Saturday, April 24, 2010

Homer as Primary Allegory

Some of you will have heard me bang on about Homer before. For those others who haven’t been subjected to that little tirade, in brief, the Homeric epics contain primary allegory, that is to say, that they contain an additional level of meaning besides the basic sequence of events that the narrative presents. Secondary allegory, in distinction from a primary one, would means that they were interpreted by later generations of Greeks as allegories. The Homeric epics were of course interpreted allegorically at least from the beginning of the fourth century onwards, and I would not dispute that many of the interpretations offered are excessive and indeed do constitute a project of meaning onto the texts which is not actually contained therein.

I assert that they were written with another level of meaning in mind, and in particular this extra level of meaning can be seen in the representation of divine intervention. This assertion is by no means peculiar to me. In fact it has been a quite normal thread of interpretation since the fourth century. However in certain circles of scholarship, especially in the last few decades, there is a total denial of the presence primary allegory in the Homeric epics and an accompanying assertion that there is nothing but secondary allegory. This turn in Homeric scholarship can be aligned with the popularity of a theory of cultural disconnection between the periods in which the epics were created and the period in which the earliest allegorising that comes down to us was written. The former, an oral culture struggling to survive the turmoil of the dark ages and the disintegration of the Mycenaean social order, composed the works of the epic cycle, of which we have two complete, albeit composite, works, in the spirit of cultural preservation, as a veritable textbook of social norms and laws, of the meaning of honour, hospitality etc etc. The latter culture of fourth century Athens exists in an altogether different scenario. Not only it is a literate culture, with the conjunction of education, class and writing firmly cemented, but it is also a decadent culture that can engage in the kind of allegorical frivolity and literary stylistic adventures that can be found in the mass of writing that survives.

Now. On the one hand, what do we know about the composition of the Homeric works. Nothing at all. What do we know about oral culture, and the relation in oral cultures of memory and social education? Some. And what do we know bardic traditions that have survived in oral cultures recent enough for anthropologists to write about them? Some. But, no matter how many anthropological and linguistic studies are drawn upon in the past or the future, no quantity of such evidence can ever be assemble that should make us ignore the texts themselves. The Homeric epics are allegorical because it is in fact completely obvious that they are. In particular, when I tell people that Homer is allegorical I point to one example in particular that is, to my mind, utterly indisputable. What is disputable, and I will get to this in a moment, is the nature of the allegory. In fact, I suggest that there is a great deal to think about in the relationship between the events as they are literally described and the additional meaning that emerges only with interpretation. But, as I say, more of that to come.

The indisputable example that demonstrates that the Homeric epics contain an allegorical content is the scene with Odysseus and Athena on the beach in Ithaca in the 13th book of the Odyssey. On the one hand, Odysseus fails to recognise his homeland because Athene has covered it in a fog, but, on the other hand, consider the fact that Odysseus has been away for 20 years. A shepherd comes along the beach and Odysseus, while giving a cover story, asks the shepherd "where the bloody hell am I". The shepherd explains both that they are in Ithaca and that the king went to war twenty years ago and never came back. Suddenly, the shepherd is revealed to Odysseus as Athena and she lifts the fog from the landscape! The two of them then sit down to scheme how Odysseus is going to take revenge on the suitors. Athena at this moment specifically mentions that she cannot abandon Odysseus because he is so clever and then Athena disguises Odysseus, changing his face and clothes to resemble an old man in shabby clothing. Interpreted: what the shepherd says to Odysseus provides the insight that is key to his stratagem, that is, just as Odysseus failed to recognise his homeland, and the shepherd failed to recognise his king, so with little effort Odysseus can go in disguise. This disguise holds, with only a couple of exceptions, until the moment half way through Odysseus's massacre when Athena lifts the disguise she put on him and the suitors recognise him.

To maintain that Odysseus' disguise was straightforward superhuman magic that could have been provided by any god is just poor reading. And if one accepts that Athena’s presence in the narrative is related to the way that craftiness may effect the future, then the straightforward reading of the gods must be shaken. Up to this point, I only propose the argument the Athena’s intervention says something about the nature of Odysseus thought process, and that this reading requires going beyond how the text literally reads. Now, one could argue that what the text then means is that Oddyseus’s craftiness is in fact a divine intervention. But this would not be a denial of the allegory, but rather one way of understanding what the allegory is there to show.

