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.”

Ahrensdorf’s perspective very much requires the active presence of a single author, indeed, a thinker of major importance, whose poems are “the cohesive political, moral, and theological teachings of a theoretical mind.” He dismisses Bentley with Jonathan Swift’s judgment of him—“the most deformed of all the Moderns.”

It is curious, to say the least, that Nicolson’s book, coming at Homer by dissolving the poet into an “it,” should be so intensely personal, so vivid and poetic in feel and scope, so adept at evoking the atmosphere of the poems, while Ahrensdorf, arguing for a single poet, proceeds methodically and impersonally, as though irony and imaginative breadth, mythological contexts, and sudden shifts of emotion and dramatic displacements were alien to the philosophic Homer he imagines. Ahrensdorf takes what the gods say, for example, at face value. When Zeus explains his reluctance to grant Thetis’s request to honor ­Achilles, the god says that it will cause him problems with Hera, and Ahrensdorf professes—at least exoterically—to believe that this quarrel, quickly addressed and dismissed by the end of book 1 of the Iliad, is in fact the god’s central concern. Ahrensdorf professes to believe that Zeus in book 2 simply doesn’t understand how men will behave when he sends Agamemnon a false dream—that he will capture Troy that day, the very first day of battle without Achilles—and Agamemnon then proposes to the Greeks that they all go home. The stampede for the ships is in fact the first move in Zeus’s complex plan to honor Achilles.

Ahrensdorf makes no attempt to imagine what it takes to fashion the kleos aphthiton, the imperishable fame, of Achilles, or why Zeus might agree, in effect, to indenture himself to a mortal to bring it about. Rather, in the only colloquialism he allows himself in the book, Ahrensdorf avers that Zeus makes himself ridiculous in book 14 by forgetting the battle of the Achaians “because he suddenly gets the hots for his wife, the goddess Hera.” Instead of thinking into the mindfulness of Zeus—what might really give him pause when Thetis in book 1 first asks him to honor Achilles? what might keep the greatest god wakeful late into the night at the beginning of book 2?—Ahrensdorf concludes exactly what most freshmen conclude: that the gods are irresponsible, shallow, inconsistent, and unfair.

Is this really to be understood as Homer’s esoteric teaching about the gods? Ahrensdorf counts all the passages that supposedly lull inattentive audiences into trusting the providence of a fatherly Zeus: The Achaians and Trojans refer to “Father Zeus” twenty-seven times; the gods themselves call him “Father” nineteen times; and Homer himself calls him “Father” twenty-nine times and “Father of Gods and Men” thirteen times. These numbers in themselves do not signify anything in particular, but counting words and phrases quantifies Ahrensdorf’s argument that there is an exoteric teaching about the paternal care of Zeus.

My impatience with Ahrensdorf’s approach, I admit, stems from a general sympathetic annoyance with readings of literature by political philosophers influenced by the teachings of Leo Strauss, as Ahrensdorf is. I am sympathetic because they take literature very seriously in its ancient teaching role, but annoyed because many of them seem impatient with the imaginative experience that is the very soul of the poem. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, underlies much of what Ahrensdorf discovers in Homer. When these concepts from Aristotle emerge, they almost always remind me of a passage in John Crowe ­Ransom: “We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.” To be fair, Ahrensdorf rarely lays hold of images at all, but confines himself largely to the arguments in speeches.

His argument also reminds me of what Eva Brann once quipped in my hearing: “A Straussian is someone who thinks that everybody else should believe in God.” If a poet—including Dante—merits a Straussian reading, it will turn out that God is a useful fiction to keep the ignorant underclasses morally docile. Ahrensdorf’s Homer appears to be a thoroughgoing Straussian. Ahrensdorf even wants to free him from the Muse; he credits the poet with using “similes, beautiful and elaborate similes, that make one increasingly aware of the powers of observation, the rich experience, and the fertile imagination of the mind that composes them.” He cites a number of these without comment—there are two hundred ninety-seven altogether, it seems, in the Iliad—and then concludes that they are “treasures of humane insight and wisdom.” His point, however, is that, in making these observations, “the human poet emerges unmistakably out from the shadow of the divine Muse.”

