Ignorance & Forgery

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 1.8:

“To investigate what everyone, including the most worthless people, ever wrote is an example either of excessive misery or empty ostentation, which both detains and destroys minds which would better be left free for other things. Someone who has shaken off all of the dusty fragments unworthy of reading could just as easily spend their labor upon the tales of old women. The commentaries of grammarians are full of these kinds of pitfalls, and even their authors barely know what is in them. It is said of Didymus, than whom no one ever wrote more, that when he was arguing against some tale as though it were wholly fictitious, his very own book was brought against him, since it contained that very tale. This happens especially in fantastic tales, all the way to the point of absurdity and shame, whence comes the excessive license granted to every knave of inventing things such that they safely lie about entire books and authors as they find it convenient, because those things which never existed cannot naturally be discovered. For, in more generally known matters, the forgers are discovered by curious inquisitors. And so, it seems to me that among the grammarian’s virtues will be numbered not to know some things.”

https://i1.wp.com/parliamoitaliano.altervista.org/wp-content/uploads/grammaticus.jpg?w=656

Persequi quidem quid quis umquam vel contemptissimorum hominum dixerit aut nimiae miseriae aut inanis iactantiae est, et detinet atque obruit ingenia melius aliis vacatura. Nam qui omnis etiam indignas lectione scidas excutit, anilibus quoque fabulis accommodare operam potest: atqui pleni sunt eius modi impedimentis grammaticorum commentarii, vix ipsis qui composuerunt satis noti. Nam Didymo, quo nemo plura scripsit, accidisse compertum est ut, cum historiae cuidam tamquam vanae repugnaret, ipsius proferretur liber qui eam continebat. Quod evenit praecipue in fabulosis usque ad deridicula quaedam, quaedam etiam pudenda, unde improbissimo cuique pleraque fingendi licentia est, adeo ut de libris totis et auctoribus, ut succurrit, mentiantur tuto, quia inveniri qui numquam fuere non possunt: nam in notioribus frequentissime deprenduntur a curiosis. Ex quo mihi inter virtutes grammatici habebitur aliqua nescire.

Dr. False Etymology

Varro, de Lingua Latina 6.7:

“If I, knowing a thing, say it (dico) to someone who does not know it and impart to them what they were previously ignorant of, you may see the derivation of the verb ‘teach’ (doceo). This is either because we speak (dicimus) when we teach (docemus), or because those who are taught (docentur) are being led into (inducuntur) that which they are being taught. From the fact that one knows how to lead, one is a leader (dux aut ductor); and the word doctor is one who leads students in such a way that he teaches (doceat) them. From leading (ducendo) comes teaching (docere) and from discipline (disciplina) comes learning (discere), with a few letters changed. From the same principle we have documents (documenta), which are examples spoken for the sake of teaching (docendi).”

Image result for weasel teaching manuscript

Si dico quid sciens nescienti, quod ei quod ignoravit trado, hinc doceo declinatum vel quod cum docemus dicimus vel quod qui docentur inducuntur in id quod docentur. Ab eo quod scit ducere qui est dux aut ductor; hinc doctor qui ita inducit, ut doceat. Ab ducendo docere disciplina discere litteris commutatis paucis. Ab eodem principio documenta, quae exempla docendi causa dicuntur.

F**k Donatus, Shakespeare’s Got Talent [FTS Week]

John Williams, Stoner (Chp. 9): 

“Charles Walker fiddled for a moment with the sheaf of papers on the desk before him and allowed the remoteness to creep back into his face. He tapped the forefinger of his right hand on his manuscript and looked toward the corner of the room away from where Stoner and Katherine Driscoll sat, as if he were waiting for something. Then, glancing every now and then at the sheaf of papers on the desk, he began.

‘Confronted as we are by the mystery of literature, and by its inenarrable power, we are behooved to discover the source of the power and mystery. And yet, finally, what can avail? The work of literature throws before us a profound veil which we cannot plumb. And we are but votaries before it, helpless in its sway. Who would have the temerity to lift that veil aside, to discover the undiscoverable, to reach the unreachable? The strongest of us are but the puniest weaklings, are but tinkling cymbals and sounding brass, before the eternal mystery.’

His voice rose and fell, his right hand went out with its fingers curled supplicatingly upward, and his body swayed to the rhythm of his words; his eyes rolled slightly upward, as if he were making an invocation. There was something grotesquely familiar in what he said and did. And suddenly Stoner knew what it was. This was Hollis Lomax—or, rather, a broad caricature of him, which came unsuspected from the caricaturer, a gesture not of contempt or dislike, but of respect and love.

Walker’s voice dropped to a conversational level, and he addressed the back wall of the room in a tone that was calm and equable with reason. ‘Recently we have heard a paper that, to the mind of academe, must be accounted most excellent. These remarks that follow are remarks that are not personal. I wish to exemplify a point. We have heard, in this paper, an account that purports to be an explanation of the mystery and soaring lyricism of Shakespeare’s art. Well, I say to you’—and he thrust a forefinger at his audience as if he would impale them— ‘I say to you, it is not true.’ He leaned back in his chair and consulted the papers on the desk. ‘We are asked to believe that one Donatus—an obscure Roman grammarian of the fourth century A.D.— we are asked to believe that such a man, a pedant, had sufficient power to determine the work of one of the greatest geniuses in all of the history of art. May we not suspect, on the face of it, such a theory? Must we not suspect it?’

Anger, simple and dull, rose within Stoner, overwhelming the complexity of feeling he had had at the beginning of the paper. His immediate impulse was to rise, to cut short the farce that was developing; he knew that if he did not stop Walker at once he would have to let him go on for as long as he wanted to talk. His head turned slightly so that he could see Katherine Driscoll’s face; it was serene and without any expression, save one of polite and detached interest; the dark eyes regarded Walker with an unconcern that was like boredom. Covertly, Stoner looked at her for several moments; he found himself wondering what she was feeling and what she wished him to do. When he finally shifted his gaze away from her he had to realize that his decision was made. He had waited too long to interrupt, and Walker was rushing impetuously through what he had to say.

‘ … the monumental edifice that is Renaissance literature, that edifice which is the cornerstone of the great poetry of the nineteenth century. The question of proof, endemic to the dull course of scholarship as distinguished from criticism, is also sadly at lack. What proof is offered that Shakespeare even read this obscure Roman grammarian? We must remember it was Ben Jonson’—he hesitated for a brief moment—’it was Ben Jonson himself, Shakespeare’s friend and contemporary, who said he had little Latin and less Greek. And certainly Jonson, who idolized Shakespeare this side of idolatry, did not impute to his great friend any lack. On the contrary, he wished to suggest, as do I, that the soaring lyricism of Shakespeare was not attributable to the burning of the midnight oil, but to a genius natural and supreme to rule and mundane law. Unlike lesser poets, Shakespeare was not born to blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air; partaking of that mysterious source to whence all poets go for their sustenance, what need had the immortal bard of such stultifying rules as are to be found in a mere grammar? What would Donatus be to him, even if he had read him? Genius, unique and a law unto itself, needs not the support of such a ‘tradition’ as has been described to us, whether it be generically Latin or Donatan or whatever. Genius, soaring and free, must …’

After he became used to his anger Stoner found a reluctant and perverse admiration stealing over him. However florid and imprecise, the man’s powers of rhetoric and invention were dismayingly impressive; and however grotesque, his presence was real. There was something cold and calculating and watchful in his eyes, something  needlessly reckless and yet desperately cautious. Stoner became aware that he was in the presence of a bluff so colossal and bold that he had no ready means of dealing with it.”

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Good Words from Bad People

“Quoting the good words of a bad author will never shame me.”
Numquam me in voce bona mali pudebit auctoris
Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 8

Every so often—and perhaps too frequently in some fields—in turns out that a scholar or artist of some renown is a terrible person. Sometimes, they are garden-variety racists masquerading as free speech warriors; sometimes they just might be international criminals, selling ancient objects they don’t own, and trading on their fame and institutions to manipulate others; and, in the worst of times, they are sexual predators, causing irreparable harm while hiding in plain sight.