The most basic feature of the allegorical Homer is to recognise the gods as personifications. This assumption is often rejected on the grounds that it involves a gross impiety that cannot be associated with the most prominent herald of Olympic religion. This too, I think, is a flawed argument. Rejecting primary allegory in Homer on the grounds that it is impious presumes that a clear opposition exists between religious faith in super-humans and an atheistic scepticism. Homeric religion thought through such a random act of faith is hardly a religion at all.

To see Homer's gods as personifications (that is, universal paradigms of life in the form of people who ‘personify’ these forms, Ares as warlike, Athena as clever, Aphrodite as sexually attractive, etc.) does not condemn the gods to be nothing but petty literary devices. On the contrary, the narrative form of the epic provides a framework for allowing the nature of the gods to show themselves most clearly. War, intellect and sexual attractiveness are powerful forces in the course of events and each not only provides dramatic changes in the narrative of reality, but also represent dynamic situations that shape the possibilities of what is to come. Take for instance the most frequently represented kind of situation in which the gods intervene in the Iliad, that is, the rise and fall of the spirits of the opposing armies and individual soldiers. The intervention of the gods, in the form of a few whispered words of encouragement in the ear of some young and impressionable nobleman, sets of a chain of events, an infectious courage that changes the direction of the battle. The power of rhetoric, exercised by the heroic cast (as well as the ‘troublemakers’ from lower ranks) is no meagre device, but rather is so prominent in the narrative because it shows how a person cause the world to change, the power of words can make all the difference.

To generalise: the intrinsic proximity of the content conveyed in the narrative to a theorisation of effect is rendered explicit in the representation of situations wherein the situation may turn. The tension contained in the stagnant war of the Iliad and the stagnant journey of the Odyssey provide the scenario for just this kind of theorisation. Obviously the standard reference to make at this moment would be Aristotle, “poetry is more philosophical than history, because history represents what happened while poetry represents what could happen.”

Antigone (allegory in Sophocles)

Apologies for the occaisonal linguistic crimes.

The first basic clue in moving between the two texts of allegory is narrative-anomaly. Anomalies are simply those aspects of the text that have no purpose in presenting the narrative. Allegories in the sense I am using that name here usually do not remain with a simple lesson that can form a post-script, like the “moral” fairy-tale. But this is not to say that the seamless narrative cannot contain links to the allegorical side, but rather that the potential for equivocation in language provides the material for crafting the difficult links.

The double entendre.
The double entendre is a way of achievement for the artist. An example: Haemon’s first lines, “you keep me straight with your good judgements, which I shall follow. Yes, in my eyes no marriage shall be more highly valued than your right guidance.” (ll. 635-638, my italics). But, Sophocles approaches Hermetic play from a curious angle. When a prophecy is first introduced in his plays, it is first of all univocal because it has already been interpreted, only later when the messenger quotes the exact words (and this is always marked out) is the double entendre visible. An example of this we can see clearly in the ‘Trachinae’. Deianeira interprets univocally and wrongly the dying promise of the monster Nessus: “If you take away in your hands the clotted blood from my wound … it shall be a charm for the mind of Heracles, so that he shall never more see and love another women instead of you.” (ll. 572-577) In hindsight the actual meaning is obvious, and Heracles madness and death does indeed prevent him from loving other women. But while the oracular prophecy is equivocal because it comes from a divine origin, or in other words the general, this quality cannot be directly exposed except through the outcome of the bad interpretation versus the good interpretation. The essence of the inaccessibility of truth is simplified in order to say what is inherently unsayable. Thus to represent the indistinguishability of truth and error, both must be distinguished in a way that the audience can see while the character subjected to this problematic cannot see.

Repetition is very much the same as the last of the three, echo, but these two point in a different direction. Repetition comes directly from the surface text, and leads to the sub-text. A preliminary assessment of the repetitions is crucial for building a basic vocabulary for the sub-text. The old and the new pivot upon another duality, learning and the divine. Creon is referred to as the new, neo, his rule runs contrary to tradition. On the other hand Antigone and Haemon stand for the young, they are referred to several times as so; their direct link with their own passions is commensurate with the divine law. It is only by use of the intellect applied to experience does one build up a potential to break with the state of things and become new. When Creon tells the Chorus his edict and that someone must guard the body of Polynices, the Chorus replies, “give this burden to some younger man to bear!” (l. 215). The Chorus maintains obedience and piety without contradiction, because the new by no means is necessarily impious. Piety and learning, we shall expose in our analysis at the end of this essay, shall play an important role in the play, citied of course in the concluding lines.

