Parry-Lord and Reading Homer

The other day, at my friend’s behest, I was watching the first part of Leonard Bernstein’s What is Classical Musicon Youtube. Like a good 1950s man, Bernstein begins with the question of the definition of classical music, in an Aristotelian framework of exclusion and inclusion. He considers epithets such as “good“, “serious“, “art” and even “long-haired“, only to reject them all. He finally isolates the essence of classical music in the comparatively minimal degree of freedom that it affords the performer of a piece, and the correspondingly greater degree of control that it vests in the composer. Bernstein then comes up with the following three adjectives to define classical music: “permanent, unchanging, exact“.

I nodded when I heard this for the first time. Permanent, unchanging. Makes perfect sense.

And yet, does it? Notice one thing. “Permanent” and “unchanging” are not synonyms. We normally agree that something is permanent as long as its essence remains the same – the thing itself can modify and evolve over time. And then again, something can be unchanging, but only temporarily. Why then does it seem natural for Bernstein – and for us – to run the two words together, as though it was simply… natural? We know from Foucault, after all, that words only take their meaning through other words; and as the great legal philosopher, Dworkin, points out, our language both constructs and protects a certain social environment. Is it, then, a human need for constancy (and notice, here, that “constant” is closer in meaning to both “permanent” and “unchanging” than they are to each other) that makes it natural for us to view these words in mutual company?

I bring this up because it is an idea bridge to discussing something that I read this summer, one of the most fascinating pieces that I have come across in recent times. I refer to Albert Lord’s book, The Singer of Tales. The theme is oral epic; in particular, Homer.

Homer and I have had a long and troubled association. Apart from a personal reminiscence, however, I think it reflects a broader, more interesting point. Like any child growing up with even the slightest interest in literature, I would hear ad nauseam about the greatness of Homer, the first and the best ever. Consequently when, as a callow youth of twelve, I took up The Iliad, I was already telling myself that I would have to enjoy it; anything else would reveal a serious lack in me. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t enjoy it. The catalogue of ships in Book II bored me to tears. The seemingly endless repetitions of different people dying in the same violent and graphic way made little sense. Even the climactic Achilles-Hector battle was decent, at best. I blamed it on Samuel Butler’s turgid prose. Then I read Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, and was utterly smitten. Convinced that the fault lay not in my Homer but in my Butler, I scoured the Delhi bookshops for the man who, speaking out “loud and bold“, had made the great romantic feel like both an astronomer and stout Cortes, by turn. I finally got my hands on Chapman’s translation, and started with the Odyssey. By Book IV, I was so put off by the forced rhyming, that I cursed Keats, and abandoned it. One thing in Homer made perfect sense to me: the imagery. There was no doubt that the Iliad’s imagery is special. I recall, for instance, as a too-sentimental teenager of 19, in the first throes of rejected love, declaiming in the room of a friend, another self-confessed Homer fan, the lines “surely the grey sea bore her, and the sheer cliffs begot her, so cruel and remorseless is she!” But apart from that, I resigned myself to never quite understanding what was so special about Homer, that they all acknowledged him King and master. And I think many of my friends have had a similar experience with Homer – almost universally, for instance, we prefer Virgil to Homer (caveat – none of us know Latin, we can only read translations).

Until I read Lord’s The Singer of Tales, and understood that I was doing it all wrong. I was approaching Homer with a set of assumptions and presuppositions that were simply inapplicable, like trying to play football while following the rules of hockey. You’ll be playing something that resembles football, but which it isn’t football at all. So too for Homer. Let me try and explain.

