In 2014 or so I was a tenured professor, less than happy in my job, but without any plan for making a change. It is not easy to get a job as a professor in classics; it is harder to get job after you have tenure; and it is nearly impossible to do so without that holiest of holies, the single authored monograph.
I was tenured without a book because the department I was in didn’t expect one and I had published a lot otherwise (including a co-authored general audience book on Homer). The fact is that I really did not want to write one. Most successful academics are expected to turn their dissertation into a book. I hadn’t done that on purpose (I was sick of my dissertation and I wanted to do something different).
Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t know how to write a book. It is not that I didn’t want to write about things. I just wanted to write about them in shorter segments. It may have been a lack of imagination as much as anything else, but I found many more reasons not to write a book than to write one: the fact that no one reads them, that lives are disrupted to write them, that we have an entire economy of knowledge dedicated to big books about small things, etc. etc.
That last phrase is not fair, completely. But, to crib from an ancient proverb, there’s a difference between a book that needs to be written and needing to write a book. After 2012, however, I started talking, thinking, and writing about the Odyssey in a way that clearly pointed to a lengthy treatment of a topic, if not wholly original, at least markedly different from work I had read before.
Some graduate programs do better jobs than others in training you how to do independent research. Many do a great job in preparing students to turn their dissertations into books. But few anticipate what to do next. This is not a huge problem, since the paths people take are so different depending on their institution, interests, etc. But the irony is that although I was a book review editor for a journal, had reviewed a dozen books, and had helped to write one, I really didn’t know what I was doing.
So, once I gave in to the desire to write a book, I started lamenting that I didn’t have enough time to do it. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is constitutionally incapable of not calling me on my bullshit. Over drinks in 2015, while I complained again that I just needed the time to write a book, she said, “look, you ran a stupid marathon last year. You spent hours every day running, training, and keeping track of every thing you did. I don’t know why you can do that and not write a book. You’re not a runner; you’re a Homerist.”
Now, to be honest, the conversation hurt my feelings a little bit because (1) running marathons didn’t come easy to me (I run like a rhinoceros, except uglier) and (2) she was absolutely right. I started to keep track of hours a week spent on the book project, making lists and schedules, and trying to break down the project into little bits.
It worked: I have books out in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (changing institutions and getting some summer funding for childcare also made a huge difference; the blog was crucial to those books too). But part of the story is also this website. I have written about the importance of the discipline of posting daily on the blog, but what I haven’t explained clearly enough is how each of the books I just mentioned relied on this regular writing practice for drafting, brainstorming, and progress.
So, for curiosity, inspiration, mockery, and whatever else may come, here’s an overview of the more than 30 blogposts that are part of my book on the Odyssey, out this week (The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic). I am posting one each day on twitter with the hashtag #BloggingABook for about a month, but here’s a more organized collection.
Let’s start at the beginning. This post was one of the first that directly translated into content in the book, showing up as a table on page 16. It helped me to organize my thoughts about the structure of the poem without making an entire labor out of the structure of the poem.
A good deal of the theoretical research of this book took me through post-structural theories like those in disability studies, which made me think differently about ideal bodies in Homer. I used some posts, like this one about Telemachus and monstrosity, to think through this. This ended up in a chapter NOT about Telemachus. Several posts arose from my reading of disability studies texts alongside Homer, like this one about Thersities and beautiful minds, which in turn became parts of chapters and a forthcoming article.
I won’t even list all the posts on ancient medicine and mental health—I spent some time trying to learn more about these topics and most of the research ended up on the website (at least a dozen or more). This scholion on drugs made me think about ancient beliefs about addiction. As I explored ancient ideas of madness in philosophy and medicine, it was helpful to see how mythical figures at times appeared to help explain things like isolation and mental anguish (as in this passage from Aristotle). This contributed to Chapter 3’s examination of heroic isolation
Part of what I love about research—when I get to do it freely—is the wandering path I take through things. Blogging gives me a sense of accomplishment (and that important reward feedback loop!) because it provides an end of sorts to a journey that lasts a day or just a few hours. Many posts are just me trying to make sense of scholia, especially longer ones like the large segments attributed to Porphyry in the Odyssey scholia. These were fodder for notes and content in the book.