When these things happen, academic fields face the same challenges we have seen in recent years in film, SFF fiction, and nearly every industry where fame is a commodity that brings power and the cover to abuse with near impunity. We try to cut out the cancer before it does any more damage, but the presence is there for good, in the body. The debate on the existence and merits of ‘cancel culture’ dances around the hard questions of why some people think they’re entitled to fame and why we do in fact have the right to deprive bad actors of financial gain.

But these questions don’t really talk about what happens afterwards. In her 2016 Eidolon piece “Making a Monster”, Sarah Scullin writes about the strange horror of the Holt Parker fiasco, when an author of some influence on ancient sexuality turned out to be a child pornographer, and trying to figure out the balance between cries for a damnatio memoriae and our disciplinary standards of citing work where citation is due.

I have struggled with this question during what seems to be, thanks to our ever restrictive interconnections, the golden age of public assholery. Certain high profile cases of longterm problems suing undergraduates and famous Geniuses stealing papyri have forced me to face the monsters in my bibliography, and the compromises in my acknowledgements. Should I erase the names of people who have broken bad from my forthcoming work? Should I publicly disavow those who helped me in the past?

People and what we make of them

I guess I ask this because, like Scullin in her article, I am not sure of the answer. I incline in part towards not changing a thing, for two reasons. I feel in part that footnotes and acknowledgements to bad men are a kind of disclosure, a owning of the truth that our field is populated by flawed humans like any other. It also attests to the hierarchy of patronage that is central to the academic enterprise. It is a rare person who can make their way in this world without help from someone more experienced and powerful. And, well, power corrupts in all forms. And, well, getting to the top of the academic ladder does not require being a good human being.

So I guess part of the problem is that our performative obeisance exposes us to a chain of associative kleos which, given the tides of time, can go dus- or eu-. But I am also interested in how much of our behavior is based on a static and deeply problematic view of human beings. It is hard for most of us to accept the degree to which persons and personalities are contextual and that in a culture such as ours so much of what we see as signs of character are reactive and transactive negotiations.

A proverb erroneously attributed to Aristotle, “a friend to all is a friend to none”, would seem to indicate that constancy in treatment from one person to another is some kind of a value. In truth, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of not making all the friends in the Nicomachean Ethics 1170e-1171b) where he does say that “people who have many friends and shout familiarly to everyone appear to be friends of no one” (οἱ δὲ πολύφιλοι καὶ πᾶσιν οἰκείως ἐντυγχάνοντες οὐδενὶ δοκοῦσιν εἶναι φίλοι) because Aristotle argues that one significant goal of friendship is the pleasure of sharing each other’s perception of existing and being good.

Is there anyone who is good or bad to everyone they encounter? Indeed, another proverb from ancient Greek—that justice is doing good to your friends and evil to your enemies—would argue the opposite. Why is it so hard for us to comprehend that someone who was kind to us individually was cruel—if not abusive and worse—to someone else? Part of the problem with our response to the fall of great idols is that our shock and surprise runs counter to what we should already know about human beings. We are not stock characters; we are not constant beings; we are, at best, thin veils of temporary will over conflicting insecurities and desire.

Now, I know that pseudo-Lacanian description will gall many, but I would relent only to say that we conflate the reputations we grant to people for work we appreciate or use with the person themself. We make a metonymic error in seeing the kindness done for an individual as a sign of the sum total of a person’s identity. We make people into things they are not and then suffer the paralysis of horror when they turn out to be something different.

 

Things and what we make of them

For me, this runs up, to, and alongside current conversations about cancel culture. I have written before about my reaction to J. K Rowling being a transphobic trainwreck doing to Hogwart’s what not even Voldemort could achieve. My solution is naively simple: separate the art from the artist. We made Rowling into someone who matters because the world she created matters to us.

Any model of reading and reception that persists in centering the author over the audience is, in my ever so humble opinion, a dangerous distraction from reality rooted in a stubbornly individualistic worldview, steeped partly in monotheism and partly in capitalism (on which, more later). A painting had to be made by someone, of course, but it relies on a syntax of space, color, story, and meaning within and against which the painter operates and whose existence is only completed by the viewer who shares some frames of reference. (And this leaves out the contribution of the laborers who made the canvas and paint, the partner who made the painter’s lunch, the friend who sparked an idea, the custodian who cleans so the painter can paint and so on and so on.)

Literary and academic products draw more on conventions and the contributions of groups, especially audiences, than the individual who brings them to shape in the world. As I talked about probably too much, my favorite metaphor for this from ancient Greece comes from Plato’s Ion, where Socrates explains that a rhapsode (like Ion) is merely one of a series of metal rings that translates the magnetic charge from the “magnet” (which is the Muse or divine power) through a poet, through the rhapsode, to an audience. The one thing I would change about this metaphor is to acknowledge that it is iterative and reflexive. The divine Muse is the sum total of a cultural consciousness, that nearly indescribable shared mind of a language and people particularized in one form of art at one time or another.

Ah, yes, what heady language for academic work! One of the great ironies about the work we do in academia, however, is that despite how collaborative it is, how much it depends on the work of prior scholars, current editors, students, friends and teachers, we mostly credit and prize the individual genius of the scholar who somehow manages to write it down. I tend to thank a lot of people in acknowledgements because I am deeply conscious of my own limitations as a thinker and of how much I have been prompted to think, write, and say by others.

There are different ways to talk about how our minds work with each other. From simple things like cognitive offloading—e.g. couples over time specializing in remembering somethings and not others, relying on each other—to more complex models of group minds and distributed cognition (language etc.), it is clear that not only is no man an island, but each of us is less like a leaf on a tree than a cell in a complex organism. We don’t sense it this way because this is just too big a thought for our limited brains. The human species-wide Dunning-Kruger effect just may be that our individual consciousnesses are for the most part too simple to apprehend how complex we are collectively.

But what if someone is really, really bad? Do we need to socially distance ourselves from bad ideas too?

Where do Ideas come from?

Later, in the same passage of the Ion where he describes the metaphor of a magnet offers as proof the case of Tynnichus, a terrible poet who composed a song everyone loves (Plato, Ion 534d-535a)

“The greatest proof of my argument is Tynnichus of Chalcis who never composed any poem worth remembering except for the paean everyone sings, nearly the most beautiful of all songs, a thing he himself calls “some discovery by the Muses”.

In this example, especially, the god seems to me to demonstrate to us so that there is no doubt, that these poems are not human nor by humans but divine and by the gods and, moreover, that poets aer nother other than interpreters of the gods, inspired in the way that each one is inspired. And the god demonstrated this by having the worst poet compose the finest song.

μέγιστον δὲ τεκμήριον τῷ λόγῳ Τύννιχος ὁ Χαλκιδεύς, ὃς ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν πώποτε ἐποίησε ποίημα ὅτου τις ἂν ἀξιώσειεν μνησθῆναι, τὸν δὲ παίωνα ὃν πάντες ᾁδουσι, σχεδόν τι πάντων μελῶν κάλλιστον, ἀτεχνῶς, ὅπερ αὐτὸς λέγει,

‘εὕρημά τι Μοισᾶν.’ ἐν τούτῳ γὰρ δὴ μάλιστά μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι ἡμῖν, ἵνα μὴ διστάζωμεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἀνθρώπινά ἐστιν τὰ καλὰ ταῦτα ποιήματα οὐδὲ ἀνθρώπων, ἀλλὰ θεῖα καὶ θεῶν, οἱ δὲ ποιηταὶ οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ ἑρμηνῆς εἰσιν τῶν θεῶν, κατεχόμενοι ἐξ ὅτου ἂν ἕκαστος κατέχηται. ταῦτα ἐνδεικνύμενος ὁ θεὸς ἐξεπίτηδες διὰ τοῦ φαυλοτάτου ποιητοῦ τὸ κάλλιστον μέλος ᾖσεν

Tynnichus was, in a way, an original one-hit wonder of ancient Greece. It can indeed make sense to wonder when someone creates a piece of art so impactful that its greatness is universally acknowledged why they fail to ever approach the same heights. We psychoanalyze the artist’s anxiety and fear of failure, that they are suddenly flame-throwing relievers who have lost the strike zone. But perhaps Socrates’ solution is simpler and more elegant. Tynnichus did not compose a great song again because he never composed it to begin with.

