Envisaging Homer’s World
by Mark English
To what extent do we have access to the thought-worlds of past eras? My experience of doing research in intellectual history has led me to be acutely aware of the difficulties. At first you think you understand. Then, gradually, you realize the extent of your ignorance. The subtleties of a given culture are essential to it: they make it what it is. You need to know not just the denotations of words and phrases, but also their connotations. You often need to be aware of institutional arrangements and customs, social distinctions and cultural assumptions in order to understand what is driving behavior or motivating certain preoccupations. Even a world as close in time and culture to my own as early 20th-century France seemed at times strangely alien. And when one is talking about the ancient world the difficulties are going to be immeasurably greater. For one thing, we are left with only fragments of what was a massive literary corpus.
These issues came to the fore for me recently through a friend’s involvement in a theatrical production which is based on a long poem by Alice Oswald called Memorial and subtitled (in the UK edition), An Excavation of the Iliad. Oswald described the work in the preface as an “oral cemetery.” It is an extended meditation on life and death in the form of a lament for the more than two hundred fallen warriors mentioned by name in the Iliad. (1)
My focus here is neither the show (which will be having a season in London later this year) nor the poem, but rather on Oswald’s claims about the way her poem relates to Homer’s work.
I want to make it clear that the friend I referred to above strongly disagrees with many of the things I am saying here. We continue to discuss these topics, and my views are in no way settled. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Homer or the Homeric world. But it seems to me that one of the great things that works and performances which draw on classical works do is to raise the sorts of issues (relating, for example, to translation, to general world views and cultural change) with which I am dealing here.
In her preface to Memorial, Oswald describes herself as trying to retrieve the Iliad’s “enargeia,” a Greek term which (she says) “means something like ‘bright, unbearable reality’.” Ancient critics, she says, valued the Iliad for its enargeia rather than for its nobility, the latter of which was the feature highlighted by Matthew Arnold “and almost everyone ever since.” By stripping away the narrative and relying on an accumulation of detail and dense imagery, she hopes to point to the essence of what Homer is saying “as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you are worshiping.”
But the usual and commonly accepted meaning of enargeia is not “bright, unbearable reality” at all. As I understand it, Aristotle and subsequent writers used it to describe a particular rhetorical ploy whereby the speaker describes an event so vividly or in such detail that it almost seems as if the described event is actually happening there and then.
A similar term to enargeia – namely, energeia – has a long tradition of being used in theological contexts, and I suspected that Oswald may have been conflating or confusing these two terms. Like ‘enargeia’, ‘energeia’ was used to some extent (at least during the Renaissance) as a rhetorical term but its main uses have not been related to rhetoric. It had its origins in Aristotelian physics and was taken up in metaphysical and religious contexts by Neoplatonists and medieval theologians. Its basic meaning is something like ‘actuality’ (as distinct from ‘potentiality’).
Subsequently I came across an article in which Oswald addressed some of these issues. (2)
Enargeia is hard to define. There is disagreement about whether it derives from argos, the word for “bright” or en ergo, meaning “real.” Hera, in Book 20 of the Iliad, says: “When gods appear in their actual forms [enargeis] they are hard to bear.” Years later, the philosophers (Democritus, Plato and in particular Epicurus) used the word to mean “self-evident” or “unmediated by the mind.” The Hellenistic critics took the term from philosophy and applied it to Homer. They might have been referring to the clarity of his similes, but perhaps they were also remembering Hera’s word – that sense of “difficult brightness” or “unbearable reality.”
This is drawing a very long bow. In Hera’s assertion (from Book 20), the concepts of difficultness or unbearableness clearly apply because of the particular nature of the thing (in this case, gods) which is doing the appearing. There is no reason to think that the concepts of difficultness or unbearableness are inherent in the term ‘enargeis’.