Sometimes posts came from work in the scholia, like this one, where I tried to figure out the details of Telemachus’ journey for chapter 2. Indeed, many of my mythographical footnotes started or ended as posts on the site, like this one about Penelope and fidelity which contributes to one part of chapter 7. Some of the mythographical posts and studies didn’t make it to the book, but that’s ok because doing the work, as in this one on Nausikaa’s name, sharpened what I would say by helping me figure out what I didn’t need to.
Mythography doesn’t explain what audiences knew, but it can help show what they might have known which is why several posts talk about Thersites’ story outside of Homer like this one. A mere footnote in the book, but a useful one. On many occasions, I would think something might be important or interesting and find out only the latter is true, making it good for a post as in this scholion on Alkinoos’ marriage wish. It didn’t make it into the book, but Alkinoos did. And I can’t even begin to figure out how to map my dozens of posts on Odysseus’ family and multiple sons onto the chapters of the book. But they were definitely formative.
And, of course, there are posts on expected topics in the Odyssey. Naming Odysseus is no minor affair, so I have several posts looking at Homeric epithetis and their ancient reception of a man of may ways who is also quite shifty. Researching this book forced me to rethink the political situation on Ithaca from ancient perspectives, showing that Laertes likely unified a somewhat odd island ‘state’. This is an important part of chapter 8, which looks at Ithaca as a traumatized community
Rethinking the representation of agency in Homer really made me look differently at the representation of women’s agency in Homer. Some posts arose out of shock at reading passages anew as I had never read them before. The emotion and scene made it to the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was thinking about the suitors as full human beings rather than simple villains, especially in their political wranglings as in this post looking at their debate about killing Telemachus. This scene is critical in the book’s chapter 8.
In rereading representations of agency in the Odyssey it was necessary to think about heroes, non-heroes, children, enslaved people, and women and how these categories intersect. Some of the more explicit comments on these topics informed chapter 6 but are clearer in posts, like this one on the cost of an enslaved person’s life. This post contributes to chapter 6. In the same vein, I also used a post to lay out the passages where Odysseus thinks about or responds to enslaved women’s sexuality. Working through these passages helped me understand the infantilization of enslaved people in the Odyssey.
Many posts were part of my writing process, which is to translate passages I want to write about. Laborious, but it gives me opportunities to post Penelope laying into a suitor like this one. This passage became part of thinking about where Penelope claims agency (and doesn’t). I cover the end of the Odyssey in two chapters, so thinking carefully through the trial of Odysseus was really important, I started this process by translating and discussing the scene in a post. The translations are improved in the book, but have the same core.
On many occasions I wanted to think more broadly about ancient literature and narrative. Early drafts from chapter 9 look like this post on how liars communicate but ended up being edited quite differently. Similarly, I would at times start to right grandly and in generalizations not fit at the point of the book I was writing. This one on complementarity can be seen in some footnotes from the introduction, but not very clearly.
Some posts also emerged as summaries of the thoughts in the book, like this one written at the beginning of the pandemic. It reflects on a project finished rather than attesting to work in progress. Others draw on the frameworks developed during research, like the post on Toxic Heroism and a School Massacre. Sometimes ideas started in the book but had no space there. This is true of my work on Kassandra, which went into a post before it became an article elsewhere and my personal reflections on the scene of Argos, the dog.
I did not know what the conclusion of this book would add until one day I saw a line from Cavafy online and then wrote a post about death and the end of the Odyssey. This post formed a third of the conclusion once expanded.
I don’t think there’s a clean and just-so way to end this post. There’s lots of advice out there about writing a book in an hour or two a day and I am here to tell you it is possible. But it helps to have short term goals and ‘outputs’ to work towards. It also helps (probably more than anything) to have a stable job, good funding, and a partner who calls you on your bullshit.
Some sites say this is out tomorrow (in ebook and print); some say it is out November 22nd and December 25th.
“Marcus Pomponius Marcellus was the most irritating enforcer of proper Latinity. Once, when he was serving as an advocate (for he took on a case now and then), he persisted in arguing about a solecism committed by his opponent for so long that, Cassius Severus interrupted the judges and asked for a recess so that his litigator could get another grammarian ‘since he does not think that the controversy against his adversary will be about the law, but about a solecism.’
