My Master’s program culminates in writing a thesis. I’m writing this post to describe what I’m planning on working on, as much to share as to work out for myself what I’m actually going to write about.
The short version is – something about Joyce’s Ulysses, Vico’s New Science, and the so-called “Homeric Question” – that is, the question about the nature/identity of the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, and the issue of oral vs. written literature.
I’ll try to explain how all those topics relate to one another by explaining how I myself came to think that they re. Not because my intellectual history is interesting in its own right, just that it’s the best way I can think of to describe the interrelationships right off the bat.
When I took James Redfield’s Iliad course, he mentioned the writing of a classicist named Gregory Nagy (pronounced Najj – pictured below). After reading Redfield’s Nature and Culture in the Iliad (above), I turned to Nagy’s work. One of his best-regarded books is called The Best of the Achaeans. It’s a complicated book about two at times opposed visions of life, as seen through the Iliad (and Achilles) and the Odyssey (and Odysseus). Their thematic differences (both are at times called “the best of the Achaeans”, each in only one of the works) were the main subject of The Best of the Achaeans, but there’s also some talk about “Homer” (yes, “Homer” in quotes), as a potentially collective entity. And also talk of that “Homer” as having been a group of illiterate poets who composed while performing.
This led me backwards (so many great academic reading binges go backwards) to a work from the 50’s – The Singer of Tales, by Alfred Lord. This is a very accessible work outlining the idea of orally composed and performed poetry. Lord and his one-time collaborator, Milman Parry (who died in his 30’s) studied then-still-alive oral poets in the former Yugoslavia. They discovered groups of poets who could compose poems on demand, about a wide variety of themes, though they could not read. And we’re not talking about haikus or limericks, we’re talking full-length epics, 1000’s of lines each. Groups of men (they were all men) would gather and listen to each other’s poems, and use each other’s ideas as building blocks for their own oral work. They weren’t memorizing the poems and then re-producing them, they were re-composing them each time, all without reading and writing. Lord and Parry recorded loads of these and analyzed them.
One particularly memorable anecdote: Lord and Parry find this community of bards and ask “who’s the best around here?” They’re directed to that guy. Everyone seems to agree he’s the best. They ask someone else (a lesser poet hanging around) to produce his best story. He does – it’s like 20 minutes long and very impressive in its own right. Then they look at the agreed-upon best guy and say “can you do that?” He replies something like “yeah, I can actually do better, but yeah, give me like a day). They ask the lesser guy if he thinks this is true; the lesser guy readily admits that’s how it will go. 24 hours later, the consensus best-guy performs the other guy’s tale, but he’s embellished it at several key points – it’s like, 35 minutes long and is, meaningfully, the same story told much better. They’ve got this all recorded somewhere. I wish I could listen to it myself, but then I’d have to know Serbian or whatever.
Lord’s book was fascinating to me. Somehow the idea of oral-poetic composition and performance really grabbed by imagination. I’m not usually given to such grandiosity but this phenomenon, and its survival into the 20th century, seemed somehow to capture the best parts of the human spirit. Even while Hitler was taking control of Europe and beginning the holocaust just a few hundred miles north, these guys in Serbia were telling stories in the ancient way.
Anyhow Lord and Parry also made a contribution to Homeric scholarship. The second half of The Singer of Tales argues that all of the trends Lord and Parry observed in these Serbian 20th century performers’ poems also existed, almost directly, in the “Homeric” poems as well. Obviously the Iliad and the Odyssey we have are written, and there is a long manuscript tradition of their preservation, but their claim was that, somewhere along the line, “Homer,” whoever he/they was/were, composed orally. The writing was, on this hypothesis, some sort of transcription by a later scribe, not anything that had been meaningfully “written” by an “author” named Homer.
So far as I can tell, this is still a hotly debated claim in Homeric scholarship. Moving back into the present, I read a couple more books by Nagy, called Homeric Questions, Homeric Responses, Pindar’s Homer, among others. There I stumbled upon a series of polemical back-and-forth articles, between Nagy and an Oxford classicist named Martin West. If Nagy is the modern champion of the oral-composition school of Homer scholars, West would seem to be the his nemesis, the champion of the manuscript-tradition, single-author view. Now, I love a good polemical dispute, and this one actually became quite heated, at least as heated as disputes over the identity of a person/people who have been dead almost 3000 years.