Where do great ideas come from? Our answer to this is almost always shaped by what we are already conditioned to look for. We gaze at the biographies of great men. We peer into their minds, looking for the difference that made them greater than others. But our gaze in many cases needs to look outward in time and space.

We give credit for inventions and innovations to individuals despite evidence to the contrary. There is good reason to lend credence to theories of multiple discovery or convergent evolution, showing that the intellectual background and shared conditions of a period can lead individuals like Newton and Leibniz to the same place (calculus!). Convergent evolution shows that similar solutions can develop for similar problems in similar circumstances without assigning genius to one place or another

And as my Brandeis colleague Aparna Baskaran explores in her work, complex systems that appear to have intelligence and intention (from cell movement to blocks of birds) can be explained by physics and mathematics as having neither. We impose agency and genius on the world because this is the way we see it.

 

Hit those Moneymakers?

“Simonides seems to have been the first to adapt money-making to songs and to compose his works for pay. This is what Pindar says deceptively in his second Isthmian: “For the Muse was not then greedy or out for hire.”
ὁ Σιμωνίδης δοκεῖ πρῶτος σμικρολογίαν εἰσενεγκεῖν εἰς τὰ ᾄσματα καὶ γράψαι ᾆσμα μισθοῦ. τοῦτο δὲ καὶ Πίνδαρος ἐν τοῖς Ἰσθμιονίκαις φησὶν αἰνιττόμενος·
. . . ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής πω τότ᾿ ἦν οὐδ᾿ ἐργάτις . . . (2. 6).
Scholiast on Aristophanes’ Peace 695-700

A few weeks ago, a few lines of a song by Micah P. Hinson floated into my head and I went to spotify and started listening. I had not listened to Hinson in years and had nearly forgotten about him. So, I started reading about what had happened to him and discovered pretty quickly that I found him to be quite the objectionable chap. Indeed, so objectionable that I felt uncomfortable using a streaming service to send a fraction of a penny to his bank account. But can we truly buy our way into virtue or out of vice?

One indication of the problem in academia is the way we cite work in most systems: author, date, page. It flattens everything about the process of ideamaking and credits an individual. But the meaning made from that citation has the author of the footnote to thank as well as all the unnamed people who contributed to those ideas. Works have lives far beyond the minds of their authors—imagine if children walked around named Christensen 2010 and Christensen 2011! But citing by article name instead of author would be just a way not talking about the problem

The impetus behind boycotting and de-platforming bad actors is to my mind a good one. It is about depriving harmful people of both the ability to cause further harm and to profit from their harmful action. The melodramatic overreaction to “cancel culture” is in part an entrenched power class’s fragility at being held accountable and in part a panic over what was assumed to be an limitless field of earning. (Although, to be fair, the mobbing part of such cancellation introduces new problems.)

The danger comes in the way we translate our social value into economic worth and how our models of remuneration, citation, and authorship are thoroughly commodified. This is easy for me to see in the proverb “give credit where credit is due,” a saying, perhaps coined by Samuel Adams in 1777 . That word credit from the Latin loan or debt (creditum), according to the OED came through French and Italian conveying both the sense of belief trust and the sense of a loan to be made based on belief and trust.

This overlap between an estimation of moral value and a valuation in financial terms is truly ancient, likely predating Alkaios who famously sings “Man is money—no one poor is noble or honored.” χρήματ᾿ ἄνηρ, πένιχρος δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ εἲς πέλετ᾿ ἔσλος οὐδὲ τιμίος (fr. 360). The conceptual metaphor between reputation and potential financial worth is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely question the logic of rich people deserving their riches. (When we know that great wealth cannot actually be acquired without theft and exploitation.)

Our laws and practices in artistic copyright, intellectual property, publication, patents and more are wholly shaped by the definition of ideas as commodity. Even in the humanities, lines of credit on CVs translate into higher paying jobs, higher wages, better positions. In a school like mine, a book published early in a career might yield no royalties, but the raise I receive of 5% of my salary compounded over 30 years of a career can translate into significant wealth. Our lives (Greek, bioi) are shaped by the translation of our activity into livelihood. And this is one of the most pernicious elisions in our language: the worth of a life in nothing but the value of its work.

To what degree is citing or not citing someone we (or others) find reprehensible about deferred credit, about anxiety over the devaluation of our own esteem. In this, perhaps, is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our ‘products’ in the risk that others bring us.

“Canceling” a terrible person targets cultural esteem and in many cases may harm them economically. (Although, I think that for someone like Rowling, her income growth will turn merely incremental from exponential.) Because I think poets are not wholly responsible for their poems, I can enjoy the verse of a bad person. But I don’t want to pay for it.

But if citation and mention translates into esteem, what does it mean to talk about the good works of bad people in public? What does it mean to cite the useful article of the shitbird academic? My first answer—to be honest about the field that makes us all complicit in propping up petty and nasty people—does not stand up well to the danger that an unmarked acknowledgment now may translate into future benefit for the person whose work I don’t despise.

 

Everything’s Coming Up Solon

“People have an ancient famous proverb:
That you should not judge any mortal lives
You can’t see them as good or bad before someone dies
Λόγος μὲν ἔστ᾿ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανεὶς
ὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾿ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶν, πρὶν ἂν
θάνῃ τις, οὔτ᾿ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾿ εἴ τῳ κακός·
Sophocles, Trachinae 1-3

Some of us like to think that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but instead, I think we’re really talking about a sphere giving in to entropy. Most things get worse, or at least get to be less of what they were, over time. The likelihood of someone you know upsetting or disappointing you overtime is non-negligible. That’s because none of us are consistently anything except for alive, until we’re not.

In the same essay where he declares himself immune to shame over quoting good words from bad authors, Seneca quotes from Publilius Syrus that “whatever can happen to someone else can also happen to you” (cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest, De Tranq. 9). This line is part of an anti-hubris “check yourself before you wreck yourself” ethic, but it also reminds me of Herodotus’ Solon, who warned Croseus not to count a man as lucky before his days have ended

If you live a thoroughly wretched life but your last day is good, does that mean people to come can call you happy, Solon? And if you do mostly good, but have a really bad day, does that undo the good? And can we even manage to think about whether Solon’s notion is about pleasure at your own good and not actually doing good for other people? Clearly, this is not the place to answer this, but it seems likely that at the end of every person’s life we hear something like, “Indeed, Socrates, after all this talk, I guess we still don’t know what happiness is.”

One peril of admiring (or citing) anyone is that over a lifetime we’re all pretty much certain to disappoint. I like to think that Solon’s logic also contains the corollary that if life can turn out badly at the last moment, it can also turn out well. To believe in the possibility of education one must believe that people have the capacity to change. So, perhaps the bad words of a good author will improve and a bad author might turn out to be a better person some day.

But then we are back to the pageantry of withhdrawal and return, of wondering if someone has reformed truly or is merely back in disguise for more lines of credit. What are our limits on forgiveness? How much do we believe in personal growth? Separating the work from the life and the person from work may help liberate us all. And then we can get back to the hard work of living together and understanding ourselves.

 

Go here for a scholarly debrief on footnote practices.

 

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Quentin Matsys Allegory of Folly

Thick Minerva

Erasmus, Adagia 1.37:

WITH A THICK MINERVA. WITH A FAT MINERVA. WITH A THICKER MUSE.