This same Marcellus had once criticized a word in a speech of the emperor Tiberius, and when Aetius Capito asserted that the word was actually Latin or, if it hadn’t been, certainly would be now that Tiberius had used it. Marcellus responded, ‘You lie, Capito. For you, Caesar, can give citizenship to people, but not to a word.”
M. Pomponius Marcellus sermonis Latini exactor molestissimus, in advocatione quadam—nam interdum et causas agebat—soloecismum ab adversario factum usque adeo arguere perseveravit quoad Cassius Severus, interpellatis iudicibus, dilationem petiit ut litigator suus alium grammaticum adhiberet ‘quando non putat is cum adversario de iure sibi sed de soloecismo controversiam futuram.’ hic idem cum ex oratione Tiberii verbum reprehendisset, adfirmante Ateio Capitone et esse illud Latinum et si non esset futurum certe iam inde, ‘Mentitur,’ inquit, Capito. tu enim, Caesar, civitatem dare potes hominibus, verbo non potes.’
And there appeared to him the ghost of poor Patroclus all in his likeness for stature, and the lovely eyes, and voice, and wore such clothing as Patroclus had worn on his body. The ghost came and stood over his head and spoke a word to him: You sleep, Achilles; you have forgotten me; but you were not careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades. The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance, and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them, but I wander as I am by Hades’ house of the wide gates. And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand; no longer shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning.
Ghosts, apparitions, miracles, supernatural events, to what extent do we believe in them? And if they were to be real, how much would they differ from each other? At first we need to begin by establishing what we understand by supernatural. If we refer to occurrences that fall outside the laws of nature, then the scope of these events has immediately enlarged, considering that we do not live in nature, but in a world – a human product. Nowadays many things have gone missing from that world; people, places, events. And these disappearances, through quarantine, incarceration or simply prolonged absence, are a kind of supernatural event in reverse – a sudden dis-apparition. But the missing haven’t been abandoned, instead, they lie in a state of abeyance, without being immediately present. With the irresistible and ceaseless flow of time — paraphrasing here Anna Komnene — we begin to question their reality.
Have these things and persons in abeyance then become ghostly presences or apparitions? I like Derrida’s idea that ghosts today are but the return or persistence of elements from the past, because it instantly complicates matters around ghostliness: Since elements from the past are always around us, can we really talk about absence or ghosts? Would it be correct to identify all absences as ghostly? Not sure here what it is exactly that returns or reappears.
We need to turn to dictionaries now, but they aren’t of much help. The only antonyms of ghostly (what is the opposite of a ghost?) that I could find, were the terms ‘natural’ and ‘angelic’, both of which do little in reference to the world, so that there’s not an exact territory of coincidence between ghosts and death. A dictionary of classical literature, on the other hand, tells us that ghosts are difficult to distinguish from supernatural entities or delusions, and yet the really striking part of the definition is that while ghosts seem generally ‘powerless and ineffectual’, they are persistent. I am fascinated by this combination of both persistence and powerlessness in the ghost, because of what it has to say to us about contemporary political narratives.
An example of this persistence comes down to us from the Iliad: Without a proper burial, the ghost of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion, is condemned to wander around the house of Hades for eternity. It would be hard to overstate how important burials were for antiquity (and continue to be so for us, for no clear reason, accounting for the shock at the mass graves of Bergamo and Hart Island during the pandemic) but I don’t want this commonplace trope to distract us from the mysterious apparition. It is one of the strangest dreams in classical literature and the only ghost to appear in the Iliad: Breaking away from the pattern of Homeric dreams, which generally involve divinities that bring knowledge of the future (following a structure of apparition at night when the person has retired, speech, departure, reaction and then dawn), dead Patroclus’ apparition in book XXIII makes no real sense, and it doesn’t bring any new information or steer the narrative in any direction.
The strangeness begins earlier, when Achilles himself performs two unusual tasks one after another (18.316-317): First, he attempts to summon Patroclus back to life by the uncommon gesture of placing his hand on the chest of the dead body as if it were alive and then he greets Patroclus with the formal χαῖρέ (hail!), establishing a distance between himself and Patroclus, implying a separation between them that is hard for Achilles to grasp — is he alive or dead? This attention to detail might seem pesky but given that the repertory of epic is so limited, any deviation in patterns of speech and behavior is telling us something; an innovation is taking place. After the funeral feast, Achilles slumbers into sleep by the seashore, and Patroclus appears to him ‘all in his likeness’ (23.66) with a puzzling request to be buried as soon as possible, given that Achilles had already decided to bury him the next day.
