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