Nates asks a set of questions on a recent thread about Joyce and Homer:
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?
One way to respond to this concern: argue that one person – HOMER – wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Or, to use a joke I heard James Redfield deploy expertly: “it was written either by Homer or another man of the same name.” This argument is fairly simple: these texts are extraordinarily long, and remarkably rhetorically, linguistically and structurally coherent and consistent. One person, who had access to pen and paper, had to have written them. We have a manuscript tradition that gets us not back to Homer himself (we have no autographed manuscript), but gets us back to people who we have reason to believe thought their texts credible. What anomalies exist within these manuscripts is the subject of abstruse and arcane study, study which discerns to distinctions between original composition and interpolation. The goal of Homer scholarship, on this view, is the discernment of that original manuscript’s contents.
This is traditionally called the “unitarist” answer. It’s the one that, it seems, we all have sentimental attachment to (myself included).
There are problems with this answer, however. For one thing, if Homer existed, we know nothing about him other than that he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. The “Homer was a blind bard” idea is a traditional interpretation of the fact that a blind bard (Demodocus) appears in the Phaeacians sequence. He sings a tale of the Trojan war, and Odysseus begins to cry. Demodocus is described as blind, and so we understand this to be Homer writing himself into the epic, making a cameo. But this, of course, comes nowhere close to establishing that Homer was blind. And the rest of the would-be biographical leads on “Homer” are just as problematic. There’s just no credible piece of evidence (and both sides agree on this) that tells us anything about Homer’s biography. This problem, by the way, has been recognized at least since Plato’s time.
The mystery of “Homer” has led to all sorts of hypotheses which attempt to explain it. I’m going to describe one very interesting anti-unitarist position, one described in several books by Gregory Nagy: principally, Homeric Questions and Homeric Responses. Both of these texts are fully readable online through those links. They’re not that long, and there are worse ways to spend a few hours some afternoon.
I’m not going to try to polemically defend Nagy’s view: I don’t know enough about Greek or philology to do that. I read a set of polemical back and forths between him and Martin West, whose 1998 Greek edition of the Iliad was the occasion a Nagy review that contests West’s whole project. If you then locate West’s reply to this review (I can’t track this down right now) and then Nagy’s reply to that (ditto) you can get a decent sense of the argumentative terrain.
For now I’ll just lay out Nagy’s view as I understand it, without quotation.
Nagy seeks to explain the paucity of evidence about Homer’s biography with a simple explanation: we know nothing about Homer the man because Homer the man never existed. “Homer” is not a person, Homer is a eponym for a tradition of collective authorship.
So if there was no “Homer,” how did the Iliad and the Odyssey get created and come down to us?
There are several key steps on the timeline from antiquity up through the present:
Step One – Purely Oral Composition and Performance Phase: a group of poets, much like the 20th century Serbo-Croatian poets observed and aurally recorded by Lord and Parry on record and cassette tape, orally compose and recount poems in dactylic hexameter, telling tales of the Trojan war. Two very important observations about Lord and Parry’s theory of oral composition. First, these poems are not “memorized” and “recited”: they are recomposed in each instance. Second, these poems are also remarkably consistent and very rule-bound (they’re not just random different stories each time). There is a set of regularities that exist between two tellings by one poet, and also between one tale told by two different poets. So if we imagine a hypothetical community of poets, they’re all telling a tale they think of as “the same” tale: the Iliad, the story of the fall of Troy.
Within this telling, there are only so many moves you can make: there is a well-defined succession of themes (with some variation). There’s the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon, there’s the catalogue of ships, the embassy scene at Achilles’ tent, the disguised leadership and death of Patroclus, the battle between Hector and Achilles, the recovery of Hector’s body by Priam, etc. Every poet uses these “themes” in roughly the same order.
And within each “theme” there are a limited set of “formulae” that can be used. Each character, for example, has a finite set of epithets that can be used to describe him/her, usually based on what position in the poetic line needs to be filled. When the stories are told, each poet recombines these formulae in subtly different ways, but they’re also extremely similar, much more similar than if you just asked two people to summarize a book they had both read. It’s really hard to demonstrate what I mean here without quoting Greek and explaining its case system, as well as explaining how strict dactylic hexameter is. Suffice it to say that the meter is restrictive enough that there are only a few different ways to express a given thought. There are many line-long formulae that repeat over and over again, and those are thought of as times the poet was planning for future ideas by repeating an idea he had set in his mind. Sometimes these formulae would even reach multi-line proportions.
