Category Archives: Epic

Lacrimae rerum and mono no aware

A few weeks ago, I wrote about lacrimae rerum – “the tears of things” – a phrase from The Aeneid, which suggests a deep sorrow that manages to sublimate itself into art. Today, someone pointed me to the Japanese phrase “mono no aware“, which translates into something rather similar-sounding: “the pathos of things”:

“The meaning of the phrase mono no aware is complex and has changed over time, but it basically refers to a “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), deriving from their transience. In the classic anthology of Japanese poetry from the eighth century, the Manyōshū, the feeling of aware is typically triggered by the plaintive calls of birds or other animals. It also plays a major role in the world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), from the early eleventh century.”

The interesting part is that mono no aware, as well, is ultimately about taking a raw emotion – sorrow – and sublimating it into a deeper experience of existence:

“The well known literary theorist Motoori Norinaga brought the idea of mono no aware to the forefront of literary theory with a study of The Tale of Genji that showed this phenomenon to be its central theme. He argues for a broader understanding of it as concerning a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general. The greatness of Lady Murasaki’s achievement consists in her ability to portray characters with a profound sense of mono no aware in her writing, such that the reader is able to empathize with them in this feeling.”

The connection is made even more clearly elsewhere:

“With this mood, acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality is elevated into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind that actually appreciates this ephemerality… Moreover, mono no aware recognises that this ephemerality is somehow integral to beauty, that beauty depends on this kind of transiency.”

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Filed under Classical Poetry, Epic, Japan, Virgil

A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

“The droplets of condensation on the window pane reminded her of tears on a tragic-comic mask…”

Oral poetry fascinates me. In particular, I’ve always found the story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pathbreaking investigations into the origins of the Homeric epic – that I wrote about here – spellbinding. So when, in Aeneid lectures this week, the professor informed us that Ismail Kadare’s (a name I was hearing for the first time) The File on H was an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the oral epic, I promptly issued it from the Balliol library.

A quick google reveals that Kadare is considered to be the foremost Albanian writer and poet of the 20th century (whatever that might mean or signify), and that he won the inaugural Man Booker International Award in 2005. Here is the blurb:

Society in rural Albania had evolved little since the Middle Ages. What better place in which two Irish-American scholars might study the tradition of oral poetry, in the hope of understanding how Homeric epics came to be composed and handed down, to elucidate the strange commerce between memory and forgetting. The small country town through which they pass, and the remote inn that serves as their base, are not left unaffected, however, by their presence: the society ladies, and not least the restless and ambitious wife of the Governor, insist on having their due; the Governor himself is under instructions from the Minister for the Interior to spy on the scholars’ activities, which are assumed to be an insidious form of espionage; and the notion of trapping the speech of the traveling rhapsodes in their new-fangled tape-recorder excites fear and outrage in a country where even a person’s shadow, let alone his voice, is considered capable of capture and annihilation. The two simple, dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ant’s nest…

This is a brilliant book. In it, the bleakness of Kafka meets the laughter of Wodehouse; the unsparing psychological portraits of Maupassant mingle with the surrealism of Garcia Marquez; and the whole work is shot through with a wistful yearning for days past, a brooding reflection on memory and loss, and a dirge for the breaking of things.

As the blurb suggests, the story is a fictional re-telling of the Parry-Lord journey to central Europe to solve the Homeric question by examining a living oral epic tradition. Of course, while Parry and Lord went to Bosnia, Max and Bill, their (fictional) equivalents, journey to Albania. But, just like Parry and Lord, they too carry with them the recently-invented tape-recording technology, desperate to salvage something of a dying tradition, in the last place where it yet survives, before it is gone forever.

Kadare begins with a series of acute portrayals of life in a provincial Albanian town, with all its dreariness, weariness and ennui, a world seen most starkly through the eyes of the deeply frustrated wife of the governor.

“She picked up the telephone under her customary cloud of melancholy, condensed from dozens of disappointments when, on hearing the same bell ring, she had rushed to it in the hope of hearing some really uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to hear through the perforated Bakelite her husband’s trivial interrogations…”

And when the news of the foreigners first arrives:

“…and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite – into a day full of surprise and mystery…”

Setting off a rapid chain of fantasising:

“… and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called “Jealousy…”


She ran back to the phone but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster’s wife she felt the need to savour it all alone for a little longer…”


“Chaotically, without seeking to make her mind keep to any logical sequence, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him, but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial emotions, exhaustively and sophisticatedly (rivalry, exacerbated jealous etc.) before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill.”

And for the governor himself:

Good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?


with his early-evening smile upon his face…

The characterisation is sparse, spare, almost like – to use a pet analogy of mine – an impressionist painting, leaving the reader to complete the vision with his mind’s eye. And, like the best of impressionist paintings, it is utterly compelling.