Minerva, according to the stories of poets, presides over arts and minds. From this came the phrase: Minerva unwilling. Beyond that, there was also the phrase with a fat or with a thick Minerva, which is indeed sometimes granted the solemn honor of being treated as a proverb. Columella, in the first chapter of his twelfth book of On Rural Matters, writes,

In this study of the country, however, scrupulosity of that sort is not examined, but as it is said, as long as he has a fat Minerva, a useful presage of a future storm will fall to the overseer.

Similarly, in the preface of the first book:

For agricultural matters can be administered neither by the subtlest nor on the other hand, as they say, by a fat Minerva.

And again, he also writes in the tenth book:

Nor is the subtlety of Hipparchus necessary to what they call the more fertile letters of rustic people.

That is said to occur with a fatter Minerva which occurs with less order, and with more simplicity, as if with less learning, and not with refined or exceptionally exacting care. Thus, when that Priapus, asks with naked words, though he could have sought it more urbanely through verbal convolutions, he says, ‘My Minerva is thick.’ And Horace, describing a philosopher instructed not in those precise reasonings and subtleties of the Stoics, but as if, without any art, expressing his philosophy according to his custom, and not so much learned as simple and sincere, says,

A rustic, irregularly wise and with a thick Minerva.

Aulus Gellius, in Attic Nights 14.1, writes,

Nevertheless, it was his opinion that in no way could that be comprehended and understood by however brilliant a human mind in such a brief and exiguous space of life, but that some few things were subject to mere conjecture and, if I may use his phrase, with a παχτερον,

that is, more thickly and with a fat Minerva[1].

RR-107-Rembrandt_van_Rijn-Minerva_in_Her_Study
Manuth, Volker. “Minerva in Her Study” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 3rd ed.

1.37

CRASSA MINERVA. PINGVI MINERVA. CRASSIORE MVSA

Minerua iuxta poetarum fabulas artibus atque ingeniis praesidet. Vnde et illud fluxit: Inuita Minerua. Praeterea illud Pingui seu crassa Minerua, quod quidem iam olim prouerbii vice celebratur. Columella libro De re

rustica duodecimo, capite primo.

In hac autem, inquit, ruris disciplina non consideratur eiusmodi scrupulositas, sed quod dicitur, pingui Minerua, quantumuis vtile continget villico tempestatis futurae praesagium.

Idem in primi libri praefatione:

Potest enim nec subtilissima nec rursum, quod aiunt, pingui Minerua res agrestis administrari.

Idem libro decimo:

Nec tamen Hipparci subtilitas pinguioribus, vt aiunt, rusticorum literis necessaria est.

Dicitur pinguiore Minerua fieri, quod inconditius simpliciusque quasique indoctius fit, non autem exquisita arte nec exactissima cura. Vnde et Priapus ille, cum rem obscoenam, quam poterat vrbanius per inuolucra verborum petere, nudis verbis rogat, Crassa, inquit, Minerua mea est. Et Horatius philosophum describens non exactis illis Stoicorum rationibus atque argutiis instructum, sed veluti citra artem philosophiam moribus exprimentem neque tam disertum quam simplicem ac syncerum,

Rusticus, inquit, anormis sapiens crassaque Minerua.

Aulus Gellius lib. xiiii., cap. i.:

Nequaquam tamen id censebat in tam breui exiguoque vitae spatio, quantouis hominis ingenio comprehendi posse et percipi, sed coniectari pauca quaedam et, vt verbo ipsius vtar, παχτερον, id est crassius et pingui Minerua.

 

[1] Erasmus is stretching the application of this excerpt.

On Reading Homer

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I responded to a mostly online fandango about Oxford no longer requiring Classics majors to read Homer with a cleverly titled post On Not Reading Homer At the time, some takes justifiably interpreted it aselitist while others eventually straw-manned it as a super PC Homerist cancelling Homer. In the middle, some people asked to hear more. And then the world went to hell.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have not always talked about my discipline in the kindest fashion. But under the combined force of an era-defining pandemic and the largest political movementin our lifetimes protesting white supremacy and the state-managed killing of Black people, it felt simultaneously small and yet urgent to think about Homer.

Why read Homer if the world is coming to an end? Why teach Homer if the Homeric epics have been instrumentalized as part of colonialism and white supremacy? These are not idle questions. They are the questions that need to be answered if the discipline of Classics to continue in any form at all.

I expressed some of these views early on and was, again rightly, criticized for inserting such navel gazing was taking space away from BIPOC classicists. In the meantime, I have been thinking and working at my own institution (virtually) with Homer always somewhere near. There will never be a time when my voice, embodied as it is in the privilege and experience I bring with me, does not drown out others. I feel a responsibility to think about this and use the space I have to advocate for the change I can. As a Homerist, even if I am not one of great renown, I think it is my duty to think and write critically about my field and to help make space for others.

Why read Homer? I think I made clear some feelings about why reading Homer badly is counterproductive. This may be a surprise, but I do think there is a good reason to read Homer. First, let us get through the reasons people typical give I find disagreeable. I have listed them in my opinion of silliest to most serious. Let me be clear: I think that there is some truth and utility to each of these, but there are challenges too.

Homer by Mattia Preti (1635)

Entertainment: The epics are good stories! This argument is related in part to the aesthetics of literature (although the pleasure of a good yarn is different from the aesthetics I talk about below). Sure, the epics can be riveting, but there are parts that even seasoned readers can find challenging: for example Iliad 13-15, Odyssey 2-4 and 12-16. I suspect that many people who make this argument have not had the challenge of leading students through a whole epic from beginning to end. I also think that many people who make this argument may have not read the epics in their entirety. (P.S. it is perfectly ok to read excerpts).

Homer is historical: I just can’t get on this train. The Homeric epics are no more historical than Arthurian legend. They can give us ideas about the values of the historical peoples who formed their audiences, but even this is not simple: which version of Homer and which audiences at which time radically challenge anything we can say. My favorite formulation about what Homer is vis a vis history belongs to Hans Van Wees who calls the Iliad a “fantasy of the past” (Status Warriors, 1992). Anyone reading this who believes there was an actual Trojan War in some way corresponding to the events of our Iliad will be sorely disappointed by my stance.

As far as I can see it, from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations to more recent excitement about Hittite names, the importance placed on historical correspondence is almost entirely due to the interest and enthusiasm of the interpreter who desires to make a positivistic identification between some mythical past and material remains. This is not to say that the Homeric epics can’t be useful in talking about the past, but that they have been used almost exclusively to see Ancient Greece in a particular way and have been an obstacle for this reason. Trevor Bryce’s work (e.g. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend? “Near Eastern Archaeology 2002, 65: 182-195) has marshaled a lot of the evidence, concluding in part that even if there is some historical ‘truth’, the creative work of the poems far exceeds and surpasses it (and Bryce is one who relies on the idea of a genius poet). Anyone familiar with the fine work of H. L. Lorimer a half century earlier would reach a similar, even bleaker confusion (Homer and the Monuments, 1950).

 

“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor” Thomas Paine

Sculpture of Homer (1886) by Harry Bates, ARA.

It was most excellently set down that a student’s reading should begin with Homer and Vergil, even though one needs a firmer judgment for understanding the virtues of those poets, for there will be time to develop it, since they will not be read just onceQuintilian

Noble Values: Read Homer for the heroes? They are a bunch of amoral shitbags. Perhaps we can learn by reading Homer that oftentimes the people in positions of power are there because they are in it for themselves and they don’t care if all of their people perish. Read the epics: Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Paris, Odysseus all make choices that increase the death toll of their people without increasing their chance of success. One of the real strengths of epic is what I will call below its indeterminacy. The problem with texts of indeterminant meaning is that audiences will disambiguate complexity and choose to take away simply recognizable or facile lessons.

