Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BerryS.Vicos_Prescient_Evolutionary_Model_for_Homer.2016.
1. Prophet of Modern Oral-Evolutionary Theories
Though Nagy does not use the word kléos specifically here, he clearly presents Demodokos as representing a “medium of performance” being passed along from one generation of singers to the next. This evolutionary movement would seem to entail the supposition that some singers over the generations are renowned for their superiority to most singers. A term one can reasonably apply to this principle is kléos. That Demodokos has been “groomed” to be a superior singer reminds us of the superiority of certain gúslars, like Avdo Međedović and Ćor Huso, whom A. B. Lord singles out in Singer of Tales. Though a relative few have heard them in person, we have all heard that they were extraordinary. If we accept this as a working principle, then, I argue, kléos by extension can describe the aspirations of those who have, over the centuries, set themselves the task of preserving the literary Homer.
Nagy thinks along the same lines as Isaiah Berlin, who heads his chapter titled “The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico” from his great study Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton, 2000) with an 1830 quotation from the French social philosopher Pierre-Simon Ballanche: “Singulière destinée que celle de cet homme! Lui qui fut si intuitif, il sort du tombeau lorsqu’il n’a plus rien à nous dire” (p. 21), which I translate: “What a unique destiny for this man! He was so intuitive, yet he emerges from the grave at a time when he has nothing more to tell us.”  Berlin expresses perhaps the major critical conundrum regarding Vico when he quotes Ballanche, the underestimated French Romantic critic and prophet, trying to pull the rug out from under Vico, the underachieving Italian “pre-Romantic” prophet. Such a characterization of “belatedness” (Harold Bloom’s term), which tacitly acknowledges the discovery of his work in Romantic Age Europe nearly a century after his death, demonstrates how soon Vico’s original Cassandra-like reception became a part of his legacy.
In accordance with tendencies Parry and Lord discovered among the South Slavic gúslars, Nagy strives throughout his work to emphasize the fluidity of composition that oral transmission affords, a dynamic that changes once a particular performance is recorded and disseminated. Nagy prefers “reciters” to “singers.” He has remarked:
In keeping with his loyalty to the sociolinguistic lineage Saussure initiated in Cours de linguistique générale,  Nagy sees the issue as one of cultural memory:
If we interpret Nagy’s paradigm in Saussurean terms, the singing of epic is the “diachronic” langue, or the language of cultural memory, while the recitations of the rhapsodes are the “synchronic” parole, or “state-of-affairs,” as it had evolved at the point of a specific performance. Thus Nagy’s model is both evolutionary and hermeneutic. This model also stresses that what we have as “Homer” is the end-product, as it were, of a complex tradition that began in “the dark backward and abysm of time,” to quote the Bard’s Miranda. It entails the idea that the stasis that inevitably came with literacy was itself manipulated along the way by heads of state (legendarily, the sixth-century Athenian tyrant Peisistratos and his sons) and scholars (most notably those associated with the Alexandrian Library). Nagy’s evolutionary model identifies five “periods”:
In order to place this thesis at the center of my overall argument, I immediately juxtapose a summary that Vico interpolates as an appendix between Books III and IV of la Scienza Nuova:
Vico’s summation contains several elements that anticipate today’s paradigms. By no means do I claim that the contiguity between Vico and Nagy is exact. Yet Vico’s “theological poets, … heroes … [who] sang true and austere fables” clearly describes an irretrievably archaic, illiterate age in which poems were transmitted orally, in a state leading toward Panhellenic dissemination. Furthermore, note that Vico’s language anticipates—dare one even say preformulates?—that of the “creator” of Ossian, James Macpherson, who fooled no less a scientist than Goethe. I suggest that as his tacit evidence, Vico is referring here to what are for him philologically empirical entities, the most obvious one being Achilles in his capacity of aoidós, as described in Scroll IX of the Iliad, as well as Demodokos and Phemios in the Odyssey. Interestingly, in §905 Vico differentiates the heroes themselves from later personages he calls “heroic poets” who, in the process of retelling the original m ū thoi, “altered and corrupted” them. “Corrupted” is a value judgment connected with Vico’s ancillary yet crucial premise that European acculturation involved a kind of downward spiral, represented semiotically by words he applies both to Homeric characters and early states of Greco-Roman culture, e.g., “vulgar,” “barbarian,” and “primitive.”
Simonsuuri is right to say that Vico’s work signals a shift in focus from contests over literary superiority to anthropological issues. In a curious way, it all amounts to a kind of “renaming.” Between 1690 and 1795, the focus of the polemic in Europe shifted from a general Quarrel over whether Homer was somehow “purer” than, say, Shakespeare or Descartes, to the Question of whether there ever really was one “Homer” and what kind of primitive society might have produced such a type. Later, I present other opinions echoing this view, which (as is implicit from my linking of Vico and Nagy) I basically share. The caveat is that it is a mistake to draw too sharp a line between Vico and his contemporaries.
Here Pompa’s assertions about Vico’s understanding of Homer suggest a general affinity with the Parry-Lord Hypothesis. The first is that, properly understood, “Homer” is not to be thought of as an individual, but rather as the record of “communal modes of thought and attitude which are the products of the history of its own institutional developments”; he thus echoes Simonsuuri’s phrase “collective mind.” Pompa’s synopsis of Vico could well have served to introduce Nagy’s five-stage model. Following from this hermeneutic formulation is his corollary point that Vico realized the Iliad and the Odyssey are most accurately conceived of as temporally separate linguistico-cultural products, and that hence, each epic as we have it is the “end-result” of a separate set of performances by a separate set of performers. This conclusion, too, harmonizes with Nagy’s framework. Pompa’s intermediate assertion that Vico’s theory differentiates unequivocally between “Homer and the rhapsodes” is the least defensible on the ambiguous evidence. Nevertheless, if we accept the idea that Vico does make such a distinction implicitly, it would fall right in with Nagy’s framework.
The remainder of his article is a survey of current theories on how and when the Iliad and Odyssey may have been composed, transmitted, and “written down.” The “anticipations” Fowler mentions evidently include the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century arguments that form the backdrop of my own study, though he refers to them only elliptically. I point out that, contrary to Fowler’s implication, the “modern debate” began well before 1788, though admittedly in a rudimentary form. It actually had its roots in the Renaissance, and was “all the rage” by 1715–1720—the dates of the serial publication of Pope’s Iliad. I agree that the fresh availability in 1791 of a more “reliable” Homeric text (i.e., Venetus Marcianus Graecus 454) led to breakthroughs that would make modern theories “possible.”
Know’st thou not, there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers?
It is noteworthy that there is no definitive edition of Leaves of Grass, because Whitman continued to revise it for some time. I propose that this “open-endedness” is Whitman’s mímēsis of the special creative capacities of oral epic. He doubtless would have received Nagy’s concept of “(re-) composition in performance” most enthusiastically. Moreover, I juxtapose these two Whitman quotes as evidence that the “sing / recite” ambiguity is quite detectable in the Homeric reception history.