3. Odysseus among the Philologists*

The Controversy

An outdated practice

Classical philology, the dominant discipline in higher education until the early twentieth century, has an ambiguous status; a definition of that status could explain why the field has never produced a theory of meaning, although it has produced numerous methodological works on which the other literary disciplines are based. On the one hand, it evolved into a formidable and illustrious science during the nineteenth century, on the same footing in principle as all the others: thus it relinquished its prerogatives while still defending them by invoking the sacrosanct and prestigious nature of its subject matter. On the other hand, the means at its disposal within academies and universities, even if these were used only to organize subdivisions and auxiliary branches, were granted by virtue of its role within the pedagogical systems of the various countries involved. Yet scientific results were not taken into consideration at this level. Even in the past, the texts for which classical philology was responsible had long borne the imprint of the purposes they were intended to serve, purposes always different from those of the original texts, precisely where those texts had had the most profound influence on systems of thought. This ambiguous status—science and guardianship—prevented philology from questioning the values that it invoked and that were the basis for its influence; this alone explains why it instinctively declined to develop a theory of works or a technique of reading, or to define the nature of the texts under its aegis. Research of that sort would have been incompatible with the stability it represented. And yet, some reflection on the conditions of their practice might have led philologists to conduct a historical review of the uses made of the texts, uses that created the subject matter of the field. Having failed to engage in such reflection, they have deprived themselves of the epistemological grounding that would have justified the field’s ambitions and scaled down its pretentions.
The philologists contrast one interpretation with another; they accumulate points of contention ad infinitum through marginal notations and corrections, as if controversy—which they mock, as Montaigne did, but still engage in—were integral to the nature of commentary. But these debates, while necessary to the survival of the practice, would be supplanted if the origins of the proposed translations and of the causes of error were studied; such study would show that, if scholars have not reached a conclusion, it is because, for reasons linked to the way their culture is organized, the very framing of the questions has made it impossible to draw conclusions.
An analytic, rather than descriptive, history of interpretation, which might reconnect opinions with the factors on which they were based, is particularly valuable if it analyzes the process of constituting an illusory science; and, in the specific case of Homeric criticism, it can show how the various approaches, originally intended to clear up difficulties, in fact transformed those difficulties into means appropriate to the organization of a discipline that has prevailed for over a century and still sustains debate. This situation arose because the approach in question had managed to design a virtually autonomous academic and academically profitable system of questions and answers that do not actually refer to the subject; Homer is the case in point. This doxography is necessary to the practice because it isolates the critical points that Homeric analysis, the philological method par excellence, exploits; it views them as flaws in the work, whereas the process of reading, in its very flow, blends and assimilates them. Above all, however, only a comprehensive view of the whole series of interpretations and the historical factors that underlie them, even if we are simply looking at errors, can allow us to move beyond doxography. The best way of avoiding the professional game of controversy is to categorize all opinions and to reconstitute, through them, the representational system that is still in use, except when the text is called upon to support an ideology or to implement a theory, aesthetic or otherwise. In the latter case, the material in question is marked by the tradition developed by earlier interpretations, so much so that it is the tradition that makes use of the users. The philologist critic has as his material, on the one hand, the text or the potentiality of a meaning, and, on the other, all the ways the text has been used—that is to say, the history and culture of each interpreter; thus it is necessary to determine whether or not one is speaking in the interpreter’s name when one means to speak in the name of the text.
The scholars’ disdain for theories—which they teach even though they view them as mere devices or distractions compared to facts, such as archaeological remains or “established” meanings—explains why philologists have never included the history of errors in a systematic deliberation on which their science could have been based. The absence of a theory of their own corresponds to their scorn for the theories of others. The principle for analyzing the Homeric poems, which constituted one of the achievements of the philological method, was rarely discussed by the authors who applied it, and no doubt it would not have been imposed as a practice if it had not produced facts that could be reinterpreted indefinitely. The errors that these facts implied were never discussed, because they lacked believers and advocates. Now, facts established by error cannot be acknowledged in the system in which they lurk without a re-­examination of the principles that constituted them; in the same way, one cannot go beyond the accepted meanings without analyzing the tradition those meanings have produced.

The Homeric question

Philologists have been even more preoccupied with the genesis of Greek epic than with the birth of tragedy; for more than a century, the question of genesis has been at the center of a debate in which what was at issue was certainly not Homer himself, but rather the material attributed to him. The successive positions adopted by philologists are more evident here than elsewhere; they control and encompass hypotheses and theoretical formulations down to the smallest detail, so that readers are authorized to equate a particular hypothesis with a particular theoretical position, thus bypassing the laborious and thankless task of contending with the numerous variants of a given hypothesis. Thus there will never be any question, in the present essay, of criticizing errors or even revealing them as such.
The debate can best be examined starting at the moment when a modern problematic arose, stemming from the Romantic era: it is known as “the Homeric question.” Ever since Friedrich August Wolf’s 1795 Prolegomena ad Homerum, [1] which sought to systematize certain ideas outlined by earlier scholars (d’Aubignac, Vico, and others), the question of the genesis of the Homeric songs has remained on the table. The Romantics had been searching the epic for a Homer more naïve than Homer, more primitive and closer to the gods, while the historians, despite all their hard work, succeeded only in constructing some “earlier states” of the epic, which explained the version that had been transmitted as the end point of an evolution. However, the theory of autonomous songs, given credence by Karl Lachmann’s Betrachtungen über Homers Ilias (Reflections on Homer’s Iliad, 1837), a theory more applicable to the Iliad than to the Odyssey, to be sure, was still attached to the dream of a primitive popular poetry that had so fascinated the Romantics. But as critical observations became richer and hypotheses were reinforced, history triumphed over myth. In a recent stage, one that survives in contemporary works, the historical perspective, which ought to have made it possible to write an early history of the Greeks based on reconstituted legends, has also been abandoned in favor of an analysis that claims to be the most exact possible description of the subject. Historical precision in such works as Peter Von der Mühll’s Kritisches Hypomnema zur Ilias (Critical Commentary on the Iliad) [2] no longer seeks independent justification beyond itself.
As for the Odyssey, certain parts of which I propose to consider here, scientific research, in the sense in which nineteenth-century historicists understood the term, led to University of Berlin professor Adolf Kirchhoff’s 1859 study Die Homerische Odyssee und ihre Entstehung (The Homeric Odyssey and its Origins; expanded in 1879). Kirchhoff’s undertaking, which aimed to single out a primitive Return (or Nostos) in the Homeric poem, was considered the unquestionable basis for later work. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, in the preface to his Homerische Untersuchungen (Homeric Analyses, 1884), [3] declared: “I refer most frequently not to the extant text of the poem, but to Kirchhoff’s Odyssey” (p. 3); and Eduard Schwartz, in the preface to his 1924 Odyssey, remarked that he considered “the method first used by Kirchhoff, and then improved by Wilamowitz, to be the only way to resolve the problems posed by the Odyssey” (p. 5). Finally, Peter Von der Mühll reminds us, in his article on the Odyssey in the Real-encyclopädie (1938), that research “should still and should always start anew from Kirchhoff” and “nowadays from Wilamowitz and above all from Schwartz.” Schwartz was considered an absolute pinnacle, “without peer” in the world of criticism. [4]
The nine Wanderings of Odysseus, presented in groups of three, are found in Books 9, 10 and 12. They are arranged in such a way that two brief narratives precede a long one:
Book 9: Cicones, Lotus-Eaters, Cyclops
Book 10: Aeolus, Laestrygonians, Circe
Book 12: Sirens, Charybdis and Scylla, Cattle of the Sun
The descent into the Underworld, which is closely linked to the Circe episode, is recounted in Book 11.
At a stage when it no longer seemed possible to find any trace of a “collective soul” in the autonomous songs, Kirchhoff separated this group into two cycles, composed by two different authors. Amazingly, the separation was immediately greeted as a great feat of philological science, which was then at its most influential. This speculative thesis was attractive for its extreme simplicity, following the biological model of a body that develops and absorbs other bodies. The earlier poem, The Return of Odysseus, with the Calypso episode, the wreck of the raft, and the Phaeacians’ welcome, was preserved in the extant Odyssey. As in the text we read today, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians what has befallen him since his departure from Troy. But the narratives that we expect to find in the Adventures were not all included; only the three episodes of Book 9 remained (Cicones, Lotus-Eaters, and Cyclops), along with a shortened version of the descent into the Underworld. The original kernel had germinated and produced a series of expansions. The ancient poem was not included in its entirety in Book 9 itself; Kirchhoff construed the ending of that book as the result of an adaptation. In order to “organize” the poem that we call the Odyssey, a poet, the writer, the “diaskeustēs,” [5] had drawn on another cycle, The Adventures of Odysseus, which provided him with the second series of stories, from Aeolia to the sacred oxen of Helios (Books 10 and 12), as well as most of the description of Odysseus with the Phaeacians.
Kirchhoff thought he had two proofs of this division of the poem into layers; according to him, the wrath of Poseidon, which struck after the blinding of the Cyclops, formed the kernel of the epic of the Return, since the god is the hero’s implacable enemy. The other “wrath,” that of Helios in response to the sacrifice of his cattle, is superfluous. Secondly, Kirchhoff detected traces of a shift from the third to the first person of the verb in the simple fact that Odysseus speaks of events he has not witnessed himself. These indications affected the second cycle, Books 10 and 12, which the organizer had introduced afterwards.
In the absence of such criteria, Kirchhoff attached the story of the Cyclops to the oldest layer on the basis of its quality. Unlike inferiority, excellence did not need to be demonstrated, it was instantly recognizable: “the poetic quality of the description of the Cyclops adventure is equal to the other parts of the ancient Return” (characterized in the same way and needing no explanation); “If there is anyone who cannot feel this difference [between the first and second series of Adventures], then I can do nothing for him; he must judge as best he can.” [6] Such was the tone of academic discourse in those days.
Some years later, Wilamowitz proposed a different structure, which retained the division of the Adventures but shifted the moment of their linkage, and thus the origin of the poem, further back in time; the writer of our Odyssey was modifying a text that had already been modified. In fact, Wilamowitz imagined an “earlier Odyssey,” comprising a certain number of constitutive elements such as the epic of Calypso and a descent into the Underworld; it featured a longer poem that included Books 10 and 12, that is, the second cycle of Adventures that Kirchhoff had isolated. The “editor” who had already compiled the “Ancient Odyssey” gathered these scattered parts into a whole. The split motifs and the doublets, considered imperfections, could be explained by the fact that he had to use the same theme more than once. In the Calypso epic, the wreck of the raft led Odysseus to Ithaca; in the poem used by Wilamowitz, Odysseus succeeds in reaching the Phaeacians after the shipwreck. By situating the Calypso episode between the shipwreck and the arrival on the island of the Phaeacians, the “editor” had created confusions that interfered with the reading of the Odyssey, as the scholarly readers of the time saw it.
Among the elements that Wilamowitz attributed to the earliest version of the descent into the Underworld, he retained the wrath of Poseidon, the cause of Odysseus’ tribulations. He concluded that the blinding of the Cyclops, the origin of the curse, formed part of the same textual unit. He endorsed Kirchhoff’s opinion that the beginning of the Wanderings (Book 9) had been composed in the first person, while the adaptation of the other stories (Books 10 and 12) had led to a transposition to direct discourse. Thus the obvious links between the first and second parts of the Wanderings, as well as those between the stories of Calypso and Circe, were not ascribed to authorial intent but to a perfunctory work of adaptation. In fact, they were interpreted as borrowings. From then on, every connection confirmed the hypothesis of a secondary fusion, where traces of the operation had remained visible.
Wilamowitz—who was at the beginning of his career—remained loyal to the principles of Kirchhoff’s analysis, but he burrowed further down into the thick of successive historical layers; so successful was he that it became possible to date time periods or situate places thanks to different fragments of poems. The benefits were immense. After Kirchhoff and Wilamowitz, other reconstructions of the poem’s genesis were proposed, but the separation into two cycles remained the prevailing dogma. [7] The approach to reading taught by the philologists thus consisted in spotting the double usages and discussing the contradictions as a way of positing the existence of earlier versions of the text.

Analyzing the analysis

Analytic criticism (or Separatist criticism, according to some orthodox French scholars) became firmly established after Lachmann presented his “Reflections on Homer’s Iliad” at the Berlin Academy in 1837 and 1841. This form of criticism developed throughout the expansionist period of classical philology—the expansion no doubt sustained by the sense that philology was in competition with the other sciences. Analytic criticism spread across several countries thanks to the prestige enjoyed by German science, and in the field of Homeric studies it was only supplanted as a scientific theory of the genesis of poems by work on oral poetry. To be sure, the Unitarian thesis had been regularly defended for a century or so in the ebb and flow of protest movements. But the feats of Analysis seemed like great achievements and enjoyed scientific prestige. The Unitarians were reduced to defending themselves with commentaries that smacked of a conventional and sometimes puerile aesthetics. Justifying the text at the same level of interpretation as their adversaries, they deprived themselves of the opportunity to dispute the principles of analytic criticism. Unity could only be defended by another “science.” And for the moment, science, one and indivisible, was in the hands of the Separatists. Their opponents were often on the fringe, considered mere aesthetes; some were high-school teachers. [8] The Analysts were well ensconced at the top of the university hierarchy.
The writings of the Analysts proved so difficult that the average reader found them inaccessible, and this acted as a selective principle. It is arduous enough to follow an argument that is based on textual fragmentation. Add to that a critical apparatus indicating attributions, allusions, footnotes, implicit references, and it all showed contempt for literary and non-specialist writing. The theories of earlier scholars and colleagues in the field were presumed to be well known, invoked as self-evident, and relentlessly corrected. Reading the work of an Analyst is a test for the initiated.
In setting themselves apart from ordinary readers, the Analysts abandoned exegesis. Indeed, their operations could not be based on an obscure text needing clarification. Critical explication of a text of any kind was relegated to an inferior level, the realm of teachers. In contrast to Aeschylus, Homer was considered an author without affectation, since he had always been proclaimed a naïve genius. It was easier to construct vast hypotheses than to acknowledge the real difficulties posed by exegesis. But above all, if philology was to retain its stature, it had to be differentiated from an activity that was considered unoriginal, appropriate only for students. Analysis was a science: not a science of the text, but a science that used the text to constitute itself as science. Basing their power on the place society accorded to the humanities in the training of elites, and on the importance assigned to the preparation of schoolteachers, the philologists were all the more powerful because they built their scientific prestige on a subject matter that was never discussed in response to the pedagogical needs of their audience, nor in terms of the usefulness of their knowledge. Science lay elsewhere; it had different goals.
All this led to a paradoxical situation: the leading scholars, conscious of this dualism and of the pedagogical inefficacy of Analysis, belittled the naïve understanding of the classics that had nevertheless been the prerequisite of their own academic power and the basis for their work. Left to the Unitarians and the public at large, aesthetic appreciation characterized what was not science.
The scientific method, cold and relentless, is a necessary evil for “modern man.” But the aesthetic sense remains a first cause, which must be used with skill since it offers the wherewithal to support the cult. A certain linguistic violence—the use of a curt anti-rhetorical language—characterizes university society at the highest levels, especially in Germany, and sometimes in England: it is a language of the concrete, of efficacy, through which this group believes it has access to the reality of the affairs and actions from which the University as such is cut off. (In France, the style has remained more pompous and hollow, less aristocratic, because the differentiation between scientific and aesthetic discourse was not produced in the same way.) Like a mask over a brutal and destructive reality, the sense of beauty has the sole function of compensating for a necessary evil and of making the inevitable acceptable—for Homer, division and disparagement. This form of discourse—heir to the rhetoric of the humanists, carefully preserved in France—and even Romantic glorification are occasionally used by a scholarly enterprise that rejects them. Academism is not taken seriously enough for it to get drawn into the game, always remaining prudently allusive, failing to assert itself, and protecting itself by referring to facts.
Thus science, which is addressed to universal reason, occupies the position of an esoteric activity, reserved for the rare initiates. In contrast, meaning, which is hidden and speaks only to visionaries, is in the public domain, with the result that the in-depth exegesis that would have gone beyond pedagogical practice, and that continues to thrive in certain circles, is dismissed as sheer fantasy or theological raving.

The spoils of historical reading

Analytic criticism could be augmented by other sciences because its work with texts led to the discovery of vanished civilizations in their successive stages and their mutual relationships, and because it sought to rely on historical material. It had already taken over the methods of textual criticism by making even accidental defects into something rich in historical meanings. These accidents served the Analysts’ aims so well that the repetition of such a fortuitous event might well cause readers to doubt that it had actually occurred. Their criticism became confused with comparisons of documents; as a result, literary history was flooded with factitious works. This historical type of exercise, which produced facts that were then related to other external facts, provided material for much university research, for many published books and endless controversies. Interpretation, confirmed by the text, would unquestionably be less rich, less expansive, and finally less “profitable.”
Some Analytic specialists have declared the division of the Adventures to be an established fact: they include such scholars as Von der Mühll (1940 [1938]) and Merkelbach (1951), as well as those more interested in folklore, Karl Meuli (1975 [1921]) and Denys Page (1955), [9] along with such theorists or proponents of oral poetry as G. S. Kirk (1962). By retaining earlier arguments, the Analysts emphasized the difference between the more realistic style of the first cycle of the Wanderings, and the more fantastical style of the second, where metamorphoses, evil spells, and magic tricks are more numerous; they also stressed the differences in locale, the western Mediterranean for the first part, the East for the second: “when Odysseus left the island of Aeolus he was in the Far West of the world; quite suddenly (and without warning to the audience) he finds himself in the Far East.” [10] If, on leaving Troy, Odysseus passes through Thrace, land of the Cicones, if he is hurled beyond Cape Malea, south of the Peloponnese, toward the west, toward the coasts of Africa or of southern Italy, where the home of the Cyclops is reputed to be, we cannot understand how, if he were heading for Ithaca, he should be transported to the domain of Circe, in the land of the rising Sun. This inconsistency could only be justified by an interpolation linking the eastern part of the Wanderings to an external source. This source was the epic of the Argonauts’ expedition, of which there is no trace in the literature, an epic linked to the Milesian colonization of the shores of the Black Sea (between 700 and 550 BCE?). [11] Indeed, the east was Jason’s domain. Deep internal analysis of the poem led scholars to posit multiple authors, and then to establish a map of the sources, so that all the leaps and vagaries of the imagination, considered typical of Homer, could be attached to actual geographical locations. It was in fact possible to retrace a heroic itinerary in one of the sources, even if the trajectory had been interrupted in the Odyssey. The motifs of the legend of the Argonauts, which were more or less well known from later texts, had the advantage of being linked to names of actual people and places. Jason’s story provided a useful framework for developing the idea of an objective genre like the epic. Circe is sister to Aietes, king of Colchis, a country that can be pinpointed on a map and the destination of the expedition. She is also a sorceress like Medea, King Aietes’ daughter. The wrath of Helios was understood as a familial trait, because Aietes is Helios’ son. The Laestrygones were identified as the Dolions of Cyzicus, in the Propontis (Sea of Marmara), since the fountain named Artakia, where the scouts sent by Odysseus meet the king’s daughter (Odyssey 10.105–106), can be found in Cyzicus, on the road to Colchis. Once the fiction of this phantom poem of the Argonauts had been established as the source of all the Wanderings, from Aeolia [12] to the sacred cattle of Helios, other connections could be determined and discussed: that the ship Argos sailed past the Sirens with Orpheus on board to protect the heroes, and that Phineus, combining the roles assigned to Tiresias and Circe in the Odyssey, pointed out the route they should take. The replicated elements were considered richer and more realistic: Orpheus, overcoming the lure of the Sirens through his song, afforded a much more beautiful and more ancient evocation than that of Odysseus, who resists by having his crew tie him to the mast; [13] the spell could have been broken by Orpheus, a member of the expedition, competing with the sea monsters.

An artificial construction; the example of the Planctae

The Planctae, [14] at the beginning of Odyssey 12, appeared to provide proof of a borrowing—and of a division of the poem—that served as a starting point for all that followed. The explication of this text clearly reveals how the reading material was concocted.
Odysseus is presented with two routes to follow: Circe’s description of them will help him choose, but he must make up his own mind (lines 57–58). Once past the Sirens, he will find “overhanging rocks” that the gods, in their language, call “Planctae.” On one side, among the reefs, there is a smooth rock beyond which no bird flies, where at times even one of the doves bringing ambrosia to Zeus may disappear. Each time, Zeus replaces the dove. On the other side, no boat skirting the rock can avoid shipwreck, whether it is swallowed up by the waves or engulfed in flames. Only the ship Argo has managed to pass safely on her return from Colchis, thanks to Hera, who protected Jason (lines 59–72).
The two routes, the passage of Scylla and that of Charybdis, are in a single strait; Odysseus must pass one after the other, and he has to decide which to pass first; however, commentators have spread them out geographically, as if there were two separate itineraries. No doubt the idea of a single strait, with a dividing line down the middle, did not come to mind immediately. Since no one saw that Scylla and Charybdis formed the outward and return journeys on the same route, or that the smooth rock and the rough chasm offered the choice implied by the advice Circe gives Odysseus to opt for Scylla (lines 106–110), where no one would hesitate for a moment between death and the lesser evil, the interpreters created a second term—the Planctae—in a heroic dilemma that Odysseus was to confront with his virile powers. Should he not have to make a choice, as befits a hero? Very different routes, each one demanding precise navigational instructions, better fulfilled the conditions of a choice. However, Circe not only knows both routes, but she also knows which one Odysseus will choose: “I will no longer tell you in detail which way / of the two your course must lie, but you yourself must consider / this in your own mind. I will tell you the two ways of it.” [15] Odysseus will not choose, he will agree to it of his own accord, since he will accept the prescribed course. The power of the deity remains absolute; that of Odysseus too, since he is free to refuse, although only at the cost of his life.
The generic term “overhanging rocks” does not necessarily capture the real antithesis between Scylla and Charybdis. Victor Bérard, [16] for example, distinguishes between the “rocks” and the “reefs,” and attributes the two terms to different sites, contrasting the two “reefs” of the Strait of Messina to the rock formations between the islands of Lipari and Vulcano:
For small ships departing from Monte Circeo on the Lazio coast and heading toward some port in the southern seas, there are two possible routes: one to the east of Sicily via Messina, the other to the west via Trapani. The eastern route passes Charybdis; the western one passes through a “gate” where even today sailors describe, in their Nautical Instructions (no. 731, p. 132), “two remarkable rocks: the northern one, the Pietra Lunga, 47 meters high, is a volcanic jumble, at the base of which is a large opening that allows small craft to go through it; the other rock, the Pietra Menalta, is much lower and is usually covered with large seagulls that are prized by the local inhabitants.” The rocks guard the strait between Lipari and the fiery island of Vulcano. [17]
At the outset the two rocks have a name in the language of the gods. But what term corresponds to it in the language of humans? In the Circe episode, humans do not have a name for the plant that the gods call mōlu because they are unacquainted with the plant. But the term “Planctae” is a translation of Scylla and Charybdis. [18] Now, the difference in names allowed some scholars to designate two distinct geographic locations. [19] Since Homer mentions here that the ship Argo succeeded in navigating the passage of the Planctae, there seems to be a clear allusion to a different expedition, to another itinerary with different stages. In Pindar (Pythian Odes 4.207–211), the Argo’s passage resulted in the rocks becoming fixed, rocks that had at first been roving (or “Planctae”), and that by clashing together had always crushed the boats. That is why Homer was thought to have invented another dangerous passage, namely, Scylla and Charybdis (“a gateway to the next world, borrowed from another sailor’s tale,” according to Meuli [20] ). It seems that no one ever accepted the possibility that Jason had been able to pass Charybdis before Odysseus.
However, focusing on the Planctae sometimes led to insurmountable difficulties of comprehension, and the persistence of the error shows how powerful this preconceived idea was. It spread very approximate translations through generations of students (especially in lines 59, 62, 66, and 73). If the two routes—with the birds on one side and the Argo on the other—are part of a distinct itinerary, that of the Planctae, then the smooth rock does not refer to Scylla and the seething vapors are not Charybdis; it must be the case that, after mentioning the Planctae, Homer continues to speak of the other route. The text says, in effect, that these “roving” rocks are “two reefs.” In the rest of the story, when Odysseus, following Circe’s instructions, sails on his way, the interpreters fail to understand why there is no further mention of the Planctae, nor even of the need to avoid them—and this omission is blamed on the poet’s ineptitude. Other contradictions have been resolved by the usual means of correction or a skillful translation. The Planctae are mentioned again at the end of the episode (lines 260–261): “when we had fled away from the Rocks, and dreaded Charybdis and Scylla,” says Odysseus. The word “Rocks” is replaced by the word “reefs,” [21] or, more commonly, a composite figure is constructed whereby Odysseus flees both the Rocks (the Planctae) and Scylla and Charybdis. At the end of the poem, when the Wanderings are recapitulated, Odysseus is said to have passed by the Planctae and Scylla and Charybdis. Scholars consider this passage to be an interpolation; either the line is written in a slipshod way (evoking the Planctae and Scylla and Charybdis) or else, if the words can be taken at face value, the annotator has made a mistake. Bérard writes:
Ever since ancient times, since Aristotle it seems, in the absence of word for word explanations of the Homeric text, no one knew where to find these Planctae Rocks, which I call by the French name of a similar rock formation in the Anglo-Norman islands [Pierres du Pinacle]. In our version of the Odyssey we have a strange contradiction here: it is in lines 309–344 inserted into Book xxiii, which some Alexandrian commentators were already reading in their editions, but which others condemned. In line 327, Odysseus is said to have sailed to the Planctae Rocks, as well as to Charybdis and Scylla. So the Planctae ended up being confused with the latter pair. [22]
The commentators did not go back to reconsider what was accepted as an established fact.
The incident of the Planctae shows that an entity and a place can be endowed with a name, shorn of its referents and its links. Even if this entity has been deemed pointless, it is nevertheless retained:
At this point, the poet mentions the ship Argo, and in so doing, cites his source. It is true that, after the ship’s passage, the terror prompted by the strait has abated, and the poet seems to have been aware of this, even though Circe speaks of it as if the Planctae represented a dire peril. The poet lets Circe describe the Planctae, but in what follows he has no role for them, creating instead a new obstacle for Odysseus: Charybdis and Scylla. Logically, he could have omitted the Symplegades–Planctae, but he seems to have wanted at least to mention this famous story of the Argonauts. [23]
This was how the work of the artist was represented.
Detail, which is of interest only to philologists, the experts, enters the construction built up by the lines of descent and everything that depends on them; here, the Planctae retain only their philological function; they are no longer a sign, as they were when, in the text, they maintained links with other parts of the narrative. The example demonstrates that the enormous work of two centuries of philology has often only minimally improved our understanding of Homer’s text. From antiquity on, the Planctae have been Rovers. The error predates the analysis. So Homeric science has deprived readers even of what they could have understood on their own, by subjecting these passages to a scholarly transformation. The text was difficult, but once problems were erased they could never be resolved. From this interpretive void have arisen both constructions that tended to increase the interest of the text by external means and errors that obscured and deformed it.
Despite scholarly differences of opinion, this other route is solidly anchored in Homer’s text today, an absurd stump, a vestige of a lost epic, or something like an incidental fact; and what has disappeared is the remarkable transfer of the action into a different action.
The representation of another way to pass between the clashing rocks made it impossible to appreciate the antithesis of the text, which distinguishes the heavenly route (with Zeus’s doves) on the outward journey from the earthly route (with the Argo’s crew) on the return journey. In the same way, when Charybdis and Scylla are assimilated into a single strait (one that Homer was thought to have invented, so that he could refashion the Planctae as two originally distinct sea monsters), the whole relationship between a world that is rising and a chasm that plunges downward is eliminated. There is a correspondence between the tribute paid by the birds and the tribute paid by Odysseus, between the return of the ship Argo and the solitary return of the hero of the Odyssey; within the Planctae themselves we find aspects of both Zeus and Hera, and the relation between these motifs leads to the discovery of the first terms of a meaning. Assigning the Planctae to the Jason legend is obviously the most economical way of ironing out the difficulty. The restitution implied, for example, by the replacement of Zeus’s nourishing birds makes no sense if one confuses the two routes, so as to make the crushing of the last dove, observed by Jason, a signal that the strait is open. Homer says that the birds are continually replaced. Thus it was necessary to accept the fact that he did a poor job of recounting the legend he was supposed to be repeating. [24]

Reaction to Analysis

The sense of unity

Analysis expanded rapidly and became a science in Germany. The favorable conditions in the university that had produced far less controversial work—for example, in the domain of verbal criticism and the differentiation of sources—had allowed Analysis to take shape, with all its discoveries and its blindness. Its reception in other countries, in France in particular, [25] reveals the existence of distinct trends; but these reactions all indicate how hard it is to integrate a method that has been developed elsewhere into one’s own pedagogical system. Indeed, France had neither the institutions nor the tools needed to construct the sophisticated system that Analysis demanded.
In 1917, while the war was raging, Victor Bérard lamented the lack of organization in the French scientific community, and the victories that it had let slip by:
In the days of Louis XIV, scholarly practices differed from those of the Scaligers, Casaubons and Turnèbes [26] and other fashions prevailed: the example or influence of the Jesuits had profound consequences for our national educational system, and had a long-term impact on our intellectual production. The Jesuits were concerned above all with literature, with fine speeches and pretty verses; for them, Antiquity represented merely the most useful subject matter for translation either into Latin verse or into “prayers” and French tragedies. From Louis XIV to Napoleon III, from the Revocation [of the Edict of Nantes] to the War of 1870, France left the responsibility for learning to a few “Benedictines,” “specialists,” “bookworms,” whom they readily mocked … For every Villoison that France produced, Germany immediately let loose some Wolf, [27] who, armed with all the resources of an organized scientific community, manufactured the “marketable” product. [28]
The French university system did not have the same power as Germany’s; though the latter’s power was not originally based on science, it had nevertheless created the conditions for scientific development. What Bérard failed to see was that France’s weakness was the result of a state of mind of which he was the perfect example, and which continued to affect academic practices under the influence of his peers. The material situation was even less favorable after 1918. [29]
The opposition between pedagogical purpose and scientific practice did not surface in France; in the field of letters, science was represented by only a few isolated individuals whose prestige and ability to devote themselves to their work rested solely on their literary qualities. Since only one of the terms existed (that is, the training and the exercises that were supposed to develop literary prowess), conflict ensued when new methods of working, perfected over two generations in Germany, were imposed on a system that was incapable of integrating them without abandoning its own values. Reactions were not directed solely against Analysis as such, with its excesses and faults, but also against what it implied. [30]
As a historical science that disassembled the most sacrosanct texts, such as the Bible or Homer, in order to construct periods of history on the basis of a literary document, Analysis triumphed over its dissenters in Germany through the sheer force of its apparatus and the bulk of its production, rather than through debate. But the objections raised to Analysis in France were in fact—as can be seen through this symbolic case—an expression of the difficulties involved in adapting disciplines that were much less controversial, such as historical grammar, comparative grammar or textual criticism, to traditional teaching methods. [31] In conversations or lectures, the words “German” or “Germanic” often referred to science, whether positively or negatively; similarly, Analysis referred to German science in general.
Unitarianism was the natural position for an educational system that was based on the authority of the text (and not on that of the interpreter). It asserted its objection to Analysis in order to prove that Homer could be read without “science.” It was not as if anyone, in establishing the text as it stood, had tried to examine it in depth. An initial line of defense consisted of turning to tradition and to the usual practices of scholastic explication. Later on, other scholars tried to demonstrate that Analysis could be considered a heresy.
It is true that Analysis unfairly adopts the forceful speech of the natural sciences, but the resistance mounted by those defending the rhetorical use of texts reveals their motives: by invoking the rights of the imagination and of emotion, they challenge all criticism, be it aesthetic or historical.

False progress

Twenty years after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, assimilation between the two intellectual communities had progressed to the point where, at least formally, it might lend itself to getting beyond the divide. Victor Bérard ventured without incident onto our Latin seas, relying on decades of explorers’ narratives, but despite all appearances, his was a much less risky initiative than that of a professor and academician such as Alfred Croiset. [32]
Bérard’s work on Homer, the most extensive body of such work in France, is the result of a refusal to accept the divide, or rather of a quest to move beyond it. Everything in his work stems from this quest, and especially his modernism, which reveals a deeper attachment to cultural tradition than even Croiset’s academicism. Bérard does not accept the terms of Analysis. Though he delights in pitting his adversaries against one another, as if the choice of method in philology were a matter of fashion, he never went beyond their premises or discussed their objections; but just as the Unitarians call everything that fails to fit into the textual unit an “interpolation,” Bérard posits a primitive state so profoundly altered by the most ancient tradition that he feels free to take it apart without even reconstituting it. Prudence prevented him from venturing into the maze of philological constructions; rather than analyzing the science, he instead practiced it with a certain lack of rigor. [33]
Instead of historicizing the text by deriving a prehistory from its stratifications, Bérard starts out with a fact of extra-literary history, the maritime routes of the Phoenicians, and attaches the text to it. In so doing, he deploys all the charms of a simplistic archaeology, in the tradition of noble voyagers of yore, taking his reader around a familiar, tamed Mediterranean where it is hard to decide which is the more touching, the archaic survival of ancient practices in underdeveloped countries or the emotions aroused by the identification and occupation of specific locales. [34] The site and the photograph guide the reading and overshadow it: “All in all, this Odyssean description of the entrance to the strait features only three or four inaccuracies. One is very serious, the other two or three minor, and all arise from the same source as the errors or inventions that we have already encountered in other landscapes in the tales.” [35]
Thus Bérard remains all the more a prisoner of the traditional image of the poet and of poetry, in that he is dealing with literature, and uses scholarship only to compensate for the obvious flimsiness of his work. Even this scholarship is reworked, lightened, enlivened in an artificial way; the author knows how to manipulate erudition as well as anyone, without being bound by it as others are. His Homer is adapted to the tastes of a public he wants to surprise and entertain, teaching his readers that the epic is a drama, a theatrical and verbal staging; the poet is above all a sailor and his knowledge is derived from the Phoenicians, and so on. The Odyssey bears witness to a refined civilization very much like ours, almost Christian and French (Athena Polias, for example, is disguised as Notre-Dame-de-la-Ville [36] ). In fact, accessibility is established as dogma. Homer’s text is as clear as one of Voltaire’s tales, at least when it has not been corrupted by an interpolator. Bérard’s adaptation of Homer’s text to the current fashion betrays the same timidity that in a different way marked Homer’s assimilation within the university, immortalizing the scientific developments of the day in academic prose.

Geographic readings

The lack of interest in the text itself was compensated for by the wealth of scholarly work produced. Since Analysis invited other analyses, the reconstitution of voyages based on elements in the poem, corrected ad infinitum, provided more fluid and malleable material for discussion than the text itself, and expanded the field of philology toward the historical and geographical sciences.
The Wanderings proceed among specific landmarks, which are few and far between. Like the characters, [37] space is depicted with a minimum of intellectual vision, as more real than in nature, in a precise, simplified, and elementary way. On leaving Troy, Odysseus visits the Cicones of Thrace, and then, when he is swept south, beyond Cape Malea in Greece, geographers tell themselves he has reached Africa, where they then place the Lotus-Eaters. Another detail: Circe’s island is very far to the east. There may be a few other bits of information, about the land of the Laestrygonians and the entrance to the underworld. Apart from that, readers have only the direction of the winds behind the ship and the length of time between stops to give them their bearings, and sometimes even these clues are deliberately omitted. This omission has encouraged innumerable attempts to fix the sites and give the Wanderings a tangible basis in time and space. Indeed, throughout history many readers have enthused about the fantastic nature of the Wanderings, or have insisted on the unlikelihood of identifying a specific location. But in the absence of a theory of narrative, this kind of reading was more frivolous, and Analysis more precise, when it peeled away the layers of the composition. The attempt to assign specific places to the Wanderings must have seemed truly scientific in its turn, but less demanding.
The fantastic, on its own, would belong to the sort of tale that fits into the genre of universal folklore, but according to Bérard the poet uses fantastic elements in a realistic way. So Bérard can recognize in Scylla and Charybdis the theme of the Gate to the next world without using it to enhance his interpretation, and thus can write: “The channel is originally one of those marvelous gates of myth … , but the poet no longer recognizes its significance, so the question is where the poet wants it to be in reality.” [38]
Stripped of its proper purpose, the narrative can nevertheless be salvaged and used to establish a geography. Concrete information is culled from the myth—the configuration of a promontory or a port, a place name with its subsequent positioning; this is linked to authorial intent, while the rest is viewed as material the poet inherited. Bérard goes even further: he believes that the whole tale transposes details that are geographically accurate, so the role of interpretation is to eliminate the myth and to translate the elements into descriptive terms. He considers the difficulties arising from this approach as mere imprecisions, and ascribes them to Homer’s lack of knowledge.
Other critics, like Wilamowitz, believed that the descriptions revealed traces of a primitive localization, earlier than the one preferred by the singer, and no longer associated with the narrative but rather with a fixed literary tradition. Thus Thrinacia, the island of the sacred cattle, would be placed in the Peloponnese region, and Scylla and Charybdis would refer to the strait between Cythera and Cape Malea. On this basis, starting from the original localization (which would be compatible with the source of an Oriental poem), once the western land of the Cyclops had been separated from the rest, in the interplay of re-readings the sites could be grouped between East and West, so as to be aligned with three phases of ancient history: the concentration in the Aegean Sea (where the Oriental poem originated), the expansion to the shores of the Black Sea (the poem itself), and the colonization of the west (the land of the Cyclops in Book 9).
In France, Victor Bérard, who did not believe in Analysis or in the Unitarian theory of the poem and who wanted to “give the Poet his due,” [39] did not seek the reflection of an age in this literary stratification (“when the French align themselves with current tastes, it is always with prudence and their customary reticence” [40] ); but, with a resolve that amply made up for this reticence, he worked on identifying the places in the poem. His twelve books take the reader across the Mediterranean, like a Baedeker or a Guide Bleu of maritime routes, portraying charming and colorful Italian landscapes with a wealth of detail; Bérard tacks onto the Odyssey a topography that lacks any textual support, making his edition of the poem a mere pretext for an archaeological stroll. The Greek colonies in Italy had already appropriated Odyssean names for their capes and islands. In Bérard’s opinion, Homer—that is, the “Homeric poems” (including the Alcinous narratives, which can be divided up but not “analyzed”)—is so ancient that anomalies can be eliminated as illegitimate, as insertions or interpolations made during the long life of the poem, and the text must also be clear enough so that neither semantic research nor complexity of thought can be attributed to it:
The clarity of Homer’s work is threatened by certain attributes—circumlocution, “profundity,” prolixity, abstraction, and above all ambiguity; clarity can never allow the smallest contradiction, apparent or real, in its terms or concepts, nor any kind of implausibility … including factual implausibility and inappropriate subject matter. Its clarity is so extreme that neither words nor sentences nor substance nor form should, from the Ancients’ point of view, ever raise the slightest difficulty, or “aporia,” for even the most demanding reader. [41]
No reflection can be allowed to slip between the object and its exact description. This fidelity is all the more rigorous in that the poet does not describe landscapes that he has seen (which, somewhat surprisingly, had not led anyone to doubt the quality of his account). The author of the Alcinous narratives adapts the story of a journey on the western sea, or “Nautical Instructions,” and perhaps even Phoenician legends. The world is divided into a civilized part, the well-known East, and a barbarous side, the West: “Hence the importance of Ithaca on the edge of the two worlds in that era, and the renown, in the Achaean legend, of that poor little rock whose very name has disappeared from classical history.” [42]
For Bérard, the fantastic and the mythic belong to barbarism. Thus he has no trouble situating the house of Dawn or Circe’s dwelling place in the West; he has distinguished a barbarous country, its sites and their contours orientalized by Phoenician travelers, and a Greek order of lines and diction: “This poem is the work of a Hellene; the model bears the hallmark of a Semitic craftsman.” [43] The East does not disgust Bérard. His systematic concretization is not based on any source, any description, any exploration that he could have consulted. The descriptions can fit any place, if it is the landscape one is looking for.
Albert Thibaudet called Bérard himself a geographer-poet.
What Homer’s geographic imagination had done for the Phoenician journey, Bérard’s geographic imagination, guided by the meaning of the sites and the science of (Greco-Semitic) doublets, was to do for the Odyssey, but in the other direction: that is, by finding the Phoenician journey in the poem, and then by associating that journey and the odyssey in an eternal Mediterranean—after the ancient Mediterranean, then the Venetian, the Greek, or the English versions, came the Mediterranean of which the Odyssey remains the unchanged poem, thanks to the enduring nature of its marine setting, the transparency and the soundness of its geography. [44]
The reconstruction of Homeric geography followed two trends: one, obligingly describing the sites and routes, remains within the confines of the Mediterranean, in the Roman world. According to Bérard, Odysseus travels from Thrace (the Cicones) to Tunisia (the Lotus-Eaters), to meet up with the Cyclops in Campania; he then passes by the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea to Cape Bonifacio in Corsica (the Laestrygonians). He is carried towards Monte Circeo before ending up in the Strait of Messina (Scylla and Charybdis) in Sicily (the island of the sacred cattle), and then through the Straits of Gibraltar (Calypso), to return to Ithaca via Corfu (the Phaeacians). [45] In scholarly books, the voyage is illustrated with photographs. [46] In an itinerary modified by Roger Dion, [47] Circe is dislodged from her promontory in Campania and, with a good deal of supporting evidence, relocated in Malaga, a site supposed to correspond to the description of the island in the Odyssey; thus Odysseus can reach the kingdom of the dead after a day’s journey (125 km), on the other shore of the Oceanos, identified by the current of the waters that flow from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. [48] Others, such as Louis Moulinier, [49] prefer Cyrenaica to Corfu for the Phaeacians. In order to explain the oriental topography of the Circe episode, imagination had to play a role in the map’s construction, which included, in a provisional split, everything that could not be located in the Mediterranean, the journey to Circe’s domain and whatever was associated with it. This concession was intended solely to make a place for the house of Aurora that Bérard had overlooked. Reference to the real is repeated like a credo:
As much as possible, the poet likens legendary countries to ones that were real to him and still are to us, and that were frequented by seafarers. [50]
The poet of the Wanderings of Odysseus made it a rule to describe only those itineraries that could be carried out by real ships on real seas. [51]
The reason for the great Odyssean journeys across the western Mediterranean will elude us as long as people persist in making Homer’s Circe live on the Italian promontory that bears her name instead of in Malaga. Raising the question … opens up research that soon yields one of the keys to the “Wanderings of Odysseus” and reveals its value as a historical document of exceptional importance. The poem appears to be the only text through which we can grasp the trace of a colonization or at least of a Hellenic presence on the Ibero-African borders from the time that the great Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily were established on less far-flung shores … . Let us not refuse the title of historian to the first of these Hellenic poets. [52]
Bérard had laid down a firm rule: “verisimilitude always retains its rightful place in an Odyssean tale.”
The stylistic device of allegory (to which Dion reduces the house of Dawn [53] ) or symbol, applied to these tales, has only one function—to retain their realistic impact. The language of allegory or symbol is presumed to be used only under desperate circumstances:
Sometimes we do not recognize the geographic reality represented by a supernatural being. So we speak of symbolism … But it might be said that the poet is a primitive. Let us acknowledge once again that when we are dealing with an author who is otherwise so concerned with ordinary geographical truth … we should presume that it is his way of expressing greater realities glimpsed through the prism of perceptible appearances. Is this not in fact a supreme realism? [54]
If the Planctae, along with the whole epic of the Argonauts, have been moved from the Bosphorus further west, it is because “when the Ionian cities of the Aegean, leaders of colonial enterprises with far distant goals … turned their ambitions towards the West where once they had been focused on the East, their sailors wanted Jason to accompany them on the western seas as well.” [55] Dion endorses the claim, regarding the transformation of the legend in Apollonius of Rhodes, that “a patriotic mystique has more than once traced physically unfeasible activities for the heroes of mythology.” [56]
The tendency toward establishing realistic sites is not represented as vigorously or as exclusively in other countries, at least among university scholars of the same rank. [57] Another trend, more steeped in Analysis [58] and less attached to the Mediterranean, maintains the distinction between East and West, and thereby promotes a certain confusion between historical precision and myth. Scholars of this persuasion have no difficulty in assigning a site in the West to the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops and Aeolia, nor in situating places like Cyzicus in the East, but since they were not dealing with the enclosed universe of the Mediterranean, they did not hesitate to extend the mythical borders of the world to the shores of the Black Sea, citing the ignorance of the Ancients. [59] This geography, less influenced by organized tour routes in the Mediterranean, was based on certain textual indications, or else on the explanation of a set of data. These data are often integrated into the system of sources
It has often been pointed out that this geographical research is fragile and inconsistent, but production has continued nevertheless. The work was fruitful, and that alone was sufficient reason to continue. It is useless to point out the erroneous details, whether Circe lives in Malaga or Campania, or even to criticize the legitimacy of this research, if error itself is not elevated to the status of a subject to be studied, as a means to uncovering its deeper interest and to understanding that meaningless results have not meant that geographical research itself is meaningless.
If reading does not benefit from the comparison of methods, from “Germanic” Analysis to amateur archaeology, it is because this kind of work, despite the diversity that inspires so many volumes, is based on a consensus [60] as to the way the text and its meaning are taken into consideration, or not. Bérard and Wilamowitz do not disagree about the significance and the documentary value of the Odyssey. The poem is used as a basis for pseudo-historical constructs exactly insofar as it is considered as clear content, as an object, severed from the subject who produced it and severed from its reader. The text is examined for facts or for what can be transformed into facts: the doves tell the story of Jason’s voyage. No doubt, for philologists, the creation of a work is always modeled on a form of philological study, the collation of readings and sources—a method that, when applied to a given work, is established as a principle for production.
It was a matter of attaching facts drawn from the text to events, so as to give these events a historical dimension. But by bringing in an external principle of explication based on fortuitous and changing data, the historians in question lost any access to a historical perspective, and failed to consider the conditions under which they themselves were exploiting the text. Using Homer for their own purposes, and treating its meaning as already known in advance, they were not in a position to equip themselves with a theory of the text, nor to secure the conditions under which understanding can emerge from the very difficulties of reading. Fixing the historical location of a work forces the reader to go through the subjectivity of the author, and thus to accentuate the anomalies, as so many means for perceiving the distinctive feature of a gaze. The idea of a narrative as the reproduction of a ready-made history, transmissible and translatable, or as a means of describing something external to the text, prevents readers from seeing that the narration includes signs that make it enigmatic and that are, in a way, detached from it. The Wanderings of Odysseus, like other ancient texts, have a depth that has been proven by a tradition of exegesis. Their esoteric nature, the fact that the story cannot be read without demanding reflection on its meaning, precludes any arbitrariness in the interpretation of signs. The elements of the narration maintain a rigorously determined relationship with the interpretive elements within it, so that the meaning remains open only as long as the totality of the relationships, in every episode, has not been explained.
The existence of an exegetic network, of which repetitions, for example, are a part, allowed a blinkered criticism to perceive signs that were incomprehensible on the narrative level as anomalies. Indirectly, the possibility of Analysis vouches for the existence of an accompanying exegesis that replicates the text with a form of allegory that does not replace one text with another but reads the same text differently. Accepting this principle would lead to the definition of a practice that, by carefully distinguishing between the content and the way it is used, as revealed by the text, would retain the specific nature of the reading. We must persuade ourselves that the text disappoints the expectation that the naïve narration encourages. Error consists in producing a meaning that the text deflects. The project is not linked to tradition by a form of dependency, but by the fact that it obliges readers to posit a state of affairs that is different from the one it describes. The object of expectations thus cannot be that of modern critics, who reduce the tale to a primitive form, even as they declare it to be full of urbanity and style: we must reconstitute the expectation that arose from the disappointment of the initial expectation. This means accepting the perceived difficulties while at the same time learning to see the hidden problems.
The insertion of a legend such as the tale of the Argonauts can be considered an intellectual phenomenon, like an element of language. If the Planctae that the ship Argo passes are Scylla and Charybdis, the question arises why, and for what purpose, the solitary passage of Odysseus clinging to the wreck is absorbed into one accomplished by the heroes of all of Greece. The problem of the unity of the poem can only be posed in these terms: unity originates in the necessary relationship among the individual episodes; it is established as the result of the successive interpretations suggested by the text.

The “New look” of Analysis

The research on what is called “oral poetry” begun by Milman Parry and Albert Lord has made no contributions to the topic of the Odyssey’s composition beyond those already made by Analysis. Yet the two men consider, in a new and certainly more accurate way than before, not the genesis of Homer’s poem—which they do not examine, even though they think they have done so—but the genesis of the monumental compositions favored, long before Homer, by the practice of oral poetry.
They have demonstrated the importance of metrical schemas and formulaic models and actions (“formulaic patterns”). Albin Lesky, in his article “Homeros” for the great encyclopedia of the sciences of antiquity, wrote in 1968:
The breakthrough between the two world wars of the conviction that the essence, and in large part the evolution, of Homeric poetry must be understood in terms of certain characteristic traits of its language and prosody, is an event whose importance, for Homeric research, can be compared to the initial impetus that Friedrich August Wolf gave to Analysis.
The idea, however, is older than Analysis, which served as a way station. [61] For Friedrich Schlegel, Homer was merely a name, the name of epic poetry (Histoire de la poésie épique chez les Grecs, 1798). [62] Kirchhoff’s idea of a plurality of authors resurfaces; it presents the theory of a collective voice in a more plausible fashion, even before any investigations could be made in the field.
According to research carried out in Serbia, where Parry [63] and then Lord heard bards inspired by an epic tradition that was still alive forty years ago, very long poems could be memorized and recited thanks to a traditional store of formulas and ready-made lines. The Greek singers are different from the rhapsodes, who would later confine themselves to reciting songs without any changes, [64] while the Greek bards used the possibilities of expression in their repertoire to improvise, harmonizing formulas, modifying thematic units or combining them in a different way. The single poet of the Odyssey and the Iliad is great in this respect, both for his memory and for his improvisational genius. His art, which we attribute to him because it is his work that has been preserved, does not differ essentially from that of the poets of a forgotten age, who composed oral poetry for listeners. Indeed, the diffusion of writing coincided with a “monumental” creation that brought the traditional work to its apogee. Kirk believes that the form given to the inherited material by the “main composer” arrested the flow of the text’s development owing to its imposing character, just before it was fixed by writing and independently of that phenomenon. Others think that composers, working according to the rules of oral poetry, exploited the discovery of writing to dictate their poems; in any case, it is the sequence of production, with the help of chance, that gave birth to the poem.
Confining Homer to the lineage of the singers and insisting on the mechanisms of oral production made it possible to give a general explanation of anomalies and to pin them once and for all to the specific characteristics of a genre. [65] The defenders of oral poetry accept the schema of the Analysts, the division of the poem, and its composition by additions and splices. Kirk thinks that the adventures of Books 10 and 12, from the Laestrygonians to Thrinacia, were inserted between the arrival on Aeolia and the story of Calypso, and that the descent into the Underworld in Book 11 is another addition within the insertion. All the examples Kirk gives in the chapter “Structural Anomalies in the Odyssey [66] are drawn unaltered from the Analysts’ repertoire. The inconsistencies brought to light by Analysis can be attributed, in this perspective, to the “complexity of the material used by each main composer and to their inevitable difficulties in assembling different elements of their repertoire into unified epics of huge length and scope.” [67] The scholarly tradition of recent generations is never re-examined. The theory of unity is opposed in its most formal arguments, and the study of correspondences and symmetries is dismissed as over-interpretation. [68] Moreover, to prove the oral nature of the poem, the authors readily accept the objections to the text that Analysis had accumulated.
Instead of going along with the Analysts and representing the poet as an ancient genius whose poem was damaged by succeeding versions—as if primitive poetry, symbolized by Homer, had been lost in his work and needed to be recovered—Kirk’s “oral poetry” rehabilitated, in the final stage, the editor and master craftsman. Tradition would lead to a Homer, and this Homer would never stray from tradition. But in the absence of a search for the distinctive traits of this character, by multiplying Homer ad infinitum in his past, Kirk places him back in an unknowable earlier time, since the constitutive act of the Homeric poem is not grasped.
This attempt to differentiate, by scale or scope rather than quality, the culmination of oral poetry from earlier phases of its evolution, and the fortuitous nature of the relationship between the final phase and immediate transcription, show that writing is perceived as belonging to the nature of the poem, and that the fabrication of these vast assemblages is situated in the natural evolution of oral poetry for reasons other than those that would account for the composition of the poem. The simple fact of being written down is not enough to differentiate one oral work from others in the same form and used for the same purposes. Written down, recorded, the song will retain oral form through the transcription, however subtle the splices might be. The Iliad and the Odyssey were conceived by and for writing, which was perhaps just beginning to spread, and writing itself did not appear miraculously to help in its own preservation; the style was adapted to the means at hand. Homer gives the appearance of a song to what he writes, just as he presents singers in his narratives. Just as the facts of civilization that he describes belong in part to another age and in part to his own times, the features of oral poetry are stylized and give no involuntary hints as to their genesis; they are used consciously, or diverted to serve different literary purposes. Thus they can be accepted and interpreted, while conversely we are unable to explain the techniques of written poetry (literal repetitions of a certain length) in improvisation and song. [69] If the device of iteration and the use of formulas and rhythmic patterns were originally designed for the role that the defenders of oral poetry have assigned to them, as traditional elements of a scene or stereotypical situation and as means of memorization, these practices, which become evident through reuse, to the great delight of linguists, take on structuring and relational aims that they might not have had at the outset. [70]
No doubt it is more accurate to situate the birth of Homeric poems in one of the guilds in which the craft of composing, of singing—or of dictating—was learned and transmitted, than to attribute to Homer the work habits of a nineteenth-century scholar; but, by an identification of the same type, oral poetry—at least to explain its establishment in written form—has recourse to a feat worthy of an ethnologist. “Perhaps we shall never have a certain solution to the riddle of the writing down of the Homeric poems,” writes Lord. [71] Impossible indeed that an oral poet could have wanted to be known under this guise, nor could his colleagues ever have considered changing their habits. Someone outside the tradition must have made the decision to write down the great epics. Lord suggests that this benefactor, jealous of the famous books of certain other peoples, wanted to bestow on Greece a durable treasure, or simply to reproduce the epic form seen elsewhere, thus displacing a problem of aesthetics in time and from one form of empiricism to another. [72] The act of recording ranks with the act of writing, since to it we owe the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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Parry, M. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. A. Parry. Oxford.
Puech, A. 1924. Annuaire de l’École normale supérieure. Paris.
Rousseau-Liessens, A. 1961–1964. Géographie de l’Odyssée. 4 vols. Brussels.
Von der Mühll, P. 1940. “Odyssee.” Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft 7:697–698.
———. 1952. Kritisches Hypomnema zur Ilias. Basel.
Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von. 1884. Homerische Untersuchungen. Berlin.
Wolf, F. A. 1985. Prolegomena to Homer. Ed. and trans. A. Grafton, G. W. Most, and J. E. G. Zetzel. Princeton. Orig. pub. 1795.
Wolf, H.-H., and A. Wolf. 1968. Der Weg des Odysseus. Tübingen.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Ulysse chez les philologues,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 29–59.
[ back ] 1. Wolf 1985.
[ back ] 2. Von der Mühll 1952.
[ back ] 3. The title pays homage to the Old Testament studies undertaken by Julius Wellhausen, one of Wilamowitz’s colleagues in Greifswald.
[ back ] 4. Von der Mühll 1940.
[ back ] 5. [TN: A diascévaste was a critic who edited and corrected texts. The term was applied in particular to Greek critics from Alexandria who worked on Homer, organizing the Songs, checking the authenticity of certain lines, and making corrections.]
[ back ] 6. Kirchhoff 1859:216.
[ back ] 7. See for example Merkelbach 1951:175–176, on Kirchhoff’s analysis, and Kirk 1962:234, on the subject of oral poetry.
[ back ] 8. In England, Andrew Lang, a fierce defender of unity, was a man of letters, and in France many men of the cloth, such as Georges-Michel Bertrin (1851–1924) and Victor Terret (1856–?), supported the cause; cf. n. 28 below.
[ back ] 9. Meuli 1975, 2:593–676. The influence of this doctoral dissertation, which developed a point raised by Kirchhoff, can be explained by the impact of the proof produced by topographical and literary evidence as to the source of the second cycle of the Adventures; see also Page 1955.
[ back ] 10. Page 1955:2.
[ back ] 11. See the authors cited by Merkelbach 1951:201n1 (Wilamowitz, Friedländer, Kranz).
[ back ] 12. Depending on the author, the crucial element, the floating island of Aeolia, does or does not belong to the second series of Adventures.
[ back ] 13. But according to other critics, Homer surpasses his model in the episode of the Sirens (Merkelbach 1955:207, following Meuli).
[ back ] 14. [TN: Planctae has been translated in various ways: for example, as “Rovers” in Lattimore’s translation (1965) and as “Clashing Rocks” (Lindsay 1965).]
[ back ] 15. Odyssey 12.56–58. All references to and citations from the Odyssey are from the Lattimore edition.
[ back ] 16. Bérard 1924, 2:2.
[ back ] 17. Bérard 1924, 2:115.
[ back ] 18. Von der Mühll (1953, col. 729) believes that Planctae is the divine “translation” of the name for the Symplegades (“which clash together”); other scholars think that the Planctae have nothing to do with the Symplegades, which lie near the Bosphorus, or with Jason; see Bollack 1976:173.
[ back ] 19. On the contrary, the double name should lead us to ask why the gods speak differently from humans here, and why, if the etymology of the name is “roving,” they should say that the Planctae “rove.”
[ back ] 20. Meuli 1975:89. But if the Planctae were no longer dangerous, why does Circe not advise Odysseus to take this route?
[ back ] 21. Bérard 1924, 2:122.
[ back ] 22. Bérard 1924, 2:113–114, ad 12.61; Bérard does not construct 13.327 in the same way as 12.260; otherwise he would have had to identify the Planctae with Scylla and Charybdis.
[ back ] 23. Merkelbach 1951:205. Readings of this sort are very common. Lindsay (1965:8) writes: “In referring to the fact that the Argo’s tale is everywhere known, I take [Homer] to be tactfully saying: I know that I have borrowed this whole complex of dangerous passages from that tale, so I ward off criticism by a side-admission.” The tact no doubt lies with the critic rather than with Homer.
[ back ] 24. It is impossible to include here the elements of an interpretation that has to take all the Adventures into account; I offered the outlines of such an interpretation during the course of several seminars in Lille and at the École Normale Supérieure (1971–1972).
[ back ] 25. On the difficulties of adaptation in England, see Myres 1958, Chap. 9, on Wilamowitz.
[ back ] 26. [TN: Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609), a French Protestant scholar; Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), a Huguenot born in Geneva; Adrien Turnèbe (1512–1565), a French poet and humanist. All were renowned classical scholars and were in contact with one another.]
[ back ] 27. [TN: Jean-Baptiste Gaspard d’Ansse de Villoison (1750 or 1753–1805), a classical scholar; Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824), a German philologist and critic. With the support of Frederick the Great, Wolf founded the science of philology at the University of Halle. See the Introduction to Wolf 1985 (1795), esp. 5–15, by Grafton, Most, and Zetzel for a particularly lucid brief account of early scholarship on the Homeric text.]
[ back ] 28. Bérard 1917:283. In this belligerent pamphlet, Bérard asserted that German scholars took advantage of their own critical apparatus to steal from France the discoveries her own brilliant scholars had made.
[ back ] 29. On the relationship between the rhetorical tradition of teaching and the inadequate conditions and tools of the trade, see Bourdieu and Passeron 1970:151–157.
[ back ] 30. “For some time now, Europe has been in the grip of a spirit of skepticism. People looked back on the past, not as its heirs but as its adversaries. There was a tendency to take pleasure in contradicting it. As usual, Religion was the first victim. Many people, no doubt otherwise faithful to preconceived ideas, would have liked to contain the movement within the confines of religious matters. But one does not unleash a tempest without consequences. The spirit of criticism, hostile to authorized opinions, passed from the realm of Faith into that of literature, at the same time as it was making a dangerous incursion into questions of social order. The philological school in Germany signaled a sharp reaction against literary tradition. By calling into question the authenticity of several Platonic dialogues, other bold spirits went even further and even removed some of Cicero’s works from his bibliography. Wolf went further than anyone in trying to use science to strip Homer of the two poems that have made him the most famous and revered name in all of literature” (Bertrin 1897:20–21).
[ back ] 31. Even today, candidates for the agrégation in letters or grammar, who might aspire to a post in higher education, are not required to know how the text they are explicating is constituted, or even how its authenticity was established. They have not learned to read a critical apparatus.
[ back ] 32. Aimé Puech (1924:93), in his obituary of Croiset: “Alfred Croiset’s essential originality as a professor comes from the clear-sightedness with which he immediately recognized what higher education in France needed in the way of reforms and innovation, especially in the areas of ancient languages and literatures; from the time he entered the Sorbonne, he never forgot or misjudged the sound and useful aspects of the outdated concept of higher education that needed correction and expansion. In all this he remained true to the moderation that ruled his actions, wherever they were directed. He understood what was incomplete and what was still valid in the humanism of the preceding generation. He declared that, during the first two thirds of the nineteenth century, the Germans had pulled ahead of us, and that to overtake them we had first of all to catch up, by making use of what they could teach us. But his aim was always to overtake them once we had matched them. I never heard him speak of his mentors with a severity that might verge on ingratitude, and I saw that he always maintained deliberate independence in regard to Germanic scholarship. If we read the preface to [Croiset’s] Histoire de la littérature grecque, we shall see … how, having determined with impartiality, but without allowing himself to be misled, the position taken by the Germans, he described the totally French work that he had decided to undertake with his brother, and [we shall see] whether it is possible to have at once more freedom of spirit and more intelligent loyalty to our national tradition.”
[ back ] 33. “It is a collection,” Bérard writes of the epic, “of theatrical plays or dramas, of episodes, acts or scenes, that contain a great many serious conflicts; to reconcile and juxtapose them, scholars had to make additions, or make poorly executed cuts and patches whose traces are still visible; with these additions and splices, a whole series of flaws come to light … the language and style are almost always of poor quality; imprecise terms obscure the thought; the haphazard assembly of lines or borrowed hemistiches jolts the pace of the narrative; the extravagance of detail and the vulgarity of the whole sometimes verge on brutality and even coarseness” (1931:185–186). The violence of these opinions is worthy of Wilamowitz.
[ back ] 34. The relation between Bérard’s (scholarly) commentaries and the themes addressed in his political writings, during the period of colonial imperialism, is obvious. The disputes among the great powers about trading posts, islands, or straits are prefigured in his Odyssée d’Homère (1931). According to his son Armand Bérard, in the biography that serves as a preface to his new edition of Les navigations d’Ulysse, “[H]is interest … continued to be twofold, and would remain so all his life. He studied in parallel the politics of the contemporary and ancient worlds, colonizations and commercial practices from thirty centuries ago” (A. Bérard 1971:xi).
[ back ] 35. Bérard 1929, 4:401, on the subject of the Sirens.
[ back ] 36. Bérard 1931:111.
[ back ] 37. As Kakridis (1971:14) remarks, “the poet’s great creative power, which enables him to fashion his characters true to life, naturally induces the scholar … to emancipate the heroic characters from within their poetic framework” so that concrete situations and individual reactions are reconstructed. In the same way, the very rudimentary nature of the topography of the Odyssey has encouraged scholars to fill in the gaps.
[ back ] 38. In Finsler 1908, 1:22.
[ back ] 39. Bérard 1931:51.
[ back ] 40. Bérard 1931:52.
[ back ] 41. Bérard 1931:104.
[ back ] 42. Bérard 1931:263.
[ back ] 43. Bérard 1929, 4:482.
[ back ] 44. Cited in Bérard 1929, 4:17.
[ back ] 45. This itinerary takes no account of the structural elements of the myth. Thus it is agreed that Odysseus, having arrived within sight of Ithaca, is driven back far from the island of Aeolia, but the fact that this island, the island of the winds, is floating is not a factor. The return via Charybdis is not related to the departure point, Circe. There are many equally fundamental objections to be made.
[ back ] 46. “The bones piled up in a prehistoric cave that looks out onto this coast at sea level on Cape Palinuro, near to the ancient Molpa, named after another Siren [in another legend], are perhaps the origin of the ‘pile of boneheaps’ mentioned in xii, line 45.” These are the terms in which the scholarly editors René Langumier, Jean Bérard, and Henri Goube (1952:276) present the problematic connection between the Sirens and the human skins and bones strewn on the ground around them.
[ back ] 47. Roger Dion (1896–1981), professor of French historical geography at the Collège de France.
[ back ] 48. Dion 1971:479–533.
[ back ] 49. Moulinier 1958.
[ back ] 50. Moulinier 1958:122.
[ back ] 51. Dion 1971:494.
[ back ] 52. Dion 1971:532–533.
[ back ] 53. Dion 1971:494.
[ back ] 54. Moulinier 1958:122–123.
[ back ] 55. Dion 1971:499.
[ back ] 56. Dion 1971:509.
[ back ] 57. Given the numerous reconstitutions and albums of the journey, these research projects obviously fulfilled a need. Let us take just three examples in different cultural fields. In 1963, in London, an ex-naval officer published the account of his journeys in the Mediterranean in search of the meaning of the lines he carried with him (Bradford 1964). At about the same time (1961–1964), the four volumes of Géographie de l’Odyssée were published in Brussels; their author, Auguste Rousseau-Liessens, tries to prove that all the Wanderings took place in the Adriatic. More recently, two German brothers, Hans-Helmut and Armin Wolf, hark back to the failure of past efforts, and propose to start off from the directions indicated in the text in order to project the resulting geometric figure on the Mediterranean, checking on the distances a posteriori (1968). Thus they discovered a new center, the island of Malta (Aeolia), and a new Phaeacia in Calabria, where they believed that archaeological digs would produce for the Odyssey what Schliemann had brought to the Iliad.
[ back ] 58. Resorting to realism also served the interest of Analysis. If the description of Ithaca does not correspond to the real Ithaca, it is because one of the poets, in this case the good one, did not know the island. And why did he not know it? Because he was from Asia Minor (Von der Mühll 1952, col. 719–20).
[ back ] 59. Moulinier (1958) took the same liberty in the Mediterranean framework of the French tradition.
[ back ] 60. The Unitarians do not distance themselves from it either.
[ back ] 61. The idea goes back to late antiquity.
[ back ] 62. See also Lord 1960:147: “[Homer] is not an outsider approaching the tradition with only a superficial grasp of it … He is not a split personality with half of his understanding and technique in the tradition and the other half in a parnassus of literate methods. No, he is not even immersed in the tradition. He is the tradition; he is one of the integral parts of that complex.”
[ back ] 63. In two articles published in 1930 and 1932, Milman Parry showed the traditional nature of certain formulaic systems comprising a noun and its epithet, and how certain prosodic irregularities were caused by the use of these formulas; he then took a big step forward, declaring that, based on his study of Turkish, Yugoslav, Russian, and Kara-Khirgiz poetry, Homeric poetry was oral (“Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making. I. Homer and the Homeric Style” and “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse Making. II. The Homeric Language as the Language of Oral Poetry,” both reprinted in Parry 1971:266–364). Hoekstra (1969:11–12) points out that this statement marks “a considerable extension of his previous definition of the formula.”
[ back ] 64. For the rhapsodes, the epic tradition is not a repertoire from which to draw material for improvisation, but is in principle a canonical text, established by writing and ne varietur, not to be changed. Hence the distinction critics could make between the creative and lively “insertions” of the “main composer” and the destructive “interpolations” of the rhapsodists.
[ back ] 65. “[M]ainly because certain anomalies which appear both in composition … and in diction … are of such a nature that they are best explained on the assumption of oral creation” (Hoekstra 1969:18n2).
[ back ] 66. Kirk 1962:234–235.
[ back ] 67. Kirk 1962:251.
[ back ] 68. See Kirk 1962:262–263, for an argument against structural interpretations that undermine themselves by their formalism.
[ back ] 69. In keeping with comments made about the bards, the theory of oral poetry is based on the idea that the driving principle of sung composition is improvisation, and that this movement replenishes the traditional elements. Hoekstra accepts this distinction, and proposes that literal repetitions be considered as interpolations, or that oral poetry be enriched by a rhapsodic technique of recitation.
[ back ] 70. Lord (1960:130–131) believes that the oral technique can be defined by the number of formulas, as if, with the appearance of writing, a whole cultural and expressive tradition could be abandoned. The markers of oral expression do not signify that the poetry was not written.
[ back ] 71. Lord 1960:156.
[ back ] 72. Lord 1962:195: “There is a tendency for scribes … to neglect to write down actually as dictated passages which they recognize as repetitions of passages previously dictated. They assume that the repetition will be word for word, and hence they note down simply that at a given point certain lines are to be repeated. It is worth consideration that some of the repeated passages in the Homeric poems may have been set down in this way.” But this dictated text belongs to a mixed period, between the oral and the written; Lord calls this dictated text “oral.”