But Oswald proceeds to push her point even further, and in a seemingly Heideggerian direction. (3)
It was not until I lost my notebook and spent two months working without notes that I discovered how to realign myself so that not just the poem but the brightness beneath it was visible. When my notebook returned, I found that my whole method had changed. Instead of worrying through dictionaries looking for reasonable words, I would scribble the Greek on to a scrap of paper and then walk and wait – sometimes days – until the image underneath showed clear. Then I’d translate it. […] I found myself caught up in something horribly powerful – something real. One of the rules of Greek lament poetry is that it mustn’t mention the dead by name in case of invoking a ghost. Maybe the Iliad, crowded with names, is more than a poem. Maybe it’s a dangerous piece of the brightness of both this world and the next. If that isn’t what the critics meant by enargeia, it is at least what I mean.
There is always room for serious debate on issues of interpretation but Oswald’s main concerns are not, I would suggest, with interpretation or translation in any normal sense of those terms. She may indeed have been seeing (as she puts it) “the brightness beneath the poem” but this – and her talk of walking and waiting until the “image underneath” a scribbled fragment of Homer’s Greek “showed clear” – sounds to me more like a mystical claim than a literary one, and I find it difficult to assess. I can certainly accept that she felt a strong affinity with the poem and that her knowledge of the intricacies of its language allowed her to represent in her own writing the peculiar patterns of Homeric syntax. But, as I see it, she is not laying bare the fundamentals of an original text so much as using the text as a jumping-off point, as a catalyst for her poetic imagination.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Writers have always found inspiration and ideas in older texts. The problem (as I see it) is that Oswald, by introducing and describing her work in the terms she does, seems to be making certain claims about Homer as well as about the relation between the Homeric text and her own which are problematic.
Her preface to Memorial is shorter and sparer than the New Statesman article, but along the same lines. While some of Oswald’s prefatory remarks suggest that she is trying to interpret and present Homer’s basic meaning, in the final paragraph she seems to concede that her work has only a tenuous relationship with the text that we know as the Iliad.
I should add a note on my attitude to the printed Iliad. My ‘biographies’ are paraphrases of the Greek, my similes are translations. However, my approach to translation is fairly irreverent. I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it – aiming for translucence rather than translation. I think this method, as well as my reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem, is compatible with the spirit of oral poetry, which was never stable but always adapting itself to a new audience, as if its language, unlike written language, was still alive and kicking.
The claim to be writing “through the Greek, not from it” does not make a lot of sense to me; but, if it’s translucence rather than translation you are looking for, you have certainly come to the right place.
Note that she talks in very positive terms about oral traditions, and in almost pejorative terms about “written language”. Her use of the expression “the printed Iliad” seems to imply that, as she sees it, there is another Iliad to which we have access. But this is simply not the case.
In the New Statesman article, Oswald argued persuasively that the Iliad’s oral origins are reflected in the pattern of its syntax. But I am not convinced by this attempt (in the preface) to justify the ditching of the story and her very free translation on the grounds that such radical changes are compatible with the spirit of oral poetry. In the context of actual oral traditions, changes always occurred gradually and in a more or less communal way, whereas Oswald’s work is not only radically different from the original but also very much an individual – and a private – effort.
The puzzling thing is why she feels the need to justify anything. What she has done (in creating her poem) is perfectly acceptable from a writerly point of view. I can only think that the logical contortions arise – both here and in the discussion of enargeia – because she is trying to tie her work more closely to the work which inspired it than is warranted.
Oswald’s writing does have genuine power and brightness. She has an eye for the significant detail, and a strong sense of drama and pathos. And I accept that her feel for the syntax of Homer’s similes and certain Homeric themes do inform her writing. But, given that in order to highlight the human and individual aspects of the conflict she has entirely removed the broader narrative so that, for example, one is often unaware of which side the individuals described are fighting on; given the fact that she has only dealt with a small fraction of the original text; and given her admission that her translations are not translations in the usual sense of the word, the extent of her poem’s kinship with the Iliad is obviously going to be (as indeed it has proved) a matter of some controversy. (4)
Death is death, violent death is violent death, you might say. And in a sense it is the same for the ancient warrior and the modern soldier. But the atmosphere and the nuances vary from time to time, as values vary. I don’t think you can just toss out the Homeric narrative and the social and cultural structures implicit therein and plausibly claim that you are revealing something thematically central and important about this epic which everyone else for the last hundred years or more has missed. In general terms, what Oswald has done (and I have no problem with this) is to shift the focus away from politics and the broader social world and towards domestic and individual details and the natural world. But – inevitably – she highlights individual details and emphasizes the pity and futility of war in a distinctly modern way. (5)
The world was a more frightening place for the ancients, though at least they did not have to deal with the sort of existential angst with which we have been dealing for at least a couple of hundred years. In Homeric times, people were far more defined than we are today by their social roles, and the forces they were dealing with were not readily divisible into neat concepts like ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. Their gods were not only less in control but also less predictable and less benign than more recent conceptions of God or divinity. What’s more, our minds bear the indelible marks of concepts like universal reason and the modern idea of the individual which had yet to see the light of day when the Homeric epics were created.
