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Remembering a Song
Humours of the Homerist 10
[I am in hospital, into my fourth week. I’m fine, hope to be home soon, but have not been fit to record the Odyssey.]
It is said the Muse radiates a magnetic power through her beloved poet serving as a kind of medium, infusing the poem itself and its performers, who are suspended like iron filings in the spell of the magnet, and leaves her audience also spellbound and galvanised. This is Socrates’ comparison (Plato, Ion 533d ff.) to the enchaining effect of the Μαγνῆτις stone upon iron rings, suspending them from one another, to describe the source of the power in the song of Homer and the rhapsodes suspended in its field, as well as the other poets and their favoured performers. I shall have much to say elsewhere in analysis of the form and origin of Homeric music and the nature of its peculiar movement. Meanwhile I shall do my best not to ruin the spell. Hermes comes to Odysseus as he approaches the house of Circe the witch, who has turned his men into pigs, and shows him the plant moly, its peculiar nature and growth. His knowledge of the plant will somehow protect Odysseus from the enchantress’ snares once she has lured him to her bedroom. The Hermetic moly of criticism and philology shall protect us only so far, let us hope, as to enhance our awareness of the peculiar ontology of Homer’s musical enchantment, without also castrating it.
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But Singing Homer’s Spell, my book in utero, points in addition to the property of verbal spells that they must be repeated correctly to work: the words of the chant must be reproduced in the right order and in their original language. Hence they must be remembered precisely and recited exactly, or there arises a profound anxiety and fear that they may lose all their potency. I shall suggest that it may have been in this sacramental spirit that the rhapsodes, those wand-bearing showmen, preserved and passed down the texts of their songs. The evidence is the continued transmission of obscure diction in the Homeric manuscripts, whose meaning was uncertain even in Classical times; and especially instances of the preservation of unusual accentuation, which must date, M. L. West will argue, to the accentual habits of a pre-Classical age. Such conservatism through to the era of the Venetus A manuscript might lend some authority and hope to the modern editor attempting to reconstruct from his available sources a text of Homer’s poems. I shall suggest that the long early history of the Homeric textual apodosis can be compared to the process of regathering, remembering, and then performing and re-performing a once widely known and popular song, across generations of speakers and changes in the language. It may now be possible once again to sing out Homer’s song, even on the basis of a makeshift modern edition of the Homeric score.
Getting the spell right is now ironically a project for the Enlightenment, at least in the sense that Friedrich Wolf in his 1795 Prolegomena set the table for classical philology, and so for Homer’s modern editors. The elegance of his sophistry does not, however, mask the unscientific nature of the task. One can apply any number of principles to one’s choices as an editor of Homer’s text, but one is still choosing among a finite set of authorities preceding, who have been forced on you, not only in their number, but their nature, method, personality and animus, the facts of each of which have been all but hidden. Finding instances to corroborate a proposed form seems like a rational procedure when assessing usage in a living language, except that we are dealing in Ancient Greek with an arbitrary, historically fortuitous corpus of data, not a sample of language but of what David Grene called a liturgy. And strictly within the Homeric corpus, we are dealing with an author who rather loves the one-off. Philology has always wrestled, and reconciled, with this unyielding child.
Instances can create a false sense of data coverage, given the selective finitude of the whole corpus and the idiosyncrasies of this particular user of the language. In the book we have discussed a case where followers of Aristarchus among the Venetus scholiasts cited instances from inside Homer in support of the form βαρυστενάχων, at Iliad I.364, yet Nagy gathers the clues that Aristophanes’ text had nominated βαρυστεναχῶν. In reverting our text to that of Aristophanes, our emendation can still in no way claim to find Homer’s original! Perhaps the best we can infer is that Aristarchus was another of the many who did their best to make Homer’s usage seem consistent. If one does not already have some idea what to expect from Homer, as perhaps Aristarchus does, one shall have no guide at the various forks and through the various thickets, no matter what stage of the transmission, pre- or post-Alexandrian, the source of the textual problem. One cannot critique a part without already having some sense of the whole. This is the metaphysics of the ‘suitable’.
Here is another example of our varied and self-contradictory predicament: I was recently translating a speech of Antinous, who has just discovered that Telemachus had absconded to Pylos. He expresses his wish to the rest of the Suitors:
Ζεὺς ὀλέσειε βίην, πρὶν ἥβης μέτρον ἱκέσθαι.
‘Zeus destroy his strength! Before he reach the measure of his youthful prime.’