Echo moves in the other direction from repetition. When repetition is interpreted in its relation to the subtext is appears as an echo. Echo, however, has special relevance for the thesis of literisation as the saying of the unsayable. When the subtext echoes in the surface text this is not always an example of the conventional way that signification is found in conformity with the allegorical structure. The surface text means the subtext, but an echo can occur where the content of the sub-text is directly presented in the surface text, not only when the characters make universal reflections, often speaking more accurately than they could know, but also on the level of essential vocabulary. Echo exposes the literary when there is a one to one correspondence between the two texts, exposing that while the sub-text is unspeakable without the surface text it still can rely on nothing more significant than language. The finitude of language provides the unconscious limits of allegory. ‘Unsayable’ is still, after all, a word. It is only in this finitude that manifests economically in the one to one exchange of echoing that provides the bridge between the sayable and the unsayable. It also puts the author into the position where he may go beyond his own limits and the poetry may become divine.

The General and the Particular.
On the one hand the issue of interpreting the text can be understood by clarifying the relationship of the general and particular, on the other hand this division is also approached by Sophocles, which gives the manner he enters into the potential for allegorical meaning its peculiar intensity. The relation of general to particular participates in a plurality of problems, but the relationship is also an aetiology, that is, a scheme of interpretation. For instance, the error of anthropomophising gods can be explained through the misinterpretation of second-hand information, messages and especially oracular messages that have already been interpreted. The task we have, then, is to see how the general-particular relation participates in the new aetiological schemes that make up the generals that are actualised and particularised in the ‘Antigone’.
The top-down approach which looks only at participation as the finality of interpretation will not suffice, however. We have also our counter thesis that looks at the problem of suggesting that the actual can actuality represent the general. The general can never be exposed completely, but rather its unity must be distributed into the manifold, and we can only come to gather the actual nature of the problematic by seeing that it really does provide the aetiology for happiness and destruction.

Thus we have a main thesis and a minor thesis. The first lets us see how the ‘Antigone’ succeeds as philosophy; the second lets us see how it fails. The actualisation of the general or essence means that it shall be exposed to the problem of being mistaken. The general problem of the general only becomes actual in its problem insofar as an actual error happens and then is exposed as being caused by this general problematic. In the ‘Antigone’, the particulars manifest in several ways that we shall cover. The first one we shall look at is the essence of gender, the second shall be the essence of motivation, and the third is the various elements in the play culminating in the central matrix of problematic conditions, that is, Creon’s error as being explainable by the some of the generals outlined in the course of the play and there being a kind of solution available, although that solution is in rather response to the realisation that knowledge is not perfect, rather than providing a way to access the essence of right and justice.

Man and woman both have an essence, but in appearance become misinterpreted. We can see, similar to a double entendre, that each gender has an essence that participates in a manifold of appearances. The error becomes clear when one understands the general behind the particulars. The essence of woman is given in the opening dialogue of Antigone and Ismene. The essence of woman is obedience, self-sacrifice and service. Ismene voices the first two points:

… we must remember that we are women, who cannot fight against men, and then that we are ruled by those whose power is greater, so that we must consent to this and to other things even more painful! (ll. 61-64)

Ismene submits to Creon, and endures the pain of having her brother dishonoured. While Antigone submits to the gods of the underworld, and chooses to suffer the consequences of Creon’s punishment. Antigone voices the last point:

… I know that I am giving pleasure to those I must please most! (l. 89)

But obedience to opposed commands can appear as opposition, an essence of man, not woman. Hence Antigone is mistakenly thought to possess the spirit of a man.

A similar mistake is made in the dialogue between Haemon and Creon. Therein, the essence of woman and man, and the interpretation of the same thing becoming opposite, recur. Creon accuses Haemon of fighting on behalf of the woman, and Haemon retorts that this would be true only if Creon was the woman, because Haemon is fighting on behalf of Creon.

