songs afresh each time he performs, and while he may sing on the same themes from the same perspective and repeat major ideas, the composition itself is never an exact replica of prior compositions or performances. In short, even if you accept oral composition and allow for the possibility of memorization and the teaching of composed songs, then the only thing separating this from written composition is the act of writing. That’s a superficial distinction, because when someone composes a set piece, whether they memorize it or they write it down, they have composed a set piece. Memorization and repetition are not the same as oral composition.

Dalby, and he is in good company here, simply misses the point. He, like many people who have accepted oral theory without understanding it (some of whom are respected classicists), confuses the essence of oral composition with performance. In the archaic and classical periods, all poetry was performed, even when it was carefully composed. Some of this poetry was performed in simpler, more casual contexts like symposia with the appearance of spontaneity, some, such as hymns, were performed during religious events as though divine agents spoke through the poet who was simply a medium, and others were performed as part of elaborate productions involving actors, a chorus, musical accompaniment, and staging. All were composed, all had set texts, and all were composed in order to be performed.

The second of these examples reflects a common pretense among the ancients, which is that the poet is divinely inspired. He does not write or compose his songs, but rather some god endows him with the gift of song and the Muses sing through him. Hesiod, at least, was smart enough to have his Muses admit that they could tell the truth as well as specious falsehoods, which allowed him to claim divine authority without committing heresy.

But Hesiod raises a serious question about oral composition. Ancient references to oral composition all indicate divine inspiration, and yet Hesiod surely can not have believed himself to have been swept away, to have met with the Muses, and to have become a conduit of divine knowledge. Some of his audience, especially those of later generations for whom poets like Homer and Hesiod had become legendary figures, may have believed it, but Hesiod could not have. This was a poetic convention. Similar ideas are found in rhetoric, as in the Defense of Helen by Gorgias, who argues that poetry has magical properties and that verse, by its very nature, has the power to persuade. Here, in traditional imagery, Gorgias was pointing to the same thing that poets like Hesiod and critics like Plato discussed in terms of inspiration. The ‘mad poet’ had something of the divine about him. His mode of speech (i.e., verse) was distinct, aesthetically pleasing, much like the hymns to gods or their oracular responses. Poetry was thought to be a spiritual thing and to speak to the soul, and those who recited poetry were the agents of the gods. Of course, they weren’t really. And neither were they really linguistic virtuosos able to compose perfect songs spontaneously. But it was good for business to pretend that they were.

Oral composition in antiquity meant nothing other than divine inspiration in the truest sense of the word. And yet Homer himself offers a picture of a rhapsode taking requests and singing poems on epic themes that he had sung before. These were compositions, and we have no reason to assume that Greek poets spontaneously composed verses simply because it was possible for some illiterate poets in Yugoslavia to sing charming songs for a visiting scholar.

But this has taken us rather far from the argument.

Dalby’s comment suggests that his book is about oral theory. Okay. But that doesn’t change my critique of his own false statements. He continues to insist that only ps.-Herodotus claims that Homer was the author of the poems after I offered examples in Herodotus (yes, the real Herodotus) in which he cites Homer.

And I still don’t know how oral theory is supposed to discredit the notion of an original composer conveniently labeled Homer. This is the view of M.L. West who was famously accused of being ignorant of oral theory (by Nagy and Nardelli), but who responded beautifully to his critics by pointing out their own short-sightedness. West, and I think he’s right, believes that it is more likely that each poem was composed by an individual who drew upon a rich poetic tradition, and whose great literary achievement was later affected in places by accretions and alterations.

The tradition from which 'Homer' worked may have employed oral composition in the manner of the Parry-Lord thesis, but the subsequent tradition was that of a written text (despite the fact that those who promoted his verse may have performed it orally in the traditional Greek manner of the rhapsode), but the composer of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey (if different from that of the Iliad) must have been a writer.

West is in my view a most sensible and judicious critic of oral theory who understands its proper place and does not allow it to overrun reason and impose absolutes that tidily aid us on our way to the conclusions we seek.

