Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Mighty Dead - Homer Matters for sure...but why?

We take a departure from our usual interacting with the original texts (or at least translations of them) to delve into Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters (published by William Collins 2014/15). I have to say that I am not normally a fan of general books about Classics or for that matter other ancient historical subjects. The result of most of them tends to be a bit like fast food, quite enjoyable at the time but soon after digesting them one comes away with the feeling of ‘What was that about? I still don’t know’. Or to add a further analogy, a book about the making of a film or the background history to a novel rather than the novel itself. For me it has to be something really special, a complete departure the kind one finds in W.G.Sebold, or Durrell. It has to be pure poetical flight of fancy or serious in-depth crunchy analysis. The Mighty Dead steers a middle course between the two, at times fascinating and at others almost contrived and irrelevant. A hit and miss affair.
With Nicholson we get bits of both but never quite enough to sustain the book as a whole and therefore in the final analysis a failure for me. I get the fact that Homer really matters according the writer, he mentions it enough in as many contexts as he can, but I still don’t really know why. I am not sure if he has made a convincing case – and by a convincing case I mean a well thought out, sustained, and coherent argument which has the strong possibility of swaying the naysayers such as the Goncourts of this world. There are flashes of it and he says some really perceptive and surprising things about Homer and the world to which he might have belonged and the ones which he (or she or even they depending on which scholarship you go for personally) evoked in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
As I came across these brief flashes of insight my appetite was whetted and I thought he was going to take off but the Sopwith Camel left the chocks and taxied down the fairway but then veered off into the bushes, containing a fascinating anecdote about one thing or another, loosely connected to the Homeric world. A bizarre case in point is the authors harrowing experience in Syria at the hands of a knife wielding chancer during an evening stroll. Nicholson describes even this event as ‘Homeric’ likening it to the women and children as victims of violence during Illiadic conflict. I have an issue with this in the sense that if it’s possible to ‘homercize’ these kinds of things then it’s difficult to see what cannot be made so . Will we find ourselves holding a roasted chicken aloft on the end of our umbrella during a visit to M&S and declaring at top of our voices that this is a Homeric act! This leads me back to why I am not a big fan of these kinds of books – the conclusion of most them being that everything is simply fascinating and interconnected. It’s something we instinctively know and don’t need to be instructed in, however many anecdotes are strung together to illustrate it.
I have issues as a Classicist and as an Ancient Historian with the work as well. I don’t wholly agree with his ideas of northern Steppes mobile warrior culture meets sedate city dweller but sophisticated southern Mediterranean cultures to fuse into the Homeric synthesis – it smacks too much of the dualistic conceit that many lightweight analyses fall into. It’s really difficult to avoid this and requires a stronger grip on the facts and theory to be able to create something truly perceptive, especially about a period about which so little is known.
I am troubled by his chronology, and some of his offhand references. Anyone who refers to ‘shogunal Japan (whatever that means) could be accused of a lazy historical shorthand – dangerous when dealing with well documented periods, utterly lethal where the evidence is scanty.
Having said all this negative stuff, I do like a lot of what he says about Homer. His love and passion for the subject is clear and very endearing and he does have some genuinely good ideas about the work. I particularly liked his comparison between the Iliad and the Odyssey as the worlds of fate and fixed paths versus anything could happen, despair and doom versus the possibility of something good around the corner, that the future can be made in the Odyssey where it is written in the Iliad and can never be avoided. I found a lot of what he has to say about the works and what they might mean very rewarding and stimulating reading. In a way the book might have been better as a long essay with all of these imaginative theoretical speculations compressed and sustained. As it is, the book does meander and tie some very tenuous links to places where they shouldn’t really go – Spanish mining locations for the House of Hades, or the Tale of Sinuhe for examples.
So there were some things I liked about this book but I was reminded why I tend not to read these sorts of things! I would prefer to stick to the texts or read something more scholarly I guess but that it is my personal bias. The key peeve remains that a general reader probably still wouldn’t know why on earth Homer matters and therefore the title is a misnomer surely. I also think that he was unlucky with his Greek teacher, being unable to make anything of Homer as a young student. That was not my experience at all – but then I was fortunate enough to start my study of Greek at a slightly older age, although still at school and have a teacher who was able to convey the magic and power of the language to us, especially with Homers Iliad and Odyssey. There was also nothing about the teaching of Homer or how it could be relevant and matter to future generations…on this Nicholson seems to have little to say. Another strange thing is the inclusion of Greek words in transliteration and describing their meaning. I can’t see that this much use to the non-Greek reader and to those who do its faintly annoying that the original script (with bracketed transcription) isn’t included. Perhaps this is unfair since it may be a printing issue or following a convention of many non-specialist books on ancient/classical matters.
I look forward to discussing these issues with you at the next Legendum

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Socrates in Love - the Symposium


Plato's Symposium marks a departure in both theme and structure from the exploration of the Socratic method of dialectics common to the previous dialogues. It comes as a particular surprise, albeit a very pleasant one, that Plato should write so extensively on the theme of love, such an unusual work coming from someone who would strictly limit or do away with poetry in his ideal image of a utopian Republic.

