Why Homer Matters:
The Iliad, The Odyssey and Force
(Below is the transcript of Barry’s speech delivered at the launch event for the Melbourne Festival of Homer in December, 2015.)
As Montaigne observed, “I quote others to express myself better” and in the 10 minutes allotted to me I have drawn freely on other writers.
Why is it that The Iliad and The Odyssey, one an epic poem of war, violence and masculinity, the second more like a novel, subtle, nuanced and questing, maintain their compelling power after nearly 3000 years?
As the Canadian writer Ian Brown explained (2004):
Homer flashes his talent for describing war through intricate details of its physical cost. He was never content to have an arrow hit a soldier if the arrow could hit a soldier in the crotch. Coeranus, an Achaean, didn’t just die: Hector speared him ‘under the jaw and ear, knocking teeth out, shattering roots and all and split his tongue in half’. [17. 695 in Fagles,] There is nothing depersonalized about Homeric combat: it’s the 800 BC version of a videotaped beheading. Throats slashed and gurgling, clean-cut necks, smashed knees, sliced navels, crams of corpses, ‘screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath, fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood’ . . . Quentin Tarantino is Walt Disney by comparison.
In The Iliad, there are 239 accounts of specific killings with killers and the victims both identified and Homer uses 60 synonyms to describe the act. The first battle scenes appear in Book 4.
A wine-cup found in Rhodes, and dated about 750 BCE, quotes three lines of The Iliad. This is within fifty or so years of the formulation of the Greek alphabet around 800 BCE, adapted from Phoenician, after earlier syllabic scripts, called Linear A and Linear B, disappeared. There is only one passing reference to writing in The Iliad.
First told or sung up to three thousand years ago in the Bronze Age and written down in the Iron Age, at the same time as the Old Testament was being written down, the works attributed to Homer can still hold us in thrall, can still speak to us and seem astonishingly contemporary.
In Ancient Greece, with an illiterate populace, speeches—political or otherwise—and storytelling were in verse, patterned to facilitate hearing, understanding and remembering. Modified over centuries depending on the memory of the minstrel or poet retelling these poems, the version we read today is attributed to Homer.
The rhythm of both The Iliad and The Odyssey is the exact rhythm of a heartbeat—and this may be no coincidence. Both are written in dactylic hexameters—a ‘dactyl’ is a metrical foot of one stressed and two unstressed syllables (as in “tenderly”), and a ‘hexameter’ is a verse line with six metrical feet.
That something so early should be so complex and compelling, and have the power to survive for so long — unlike the Old Testament or the Torah, not being related to a central religious theme —is astounding.
Montaigne, in his essay “On the most excellent of men”, wrote of Homer:
It is against nature that he made the most excellent creation that could ever be; for things are normally born imperfect, then grow and gather strength as they do so. He took poetry and several other sciences in their infancy and brought them to perfect, accomplished maturity. [Thus] one may call him the first and last of poets, in accordance with that fine tribute left to us by antiquity: that, having had no predecessor to imitate, he had no successor capable of imitating him.
Adam Nicolson, in The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (2014), wrote that:
What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of life and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia . . .
Homer reeks of long use. His wisdom, his presiding, god-like presence over the tales he tells, is the product of deep retrospect, not immediate reportage. His poetry embodies the air of incorporated time, as rounded as something that for centuries has rolled back and forth on the stony beaches of Greece. But it is also driven by the demands of grief, a clamouring and desperate anxiety about the nature of existence and the pains of mortality. This is the story of beginnings, and that feeling for trouble is the engine at the heart of it . . . [T]hese epics are a description, through a particular set of lenses, of what it is like to be alive on earth, its griefs, triumphs, sufferings and glories. These are poems that address life’s moments of revelations.
Except for the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Pentateuch, The Iliad and The Odyssey constitute the oldest surviving literature of antiquity. Some folk legends, for example in the Australian aboriginal tradition, could be even older, but I can find no evidence of a systemic organisation or length as in epic or saga form.
The veteran British politician Tony Benn argued, persuasively, that leaders generally fall into three categories: the mad man (or woman), who breaks the rules and attempts what seems impossible, the atraight man, who is transparent, persistent, predictable and well organised, and the fixer who is versatile, opportunistic and mercurial.
There are three outstanding models of masculinity and leadership in Homer’s epics: Achilles, Hector and Odysseus. The Iliad is dominated by Achilles and Hector, but Odysseus makes significant contributions. The Odyssey is centred on Odysseus, and Achilles and Hector have become ancestral memories.
Achilles (Akhillieus), the greatest Greek (Achaean) warrior, is rigid, driven, obsessed with honour and glory, fearless, choosing a short life as a warrior rather than a long, peaceful existence. He is the model for the ruthless individual who will let nothing stand in his way, testosterone fuelled, trampling on rivals, determined to prevail. He refuses to accommodate another point of view, and illustrates the mad man stereotype.