Dalby’s argument from silence isn’t worth considering. He wants to know why none of Homer’s near-contemporary writers mention his ‘world-shaking’ feat. We know almost nothing about the period and retain next to nothing of the literature produced, let alone any commentary that is truly ancient (the antiquity of scholia vetera is almost always greatly exaggerated). This kind of argument allows us to plug in whatever we want and to argue by a series of guesses and inferences mixed with innuendo and novelty. It’s a fun game to play, guessing at what history has not recorded, but I don’t care for it.

And I still fail to see what oral theory has to do with Dalby’s refusal to accept the testimony that we do possess.

I guess I should just say for the record, if I haven't made this clear enough yet, that I don't believe anyone who talks seriously about Homer believes that they know him to have been a particular individual with a particular personality, or necessarily believes that the same Homer wrote both poems. Those of us who talk about Homer tend to do so because it's impossible to know who wrote the poems and how, and we use the traditional terminology, in the same way that the ancients discussed Orpheus. Whether there was an individual poet called Homer doesn't matter much. But there are two important poems that were most certainly composed, each by a particular genius, and each ultimately composed in writing.

Whether that genius was a woman is impossible to know, though the ancients thought they knew Homer to be a man. Does it really matter?

Well, if you decide that it does, you're best served understanding the tradition and the ancient testimony and not simply discounting what you disagree with by word games such as what constitutes an author and when precisely the word is used.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's Andrew again. Dennis, I'll try to be briefer than you! Accepting nearly all of what Parry and Lord have demonstrated about oral epic (I can only hope to understand the matter as well as Martin West, on whose sense and judiciousness I fully agree with you) I want to direct your attention to the two occasions on which the poems we have, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed. That also means the occasions at which they were written; you and I agree on that, I think, although when you hedge your bets and say that the poems were 'ultimately' composed in writing, I begin to wonder. Have you yourself fully taken in what the oral theory has to tell us? No 'ultimately' for me. I'm talking about one occasion for each poem, and I'm talking about the poet (one poet, I believe) who composed both poems.

Those two occasions matter to us. Without them, we would have no Iliad and no Odyssey. The identity of the poet, if we can reach to it, matters to us too. I'm astonished that you can ask, in your conclusion, 'Does it really matter'? Don't you want to know about the person who made (wrote, or dictated for writing) these great poems that have reached more readers with almost every succeeding generation?

I won't give you, here, at length, the ancient statements about the making of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Cyclic epics. I set them out in my book, but you can find them in any library. You will find, if you read patiently, without preconceptions, that all of the earlier writers who mention the matter at all tell us that Homer 'sang' his poems, and not one of them tells us that the poems were written (by him or anyone else) from his singing. There is never a suggestion that they were written until one or several generations after Homer. Your statement that "there are countless examples of direct quotations from Homer that imply a standard written text" is quite useless in this context because it tells us nothing about the period between Homer and your countless authorities.

You write thus about Hesiod's inspiration: "Hesiod surely can not have believed himself to have been swept away, to have met with the Muses ... Some of his audience ... may have believed it, but Hesiod could not have. This was a poetic convention." On that, you maybe ought to reread Martin West, who said, less cynically, "we do not know whether he could see [the Muses] or only hear their voice ... and we do not know whether he was asleep or awake (he may not have been sure himself, and would probably not have considered that it mattered)" (Hesiod, Theogony, ed. West, p. 159). Ancient writers deserve to be taken as seriously as that.

Forgive me, Dennis, if I have over-insisted on the need to read and reread. I admit I was a little hurt by your curious conclusion, in your original posting, that I don't read Greek. If you read any of my academic work -- not necessarily this book, if you think you won't like it! -- you'll find that I do read Greek, and moreover that I always translate the ancient text afresh. And you're almost sure to find some worthwhile quotations from Archbishop Eustathius of Thessalonica, one of your favourites and one of mine.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's Andrew again. Dennis, I'll try to be briefer than you! Accepting nearly all of what Parry and Lord have demonstrated about oral epic (I can only hope to understand the matter as well as Martin West, on whose sense and judiciousness I fully agree with you) I want to direct your attention to the two occasions on which the poems we have, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed. That also means the occasions at which they were written; you and I agree on that, I think, although when you hedge your bets and say that the poems were 'ultimately' composed in writing, I begin to wonder. Have you yourself fully taken in what the oral theory has to tell us? No 'ultimately' for me. I'm talking about one occasion for each poem, and I'm talking about the poet (one poet, I believe) who composed both poems.