We’ll start with the vexing Homeric question: how is it that the first practitioner of the art of epic was also its greatest? The beginning of any art form is riddled with flaws, a certain consequence of experimentation. It is only after trial and error, constant evolution, frequent regression, and the trial of years that an art form reaches its apotheosis (think of the evolution of perspective in art, for instance, from 13th century Italy to the paintings of Carlo Crivelli at the peak of the Renaissance). So how on earth did Homer stand at the beginning of epic, and also at its head? Well, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, after years of research and fieldwork, came to the startlingly simple conclusion: Homer wasn’t an epic poet who wrote the Iliad. In fact, the Iliad wasn’t, at first, written at all. Homer was an oral poet, who was part of an ancient and flourishing tradition of oral epic poetry, which was fundamentally different, in every conceivable way, from the written word.

I cannot describe, in any kind of details, the arguments that Lord puts forward for the Parry-Lord hypothesis in his book. I’ll come straight to the crucial differences between oral epic and the written word. First, and most importantly, the written tradition, ex hypothesi, assumes the existence of an original, a uniquely identifiable piece of text that is the work. There can be many translations of The Aeneid, and many interpretations, but there is only one Aeneid, what Virgil wrote. Scholars may divide forever over how best to understand Sailing to Byzantium, but nobody divides over what the poem is. It is what Yeats wrote (in a brilliant essay called What is an Author?, Foucault tries to question this fundamental premise with which we approach literary texts, but I, for one, don’t think he manages to make any dent in that mode of thinking – how could he?).

But that is not the case for oral poetry. There is no original, no “standard”, no “model”. Every performance is an act of individual creation. Yes, there exists a set of themes and motifs that can be loosely called The Iliad. But as an oral poet, whenever I sing the song of Achilles and Hector and Priam and Ajax, I am not imitating/interpreting/adapting/modifying a defined original, but rather, I am creating or composing something new. To use Bernstein’s terminology: a written text is permanent, unchangeable. Oral tradition is the very antithesis of that.

Secondly, oral poetry is composed under a set of conditions that differ radically from that of written works of art. Oral composers are performing for an audience; their primary concern is with holding the attention of their listeners. This has a number of consequences. Primarily, speed. Oral composition needs to be continuous. The problem, however, is that it also needs to adhere to a strict metre (the Iliad, for instance – dactylic hexameter; the yugoslav oral epics that Parry and Lord examine – lines of ten syllables, divided into half lines of 4 – 6). How on earth is the poet going to compose metrical verse on the spot? The answer lies in a stock of formulaic phrases and epithets that form part of the oral tradition, which every poet learns during his apprenticeship, and which he can draw upon as he sings. These “formulae” are designed specifically for adhering to the metrical form – for instance, for a four-syllabled half line, you will have a number of three-syllabled words that you can join with an “a” or a “the” or a “said”, or something of that sort. The skill of a great oral poet, therefore, lies in how he can manipulate the stock of formulas at his disposal – because all poets will have the corpus available to them – to create verse of great and enduring beauty. This, then, explains the constant repetition in Homer – if you already have a metred formula that describes death in battle, you don’t need to go out on a limb and find a new way of describing it each time. Originality, which all of us value so highly, simply isn’t a consideration here.

While formulae exist at the micro-level of lines and half-lines, they also exist at the macro level of themes, and how themes succeed each other. Lord talks about how the theme of an “Assembly” is extremely common throughout ancient epic – there are four assemblies in the first two books of the Iliad – and often, these are linked with speeches by heroes, by gift-giving, by the arrival of heralds, and by the declaration of war. This, again, explains why so many themes and motifs recur throughout Homer.

Thirdly, oral poetry is performed within a small-ish group (remember, we’re talking of pre-writing societies here) all of whom are aware of – and operate within – the tradition. Furthermore, the essentially fluctuating and variable nature of the performance means that standard requirements of coherence and consistency are entirely inapplicable. This allows us to come at the vexing catalogue of ships in Book II from two angles: first, the names and places Homer is mentioning would have been thoroughly familiar to his audience, and they would have been able to make the associations and connections that we cannot now – Homer was not writing for readers through time, but performing for a specific audience at a specific place at a specific time (unlike Virgil – compare Book VII of the Aeneid – the description of the Latin heroes – with the catalogue of ships; Virgil, writing an epic for contemporary Rome, knows that he cannot simply describe them like Homer, and leave the rest to the imagination of his audience; so, he punctuates his descriptions with passages of individual poetic beauty. Adam Parry points to one in particular – the mourning landscape that laments the death of Umbro: Te nemus Angitiae, vitrea te Fucinus unda,/ Te liquidi flevere lacus – For you the grove of Angitia mourned, and Fucinus’ glassy waters,/ And the clear lakes. Homer needs no such device, and has no use for it.)

