Joyce, Vico, Oral Poetry and the Homeric Question – A Joyce Writing Project

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 Iliadthe 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, UlyssesFinnegans 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.

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7 Responses to Joyce, Vico, Oral Poetry and the Homeric Question – A Joyce Writing Project

  1. Nates says:

    This sounds like a great project! I’m looking forward to following along! I did some reading on the Homeric question when I was teaching the Iliad at Chicago, and have always enjoyed the issues involved.

    As for your specific questions, I wonder how the stream-of-consciousness moments in Ulysses fits in with your thesis. It seems to fit your general idea of Joyce seeking to escape the written/novelistic form. But instead of returning to collective oral traditions, here we have a turn to inward/private/subjective life. Moreover, as you know, it’s often claimed that Homeric characters are limited in their inner lives–for example, tending to externalize their deliberations (“his heart spoke one way…”). So maybe there’s some kind of complex response by Joyce to Homer going on here.

  2. Josh says:

    So as a way of answering your question (which ends with me asking another related question) here’ a reasonable schema of where/when “stream of consciousness” (SoC) is used within Ulysses (which has 18 episodes).

    1. SoC – Stephen
    2. SoC – Stephen
    3. SoC – Stephen
    4. SoC – Bloom
    5. SoC – Bloom
    6. SoC – Bloom
    7. Weird journalistic stuff with headlines (no SoC)
    8. Lystergonians – SoC – Bloom
    9. Scylla and Charybdis — SoC – Stephen/dramatic pseudo-shakeperean looking stuff
    10. Wandering Rocks – SoC of several characters who are not Bloom or Stephen (father Comnee, Paddy Dignam’s son, etc.)
    11. Sirens- Bloom-SoC then blending into musical form
    12. Cyclops – First-person anonymous narration (no SoC at all)
    13. Nausikaa Beauty magazine/victorian romance novel narration – Bloom SoC at end
    14. Oxen of the Sun – History of English verse (no SoC)
    15. Circe – Expressionistic drama with stage directions (no SoC)
    16. Eumeus – Cabman dialogue (no SoC)
    17. Ithaca – Catechistic Q-and-A (no SoC)
    18. Penelope – SoC of Molly Bloom going to bed

    What this list shows us is that, with the exception of 18, the book moves steadily and deliberately AWAY from SoC (with a brief reappearance in chapter 13 being another exception).

    The question then becomes, why does Joyce move away from it, and why does he return only a bit to it in the book’s (much longer) second half? This where is Lawrence’s argument makes its most sense. Joyce is moving FROM interiority towards somethign else that the book for some reason ends up back in at the end.

  3. Josh says:

    Oh also your comment about the interior life of Homeric characters is really interesting too. I had never made that connection with Joyce either. I might say that’s another part of the “genie back in the bottle” idea. “Cyclops” for example is ALL externalized, no internals whatsoever. It’s also interesting in light of your example: Joyce designated each chapter as relating to a particular organ of the body. The heart is (I think but don’t quite remember) the organ for the “Aeolus” episode, for example.

    Also the list above makes the SoC issue look less stark than it is. The latter chapters are much, much longer than the former. Chapter 14, for example, is longer than chapters 1-6 combined. IF that were represented graphically, I think you’d see that less than half the book is “stream of consiousness” in any ordinary sense of the term. The first part – often called Ulyssses’ “initial style” is, and that’s as far as a lot of people get 🙂 so there’s this big impression this is a stream-of-consciousness book. It is, but it also moves away from it quickly (again, excepting the end of 14 and the entirety of 18)

  4. Nates says:

    Yes, I realize that people tend to exaggerate the amount of stream-of-consciousness in Ulysses. Nonetheless, I’m still a little worried about the suggestion that he’s making some sort of point about human/communal life by moving away from this private stream. After all, the final chapter doesn’t just return to SoC, but gives us what might be the fullest, most ecstatic example of it in all of literature! (The end of Woolf’s Waves might be the other contender.) Anyway, none of this speaks against your main interpretive claims. I just wonder if there’s a better way to incorporate the SoC element of the text.

    The idea of Homer as a liminal figure, halfway between communal myth and individual author is very intriguing! (The traditional conception of him as blind fits in with this too, since the blind were always on the outskirts of society — see the elder Oedipus.)

    I still find it odd to think of the Odyssey (or the Iliad, which I know much better) as a communal text. I don’t disagree with the claim; I just find it an odd truth–and a difficult one to explicate. I mean, I get that it’s drawing from a common store of mythical tales, but clearly you mean more than just that. (Many modern authored tales do that much.) At some point, someone had to write the full story out for the first time. And he (presumably) did so in a skilled way, producing a narratively and thematically unified work. Maybe you could say a little more about what makes it an essentially communal work. In other words, what’s the Homeric version of Joyce’s letting language speak itself?

  5. Josh says:

    Hmm… your right that the final chapter poses a problem – I also think you’re understating the case a bit: it is a problem for the overall project, one several authors have tried to find their way around (on this, more below). The way you’ve put it – “After all, the final chapter doesn’t just return to SoC, but gives us what might be the fullest, most ecstatic example of it in all of literature!” phrases this objection very well. Let me try to explain some thoughts.

