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4. Evolutionary Models Resist Literary Bias
Graziosi next quotes the Second Sophistic rhetorician and fabulist Lucian (born in what is now Syria c. 120 CE), a native speaker of Aramaic who—as a prolific, improvising, witty, often sarcastic raconteur—fulfilled the cultural function of a Second Sophistic rhapsoidós himself. The passage in question pretends to record an encounter with the “real author” Homer in which Lucian asks him about a number of “unresolved issues” that are part of his legend:
Lucian’s tale has a Vichian quality about it. It is a synchronic allegorēsis of the diachronic process through which “Homer” shifted gradually from an oral tradition to a set of received texts; as such, it is what many of today’s critical theorists would be inclined to call “readerly.” As such, it represents a synopsis of much of the lore about the most sublime poiētēs of all time that had accrued over the centuries. Lucian wants his “sophisticated” audience to enjoy his tall tale, which is directed at the Homeric tradition; thus his questions concern conflicting details about the specifically literary Homer. He conspicuously places the encounter in the context of the Alexandrian diorthēsis (comprehensive scholarly textual correction) of Homer. The joke is that this Homer is fully aware that some of his lines have been “athetized”—tagged as possibly inauthentic—by Zenodotus, Aristarchus, and succeeding editors. Lucian’s Homer thinks that the very idea of attributing inauthentic lines to him—of all “authorities”!—is nonsense. I interpret this affronted dismissal as Lucian’s comment on the preposterousness of trying to maintain the image of a single literary Homer within the context of an oral tradition. Lucian’s “punch line” is that, if this particular incarnate Homer actually created the poetry that has been ascribed to him, then he must really be immortal, as per his kléos, or at least venerable in a decrepit way, rather like one of Swift’s Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels. So much for the age of the tradition. The second indicator that Lucian is ultimately referring his audience to an “oral, synchronic” Homer is signaled by a paradox. The traditional mūthos of Homer’s blindness, which Graziosi explores in detail, points to the existence of an oral tradition evolving into a written one. The narrator of Lucian’s favola tells us that this “Homer” is not really blind, as the tradition has claimed. The biographies claim that he is blind, which means that he could only have composed in performance, i.e., without the aid of writing. But what we have of his work is written, and requires the authentication of certain lines.
Foley stresses the following characteristics for both the Homeric and South Slavic traditions:
Foley mentions in particular three legendary gúslari as exhibiting these characteristics (or should one say “criteria”?): Isak, Hasan Coso, and Ćor Huso Husović, all of whom were legendary in the sense that there was considerable dispute among the twenty-seven gúslari Parry and Lord interviewed on matters of biography and geography. He relates this account of Ćor Huso:
Foley, an authority on the Greek, South Slavic, and Anglo-Saxon oral traditions, while acknowledging the priority and ubiquity of ancient nonliterate poetic traditions does not ignore the main problem facing scholars of most such traditions: they “survive” only in written form. In other words, ancient epics have ceased to be sung, except as displays of “the possible.” What we have of them usually amounts to a set of texts. Obviously, the natural “authoritativeness” of a text (cf. Derrida’s confidence in the preservation of cultural memory through writing) immediately encroaches on the natural fluidity of an oral tradition. Early in his 1999 book Homer’s Traditional Art, Foley concedes the point:
Clearly, Foley is aware of the dilemma that the necessity of Homeric texts pose for those engaged in developing oral-evolutionary models. But Foley is optimistic; he has recently claimed to have detected a détente between groups he calls “the oralists” and “the scripsists.” The disagreement itself he has referred to as the “Great Divide.” This terminology has won a reasonably prominent place in current explorations of The Homeric Question. For example, in his 2008 review of Adrian Kelly’s A Referential Commentary and Lexicon to Homer, Iliad VIII (Oxford, 2007), Christos Tsagalis remarks, “Nagy has not argued that every single varia lectio is the result of oral transmission, since post-Aristarchan variae lectiones belong to the last phase in Nagy’s evolutionary model …”  Tsagalis’ contentment derives from an attitude he expresses at the top of his review:
Nagy believes that Homeric “textuality” must not be viewed as some metaphorical Golden Bough-style Rex sacrorum that instantaneously deleted its rival tekhnē altogether and then superseded it, in a paradigm that suggests Hegelian Aufhebung. Nagy qualifies his view of Homeric texts thus:
Nagy’s term “primary metaphor” opens the way for me to explicate the affinities I see between his model and Vico’s critique of Homer-images that prevailed in his own day. In spite of these similarities, Vico’s vision ultimately remains limited by the “oral versus written” dichotomy, which is so seductive because it is a convenient explanation for a crucial aspect of western Europe’s evolution from “pagan” barbarity to “Christian” civility, a process that is both hard to quantify and subject to constant re-evaluation. To borrow a couple of old terms from historical linguistics, the “syncope” of the Homeric metaphor is myth; the apocope of the evolutionary model constitutes science. I repeat that in the Scienza Nuova, Vico devotes most of Book III to a diachronic, “proto-evolutionary” set of illiterate rapsòdi who serve as conceptual foils to “Homer.” For Vico these rapsòdi are not hypothetical; if they were, they would violate Vico’s first principle in the Scienza Nuova of rejecting Cartesian a priori epistemology.