The shadow of the divine Muse? I would say, rather, that the greatness of Homer lies in the fact that he depicts a world everywhere charged with a divine shining, especially where it is most human. Without the upward appeal to the Muse and divine memory, without the beauty of the gods who add dimensions of shimmering luminosity and literal weight (consider Athena’s effect on the axle of Diomedes’s chariot) to the mortal plane, the Homeric world would fade into Wordsworth’s “light of common day.” Homer’s gods are necessary for human perception, like Wallace Stevens’s “necessary angel” in whose sight “you see the earth again, / Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set.” For ­Ahrensdorf, any encounter with the divine apparently diminishes the man who suffers it. He never seems to ask seriously what Homer’s gods might be for,except to be morally counted out. But in terms of poetry: When Athena kindles a flame from the head of Achilles and amplifies his murderous shout as he appears unarmed beside the ditch to rescue the body of Patroklos, does she diminish who he is? Not at all. She begins to reveal explicitly the supreme importance that the rest of the poem unfolds.

These objections aside, Ahrensdorf makes a strong—indeed, to my mind, irrefutable—argument that the apparently dutiful, home-loving Hektor is in fact anything but that; in Ahrensdorf’s treatment, ­Achilles rightly emerges as the more profoundly thoughtful and ultimately more compassionate man. A little less convincingly, Odysseus, who is supposedly more rational and therefore more admirable than Achilles, comes to appear in Ahrensdorf’s examination of him as a monster of ambition. In Ahrensdorf’s view, Odysseus suspends his famous intelligence to trust in divine providence when he does everything Athena tells him back in Ithaca; this trust gives him permission for the overwhelming, indiscriminate rage—the “blind fury” and “blind embrace of piety and reliance on divine assistance”—that ­Ahrensdorf sees as characterizing Odysseus at the end of the poem.

One cannot help but recognize Odysseus’s trust in Athena, but I fail to see why it should be considered a moral flaw, and I see no evidence for a “blind fury” that shows his subjection to passion. Ahrensdorf praises the diviner Leiodes, whom Odysseus kills because he realizes that this man must have prayed for his death. Besides, what kind of diviner could not see this disaster coming on the suitors, as Telemachos’s friend ­Theoklymenos does? Telemachos makes no plea for Leiodes, as he does for the herald ­Medon and the singer Phemios, both of whom Odysseus spares—hardly evidence of blind fury. After the slaughter, Odysseus does not allow the old maid Eurykleia to raise the cry of triumph, and he cleanses the palace with fire and brimstone, a strong suggestion that he enacts not his own blind passion but obedience to the divine retribution mandated by the plan of Athena and Zeus, no doubt for the sake of the immortal poem to be sung about it.

Criticism of Odysseus’s harshness is, interestingly, one of the points on which ­Ahrensdorf agrees with the author of Why Homer Matters. Adam Nicolson, a British peer who has written on subjects as diverse as uninhabited islands in the Hebrides, the making of the King James Bible, and the phenomenon of Arcadianism, has a boldly personal approach to Homer, whose spirit he first truly discovered on a difficult voyage across the North Atlantic in his forty-two-foot sailboat. One morning, he was sailing north from the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway to round the tip of Ireland and head to Scotland. “The Auk surged on the wind that morning, heeling out into the Atlantic,” he writes, “churning her way north, horselike in her strength. I don’t know when I have felt so happy. Steering across the swells, holding the wheel against them as they came through, releasing it as they fell away, I tied the great Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey on the compass binnacle, holding it open with a bungee cord against the wind. That morning I read the story of the Sirens.”

It’s hard to resist a passage like this one—the feel of the sea, the spirited, allusive play between images: the Odyssey bound to the binnacle, Odysseus tied to the mast. Even the description of his ship as “horselike in her strength” is deeply Homeric. Nicolson makes the comparison of ships and horses more explicit later in his chapter “Homer on the Steppes,” where he argues that the original Greeks were a northern warrior culture from the steppe lands stretching eastward from Ukraine far into Russia who appropriated a new Mediterranean ship culture about 1800 b.c. “High-speed chariots, high-speed sailing ships and a warrior culture from the north all come together in the Aegean at the same moment, which is also the moment the Homeric poems are born.” This date is at least six hundred years earlier than the usually accepted date of the ­Trojan War.

