To this day, the most interesting research project that I’ve ever done was the very first. It was on the Homeric Question.
I was a sophomore in college—a student with (unfortunate) literary ambitions who had just decided to major in anthropology. By this point, I had at least tacitly decided that I wanted to be a professor. In my future lay the vast and unexplored ocean of academia. What was the safest vessel to travel into that forbidden wine-dark sea? Research.
I signed up for a reading project with an anthropology professor. Although I was too naïve to sense it at the time, he was a man thoroughly sick of his job. Lucky for him, he was on the cusp of retirement. So his world-weariness manifested itself as a total, guilt-free indifference to his teaching duties. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. I envied a man that could apparently care so little about professional advancement. That’s what I wanted.
In any case, now I had to come up with a research topic. I had just switched into the major, and so had little idea what typical anthropology research projects were like. And because my advisor was so indifferent, I received no guidance from him. The onus lay entirely on me. One night, as I groped half-heartedly through Wikipedia pages, I stumbled on something fascinating, something that I hadn’t even considered before.
Who is Homer? Nobody knew. Nobody could know. The man—if man he was—was lost to the abyss of time. No trace of him existed. We can’t even pin down what century he lived. And yet, we have these glorious poems—poems at the center of our history, the roots of the Western literary canon. Stories of the Greek Gods had fascinated me since my childhood; Zues and Athena were as familiar as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. That the person (or persons) responsible could be so totally lost to history baffled me—intrigued me.
But I was not majoring in literature or the humanities. I was in anthropology, and so had to do a proper anthropological project. At the very least, I needed an angle.
Milman Parry and Albert Lord duly provided this angle. The two men were classicists—scholars of ancient Greece. But instead of staying in their musty offices reading dusty manuscripts, they did something no classicist had done before: they attempted to answer the Homeric question with field work.
At the time (and perhaps now?) a vibrant oral tradition existed in Serbo-Croatia. Oral poets (guslars, they’re called there) would tell massive stories at public gatherings, some stories even approaching the length of the Homeric poems. But what was most fascinating was that these stories were apparently improvised.
In our decadent culture, we have a warped idea of improvisation. Many of us believe improvisation to be the spontaneous outflowing of creative energies, manifesting themselves in something totally new. Like God shaping the Earth out of the infinite void, these imaginary improvisers shape their art from nothing whatsoever. Unfortunately, this never happens.
Whether you’re a jazz saxophonist playing on a Coltrane tune, a salesperson dealing with a new client, or an oral bard telling a tale, improvisation is done via a playful recombining of preexisting, formulaic elements. This was Milman and Parry’s great discovery. By carefully transcribing hundreds of these Serbo-Croation poems, they discovered that—although a single poem may vary from person to person, place to place, or performance to performance—the variation took place within predictable boundaries.
The poet’s brains were full of stock-phrases (“when dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more”), common epithets (“much-enduring Odysseus”), and otherwise formulaic verses that allowed them to quickly put together their poems. Individual scenes, in turn, also followed stereotypical outlines—feasts, banquets, catalogues of forces, battles, athletic contests, etc. Of course, this is not to say that the poet was not original. Rather, it is to say that they are just as original as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker—individuals working within a tradition. These formulas and stereotypical scenes were the raw material with which the poet worked. They allowed him to compose material quickly enough to keep up the performance, and not break his rhythm.
But could poems as long as The Odyssey and The Iliad come wholly from an oral tradition? It seems improbable: it would take multiple days to recite, and the bard would have to pick up where he left off. But Milman and Parry, during their fieldwork, managed to put our fears at rest. They found a singer that could (and did) compose poems equal in length to Homer’s. (I actually read one. It’s called The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, and was recited by a poet named Avdo. It’s no Odyssey, but still entertaining.)
All this is impressive, but one question remained: how could the oral poems get on paper? Did an oral poet—Homer, presumably—learn to write, and copy it down? Not possible, says Alfred Lord, in his book The Singer of Tales. According to him, once a person becomes literate, the frame of mind required to learn the art of oral poetry cannot be achieved. A literate person thinks of language in an entirely different way as a non-literate one, and so the poems couldn’t have been written by a literate poet who had learned from his oral predecessors.
According to Lord, this left only one option: Homer must have been a master oral poet, and his poems must have been transcribed by someone else. (This is how the aforementioned poem by Avdo was taken down by the researchers.) At the time, this struck me as perfectly likely—indeed, almost certain. But the more I think about it, the less I can imagine an oral poet submitting himself to sit with a scribe, writing in the cumbersome Linear B script, for the dozens and dozens of hours it would have taken to transcribe these poems. It’s possible, but seems unlikely.
But according to Ruth Finnegan, Alfred Lord’s insistence that literacy destroys the capacity to improvise poems is mistaken. An anthropologist, Finnegan found many cases in Africa of semi-literate or fully literate people who remained capable of improvising poetry. So it’s at least equally possible that Homer was an oral poet who learned to read, and then decided to commit the poems to paper (or whatever they were writing on back then).
I submit this longwinded overview of the Homeric Question because, despite my usual arrogance, I cannot even imagine writing a ‘review’ for this poem. I feel like that would be equivalent to ‘reviewing’ one’s own father and mother. For me, and everyone alive in the Western world today, The Odyssey is flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. Marvelously sophisticated, fantastically exciting, it is the alpha and omega of our tradition. From Homer we sprang, and unto Homer shall we return.
[Note: I’d also like to add that this time, my third or forth time through the poem, I decided to go through it via audiobook. Lucky for me, the Fagles translation (a nice one if you’re looking for readability) is available as an audiobook, narrated by the great Sir Ian McKellen. It was a wonderful experience, not only because Sir Ian has such a beautiful voice (he’s Gandalf, after all), but because hearing it read rather than reading it recreated, however dimly, the original experience of the poem: as a performance. I highly recommend it.]