In one of our most famous early responses to myth and Homeric poetry, Plato has his Socrates banish tales of civil strife, children punishing parents, and gods warring with one another. Such tales, Socrates continues, “should not be allowed into the state, even if they were composed with secret meeting or without secret meaning. For a young person is incapable of judging what is allegorical meaning and what is not, but whatever opinions they take up during their young are hard to rinse off and tend to become unchangeable (ὅσας  Ὅμηρος πεποίηκεν οὐ παραδεκτέον εἰς τὴν πόλιν, οὔτ’ ἐν ὑπονοίαις πεποιημένας οὔτε ἄνευ ὑπονοιῶν. Ὁ γὰρ νέος οὐχ οἷός τε κρίνειν ὅτι τε ὑπόνοια καὶ ὃ μή, ἀλλ’ ἃ ἂν τηλικοῦτος ὢν λάβῃ ἐν ταῖς δόξαις δυσέκνιπτά τε καὶ ἀμετάστατα φιλεῖ γίγνεσθαι, Republic 378d-e).

Any sense of this passage must take the purpose of the Republic into consideration: Socrates apostrophizes Homer and asks, “What city was governed better thanks to you?” (λέγε ἡμῖν τίς τῶν πόλεων διὰ σὲ βέλτιον ᾤκησεν, 599e). For the Republic’s Socrates, Homer cannot provide instruction for governing a city any more than he can instill proper morals and opinions in individuals. But this is because, according to Plato, people don’t understand Homeric hyponoia, literally something like “sub-meaning, under-meaning, secret meaning”, translated cleverly in the most recent Loeb edition as simply “deeper meaning” (replacing the older allegorical).

Even today, we often find people claiming that reading the epic can give readers good values. Homer can teach you to be loyal, manly, brave, etc.! The problem with literary exemplification like this is that good examples come with counter-examples and it is often hard to tell the difference. Further, any praising of Homeric epics for positive values needs to acknowledge that they are filled with horror and danger too from Agamemnon’s greed to Odysseus’ murderous vengeance. (In addition, this does not even include the deep structural problems of gender and class.) This is at best a naïve approach to literature: most readers project values onto a text and select what they want to see (or what they avidly don’t want to see). As with most of these points, this argument suffers from a limited sense of what ‘reading’ is and how it works.

The noble values also work the other way. Many have been justifiably moved by Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, written in Nazi-occupied France. She reads the poem with “force” as the “true subject” and moves that the Iliad may be a “historical document” illustrating “force….at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” Perhaps, intentionally or not, Weil channels Aristotle’s attribution in the Rhetoric that “Alcidamas called the Odyssey a fine mirror for human life”. I do not disagree with Weil about Homer—indeed; this influential essay has done more to show Homer’s depth than much of Homeric scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that Weil’s context and experience trained her gaze in a particular way. See this passage from the end of the essay:

Weil bit

While I almost giddily agree with Weil’s sentiment on Vergil, I think her take on the Odyssey is less generous and shaped by her identity and the moment of writing. How much sense can an epic of return, survival, and renewed life make when German tanks are rolling down your city’s streets? In a way, Weil’s comments on the Iliad as a mirror for human life also reflect how interpretation works. The way we read a work is a reflection of who we are and what we bring to it.

In the smartest thing in all the Star Wars movies (ok, maybe the only smart thing), the Empire Strikes Back brings us a Luke Skywalker in training, lured into a cave on Dagobah where Yoda tells him the tree is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A servant of evil it is. Into it you must go”. To Luke’s question, “what’s in there”, the Jedi Master responds, “Only what you take with you.” The subsequent scene has Luke taking his light saber in with him and facing an ersatz Darth Vader who turns out to be….himself.

The Homeric poems are powerful shapers of perception, but in the end, they contain so much that we come away from them with very different notions of the poem. The Iliad is about force, but it is also about scarcity, anger, desire, love, loyalty and how people value one another. Moreover, it is a prolonged contemplation on when we choose to use force as opposed to when we have to. To pull one melody out of a multi-day symphony is to block out the  majority of the composition as mere sound. We each hear our own Iliad and even these changes over time.

“You want a horse race? There is a fine one in Homer. Go get your book and read through it. You hear them talking about dancing pantomimes? Forget them! The children dance in a more manly way among the Phaiakians. You have there the citharist Phemios and the singer Demodokos. There are plants in Homer which are more delightful to hear of than to see.” Julian

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) – Homer Reciting his Poems

Aesthetics: I have argued elsewhere that an approach to literature and art with a primary focus on aesthetics can be corrupting in encouraging us to think about things and peoples as aesthetic objects too. Our pursuit of pleasure too often neglects to consider how we as interpreters and agents were shaped to experience pleasure by our cultural context.

Now, as someone thoroughly drawn to Epicurus, I cannot say that aesthetics and pleasure are not important, but that that they are symptomatic of both effective works and those that appeal to our weaknesses. There is a circuitous and replicative process in the aesthetic process that enforces traditional normative ideals and dis-incentivizes meaningful change. Therefore, when people say they love the beauty of Homer, I worry that they are selecting and privileging parts of Homer that have been culturally marked as attractive and have shaped their expectations for literature.

 

“Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up,” Robert Burton

Canon: Advocates often imagine that the strongest argument for Homer is that Homer was influential in the “Western Canon” and that you need to be familiar with Homer to appreciate and understand everything that came after. I think that this argument sounds nice, but it overstates the existence of the “Western Canon” (which is relatively recent), ignores the motivations for enforcing it, and radically misunderstands the impact of Homeric epic in the development of European literatures. If one is studying the history of ideas (especially the history of the idea of literature and canons) this “argument” is a good question as a starting point (I.e., how influential was Homer actually on European literatures?) but it is deeply insufficient for building a curriculum.

It is not that Homer was not and has not been important, but that the idea of Homer was far more influential than the epics in their entirety. For most of the history of the reception of the epics, they were read in summary or in part. For most of the history of education in the west, they would be mined for rhetorical excerpts. I think that relatively few readers in the ancient world had access to full texts and that when people talk about Homer in the ancient world we are really mostly talking about the sum total influence of Trojan War narratives and Greek myth on the development of culture and literature. In this category, a myth handbook like that of Apollodorus or Hyginus or the epics of Ovid and Vergil have been much more directly influential on later authors and tradition. The fact is, outside of the Byzantine Empire, Homer was not read that much in Northern and Western Europe prior to German Philhellenism, a period in which Northern philologists did everything they could to try to discredit, ignore, and de-center continuity and authority in Greek culture.

 

And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Universalism:  I will not easily dismiss the assertion that the Homeric epics reflect and advance essential ‘truths’ or visions about what it means to be human. I do have structural and intellectual quibbles with this approach, however. First, I wonder about the universal humanistic appeal of a text that denies full humanity to a majority of the human race (all those who are not aristocratic men). This leads into my deeper concern, namely that appeals to universalism can appeal easily to observer effects and selection bias. Whose view of humanity is assumed universal in this approach? Who counts as human in the world projected and received?

Further, I think that universalism assumes a unitary or singular point of view. If this argument is that the Homeric texts are polyvalent and reflect the pluralism of human experience in a multicultural and changing environment, then I can agree. Nevertheless, I think that this is not what people mean. Instead, universalism is too often a series of general bromides ignoring detail and saying more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter than anything about the text.

 

“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.” Leonardo Bruni 

Homer is unique and different! This assertion introduces some inextricable problems about defining difference. In some forms, I find this argument somewhat convincing but probably not in the same way that many others do. I think that the polyvocal, oral-derived, multilocal background of the Homeric epics renders their tone, perspective, language, and impact both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything I have ever read. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be teleological: ‘Homer’ is positioned as a unitary and foundational genius whose DNA has spread majestically throughout the artwork of later generations.