Things begin to get complicated when spies are deputed to watch the movements of the Irishmen, suspected as they are (as all foreigners are) of unknown and unknowably nefarious purposes. Here is where we begin to get drawn into a Kafka-esque world of the infinite State with its labyrinthine machines and machinations, but unlike Kafka, Kadare is relentlessly humorous; his spies and his provincial officials are so puffed up, so taken in by their own sense of self-importance, so utterly mock-Machiavellian, that it is impossible to be bogged down by the crushing inevitability of individual destruction that accompanies The Castle or The Trial. Of course, the shadow of secret police, show trials, purges and darkness at noon is ever-present in the background, and a distinct sense of unease pervades the novel, but it never grows to define it. So, consider:

“He tried to get “notwithstanding” into his report three times over, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to get it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times over with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “oh, oh,” he groaned aloud. A vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway, he added by way of self-consolation, flowers also grow better on dunghills. “

And then, with these two themes playing in the background, as Max and Bill arrive in the old inn at the crossroads of the rhapsodes’ ways, we begin to slip into the theme of epic. We are informed, early on, about how their project is not simply a work of detached, academic investigation into the Homeric question. Rather:

“For more than a thousand years, Albanians and Slavs had been in ceaseless conflict in this area. They had quarreled over everything – over land, over boundaries, over pastures and watering holes, and it would have been entirely unsurprising had they also disputed the ownership of local rainbows. And as if that were not enough, they were also squabbling over the ancient epics which existed, just to make things completely intractable, in both languages, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the two people asserted that it had created the epic, leaving the other nation the choice of being considered either a thief or a mere imitator.”

And, as Bill reminds Max, their work on Homer plunges them right into the conflict, working on a question, as they are, that will decide the controversy of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula. If, as they suspect, they find evidence linking the Albanian epic to the Greek, then it is proof that Albanian were present in the Balkans during classical times, and certainly before the Serbo-Croats. Epic poetry will become a formidable weapon in political conflict.

As the Irishmen’s work goes on, we are taken deeper into the nuances of oral epic poetry. We are introduced to the core of the oral tradition, the formulaic epithet, that tool both of memory and of metre:

What shifts and what stays fixed in epic poetry? Is there an unchanging core of material that ensures the integrity of the art-form over the centuries?… up to now we believed that the anchoring role was played by the figures of speech, the models or fixed forms of the language, or, to put it another way, the basic moulds into which epic material was poured… so we were convinced that the ancient laboratory’s linguistic equipment, which was itself unchanging, guaranteed the homogeneity of its poetic production. 

That is the standard Parry-Lord thesis. But, as Bill and Max find out, even the formulae are subject to change, albeit slowly and incrementally. And it is linked, in the end, to the art of forgetting – what prevents the epic from attrition – or dissolution – is the individual rhapsode’s ability to both remember and forget – to add as well as subtract from the corpus available to him.

“How are we going to know why and by what mysterious means a line that has been forgotten and shrouded in darkness for years may emerge into the light once again? And that’s leaving aside the fact that the phenomenon occurs not just within the repertoire of an individual rhapsode, but, as if carried along by a subterranean stream, an omitted line can be restored by some other rhapsode in a different time and place. Epic fragments seem able to climb out of the gave where the bard’s body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another’s song, as if death had not changed them at all.”

I think what’s important about the passage is its re-emphasis on an idea that cannot be stressed enough: assumptions of individuality and authorship, assumptions that we bring unthinkingly to our reading of written texts, simply don’t apply to the oral tradition which is, in a very Eliotic sense, a “tradition“. The image of a stream, a stream of epic that flows through time and space, borne along by the currents of its own logic, independent of individual efforts to dam or direct it, is a very striking one. As the scholars recognise, at another point, while they muse upon the history of epic poetry:

They thought that if Homer’s version of the Iliad had not been written down and subsequently published, then it too could easily have been fragmented and then been reassembled later on into a quite different shape. The cycles of condensation and dissolution of this kind of epic poetry must have some resemblance to the cycles of creation, fragmentation and re-creation of possible worlds from cosmic dust… more and more, epic poetry seemed to the like a kind of poetical galaxay under the sway of mysterious forces.

So much for that. As the reader approaches the book – especially a reader aware of the work of Parry and Lord, he is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the project. Saving – rescuing – salvaging – preserving for posterity – these are the things that come to mind when one contemplates what Bill and Max are trying to do. They are trying to keep a dying tradition alive by recording the songs of the last of the oral rhapsodes.

And yet, is it truly that simple? At the end of the first recording, when the Irishmen – and we – are flushed with a sense of triumph, of having participated in a great and memorable moment, of having set out on the road to making a fundamental contribution to the world’s heritage, we are given the first, faint sense of something being wrong. Because, when they play back the recorder, and the rhapsode’s now-artificial voice fills the room, Bill and Max feel that:

There was something quite horrifying about this disconnection, this removal of a man from the attributes which give him his distinct and independent existence. 

But what, precisely, is so horrifying about this? I don’t think that this is a point about imitation in general, but is uniquely characteristic of oral poetry. That is because, as I discussed earlier, when writing on Parry-Lord, the “distinct and independent existence” of the performer is one of the cornerstones of oral poetry. There is no original, no standard, no text; on the contrary, each performance is an act of creation, and each performer an author many times over. And this, of course, changes fundamentally with the advent of a device like the tape-recorder. As Kadare writes:

The rhapsodist is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller and librarian all at once, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend the text. It’s perfectly legal, no-one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him for doing so, except perhaps his own conscience.  