Those two occasions matter to us. Without them, we would have no Iliad and no Odyssey. The identity of the poet, if we can reach to it, matters to us too. I'm astonished that you can ask, in your conclusion, 'Does it really matter'? Don't you want to know about the person who made (wrote, or dictated for writing) these great poems that have reached more readers with almost every succeeding generation?

I won't give you, here, at length, the ancient statements about the making of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Cyclic epics. I set them out in my book, but you can find them in any library. You will find, if you read patiently, without preconceptions, that all of the earlier writers who mention the matter at all tell us that Homer 'sang' his poems, and not one of them tells us that the poems were written (by him or anyone else) from his singing. There is never a suggestion that they were written until one or several generations after Homer. Your statement that "there are countless examples of direct quotations from Homer that imply a standard written text" is quite useless in this context because it tells us nothing about the period between Homer and your countless authorities.

You write thus about Hesiod's inspiration: "Hesiod surely can not have believed himself to have been swept away, to have met with the Muses ... Some of his audience ... may have believed it, but Hesiod could not have. This was a poetic convention." On that, you maybe ought to reread Martin West, who said, less cynically, "we do not know whether he could see [the Muses] or only hear their voice ... and we do not know whether he was asleep or awake (he may not have been sure himself, and would probably not have considered that it mattered)" (Hesiod, Theogony, ed. West, p. 159). Ancient writers deserve to be taken as seriously as that.

Forgive me, Dennis, if I have over-insisted on the need to read and reread. I admit I was a little hurt by your curious conclusion, in your original posting, that I don't read Greek. If you read any of my academic work -- not necessarily this book, if you think you won't like it! -- you'll find that I do read Greek, and moreover that I always translate the ancient text afresh. And you're almost sure to find some worthwhile quotations from Archbishop Eustathius of Thessalonica, one of your favourites and one of mine.

dennis said...

Andrew,

Thanks for continuing a lively and useful conversation. I’m sure readers appreciate it.

Let me first apologize for hurting you by suggesting that you don’t know Greek. This was based on your Wikipedia talk page, which at the time indicated (as I noted) that you had only *some* understanding of the Greek alphabet, while you had full understanding of Cyrillic.

I had assumed that you were an amateur historian with a taste for novelty, partly because I wasn’t familiar with your work, and wasn’t responding directly to your book, but rather to the supposed importance and novelty of the question of Homer’s gender, and specifically to a direct quote in which you claimed that no ancient writer named Homer as the author of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I couldn’t see how anyone who had any familiarity with original sources could reach that conclusion, and your talk page seemed to verify that. I see that your page has since been changed to show that you fully understand the Greek alphabet.

In the future I’ll be more careful about things like that.

And I’ll check out your book if it shows up in the library system here, because the more we discuss this the more I feel like we’re talking about different things.

The rest of this is rambling and discursive, as blog posts are, and responds largely to ideas about oral theory, composition, and writing, but I suspect that it will keep us writing in circles around one another. Until I get a chance to actually read your book, I’m less arguing with you than trading thoughts on vague ideas that rarely counter one another directly. But it’s still a useful exposition.

On oral theory and composition, I haven’t hedged at all. I think that theory has a tendency to obscure obvious things, like the fact that there’s no strong distinction to be made between composition and writing. I tried to make this clear in my last post. Composition is essentially the same whether I rely on memory or on written notes. The act of writing is just a kind of external record or sometimes an aid to memory. But composition by means of memory and repetition is not the same as oral composition, which is spontaneous and negates the idea of a fixed text. Each performance is both a composition and a text that stands apart from every other performance.

But unless we’re talking about Jack Kerouac, there is no ‘moment’ of composition. Composition, whether by memory or writing, is a process, not a moment or an event. In most cases a writer ultimately settles upon one fixed text. This is recorded in writing, and away we go. Sometimes we hear of further editions in antiquity, authors revising their written texts, a practice you yourself are familiar with, and which can only make clearer the notion that writing is a process of stages and not a single monumental act.