The difference between what we actually have in the Homeric epics and what we find in later generations can help us unlearn what we think we know about literary traditions. This argument makes me nervous in general because it runs the risk of merely repeating the damaging “Greek Miracle” nonsense. But it is also an argumentum ex silentio. I don’t know that other works we lost were any less unique and different.

I think we are also conditioned by the tradition and our received aesthetics to see unique difference here only and not to look for it or see it in traditional poetry elsewhere, the epics of India, the philosophy and poetry of China and oral traditions in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the Homeric epics developed through and because of the Rationalizing Revolution and contributed to it in turn. I will return to this more below, but my point is that history and cultural context were formative in the epics’ development. And, in turn, they contributed to a shifting in the cultures that hosted them.

While I don’t agree with all he says about Homer, Adam Nicolson puts it well when he summarized Homer as “Multiple in origins, multiple in manner and multiple in meaning, Homer in this light both knows the deep past and moves beyond it (2014, Why Homer Matters).

 

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.” George Bernard Shaw

Why read Homer? 1: Homer is Multivocal and Multicultural

The biggest problem with what most people say about Homer is that it is based on a ‘modern’ view of Homer that projects upon the past post-Christian and post-Renaissance notions of authorship, genius, and identity on a past tradition. This is probably not the best place and time to talk about what Homer is, but it is worth a few sentences to say what Homer isn’t.

Homer was not an individual who wrote two epics. The epics we have are the process of a long period of formation in different linguistic groups over different regions over a long time in a performance context in which audience participation and response was significant in shaping the contents, interests, and tones of the poems. I think two good places to start reading about this are Nagy’s Homer’s Text and Language, Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics, and Graeme Bird’s Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad.

The poems we have, moreover, reached the shapes we have during a period when the people who told their stories were engaged with the local pluri-vocality of their own amalgam culture and the multicultural influence of the migratory and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. The ritual, religious, linguistic, narrative, and artistic traditions of Archaic Greece were indisputably influence by Ancient Africa (including but not exclusively Egypt) and the Ancient Near East. They were also likely influenced by innumerable lost stories and languages of cultures from around the Mediterranean who stories have been lost to time.

In addition, the epics came much closer to the form we have them during the period we call the ‘Rationalizing Revolution’ which was defined by philosophers/scientists coming from the Greek states of Asia Minor and moving west under political pressure (Persian expansion?). It was no accident that these thinkers hailed for so long as originating geniuses came out of cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: where do we think they got their ideas from?

We too often treat Homer as being suddenly ex novo and sui generis. Instead, the Homeric epics we have come at the end of a long process of differentiation and integration. They are unique insofar as they were uniquely successful in surviving the past. Accepting them as standard is falling into the trap epic sets for us: part of epic style is to assume its own supremacy and superiority. We know from mythography, that Homeric detail is often out there on its own and in service of its own ends. (Elton Barker and I talk a lot about this and how to interpret Homer in our recent Homer’s Thebes.)

 

“If the works of Homer are, to letters and to human learning, what the early books of Scripture are to the entire Bible and to the spiritual life of man; if in them lie the beginnings of the intellectual life of the world, then we must still recollect that that life, to be rightly understood, should be studied in its beginnings. There we may see in simple forms what afterwards grew complex, and in clear light what afterwards became obscure; and there we obtain starting-points, from which to measure progress and decay along all the lines upon which our nature moves.” William Gladstone

Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796) – Homer Crowned as Poet Laureate

Why Read Homer 2: Transformation  

There’s a lot more to say and there’s not a Homerist alive who won’t take issue with the way I have framed some of this. The real reason I think people should read Homer is that the process of doing so—especially with other people—is transformative. How and why this transformation happens is a little involved, so I am about to get really annoying. But, to put it simply, Homeric epic refuses to give its audiences simple answers and forces us to think deeply, if we do it right.

Again, to Nicolson: he concludes that Homer matters…”because Homer…understands what mortals do not….That is his value a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority” (2014, 244). I think that this is partly right, that the epics hold out the Siren call of knowledge, but that there is something much more important here. Homer offers up a mirror to life for us to inspect but it is a fragmented funhouse mirror in a nightmare.

We get partial pieces of information about greatness and loss about nobility and ugliness and are repeatedly told nothing about which paths we should choose. Again, Nicolson is right that Homer “provides no answers” but his closing recourse to poetic rhetorical questions misses the opportunity to articulate the significance both of why Homer provides no answers and of how the origins of Homeric poetry make it necessary for the poems to be this way. The Homeric epics are dialogic and aporetic and in these functions they teach us not what to do but how to think about what we do as communities.

Before I talk about the poems as dialogues and proto-philosophical experiences leading to states of aporia, let me just return to their origins for a moment. I think that the sophisticated, even therapeutic nature, of the poems is likely a historical accident of the demands of the performance context rather than some testament to the genius of the poems. In this, I do not deny the impression of genius or the magnitude of these epics’ monumental impact over time, but rather that their character was a product of environment rather than intention (an argument for a different space, I believe).

Homeric poetry is what others have already called dialogic, as Anna Bonifazi describes dialogism, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis, is when texts show a “a multiplicity and stratification of voices” or, to use Bakhtin’s words, a “plurality of consciousnesses” ( Bakhtin 1984:81). Homeric poetry, as Egbert Bakker has described it is intensely dialogic because of its development over time in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences over time (2006b). In addition, some of my favorite modern scholars who write on Homer like John Peradotto  (who also calls it heteroglossia, 1990, 53-58) foreground the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dialogism. This is part of what makes Homeric poetry feels different: it channels untold numbers of voices for an equally unknown number of ears.

Such characteristics make it necessary that Homeric poetry will show empathy and understanding to multiple perspectives while refusing to take sides or give clear answers. Earlier literary theorists like William Empson struggled to describe the power of ambiguity or what someone else might call indeterminacy as the most potent of poetic forces. Whereas modern theorists debate the source of indeterminacy in reception or creation (i.e. is it authorially intended or created in reader response), Homeric indeterminacy is part of the poetic tradition from the level of utterance all the way through structure.

Now, I just mixed and rendered equivalent three terms that many literary theorists would prefer to keep separate: dialogism, the quality of multivocality in a text; ambiguity, when a text can have multiple meanings at once; and indeterminacy, when multiplicity of meaning cannot be disambiguated even to certain options. Rather than seeing these descriptions as overlapping, I think they help to identify different ways in which the multiplicity of Homeric meaning can translate into polysemy, multiple meanings at different times and for different audiences. As with the example of Simone Weil above, we bring our own experiences and eras to bear on the epics; but we as interpreters can also change while reading, because of reading, or over time when we return to a poem with new life experience.

In addition, the multi-vocal nature of the epics helps us to understand that despite their structural misogyny, classism, and latent justification for slavery, they still offer moments of deep empathy and understanding for those out of power: Andromache’s speeches about her son; similes about men struggling over scarce land; the almost lost image of the mill-working enslaved woman, desperate and exhausted. Eumaios is apostrophized by the narrator to a similar effect—just as the Homeric epics stand apart from most other war narratives in expecting their audiences to see the shared humanity of the Trojans, so too are they deeply sensitive to different positions in life.

The danger of this is its very intoxication, however. Andromache’s lamentations distract from the silence of all the other Trojan women; Eumaios’ valorization obscures his suffering and total surrender of agency; and the mill-woman’s prayer recenters Odysseus’ vengeance and leaves us wondering if despite all her trials, she still might be one of the women brutally hanged after cleaning up their dead lovers’ corpses.

But the different types of polysemy I mention above also help to produce what I think is one of the most important functions of Homeric poetry, the creation of aporia. Most people who know what aporia is will associate it with the early Platonic dialogues. Aporia—literally, “pathlessness”—is that state reached after the end of a dialogue like the Lysis when Socrates announces that despite their philosophical turnings they still do not know what friendship is. Such a moment emphasizes process over product and directs the audience to go back to the beginning and think the whole thing through again.