Because I see that you are offending against justice!

Am I offending when I show regard for my office?

You show no regard when you trample on the honours due to the gods!

Contemptible character, inferior to a woman!

You will not find me vanquished by what is shameful.

Well, everything you say is on behalf of her.

And of you and of me, and of the infernal gods!

(ll. 744-749)

The essences of man and woman are by necessity preserved, but in the chaos of the manifold of obedience and reverence they become confused and inseparable. Creon continually reduces the content of other people’s speech to a division of friend and enemy, but he is thereby unable to assess any speech regarding its value.

Consider the interchange of Tiresias and Creon on the mutual accusations of profit-mongering. Previously, Antigone has already named Creon’s error when she says, “… kingship is fortunate (eudaimonei) in many ways …” (l. 506). Creon accuses Tiresias of seeking gain, and by this he means that bad actions come from bribes. Tiresias returns the accusation with a difference, by this he means that the general perversion of gain does not only apply to the particularity of bribes. Creon is not accused of not taking the lesson to heart, but that he has learnt the lesson wrongly. The general alone harbours the potential for assessing particularly on a case by case basis, whereas Creon’s rule combines judgement with the rule. All laws must come from the universal that allows the initial judgement, but Creon learns wrongly by adopting a single application of a general as a rule to be applied universally. Tiresias is the personification of the sight that keeps on the generals and sees the generals still existing within the particulars.

The issue of counsel is the one that should most confuse those people trying to read the ‘Antigone’ as a text commensurate with idealist philosophy. The last lines of the chorus speak of counsel and piety together. That makes perfect sense when one sees that there is no such thing as divine law, if by those words we mean laws like those delivered by man. Sophocles sees that the divine is a legitimate concept if it means the universal, and thus it is also conflated with the koinon, the share of the polis. The gods, as universals, are misunderstood and consider like particulars, but as we observe with Creon, the realm of particulars can be bent when used for apprehension. Hence, in rulership of oneself or the polis, counsel becomes necessary.

The second song of the Chorus that Heidegger sees as opening the space of the essence of the play does indeed do just that. But the culmination of the ‘ode to man’ in the notion of counsel is suppressed by Heidegger to an add-on condition that needs to be explained away. Creon throughout the play is behaving like the pre-political man. He refers to his people as animals. He has all intention of behaving in accordance with the gods, but is not in accordance with the true place of the shared laws of the polis: in the feelings of loving bonds, the experience of age and most importantly the traditions which belong to the polis as what individuate the polis. Heidegger draws our attention to the crucial lines of the choral ode: “Pantoporos; aporos” (l. 360) and “Hupsipolis; apolis” (l. 370)[4]. Heidegger interprets the first formulae to mean that man, in attempting to go forth on the way, ends up beyond all knowledge of going forth, and becomes faced with the threat of calamity. The second he understands to mean that the uncanny man in going beyond all ways that remain within the foreseeable, cannot be part of polis which the uncanny man creates. The suggestion that the ode regards the division between the creator and the obedient subject is both radical and wrong. No man has the power to create a state in its essence. The share (koinon) and laws (nomos) that define the interior, individuated space of the polis, indeed a kind of site of history, is not the product of one man, nor does the original uncanny man create these things actively. They happen through the nature of the gods which in the extent of allegorical thinking is inseparable with language. The formulae speak of the tension within which the polis survives and situates an inside and an outside of the polis. The rules of the state are in some sense relative, but they still cannot become absolutely present or simplified. Only by sustaining vague general laws that may be adjusted to the situation, and by the vague legitimacy of consensus, is the polis itself run smoothly. What companions such a general notion of good rulership is the necessity of an even temper.

The scene with Tiresias is crucial for exposing the essence of the play and the wordplay in the scene is suitably delicate. We shall proceed line-by-line including the Greek where the English fails us.

Enter Tiresias, guided by a boy.