Of course, I have serious reservations about using the word “text” and “amend” at all (I wonder if something’s been lost in translation), because we know from Parry and Lord that in oral poetry, there is no such thing as a “text”, and consequently, no such thing as an “amendation” (since you need a standard to amend). But that minor quibble apart, what changes with the advent of the tape-recorder is precisely what changes with the advent of the written word – the creation of a model, a standard. And as Parry and Lord tell us, the written word destroyed the oral. Ex hypothesi, does not a recording device serve exactly the same function as the written word?

At some points, the thought occurs to Bill and Max themselves:

On other occasions they told themselves that oral epic could only ever exist in the scattered form in which they found it, and they there were betraying and altering their material by trying to put its pieces together. In that way of thinking, oral recitation was less like a poetic entity than a medieval order… 

And certainly, to the locals. This, from a conversation:

“This machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up is voice. It’s like when you wall up a man’s shadow. He wilts and dies. That’s what happens to him. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m only a foreigner myself, my land and my Serbian songs are far away in a safe place, but I deplore what’s going on for your sake. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They’ll mow down all those old songs that are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You’ll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert and you’ll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile, those devils will have fled far away. They’ll have robbed you of everything, and you’ll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives.”

Normally, we would be inclined to give this short shrift, since the conversation occurs in a deeply political context, and the monologue is clearly motivated by nationalist fervour. Nonetheless, Kadare has destabilised our conceptions enough, by now, to make us wonder: could there actually be a kernel of truth in this? Can the nature of oral poetry ever remain the same once it has been recorded? Even if, like Parry and Lord, like Bill and Max, your purpose is to preserve as much as you can, as many versions of the same story (does that even make grammatical sense in the context of oral poetry) – because what you’ll have at the end of that is multiple standards/models, but standards and models nonetheless.

Is the very idea of “preservation” antithetical to the essence of oral poetry? 

And does that mean that if oral poetry is dying, we are faced with the grim choice of either letting it die or, by preserving it, change its fundamental character – so that oral poetry is dead anyway? And what ought we to do.

Kadare is profoundly ambivalent on this point, an ambivalence that is summed up towards the end, as Bill and Max reflect on their work:

Whereas they had previously despaired at the dispersion of the Albanian epic tradition, they now felt reassured that the entire corpus was in good order. What to begin with had seemed like shards scattered through space and time, as ungraspable as the mane of rainbows, as wind and burnt dust, and quite impossible to collect, was now locked in numbered metal reel cases. Sometimes it seemed hard to credit that they had managed to tame all that hatred and all that passion. 

As the underlined phrases suggest – and as the images of “locking” and “taming”, as opposed to “ungraspable” signify – the soul of oral poetry lies in its resistance to being caught, labeled, classified, pinned down, defined. Once you do accomplish that, you lose something precious.

What conclusions, then, are we meant to draw about the project? At times it seems absurd to even begin to doubt, to doubt the value of Parry-Lord’s work, and the worth of their discoveries, their contribution to our knowledge about a great field of human endeavour. But Kadare makes us wonder. And the ending – which I won’t spoil here – only serves to make the ambivalence deeper and more profound.

As is the case with the best of books, you can’t quite sleep at night after having turned the last page.

Kadare’s Wiki entry:

The File on H:

The opening page:



Filed under Albania, Epic, European Writing, Homer, Ismail Kadare, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

I’ve just returned from watching a stupendous Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night at West End. I haven’t read Twelfth Night for a while, and watching the play tonight, at a couple of points, I caught myself thinking of a few issues of inter-textuality.

It’s interesting how the intertwined themes of youth, time, aging, love, death and immortality occur and recur throughout the corpus of Shakespeare’s work – obsessively, almost. Sonnets 1 – 17 are collectively known as “the procreation sonnets“, and follow a common theme: Shakespeare accuses the youth of wanton cruelty, both to himself and to the world, for refusing to marry and bear children; because time will, eventually, erase and deface his beauty, and the only way in which it is possible to defeat time’s work is by begetting a son who will bear the youth’s image in the world, once he himself has become old and decrepit. So, Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The very famous Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And one of my personal favourites, Sonnet XVI:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Shakespeare’s brooding, melancholic preoccupation with time and mortality and their destruction of all beauty, has been familiar to me through his sonnets, where these themes form a very self-contained whole. But tonight, I started when I heard the identical sentiment voiced in Twelfth Nigh, this cry of anguish from Viola as she attempts to persuade the hard-hearted Olivia to accept the Duke Orsino’s suit:

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy(Twelfth Night, Act I Sc V)

Here again, you have the language of the sonnets: praise of beauty, anger at the beauteous one’s unwillingness to marry and procreate, and an affirmation that the only way to defeat time is through producing the likeness of your beauty in your children. I now wonder how often this theme recurs in this way throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

The second issue, even more interesting. Consider this famous wooing scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi:

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.

And Maria’s imitated letter, in the hand of Olivia, to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,

Ignoring for a moment that one is a dialogue, and the other a letter, there are some striking similarities in content (in Shakespeare’s case, let us suspend our knowledge of the farce for a moment). Both are instances of high-born women taking the (rare) initiative to initiate proceedings through a declaration of love, since they know that the difference in social hierarchy between themselves and the men they love will always prevent him from making the first move. Both contain very similar imagery, and the exhortation to the man that “his life is made“, if only he will overcome his inhibitions and take what is offered. And indeed, the two even use similar vocabulary, albeit in different contexts: “born great” is a striking phrase present in both.

