It is a remarkable testimony to the fierce vitality of the literature which has survived from ancient Greece that no interpretation of it, however magisterial, goes unchallenged for very long; each new generation sees its own problems reflected in the ancient mirror and brings to the formulation of that vision the insights and terminology of new sciences, new critical vocabularies. Sometimes these reevaluations are attempted from the inside, by Greek scholars whose fresh, understanding of the material in the light of modern psychological or anthropological insights is based on mastery of the Greek language and control of the vast scholarly literature which has increased in volume year by year since the Renaissance. E.R. Dodds’s epoch-making The Greeks and the Irrational is such a book, and G.S. Kirk’s work in the field of Greek mythology presents the same stimulating combination of professional expertise and new perspectives.
But often, too, the attempt is made from the outside, by social scientists whose knowledge of Greek is minimal or nonexistent and whose erratic maneuvers in the wilds of classical bibliography resemble the frantic struggles of a June bug trapped behind a window. Some malignant daimon always seems to guide these unfortunates to the most incompetent translations and the most diluted and vulgar popularizations of the subject. The results are all too like the familiar volume produced by the anthropologist or social scientist who has spent his sabbatical year with an African tribe or in a modern Greek village and, totally ignorant of the language, comes back to present to the world a series of pompous generalizations based on information supplied by the local English speaker, who is, by that very fact, a tainted source. Rhetorical balance demands, at this point, some names, but charity forbids; any Greek scholar can think of at least one recent production of this kind which, imposing itself on the unsuspecting public by the arrogance which cloaks its ignorance, proves once again that P.T. Barnum was a profound student of human nature.
James M. Redfield, who describes his book as “an essay which stands between the humanities and the social sciences,” is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. He is not, in the professional sense, a Greek scholar, but one who comes to Homer from the outside; in fact he uses the image of the social scientist in the field: “I have lived with these Homeric heroes so long that I have come to think of them the way an ethnographer thinks of his tribe: as ‘my people’ and”—he adds disarmingly—“I find much wisdom in them.”
His claim to have lived long with them is fully vindicated by his performance. He knows Greek; the literal translations (sometimes of long excerpts) are his own and they are, with some minor exceptions, accurate. (One interesting exception is his version of XXII, 496, where he has mistaken for a feminine genitive form, with the sense “flourishing,” a nominative which, ironically enough, is a technical kinship word meaning “a man with both parents living.”) Redfield also knows his way around in the vast scholarly literature; his citations, from scholars writing in German, French, and Italian as well as English, are carefully chosen and economically deployed; they are always exactly what he needs to make or defend his point and no more. In addition, his own discussions of the Homeric words which denote psychological processes or social values are penetrating and useful. This book, which will hold the general reader’s attention by its bold interpretations and the elegance of its prose, must also be taken seriously by the professional scholar.
It is an ambitious book. In addition to a fascinating exploration of the themes implied by the Nature and Culture of his title (deftly summarized on the dust jacket as “the role of the warrior and of women, the relations between humanity and the gods, the power of institutions and ceremonies, of games, assemblies, and funerals…”), Redfield proposes a literary interpretation of the Iliad (based on a new reading of Aristotle’s Poetics) which expands into nothing less than a general theory of the relation of tragedy (Redfield’s Iliad is The Tragedy of Hector) to culture and society. The argument is long, subtle, and complicated, a structure of interlocking components so logically interdependent that the following attempt to present it in outline can hardly avoid omissions and consequent distortions, for which the reviewer apologizes in advance.
Redfield begins with the great speech of Achilles in which he refuses the offers of Agamemnon and his invitation to return to the battle. He rejects two current interpretations of Achilles’ obstinacy, Bowra’s and Whitman’s, which claim respectively, in Redfield’s paraphrases, that Achilles’ refusal is a departure from the norms of his society, “a deviance properly punished and repented,” and that “Achilles is a kind of existential hero who leaves the safe bounds of social convention and sets off on a quest for his true self—and who thus comes to confront the Absolute and the Absurd.”
Redfield on the contrary sees Achilles in terms which “throughout the poem direct attention away from the hero’s personality.” Achilles’ “actions are dictated by his situation.” And this viewpoint is asserted for all the Homeric characters; they are seen as “embedded in a social fabric; they are persons whose acts and consciousness are the enactment of the social forces which play upon them.” If this analysis seems to deprive Achilles of his significance as the central figure of the Iliad, “perhaps the problem is with us, with our conception of heroic grandeur.” Taking now the viewpoint of the poet, he directs attention from character to plot, “that implicit conceptual unity which has given the work its actual form.”