From inconsistent similes to debated omens, to interpretive crises like the split assembly and the amnesty at the end of the Odyssey the epics do not only fail to provide us with easy answers, but they produce the conditions for nearly endless debate. Not an interpretation of the epics in two thousand years has decisively argued for Agamemnon or Achilles in Iliad 1; no one has as yet fully unpacked the meaning of the meal shared by Priam and Achilles and the latter’s strange tale of Niobe taking a break from mourning to eat. Will any conversation convince us Odysseus is superior to Achilles or vice versa? Will any group ever agree over the ethics of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors and his failure to bring his companions home? As Mark Buchan argues in The Limits of Heroism, “…these disasters offer us an invitation to rethink the kind of unreflective assumptions that produced them” (2004, 4).

Homeric epic, like Platonic dialogue, invites its audiences to follow the folly and success of its characters and then to retrace them, to come to a deeper understanding of the conditions that put them in the position to fail. For Platonic dialogue, Laura Candiotto (2015) has argued that the state of aporia itself is transformative, that it forces us to “imagine an otherness” (242) but that this process requires shared or collective emotional and intellectual work. The shared work of interpreting epic with its characters is a kind of extended mind over time. When we read them and discuss them with others, we engage in the transformative process of creating community around the interrogation of the self.

Now, I would be so bold as to say that this last step is possible with many different kinds of art and narrative traditions—the importance of community and group minds in interpretation and the creation of meaning is almost always underappreciated, especially in an aesthetic paradigm that privileges the author as a divine creator and prizes some interpreters as having exclusive access to that providential mind. What makes Homer different from reading Game of Thrones together or spending semesters contemplating Marcel Proust’s associative sense of smell is the depth of interpretive traditions to add to the complexity of the community of meaning and the nature of epic poetry itself. Homeric ambiguity, interdeterminacy, and dialogism provide a capaciousness of time rare in any art form and the essential, irrefutable absence of the author provides the opportunity to think and rethink without that devils’ trap of authorial intention.

The act of judgment is central to epic poetry from lexical through thematic levels. Homeric poetry provides many clues that it privileges the act of interpretation over all else. In addition to the stories, omens, and similes left unexplained throughout both epics, the Iliad presents a fascinating study on the surface of Achilles’ shield:

Homer Il. 18.496-508

“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

Here, we find two parties arguing over an act of interpretation. The reward set out for either side does not go to the combatants but to the interpreters themselves: there is a prize dedicated to whoever can present the most just judgment for the aggrieved parties. The frozen moment of the shield, however, can no more resolve what the best judgement is any more than the poem can decisively tell us to prefer Agamemnon over Achilles in book 1 or whether the suitors’ families were ultimately better off in not trying to kill Odysseus in the final book of his epic. (And there are historical parallels from the Ancient Greek world for privileging judges and interpretation from West Lokris and Chios). The shield anticipates a world of conflict and judgment where people use their intelligence and their shared community to navigate their challenges through interpretation and deliberation.

 

Why Read Homer 3: Allegory

If I dismissed traditions of reading Homer earlier, I did so because the way we read Homer in schools—for facts of the story, for models to apply to later texts, for pleasure—is a recent departure from ancient traditions that beyond the moralizing of Plato saw in the Homeric epics opportunities for enlightenment. And, again, I apologize for the likely alienating tour through some theoretical terms and bibliographies above, but my journey to these conclusions has come from despising Homer in high school to dedicating now half of my life to figure out why I respond so deeply to Homer in Greek.

As Robert Lamberton argues in his 1986 Homer the Theologian complexity and opacity of meaning were assumed by ancient audiences and critics. Before Plato took on Homer by taking him out of the Republic, Pythagoreans saw allegory for the body and soul in the Iliad and Odyssey and contributed to interpretive traditions that extended well into the Christian era.

Our literalist and formalist approaches hail back to the scholarly pursuits of Alexandrians (and Hellenistic philologists) who worked in establish authoritative texts. Their insistence on establishing authority stood opposed by the later “Porphyry’s assertion of the existence of numerous valid possibilities in the interpretation of a single text ”…which was by no means evidence of a lack of clearly defined principles of interpretation, but rather a logical consequence of Neoplatonic psychology and epistemology” (Lamberton 1986, 127).

Ancient interpreters who pursued this could be quite adventurous as when Porphyry—as recorded by Stobaeus (i. 44. 60)—explains that the events of book 10 centering around Kirkê are really a coded message about reincarnation and the way the soul’s rebirth in corporeal form is dictated by its relationship to its desires—its ability to balance the rational (to logistikon), the emotional (thumoeides) and physical (or appetitive) desires (epithumêtikon). In this reading, these parts (ta merê) of the soul may be governed—or at least ameliorated—by education and philosophy. For Heraclitus the allegorist, Odysseus’ entire journey was an allegory for our navigation through virtue and vice, a metaphor the Neoplatonist Proclus echoes. The Homeric scholia are filled with records of allegorical meanings and an ancient tradition makes even Paris’ between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite an allegory about human lack of self-control (Lamberton 1986, 2; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42).

My point in going through this even in brief is that there are ancient traditions of Homeric interpretation which find deep, ethical, psychological, and even mystical meaning in the texts. Classical studies of recent centuries has tended back to what Seneca the Younger calls “that sickness of the Greeks” (Graecorum iste morbus, Brevitate Vitae 13) to focus on pedantic detail over and above a greater search for meaning, seeking in desperation for “Homer’s homeland” (Moral Epistle 88), striving not to “nourish our soul but to sharpen our wit” (ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium, EM. 108). Even Cicero asks “what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?” (ed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος? Ep. To Atticus 12.6)

It is fine to read Homer in translation, in summary, or in excerpt. It is fine to read Homer out of curiosity about peoples in the past, to understand the history of our ideas about literature, to think about claims of universal humanism or that literature can give us values and ennoble us. Whatever brings you to Homer, the reason I think you should read the Iliad or the Odyssey is to be transformed by powerful narratives that seek to make you try to understand more of the universe inside and through yourself. I dare say you may not even require teachers to do this, but it does help to have friends to read with you.

Homer Spews, We Lick

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Preface):

What a company of poets hath this year brought out, as Pliny complains to Sossius Sinesius. This April every day some or other have recited. What a catalogue of new books all this year, all this age (I say), have our Frankfort Marts, our domestic Marts brought out? Twice a year, Proferunt se nova ingenia et ostentant, we stretch our wits out, and set them to sale, magno conatu nihil agimus. So that which Gesner much desires, if a speedy reformation be not had, by some prince’s edicts and grave supervisors, to restrain this liberty, it will run on in infinitum. Quis tam avidus librorum helluo, who can read them?

As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number, nos numerus sumus, (we are mere ciphers): I do not deny it, I have only this of Macrobius to say for myself, Omne meum, nihil meum, ’tis all mine, and none mine. As a good housewife out of divers fleeces weaves one piece of cloth, a bee gathers wax and honey out of many flowers, and makes a new bundle of all, Floriferis ut apes in saltibus omnia libant, I have laboriously collected this cento out of divers writers, and that sine injuria, I have wronged no authors, but given every man his own; which Hierom so much commends in Nepotian; he stole not whole verses, pages, tracts, as some do nowadays, concealing their authors’ names, but still said this was Cyprian’s, that Lactantius, that Hilarius, so said Minutius Felix, so Victorinus, thus far Arnobius: I cite and quote mine authors (which, howsoever some illiterate scribblers account pedantical, as a cloak of ignorance, and opposite to their affected fine style, I must and will use) sumpsi, non suripui; and what Varro, lib. 6. de re rust. speaks of bees, minime maleficae nullius opus vellicantes faciunt delerius, I can say of myself, Whom have I injured?