This turns out to be only the reading of Aristarchus, however. It is the one chosen in the Oxford Classical Text and others. Other manuscripts read the following:
Ζεὺς ὀλέσειε βίην, πρὶν ἡμῖν πῆμα γενέσθαι.
‘Zeus destroy his strength! Lest he have been born our bane.’
Another variant has φυτεῦσαι (‘to plant’) for γενέσθαι. Now, the world is divided between those who like Telemachus and those who don’t. There are those who read a Bildungsroman where young Telemachus is shown growing into a worthy scion of Odysseus and Penelope, fit to inherit his property and the lordship of Ithaca. This is a second man who can string the famous bow. And then there are those who recognise him for the sadistic little twat that he is, a present reminder that the age of Odysseus and Penelope is past, and that Odysseus in particular is incommensurate with the bourgeois misogynist world to which he attempts to return. The hero of Troy is a monster rampaging on Main Street. It is difficult to imagine the murderous Antinous expressing the disinterested backhanded praise in the phrase proposed by Aristarchus and T. W. Allen’s OCT: ‘Zeus kill him before he reaches his prime’, i.e., gets too strong for us. Much more likely is Antinous’ self-interest: ‘Zeus kill him before he becomes our pain!’
It seems Aristarchus may have been a moraliser who took offence even at the villain Antinous expressing his venality so openly. But did he actually put the fear of Telemachus’ natural prowess—put the words—into Antinous’ mouth? Put words in Homer’s mouth? M. L. West chooses the reading of the ‘common’ manuscripts, ἡμῖν πῆμα γενέσθαι. Can anyone decide what Homer said here as a matter of science or method, rather than taste? Even a philologist’s method is his taste. The most elegant solution is not always the best or the truest. Parry’s oral theory is as elegant as it is wrong! It would in any case have been the first theory in the history of thought to have explained the making of music (‘theory of composition’).
The present study does not resolve an editor’s dilemmas, which belong to both the nature of interrupted transmission and of generational taste, but its angle brings new insight so comprehensive that it almost makes Wolf’s project obsolete—at least in the terms in which he described it. The fact outside the purview of textual criticism of the paradosis is language change in the background of a dead language. Early editions were called ‘corrections’ (διορθώσεις); a scholium to Dionysius Thrax reminds us that the corrections involved bore almost exclusively on accentuation. No doubt some of these were refinements and tweaks. But it is a fact that the accentual system of Greek changed, and was doing so by the Alexandrian era. It is also a fact that the resultant system, featuring a monosyllabic accent, no longer reinforced Greek metres so as to make musical sense—whether that feature was a high pitch or the modern stress. So it is reasonable to infer that the need for corrections arose as a response to accentual change, to an historical crisis of accent, and that instructive marks were introduced into texts to correct the musical performance, by contemporary speakers, of older compositions. It is notorious that Ancient Greek compositions cannot be performed rhythmically with the modern Greek pronunciation, stressing where there is an accent mark. The description in terms of the disyllabic contonation shows how ancient Greek could reinforce her own metres in exactly the same way that Latin does, although the accent marks remain in those same locations that do not work in the modern Greek pronunciation.
We remember tunes in a different way than we remember anything else, like numbers and lists. I do not depend here on empirical studies, apart from my experience and observation. I find that it is hard to forget a tune. We learn our letters by means of jingles, and jingles imprint upon us in advertising. The game called “Name That Tune” rather illustrates the phenomenon: when the request is made, and the tune is played, all present are thrown into a peculiar state, of total recognition and yet a failure of memory. (A similar thing can happen with names and faces.) Most will be able to complete the melody, hum it all the way through, though still unable to answer about the name. When people sing a song, what they forget is the words—not just the title, but odd words and even whole lines. But people do not forget the melody. Instead while they’re singing, and run up to a spot where they’re unsure of the lyric, some, rather than hold up flummoxed, get creative: they substitute words, make stuff up, or sing nonsense syllables (‘la la la’). The criterion is metrical equivalence: the substitute must fit the lacuna in the melodic pattern that memory will not fill. This is the practical way that metrical equivalence truly impacts real-life composition-in-performance. It’s when you’re trying to remember the words of a song. Here is the real-time source of textual variants in the transmission of a song; there need be no integral variation or a multitext. When you sing a song from memory, you sing a song that works—its rhythm and melody are spot on—but you may not use all the same words as first you heard, just the most of them that you can remember and still maintain the sense—or at least make sense.