This rejection of the “pervasive assumption that the classic narrative must center on the inner experience of a single hero” is, as Redfield says, “somewhat parallel” to the approach of John Jones in his controversial Aristotle and Greek Tragedy and, like Jones, he finds support for his position in Aristotle’s Poetics which, Jones says (and Redfield agrees), has been subjected “to systematic, misreading.” They both take their stand on Aristotle’s sentence: “Tragedy is the imitation, not of human beings, but of action and life,” and Redfield, quoting Jones’s description of Aeschylus’ Orestes as “isolated by his status-determined circumstances,” suggests that the solitude of Achilles is similarly “status-determined.”
There follow sixty-eight pages which in two chapters (“Imitation” and “Tragedy”) go carefully over the all too familiar ground of the Platonic theory of imitation and Aristotle’s definition of tragedy—error, pity and fear, catharsis—in an attempt to trace “certain aspects of the problematic of narrative art from Homer down to Aristotle.” There is much in these chapters which is new and which in its abstract but careful formulation has implications for literary criticism reaching far beyond the particular work under discussion (the section entitled “Nature and Culture in Fiction” is especially suggestive), but no adequate summary can be attempted. The most relevant point for Redfield’s interpretation of the Iliad is recapitulated in a passage on page ninety-one.
The interpretation of error is the focus of the poet’s inquiry. In his error the actor enacts the limitations and self-contradictions of his culture; through his imitation of error, the consequences of error, and the healing of error, the poet leads us, not to a rejection of culture, but to a reaffirmation of it on a new level of troubled awareness.
But the story of Achilles, though “certainly a tragedy in several meanings of that polyvalent term,” is not a “tragic action in the narrow Aristotelian sense,” for though “Achilles makes errors…the poet has not been at pains to construct a clear relation of cause and effect…. The crucial errors in Achilles’ story…are the errors of others—of Agamemnon, of Nestor, of Patroclus.” His tragedy is “not so much a tragedy of action as of reaction.” Further, Achilles is “a marginal figure, half god, half man, suspended between the worlds.” In fact, the “end of the Iliad is a ceremonial recognition of the monstrous singularity of Achilles”—he is “drawn into the divine community.”
Hector’s story however “is a tragic action in the classic mold…the story of a man somewhat better than ourselves who falls through his own error…the true tragic hero of the poem is a secondary character….” Everyone will recognize the justice of the phrase Redfield uses to describe Hector, “a hero of responsibilities.” Homer shows him in his relations with his wife and son, his father and mother, with Helen and Paris, with all the Trojan warriors and their wives—all of these people dependent on him for their safety. In his tenderness to his wife, his kindness to Helen and even his brotherly scolding of Paris, we are shown a man as clearly supreme in the ways of peace as the brooding figure of Achilles on the beachhead, now isolated even from the male society of his fellow soldiers, is supreme in the ways of war. But Hector’s duty now is to fight, and he does not shirk it. He “embodies the ideal norm of Homeric society.”
But what is his error? Redfield finds it in the overconfidence he shows as, fulfilling in ignorance the will of Zeus, he carries the offensive into the Greek camp. He rejects the advice of Polydamas, who interprets an omen as a signal to retreat, leads an attack on the Greek ships, refuses advice to retreat into the city after killing Patroclus. According to Redfield he “has lost contact with that social order which defined and generated his heroism.” Achilles now returns to the battle and the Trojans are routed Hector, alone before the wall facing Achilles, rejects the appeal of his parents to take shelter; his knowledge that he has caused a Trojan defeat fills him with aidos, “shame”—“the characteristic emotion of the social man”—and he elects to fight Achilles, though he must know it means his death. “A hero who is preeminently responsive and responsible,” Redfield sums up, “he is here defeated by his own characteristic goodness.”
The last chapter, “Purification,” deals with the resolution of the tragic dilemma posed by the action: the ransoming of Hector’s corpse by Priam. Through an involved and brilliant discussion of ceremonies of purification (of which the funeral is the ultimate example, for it “purifies the dead man by setting a definite period to his existence and converting him into something not subject to change…by the funeral the community purifies itself”) Redfield proceeds toward his objective: “The Problem of Ending the Iliad.” Earlier in the chapter Redfield makes the point that the threats to give the enemy’s body to the dogs and birds, made ever more frequently as the fighting grows more savage, are the poet’s introduction of “the limiting case of impurity” from which however he “draws back…. In the event, the two heroes most threatened with defilement—Patroclus and Hector—are properly mourned and buried.”
