The Poem Remembers

From the April 2015 Print Edition

Why Homer Matters

by adam nicolson

henry holt and co., 
320 pages, $30

Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue: Creating the Foundations of Classical Civilization
by peter j. ahrensdorf

cambridge, 278 pages, $45
The question of Homer’s existence is a little like the question of God’s. There, unquestionably, like the universe, are the Iliad and the Odyssey: but how did they come to be there? Were they composed by a single author, or were they ­gradually pieced together, as the classicist ­Richard Bentley said in 1713, from “a sequel of Songs and ­Rhapsodies, to be sung . . . for small earnings and good cheer, at Festivals and other days of Merriment; the Ilias he made for the Men, and the Odysseis for the other Sex”? In Bentley’s opinion, “these loose songs were not collected together in the form of an Epic Poem, till ­Pisistratus’s time about 500 years after.” In other words, for Bentley and those in the “analyst” tradition, what we think we mean by the name ­Homer—the supreme organizing ­poetic intelligence of these works—is in fact an illusion, like God to Richard Dawkins. Reading the poems in terms of their overall unity and artistic design is an exercise in self-delusion. To those in the “unitarian” camp—where I include myself—the grandeur and coherence of Homer’s designs are everywhere evident, whoever Homer might turn out to be; the poems must be understood in much the same way that we understand the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, or King Lear. Two new books celebrating Homer give readers a way to revisit the Homeric question from widely different perspectives. Both Adam Nicolson, author of Why ­Homer Matters, and Peter J. ­Ahrensdorf in Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue: Creating the Foundations of Classical Civilization quote Bentley’s saucy dismissal of Homeric unity. For Nicolson, it’s an entertaining and fairly accurate, if small-souled, way of describing the origins of the Homeric poems. As he puts it in a recent interview for National Geographic, “I think it’s a mistake to think of Homer as a person. Homer is an ‘it.’ A tradition. An entire culture coming up with ever more refined and ever more understanding ways of telling stories that are important to it.” For Nicolson, this tradition goes back to a widespread Bronze Age culture two thousand years or more before current estimates for the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey. “The whole of the Iliad,” he writes, “is a hymn to the scale of remembering of which epic is capable. The world forgets, but the poem remembers. . . . Only the gods can know as much as the poem knows.” Continue Reading »

Search Me, O God

From the June/July 2013 Print Edition

What is most alarming about popular young adult novelist Cory Doctorow’s vision is the understanding of God that he proffers. Feeling the indifference of the universe does not plunge him into an abyss of meaninglessness, as one might think: It liberates him from this inner Big Brother. . . . . Continue Reading »

Pieties and Pixels

From Web Exclusives

Last May and June, our daughter Therese and two friends, all a year out of college, walked for over six hundred miles on the millennium-old pilgrimage route from southern France across the Pyrenees and the breadth of northern Spain to St. James Compostela. Therese did not take a single picture. When . . . . Continue Reading »