In this spirited book, James I. Porter identifies not one but three Homeric questions. First, when, how and by whom were the Eliad and the Odyssey actually composed (that is, the Homeric Question as we traditionally know it)? Second, how should we interpret the poems? And third, how does Homer work as a figure of the imagination? It is to this third question that he devotes his efforts, offering “a cultural history, in abbreviated form, of an idea, a point of concern, a fascination, and an obsession that was born and reborn every time Homer was imagined as the presumed poet of the Eliad and the Odyssey“. Despite these neat divisions, Porter knows well that, when it comes to Homer, one line of inquiry shades into the next – and he is at his strongest when tackling historical, literary and cultural questions together.
One example of Porter’s brilliance is his discussion of Homer’s blindness. Neither historical fact nor unquestioned assumption, “blindness” was a way for ancient readers to discuss the extraordinary vividness of Homeric epic – a quality that made an impression also on later readers. His discussion quickly from imagining the poet, to an aesthetic appreciation of the poetry, to the context of composition: the Eliad took shape near Troy, at the end of the eighth century BC, when the city was already a pile of rubble. After the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, poet(s) and audiencesd in reimagining and collaborated an impressive ruin as a living city. Homeric epic, Porter rightly insists, is a response to collective trauma.
In relating this collective vision to his insistence that each reading produces a different Homer, Porter promises a “cultural history”. The cultural part is straightforward: Homer is an idea “around which entire canons of literature, disciplines, and whole bodies of knowledge came to be built and organized over the millennia, including the study of antiquity itself”. Porter’s history is more problematic. He offers commanding, atemporal statements on almost every page “’Homer is never the result of some positive act of creation”; “Homer remains what he has always been, a peculiar cipher”; “the Homeric Question was not the invention of the eighteenth century … it was alive and well already at an early date in antiquity” (some emphases mine). But then, occasionally, he pinpoints readings with surprising specificity: Homer becomes a “Philhellene” very precisely during the Persian Wars in the fifth century BC; it is only with Julius Scaliger “that the mingling in Homer of the beauty of art and the violence of warfare … came under intense scrutiny for the first time”.
These statements could be challenged. At some level, the Homeric Question is indeed an eighteenth-century concern. At another, the ancient Greeks were already worried about the beauty of Homeric battle, claiming that Homer lost a competition against the poet Hesiod precisely for glamorizing war. It seems that Porter pins interpretations of the poems to specific times, while reserving his atemporal statements for the poet himself, or the idea of him. But the trouble with insisting that “no two Homers are ever alike” is that the very flexibility of Homer, as an idea, can morph into inflexible conviction. At his most intransigent, Porter can claim that “nothing … could be more horrifically misguided than the belief expressed by the philosopher David Hume … that ‘the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London’.
Suppose Porter is right, and Homer really is like a vacuous politician, the embodiment of incompatible convictions held by different people. As long as all believe they are voting for the same man, he wins. If, however, the illusion is exposed, if people realize that the politician on the ballot is but an empty cipher, then he loses – and nothing at all gets done in his name. Just so, it may be important for Hume to think that he shares his Homer with the ancient people of Athens and Rome, as well as modern readers in Paris and London. Perhaps it is this sense of a transhistorical community that makes the idea of Homer culturally productive. Porter claims that “simply to declare Homer ‘dead’ is to bring him back to life again” and accordingly wants to keep him in “a virtual war zone” made up of “fierce debates and critiques”. But, once people realize they are fighting over an empty cipher, they may lose interest in the squabble. And, in any case, rather than insisting on combative criticism as being always Capable of “resurrecting” Homer, we may occasionally acknowledge our loss and take care of the dead.
You might also argue that the very idea that Homer always means different things to different people is a position that can itself be historicized – for example, by asking when Porter conceived of it. He marks that moment for himself by referring to “recent” work by Hans van Wees (1996) and using “most recent” for my own first publication on Homer (2002). Does it matter that Porter largely stopped engaging with Homeric scholarship around the turn of the millennium? In one way, not at all. If the point is to show that “no two Homers were ever alike”, then adding a few more views from the last twenty years cannot make much of a difference. But in another way, it might.
Porter devotes one chapter to the question of what Homer could see. Recent research also asks from what perspective he was looking at. When the poet says “on the left” or “on the right”, he always looks at the battlefield from the same vantage point, keeping his back to the sea and facing the plain, with the city of Troy beyond it. The curved coastline, with its beached Achaean ships, is arranged before him “like a theater”, as an ancient scholar put it. When the Trojans speak, “right” and “left” are reversed. We must conclude that the poet sees the battlefield, quite literally, from the Greeks’ point of view. There are, then, cues in the Eliad supporting the perception of Homer as a Philhellene. And, even if that perception became more prominent during the Persian Wars, we need not conclude with Porter that it was a purely Greek conceit, the result of casting Persians/Trojans as the “other” radical. Recent scholarship shows that the Persians themselves were actively shaping a connection with the long-dead Trojans, with the aid of various mediators, translators and tourist guides at the site of Troy. Even Homer the Phillellene is the result of shared, messy, cross-cultural engagements.
At the end of the book, Porter observes that “critique has been replaced by reparative reading” and, bizarrely, presents Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death (1980) as his only example of the latter. Quite apart from the fact that reparative reading was first theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in 1997, and that dates tell their own story, it seems unlikely that Griffin, an expansive Oxford don and also author of The Art of Snobbery, would take the same stance as an American woman who described herself as “shy … depressive … nurturing” and devoted her life to queer theory. The confusion is a symptom. To Porter, criticism is reassuring. To Sedgwick and others, not so much. Millennials say “don’t judge” – but we already have. Reparative reading places itself after Strong criticism, fully assumes it, and seeks weak responses, “eliciting love and care … in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them” (to quote Sedgwick). At a minimum, then, reparative reading involves a community of care and some commitment to listening.
Strong readings of the Eliad tend to focus on the final encounter between Achilles and Priam, and Achilles’ return of the body of Hector, Priam’s son, whom he has killed. To Griffin, that scene affirms the value of a human life in the face of death. To Porter, it makes the Eliad a poem of war, not death: Homer, “however we understand the name”, reveals the inexplicable, violent loss of life, not just the finality of death. I agree with Porter, as it happens. But while Porter and Griffin engage in critical single combat, we may want to listen to how the Eliad actually ends. The last word does not belong to Priam or Achilles, but to the women of Troy. At the funeral of Hector, their ritual laments insisted on one theme: their dependence on the deceased. He meant different things to each, we learn, but they all relied on him. This is a theme that Achilles, in his great wrath, has difficulty grasping. It is also a theme that, from the position of combative criticism, can escape attention. From the perspective of the women of Troy, however, it is painfully obvious that people can only flourish when they look after each other and, in shared ritual, take care of the dead.
Barbara Graziosi is Professor of Classics at Princeton University. Her most recent book is Homer2016
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