Unless of course you believe whole-heartedly in the claims of oral theory. Then you might suppose that it was a monumental thing to finally write down an orally transmitted text. Maybe. Except that this is not consistent with the theory of oral composition. Writing down a fixed text composed and recorded in memory is a kind of repurposing, changing the medium but not altering the essence of a thing. The fixed composition is now fixed in a different form. If was just the act of recording an already established poem, then I don’t care. That would make Homer more akin to Milman Parry than a poet.

But since I accept a more traditional view, that each poem was created by a single author who composed a fixed text independent of but drawing upon tradition (the way Walter Scott could draw upon Scottish ballads, an analogy drawn, I believe, by Walter Leaf), I can’t view the ‘event’ of writing in the same way, because I don’t believe it occurred as the recording of an oral tradition. You ask whether I care to know something about who effected this great event, and truth be told I don’t. I don’t think speculative reconstruction of pre-history is useful.

I also believe that biographical readings of texts are generally a waste of time and have less to do with texts than with personal feelings, politics, and psychology. It leads people to false inferences about what texts really mean and why they were written, ‘unlocking’ imaginary secrets. It’s also been the chief source of misinformation about the lives of ancient poets. Many supposedly ancient biographical sources are speculative reconstructions based upon ‘internal evidence’ and partial testimony. I’d rather not repeat the errors of certain Byzantine scholars.

I really have little interest in the person. It’s dishonest to pretend you can say anything useful about the person when we can look to works on modern writers, about whom so much evidence is available, on whom scholars so violently disagree, citing evidence both great and small. When you have no genuine evidence your reconstruction may be fun and entertaining, but it’s not for me.

But let’s return to composition and writing.

As I’ve discussed, it’s an easy snare to step into, confusing performance and composition, or allowing one to obscure the other. Simply because ancient authors discuss poems with reference to their performance does not mean that they were not composed. To say that Homer sang is both a convention and an indication of performance, which, as I’ve stated, was key to ancient Greek poetry. Vergil, for example, opened his artificial epic by claiming that he sang: ‘cano.’ He did this because Greek epic claimed to be sung, the work of singers. And yet Vergil labored over his epic, and he certainly wrote. You’ll object that he wrote centuries after Homer, but you can’t point to a date when the convention overtook the supposed reality of divinely inspired singers. Greek poets composed their poems for performance and often pretended that their poems were the product of a divine gift -- extraordinary poetic ability, a divine voice -- because skill was a more wondrous thing than effort.

That’s my view, and we know that yours differs. We both believe ourselves to be the more accurate.

Mine you call cynicism. I have to disagree. You cite West, who suggested that Hesiod may have heard the Muses, or seen them in a dream. I think that’s a view akin to the noble savage. It shrinks the intellect of the ancient poet by taking for granted that he was incapable of sophisticated poetic manipulation and that the charm of his verse arose from the sheer power of religious feeling. That’s surely possible, but it’s not definite and relies on the assumption that what survives of early Greek verse was primitive and the product of primitive minds. Because he’s ‘ancient’ we have certain (limited) expectations of him.

No one deserves to be taken seriously when he claims to have met divine beings. He deserves to be scrutinized, especially when he’s a poet. West is allowed to be wrong on this. Or did Dante really journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven? Perhaps he recorded a dream in which he and Vergil shared sophisticated thoughts on the interpretation of passages in the Aeneid and on his own theological views, but wasn’t sure himself whether it really happened.

Or perhaps the standards are different because more modern writers, like ourselves, are more sophisticated. Or perhaps it’s because we have more information about more modern writers and can’t as easily maintain romantic illusions. I hold that Homer and Hesiod were sophisticated poets capable of using the affects of poetry to their advantage just as Dante did. Does that really make me a cynic?

I have more thoughts on the distinction to be made between the poet and his poetic persona in comments to a post by Eric, if anyone cares to read them:

http://campusmawrtius.blogspot.com/2006/02/do-we-really-have-to-distinguish.html

Dance First said...