Patroclus is dead (at the hand of Hector, who was in turn subsequently slain by Achilles — the heart of the epic) but he hasn’t entered Hades yet. He finds himself in an in-between space, a uniquely hybrid dream/underworld scene where, far from heroic convention, this meeting about memory and the past, is still possible. And yet Patroclus asks Achilles to give him his hand for the last time for he’s nevermore to return from Hades after his burial (23.75). In spite of the immense affection between them, when Achilles tries to embrace him, the shadow suddenly turns into nothingness and dissolves into air (23.99-101), ‘with a shrill cry’. This extraordinary moment of tenderness, apparently innocuous, happens at a pivotal moment in the epic, when the death of Achilles is near – this was no news. Achilles himself is too baffled, and speaks with sadness about Patroclus’ weeping and wailing (23.106), before lighting the funeral pyre, followed by the long funeral games, a series of competitions held in honor of Patroclus and that take up most of the book.
The ghost appears thrice in the book, however on the last appearance (23.221-225), there’s a heartbreaking scene: a distraught Achilles is said to call upon Patroclus’ ghost for a last time, ‘as a father mourns the bones of a son, who was married only now, and died to grieve his unhappy parents’ and ‘[Achilles] dragged himself by the fire in close lamentation’. It seems as if the span of the apparition has come to an end, yet something is about to occur that makes the brief encounter with Patroclus gain immense depth. In book XXIV, Achilles is still agonizingly mourning Patroclus and abusing Hector’s body, dragging it around his friend’s tomb – Hector’s mother Hecuba remarks that even that did not bring Patroclus back to life (24.755-57). The apparition of Patroclus in fact restored Achilles’ humanity which had been buried in his anger and pain. A moment of reckoning arrives here: now he begins to see all the desolation that his anger has caused and there’s a final encounter with mortality in which Achilles accepts Patroclus’ death and also his own.
Commentary on the Iliad is long and intricate – it is a song about war and its disastrous consequences, but also one about political foundations and origins. But I want to dwell on the neglected figure of the ghost. Homeric terminology for the ghost is complex and “Psyché” encompasses meanings as diverse as both life and departed life, and is also used indistinguishably with other terms for soul and mind. As we had earlier seen, the status of the ghost is undefinable, and therefore it stands outside of and sometimes in opposition to the order of memory that establishes a polis upon return to the homeland from the battlefield. In the world of epic, commemoration of great deeds from the past is caught between two temporal modes: Remembering the life of a hero who has already died (remembrance of Achilles from a future standpoint) and preserving that memory as something not forgotten (the lasting permanence of the past), therefore the appearance of the ghost of Patroclus breaks down here the collective recollections of victory and turns inwards, towards remembrance of the past together with Achilles but not collectively with others (23.78).
Though we speak a lot about memory-narratives in the present, collective memory is a function of the regime of history, where things and events have already consolidated into a foundation (or against foundations). Whether the permanence of the memory that founded the body politic in the first place undergoes change, the substance of the space of the polis goes back to a single source. What I want to propose here is an idea of ghosts as communities of memory, distinct from but parallel to political foundations. What if it were possible for memory to become fragmented into different filaments of remembrance of things past and future articulated around the present and stemming from different sources?
A notion of ghosts as communities of memory came from recent work by Turkish sociologists Cihan Erdal (a young scholar now imprisoned in Turkey alongside thousands of other students on bogus charges of political activities) and Derya Fırat, on ‘presentism’ and the temporality of Gezi, the popular uprising that took place in Turkey in 2013 and after which the political landscape of the country has significantly deteriorated into authoritarian rule. Erdal and Fırat question the defeatism of the Western and Turkish Left in regard to utopian moments and whether something remains from them? Has the defeat of Gezi in anyway affected our sense of temporality?