Powell’s tone reflects his own insistence that for the purpose of transmission the poems were put in writing through dictation. He also claims that
Elsewhere, Powell theorizes that one person from Lefkandi in Euboeia, whom he dubs “the Adapter,” reworked the West Semitic sign-system (for he insists this was not technically an alphabet) into the Greek alphabet in the eighth or ninth century for the express purpose of “writing down” the Iliad and the Odyssey. Of all contemporary theorists concerned with Homeric transmission, Powell arguably exhibits the greatest anxiety to bring a halt, as it were, to the oral-evolutionary process. To demonstrate this, I digress to examine some ideas from his 1993 article “Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?” Powell adopts a contrarian model featuring early synchonization in an unexpected dialect:
Notice Powell’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand here. He begins by presenting the traditional ancient image of one single sublime genius “Homer” as if it were universally considered a viable construct, against which he will be offering his counter-paradigm. I submit that Vico’s Doppel-Homer, the one he uses to establish historical credibility, lurks darkly within Powell’s phrase. Whatever the case, in certifying a priori the synchronic Homer figure (while at the same time attempting to reinforce the reader’s confidence in his own auctoritas by enlisting M. L. West in his cause), Powell sets the stage for his own theory of the non-Ionic-Aeolic element of Homeric ep o s, as well as that of the remarkably early West Greek adaptation of a foreign tekhnē.
The entirety of Powell’s hostility to oral-evolutionary paradigms is displayed in these paragraphs. If we stop at his sentence marked (a), he is in basic agreement with Nagy. But this is where the concord ends. Powell immediately posits the need for a means of arresting the creative evolution of the epic in order to record a “proto-text.” Powell’s model gives the impression that the “classic” status of what we know today as the (synchronic) Iliad and Odyssey was determined practically right away, implying that by the same token the poems in the Epic Cycle immediately assumed the vestigial, supplementary literary role they now have, without ever having undergone their own separate Panhellenic oral evolutions. (This, by the way, is the basic impression conveyed by “world literature” courses that make Homer the primum mobile of the “Western Canon,” despite background lectures on Wolf, Parry-Lord, the archaeology at Hissarlik, etc.) By contrast, much of Nagy’s most recent work seeks to account for this separation between epic and epitome on the basis of political circumstances that developed somewhat later than Powell’s hypothesis, and at Athens and Alexandria, rather than Lefkandi.
One might best think of this particular bit of ékphrasis as a kind of draft statement anticipating Vico’s later position, because it is actually quite different from his positing of multiple Homeric rapsòdi in Book III at §877: “[E]ach of them was called homeros, had exceptionally retentive memories, and, being poor, sustained life by singing the poems of Homer throughout the cities of Greece.” At both loci Vico sounds more like Nagy (and, as it happens, Lucian) than Powell, for Vico’s idealization is not of a literate bard. Still, in §23 Vico is clearly moving in the same direction as Powell’s hypothesis that writing must have been developed for the sole purpose of preserving the Iliad and Odyssey.
