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Homer’s Literacy

In response to:

Becoming Homer from the March 5, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed reading Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ authoritative survey of the current state of the “oral vs. written” debate in Homeric studies [“Becoming Homer,” NYR, March 5] and was happy to see two of my own early publications credited for what they contributed at the time (1968, 1976) to that complex dialogue, although my position on the question has in fact changed since then. I agree with Professor Lloyd-Jones that good scholars have made attractive arguments for either side. But I believe that we cannot get closer to a conclusive judgment about orality or literacy by the unfavorable comparison of stylistically simple Yugoslavian epic to Homer’s more complex poetry. There is no reason why Homeric poetry cannot also be oral, but formed within a more verbally sophisticated tradition than the Serbo-Croatian, and culminating in a master poet (Homer) who is a far greater genius than any poet found in twentieth-century Yugoslavia. Similarly, citing David Shive’s demonstration that the naming formulas for Achilles show more variety and less economy than Parry’s theory would allow, merely demonstrates the inadequacy of that theory in its original form to account for the richness of this one verbal system. The narrowness of Shive’s focus precludes his judgments having a significant effect on our view of the diction as a whole, which remains incontrovertibly a highly traditional and formulaic diction. Moreover, no Homerist nowadays accepts Parry’s theory in the rigid and dogmatic version he originally set forth (the version Shive attacks). As with many radical and epoch-making theories, adjustments and revisions have followed in abundance, without completely replacing the oral theory in its essence, which remains persuasive to many. Shive’s study is not a successful refutation of the theory but an important contribution to its ongoing revision.

Professor Lloyd-Jones enlists me on the anti-oralist side of the great debate. But I must point out that only the first of my articles he cites, “Homer Against his Tradition” (Arion 7, 1968, pp. 275–295), takes the position that Homer’s composition is orally derived but probably indebted to literacy. My view on this complex question has been constantly evolving, and the main point of my second article cited (“Is Oral or Aural Composition the Cause of Homer’s Formulaic Style?,” in Oral Literature and the Formula, edited by B. Stolz and R. Shannon, Center for the Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies, 1976) was that we must be agnostic on the question of oral or written composition because the evidence is inconclusive. My essay is indeed, as Lloyd-Jones says, a criticism of Albert Lord’s views—specifically, of his argument that a high density of formulaic language in an epic tradition is a conclusive indicator of oral compositional technique (a view that Lord eventually abandoned in 1986). My own position was that the salient feature of Homeric style is its use of traditional patterning on multiple levels (metrics, rhythm, phrase, whole-verse, and theme), and that rather than claiming these features as “proof” of an oral style we do better to see them as indicators of an “aural” style, one based on an esthetic of regularity and repetition and fashioned to please the ear and the listener’s sense of traditional expectations frequently fulfilled in several dimensions. The poet’s creative departures from expectation take place against a background of reliable dictional, rhythmical, and thematic features, so that tradition and innovation can each have its way.

As a continual reader and teacher of Homeric and later epic, my view of Homer’s orality has continued to evolve as I have repeatedly compared the singular quality of his diction to that of both writing and oral poets. My more recent publications, when they address the issue of orality (e.g., “Oral Style as Performance Style in Homer’s Odyssey: Should we Read Homer Differently after Parry?” in J.M. Foley, editor, Comparative Research on Oral Traditions, 1987) take the position that Homer’s text has too many features that suggest oral composition to allow us to imagine a fully literate composer. Believers in a literate Homer constantly emphasize his verbal finesse and the overall coherence and subtlety of his plot, characterization, imagery, and other features of his storyteller’s art, as if such qualities could proceed only from a pen-poet. I believe such an assessment seriously underestimates the verbal sophistication possible in a first rate practitioner within a first rate oral tradition.

Oxford University Press has just published a new three-volume Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey that will be the standard work for generations to come. Significantly, of the six contributors, of whom I am one, some believe in oral composition, some prefer to see a writing Homer, and some take no clear position on the question. My own position (probably not subject to much more “evolution” at this point), stated on pp. 15–16 of Vol. 3, attempts to reconcile the possibilities of oral composition and “literary” values as follows:

But whatever we think about the genesis of the texts before us, there can be no doubt that their style has some resemblance to an oral style and some indebtedness to a long oral tradition…. My personal view is that the Homeric epics were composed without the aid of writing, but with a high degree of deliberate artistry. The Iliad and Odyssey must have been viewed by Homer and his audiences as his masterpieces, and in a successful career as singer of tales he must have been called upon to perform them many times. Such repeated performance amounts to a form of rehearsal whose final product, while retaining small imperfections, would achieve impressive dimensions and large-scale design. It is such a text that I believe we have before us.

Joseph Russo
Professor of Classics
Haverford College
Haverford, Pennsylvania

Hugh Lloyd-Jones replies:

I am sorry if I have misrepresented the views of my friend Professor Russo; the nature of my allusions to his works was determined by the task of reviewing Lord’s book. I do not believe, any more than he does, that we can “get closer to a conclusive judgment about orality or literacy by the unfavorable comparison of stylistically simple Yugoslavian epic to Homer’s more complex poetry.” I believe Homer to have used writing because I know of no poetry that is “complex” in the way his poetry is that was composed orally. If I am right in believing that the Greek alphabet was invented long before the eighth-century date long accepted by most classical scholars, the poets had a long time in which to learn to use it before the Homeric poems were composed.

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