The dog, in Homer, is a predator and scavenger; he is “the most completely domesticated animal…but…he remains an animal. The dog thus represents man’s resistance to acculturation” and “stands for an element within us that is permanently uncivilized.” The danger run by the warrior, who, according to Redfield, “stands on the frontier of culture and nature,” is that he may become a dog—a transformation suggested often in the similes—and more, a cannibal. This is a theme often hinted at and finally brought into the open in Achilles’ wish that he could bring himself to chop Hector’s flesh and eat it raw (XXII 347).
The dog is thus an emblem of the impurity of battle. The warrior becomes a mad dog as he enacts the inner contradiction of battle. On behalf of a human community the warrior is impelled to leave community and act in an inhuman way. He becomes a distorted, impure being; great in his power, he is at the same time reduced to something less than himself.
Hector was a mad dog in the rage of battle but he is now a corpse. “To the passive impurity of Hector—marked by the impure condition of his body…corresponds the active impurity of Achilles—marked by his inability to find any limit to his act.”
The purification of both the dead man and the living hero is a problem beyond human capacity; it is brought about by divine intervention. Achilles is persuaded by his goddess-mother’s entreaty and the command of Zeus to accept the ransom brought by old Priam in the night. And in his reconciliation with Priam, his recognition of their common loss, Achilles comes “to know his situation and no longer merely experience it.” He “surveys and comprehends his world and himself. That is the purification of Achilles.”
By this purification through the ceremony of their common meal (Achilles’ first since the death of Patroclus) “culture is overcome.” The community had failed to move Achilles; “the reconciliation takes place on the level of nature, outside the human world; it is a ceremony founded on a universal concept of man qua man.” And it is contrived by the poet: “the Iliad comes to a conclusion, not because the action imitated reaches a resolution, but because the poet has conferred on the event, in the manner of his telling it, a form and an ending.” And now Redfield returns us to Aristotle. “In tragic art, the pains and terrors of life are transformed from experiences to objects of knowledge; tragic art attains to form when it makes a lucid theoretical statement of the practical opacities of the human condition. In this sense tragic form is a ‘purification of these experiences.’ ”
This is a painfully inadequate outline of an argument which is both intensely theoretical and richly concrete; the book must be read in its entirety to yield the wealth of insight it offers. But the summary may serve as the base for some critical observations.
Redfield starts out by begging a question—a very big one, the Homeric question itself. His “premises are broadly Unitarian,” he says, but so are those of almost everyone nowadays; there is general agreement that “Homer” is the monumental composer who at a late stage of a centuries-old tradition of oral composition gave the Iliad something like the shape in which we now read it. But when? It is a difficult problem. As Redfield points out, M.I. Finley, in his World of Odysseus, an attempt to reconstruct a “society” from Homer’s Odyssey (which he salutes as “one of the foundations of the present essay”) has difficulty locating his reconstructed society in historical time. In view of Redfield’s concern with the relation between poetry and culture one expects that he will at least tackle the problem. Instead he repudiates it in Olympian style.
Homeric culture…is transmitted to us only in poetic imitation. We should not speak of the “background” of the poems, as though we could reconstruct Homeric society and then apply this reconstruction to interpretation of the poems. On the contrary, we discover the society by interpreting the poems….
That there are dangers involved in this procedure Redfield is the first to admit, but he is confident that they can be avoided.
No doubt we often go wrong. Yet I allow myself one hypothesis which establishes an important control: I assume that the poem is a success. The poem can serve to interpret the culture if we assume that the poem is successfully founded on exactly that culture, so that any understanding of the implicit system of meanings will enable us to see this particular poem as more of a poem.
Since, however, “the understanding of the implicit system of meanings” is the interpretation of the poem Redfield is trying to establish, this hypothesis is not a very impressive control. How do we know that this undefined and imaginary culture, conjured out of the poem by Redfield, would have agreed with his reading of it? In fact the only reason why this argument cannot be characterized as circular is that it never gets off its base.
There is a much better “control.” Though we know next to nothing from outside sources about the dark centuries during which oral bards fashioned and refined the formulas and themes which the monumental composer transformed into the Iliad, we do know a great deal about later centuries, from the sixth on, for which Homer, “the poet,” as they called him, was the dominant literary and cultural influence; one has only to read Plato’s Ion to see how hypnotized the Greeks were by Homer in performance as late as the fourth century BC. And Greeks of this culture saw the Iliad very differently from Redfield. The story of Achilles does not seem to have suggested to them that “the action of the Iliad is an enactment of the contradictions of the warrior’s role. The warrior on behalf of culture must leave culture and enter nature…. That others may be pure, he must become impure.”