Powell appeals to his “clued-in” audience to share his gn o sis that Nagy’s position is technically ludicrous; by implication, the train of events that Powell compresses is prima facie impossible. Yet in fact, his facetious digest of Nagy’s model, if stripped of its tone, might be considered a decent little provisional abstract, since it encompasses a Panhellenic oral diachrony that rewards creative change. Powell’s problem is that he is intellectually hamstrung by his own “Adapter.” It is evident that he truly believes that the transmission of epic (in the sense of “long”) segments of poetry over centuries without the aid of alphabets is the stuff of anthropological fantasy.
Nagy resists introducing writing too early into the model because he posits a bardic tradition disseminated throughout Greece that remained “fluid” for a very long time. Powell’s proposition that one “Adapter” designed with wondrous acumen a medium that immediately disposed of the need for Mnūmosúne (the mythological personification of Hellenic oral memory) seems far less probable than Nagy’s model. Moreover, Lord’s final version of this cause-and-effect paradigm presents a crucial modification:
This is an ethnographer’s way of expressing a phenomenon Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric have expressed as follows:
Lord’s reconsideration on this point between 1960 and 1995 is the at the heart of Nagy’s scholarly emphasis on the original Archaic creative fluidity of oral epic performance over the eventual classical and Hellenistic motif of seeking to politicize Homer by generating koinē (meaning both “common” and “standard”) versions. That Nagy’s scholarly production has currently shifted toward “the written” should debellare critics like Powell. From the perspective of my comparative study, Nagy’s most important “first principle” is that the gradual fixation of an epic tradition conceals its history from us. This theme of the unrecognized concealment of process and the consequent need for scientific revelation is at the heart of Vico’s system, as well.
semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res …
neither, I add, is the warp laid out for the Trojan war from [Leda’s] egg;
it is always rushing toward the [next] event, right into the middle of things …
In the first line, Horace is describing the Iliad as a text, as signaled by the verb orditur (“is woven, unravels, begins”), which is a time-honored metaphor—i.e., the “thread” of narrative. Meanwhile, line 148 fortuitously applies just as well to the performances of the gúslari, as recorded in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard: they are so rapid and sound so effortless that in re-composing during a performance it seems that the gúslar semper ad eventum festinat (“is always rushing toward the event”).
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Graziosi’s scholarship allows me to assert that there are templates in Vico’s anthropology that he “discovered” within the ancient Greek and Roman texts. This is evident in a passage from his Scienza Nuova, which critics probably quote most often to demonstrate his anticipation of current Homeric paradigms:
Vico’s portrait of Homer the blind, impoverished figure constitutes a treatment of literature and history as if they were empirical evidence, which epitomizes his method. If we relate this image back to Graziosi’s ambivalent Homeric icon of late antiquity—a reputedly blind poet who in actuality can see; a renowned oral poet holding a scroll; a court poet singing for his supper in “harbor towns”—then this Homer owes as much to Vico’s knowledge of the classical corpus as to any “scientific” recognition of Homeric “multeity-in-unity,” to use Coleridge’s phrase. Take note that in §877–§878 Vico has done more than simply appropriating Homer’s blindness and poverty from one “wing,” as it were, of the tradition. He has put something over on his readers: he has essentially cloned the archetype of which Lucian makes such fun and sent all the progeny out into preliterate Greece (again, note that Vico does not mention Asia Minor) as a group—or, perhaps, a succession—of real artists devoted to disseminating, preserving—one might even say forming—Panhellenic culture. I use “real” emphatically because (following no less a luminary than Benedetto Croce) I believe that Vico conceives the so-called “Rinaldi” singers of his native Naples as empirical evidence, much as Graziosi herself, in characterizing present models, considers the appropriateness of studying the South Slavic gúslars in order to understand the ancient Homeric icon.  This mímēsis or appropriation of the classical and especially the post-classical Homeric image to “certify” flesh-and-bone singers epitomizes my subject, since it reflects the ambiguity with which Vico treats Homer, manifested most prominently between Books II and III of the Scienza Nuova, but implicit throughout the work. This ambiguity in Vico’s concepts and its manifestations both before and after Vico constitute my main theme.