Twelfth Night was performed in 1602, and The Duchess of Malfi ten years later. I suppose it is probable that Webster was well-aware of Twelfth Night, and consciously or sub-consciously modeled the essence of his scene on Shakespeare’s prototype. Of course, there is one crucial difference: in Twelfth Night, the fake letter is a device of the comic form, and is the starting point for some of the most farcical and hilarious incidents in the play. On the other hand, the parallel scene in Malfi is the foundation of all the tragic events that follow – you couldn’t possibly have a more serious scene, more gravitas, than when the Duchess decides to woo Antonio. So, same motifs – but in entirely different contexts.

This, I think, lets us reflect upon fascinating issues of inter-textuality and allusive reference within literary traditions. Allusion was the stock-in-trade of the classic scholars, and from what I’ve read, it served broadly two purposes: it allowed the poet to place himself within the tradition – and thus, in a sense, define himself (in a relatively stable way) to his readers; by referencing known and established authors of a canon, the poet defined his genre, placed at least approximate limits upon the scope of his creative exercise, and generated certain specific expectations of form and content within his readers. But in changing the context of the allusion, and thus making it mean or signify something different, the poet also established his own individuality and unique voice for the reader.

Here, as in most things classical, Virgil leads the way. Right from the opening line, “Arms and the man, I sing…“, which, in a dual reference to The Iliad (“arms”) and The Odyssey (“the man”) establishes that The Aeneid is going to be both a war-epic and a quest-epic, Virgil’s epic is full of allusions to Homer, to Ennius, and to all the other epic poets of note. And Virgil, as I’ve noted on a few occasions before, is master of subversion and defamiliarisation. It would be the subject of a full, separate post to go into the complexity of the allusions in The Aeneid (and I am only just about competent to skim the surface), but I think that even this much is enough for us to think seriously about our ideas of authorship, of originality, and of where the point lies in literature. Is it that when one writer has come up with a motif, or a theme, or a particular treatment of it, that we ought to recognise it as his, and to castigate others who incorporate it into their own works as lacking in originality? Or ought we to regard those motifs and everything else as part of the tradition, and simply judge a writer on the basis of how well he uses them? In his essay, What Is An Author?, Foucault points out that the idea of single, individual authorship in the strong sense as we know it is an invention of the modern world. Perhaps that explains the allusion-heavy, intertextual nature many classic writings; and also explains why, in responses to allegations of plagiarism, Virgil was able to reply, blandly, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer” – because it didn’t really matter whether he had used the same words or images, or motifs, or even themes as Homer – what mattered was how well The Aeneid read, how good an epic it was. Perhaps, then, there is no given, a priori, in-the-nature-of-things reason for our convictions about individuality, authorship and originality to be as they are (they certainly weren’t this way in the genre of oral epics, for instance). Perhaps we ought to think about them as deeply and as carefully as we think about, say, the ethical dimensions of writing literature; and perhaps, if we find that there is no basis or warrant for them, we ought to modify, or even discard, these basic notions with which we, now, approach all our texts.

The Duchess of Malfi

Twelfth Night:


Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Epic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Shakespeare, Virgil

Thinking about the Mahabharata – I: Individual Heroes in Epics

I often enjoy thinking about comparisons between epics that spring from different soils. What, for instance, are the similarities – and the differences – between an Aeneas and an Achilles or a Beowulf and a Roland? How do Aeneid and The Ramayana treat the question of just war? How does the amorality of The Iliad relate to that of the Germanic epics? These are all fascinating issues, because it does seem, at one level, that the historical and social conditions that give rise to epic (and I use “epic” in a very broad, loose sense, ignoring for the moment distinctions between oral and written, and so on) are similar, across times and nations – and yet, when you get down to particulars, very different.

One question that has always interested me is the role of the hero in the epic. Epics were composed in an age that many call “heroic” (see Vico), and their main protagonists (think of Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Roland, El Cid, Siegfried, Rama, and to an extent, Aeneas) exist at a level between gods and human beings; they are far superior to the ordinary humans in terms of strength and battle-prowess (in some cases, that seems to exempt them from being bound by the codes, customs and conventions of mortals – positively Nietzschean), and the epic, to a large extent, becomes about their interactions with each other and with the gods.

One set of epics are actually named for their individual heroes. The Odyssey (Odysseus); The Aeneid (Aeneas); Beowulf (Beowulf); The Ramayana (Rama); The Song of Roland (Roland); The Lay of the Cid (El Cid); Orlando Furioso (Orlando). And there’s no doubt that, despite a decent supporting cast, these epics are about their heroes. Of course, you need a Turnus and a Dido to make an Aeneid, a Grendel to make a Beowulf, a Ravana to make a Ramayana, but these characters remain precisely that: a supporting cast. In other words, in a certain (very simplistic sense), these characters owe their existence to the hero, derive their raison d’etre from the hero, and are, at least to an extent, defined and constituted in virtue of their relationship with or opposition to the hero.