Oswald, though she is clearly fascinated by and drawn to ancient ways of seeing, is also obviously indebted to certain more recent intellectual and religious traditions. The latter are particularly difficult to specify but perhaps they may help explain how she manages to memorialize so many violent deaths in such a concentrated and relentless way without buckling under the weight. Does the light to which she repeatedly refers carry with it something of the potency and benignity of Christian or Neoplatonic notions of the divine?
I am not saying there is necessarily a straightforward answer to this last question, and I am unsure how the religious ideas to which Oswald alludes both in the poem itself and in her commentaries are to be interpreted. (6) But there is (and I suspect Oswald would acknowledge this) a huge gulf between modern ideas of divine immanence and the pagan polytheism of Homer’s time.
Let me emphasize that Oswald’s poem does not in any way downplay the terrors of nature, the horrors of war or the brute fact of human mortality. And her references, both in commentary and in the poem itself, to souls, the underworld and an afterlife are not to be taken as necessarily implying a commitment to such doctrines on the part of the poet. To some extent, she is just alluding to aspects of the Homeric worldview. But there is, I suggest, evidence here of a strong commitment on her part to more modern notions of spiritual reality.
Note, for example, that Oswald uses the term “god” in the poem without a determiner, just as the term ‘God’ is commonly deployed in English. She writes, for example: “God rains on the roof hammering his fists down/ He has had enough of violent smiling men…”
Moreover, she sometimes seems – through her own images and similes – to be endorsing a subtle and sophisticated form of dualism, both in commentary and in the poem.
I have already given examples from her commentary. Here is an example from the poem. Iphidamas and Coon, two brothers, were killed on the same morning: “That was their daylight here finished,” Oswald writes, “And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning.” “Nightshift” here is clever and effective. It is a modern concept, but it doesn’t take us too far from Homer’s world.
The same cannot be said for the simile which follows: “Like when two winds want a wood/ The south wind and the east wind/ Both pull at the trees’ arms/ And the sound of smooth-skinned cornel whipping to and fro/ And oak and ash batting long sticks together/ Is a word from another world.” The personification of the trees may be Homeric but taken as whole (and noting especially the last line) the simile is decidedly modern. This is Oswald’s voice, and it has very little Homer in it.
William Logan’s views on Oswald’s approach, though very provocatively expressed, parallel mine in certain respects. In his New York Times review, he interprets Oswald’s “excavation” more in terms of “strip-mining”. (7, 8) He also picks Oswald up on what he claims are misreadings of the Greek and misunderstandings not only of the meaning but also of the force of certain passages.
“Oswald,” he writes, “claims she has paraphrased the lives of Homer’s warriors but translated his similes; in fact, she plays fast and loose with both… Too often [her] rough-and-ready recycling destroys the force, and the cunning, of the “Iliad”.”
Logan acknowledges the strengths of Oswald’s writing. He recognizes the poem’s “strange luminous quality” and writes that she has made “a poem that blooms out of slaughter” – but (like me) he questions its closeness to the work which inspired it.
- Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Faber and Faber, 2011. The American edition (W.W. Norton) has the subtitle: A Version of the “Iliad”.
