HOMER AND THE PHILOLOGISTS


For the serious reader of poetry, the name "Homer" calls up three separate and disparate connotations. Since these are so different and at times virtually antagonistic, a few words of definition may be in order.

I: First there is the ancient Poet of Greece who set the pattern for Epic Poetry so firmly that regular school and college courses in English translation are devoted to the development of Homer as origin of the Epic notion through the ages. Under the heading of The Humanities this has a generally beneficent role, since it shows us that the Past does have connections with the Present, and that it can be quite interesting reading in itself. Stories about heroes and mythological genealogies are fun to read, complicated enough to make good questions on inevitable academic examinations and even good for popular TV quiz shows.

II: Then for there is the reader who wants to get to the original Homer, there is another route involving hard work with the grammar of the Greek language. This is absolutely required to enter the world of Homer's text and read the actual words and verses of the two great Epic poems. Most people will prefer to take a course in Greek, but this can be done effectively by oneself if the purpose is strong, and many of the adult people who subscribe to reading groups like aoidoi.com and textkit.com will be found reading Greek poetry on their own. On one level this means tough language-study, but as each verse is mastered a light dew of poetical sensibility condenses, which is what the reading of Poetry is about in the first place.

III: But if one peruses the collections of a large library, one finds shelves of works on Homer addressing problems which one might not have imagined. For two centuries the scholarship of the West has been questioning the identify of "Homer", first whether the author wasone man, or many men, a writer or singer, an "author" or compiler from sources. In the matter of date (where there are no real dates to work with), the "date of Homer" has been pulled back and forth over five centuries in an academic tug-of-war.

But it is not just a matter of academic studies in university press books. The professional Journals of scholarship reveal a fifty year avalanche of recent discussions on Homeric problems, writings which oscillate between scholar and scholar while largely invisible to the intelligent reading public.

These approaches to "Homer" can be further classified on three user levels:

1) There is the humanist reader's awareness of the author Homer and a general sense of his writings in very loose historical terms.

2) Then there is a small group of readers who believe in reading original texts, who will take the trouble to learn enough Greek to face close and detailed reading of the Epic, word by word and line by line. Those few who persist beyond the final examination of a second year Homer course will have lifelong access to a poetic and artistic treasury, but the ranks of those who read Greek well enough to count it pleasurable will always be thin.

3) And then there are the Classical Professionals as teachers in the colleges and graduate schools who may may have different agenda. By a long two century old tradition, scholarly examination of special problems surrounding ancient texts has come to be a highly specialized field generating a regular flow of articles to Journals beside a series of books which establishes the author as an expert in the field. These carry not only the author's views but also his academic identity and reputation in the academic world, things which in the end confer status and advancement .

There are so many twists and turns in the world of scholarly investigation, that to an outsider all this activity might seem just the individual interests of concerned authors who merely want to state their discoveries in print. But there is an elaborate intertwining of published opinions as scholars confer, refute, repudiate and even occasionally establish acceptable views. This woven paper fabric of investigational ardor does have a name. It is called Philology.

Now the word Philology has been used for so long and in so many different contexts and cultures that it might at first seem a mere cover-word for an unclassifiable field of varied interests. It is of course from the Greek phil- "love" and logos "word", although logos has a wide swath of meanings ranging from Words to Ideas or even Form itself. Plato uses the adjective "philologos" meaning fond of conversation, or of Socrates as loving talking, fond of discussion and dialog. Aristotle's philological interest in language and the classification of the grammatical elements turns toward the understanding of words as part of their social usage in speech and rhetoric. Hellenistic and Latin authors like Cicero tend to think of Philology as a love of learning, especially love of literature the good things inherited from an ancient and highly respectable Greek culture.