The obvious exception, of course, is The Iliad. Admittedly, The Iliad paints upon a large and diverse canvas. It can’t very well be called The Song of Achilles, because Achilles spends most of the epic sulking in his tent. Nor can it be called The Song of Hector, because Hector, for all his heroism, is defeated and killed (think of Karna). Perhaps it might be called The Song of Achilles and Hector? That, I think, wouldn’t be too inaccurate, because Achilles and Hector (like Aeneas and Turnus, perhaps?) do attain a level of prominence that exceeds the lot of the other characters: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Nestor, Ajax, Diomedes, Patroclus, Priam, Paris, Andromache. Yet, the very fact that we feel like we must invoke the names of all these characters to have a fair description of The Iliad makes The Song of Achilles and Hector a curiously unfitting title. 

So The Iliad is a problem case. Nonetheless, the fact remains, again, that it is, in at least one sense, about the conflict between Achilles and Hector, since all the events of the epic seem to lead up to that final climax, that battle beside the walls of Ilium – Agamemnon’s insult of Achilles leads to Achilles’ refusal to fight; that, in turn, allows Hector to wreak havoc among the Achaeans, and the famous burning of the ships; that compels Patroclus to put on Achilles’ armour and go out to battle, leading to his death at the hands of Hector; and that drives Achilles back into the war – and crucially, the epic ends with the burial of Hector (“and so they buried Hector, tamer of horses“).

Another problem case – or set of problem cases – are the Germanic epics. But again, the only difference here, I think, is that while they are not about individuals, they are nonetheless about a few (Sigurd and Gudrun), a chosen few (sometimes, a single clan). Moreover, the reason for this is that these epics (think of The Volsunga), unlike their Greek or Roman or other European counterparts don’t span a particular event or a series of events – but they often span a generation, or generations, events following upon events, with a logic of their own. Das Nibelungenleid, for instance, has two distinct sets of events – the first, involving Siegfried, Gunther, Kriemheild and Brunhild, and ending with Siegfried’s death; and the second involving Kriemheild’s revenge, in which the likes of Hagen von Tronje and Deitrich of Bern come to the fore; during one particular event, however, it’s very clear who the heroes are, and who the subsidiary characters are.

The Mahabharata, I think, is very different. Clearly, it is not named after a single hero, or even a group of heroes, like the Volsungs, or the Nibelungs. More importantly, I think it is simply impossible to reduce the epic to a manageable cast of “main characters”, or “heroes”. Yes, at a very basic level, the epic is about the conflict between the two branches of the Kuru clan. It’s clear that amongst the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, Bheema and Arjuna are prominent (already, you have three “heroes), and likewise, Duryodhana amongst the Kauravas. But where, in this scheme, do you then fit in Bhisma? Drona? Karna? Draupadi? Dhritarashtra (he is no Priam)? Krishna, even. Furthermore, in one sense, the story is linear – all events are oriented towards, and linked to, the final battle, but unlike The Iliad, individual episodes not only exist for that purpose, but also they are episodes and stories about the characters in their own right. Think about the episode of Karna and Parashurama; or Drona and Eklavya; or of course, most importantly, The Gita. Yes, all these episodes owe their existence to their place in the overall scheme of the epic, but they could also be read standing alone, in themselves, for themselves, for what they tell us about these fascinatingly drawn characters.

What do I mean by that last sentence? Well, think of Dido and Turnus in The Aeneid. Now, I yield to no-one in my estimation of The Aeneid as a sublime and beautiful work of literature, deserving of enduring for centuries; but Virgil’s private voice notwithstanding, there is at least an argument to be made – and has been made repeatedly (see Bowra’s From Virgil to Milton, and other similar works) that Dido and Turnus exist as part of Aeneas’s story, as part of the story of the founding of Rome, and their role, their very existence, is defined and characterised by that story. “So great a task it was to found the Roman people“, writes Virgil in Book I, and Dido and Turnus’ role is to demonstrate just how hard the task was. Dido, by almost tempting Aeneas to stay on in defiance of his mission, until the gods remind him that he cannot abandon his trials and wanderings until Rome is founded; and Turnus to demonstrate how Rome can’t be founded without bitter toil and conflict (and because of various accumulated curses, not least, Dido’s!). This is buttressed by how Virgil plaintively asks, again at the very beginning of Aeneid I, whether the gods can know from such anger against ordinary mortals. The encounters with Dido and Turnus are determined by the gods, and the way these two characters act is, again, pre-decided by the gods (like Cupid inflaming Dido’s heart with love for Aeneas).

And in another sense, those two are necessary for Aeneas to prove his heroism, to prove that he is a worthy founder of the Eternal City and the universal Empire. Against Dido, he proves his stoicism, his unswerving commitment to the mission of Rome; and against Turnus, his valour and heroism. Like a bildungsroman, these stories are about the hero, and the other characters exist as foils, to allow him to bring out his most heroic qualities. And if this is a controversial example – as it must be – just think about Circe in The Odyssey; or Ganelon in The Song of Roland – two very different characters, but the first essential to presenting the obstacles that are necessary to make the return to Ithaca the heroic quest that it is, and the second, the traitor who is required for the battle at the pass of Roncesveux to happen, and for The Song of Roland to be what it is.