I had a friend in school who thought Jimi Hendrix’s famous line from Purple Haze, ‘’Scuse me, while I kiss the sky!’, was actually ‘’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy!’ It is a substitution that still fits a psychedelic vision but in a very different direction. Of course one prefers the original, but the song still works! If there were no written lyric, how would an editor choose between competing transcriptions? Once I heard my friend’s mistaken interpretation, I found it impossible to unhear, every time that splendid track played on the radio. The oral memory of song is a known source of metrical variants. Oral composing in a long dead language, on the other hand, remains an unknown unknown.
There is a paradigm here for the story of Homer’s transmission: it is the story of remembering a song. The first act was a communal ‘name that tune’, a whip round and gathering of verses in various cities. Much is already written and debated about the transmission in writing afterward, but perhaps empirical work could be done on the remembering of song, which might illuminate that initial gathering and comparing of notes. There may be patterns of remembering and also misremembering that may illuminate how the Homeric poems began to change or distort before they entered the hands of the collaters and the labyrinth of the copyists.
As to the vexed question of securing a performance text for Homer in our day, the notion that the producers of editions (διορθώσεις) were at some level ‘remembering a song’ may be cause in itself for optimism about the authenticity of their output, regardless of the verbal variants. The relative insignificance of these variants, despite their number, may be enough to allow us to consider that all the words and lines that the recensions were forgetting or disputing were some of the pieces’ minor lyrics. This might seem a bizarre way to think about a poem, let alone a wordsmith’s and line-crafter’s like Homer’s; but Homer did not write ‘poetry’, he did not know or use the word. The bard considered his utterance to be song.
The present study can in fact list a number of reasons for confidence in the mission to perform Homer’s text, even so far as we are into the silence and cacophony of the post-rhapsodic age. First of all, the situation we lamented elsewhere, that the Homeric scholar operates outside of a living guild of performers of Homer, so there is no essential feedback between critic and performance, is in fact not true of the ancient world, right through to the era of the scholia of the East Roman manuscripts like Venetus A. We have given evidence that the practices of a living rhapsodic theatre were known to the scholiasts. West argues via Wackernagel that certain unusual accentuations preserved in their texts show at least an Homeric antiquity. This and many other considerations argue for a profound conservatism in rhapsodic practice, in the face of sea changes in living contemporary accentual practices. Therefore in the proposition made by these manuscripts, supported by these scholiasts’ lemmas, we are connected not only to the academia of the Alexandrians, but very likely a living feedback with a continuous, independent rhapsodic tradition, which is the closest thing to a touchstone we shall find in this field.
All that is required to unlock these conserved texts musically is the knowledge that the marked accent once signalled the beginning of a contonation that was usually disyllabic, where the second element was dynamically prominent when long, at last to make sense of the various patterns of reinforcement of the ictus of Greek metres. Hence these manuscripts preserve the original prosodic map of the Homeric composition. The quality of some syllables surely changed: digamma disappeared, along with intervocalic sigma, and metathesis happened—though in a way that must only have rarely altered the prosodic reinforcement of the underlying rhythm. Hence a student who practices the contonation, and becomes familiar with its interplay with the hexameter, can feel with genuine confidence that he is within the Homeric sound-world. If the Attic spelling of Homer still sounded like Homer, so can we. That is the achievement of the methodical and historically conscious approach to prosody in the late Roman manuscripts.
One takes the measure of how extraordinary is the achievement of the Greek accent marks in preserving a language’s musicality for the sake of performing its poetry, when one compares the fate of Hebrew poetry. Really one must credit the early innovation of alphabetic recording for poetic Greek as well as that later deployment of accent marks when they became necessary. The Hebrew syllabary did not preserve its vowels, let alone its metres and prosody. Such historical consciousness on the part of the Alexandrian sophists, in the face of palpable language change, must be exceedingly rare. One does not see it today; audio recordings seem to obviate the need for any improvement in the written record of speech for the modern languages. Pronunciation changes with times and regions and is not always reflected in writing. Chinese offers the most striking case. But the upshot is that we shall never experience the Hebrew of David’s Psalms in its own movement, rhythm and melody. Amazingly, this need not be true of Homer, despite the demise of the rhapsodes.
Homer the Greek spoke an Indo-European language, but his musical composition shows a movement through its syllables that was uniquely, and forever, a pas de Grecques. The rhythm of these syllables, and the syncopated melody they carry, survive in the Venetus A via Constantinople and Venice. They will sound again—resounding! Remembering an unforgettable song
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