Lord of Thebes, we have come journeying together [hekomen koinen hodon: we have come sharing the way], two with one pair of eyes; the blind have this way of travelling with a guide. (ll. 988-990)

Even in this opening remark the meaning will be split and the division, while on the one hand shall be a double-meaning made possible for the words to mean more than they mean, the pointing at other words shall be exchangeable with the language existing in relation with an unseen world. Tiresias can see every double meaning, and that is the most important key for understanding what Tiresias says. Still, this is not yet clear. ‘The blind’ obviously refers to more than literal blindness; Tiresias in the second exchange reveals his general message to be a simple one to accept good council. Creon dismisses everyone’s help by interpreting them through his key: ‘all seek their own profit, not mine, nor the state’s’. But the simple meaning is not the real meaning. By revealing the meaning Tiresias disguises the meaning because, as always, the true meaning is not one that can be taken to heart as a singular rule. It is the movement, however, from the impossible to the possible that is most crucial to see, otherwise the play can produce nothing but the kind of lessons from experience that Creon has. The true lesson, which leaves open a connection of the letter of the law with the unspeakable divine, is piety. The real tension shall appear at the crucial moment, all I can do is prepare one to catch a glimpse of it.

… what is it, aged Tiresias, that is new? (l. 991)
[ti d’estin, O geraie Teiresia, neon?]

The second line also cuts deep into the subtext, this time obviously without Creon’s notice. Eternal and new, old and young, experience and change, these are oppositions where the potential for error and the potential for plurality occur.

I will explain [didaxō: bring you to understand], and do you obey [pithou: be convinced, see below] the prophet! (l. 992)

Tiresias has little chance of communicating to Creon that trust here is not a leap into the unknown but instead into clear sight. Tiresias does not make the decision for Creon, but can only bring him to where the decision is to be made. But the vision that Tiresias brings is not sight in the normal sense, I cannot say that enough. The general does not inhabit the particulars as conditions that play no part in the world. The gods, or better named, the eternals, participate in every particular and are indistinguishable from the extent of their potential. Thus the connection of piety with truth is neither completely on the side of the general or particulars but rather in seeing the blindness and deception implicit in the attempt to do good. Pithou means more than to bring a person in line, it plays on its root: peisma or peitheō is the cable that draws a ship and moors it. Thus Tiresias plays upon the duality of who controls the ship, he or Creon.

Now a few lines in succession, as what we have pointed to without sufficient evidence in the first three lines shall become clearer as this exchange concludes.

In the past I have not been used to depart from your counsel.

That is why you steered the ship of this city straight.

I can testify from experience [peponthōs: from hardship, see below] that it was profitable.

Think, for you are again upon a razor’s edge!

What is the matter! Your way of speaking frightens me!

You shall learn, when you hear the indications of my art!

(ll. 993-998)

The middle two lines here are the crucial turn. Peponthōs looses all sense when translated only as experience, it speaks specifically of what is not of ones own doing, hardship and suffering that is thrust upon one. The double of passive and active in the two words pithou and peponthōs is what Creon does not recognise, while the doubling is precisely what Tiresias wants him to understand. The razors edge in the fourth line refers to invisible possibility of truth and error that Creon is faced with. For Tiresias this is always given through language; the prophet sees with his ears.

Let us return our focus for a moment upon the central thesis here. The presentation of the indistinguishability of truth and error can only be presented through the presentation of the suffering caused by the outcome of the problem, which in effect means that the two become distinguishable only when they become present as actually being the cause of some calamity. But in order for the actual manifestation to mean the non-manifestable, the allegorical structure must break with the interiority of the text representing only actualisation. Every echo, repetition and double entendre builds up the vocabulary in order for the language to take up the role of opposing all concrete truth and events in order to, on the one hand, give a totalising theory to human condition and, on the other hand, show the concrete presence of the absent, the aporia of absolute truth and thus the moral imperative that oneself is not necessarily more trustworthy than another.

Tiresias’ last line of the exchange and the first line of his initial speech parallel the artist’s intentions well. The story Tiresias tells is itself an allegory, one however imminent to the matter at hand. As an allegory, Tiresias’ art here is not that of prophecy. Through language Tiresias wants to communicate in a way that is incompatible with simply showing. However, the speech in its structure is not oracular. With oracular structure the universal realm of the gods comes to stand in the world through language that maintains an equivocation; the equivocation, while by the restrictions of the world appears as two univocal statements combined, is actually more than this and always says more than it says. But, Tiresias’ speech here is deception. It is crafted not to miscommunicated into a world that is home to simple meanings, but to communicate in the face of the difficulties of Creon’s obstinacy. The passage brings Creon to connect his actions with their outcomes, which yet remain, except to Tiresias, unseen.