But in the scholarly world of Hellenistic Alexandria, Aristarchus set the model for a serious text-critic by establishing a correct and even a "corrected" Homeric text, as a way of dealing with the variant texts then available. He marked the dagger as questionable hundreds of lines, which we still retain in our textual apparatus so marked. We know little about other textual variants known in his time, which may have come from different rescensions and different avenues of the epic poetic tradition. This Alexandrian scholarly activity established a new Philology which was different from the conversational and dialectical notion of Plato, one which can be convincingly dated as 'from Aristarchus to Tzetses to Wolf and Nagy' without serious interruption.

A mid-20th c. dictionary definition of Philology states: "The study of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and original form, and the determination of their meaning.", while a British usage takes the word to mean the general field of Linguistics. In the U.S. the term always had a specific classical relationship, as in the APA (American Philological Association) or with more restriction the century old HSCP (Harvard Studies in Classical Philology), while Comparative Philology was used for Historical Linguistics in the Mediterranean band of languages.

Authenticity and date for ancient written materials will always furnish room for infinite expansion an speculation, while interpretation of words which is often restricted to exact meanings, should also include study of the configuration and sound-microstructure of words and phrases. This has been largely ignored as a analytic technique by the classical critics, since it relies on much phonetic and linguistic materials which fall outside the traditional classical discipline.

What we have been describing above can all be better defined as part of a great DataBase, which stretches in this case from 9th c BCE to our time including absolutely everything which was preserved from the earliest written records, down through the scholarly treatments of materials deriving from that DataBase. Written records are primary, an oral tradition and anthropological reconstructions are secondary since they are secondary materials which enter the DataBase from this end of time, not from the early period which they describe. The last two centuries of scholarly effort stand within this period of Data Collection, but in a special late category since they were generated in a new cultural era and reflect new preoccupations with fact which derive in part from the work of the l9th c. world in scientific data handling.

Ancient history and the ancient human DataBase is no longer the property of the Philological disciplines. In the last twenty years great attention has been devoted to the way the human mind works, not only the mind but its central operating system in the neural brain, and every major University has opened at last a new department designed to deal with thinking and thought in a Cognitive or Neuro-Science Program. But since the basic data flow of thought patterning still resides in Language, the Protean science of Linguistics has been drawn into these new programs as a base-level investigation. At the present time, as we begin initial investigations into new understanding of the thought processes, thought without Language is completely inconceivable.

Now it is still words and their functions in speech which occupies the first floor. All of the materials from our ancient Philological disciplines can be newly keyed into to this wide and deeper study where new parameters have the potential to elicit new perceptions. But thinking in past times is an invaluable clue to understanding thinking today, since evolving language patterns may be seen as clues to the infrastructure of thinking and human thought.

Here we come onto the two critical flaws in the notion of our traditional Philological discipline. In the case of Homeric materials, we have a Primary Level which is documentable as before 400 BCE, a Secondary Level from the Hellenistic period through its later branches, and a Tertiary Level which starts with the scholars of the Renaissance and persists to the present time. The cultural, philosophical and religious threads of these periods are woven into each of these Levels, which form a great continuing series but divided into somewhat different compartments.

The first flaw is considering the long stretch of this Data tradition as one serial flow, since this assumes that words and statements made at different periods will be interpretable correctly by readers in different time frames. The second flaw is that the overbearing burden of the Data from three millennia of documentation gives a backward-oriented orientation to the handling of the materials, with the twin assumptions that correct notions can be garnered from a sufficiently large DataBase, and that only assumptions which proceed from or emanate from that DataBase are to be considered legitimate assumptions.

This tends to create a closed-field scholarly mind, which is the exact antipode of the forward-looking thoughtfulness which characterizes the best thinking of our time. Reliance on a notion that enough data will eventually evoke answers, ties our thought to the Past inexorably, while withdrawing our attention from the possibilities of a negative response. Some matters of debate have to be defined as NULL, as a way of clearing the air, saving time and effort, and directing attention to correlate data which can have positive returns. Complete documentation of the history of scholarly argumentation may eventually encrust the specific field which is being considered.

