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.”

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