On the contrary, Achilles, throughout the historical period, is the beau ideal not only as the supreme warrior but also as the model of aristocratic breeding and conduct (as he is in Pindar); he is cited as an example of devotion to duty (his insistence on fighting Hector though he knows it will mean his own death) by, of all people, Plato’s Socrates, as he refuses to buy his life at the price of silence. Alexander, when he started out to conquer the world, had a bedside copy of the Iliad with him and the prelude to his march south in Asia Minor was a ceremony in which he and his friend Hephaestion laid wreaths on the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus at what was thought to be the site of Troy and then, naked and anointed with oil, ran a race around them. On the other hand, except for an unflattering portrait in the second-rate drama called Rhesus, which is doubtfully attributed to Euripides, there is hardly an echo of Hector in later literature.
This is not by any means the only point on which the understanding of the Iliad by Redfield’s presumed Homeric culture differs sharply from that of the historic Greek culture we know. For him, the gods of the Iliad are a problem; they are “generally frivolous, unsteady creatures, whose friendship or enmity has little to do with human justice. They do not appear in the narrative as guarantors of human norms or as the sources of natural process.” This is perhaps too strongly stated but it is basically correct. According to Redfield’s principle (that “we discover the society by interpreting the poems”), this fact should be accepted and given its place in the interpretation of the poem as a whole. But Redfield cannot accept it and his attempt to deal with “The Problem of the Gods” (as this section of his book, pages 75ff., is called) involves him in methodological contradictions. He contrasts with the gods of the Iliad those of Hesiod (who “are guarantors of moral norms; they punish the guilty…”) and prefaces this contrast with a sentence which begins: “If, however, we assume (as seems reasonable) that Hesiod’s Works and Days represents actual religious belief at the time of Homer—or something very like it….”
So there is a “background” to the poem, and it is Hesiod! And a particular poem of Hesiod at that, for the same poet’s Theogony presents the gods indulging in crude antics (such as castrating each other and eating each others’ children) which make Homer’s divine crew look angelic by comparison. Undeterred by this violation of his own ground rules, Redfield goes on to claim that since “actual religious belief at the time of Homer” is represented by the gods of the Works and Days, the gods of the Iliad “belong to the conventional world of epic and were understood as such by the audience. Just as the epic tells, not of men, but of heroes, so also it tells stories, not of gods conceived as actual, but of literary gods.”
Such neoclassic literary sophistication (“O how convenient is a machine sometimes in a heroic poem,” says Dryden of Mercury’s intervention in Aeneid IV) is really unimaginable in “Homeric culture.” And once again, the reaction of historical Greece speaks against the thesis. “What all men learn is shaped by Homer from the beginning,” says Xenophanes, and he goes on to castigate both Homer and Hesiod for “ascribing to the gods all that is a reproach among men—thieving, adultery, lying to each other.” One of the principal reasons why Homer is attacked in Books II-III of Plato’s Republic and banned from the ideal city in Book X is precisely his picture of the gods. Some fifth-century exponents of Homer took the opposite tack and (providing a model for the Fathers of the Church who had to defend some unsavory passages in the Old Testament) explain that Homer’s gods were moral and cosmological allegories. Neither of these reactions is comprehensible if Greek culture, at any time, had taken Homer’s gods to be “literary gods” and “epic conventions.”
Redfield’s discussion of Achilles in the poem (as opposed to some of the conclusions drawn from it) is on the whole admirable, though he does devote a great deal of attention to minute character analysis which comes strangely from one who cites Aristotle on the importance of action as opposed to character. With his rejection of the idea, very fashionable today, that Achilles in his speech in Book IX repudiates the heroic ideal, I am in full agreement; but there is at least one speech of Achilles which argues strongly against Redfield’s view of the hero as “status-determined.” When Achilles sends Patroclus out to battle and instructs him not to go beyond driving the Trojans back from the ships, he expresses an astonishing wish. “If only,” it runs in Lattimore’s translation,
not one of all the Trojans could escape destruction, not one
of the Argives, but you and I could emerge from the slaughter
so that we two alone could break Troy’s hallowed coronal.