QUOTE "Don't you want to know about the person who made (wrote, or dictated for writing) these great poems that have reached more readers with almost every succeeding generation?"

I don't. And I don't think that makes me a bad scholar or a bad reader either. "Knowing" that Hesiod had an obnoxious, underhanded brother certainly doesn't make the Theogony more explicable or enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

In reply (since you, and Blogger, continue to make our conversation possible!) I'd just like to quote a couple of sentences out of your posting, because they help to show how it is that we disagree. First, on oral theory:

"If was just the act of recording an already established poem, then I don’t care. That would make Homer more akin to Milman Parry than a poet."

In my view -- and it was Parry's view, Lord's view, and that of all their followers in oral theory, though I know some Homerists think differently -- there could be no such thing as an 'already established poem', not without writing or phonograph recording. In fact, as you'll see if you look at Parry's research proposal, his fieldwork was quite largely designed to test whether such a thing could exist, and he showed that it couldn't. He tested it by recording what was said to be 'the same epic' from several different performers, and 'the same epic' from the same performer at long intervals. It never was the same epic. Even when an oral poet says that he is 'repeating word for word' a poem that was made before, he never is. Oral epic doesn't work like that. Each performance is a new creation.

Of course, another of Parry's aims was to show whether a poem as long as the Iliad could be composed orally. I discuss this episode in the book, mentioning the numerous cups of coffee (not available to Homer) with which Avdo Mededovic had to be primed, and the equivocal nature of the result. You might be interested in a direct quotation from my book here, because I think it will show that there are some opinions we have in
common --

"Parry tried to prove that a singer could produce something as long as the Iliad; he seemed instead to have proved Bowra’s point that a long oral poem would be less than half as good as the Iliad. Some recalcitrant scholars have continued to argue that for this reason the Iliad and Odyssey must have been composed by a poet who worked in writing; but they haven’t proved the point. That would entail showing that a writer who was not an oral poet, struggling to adapt an unfamiliar medium (writing) and an untried method of work (written composition) to a genre that had till now been purely oral, could do better. Meanwhile, Parry’s demonstration stands, and the difference in quality between the Wedding and the Iliad does not invalidate it. If Avdo had not known, as he did, that hundreds of other epics of his tradition, sung by him and others, had already been put in writing; if he had been performing not for a foreign professor’s files but to be read by people he respected; if he had been asked to perform a poem that would encapsulate the whole story of Christian-Muslim warfare in one sequence of episodes, and had taken the time to plan such a poem; and if he had wanted to; and if Parry had been very lucky, then Avdo might possibly have produced something that more closely equalled the Iliad." (/Rediscovering Homer/ [quoted from my manuscript].)

Now, one more quotation from you, though we agree that this issue is not central to our debate. Still, it's an interesting one.

"No one deserves to be taken seriously when he claims to have met divine beings. He deserves to be scrutinized, especially when he’s a poet."

I'm not a religious believer -- I guess, from your statement there, that you aren't either. But I'm prepared to take religious believers seriously. When Socrates talked of "to daimonion", I think: yes, he deserves to be scrutinized, but, yes, he deserves to be taken very seriously. And the same with Hesiod. As for Horace's shamanic poem, I take it very seriously even though I personally doubt whether he had such an experience, and I would say just the same for his near-contemporary, Qu Yuan.

Incidentally -- it's a very minor issue -- I now understand the misunderstanding over my knowledge of Greek. When you create a Wikipedia user page, you can put those little flags (user templates) on it to show your interests, hobby-horses, what not. I found a flag about Greek script and used it. Its claims were modest, but there didn't seem to be a more grandiose one, and anyway I'm not very grandiose. Now that I look again at my page, the flag has subtly changed. It's not my page but the template that has been edited. Therefore, everyone on Wikipedia who once claimed to have 'some knowledge' of Greek script magically has 'full knowledge' or whatever. If only it could happen so easily in real life ...

Best wishes

Andrew

dennis said...

For the record, I'm about to place an order for your book at Amazon.

Anonymous said...

I'm a happy man, Dennis.