Secondly, it helps us understand that the standard Aristotelian presuppositions with which we approach a text – unity of time, place, action do not apply to oral poetry. Homer is not concerned with presenting to us a tightly bound, internally coherent, economical narrative. Digression is no evil. There is no “central plot theme” that we expect from a novel, no core idea that binds the rest together. And that is why The Iliad is full of what we consider to be irrelevancies, random digressions, inexplicable departures from what we see to be the “main theme” – the siege and battle for Troy. There is no main theme in the first place, there is no logic of the narrative that dictates what is to happen next, and how.

In these few paragraphs, I have done little or no justice to the complexity, the ingenuity, the sheer wealth of detail and the brilliant argumentation of the Parry-Lord hypothesis. Their book is a beautiful work, argued with passion and flair. I cannot now think of reading Homer, or any of the major oral epic works, without having first read this book. It is honestly like trying to read a foreign language without knowing its linguistic structure.

But what this makes me think of that fundamental question. How ought we to approach a text? So far, I was reading Homer with all the presuppositions of a twenty-first century reader who has lived in, and has had his thought structured by, a world where written texts are the norm without exception. Now that he has learnt this was not the environment in which Homer composed, how should he proceed the next time he takes up the Iliad?

And this is THE classic debate in hermeneutics, one that is applicable not only to literature, but also, as far as I know, to history and to law, to take two areas I have a vague knowledge of. William Dilthey believed that it was possible to entirely overcome the limitations that existed in trying to understand/interpret texts from different eras and cultures. He argued that one could rise above one’s own bounded position, and understand texts entirely in their own terms – that there was this place (think of E.H. Carr’s image of the eagle on a crag, looking down upon the march of humanity) where all prejudices and all boundedness simply dissolved, and we could dispassionately examine and analyse anything, and arrive at the truth of its essence. In Truth and Method, Gadamer rejected this position, and along with it, rejected “prejudice” as something that one should strive to overcome in the first place. Gadamer’s prejudice is responsible for our fore-understanding of a text – that is, a Heideggerian notion of the understanding we bring to it before we have even read it. This “prejudice” is formed by our social and cultural environment. But crucially, for Gadamer, this is something to be welcomed; it does not cloud the truth, but rather, helps to reveal it. The horizon, he says, is only all that we can see from a particular point of view. And truth in interpretation is arrived at by achieving a merging of horizons. Habermas, in his turn, criticised Gadamer for simply accepting prejudice, and refusing to subject it to a critical examination. For Habermas, it is vital to examine the presuppositions and assumptions that constitute our fore-understanding in the first place.

It is hardly my place – and nor am I remotely competent – to present some kind of adjudicatory opinion on the merits of these positions. What I think this does demonstrate, however, is that even once we know the Parry-Lord hypothesis, it isn’t an open-and-shut case, how best we should read Homer. We need to think about what we are reading forwhy we are reading, what the point of literature and the aesthetic experience is, if we are to come to a conclusion about whether and to what extent we ought to try and put ourselves in the shoes of a sixth-century Greek listening to a singer around a fireside, to what extent it is even possible, if at all.

For my part, I will keep Parry-Lord at the forefront of my mind, the next time I take up The Iliad, because my first objective is to get past the catalogue of ships without feeling intensely put off!

The wiki entry for The Singer of Tales:

Keats’ brilliant poem that is also, in my opinion, a grave error of aesthetic judgment:


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Filed under Epic, Homer, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

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