‘Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson
Warrior king: A funerary mask from the shaft graves at Mycenae, circa 16th century B.C.Credit Universal History Archive/Getty Images
By BRYAN DOERRIESDEC. 26, 12, 2014, The New York Times, SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
“Homer has become a kind of scripture for me, an ancient book, full of urgent imperatives and ancient meanings, most of them half discerned, to be puzzled over. It is a source of wisdom.” So begins the third chapter of Adam Nicolson’s highly accessible new book, “Why Homer Matters,” in which he compares his relationship with epic poetry to a form of possession, a “colonization of the mind by an imaginative presence from the past.” The world needs more Adam Nicolsons, unabashedly passionate evangelists for the power of ancient poetry to connect us with our collective past, illuminate our personal struggles and interrogate our understanding of human history.
For centuries, the study of Greek literature has been seen as the province of career academics. But Nicolson’s amateurism (in the best, etymological, sense of the word: from the Latin amare, “to love”) and globe-trotting passion for his subject is contagious, intimating that it is impossible to comprehend Homer’s poems from an armchair or behind a desk. If you’ve never read the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” or your copies have been collecting dust since college, Nicolson’s book is likely to inspire you to visit or revisit their pages.
According to Nicolson, a British baron who has written books on subjects that span the making of the King James Bible, the challenges and joys of farming, nautical voyages, and long walks through France, “you don’t acquire Homer; Homer acquires you.” Nicolson describes how he set out on a personal odyssey from the coast of Scotland to the gates of Hades in search of the origins of Greek poetry and Western consciousness. In all of this, he is most at home as a writer when describing landscapes, as in his depiction of Homeric Hades by way of the estuary at Huelva in southwestern Spain: “Flakes of white quartzite shine through the water between ribs of rock that veer from red to tangerine to ocher and rust to flame-colored, flesh-colored, sick and livid.”
As Nicolson relates, Homer, the blind bard of Chios who supposedly composed the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” may never have existed. Or, if he did, he most likely wasn’t the sole author of the epic poems for which he became famous. Instead, he may have culled, arranged and interpolated these foundational myths from within a living, oral tradition reaching back — through the Greek Dark Ages — to a primitive, preliterate era of Bronze Age wars and warriors sprawled across the Eurasian plains. “The poems,” Nicolson writes, “were composed by a man standing at the top of a human pyramid. He could not have stood there without the pyramid beneath him, and the pyramid consisted not only of the earlier poets in the tradition but of their audiences too.”
This is the central idea behind Nicolson’s book, which traces the origins of the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath — by way of the Minoan ruins of Knossos, the great library of Alexandria, and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — to a period 1,000 or more years earlier than the one suggested by what he defines as the reigning orthodoxy. Nicolson contends that the epic poems reflect “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 B.C. recollected in the tranquillity of about 1300 B.C.,” though not captured in writing until roughly 700 B.C. And so he believes that whoever wrote the poems down belonged to “a culture emerging from a dark age, looking to a future but also looking back to a past, filled with nostalgia for the years of integrity, simplicity, nobility and straightforwardness.”
It is difficult to assess Nicolson’s theory, which is based on a conjecture that the “Iliad” describes a pre-palatial warrior culture that seems to align well with the “world of the gold-encrusted kings buried in the shaft graves at Mycenae,” now dated to the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. But as a thought exercise, it is often gripping and, at times, electrifying.
According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.”
The Romanian scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade called this basic human impulse — to connect our quotidian existence, through ritual and myth, with the lives and struggles of the great heroes of the past — the “eternal return.” In the telling and retelling of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” we imbue our insignificant lives with meaning, transporting ourselves to a mythical time, while bringing the heroic age into our own. Throughout the book, Nicolson describes moments when his own life has been elevated or illuminated by the epics — such as his sailing across the Celtic Sea with the “Odyssey” fastened to his compass binnacle, tied open to the story of the sirens — but also moments when harrowing experiences, including being raped at knife point in the Syrian desert, have revealed to him something powerful within the poems.
The Homeric epics are long, contradictory, repetitive, composite works, riddled with anachronisms, archaic vocabulary, metric filler and exceedingly graphic brutality. Over the millenniums, Nicolson asserts, they have been cleaned, scrubbed and sanitized by generations of translators, editors, librarians and scholars, in order to protect readers from the dangers of the atavistic world lurking just below the surface of the words. He writes that everyone from the editors at the Ptolemaic library in Alexandria to the great 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wished to civilize or tame the poems, “wanted to make Homer proper, to pasteurize him and transform him into something acceptable for a well-governed city.” Part of Nicolson’s objective is to follow the poems back to the vengeful, frighteningly violent time and culture from which they came, and to restore some of their rawness.