And now think of Karna, persecuted, embittered, brooding, tragic, magnificent Karna, the likes of which I have not come across in any epic (Hagen von Tronje in Das Nibelungenleid may come close, but not really!); who, far from being rolled about like a dice by the gods, attempts to outwit them at their own game (recall the beggar-scene with Indra), who always and ever tries to make his own fate (Draupadi’s swayamvara). Who will dare say that he is part of someone else’s story, a member of the supporting cast, his destiny defined by and subservient to someone else’s, the stars’ tennis-ball? Or even Eklavya, who comes on to the stage, blazes briefly like a meteor, and exits as suddenly – despite his short length of stay in the epic, he is no poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more – his story impacts us deeply and profoundly, and his presence stays with us, casting a pall and a shadow over the rest of his epic. Shalya, Ashwatthama, Ghatotkaccha – the list of such characters is endless.

This has been one of the reasons why The Mahabharata has always fascinated me. The complexity is astounding. I don’t intend to write here about how this complexity exists not only in framing the cast of characters, but pervades the entire epic through questions of morality (again, not a common feature of epics generally); for now, suffice it to say that even this – a vast template of characters all of whom have their own lives, their own characters, their own living, breathing, passionate souls, their life-histories and their unique stories, who exist not in relation to others, not to hold up a mirror to the hero, not as cogs in the wheel of the epic, but who live as men and women, as subjects in their own right and as the locus-points of stories, dreams and desires – that is what has always made The Mahabharata unique for me, among all the epics.


Filed under Epic, The Mahabharata

Musings on The Aeneid – II: Carthage, Dido and Empire

Ostensibly, The Aeneid is a paean to the Roman Empire, a triumphant celebration of Roman overlordship over the known world, and a joyous vindication of Roman virtues. What, then, are we to make of Book IV, and the encounter between Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage? In brief: Aeneas lands upon Carthage, and is warmly received by Dido who, herself originally a refugee, is now engaged in building a great city. By the machinations of Venus and the arrows of Cupid, Dido is made to fall passionately and irrevocably in love with Aeneas. During a hunt, they shelter in the same cave from a ferocious storm, and something – we are never told what – happens between them. Subsequently, Dido believes they are married; Aeneas’ own actions, in adopting the Carthaginian dress and customs, and himself overseeing the building of the city, suggests nothing to the contrary. Until Mercury, sent down by Jove, sternly comes to Aeneas and reminds him of his heaven-decreed mission – the founding of Rome. Struck by remorse, Aeneas determines to promptly set sail. All of Dido’s entreaties are in vain. Aeneas, courteous but firm, leaves; and Dido commits suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre and burning to death.

Maurice Bowra, in his From Virgil to Milton, has a straightforward explanation. The story is a synecdochic representation of the inevitable advance of Roman civilisation and Roman virtue, and the corresponding yielding of the “barbaric”. Dido, it is to be noted, is a classically Homeric character (much like Turnus, who also dies at the end of The Aeneid). Strong-willed, highly individualistic, uncontrollably passionate – all qualities that would have stood her in good stead in The Iliad or the The Odyssey, built as they are on the cult of larger-than-life individual heroes. But the Roman world, with its focus on duty, self-control and the priority of Rome over the individual, simply has no place for Homeric – barbarian – characters, and the fate of Dido is simply an inevitable – if sad – corollary to that undeniable truth.

And yet, as ever, in The Aeneid, things aren’t quite so simple. In my earlier post, I wrote about Parry’s description of the two “voices” of The Aeneid – the “public voice”, that is, the glorification of Empire – and the “private voice” that, side by side, casts doubt upon and subverts the public. In Book IV, the private voice, I think, is at its strongest.

To start with, recall who Dido is. She is the Queen of Carthage, Rome’s fiercest, deadliest and most implacable historical enemy. During the three Punic Wars, Rome came as near to its destruction as it ever during its history. Hannibal marched his army right up to the gates of the Eternal City, and it is said that even at the time of Virgil and Augustus, Roman mothers would frighten their children with tales of Hannibal. We know of Cato’s delenda est Carthago to the Senate, and we know that at the end of the third Punic War, the Romans furrowed the Carthaginian soil and sprinkled salt over it to signal their determination that Carthage would never be allowed to rise again.

With all that in the background, note lines 12 and 13 of Book I:

urbs antiqua fuit (Tyrii tenuere coloni)
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe

That is, “an ancient city there was, named Carthage/ inhabited by a colony of Tyrians.”

What is crucial to observe here is that the very first time “city” is mentioned in The Aeneid, a poem presumably about the city of Rome, it is Rome’s greatest enemy, Carthage, and what’s more, this comes immediately after Virgil’s invocation of the Muse! This, it would seem, would have had a profoundly destablising effect upon the Roman reader. And this is continued later in Book I, where the description of Carthage closely matches that of Rome. There are “marvelous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways“; there is the “din of wagons“; the building of citadels, the enactment of laws, the choosing of magistrates, and of a senate, the dredging of harbours, the building of a theater – the entire scene is compared to that of a hive of bees, and it could not be more Roman in character. Dido herself welcomes Aeneas’ company, and invites them to live in Carthage “on equal terms” with her own Tyrians. Remarking on this entire scene, Davidson puts the point beautifully:

“Virgil’s punic passages, in short, provide a perfect opportunity for the discourse of orientalism. Confronted with Carthage Flaubert comes up with Salammbo and Petrarch with his epic Africa, two monuments of Western discourse of the Eastern Other, but Virgil misses his appointment with anti-Semitism. Why isn’t Rome’s greatest enemy a cruel and foreign nation? Why isn’t Juno Tanit? Why don’t the Carthaginians practice human sacrifice? Why aren’t the Carthaginians more Carthaginian?” 