So you’ve got a community of poets who all know how to tell the tale of the Iliad in this way. Over time, their tales expand, taking the best/most striking ideas from each individual poet and melding them into the orthodox telling. If there were 100 of them, and you lined them all up, and asked them to tell the tale of the Iliad, they’d all tell it slightly differently, but they would be a lot more similar than you might think people without writing could do (again, this is why Lord and Parry’s findings are so significant – they demonstrated that people CAN do this without writing). As these communities grew and became defused, they’d each invent different regional variants, and since no one was writing them down, no one would really realize this, but after a few generations, if you brought them all back together, there would be more marked differences.
These groups of poets became known as “sons of Homer.” They invented a mythical founder of their poetry circles. This apparently happens over and over again in Greek (and other) culture of this time period: mythical origins are postulated for collective processes. We have more viable evidence (apparently) to demonstrate this in the case of figures like “Aesop” and “Aesculapius.” An important hint here is that “Homeros” has an etymology. It’s not a name per se, it’s more like a phrase that means something like “master joiner.” The “sons of the master-joiner” are people who have thought and worked together on joining themes and formulae together in a masterly scale. “Homer” is their mythical first member. The group back-forms an identity to this “Homer” but it’s really only a legendary back-formation. The community gradually developed these tales, from at first relatively insignificant scraps, to eventually long, long tales, over the course of several generations.
Step Two: Competitive Performance Phase: As Greek culture became more national, the festival of the Panathania became in institution. On a yearly basis, poets assembled to compete to see “who could tell the best Iliad.” These were public performances with judges and audiences. People reported from all regions of Greece to tell “their” Iliad. These regions have different regional variations of this story. Over time, however, because they’ve now all come together, those versions start to coalesce around a core version of the story. Still, no one is writing anything down, but just listening to each other makes their stories more similar. So too do audience and judge expectations: as the competition becomes more rigorous, and rules are established, performances become less innovative as the act of performing becomes more technically defined.
Step Three – The Rhapsodes: At some point, the jump is made from oral composition and performance into memorization and recitation (those good as this are called “rhapsodes”). After the stories reach a certain level of stability, this becomes more possible. If the tale are now 95% similar (whereas when they started it was more like 50% – these percentages being totally arbitrary of course), it becomes easier for successive poetry-contest entrants to simply memorize the increasingly canonical version by hearing others tell it. The art of oral composition/performance starts to die off, but it leaves its mark on the transmitted story. The “formulae” and “themes” remain in this canonical version though their original purpose for existing (to give the poet time to improvise within a restrictive and difficult meter) is now lost.
Step Four – Writing: As writing becomes more practical, with the development of ink and relatively cheap writing surfaces, and the demands for consistent rules for contests become more and more rigorous, the canonical spoken version of step three is eventually written down. Perhaps the best rhapsodes – the contest winners in a given year – perform their now-memorized tales before a host of 10 scribes, say who are able to write only 1 of every 10 lines, in succession, and so a written “Iliad” is born. Now the contests change over time from “who can tell the best Agamemnon/Achilles argument scene” into “who can perform Book I the best.” And then sometimes after this, the manuscript tradition begins, and then is transmitted down to us. Both the art of oral-composition and rhapsodic recitation of non-written text are lost. More and more occasionally, people memorize the text to perform it, but with a written text, there is less need for this. Eventually the contests take on a ritual significance that has forgotten its original dynamic.
Anyway, that’s Nagy’s vision, or something like it. His principal argument in its defense is that it explains two facts: first, that we know nothing about Homer, and second, that the Iliad and the Odyssey look remarkably like transcriptions of oral performances, given what Lord and Parry had learned about oral performances. So it wasn’t that there was some single person who creatively intermingled a whole tradition, there was a collective tradition that was eventually written down. There never was a singular genius who wrote any of this.
You can see something like this process unfold in classical music too, with concerto cadenzas. Originally, they were improvised by the composer/performer themselves (like, Mozart performs his new concerto, and he plays whatever solo seems appropriate on this day) but then eventually, either Mozart or one of his admirers writes down a cadenza, and from that time forward, performers perform that cadenza – it becomes the “official” candenza. That’s not a perfect analogy because Mozart did the actual performance, and then someone (or he) transcribed it himself, but it’s structurally similar in other ways.
Another analogy is Wikipedia – no one person wrote it, but it was amassed by loads of people making small changes. The disanalogy here is that Wikipedia is written. The Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted among communities not by writing but by memorized formulae and themes that, put together with a restrictive meter, allowed their relatively stable oral transmission.
So no one ever needed to be individually creative in the way you might think they’d need to be to write the Iliad or the Odyssey. Generations of oral poets, memorizers and then transcribers gradually created these texts bit by bit, collectively. What we have is the end result of that process that, since it wasn’t written down, is difficult to prove the existence of. Our best hint is the oral-poetic appearance of the manuscript.