May 29, 2017

Why Homer Matters

I have been working in fits and starts - mostly fits - on the newish (November 2015) book Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson.  Having gotten through the introductory matter, I have gotten to the good parts, and they are very good indeed.  Nicolson is not, as near as I can tell, a 'qualified academic', but the sort of gifted amateur that used to be more prevalent in the British Empire, a guy who has put a hell of a lot of work into understanding this stuff.  The results are generally good:
The Iliad is soaked in retrospect. The Odyssey, the twin and pair of it, is filled with heroic adventurism and the sense of possibility, as if it were an American poem and the Iliad its European counterpart.  
There is no doubt that the poet of the Odyssey knew the Iliad. The Odyssey, with extraordinary care, is shaped around the preexistence of the Iliad. It fills in details that are absent from the earlier poem— the Trojan Horse, the death of Achilles— but never mentions anything that is described there. That discretion and mutuality is present on a deeper level too. So, where the Iliad is a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and of the past, of each of us being locked inside a set of destinies, the Odyssey, for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offer of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given, for the individual— or at least the great individual— to stand out against fate.
The two poems talk across that divide. The Iliad is rooted in the pain of Troy, the singular place and the sense of entrapment that it brings to everyone involved. The Odyssey is constantly free and constantly inventive. That difference is reflected in the two heroes. Achilles is fixed into rage, into the need to fulfill his fate, fixed into having to revenge the death of his friend Patroclus. Odysseus is always slipping out, the man who has been everywhere, seen everything, done everything, but also thought of everything, invented everything and changed everything. 
These are the two possibilities for human life. You can either do what your integrity tells you to do, or niftily find your way around the obstacles life throws in your path. That is the great question the poems pose. Which will you be? Achilles or Odysseus, the monument of obstinacy and pride or the slippery trickster in whom nothing is certain and from whom nothing can be trusted? The singular hero or the ingenious man?
Decent review from the NYT here.



Post a Comment

<< Home