In fact, over the last almost 3000 years, this debate has raged at different times and in different places. Even the ancients (at least by Plato’s generation) did not agree on Homer’s identity, when he/they had lived, etc. All the extant manuscripts only get us back to like 200 BCE, and then before that, we just have people talking about Homer, but even that dies out around 600 BCE. West believes this is about when the Iliad and the Odyssey were written, by one poet, a poet who could write, and write well. He’s willing to concede that they were perhaps written by two different people (though seems annoyed at the prospect), but no more than that. Nagy’s claim is that these poems were composed at least 150 years before that, 750 BCE, but that they were only written down around 600, for relatively arcane reasons involving the Panathanea, a yearly festival that featured, among other things, poetry performance competitions [the short version of his idea is that these festivals led naturally to the regularization and writing-down of the poem, and their division into 24 books each, mostly so competition could be more regulated and fair].
The particulars of the dispute aren’t my main concern (but they are also, in my humble opinion, fascinating). Circling back to the 20th century again, last fall, I re-read Joyce’s Ulysses while enrolled in Lisa Ruddick’s course of the same name. Remembering just how much I loved this book the first time I read it, almost 15 years prior, I plunged into the secondary literature on Joyce. One book especially really spoke to my questions about this text – Karen Lawrence’s The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses. Her book argues that Ulysses proposes, and then breaks, a series of “narrative contracts” with the reader, and as its styles mutate and evolve, its different episodes move through a sequence that leads the reader away from the naturalistic, “stream-of-consciousness” early chapters, towards a series of much more confusing and problematic styles that continually change the role of the “narrator” vis-a-vis the author.
Two Ulysses episodes Lawrence is particularly concerned with. The first of these is the “Aeolus” episode, in which the text is interrupted 2-3 times each page by headline-looking indented phrases that stand in confusing and inconsistent relationships to the texts they surround (first page pictured below). The chapter looks like a newspaper (or a Twitter feed), but it becomes pretty tough to explain what Joyce was doing, other than finding a way to escape narrative conventions. Later on, there’s the “Eumeaus” episode, coming late in the night, after Stephen and Bloom have left the scene of a drunken brawl at a brothel: they talk with a grizzled old man who may or may not be a notorious criminal who has traveled the world on merchant-ships. His speech (and Bloom’s) is cluttered with cliches, foreign loan words, and a whole host of expressions that are both appropriate to this tired time of night, but also disconnected from the characters’ realities in odd ways. Similar things also happen in the “Cyclops” and “Oxen of the Sun” episodes.
What struck me about Lawrence’s book is her descriptions of the changes Joyce made while writing these episodes, create the final styles we see in Ulysses. In fact, this brought me back to another book – Ulysses in Progress by James Groden, which details the manuscript sequence Joyce went through while finalizing Ulysses (he spent 7 years hard at work writing it). It turns out that the “Aeolus” episode is one of the most problematic, and one Joyce spent the longest amount of time revising, and which also seems to have initiated a sequence of other changes along similar (though of course divergent) lines.
Anyway, Lawrence spends a lot of time talking about how Joyce moves the book from a narrated book by a single author towards the production of a book where “language” writes itself, that is, where the words, phrases, cliches, loan-words, etc. gather their own momentum, vitiating the authority of the narrator. Language becomes a common product, not a privileged possession of the narrator (or the author). Her contention is that Joyce deliberately brought about this shift through the course of Ulysses’ 18 chapters.
So then I start to think – wow – that sounds a lot like how Nagy, Lord and Parry talk about Homer and Homer’s authorship – collaborative, open-source writing, so to speak, where the ordinary notion of “authorship” doesn’t work. That coincidence probably as a lot to do with the influence of post-structuralism on both Lawrence and Nagy, the “death of the author” and all that. But beyond the theoretical similarity, as a matter of historic fact (and copious manuscript study), Joyce seems convincingly to have been pursuing such a project. Joyce, after all, was a huge influence upon post-structuralism (and everything else in literature and its study).
So at one end of western literary history, we have “Homer”, a group of people who could not write, but used a series of predictable rhetorical strategies to overcome this and compose lengthy epic poems that later got written down, and apostatized into the great “Homer.” At the other end, we have Joyce, a singular individual working to move beyond authority towards the collective voice of a community and its history. The Odyssey is sometimes called the “first novel,” and Joyce was very much convinced that he was writing the final entry in this genre: Ulysses was to be the novel’s final incarnation, once and for all killing the author, or more appropriately, hoisting him his own petards. Obviously Joyce perhaps predicted its demise a bit early 🙂 but the point is the intention.