Hector (Hektōr), son of Priam, king of Troy, is a devoted husband, father and son, a reluctant warrior, conservative in his dedication to order, tradition and institutions, brave, but with a conscience, uneasy about using force, determined to improve his culture, flexible and open to new ideas. Adam Nicolson summarises his qualities as ‘sweet-minded, a loyal servant of his community, and will do what he must to preserve it.’ He is the archetypal “straight man”.
Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), a Greek, king of Ithaca, is adaptable, a ferocious warrior where necessary, but essentially versatile, devious, a liar, imaginative, a great story-teller, with an elastic morality, ideally suited to be a diplomat, property developer or politician. He is an outstanding orator, but also a wrestler and runner—but, to him, brain is more important than brawn. He epitomises the classic “fixer”.
“The Homeric question”
There is ongoing controversy (sometimes called “the Homeric question”) about Homer and the Homeric tradition. Was there an actual poet, a single author of the works attributed to Homer?
The American scholar Milman Parry observed the recitation of long, ancient oral epics by often illiterate bards in Bosnia in the 1930s, but he died in 1935 and his material was not published until 1971. He proposed that The Iliad and The Odyssey evolved, over centuries, in a bardic oral tradition (catchily described as “the oral formulaic hypothesis”), essentially anthologies of ballads and legends, long before development of a written language. Adam Nicolson supports Parry’s view.
On balance, critical opinion leans towards Homer’s authorship of The Iliad largely because such a large personality comes through the words, rather than mere syntheses of legends, even when they express the evolution of shared, complex beliefs and fears. Bernard Knox commented on The Iliad, ‘The architecture of the poem is magnificent, and it strongly suggests the hand of one composer . . .’ The polymath critic George Steiner agrees.
In The Iliad Homer’s “voice” is unmistakable, just as it is with J.S. Bach. One can hear a completely unfamiliar work from his huge output and know, within five or six bars, that this can only be Bach.
But was The Iliad’s Homer also author of The Odyssey, strikingly different in voice, warmth, point of view, vocabulary, probably composed a generation or two later? Martin West, Peter Green and other eminent scholars accept the “two Homers” hypothesis) and West has “P” writing The Iliad, “Q” The Odyssey.)
In The Iliad, Homer’s approach is God-like in its detachment, cold-eyed and free of sentiment, with the reader/ listener left to form his/ her own judgment. In its clinical detail, the text is astonishingly like a film script, using techniques such as the flashback, setting the scene and the leading actors powerfully, then explaining the context later. There are unforgettable scenes of war, sex, desolation and despair.
There is a Goya-like portrait of the Greek warrior Ajax (Aias), as a heroic fighter crazed by violence and prone to depression, bi-polar no doubt, who kills himself after losing an oratory contest with Odysseus.
Hector, always opposed to war, has had to leave his desolate wife Andromache and infant son Astyanax. In a poignant moment, the child screams as Hector, wearing his plumed helmet, tries to kiss him (Book 6, line 559).
The relevance and importance of Homer to us in 2015 is his insight, especially in The Iliad, into how force distorts and deforms human experience. I want to recommend two great essays written on this subject, within four years of each other, by two remarkable women with similar experiences, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff. Both were Jewish, taught philosophy in France, escaped with their families to the United States (via Casablanca), and died tragically.
Weil wrote The Iliad or The Poem of Force in 1939, Bespaloff On the Iliad in 1943. The essays were both translated by Mary McCarthy. You can find both essays on the web, or in an edition published in book form, as War and the Iliad (2005) by the New York Review of Books.
The true hero, the true subject, the centre of The Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to…
To define force – it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it to a thing.
Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Someone was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle that The Iliad never wearies of showing us…
Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or who thinks he does, as it does to his victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it…We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave.
Bespaloff makes powerful comparisons between Homer and Tolstoy: “Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of war. They are neither pacifist nor bellicist. They have no illusions about war”.
It is impossible to speak of a Homeric world or a Tolstoyan world in the sense that one can speak of the worlds of Dante, Balzac or Dostoevsky. Tolstoy’s universe, like Homer’s, is what our own is from moment to moment. We don’t step into it; we are there. “As for myself, I find it difficult to tell all; I am not a god”. This modest statement in The Iliad might have been taken up by Tolstoy on his own. Neither writer finds it necessary to tell all to make the All reveal itself. They are the only ones (Shakespeare excepted) who are capable of these planetary pauses, those musical rests, over an event where history appears in its perpetual flight beyond human ends, in its creative incompleteness.
For all his universal aspirations, Tolstoy is a Russian partisan in the epic struggle against Napoleon. Bespaloff concludes that Homer was the greater man (although we know so little about him) because, as a Greek, he showed insight about and compassion for the Trojans.