- Though she does not mention him, Oswald’s approach is similar to that of Martin Heidegger in certain ways. I would be surprised if she were not drawing on him, at least indirectly. Heidegger cut his philosophical teeth on scholastic metaphysics and, though his work certainly transcends these origins, it could be argued that he retained a basically religious and mystical cast of mind. What is more, it is generally recognized that his linguistic speculations and interpretations are highly idiosyncratic, especially his claims about the purity and specialness of (the earliest forms of) the Greek language. Heidegger believed that the Greek language par excellence embodied a kind of spiritual insight and that there was a falling away from this in later forms of Greek and (particularly) in the transition to Latin. This comes out in his discussion of enargeia. In Book 16 of the Odyssey, Athene appears as young woman to Odysseus and his son Telemachus, but only Odysseus sees her as the goddess. Heidegger quotes Homer’s gloss on this: “It is not to all that the gods appear ‘enargeis’.” Heidegger sees this incident in terms not of perception but “presencing”. Such presencing, according to Heidegger’s understanding of Homer, is to be understood as “a shining of one’s own accord”, “a characteristic pertaining to things themselves in their presencing.” But this mystical sense was lost when “the Romans later translated enargeia… by evidentia; evideri means to become visible.” [Zur Frage nach der Bestimmung der Sache des Denkens (Erker-Verlag, 1984), p. 16]
- Carolin Hahnemann has discussed the poem’s mixed reception, defending Oswald’s approach in what I see as basically postmodernist terms. She writes: “The fact that Oswald varies her spelling of the Greek names – more or less Latinized forms, cases of Ionic dialect, apparent errors – shows that the Iliad she means to evoke is … a contemporaneous place. What may seem like careless inconsistency at first, in fact serves to signal the epic’s continuous and multiform presence in our culture.” I agree with Hahnemann on some points but question her judgment on others. For example, I have a different notion of history from hers. And I think she misreads Logan, taking an obviously mischievous and tongue-in-cheek remark literally. (On this, see note 7 below.) But she also, quite rightly, emphasizes that Oswald’s poem is very much a contemporary work reflecting the author’s own values and the broader perspectives of our time. She writes, for example: “Memorial … negates the male ethos underlying the Iliad as a whole. Homeric heroes seek to achieve immortality in two ways, by doing glorious deeds that will be celebrated in song by later generations (kleos) and by begetting a line of equally heroic sons and grandsons. Oswald, however, precludes the former by stripping away the plot of the Iliad and the latter by depicting each casualty as standing the end of his blood line: in Memorial the men killed leave behind parents and widows but no sons. This omission is especially striking in the case of Hector, who is the subject of the last biography. While in the Iliad his relationship to his infant son Astyanax is very important, Oswald gives center stage to Andromache, making no reference to the baby at all. Thus Memorial certainly constitutes a feminist rewriting of the Iliad, even though it may not seem so at first sight.”
- World War 1 poets like Wilfred Owen come to mind. Like Owen, Oswald emphasizes the arbitrariness of the violence of war, and the pathos; the focus is on the soldier as a person rather than nation or cause, and certainly not on heroism or glory. Owen’s tone is sometimes laced with bitterness, however, and his style is more austere than Oswald’s. The natural world generally plays only a background role for him. His sonnet, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – about “these who die as cattle” – ends: “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;/ Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,/ And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” By contrast, Oswald constantly highlights the natural world – its cycles of death and rebirth, its terrible beauty and its brightness – in an almost celebratory manner. Oswald’s insects, for example, are all brightly alive. There are flies, associated with blood and death, yes, but also with ordinary rural life: they “gather in sheds […] when the milk splashes in buckets.” There are locusts “lifted rippling over fields on fire”; there are crickets “speaking pure light”. And bees. “… Like tribes of summer bees […] flying to their flower work/ Being born and reborn and shimmering over the fields.”
- My own inclination is to interpret such ideas in historical terms, distinguishing early Greek views from later ones and modern views from ancient ones; whereas I suspect that Oswald is rather less interested in such distinctions and wants to highlight what she sees as abiding truths.
- Apparently drawing on the final paragraph of the preface which I quoted above, Logan notes (somewhat mischievously and disingenuously) that Oswald “does not pretend that her version is more than a cheeky strip-mining of the ancient poem.”