Homer: His Art and His World(transl. J.P. Holoka)
University of Michigan Press: 1996,
pp. vii & 155
Department of Classics & Archaeology,
University of Melbourne,
The stated aim of this book (dust-jacket and Introduction) is to bring Homer and his work closer to modern readers who may know little about the poems, or indeed little about the cultural setting from which they emerged. Latacz's book (a translation by James P. Holoka from the second German edition of 1989) can thus be seen as another attempt to 'introduce' Homer to a much wider readership. One aspect of contemporary Classical scholarship in recent times, at least in Anglophone countries, has been a proliferation of books which aim to bring Greek and Roman cultures to a much wider audience. As far as Homer is concerned Griffin, Camps, Silk, Willcock, Jones all spring instantly to mind; and for ancient epic more generally there are books by Merchant, Hainsworth, Newman, Toohey, among others. Latacz therefore embarks on a rather similar task to a number of other leading Classicists in applying his scholarly expertise to a book geared largely to a general readership. Mere reference to the list of publications of the book's author indicates the scope and breadth of the scholarship that underpins this work. Likewise the book itself reveals a real flair and feeling for the Homeric poems, and a fine grasp of the early Greek world that produced them. Yet notwithstanding the scholarly expertise on which the book is based the question that remained in my mind when reading it was whether it is 'pitched' at the right level, whether it really meets its claims and is the right kind of book for a 'general reader' in the 1990's. This query will be the main theme of what follows.
First, a description and some brief comments on the content of the book. The Introduction deals in a preliminary way with such matters as Homer's language and the history of Homeric scholarship. This includes reference to Plato and Aristotle, the Alexandrian scholars, the reception of Homer in western Europe, Wolf and the Homeric question, Unitarians and Analysts, Parry, and so forth. Many of these subjects are taken up in more detail at a later stage in the book, but it is very helpful for the reader to have such a clear exposition at the outset (and equally helpful is the map of the Greek world of 800 BC). The first chapter, 'The New Relevance of Homer', is concerned with the emergence of the Homeric poems and their place in the modern world. It deals with literacy/orality, the influence of Homer as the starting point in western textuality, the poetic quality of the epics, and the proximity of Homer to modern life and thought. The second chapter 'The Person, Environment, Time, and Work of Homer' is a long piece (23-69), and in many ways is the heart of the book. Its focus is Homer's possible identity, ancient legends about him, and the aristocratic context from which the poems seem to emerge. One important aspect of this chapter is the attempt to fix upon a historical time and setting for the poems. The question of the literacy of the poet (argued for strongly and convincingly by Latacz) is never very far from the historical focus of this particular chapter. The chapter concludes with a 'Feasible Portrait of Homer' which includes a succinct assessment of the creation and transmission of the poems from the earliest times.
In the third chapter (pp.71ff.) we get down to the texts themselves beginning with the Iliad. Latacz's approach is to take the proem of the Iliad (1.1-7) as his starting point and then discuss the 'themes' (especially menis = wrath) within the text more widely. Indeed just as menis is the principal theme of the Iliad (and of course the first word of the poem) so it is equally fundamental to Latacz's discussion. This tends to mean that much of his discussion of the Iliad (though not all by any means) is focused around Achilles. Latacz is emphatic in his perception of the unity of the Iliad: 'The Iliad exhibits a thoroughly premeditated unity from first to last: there are no overlappings, no actual reduplications, no lapses in logic, no inconsistencies in the basic plan' (133). This is bold stuff, and indeed something with which the reviewer is happy to agree, even if he would not have the courage to make the statement himself. One important aspect of this chapter is a twelve page book-by-book scene distribution which includes line numbers (Table 1). I have not seen such a detailed structural layout of the poem. I have no doubt that it will be invaluable for the general reader and for students of the poem who need to refer to a clearly set out plan of the action.
The Odyssey is dealt with in the last chapter of the book, and in a much briefer way (the Iliad chapter is 63 pages in length, the Odyssey chapter 21 pages). The reason for this is clear from the first sentence of the final chapter:' The Odyssey begins in a less- focused way than the Iliad. With the first word of its prooimion, it designates as its theme not a specific episode in the life of its hero but the hero himself'. This 'thematic open-endedness' means that Latacz's practice in the previous chapter of drawing extensively on the proem to demonstrate the unity of the Iliad does not have the same application to the Odyssey. The treatment of the Odyssey is divided principally into a discussion of the nostos theme, followed by a brief survey of the main 'segments' of the poem, Telemakhia, Phaiakis, Homecoming, and Recognition. As with the Iliad, the Odyssey chapter includes a book-by-book structural outline of the poem (140-1), and a summary of the wanderings of Odysseus (147-9). These are not dealt with in the same detail as was the Iliad, but they will still be very useful for the reader who wishes to consult them.
