Why Homer Matters
The traditional function of literary criticism has been something like this: to serve as a wise and knowledgeable docent or guide for a literate but not scholarly public; to unlock from distant times and con- texts the riches of our cultural heritage; and to speed the reader’s descent into the depths of what she or he is reading.
It has become clear that—over the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of this one—this mission was largely lost or defaced. “Theory” replaced what used to be called “practical criticism,” and was in turn replaced by activist political readings that used literature as a launch pad for various laudable causes. But in the process of being used as intellectual ballast for relatively straightforward current political goals—equality for minorities, colonized peoples and women, for instance—literature in itself got mislaid, and its own unique and active role in making a good and human life was obscured. Its value as a piece of rhetorical advocacy, or as an object lesson in demonstrating the evils of an oppressive past, is not what makes it literary art. Though certainly even the greatest writers have had political and social axes to grind, that is not why readers go to them to understand their own lives, their loves, their species, their history, their death. Literature has a truth deeper than any assertion: as the noble Renaissance writer Philip Sidney put it, “the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.”
Now we have a book about one of the greatest of all writers, Homer, that triumphantly recovers the lost great art of criticism. Adam Nicolson’s beautifully written and passionate book about Homer’s two gigantic poems recovers for us that first experience that we had as children, of a whole world opening before us:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Nicolson actually quotes these lines from Keats’s “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and they do nicely describe the experience of reading Nicolson’s own book. Nicolson is not only a profound scholar and a poetically gifted writer, but a traveler, a sailor and an adventurer. He has inherited the grace, energy and warmth of literary style that marked his Bloomsbury ancestry (as Baron Carnock, he is now the keeper and guardian of his grandmother Vita Sackville-West’s famous Sissinghurst Castle Garden). He writes on the Mediterranean with the same deep love and knowledge—and evocative detail—as did Lawrence Durrell and that greatest of all travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
What Nicolson does first is walk us through the history and geography of the ancient Eurasian/African world out of which Homer emerged and from which the Homeric texts came down to us. As a sailor, he expertly pilots us through the winds and currents of the Mediterranean, and as an inveterate land traveler he takes us into Odysseus’ harbors and islands and out into the vast steppes and horse-pastures from which came Achilles’ Dorian ancestors. Islands and mountain ranges loom up in his narrative, together with golden luxurious cities and monstrous landscapes, hell-mouths that housed oracles, madwomen who could foretell your fate.
Then he takes us through the Iliad, which he portrays compellingly as the collision between a northern marauding warlord “Viking” culture, and a settled, elegant, southern monarchical-bureaucratic civilization. In his chapter “The Gang and the City,” his comparison between the gang culture of present-day St. Louis and the attitude of Achilles and the Greeks is chillingly prescient. Don’t diss the brothers; you’re not the boss of me; don’t just avenge your homies, but stand over your enemy’s dying body and exult. George Miller makes the same implicit comparison in his film Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), where the berserk biker horde sport Mohawk haircuts and utter Homeric boasts. This is Achilles as Comanche, as Hell’s Angel. Nicolson rubs our noses in the sickening graphic violence of this poem, never equaled in any literature I know of, and makes us stretch our imagination to enter that alien brutal world and still recognize its capacity for tenderness, generosity and compassion. We will need these talents as we deal with ISIS and the Boko Haram today.
As Nicolson sees it, the Mycenaeans—who, he believes, are the subjects of Homer’s epics—came originally from the great steppes of western Asia and eastern Europe. Once in rocky Greece, they exchanged their horses for the fast ships they took to Troy. Poseidon is the god of both horses and the sea.
Nicolson next takes us through the Odyssey, with the nautical expertise of the experienced sailor and the imagination of a splendidly outdated Romantic.
Much of the power and authenticity of Nicolson’s book lies in the fact that he has experienced many of the things that Homer himself knew well. He has seen the places Odysseus visited, sailed in storms, been attacked and humiliated at knifepoint like the victims in the Iliad. One thing, though, he has apparently not done, and that is to compose an epic poem. And this lack, I believe, leads him to the one assertion with which I must take issue. Nicolson steps into a debate that has raged since the nineteenth century about the identity of Homer and the authorship of the two poems. He adopts the Romantic position that there was no single flesh-and-blood Homer, and that the Homeric poems are the product of what the Germans would call the Greek Volk, collective expressions of a great culture over many centuries. “Homer” is for him the “Homerishness” of the Greeks, so to speak.
Now, certainly, any great artist or writer does somehow manage to “channel” the zeitgeist and spirit of an entire culture, and speaks prophetically out of a tradition. And if we wish to convince doubters of the truly vatic power of art, perhaps one way would be by a sort of Platonic “noble lie” that the artist we wish to recommend is not just a mere mortal. If we think of the artist as an ordinary Joe or Jill like ourselves who puts on his or her pants one leg at a time, we are tempted to respond “sez who?” or salve our sense of inferiority by finding fault, explaining away or constructing conspiracy theories and secret political messages. Virgil was inspired by the Christian God, Shakespeare cannot be mere Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci cannot be mere Leonardo di Ser Piero, the writer of the book of Genesis was God, Moses or a woman, and so on. In our own postmodern times, the Barthesian/Derridean/Foucauldian idea that the author is a mere “author function,” the unwitting mouthpiece of a regime of power and knowledge, is another example of the same anxiety.
As a sort of metaphor, the idea that a great work of art is like a natural feature of the landscape, formed by volcanic fire and wind and water, has a good deal of truth. Before the making of any great work of art, there must be a hugely enriched cultural—and probably multicultural—soil in which it can grow. After it has spread its intricate branches, it may be subject to ages of pruning, grafting, damage, imaginative restoration, reinterpretation, editorialized performance, Bowdlerization, syncretic accumulation, mounds of marginal commentary, and so on. These facts are undeniable, and Nicolson expertly conducts us through them in the case of the Homeric texts.
But if one has actually constructed an epic or major poetic fiction, one knows that at the heart of any great work is the expert, planned, detailed, intentional and intricate work of a single magisterial judgment. The plotting of the Iliad and the Odyssey is as exact, parsimonious, systematic and coherent as the fan vaulting of a cathedral or the turbines of a jet engine. If you work out the balances of ritual propriety, violation, grievance, compensation, litigation and revenge that exist among the gods in the Iliad—look under the narrative hood, so to speak—you will see how exactly it is constructed. It did not just “come together.” Likewise, take the astoundingly elegant way that the twenty-odd years of action in the Odyssey are telescoped into the few days from the moment Telemachus sets out to seek his father and Odysseus simultaneously sets out from the island of Ogygia, to the final meeting of husband and wife in the bedchamber in Ithaca. And then the whole thing is digested into six great acts of four books apiece, divided exactly between Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ travels abroad and their war at home. Odysseus’ fantastic adventures are arranged concentrically, with the land of the dead at the center, and, radiating outward, Circe’s island Aeaea coming and going, the Laestrygonians and the Sirens, the winds of Aeolus and the sun of Helios, the Cyclops island and the Scylla-Charybdis straits, the land of the Lotus Eaters and Calypso’s Ogygia, Ismarus and Phaeacia. He must pass through this chiastic labyrinth or narrative palindrome, to enter and then escape the place of shades where he finds out how to regain his kingdom.
One might imagine for a moment, coming across a cathedral for the first time, that perhaps it is some amazing natural outcrop, or that a house was somehow the product of drifting timber in a flood. But if you have built a house or cathedral or jet engine—or epic poem, as I have even if it may not be a very good one—you know that it will not hold together without careful construction by, or at least headed by, a single intending subject. Nicolson gives some not very convincing examples of where “Homer nods” or forgets details, as evidence of the absence of a single author. But the astonishing thing is that the nods are so rare and so trivial, considering the thousands of characters, biographies, places, plot lines, physical objects, metrical imperatives, film-like cuts and organizational requirements that the composer must hold in his or her mind at the same time to make everything fit. It is Homer’s enormous and continuous “awakeness” for thousands of lines that makes the moments when he nods off seem so unusual, and that certifies a single consciousness.
We might speculate further about why we want cathedrals and epics to have been somehow accumulated by a people rather than composed by a consummate architect (who knows his people better than they know themselves). Perhaps it is a by-product of our Europeanized cultural nationalism, some reflex of the appeal of Rousseau’s popular will. Or perhaps it is a symptom of that strand of postmodernism that dismissed the individual creator as an “author function” and set mass political progress and collective justice ahead of what used to be called bourgeois false consciousness. But when we see the guidelines scored by the master architect upon the inner sides of the stones of the cathedral, and see the chiseling of incident and lineage and obligation under the flow of the narrative, we must recognize humbly the reality of individual human genius.
Homer actually gives us a couple of instances of how the individual epic storyteller must organize and energize his tale. When Odysseus settles down to tell the story of his troubles to the court of Alcinous, he shows us the author at work. “How shall I start and end my tale?” he asks himself, then sets himself a list of things to do to get his tale going, keeping back incidents that he might otherwise have blurted out at the beginning in order to achieve the appropriate suspense and approximate the adventurer’s “fog of war.” More comprehensively, the (false) story he tells the swineherd Eumaios about how, in the Trojan War, Odysseus contrived to get a cloak to replace the one he left behind on a cold night is a veritable seminar on the technique of telling a tale. The anthropologist observing with dismay the careful rehearsal process of the cast and crew of a tribal ritual, once deemed to be a sort of instinctive “folk” phenomenon, and the folklorist scandalized by the self-conscious knowingness and intentional archaism of a popular ballad, are alike forced to recognize the individual intention, as ironical and self-aware as their own. The critic owes the same recognition to the author.
But Nicolson’s brilliant achievement is not much damaged by his concessions to the various theories of the mass mind. His strengths, beyond repeated close readings that never misfire, are these, as I see it. He puts the poems in the context of Big History, seeing them in a vast evolutionary perspective that reaches back deep into prehistory. (Homer did not regard himself as an ancient writer; he saw himself almost as a latecomer, with a huge past behind him, as we do.) Nicolson makes us see the immediate relevance of Homer to our own present-day wars, challenges and adventures. He has not just studied the acts of his heroes, but “been there and done that.” He peels off the veneer of later interpretations of the poem—whether those of classical and Hellenic Greek readers, or those of Virgil, or those of the medieval allegorizers of the poems, or those of Pope and the Enlightenment—and reveals the gorgeous colors underneath. How terrifyingly ancient and utterly contemporary they are.
Most moving of all in Nicolson’s book is his discussion of the end of the Iliad, when Priam goes to the tent of Achilles and asks for the body of his son Hector, that he might give it burial. Here Nicolson celebrates something much neglected in our age of cultural relativism and cynical explainings-away. He shows how Homer cuts through all such worldly wisdom to the image of these two men, enemies still, weeping together at their common bereavement, in a sort of friendship that is the best of what our mortal species can manage. There is such a thing as humanity, and it is worth keeping.