Nicolson writes with great vividness and appeal, but his Homer is unquestionably the one that James Porter describes in a passage cited by Ahrensdorf: His texts are “something like an archaeological site, with layers of history built into them in a palpable stratigraphy.” ­Nicolson’s most controversial argument in this vein is what he considers a deep memory of the steppes that long predates the arrival of the Greeks in the Aegean. For example, Tiresias’s instructions to Odysseus in the underworld (that he should carry an oar until someone mistakes it for a winnowing fan) are really about the necessity of ­Odysseus’s return to the deep, ancestral origin of the Greeks in the north. Nicolson finds evidence for this origin in the nomadic warrior culture of Achilles, who is essentially indifferent to possessions. Achilles is the natural opponent to the palace culture that characterizes Troy and that dominates the more civilized Mediterranean world—Egypt, for example—that Menelaos encounters in the Odyssey.

Nicolson is full of speculations and observations, and his accounts are fascinating, somewhat in the vein of Bruce Chatwin, even where they add little to one’s understanding of Homer. For example, he speculates that the underworld of the Odyssey in book 11 was a Bronze Age mining district in western Spain where the Rio Tinto and the Rio Odiel form “garishly colored mineral valleys” that suit a Homeric idea of hell. In this same vein, perhaps, is Nicolson’s description of having been raped at knifepoint by a Syrian near the Temple of Baal in Palmyra. He includes this episode, I think, to reveal something of the personal character of fear and courage in Bronze Age combat, but his confessional candor is disconcerting. Elsewhere, in a chapter called “Homer’s Mirror,” Nicolson argues that the Philistines of the Old Testament (speaking of Baal) were actually invading Achaians, whose champion Goliath meets young David in “a version of the Homeric arming of the hero and the single-combat meeting of warriors.” The upshot is “the view of Greek heroism given us by the Hebrew scriptures: weak and bombastic compared to the clarity and strength of the pious mind.”

Nicolson’s interpretations of Homer tend toward general statements. For example, the “double status” of Odysseus as both “Nobody” and king “may describe a historical situation—the marginality of people who were heroes to themselves—but it also addresses a permanent human condition. My own world may cultivate me, ennoble me, even heroize me, but what possible significance beyond the confines of home can those labels have?” (Heroize? But let that pass.) In other places, Nicolson’s ­theories become an imposition. For example, he writes that in making the great offer to Achilles in book 9 of the Iliad, ­Odysseus does not repeat ­Agamemnon’s last sentence—that Achilles should submit to him—­because Odysseus knows that “the steppe-consciousness of Achilles will not accept an overking.” I suspect that Achilles would be alarmed to find that he has a “steppe-consciousness,” and I doubt that he would want this hobbyhorse of Nicolson’s harnessed to his chariot. My initial delight in the book, especially ­Nicolson’s vivid account of the circumstances that led to Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” gradually waned because of interpretations like this one and because of such chapters as “The Gang and the City,” which argues ­vividly—but who has not already thought this?—that the warrior world of the Iliad has its ­parallels in the behavior of street gangs.

What is best in Nicolson’s book comes back to his own experience of the sea. He wins over his flagging reader in the last chapter by describing the storm that Poseidon brings upon Odysseus in book 5 of the Odyssey: “If there is one fact that a storm seems to impose,” he writes, “it is the sea’s mysterious dominance from below. A storm-driven sea appears to acquire a vitality and viciousness, a desire to do damage, which has nothing to do with the wind but comes from inside its own enraged, destroying body. If you ever have that sensation, it is when you are meeting Poseidon.” His descriptions of seabirds are even better—the way the wind pulls them away, “high and fast, in a rapid downwind run, which they end by curving slowly around to windward again, pure authority, taking up station, living with the fluency and command their liquid world requires.” Leukothea, the white goddess who appears as a seabird to Odysseus during the storm, has never been more vividly disclosed.   

Glenn Arbery is associate professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.