• Email
  • Print

Performing Homer

In response to:

As Many Homers As You Please from the November 20, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

I read with interest the review [NYR, November 20, 1997] of Poetry as Performance (Cambridge University Press) and Homeric Questions (University of Texas Press), which raises an important question: How can a literary critic interpret Homeric poetry in view of its heritage as oral poetry? Your reviewer conscientiously outlines the fundamentals of oral poetics, but then he goes right back to reading Homer as the author of a text (a key to his approach is his reference to “the poet” at p. 48). By contrast, my two books offer a different method of reading Homer. I view the Homeric text as a product of an underlying system, which is Homeric poetry. It is a mistake, I suggest, to assume that the text is the same thing as the system.

Your reviewer’s concerns about my methods and results center on what I wrote in a third book, The Best of the Achaeans (Johns Hopkins University Press), a new edition of which is just about to appear. He focuses on that book’s interpretation of two key Homeric passages: the “embassy scene” in Iliad IX and the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey viii. Since my new introduction to The Best of the Achaeans directly addresses your reviewer’s main concerns, I offer here a summary.

From the standpoint of oral poetics, each occurrence of a theme (on the level of content) or of a formula (on the level of form) in a given composition-in-performance refers not only to its immediate context but also to all other analogous contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience. This perspective alters the way we look at the meaning of any particular passage in the Homeric text. Whatever we admire in our two-dimensional text did not just happen one time in one performance—but countless times in countless reperformances within the three-dimensional continuum of a specialized oral tradition. The resonances of Homeric meaning, with all its musicianly exactitude, can be appreciated only within the larger context of a long history of repeated performances.

In Homeric Questions, pp. 138-145, I apply this approach to the “embassy scene” of Iliad IX. I invite your readers to look at the results of my close readings, which show that Homeric poetry is indeed a complex artistic system, and that this system can be explained precisely in terms of oral poetics.

This approach accounts also for the poetic subtleties of the other passage in question, the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8.73-82:

73 The Muse impelled the singer to sing the glories [klea] of men,

74 from a story-thread which had at that time a glory [kleos] reaching the vast heavens:

75 the quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles son of Peleus,

76 how they once upon a time [pote] fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods,

79 For thus had oracular Phoebus Apollo prophesied…

81 For then [tote gar] it was that the beginning of pain [pêma] started rolling

82 upon both Trojans and Danaans, on account of the plans of great Zeus.

By virtue of referring to a specific point in epic time, the wording tote gar “for then it was…” at verse 81 refers also to a specific point in a notionally total and continuous narration extending into the current narrative. Hayden Pelliccia, at pp. 185-186 of his 1985 Yale Ph.D. thesis (for which I was proud to serve as outside reader), offers evidence to show that tote “then” in such contexts serves “to return to the time-frame introduced by the earlier temporal adverb.” In this case, as he shows, that temporal adverb is pote “once upon a time” at verse 76.

To “return to the time-frame introduced by the earlier temporal adverb” is a matter of performance, not just composition. The blind singer is here being represented as establishing the meaning of his composition by way of performance.

Contact is being made between the micronarrative of Odyssey 8.72-83 and the macronarrative of the Iliad. A key is the word pêma “pain” in Odyssey 8.81. This “pain” signals an Iliadic theme, which can be summarized as follows: Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans when he is at war and a pêma for the Achaeans both when he withdraws from war and when he dies. In our Iliad, this “pain” is realized in the death of Patroklos, which foreshadows the death of Achilles (Iliad 17.685-690):

   Come, so that you may learn
of the ghastly news, which should never have happened.
I think that you already see, and that you realize,
that a god is letting roll a pain [pêma] upon the Danaans,
and that victory belongs to the Trojans; the best of the Achaeans
has been killed,Patroklos, that is; and a great loss has been inflicted on the

Like some colossal boulder that has just broken loose from the heights above, the pain is now rolling precipitously and inexorably downward, heading straight at the doomed Iliadic warriors down below. This powerful metaphor of epic doom, resonating through the fine-tuned words of Homeric song, evokes the grand images that link the first song of Demodokos with the ultimate song of Achilles, the Iliad.

Gregory Nagy
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Hayden Pelliccia

Nagy’s two recent books are concerned a great deal with variant versions of the Homeric and other poems, and reading his letter above I began to wonder if there hadn’t been delivered to him a variant edition of the November 20th New York Review of Books. “Your reviewer’s concerns about my methods and results,” he writes, “center on what I wrote in a third book, The Best of the Achaeans…. He focuses on that book’s interpretation of two key Homeric passages: the ‘embassy scene’ in Iliad IX and the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey viii” (lines 73-82, quoted and discussed by Nagy above).

In what sense, I wondered as I read these words, can a reviewer be said to focus on the interpretation of a passage he does not quote or discuss? For Odyssey 8.73-82 is not mentioned in my review.1 But then I came to a subsequent sentence in Nagy’s letter. “From the standpoint of oral poetics, each occurrence of a theme…or of a formula…in a given composition-in-performance refers not only to its immediate context but also to all other analogous contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience.”

An explanation suggested itself: I was the performer, and Nagy was in the audience. The “immediate context” of my present “performance” (the 1997 review) led Nagy (“any member of the audience”) to remember an “analogous context”—in this case, my 1985 dissertation, in a footnote of which I discussed Nagy’s interpretation of Odyssey 8.73-82.2

In my actual review I argued that Nagy’s interpretation of the embassy scene in Iliad IX was at odds with the evidence of the text and with Homeric practice in general. In his letter he suggests that his interpretation is superior to mine precisely because mine is based on the text alone: the text of the surviving Iliad and Odyssey is only “a product of an underlying system,” and it is this system, as reconstructed by Nagy himself, that “is Homeric poetry.” “It is a mistake,” Nagy says, “to assume that the text is the same thing as the system.”

Thus, when it disagrees with his reconstructions, Nagy can dismiss the text by appeal to the system. When, on the other hand, he believes the text supports his theories, as he does with regard to Odyssey 8.73-82, he rehabilitates it, and even quotes my own text-based exegeses. As a reconstructive method, then, Nagy’s “system” of oral poetics allows him both to be charitable to his own ideas and to evade counter-evidence—which is to say that it is a bad method.

Appeal to this taken-on-faith system of oral poetics, and saying, in effect, “Pelliccia just doesn’t get it,” is all Nagy offers in the way of answer to my comments on his interpretation of the Iliadic embassy scene. As for the specific criticisms I made of the compositional theory promulgated in his two new books, he does not address them, but devotes most of his present letter to a matter that is at best only tangentially related to the questions I raised.

  1. 1

    An adjacent passage, Odyssey 8.62-73, is quoted in the review (p. 44), but in a context that has nothing to do with Nagy or his theories.

  2. 2

    The appeal to such arbitrarily determined “analogous contexts” is evident in another exchange. Stephanie West reviewed Poetry as Performance in the TLS. Nagy responded in a letter to the editor, saying among other things: “I think that [West] is unfair…when she proceeds to dispute me on the basis of her assumptions concerning the earlier stages of [Homeric traditions in performance]. I have written extensively on that subject in another 1996 book, Homeric Questions, where she could have found arguments explicitly disputing her assumptions” (TLS, August 30, 1996, p. 17). The book West was reviewing, Poetry as Performance, came out at the very beginning of 1996. Her review appeared in the TLS for August 2 (p. 27). Nagy’s other 1996 book, Homeric Questions, was published on July 24.

  • Email
  • Print