The matter is theirs most part, and yet mine, apparet unde sumptum sit (which Seneca approves), aliud tamen quam unde sumptum sit apparet, which nature doth with the aliment of our bodies incorporate, digest, assimilate, I do concoquere quod hausi, dispose of what I take. I make them pay tribute, to set out this my Maceronicon, the method only is mine own, I must usurp that of Wecker e Ter. nihil dictum quod non dictum prius, methodus sola artificem ostendit, we can say nothing but what hath been said, the composition and method is ours only, and shows a scholar. Oribasius, Aesius, Avicenna, have all out of Galen, but to their own method, diverso stilo, non diversa fide. Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up. Divines use Austin’s words verbatim still, and our story-dressers do as much; he that comes last is commonly best,

———donec quid grandius aetas
Postera sorsque ferat melior.———

Though there were many giants of old in physic and philosophy, yet I say with Didacus Stella, A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself; I may likely add, alter, and see farther than my predecessors; and it is no greater prejudice for me to indite after others, than for Aelianus Montaltus, that famous physician, to write de morbis capitis after Jason Pratensis, Heurnius, Hildesheim, &c., many horses to run in a race, one logician, one rhetorician, after another.

Robert Burton (scholar) - Wikipedia

A Mere Scholar, A Mere Ass

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 1.2.3:

“Hear Tully pro Archia Poeta: whilst others loitered, and took their pleasures, he was continually at his book, so they do that will be scholars, and that to the hazard (I say) of their healths, fortunes, wits, and lives. How much did Aristotle and Ptolemy spend? unius regni precium they say, more than a king’s ransom; how many crowns per annum, to perfect arts, the one about his History of Creatures, the other on his Almagest? How much time did Thebet Benchorat employ, to find out the motion of the eighth sphere? forty years and more, some write: how many poor scholars have lost their wits, or become dizzards, neglecting all worldly affairs and their own health, wealth, esse and bene esse, to gain knowledge for which, after all their pains, in this world’s esteem they are accounted ridiculous and silly fools, idiots, asses, and (as oft they are) rejected, contemned, derided, doting, and mad. Look for examples in Hildesheim spicel. 2, de mania et delirio: read Trincavellius, l. 3. consil. 36, et c. 17. Montanus, consil. 233. Garceus de Judic. genit. cap. 33. Mercurialis, consil. 86, cap. 25. Prosper Calenius in his Book de atra bile; Go to Bedlam and ask. Or if they keep their wits, yet they are esteemed scrubs and fools by reason of their carriage: after seven years’ study

———statua, taciturnius exit,
Plerumque et risum populi quatit.———

He becomes more silent than a statue, and generally excites people’s laughter. Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make conges, which every common swasher can do, hos populus ridet, &c., they are laughed to scorn, and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery, they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.”

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Pseudo-Scholarship and Profit

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

“The scholar, like the philosopher, can contemplate the river of time. He contemplates it not as a whole, but he can see the facts, the personalities, floating past him, and estimate the relations between them, and if his conclusions could be as valuable to us as they are to himself he would long ago have civilized the human race. As you know, he has failed. True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform. Most of us are pseudo-scholars, and I want to consider our characteristics with sympathy and respect, for we are a very large and quite a powerful class, eminent in Church and State, we control the education of the Empire, we lend to the Press such distinction as it consents to receive, and we are a welcome asset at dinner-parties.

Pseudo-scholarship is, on its good side, the homage paid by ignorance to learning. It also has an economic side, on which we need not be hard. Most of us must get a job before thirty, or sponge on our relatives, and many jobs can only be got by passing an exam. The pseudo-scholar often does well in examination (real scholars are not much good), and even when he fails he appreciates their innate majesty. They are gateways to employment, they have power to ban and bless. A paper on King Lear may lead somewhere, unlike the rather far-fetched play of the same name. It may be a stepping-stone to the Local Government Board. He does not often put it to himself openly and say ‘That’s the use of knowing things, they help you to get on.’ The economic pressure he feels is more often subconscious, and he goes to his exam, merely feeling that a paper on King Lear is a very tempestuous and terrible experience but an intensely real one. And whether he be cynical or naif, he is not to be blamed. As long as learning is connected with earning, as long as certain jobs can only be reached through exams, so long must we take the examination system seriously. If another ladder to employment was contrived, much so-called education would disappear, and no one be a penny the stupider.”

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Twenty Links for Twenty Days of Protest

“Surely, justice will overcome the architects of lies and their false witnesses.”

καὶ μέντοι καὶ δίκη καταλήψεται ψευδέων τέκτονας καὶ μάρτυρας.

Heraclitus, fr. 118

αἱ εἴκοσι ἡμέραι, “twenty days”

We have now seen 20 days in first local then international  protests over the death of George Floyd, police violence, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are only at the beginning of our shared action and responsibility. (And not near the end of the protest: Breonna Taylor‘s killers have bot been arrested and Rayshard Brooks was killed mere days ago.)

Below are some resources and links I have found helpful and hope others will use to think about our place in this particular space and time and our obligations moving forward. Since this is a Greek and Roman literature blog with a focus on Classical Studies in general, a good deal of the material assembled  is concerned with that.

As Classicists, we have a lot to think about, but our thoughts and actions need to be for the long term in support of what the protests achieve and to help advance and solidify their aims. One question as a starting point, how is a canon like a statue?

N.B. Please do let me know if you want anything else added to this list. I have assembled this mainly for those who don’t spend a lot of time on twitter, etc.

Resources for action and education

  1. A homepage for resources to engage in protest and support Black Lives Matter. See also the Movement for Black Lives homepage
  2. Mariame Kaba on Defunding the Police
  3. Collection of Resources for Anti-Racism compiled by Rebecca Futo Kennedy (see also her blogposts about the racism intrinsic to the concept of “western civilization“). See this Anti-racist reading list too and this slightly older one.
  4. Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor:  “How Do We Change America?
  5.  If someone doubts police brutality: a list of videos.
  6. Education from Academics 4 Black Lives Video
  7. Racism in Publishing

Statements 

  1. The SCS Statement is pretty good and the ACL Statement shows much improvement thanks in part to the activism of Dani Bostick and others like Ian Lockey. As a long time member, I would like to single out the CAMWS Statement for its weakness (a call for “robust, respectful dialogue” but no mention of black lives, police violence, white supremacy or the complicity of classical education).

    Screenshot 2020-06-14 19.34.38
    Just in case they edit the statement….
  2. Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium (MRECC) Statement in Solidarity and Action Plan
  3. EOS (Africana Receptions of Greece and Rome) and their special session of EOS Reads. My colleague Cat Gillespie and I are bringing this to Brandeis.
  4. Asian American Caucus’ Statements of Solidarity and links for donations.
  5. A Student response to the Oxford Classics Statement (statement here)
  6. Classics and Social Justice Statement
  7. Brandeis’ Statements: followed by a community meeting and a two-day workship: President’s call for proposals and the superior statement by students in the Justice; and a presentation on America’s Racial Reckoning by Chad Williams, Anita Hill, Leah Wright Rigueur, and Daniel Kryder. My department has not issued an individual statement because we stand by our institutional response and believe that we need to listen and learn before making significant changes to our policies and our curricula. I say this as Chair of the Department and with deep respect for my colleagues at other institutions who have felt compelled to make statements of solidarity: statements are not enough from our field.

Voices

  1. Sportula and Sportula Europe. Just donate to them.
  2. Vanessa Stovall’s  “A Tale of Two Creons: Black Tragedies, White Anxieties, and the Necessity of Abolition.”
  3. Pria Jackson’s “Fight or Die: How to Move From Statements to Actions.”
  4. The Our Voices: A Conference for Inclusive Classics Pedagogy actually happened in this calendar year
  5. A personal account of how racism and ableism in Classics can drive someone out: Stefani Echeverria-Fenn’s “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything
  6. The Queer Classicist on Racism in Classics
Black Lives Fucking Matter“, “A.C.A.B.“, and “Fuck 12” graffiti on a looted Target store on Lake Street in Minneapolis the morning of May 28, from Wikipedia