But perhaps its purpose is dual, not only to showcase some of the ideas and attitudes towards sexual love, male and otherwise in 5th Century Athens and in the process provide a vehicle to introduce a beginners module as it were to his pet Theory of Forms,  with the ever brilliant and engaging Socrates as posthumous spokesman, but also to create a personal and impassioned yet gentle homage to his greatest hero and to offer much by way of apology for one of the greatest thinkers the west has ever produced.  

I feel compelled to say this because, more than any other work of his, the Symposium is replete with warmth, wit and humour as well as very touching scenes of loving friendship between males in company that make for a very endearing poignant and inspiring work, one that is still resonating with us today as a work of so many facets for so short a piece of writing. In this short work we go on a journey from bland and flat rhetoric to the very sublime heights of the purpose of life itself...against a backdrop of very human and life-like characters drinking and enjoying an evening of stimulating sublime conversation as well as some fine teasing and ribaldry in true Athenian, even Aristophanian fashion. There is much of the sublime and ridiculous in the work, both quite admirable qualities when expertly mixed in the wine bowl!

I was going to write in some detail about each of the speeches but I have decided in the interests of time and the approaching end of the year to refer in passing to our very stimulating discussion of them when we last met. The thing that strikes me in particular about this work is that it comes across strongly as Plato’s attempt to leave both an homage and an apology for Socrates and give the lie to his accusers picture of him as a corrupter of youth and one who was impious and worshipped other gods. Perhaps it was this endearing love of his hero that caused Plato to embark on such an unusually dramatic and vivid piece of writing in the first place. I can also recommend Benjamin Jowett’s (Master of Balliol and translator of the Dialogues of Plato in five volumes for the Oxford University Press 3rd Edition 1892) analysis and introduction to the Symposium, which although dated, is remarkable for its very even handed and almost prescient treatment of the issues throughout the dialogue.

I would also like to mention a couple of the things in the text itself that struck me as particularly interesting. One of these is the framing narrative at the start of the work where an unknown person has heard of the discourse in praise of love by Socrates at the celebratory dinner held in honour of Agathon and wanting to hear the account more accurately asks Apollodorus to recount it to him.

The story or rather action of the Symposium is buried Russian doll-like inside other times and the accounts and retellings of different voices at different times - it’s almost a precursor of the technique which features heavily in later masterpieces of narrative such as The Thousand and One Nights. Further hints at later Arab literary usage or at least inspiration arise from the concept of the lover and the beloved, in Pausanias’ speech and in Alcibiades speech on the effect of Socrates upon him and by extension all men fortunate enough to really hear what he is saying. I’m thinking of works of Sufi literature such as the Mantiq-ut-Tayr (c. 1177) of Attar of Nishapur in which several concepts of Platonic theory of Forms as applied to love and desire are mirrored and expanded upon. Another is the theme of role reversal, firstly in the passage dealing with Socrates and Diotima, possibly the most mysterious and fascinating of all of the sequences in the Symposium, where Socrates become the pupil who is subjected to his own dialectic method and found to know next to nothing about love and ripe for instruction at the feet of Diotima, seeress, wise woman and teacher of the ways of love.

Secondly where Alcibiades turns from the pursued, supremely confident in his sexual allure, and is transformed into the maddened pursuer, trying everything he can to get Socrates to have sex with him - finally realising that his would-be conquest is entirely on another plane, with a concept of love and the real love of wisdom that will hurl him into a deeper frenzy and eventually blow his mind altogether.

What Socrates offers is the higher love beyond all base or mere physical loves and the key to the mysteries of existence and the soul itself. Its Plato’s theory of Forms for sure, but no dry exegesis, rather a scintillating, radiant and maddening piece of inspiration which has reverberated down the years and across continents, its slim volume containing a bewildering array of ideas, expertly woven with some fine and heart-warming dramatic scenes, as vivid now as when they were first composed. After such an inspiring work where can we possibly go next? Homer must be the only answer!

Euge and Happy Saturnalia 2015