As I took my place on my ancient seat for observing birds, where I can mark every bird of omen, … (ll. 999-1000)

The ancient seat is the rulership of Thebes. This passage links back with the second ode of the Chorus. In that ode man’s ability, thought cleverness, to gain power over animals resolves and settles into man’s ability, through temperament, to rule cities. Throughout the ‘Antigone’, Creon has referred to his subjects as animals, for example when he says,

But long since men in the city who find it hard to bear me have been murmuring against me, unwilling to keep their necks beneath the yoke, as justice demands, so as to put up with me. (ll. 289-292)

Thus Creon is already taking a step backwards in his uncanniness to the stage of outwitting animals, to think that justice is simply submission to his rule. He thinks that submission is the condition wherein the state may be secured, and independence is the condition wherein the state will fall.

When Tiresias says, “where I can mark every bird of omen” this also points to an earlier part of the play, that is, Creon’s trust in his own ability to observe danger. Creon speaks of this in his opening speech wherein he outlines all of the laws he hold best. While he denounces all that would refrain from counsel due to fear, he then claims that he has no such fear and shall declare all dangers. Thus from the position of rulership his task is to observe the signs from his people.

Let us look at the next lines to see how this unfolds.

… I heard a strange sound among them, since they were screeching with dire incoherent frenzy; and I knew that they were tearing each other with bloody claws, for there was a whirring of wings that made it clear. (ll. 1001-1004)

Creon is pressed to action due to the calamity the state has suffered due to the war, and his actions are clearly in response to this. But, as Tiresias emphasises, it is impossible to completely understand the situation. The situation itself has exceeded beyond sense and has become frenzy, and thus the response must be radical as well as drawing back on the source from which all arises.

At once I was alarmed, and attempted burnt sacrifice at the alter where I kindled fire; but the fire god raised no flame form my offerings. (ll. 1004-1007)

Creon has attempted to respond to the new situation with a sacrifice of Polynices, but he has lost touch with any ability to judge the success or failure of the sacrifice and this is what Tiresias wants him to see.

Over the ashes a dank slime oozed from the thigh bones, smoked and spluttered; the gall was sprayed high into the air, and the thighs, streaming with liquid, lay bare of the fat that had concealed them. (ll. 1007-1011)

Two things are combined, the first is the spreading of the liquid which points to the streaming blood over Haemon and Antigone at the end, repeated in Eurydice’s suicide, the second is the exposure of the failure that was concealed by fat, piōn, which also means riches.

Such was the ruin of the prophetic rites by which I vainly sought a sign, as I learned from this boy; for he guides me as I guide others. (ll. 1012-1014)

The failure of the attempt is given by the boy; Creon must listen to his people, as his law was not arbitrarily intended, but intended to stop civil unrest, the failure of his attempt thus can only be given through counsel. Thus, Tiresias ends his story by summarising its importance for Creon, that is, that mistakes are not bad unless they are compounded with obstinacy. Tiresias has managed to mediate all of the factors of the general situation, and can see precisely Creon’s error, rather than as most people who may only perceive Creon simply being opposed to them. Creon does not listen, of course, but instead apprehends Tiresias’ speech still as only the product of a bribe. The argument begins again:

Alack! Does any man know, does any man understand―

What thing? What is the general (pankoinon) statement that you are making?

How much the best of all possessions is good counsel!

(ll. 1048-1050)

By this stage, realising his failure to communicate, Tiresias looses his temper and reveals what he is truly thinking. That same turning of rhetoric into angry exposure happened to Antigone and Haemon after their own attempts to convince subtly failed.

Allegory is employed by Tiresias to communicate the good, but it is also an art. The skill of writing allegory is not to be separated from the skill of analysing and communicating the nature of a personal or political dilemma. Tiresias is impossible outside literature, because he carries with him an intensification of the omniscience of authorial privilege. He shall always be right, but in the situation of allegorical intensity, the truth has become a truth requiring of more skill to say than is guaranteed by authorial privilege, and thus a lesser author than Sophocles could not put words into the mouth of Tiresias at all.