Latacz's book therefore is rather more heavily weighted to questions of historicity, authorship, the dissemination of the text, orality and literacy, and so forth, than tends to characterize similar books written in English (eg. Michael Silk's The Iliad [Cambridge: 1987]). Clearly Latacz is working towards his scholarly strengths in this regard. There is no doubt that he has provided his audience with a clear and erudite discussion of some of the major questions of Homeric scholarship. My principal reservation about the first two chapters is by no means the quality of the discussion, but simply whether too much attention (at least half of the book) is paid to these questions. We have heard for some time now that 'the author is dead', and that our task is to devote ourselves (in any number of ways) to the text itself. One of the curiosities of Homeric scholarship is our quest to find the author, and to put him firmly (or as at least firmly as possible) into a historical and social context. The dead ends that we run into along the way only encourage us more.
This is not to diminish the importance of the questions discussed, especially for professional scholars. It is just that the claims of the dust-jacket keep ringing in my ears, and I wonder whether a general reader of Homer (an admittedly elusive individual) has such a strong interest in these kind of historical questions as the specialist. Latacz's initial point (one which is surely compelling) that Homer enriches all who read him, and is a poet who has meaning and relevance for a modern readership, despite his distance in time, may become diminished somewhat by an overly long discussion on historical questions.
I should admit at this point that in framing the above response I have followed my own personal interests in Homer, which are much more geared to the interpretation of the poems themselves than to the historical and social background of them (not that the two are always very easily separated). Hence I eagerly awaited the third and fourth chapters where Latacz turns to the poems themselves. But here too I must report slight disappointment. As I have already suggested Latacz gives a much more detailed discussion of the Iliad than the Odyssey. But even in this detailed treatment there is a tendency towards a historical assessment (e.g. 84-8 on Troy and the Trojan saga, the archaeology of Troy, Schliemann et al.). Likewise, as with many books which introduce particular ancient writers, there is a tendency to describe what actually happens in the poem. The detailed plan of the action (i.e. Table 1, twelve pages in length) is, rather surprisingly, added to by further summary of the poem itself in the body of the text. This has the effect of strictly limiting the discussion of the Iliad's great poetic and literary qualities (and much else besides). Notwithstanding the amount of time spent on description of the poem, Latacz's discussion is very useful indeed. His manner of drawing on the proem to discuss the poem as a whole has the effect of reinforcing the notion of structural unity for which he argues very strongly (and very convincingly).
The Odyssey chapter is a disappointment and was clearly not a labour of love for the author, unlike the rest of the book, which is written with great feeling for its subject-matter. Latacz essentially takes us through the poem (hence a lot of description here too), but the absence of a clear structural unity in the Odyssey (sc. when compared with the Iliad) seems to overshadow the whole chapter. There are certainly no great insights into the poem in this chapter, and at the end there is a strong sense of anti-climax about the book: 'It is as if the poet of our Odyssey had not made clear the shift of emphasis that he was striving for when he ingeniously adapted to his own purposes the whole series of traditional Odysseus adventures by transforming them into first-person narrative! No, those who read the Odyssey in this superficial way will not be able to divine its unity. They are hearing only the old yarns of sailors; they are not hearing Homer'. So dominant is the question of unity in this book that many other critical and enduring aspects of the Homeric poems are passed by along the way.
To conclude therefore, Latacz's Homer will definitely be on my Epic bibliographies because it offers an enormous amount to serious students of Homer, be they involved in formal education or outside it. The book is a clear exposition of the principal aspects of Homeric studies, and is at its best in dealing with 'the world of Homer' and the possible dissemination of the Homeric texts. If the chapters dealing with the poems themselves can be criticized as having a large descriptive element we should perhaps remember that no introduction to the Iliad and Odyssey can ever hope to do justice to them given the restrictions in word length that publishers usually demand.
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 1 - August 1997
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington