Saturday, March 02, 2024



M.I. Finley (1912-1986), The Use and Abuse of History (New York: The Viking Press, 1975), pp. 15-16, with note on p. 215:
Timelessness is reflected in still another way, in the individual characters. Death is one main topic of their lives (along with honour from which it is inseparable), and fate is often the chief propelling power. In that sense they live in time, but in no other way. It ought not escape any reader of the Odyssey that when the hero returns after twenty years, he and Penelope are exactly what they were half a generation earlier. It escaped Samuel Butler, to be sure, when he wrote: 'There is no love-business in the Odyssey except the return of a bald elderly married man to his elderly wife and grown-up son after an absence of twenty years, and furious at having been robbed of so much money in the meantime. But this can hardly be called love-business; it is at the utmost domesticity.'11

The poet does not say that Odysseus was bald and elderly; Butler says it, and this is presumably what he called reading the Homeric lines 'intelligently' by reading 'between them'. It goes against common sense and 'intelligence' for Odysseus not to be bald and elderly by the time of his return. The flaw—and Samuel Butler is only a convenient whipping-boy for a frequent practice—is to apply modern historical thinking in the guise of common sense to a mythical, non-historical tale. Historical husbands and wives grow old, but the plain fact is that neither Odysseus nor Penelope has changed one bit; they have neither developed nor deteriorated, nor does anyone else in the epic. Such men and women cannot be figures in history: they are too simple, too self-enclosed, too rigid and stable, too detached from their backgrounds. They are as timeless as the story itself.

11. The Humour of Homer and Other Essays, ed. R.A. Streatfeild (London 1913) p. 77. Perhaps I should say that I have not the slightest doubt that in this lecture, delivered in 1892, Butler was speaking in earnest.
Archelaos of Priene, Apotheosis of Homer, crowned by Time and the World (London, British Museum, number 1819,0812.1; click once or twice to enlarge):
Andrew Stewart, Art in the Hellenistic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 135-136:
Apotheosis of Homer and the Mountain of the Muses, inscribed marble relief from Bovillae (Italy), signed by Archelaos of Priene, ca. 200-150, perhaps after a painting in the poet's shrine, the Homereion, at Alexandria. Time and the World crown Homer; the Iliad and Odyssey kneel beside him; Myth and History sacrifice to him; and personifications of the literary genres that he inspired (Poetry, Tragedy, and Comedy) and his work's core ingredients (Human Nature, Virtue, Mindfulness, Trustworthiness, and Wisdom) acclaim him. Time and the World, diademed, are identifiable as Ptolemy IV Philopator (reigned 221-205) and Arsinoe III, who founded the Homereion. In the upper part, the nine Muses, Memory (their mother), and Zeus (at top), are joined by Apollo (at center, holding his kithara) and a poet standing before a victory tripod (at right).

Dear Mike,

A couple of bones of contention:

1) “Perhaps I should say that I have not the slightest doubt that in this lecture, delivered in 1892, Butler was speaking in earnest.”

Consider how the passage goes on, as if Butler were summarising a cheap Victorian novel: “There is a charming young princess, Nausicaa, but though she affects a passing tenderness for the elderly hero of her creation as soon as Minerva has curled his bald old hair for him and titivated him up all over, she makes it abundantly plain that she will not look at a single one of her actual flesh and blood admirers.There is a leading young gentleman, Telemachus, who is nothing if he is not πεπνυμένος, or canny, well-principled, and discreet; he has an amiable and most sensible young male friend who says that he does not like crying at meal times—he will cry in the forenoon on an empty stomach as much as anyone pleases, but he cannot attend properly to his dinner and cry at the same time.” Hardly a man writing in dire earnest.

2) “neither Odysseus nor Penelope has changed one bit; they have neither developed nor deteriorated, nor does anyone else in the epic.”

True, it’s futile to speculate about Odysseus’s head of hair on his return to Ithaca, it being a “mythical, non-historical tale”. At 13.431-2, his stylist (Athene) leaves him glabrous, as well as playing havoc with his skin tone.

ξανθὰς δ᾽ ἐκ κεφαλῆς ὄλεσε τρίχας, ἀμφὶ δὲ δέρμα
πάντεσσιν μελέεσσι παλαιοῦ θῆκε γέροντος.

Then ten books later comes follicular restoration with interest:

αὐτὰρ κὰκ κεφαλῆς κάλλος πολὺ χεῦεν Ἀθήνη
μείζονά τ᾽ εἰσιδέειν καὶ πάσσονα· κὰδ δὲ κάρητος
οὔλας ἧκε κόμας, ὑακινθίνῳ ἄνθει ὁμοίας.
(Od. 23.156-8)

But at least one figure in the Odyssey has deteriorated. Without the pathos of ordinary human ageing, would the scene of Odysseus’s reencounter with his father be so poignant? After so many years’ absence Odysseus finds Laertes squalid and γήραϊ τειρόμενον (Od. 24.233)? He'd hardly say “ἀλλ᾽ ἅμα γῆρας / λυγρὸν ἔχεις” (249-50) if Laertes were just as he’d left him before setting out for Troy.

Remember too the ancient flea-bitten mutt whose life-span is mapped onto Odysseus’s absence, able to wag his tale but not to get up.

ἔνθα κύων κεῖτ᾽ Ἄργος, ἐνίπλειος κυνοραιστέων.
δὴ τότε γ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν Ὀδυσσέα ἐγγὺς ἐόντα,
οὐρῇ μέν ῥ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἔσηνε καὶ οὔατα κάββαλεν ἄμφω,
ἆσσον δ᾽ οὐκέτ᾽ ἔπειτα δυνήσατο οἷο ἄνακτος
(Od. 17.300-4)

Odysseus’s reaction (ὁ νόσφιν ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ (304)) betrays an acute sense of “living in time” and being aware of its passage.

Although Odysseus and Penelope change little, it’s as if they age by proxy in Laertes and Argos, or at least it is those two that carry the burden of dispelling the notion of timelessness.

So two cheers only for Finley.

Best wishes,

Eric [Thomson]

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?