(And this is especially fascinating when one considers that historically, one of the grounds for the Roman claim of cultural superiority over Carthage was the continuing Carthaginian practice of human sacrifice.)

And if Carthage is like a Rome, then logically, Dido, as its leader and governor, exhibits quintessentially Roman virtues (until the gods intervene). She is kind and hospitable to the Trojans, and she acts in every way a ruler should – comforting them and providing them refuge. And she is also a ruler in a more general sense, as the entire building of Carthage is taking place under her supervision – she is, essentially, an ideal Roman administrator! The character of Dido is fascinating – despite being female and Carthaginian, she is depicted as a ruler, as well as possessing a strong character. In other words, she is the precise opposite of the passive vessel that is Lavinia, but neither is she villainous, like Turnus becomes, at a certain point.

But most starkly, perhaps, this sense of defamiliarisation is heightened further in the beginning of the famous cave scene:

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem deuenient...”

Ostensibly, this means “Dido and the Trojan leader to the cave came.” However, the word “dux” can apparently classify either “Dido” or “the Trojan”; in other words, another grammatically correct way of reading this line is “Dido the leader and the Trojan…” – and this has Dido, not only as a Carthaginian, but also as a woman, taking the lead in her interactions with Aeneas (see here for a nice analysis of the Latin grammar at issue).

So at this stage, we have Carthage, an almost Rome, and the queen, despite being Carthaginian and female, being a “leader”. The private voice is in full flow.

Not only that, Dido’s grief and fury at her abandonment by Aeneas is not simply the passion of a woman scorned. On learning that Mercury himself, at the behest of Jove, has commanded Aeneas to leave, she bursts out:

What fit employment/ For heaven’s high powers! What anxieties/ To plague serene immortals!

As this article, and many others, point out, this is not only a protest, it is a presentation of another worldview altogether, one which is opposed to the dominant theme of the Aeneid. What this suggests is the Epicurean idea of disinterested gods, who have far better things to do with their time than meddle in petty human affairs. Of course, throughout The Aeneid, on the other hand, it Aeneas’ mission is near-constantly referred to as being divinely-sanctioned and heaven-approved. While Dido’s death may represent Epicureanism’s defeat, just as it represents the defeat of the Homeric character, it is nonetheless an instance what D.P. Fowler calls “deviant focalisation” in the Aeneid – that is, the presentation of perspectives that are at variance with the narrator’s perspective, with Virgil’s perspective. To put it in a way that I think captures the issue, The Aeneid is extraordinarily susceptible to a resistant reading – or, more accurately, many resistant readings.

This is buttressed by what Feeney says, even more simply: that there is available in the Aenid, the material to construct an opposite kind of argument. A reading of Book IV will illustrate the point – Dido is far more eloquent than Aeneas. Perhaps it is now an inescapable modern sensibility speaking, a bondage within a Gadamer-esque horizon, but surely, Dido’s speeches are more convincing, more passionate, and far more beautifully spoken than Aeneas’ – whether it be about Epicureanism, or her own agony at being abandoned. So Virgil essentially gives the best lines to the very person who is supposedly destined to be pushed aside in a world that no longer has any use for her like, who is doomed from the start, whose entire raison d’etre is to only provide Aeneas with another barrier on his obstacle-laden quest for founding Rome.

And that, in summation, is why I enjoy reading The Aeneid so much, and why I think it absolutely must be on any list of great works of Western literature or, for that matter, on any to-read list. It is supposedly a song of Empire, but it makes the Empire’s greatest enemy hold up a mirror to itself. It is apparently the celebration of a man, the founder of Rome, a hero – but that man is anything but heroic, plagued as he is by self-doubt, and prone to committing morally dubious acts. It is meant to be a celebration of Roman virtues, but the so-called barbarians have the best and the most eloquent lines. And so on. The poem deals with themes crucial to the human condition, and even as it builds up one narrative, it simultaneously undermines it, directly at times, and subtly at times; perhaps Fowler exaggerates when he says that The Aeneid has as many ways of interpreting it as there are readers – but for me, that is, indeed, the core of its greatness – the multiplicity of meanings and ideas in the text, and the conflict that subsists between them, while all the time being acceptable readings and interpretations of the text itself, leaves one with no easy conclusions, and forces one to think about these things, afresh and deeply. And all the way, through the medium of unforgettable characters such as the likes of Dido, queen of Carthage. And not only this, it is especially instructive, I think, to think about how most Empire writing voluntarily or involuntarily, deliberately or reflexively, consciously or unconsciously, always casts the “Other” as fundamentally different and opposed, so that the self can be defined more sharply, more starkly, by the opposition. It is beautiful – and moving – to see how such definitions simply break down and dissolve in The Aeneid, the supposed archetype of Empire writing, how this trite, annoying play of opposites expands into something infinitely more subtle, more complex, and ultimately, non-judgmental. Like an impressionist painting, it is the reader who must complete, for himself, the full picture, from the brush-strokes and play of colours before him.