On a close reading of Enzo Traverso’s work on the melancholy of the Left, and his assertion that utopias have become a historical form of the past, they speak about the presentism after 1989 that absorbs the past and the future through the opening up of a self-dissolving, sparse present tense, so that this present-timeism builds a thick wall between the present and the past, putting an end to the transference of experience […] particularly in the absence of an alternative model of society. Following from that, their central argument is that the Gezi Park protests attempted to establish a new radical imagination of time (moving simultaneously between past and present, memory and expectation) that disrupted the current neoliberal presentism, and that they did so by imagining utopias both past and future – as a dialogue between different moments of mourning and memory, and between different ghosts that return and persist.
A few words on presentism would help to clarify the extent to which the Iliad as a foundational narrative is able to time-travel in order to tell us something about the present: Admittedly there’s no concept of linear time in Homer, in the same way that our fractured temporality — the temporariness of life under presentist authoritarian regimes, we’ve been ejected from time — attempts to grasp the past in order to imagine other possibilities: The subject of the Iliad is time itself and the durability of memory that withstands the withering flow of this ever-present time. Achilles’ most famously referred description as κλέος ἄφθιτον (of unwithering glory) expresses this desire as an action yet to be completed (9.410-416) simultaneously in the past and future. Time might be abstract but it is also a force that produces change, and this is what presentism (in Homer as the returning cycles of nature and in our times as the capitalist eternity of markets and the internet) is attempting to erase by collapsing the future-orientation of utopia or memory into an obsolete historical form, predicated on the ends of history: This is the best of all possible worlds.
While it’s been constantly argued that memory and mourning is the way out of the amnesia of presentism (why are we so shocked about Bergamo and Hart Island but not so much about the mass graves of wars elsewhere within the same time period?), the politics of ghosts proposed by Erdal and Fırat reframes this work of memory beyond both static remembrance of the past and restoration of past utopias. Remembrance becomes here a different orientation, which created means of communication between different historical moments and social movements, preventing the present or the past from exercising authority over each other. Ghosts from the past are speaking to each other in the here-and-now, expressing not only the”no longer” that has passed, but a sense of continuity anchored in “not yet” and “would be” referred towards the future — a typology of Iliadic time.
The ghosts that we are dealing with in here are moments of upheaval, uprising and utopia that have been deeply buried in the collective imagination but that have the power to return any time – the function of latency – without destroying the fabric of time by attempting futile restorations. These ghosts are not only moments of political action, but also catalysts thereof, such as commemorations of events and memories of violence. In the context of Gezi, for example, Erdal and Fırat mention that when Taksim Square was banned for workers in 1979, the symbols of the left factions were hung on Konak Square in the city of Izmir, a gesture that was repeated in 2013 on the facade of the Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul. As a checkpoint in political memory, the building was subsequently demolished, and yet this doesn’t guarantee that these ghosts will not return again and again: Apparently, the trade-free shopping between ghosts continues. Within the world of the Iliad, physical objects, decaying structures — of ships and tombs, and moments lost in time provide a record of the past that continues to exert force upon the present.
The fundamental problem that Erdal and Fırat see with with the work of mourning (over utopian pasts) is that it requires a dead body and a burial, but how can something be buried if it is absent or has never been completed? For Derrida, the ghost cannot even be called a being, because it doesn’t exist – it is both present and non-existent, and therefore one cannot enter into mourning with ghosts, because ghosts never die, they always keep coming back. The recognition of the presence of the ghost in its unburied state, is also a call for practical justice and therefore, a reinscription of experience within time, rather than against it: This proposal is also a formulation of justice so that time out of joint can be rectified. It is one that will provide an exit from the present in crisis and will bring us to justice by building this new relationship with both past and future. It is a politics of ghosts that, on the one hand, aims to put an end to the violence of the present against the past, and on the other hand, it will overcome the possibility of the past and future to dominate / erode the present.
In a time of global upheaval, although we are still trapped in the presentism of catastrophe and disaster which is one of the most common narratives of capitalism — the emergency, the possibility of closing the distance between the present and a horizon of expectation about the future has not been completely closed. The future is still a latent possibility that might awake again at some undefined point. Is this future coming from the past? There’s no assurance, sometimes the future arises out of itself, but the cancellation of movement inside historical planes is not a viable solution when the present alone is too fragile to hold institutions and moral reflexions. In a world replete with ghosts – paraphrasing Derrida – the supernatural is no longer an extraordinary occurrence, but the nature of all political action. Insofar as all human action remains unpredictable, in both motive and intended goal, it is always miraculous and supernatural in the sense that it is highly improbable and yet actual.