It is an almost manic vision of a world which consists of nothing but himself and his own glory, for Patroclus is an image of himself, sent out to fight in his armor. This sounds more like Whitman’s “existential hero” than Redfield’s “persons whose acts and consciousness are the enactment of the social forces which play upon them.” And Redfield’s discussion of the passage is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. “This prayer is so strange that most of the Hellenistic grammarians omitted it from their texts. But we should notice that it is in a way granted. When Patroclus dies, Achilles in a way dies with him.” Since Achilles is clearly praying for the death of everyone in both armies except himself and his friend, I find Redfield’s remark incomprehensible.
And there are other passages which are difficult to follow. Redfield himself qualifies one of his formulations as a “dark saying” but he has no such comment on the following sentence, which I find impenetrable even in its context. “That which baffles ethical forming, when further formed through imitative art, becomes itself a source of aesthetic form. As the forming of art is a further forming of forms already present in nature and culture, so it follows that artistic form is inclusive of culture and nature.” And it is almost as hard to follow the series of metaphorical transfers by which Aristotle’s baffling word catharsis is made to yield, through a discussion of ceremonial purifications, the sophisticated literary idea with which he ends his discussion.
The proponent of a theory which ranges widely and swiftly over different fields of thought and knowledge to create a general theory of the relation between culture and nature and the relation of literature to both is subject to one great temptation: his dazzling vision of the whole which he is engaged in constructing may blind him to the nature of some of the parts, and even to the existence of others. To borrow a phrase from MacNeice, he may reach the stage where he “can’t see the trees for the wood.” To be more accurate, in Redfield’s case, he often sees the trees but only through the distorting spectacles of his vision of the wood.
One link in the chain of his interesting argument about impurity, for example, is the discussion of the Keres—those spirits of death which surround men in battle; are assigned to individuals at their birth, and, in a scene on the shield of Achilles, drag dead and living men off the battlefield. It is important for Redfield’s argument that these horrific creatures should be imagined by the poet and his audience as shapes combining the salient features of dogs and birds, those scavengers to whom the warriors threaten to expose each other’s corpses. There is of course no hint of this in Homer’s description of the shield; Redfield has to cite two passages from another poem, a second-rate product called The Shield of Heracles, attributed to Hesiod, where the Keres do “gnash” and “clash their teeth,” clasp the dead in their claws and suck their blood. “The kæres in Hesiod,” says Redfield,
eat the wounded; to die—at least in battle—is to be eaten by a kær. It seems clear that the same idea pervades the Iliad, even though Homer, with quite characteristic tact, never tells us so. Sarpedon speaks of the “countless winged keres” (XII. 326-27)…and the dead Patroclus says “the kær gaped for me, the hateful one, allotted to me at my birth” (XXIII. 78-79). Each man has his own kær who watches him hungrily…. The coward at the moment of danger “thinks of the kæres, and his teeth chatter.”
Redfield then proceeds: “The kæres have teeth; they also have wings and talons. They are thus a composite of dogs and birds.”
Redfield must have been very dazzled by his over-all vision here. If we “should not speak of the background of the poems” we should certainly not drag in a poem by another hand which was certainly composed much later. And the hints that he finds of this picture of the Keres are nearly all from his own creative imagination. Sarpedon does not speak of “winged” Keres, only of “Keres which stand over us” (ephestasin); the adverb “hungrily” has no basis in the text; the teeth belong to the coward, not the Ker. The only support for his interpretation is Patroclus’ word “gaped round me,” which does suggest some kind of jaws, but since the word occurs only here in Homer, no certainty is possible. Even if this point should be conceded, the Keres, wingless and toothless and talonless, do not live up to their billing as a composite of dogs and birds.
But Redfield is not often so careless. And the book is an intellectual tour de force which, flawed though it may be, commands respect. It should send many readers back to the Iliad, with a renewed appreciation of the splendors and terrors of what is still, after all these centuries, the greatest epic poem ever composed.
For those who do return to Homer, the University of Chicago Press, with exquisite timing, has produced a vade mecum—Willcock’s Companion to the Iliad. The author is a professional Greek scholar who is engaged on a commentary to the Greek text (Books I-VI already in print); here he has produced a commentary on the whole poem for the use of Greekless readers, keyed to Richmond Lattimore’s wellknown translation. In this book the curious reader will find much that has so far been easily available only to those who are familiar with Greek type. The notes contain explanations of particular words and identifications of persons and places, excellent structural analyses, useful historical and archaeological information, and illuminating comments on those features of the text which bear on the question of its composition. Here, in handy form, is everything you always wanted to know about Homer’s Iliad, but were afraid to ask.
April 29, 1976