For Nicolson, the commonly held belief that the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” were products of the late eighth century B.C., a period of Greek resurgence and prosperity, cannot account for the heterogeneity of the poems and all they contain. He prefers the view that, instead of being the creation of a single man, let alone of a single time, “Homer reeks of long use.” Try thinking of Homer as a “plural noun,” he suggests, made up of “the frozen and preserved words of an entire culture.” Seen through this lens, the ancient poems appear as a bridge between the present and an otherwise inaccessible past, a rare window into a moment of cultural convergence around 2000 B.C., when East met West, North met South, and Greek consciousness was forged in the crucible of conflict between a savage warrior culture from the flat grasslands of Eurasia and the wealthy, sophisticated residents of cities in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Homer,” Nicolson writes, “in a miracle of transmission from one end of human civilization to the other, continues to be as alive as anything that has ever lived.” Reading “Why Homer Matters” makes one yearn for a time, almost lost to us now, when many others shared Nicolson’s enthusiasm.
WHY HOMER MATTERS
by Adam Nicolson
Illustrated. 297 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $30.
Book review: ‘Why Homer Matters’, by Adam Nicholson
By Dennis Drabelle December 29, 2014
Around 5 o’clock most afternoons, you’re apt to find me at home nursing a cocktail as I apply myself to a dozen or so lines of Greek from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Minus the tippling, this is a carryover from the two years of classical Greek taught at my Jesuit high school in St. Louis, where we covered sizable portions of both Homeric epics. I also took four years of Latin — Caesar, Cicero, Catullus and Virgil — but Greek left a deeper impression.
If construing Greek sounds like work, it’s really not. The hard part came decades ago, when my classmates and I memorized hundreds of vocabulary words and mastered the complex but orderly grammar. Also, the editions I use are generously annotated, and I’m not too proud to consult an English translation when I get stumped. For me, reading Greek is a pleasurable challenge, and the rewards . . . well, for those, let’s turn to Adam Nicolson, author of a stirring new book, “Why Homer Matters.”
Or, rather, let’s turn to Socrates, speaking in a passage quoted by Nicolson from Plato’s dialogue “Ion”: “The Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration.”
By extension, readers of Homer today, whether in the original or in translation, join a chain of inspiration that goes back to about 700 B.C., when the Homeric poems — already existing as oral extravaganzas — are thought to have been set down. In a way, though, the chain stretches even farther, to the period when the events depicted in the epics may have taken place, some perhaps as early as 1800 B.C. So, reading Homer today admits you to a club that spans the history of Western culture. And if you’re fanciful, you can imagine the club’s president as being none other than the Muse herself, whose first and arguably finest protege was Homer.
But was there such a person? Or two? Or more? Nicolson explores these questions at some length. An influential American scholar named Milman Parry sought out 20th-century Yugoslavian bards and, based on their performances, speculated as to how the rhapsodes (their ancient Greek counterparts) may have operated: bringing a core story to life by adding such details as came to mind and sprinkling in stock phrases (in Homer’s case, “rosy-fingered dawn,” “wine-dark sea,” etc.) to produce what Nicolson calls a “composition-in-performance.” Thus, what was heard by one audience might differ markedly from what was heard by the next.
That sounds right, especially when you consider the daunting challenge of memorizing and reciting works as long as the Homeric epics. But Celtic scholars dissented, citing, among other things, the work of a stonemason and storyteller named Duncan Macdonald: In 1953, he recited an hour-long tale almost word for word as he’d delivered it three years earlier. Similar feats of memory have come to light elsewhere, and why couldn’t the rhapsodes, living in an oral culture with a minuscule literacy rate, have matched or bettered such a degree of “curatorial exactness”? In other words, “The Iliad” and “Odyssey” that have come down to us may not be quasi-arbitrary versions dictated by performers with a license to improvise. We may have each poem in a one-and-only form, as reliable as holy writ. (It may be no accident that the subject of an earlier book by Nicolson is the making of the King James Bible.)
In any case, linguistic analysis suggests that each epic had its own author — its own Homer, if you will — working 30 to 40 years apart, with “The Iliad” coming first. As Stephen Mitchell notes in the introduction to his recent translation of “The Odyssey,” “It is remarkable that two geniuses flourished so close to each other in time, but no more remarkable than Aeschylus and Sophocles, Mozart and Beethoven, or Matisse and Picasso.”
To get a fix on the origins of the Greeks themselves, Nicolson traveled to what is now Ukraine. Citing numerous clues in the poetry and resemblances between tumuli (burial mounds) found on the Central Asian steppes and in Greece, he argues that the Greeks’ ancestors were grassland pastoralists and horse-taming raiders who migrated south. Around 1800 B.C., he says, “high-speed chariots, high-speed sailing ships and a warrior culture from the north all come together in the Aegean at the same moment. . . . This newly energized world is the meeting of cultures that Homer records.”
Speaking of that warrior culture, Nicolson reminds us that the two epic heroes have divergent views of war. Achilles sees it as “the source of human tragedy, Odysseus as the opportunity for self-advancement. And beyond them both stands Homer, the great voice of understanding . . . refusing to decide.”
Nicolson might have done more to evoke the spell cast by the poetry itself: for example, the brio of its dactylic hexameter (in his essay “On Translating Homer,” Matthew Arnold calls Homer “eminently rapid”). But Nicolson eloquently sums up what we still look for in Homer: “wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia.”
Photograph taken of the bust of Homer in the British Museum, London. Marble terminal bust of Homer. Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC. From Baiae, Italy. The so-called Hellenistic blind-type can be paralleled with figures of the Pergamon Altar, and the original of the type was perhaps created for the great library at Pergamon.