But if all worldly existence and political life is invaded by ghosts, how to distinguish then between the ghost and reality? We think that memory should be reconstructed today and considered as a radical invitation to democratize the relationship between generations in political space. Political space is always a term that brings us back to the Iliad again: This isn’t only a concept of memory, since physical spaces as the containers of memory, are replete with debris that functions as “clocks” measuring time through both deterioration and durability. The constant apparitions of the past in these spaces remind us that although encounters with ghosts are ephemeral, they can serve as markers of the short distance between no longer and not yet, as expressed in the “now” emphasis in the words of Menelaus in the Iliad, while remembering Patroclus in such a way that this now, although stemming from the present, becomes a memory for a would-be future:
Homer, Iliad 17.670-672
Now let each one of you remember poor Patroclus who was gentle, and understood how to be kindly toward all men while he lived. Now death and fate have closed in upon him.
Here the conversation about ghosts and the supernatural is also a conversation about very long spans of memory across time: While all politics is grounded in human action and all human action is supernatural, our standard liberal model of society attempts to dovetail action and do away with politics by reducing it to bureaucratic administration and the satisfaction of human needs in nature, therefore its alleged emphasis on the social and economic question. But it was at the very beginning of our tradition of politics, in the Iliad, when the ability to change the flow of time in any direction, was considered the benchmark of rising above the cycles of nature, and therefore making action and speech identical with freedom. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Weingrow speak about freedoms that were common to many early human societies in the past and that we have abandoned: The freedom to refuse orders, to move away and to create entirely new social orders or move between different ones. This ability for new beginnings is at the heart of the Iliad‘s struggle against the destructive influence of time.
Little did they know (they couldn’t), Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, at the time their work was published in the end of 2019, that the politics of ghosts would become a mainstay of political life only a few months later when we would temporarily lose the world, and become entirely surrounded by ghosts. But interestingly enough, they do mention at the end of their essay the songs of Victor Jara rising from the squares and balconies in the capital Santiago in Chile or the yellow vests in the streets of Paris as a part of the conversation between ghosts. Only a few days ago, a referendum in Chile overthrew the constitution from the Pinochet dictatorship, even as many other uprisings are taking place and failing elsewhere. The ghost dialogue about new beginnings continues…
‘Being here, today, is accepting to live with our ghosts, to long for them, to feed them’ said Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige years ago (I know the quote is real, but I cannot locate its source, therefore it remains itself a ghost), speaking about incomplete mourning: these ghosts are present among us, and the spaces they occupy are irredeemable – a gap that cannot be closed, but they can suddenly break out of the present by throwing us back into the future, a future that can be remembered and over which it is also possible to act. In a fragment from the Myrmidons, a lost play of Aeschylus, recounting aspects of the story of Achilles and Patroclus, unknown or too obvious to the Iliad, Achilles scolds his comrade Antilochus, reversing the nature of mourning over his companion Patroclus – we are not in mourning over the missing, but over ourselves:
Scholia to Aristophanes
Antilochus, bewail me, the living, rather than him, the dead; for I have lost my all.
᾿Αντίλοχ’, ἀποίμωξόν με τοῦ τεθνηκότος τὸν ζῶντα μᾶλλον.