That’s where Vico comes in. Joyce loved Vico. He was fond of saying he had taken everything he could out of his New Science. Joyce writes allusions to Vico into the early pages of both Ulysses (“Vico Road, Dalkey” – from the second “Nestor” episode – literally a road that is actually near Dublin, but once you’ve read Joyce enough, you realize things like this are never coincidences), and Finnegans Wake “… brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” (that’s in the first sentence of Book I).
The commonplace understanding of what Joyce took from Vico is his “cyclical theory of history.” Now that’s intuitively not all that satisfying as an inheritance. I mean, Joyce needed an 18th century Italian to tell him that history moves in cycles? Or that there are three “ages of man”? While reading Joyce’s Book of the Dark [note 80’s-fabulous cover design below], John Bishop’s magnum opus of Finnegans Wake scholarship, I was glad to find him disapproving of this sense of Joyce’s borrowing from Vico as well. He talks a bit about Vico’s idiosyncratic theories of etymology as being much more important than this history-is-cycles business.
I’m interested in another inheritance: Vico’s got two chapters in The New Science devoted to propounding a “mythic theory of Homer.” Vico, it turns out, was in the “Homer isn’t just one person” school. Add to that, one of Joyce’s friends in Paris (or Italian tutors? I’ve forgotten) had written several books on the Homeric Question (he, apparently, virulently defended the unitary, one-Homer orthodoxy).
So at long last we come to two questions for research:
1) A historical/genetic question: is there any reason to believe that Joyce was in some way trying to reenact this sense of the “mythic Homer” in Ulysses? The question of Joyce’s use of Homer has been out of fashion for some time, but this strikes me as a different sort of question than one that asks in what sense, for example, Bloom is like Odysseus, and what Joyce is trying to say about human nature in drawing the comparison. The idea is more that somehow Joyce was trying to put the genie back in the bottle – to banish written language and the literary tradition, somehow creating a new form of orality-on-paper that the literary tradition had banished, and thereby, to bring an end to that tradition, and that he somehow got this idea from Vico.
2) An interpretative question: does accepting the hypothesis that “Homer” is a name for an oral poetry collective from 700 BCE tell us anything interesting about Ulysses at the level of meaning?
But here’s the problem. Properly answering question #1 would require an extensive exploration of manuscripts and notebooks I don’t even know how to find, much less understand (see above – that looks pretty rough-going). And Joyce has dozens and dozens of such notebooks and thousands of marked-up manuscript pages. A lot of the editing for “Aeolus” happened AFTER it had gone to the printer, which is a disaster. I’m just going to rely on other people’s work about question 1, unless I can find some sort of backstage pass to the Joyce archives of the world.
Question 2 – well – I’ve yet to come up with an answer. A common objection to the oral-poetry thing is to say, “so what?” Harold Bloom, among others, has made this argument – essentially, whoever wrote/spoke this, we can be agnostic about that, it doesn’t contribute anything useful to the study of its meaning. James Redfield makes a similar suggestion near the beginning of his Nature and Culture in the Iliad, the point of departure that brought me on this journey in the first place.
All in all though, what I’m more worried about is that, though I’ve already done a lot of reading and searching about Joyce, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, the Homeric Question, Vico, etc. I will yet find a perfectly written version of the argument I’m going to explore, you know, from like 30 years ago, and it’s already been set aside as theoretically naive, etc. etc. etc.
On the bright side, I get to read Vico’s New Science. It’s one of those massive 18th century books a bit like Hobbes’ Leviathan, with odd cross-references, byzantine structure, grandiose theorizing about all sorts of knowledge, history and politics, misquoted sources, extensive discussion about obscure events in the late Roman empire, and all that. That’s my first step – reading Vico, to understand the mythic theory of Homer. Next I’ll try to establish the Joyce-Vico historical connection (or, this part of it), and then finally, I’ll try to show how this observation might help augment Groden/Lawrence’s view of what Joyce was up to in “Aeolus,” “Cyclops,” “Oxen of the Son,” and “Eumaeus” (oh, “Nausikaa feels important here too), and why not “Wandering Rocks” while we’re at it?
The really amazing thing about Joyce studies is this: the more you read, the more confused you become. This seems to me to be at least one definition of what makes an author great. I’m hoping to become pleasantly confused over the next few months as I work on this project.