    One thing is I think I’ve been a bit unclear about what Joyce is doing with the shift away from SoC over the course of the texts. I’m not saying that he’s (as you put it) “making some sort of point about human/communal life” exactly. I think what I’m trying to say is that he’s *enacting* some sort of a shift within the text, for reasons I’m still not sure about. He’s PERFORMING differently as an author, and moving from one sort of authorial process through a sequence of others, others which SEEM to end in the impersonality of “Ithaca.” It’s common in Joyce scholarship to talk about this book as ending twice – once with the Q-and-A, and again with Molly’s monologue. But are anticlimaxes of their own sort.

    Now regarding “Penelope” – this is a thorny question for Joyce scholars. I’ve read three different books that advance something like the shift-away-from-SoC argument – Groden’s Ulysses in Progress (70’s), Lawrence’s The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (80’s) and Stephen Sicari’s Joyce’s Modernist Allegory (2000’s). To these I guess you could add Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (that was written based on 1st-person interviews, and is a lot less scholarly). All three of them have different arguments about the place of “Penelope” in this argument. I’m not offering those citations as reasons why I’m right (as I’m really not sure that I am) just as a starting-point for discussion.

    All the author make a point of quoting Joyce’s remark from a letter that the “Penelope” chapter, is a “countersign” to the work as a whole. It’s an obscure remark that’s ripe for interpretation of its place in the whole. One way to see the last chapter is as some sort of retrogression, a refusal to reach closure. Something Molly says at some point is “I wish I hadn’t tied it off” or something like that (talking about dead son Rudy’s sweater). But there’s a more authorial sense to that line (and other lines – you can read some parts of “Penelope” as the author speaking directly to the reader).

    Another relevant point is that the 400 pages or so preceding Ulysses’s final episode (which is itself 40 pages long) only contain about 10 SoC-styled pages (Bloom’s post-orgasmic reflections on Gerty). So it really is a “snapping back,” made all the more striking by its intimacy. So the sequencing seems important. I agree that there are both SoC and non-SoC parts of the text, but I think how/when they appear is really important. Also there’s a definite sequence to that 400 pages – it’s not just that they’re “non-SoC” – they’re non-SoC in very distinct and deliberate and interrelated (and progressing) ways.

    Something else to say is – Molly’s SoC is importantly different than the others’ in that it’s HERS. Molly is a character who has only BRIEFLY spoken (in chapter 4 for like 3 lines), and then referred TO (though never present) often in the book by the rest of the characters (and in chapter 11 she, unnamed, gives a beggar some money from her window-sill) but in the final chapter she’s revealed in a way she had not been earlier. The Earlier SoC was either Stephen (chapters 1-3) or Bloom (chapters 4-6, briefly at the end of 13). An interesting bridge-case of SoC is in 11 (Wandering Rocks). There we get a sarcastic and dismissive SoC rendering of “the very, very reverend Father Comnee, S.J.” So it seems significant that Molly is a “countersign” in the sense that her thoughts have been marginalized through the whole of the text. As you might imagine this is a huge crux of feminist criticism, with arguments on all sides.

    Something further – as opposed to many of the non-SoC episodes towards the end, Joyce made very few edits to “Penelope” and had relatively little trouble writing it. One sort of explanation that gets given by genetic critics is that Joyce may have earlier decided that this was how the book would end, BEFORE he ended up making shifts in the rest of the book (like in Aeolus, Eumaeus, Cyclops, Circe, etc.). He did write “Penelope” relatively late, but he may have already had this idea in mind very firmly before the project went a direction he wanted to take, and he may have decided to let it stand in spite of the fact that it DID contradict the rest of that project.

    Sorry for the length of the reply – I hope you’ll see this is not out of defensiveness or out of a desire to be argumentative but more because whenever you get into Ulysses criticism, what I’ve found is there are so many reasonably valid perspectives and unanswered questions. The secondary literature is sort of a rabbit-hole down which I’ve fallen; it’s an interesting exercise to try to extricate myself from it by explaining it to someone who’s still on the sane outside.

    As for the Homeric question, that’s another rabbit-hole. I think I’ll write another blog about it sometime soon. One initial thought – an analogy to evolution. Yes, someone was the first person to write it down. There was also a first human to walk upright. But we don’t credit that human with any great skill, they were just an increment in a process that, as it turns out, was very important. We could say the same for the transcriber of Homer. The key here is to offer a subtle explanation of that evolution – that’s something I’ll try to do in another post. But I get the hesitancy about it. I don’t have any real strongly felt (or well-informed position) about it – classics is way, way more intense regarding evidence than even Joyce scholarship, given that it had a 2500 year head start. For my project, the idea is to explore whether one family of answers to the Homeric question may have been informing Joyce’s work, not to resolve the argument of the Homeric question itself.

  6. Nates says:

    Thanks, Josh, for the responses to both points. What you say about situating the final chapter in the rest of the text makes a lot of sense, and the countersign remark is very intriguing. (Also, I look forward to more blogging on the evolutionary Homer!)

    I know what you mean about the value of explaining things to outsiders. I’m currently teaching a class on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to undergrads, some of whom have only a limited background in philosophy. It’s both challenging and refreshing to extricate myself from all the debates in the secondary literature.

  7. Josh says:

    In case you’re curious, here’s a fuller quotation (I really want to buy the books of letters but haven’t found an affordable copy yet):

    “The last word (human, all too human) is left to Penelope. This is the indispensable countersign to Bloom’s passport to eternity. I mean the last episode Penelope.” (letter from Joyce to Frank Budgen, 28 February 1921)

    And another that’s really baffling but feels relevant to this discussion:

    “In conception and technique I tried to depict the earth which is prehuman and presumably posthuman.” (letter from Joyce to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 8 February 1922)

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