In this case, a good part of our elegantly detailed Philology on the Epic tradition can draw attention away from the Homeric texts themselves, where there are still significant problems of interpretation. There still many areas in the Homeric world which need attention, for example the Homeric language itself with its mixed dialect variants; its still ignored musical pitch accents and their MS authenticity vs. editors' conventionsion our printed texts; the Near Eastern non-Greek language bits which seem to have infiltrated the Homeric vocabulary; the other Indo-European poetic language skills which he Greek must have brought in with them from the migrations; even the possibility that large parts of the epics beyond Gilgamesh were translated or recast from poems in other Near Eastern tongues. These are real areas for study which should give much better returns than the date of an ancient text rescension or the characteristics of a vanished bardic tradition.

But come back to my Level 2 reader, the person who is dealing directly with the words and lines of Homeric Greek language, imbibing both the linguistic materials of the text and at the same time the spirit and detailing of the storyline. These persons follow the thread of literature as 'literature', for them Philology is interesting but except in rough outline it is fairly peripheral to their reading. Put the other way around, the philological study has little meaning when separated from the text as a specialized field of endeavor. So for the intelligent reader of Greek literature, the question stands this way:

How important is the corpus of the philological background ? Is it worth investigating with more than a cursory scan? Is it possible to really investigate it at all, considering its immense library, the formal and contentious style of much of its written materials, and the small rewards for armfuls of articles in volumes of scholastic reading?

Is there a middle way for the Intelligent Reader?

If the Reader is watching the text carefully and thinking about the way words and lines configure with each other and with the overall sense, there should be a time as skills improve when he will hold up on a line or a word, and wonder if that really sound right. We all have our subjective moments when we make a tentative guess, based on a back-of-the-mind feeling that there is something odd here, something somehow incongruent. These are interesting moments and should be jotted down in the margin as something to reconsider later.

When you find one of these marginal checked lines annotated in the Apparatus Criticus of your larger text edition of Homer, you can check on the accuracy of your perception. You may find it was a line athetized by Aristarchus, or a word variant suggested by Zenodotus, in which case you can suspect your perception of the Greek language is getting better. You can congratulate yourself that your mind is making contact with an ancient mind some two millennia back in time.

Or you begin to notice Aeolic spellings, and mark them down on a list, to later discover that these have meaning whether already tabulated in a grammar , or awaiting documentation as part of a new view about the existence of a Pan-Athenaic text. Knowledge proceeds from discoveries, and a discovery is worth making even if it doesn't surface in a scholarly Journal article or get presented to a conference on ancient Greek linguistics.

As the good literary Reader reads on to imbibe the spirit of the book (Plato's notion it was) , so he must stay with the book firmly and continue to absorb everything which the words and letters embrace, while fusing all this with his own identity as a living person in his own compartment in time. We live within several overlapping rings of identity, we exist in a time sequence which gives us one piece of our past; we gather the edge folds of that past into the culture in which we are invested. Folding around ourselves a ring of personal identity, we feed by all kinds of varied inputs, while nourishing it with care and the attention of thought.

There are still those of us, as the true philologoi of Plato's world, who know the value of words spoken or written or sung or remembered. We clothe and decorate ourselves with the ancient and magical art of words, we are the literary inheritors aof the past. But we must remember that it is the actual and authentic words of the Text which are important, the words and their configurations which are our specific line of contact with other minds in other times. Authentic aalways means original, and a translation however faithful and clever, is a secondary document which does not replace an original.

The responsibility for good interpretation of Texts rests with us as individual readers, aided by any supplementary material which seem useful or enlightening. But we must still do the greater part of our reading on our own, avoiding the shifting sands of the internecine scholarship of the day, and continuing in the millennia-long practice of sticking very closely to the text. Reading is a personal activity performed between person and text, with illustrative and interpretational commentary best kept at a cautious arm's length, lest it intrude into the private space of written word and reader's mind.