[Fragments in italics, from Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) Birikim, December 2019, translated and paraphrased by the author]
On September 25, 2020, Cihan Erdal, a 32-years-old PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Canada, was arrested in Istanbul. The charges stem from events back in 2014, which are being used to continue persecuting members of the leftist HDP political party. Erdal and 81 others have been targeted because they are all signatories to a letter calling for the government to protect a Kurdish town under ISIS attacks. He was placed in solitary confinement in Ankara until October 23, 2020. No indictment and no hearing date has been announced yet. If convicted, he might be facing a potential life sentence. Some 2500 academics worldwide have signed a petition for his release. As an LGBT person, he is at risk of additional persecution over his sexuality. Cihan has been based in Canada since 2017 and his research is largely focused on youth-led social movements in Europe, including Turkey. Learn more about the case at https://freecihanerdal.wordpress.com/
Send letters to Cihan Erdal:
Cihan Erdal adına Sincan 2 Nolu F Tipi Yüksek Güvenlikli Kapalı Ceza İnfaz Kurumu 06930 Yenikent/Sincan-ANKARA
Acknowledgements: Gregory Buchakjian & Joana Hadjithomas in Beirut for (almost) a decade of conversations, both present and absent, about ghosts, our own and others’. Dedicated to Cihan Erdal, for your prompt liberation.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Revolution or Redemption? The Middle East” in Revolutions: Finished and Unfinished, from Primal to Final, ed. P. Caringella, W. Cristaudo & G. Hughes, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp 329-249
Hannah Arendt, “Introduction to Politics” in The Promise of Politics, Schocken Books, 2005, pp 93-200
Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, Penguin Classics, 2006, pp 142-169
Hannah Čulík-Baird, “The Fragment as Form”, UT Austin Lecture, 25th September 2020, online.
Cihan Erdal & Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) in Birikim, 368, December 2019, 35-43
R.K. Fischer, “The Concept of Miracle in Homer”, Antichthon, 29 (1995), pp 1-14
Lorenzo F. Garcia, Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad, Hellenic Studies Series 58, Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013, online.
George Alexander Gazis, Homer and the Poetics of Hades, Oxford University Press, 2018
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Wiley-Blackwell, 1993
Nat Muller, “What Was Lost: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in conversation with Nat Muller” Ibraaz, 2012, online.
W.B. Stanford, “Ghosts and Apparitions in Homer, Aeschylus and Shakespeare” in Hermathena, No. 56 (November, 1940), pp 84-92
David Wengrow, What Makes Civilization: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West, Oxford University Press, 2018
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (188.8.131.52):
“The country people use kitchen physic, and common experience tells us, that they live freest from all manner of infirmities, that make least use of apothecaries’ physic. Many are overthrown by preposterous use of it, and thereby get their bane, that might otherwise have escaped: some think physicians kill as many as they save, and who can tell, Quot Themison aegros autumno occiderit uno?How many murders they make in a year,quibus impune licet hominem occidere, that may freely kill folks, and have a reward for it, and according to the Dutch proverb, a new physician must have a new churchyard; and who daily observes it not?
Many that did ill under physicians’ hands, have happily escaped, when they have been given over by them, left to God and nature, and themselves; ’twas Pliny’s dilemma of old, every disease is either curable or incurable, a man recovers of it or is killed by it; both ways physic is to be rejected. If it be deadly, it cannot be cured; if it may be helped, it requires no physician, nature will expel it of itself. Plato made it a great sign of an intemperate and corrupt commonwealth, where lawyers and physicians did abound; and the Romans distasted them so much that they were often banished out of their city, as Pliny and Celsus relate, for 600 years not admitted.
It is no art at all, as some hold, no not worthy the name of a liberal science (nor law neither), as Pet. And. Canonherius a patrician of Rome and a great doctor himself, one of their own tribe, proves by sixteen arguments, because it is mercenary as now used, base, and as fiddlers play for a reward. Juridicis, medicis, fisco, fas vivere rapto, ’tis a corrupt trade, no science, art, no profession; the beginning, practice, and progress of it, all is naught, full of imposture, uncertainty, and doth generally more harm than good.
The devil himself was the first inventor of it: Inventum est medicina meum, said Apollo, and what was Apollo, but the devil? The Greeks first made an art of it, and they were all deluded by Apollo’s sons, priests, oracles. If we may believe Varro, Pliny, Columella, most of their best medicines were derived from his oracles. Aesculapius his son had his temples erected to his deity, and did many famous cures; but, as Lactantius holds, he was a magician, a mere impostor, and as his successors, Phaon, Podalirius, Melampius, Menecrates, (another God), by charms, spells, and ministry of bad spirits, performed most of their cures.”
“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.”
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.
“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).”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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 παχύτερον,
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,
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, παχύτερον, id est crassius et pingui Minerua.
 Erasmus is stretching the application of this excerpt.
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.
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
“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 once” Quintilian
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.
i would say homer doesn't "teach" noble values, but instead illustrates moral ruin
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:
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 Backbrings 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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.