The Art of Reading Slowly


I. Meaning in Literature: Saying Something Without Saying It

In Book Nine of the Iliad three ambassadors from the Greek army—Odysseus, Aias, and Phoinix—go to visit Achilles to appeal to him to rejoin the battle. He offers them hospitality in the proper manner:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.9.215–17)

But when he had roasted [the meat] and put it on the platters,
Patroklos took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Patroklos, of course, is Achilles’ closest friend and companion. He and Achilles share the duties of hospitality, and no doubt Achilles, as the official host, has the more important task of serving the meat, while Patroklos has the less honorary task of serving the bread.

In Book Twenty-four of the Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ask for the body of his son, Hektor, who has been killed by Achilles because he killed Patroklos. Achilles offers him the same kind of hospitality he offered to the three ambassadors:

ὤπτηςάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντο τε πάντα.
Αὐτομέδων δ᾽ἄρα σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.24.624–26)

And he roasted [the meat] carefully, and pulled it all off [the spits]
And Automedon took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Lines 9.216–17 and lines 24.625–26 are identical, except for the name of the person serving the bread. Patroklos clearly can’t serve the bread because he has been killed by Hektor, whose father has come to ask for his body. The substitution of the name Automedon for the name Patroklos is a stark reminder of why Priam has come to Achilles, and a reminder of what Achilles has lost because of Hektor. The substitution carries with it all the grief and anger felt by Achilles and all the implicit threat of violence that Priam faces. The change of name signifies the absence of Patroklos and the reason for his absence. These lines, I would suggest, show the power of narrative to say something without explicitly saying it.

These lines are probably formulaic; that is, they probably belong to the stock of lines the poet has available to assist in the process of oral composition by improvisation. (I don’t mean to suggest that there was a complete set of fixed lines stored in the poet’s memory— formulaic composition was flexible and varied—but that’s another discussion.) Situations or actions which are likely to be happen with some frequency were likely to accumulate formulaic expressions—sacrifice, arming, preparing a ship for sailing, and so on. Offering hospitality no doubt occurred many times in oral epic, and it’s not surprising if there were formulas to express it. One might argue that this repetition of lines from Book Nine to Book Twenty-four is simply a consequence of the formulaic technique and therefore without any particular meaning. It is perhaps hard to imagine that the audience of oral epic performance would make the connection between these two passages. It is possible that the Homeric epics were usually performed in sections on different occasions; if so, it might seem even more unlikely that the audience would note the varied repetition of these two lines.

I am not persuaded by this argument. My reading of the epics tells me that Homer—the person or the tradition we call Homer, again that’s another discussion—was a skilled and subtle poet and psychologist. The epics are full of cross-references that come to their full meaning only if we allow ourselves to grant the poet the respect due to a great artist, a great composer of verse and narrative.

Most scholars, I believe, would agree that Books One and Twenty-four of the Iliad show a remarkable pattern of correspondences. We can identify a number of events in Book One which are then repeated in reverse order in Book Twenty-four; for instance, (A) Chryses’ appeal for the return of his daughter (1.10–42) corresponds to Priam’s appeal for the return of Hektor’s body (24.471–688); (B) the conversation between Thetis and Achilles (1.351–427) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Achilles (24.126–58); (C) the conversation between Thetis and Zeus (1.500–530) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Zeus (24.100–119); and (D) the gathering of the gods at the end of Book One (1.533–611) corresponds to the gathering of the gods at the beginning of Book Twenty-four ((24.32–76). Thus events ABCD in Book One are matched by events DCBA in Book Twenty-four. If Homer expected his audience to remember the events of Book One when they heard Book Twenty-four, he could have expected them to remember Book Nine as well.

The correspondence of events at the beginning and ending of the Iliad is an instance of what is called Ring Composition. This kind of ring can create an Invitation to Compare; here, for example, we are invited to compare Agamemnon’s rude dismissal of Chryses with Achilles’ gracious, if reluctant, acceptance of Priam.

Ring composition in various forms is very common in the Homeric epics and in classical literature generally. It is also common in modern literature, but less often noted by critics. Near the beginning of Orwell’s 1984, for instance, Winston Smith sees the three failed revolutionaries (Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford) sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café; at the very end of the novel, Smith himself, broken by interrogation, is sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café. A number of specific repetitions mark the ring: “It was the lonely hour of fifteen” (77 and 287); the song “Under the spreading chestnut tree (77 and 293); the chessboard (77 and 288). This ring is clearly an invitation to compare Smith to the earlier failed revolutionaries.

Rings can come in various lengths and have various functions. Flashbacks are often marked as rings. In the Odyssey, the famous passage which explains the scar of Odysseus is a ring, marked by the repetition of the words “scar” (οὐλήν at 19.393 and 19.464) and “recognized” (ἔγνω at 19.392 and γνῶ at 19.468). This flashback, like many others, is a folding back of time on itself, and a reminder that the past leaves its mark in the present. Each ring has to be interpreted in its own context.

All of these instances of Ring Composition, and the hundreds more that it would be easy to add to the list, are examples of Saying Something Without Saying It. These meanings typically don’t translate very well into explicit propositions. A joke loses its point if it has to be explained, and literary meanings are attenuated when they are stated as explicit themes.

Brygos Painter500 BC – 480 BC, ANSA IV 3710 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

II. Philology: The Art of Reading Slowly

All my life I’ve been fascinated by words, by the way words form phrases and sentences, and the way sentences form poems and stories. The technical term for this fascination is philology—the love of language. Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as the art of reading slowly. For about six months I’ve been publishing a blog titled “The Art of Reading Slowly: A Blog about Language and Literature”, in which I post little essays on philological topics that catch my fancy. Here’s the link: )

As I see it, philology has four major components, all of which work together. These components are (1) historical linguistics, (2) the editing of texts, (3) the interpretation of meaning in context, and (4) literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I’m interested in all of these, and I post on all of them, but my own work lies primarily in the third and fourth areas. I created this blog as an invitation for anyone who has a passion for language and literature—readers and writers of all sorts. I would like to think of it as one part of a conversation among people who share an interest in the way language works and the way it turns into art.

My own training is in classical philology, ancient Greek and Latin literature, but my blog is mostly about the English language and modern literature. Here are some titles of the blogs I’ve published: “Lost in a Book” (about the experience of reading); “Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze” (about the vocabulary of Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano); “A Heap of Words” (about the rhetorical figure called congeries); “Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians”; “Philology in the Future” (about editing texts); “Etymology and Entomology” (one of several posts on historical linguistics and etymology); and most recently “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs” (about the parts of speech in English).

I have no particular plan for what comes next, though I think I will continue the discussion of parts of speech for another post or two, and I’m sure I will continue to talk about rhetorical figures, but anything that catches my eye when I’m reading might start me going. Several readers have contributed fascinating comments to the blog, and I encourage conversation; I’m also open to guest columns, and I was very pleased to publish a column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen, the author/editor of sententiae antiquae and the author of the recent book about Odysseus, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. If you think you might be interested in the blog, I invite you to take a look at it. Here’s the link again:

Image result for priam and achilles vase ransom of hector
Athens, ca 510 BC, Sackler Museum (Harvard U.)

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