To end: some passages from Book IV, which is certainly my favourite part of The Aeneid.

Virgil on unspoken love:

Alas, what darkened minds have soothsayers!                                                                             What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers?                                                                 The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,                                                                                   And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.

Dido in agony:

“What shall I say first, with so much to say?”

She prayed then to whatever power may care                                                                                    In comprehending justice for the grief                                                                                                 Of lovers bound unequally by love.

It was not given to me to lead my life                                                                                                  Without new passion, innocently, the way                                                                                          Wild creatures live, and not to touch these depths.


Filed under Empire, Epic, Virgil

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

Musings on the Aeneid – I

I will start by discussing one of my favourite lines in all of poetry.

Arva neque Ausoniae semper cedentia retro 

(Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, 496 – 7)

My Fitzgerald translation has this down as:

No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.

Here is the full context: Aeneas has escaped from the sack of Troy, and has been charged with the burden of founding Rome (Virgil sums up the gravity of Aeneas’ task with another line, beautiful for its brevity – “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem” (Bk I, 33), translated by Fitzgerald as “so hard and huge/ A task it was to found the Roman people). He has been sailing the seas, seeking Italy, the pre-destined place, the only place where he can come to land permanently, and he has been meeting one peril and misfortune after another. At length he arrives in Epirus, where his kinsman Helenus has established himself, and rules in peace and plenty. He is also an augury, and he predicts a long and troubled journey for Aeneas before he can succeed in his task. When the time then comes to say farewell, Aeneas can scarce forbear to weep; and he laments:

‘Be happy, friends; your fortune is achieved,/ While one fate beckons us and then another./ Here is your quiet rest; no sea to plow,/ No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.‘”

In his beautiful article, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, Adam Parry cites this as one of the examples of a “private voice” in The Aeneid, that sets itself up in opposition to, and regularly subverts the dominant, commonly understood “public voice”, that is, the paean to Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire. In this line, the private voice suggests that although, of course, Aeneas will eventually reach Italy and establish Rome, in another, more meaningful sense, his labours are destined to have no ending, and, in Parry’s words, the “end… will see him as far from his fulfillment as his beginning. This other Italy will never cease receding into the distance.” (Parry, 1963). I’ll take the truth of this argument as my starting point.

Let me try to explain my response to this understanding of the lines by quoting one of my most-loved poets, Lord Byron, at his most Byronic:

Man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he cannot attain.”

This, of course, is the tragedy of Manfred, maybe of Childe Harold, in parts, and certainly of Byron, in his last poem, “On This Day, I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Byron’s words are simple, blunt, almost brutal – and for that reason, utterly compelling. Their power, I think, lies in the fact that they identify the truth, and present it to us unvarnished and unadorned. For anyone who has ever struggled with anything that seems greater than himself, be it the writing of a poem or the building of a bridge that for all its elegance, still seems incomplete in some unidentifiable way (take any other example here – details don’t matter) cannot, I feel, fail to be profoundly moved by this line. Camus understands this aspect of the human condition perfectly when he makes one of his characters, throughout all the pages of The Plague, struggle with the opening line of his planned novel, struggling for a perfection that he knows exists, but which always evades him, eludes him, flees from him even as he grasps futilely for it. He dies of plague before he can finish the first page.

What Byron achieves through a perfect phrase and Camus through a perfect example, Virgil does in an infinitely more powerful way – through a perfect image. In that one line and a bit, by presenting a single picture of your destination that is receding from you even as you’re striving to reach it, he enters your soul. The Ausonian fields are a metaphor for life. You are always striving, striving for that goal, that destination, a destination that, like those Ausonian fields, you know nothing about apart from the fact that you’re striving for it, and like the horizon, it always recedes from you, so that it doesn’t matter how fast and how long you run, how determined and resolute – or lucky – you are. There it is, at the edge of your vision, so that you always know that it exists, and you’re always reaching, trying, running (sigue corriendo!), and yet deep inside you, you’re aware of the Sisyphean futility of the endeavour, because the horizon will always remain as far away as it is when you begin.

And that, I think, sums up the greatness of Virgil. A single line and a word. A perfect image. And you come out of it deeply affected, deeply troubled, and deeply moved.

Of course, not all poets are so pessimistic. C.P. Cavafy, in his brilliant – and justly famous poem, Ithaka, compares life to Odysseus’ journey home after Troy. Only, Cavafy’s traveler faces no Scylla or Charybdis, no annoying sorceresses with a penchant for turning people into pigs, and no terrifying one-eyed cannibalistic monsters. On the contrary, there are summer mornings of pleasure and joy, when you discover new harbours, Phoenican traders with exquisite wares, and Egyptian cities with great scholars. And in the end, you do reach Ithaka, in your old age, and the journey has made you rich beyond your dreams.

It is a beautiful poem. Cavafy inspires and makes us dream. But Virgil, I feel, plumbs the truth.


Byron on his 36th:

They are both brilliant poems, although in very different ways. Much recommended

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Filed under Camus, Epic, Existentialism, Lord Byron, Romanticism, Virgil