The Philhellenic Horizon: Homeric Prolegomena to the Greek War of Independence
Based on what Richard Armstrong and Casey Dué, in the invitation to this conference, termed the Wolfian paradigm of Homeric research and its intersection with the preoccupations of the Romantic period (ballads; nature; language; nation; nostalgia; modernity), this paper examines the role of Homer within the horizon of European Philhellenism (in the sense of a partisan position favorable towards Modern Greece), as much as the impetus of this Philhellenism on approaches to Homer. I will first focus on the case of Wilhelm Müller, who achieved prominence in his own time mainly for his several volumes of Griechenlieder (1821-1827) in support of the Greek War of Independence. In a second part, I want to speculate about the fate of Homeric knowledge and its use in post-independence Greece, whose writers were very highly aware of the Homeric features of the Western philhellenic endeavor.
The overarching research framework behind this paper is the triangle between antiquity, the modern West and modern Greece, and its resulting tensions. The representation of modern Greece by way of a nature discourse is one example; the position of Greece vis-à-vis Europe, trying to reformulate conceptually the refractions and (mis-)representations arising from mutual perception, is another. This is also a question of comparativism, which is currently strongly exercising the Humanities again. Comparative literature is discussing again the notion of “world literature” and its imbalanced axes, while history and the social sciences are continuously looking for new concepts of exchange and interplay as a heuristic method. Since scholarship, and especially classical scholarship – as an institutionalized, professional pursuit with a structure of training and production – arises at the same time as national literatures and their study, does not the same range of questions apply to that field as well?
Two aspects of the “Philhellenic Homerizon” stand out: first, the double, interdependent, function of “nature”: on the one hand the physical-geographical aspects of the “Homerizon”, in the sense of a projection of the Homeric environment as expressive of Homeric poetry, and on the other hand the figurative use of nature, in pervasive imagery such as Homer as the sea of all knowledge, modern Greece breaking free like a pent-up mountain stream, or the natural expression of a people in song. For this aspect, Germany serves as the main case study. Secondly, the surveying of a Homeric horizon builds just as much on a fundamental ambivalence towards Homer and what, as a model, this horizon stands for. Here Greece is the focus. The search for naturalness, exemplified in Homer and his environment, and the ambivalence towards this ‘natural’ horizon are ultimately two structurally linked aspects of the act of comparing the Homeric world with one’s own.
In 1824, amid generally flagging enthusiasm for the Greek struggle for independence, the publicist and classicist Wilhelm Müller, otherwise well-known for poetry in support of the Greek effort, turns to his publisher with a suggestion for a volume, Homerische Vorschule, that wants to re-popularize F.A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer (1795). What Wolf had done was to deflect the search for the earliest and “original” shape of epic to the history of textual criticism of the Homeric corpus itself, which begins soon after the Homeric period and is at the heart of every textual variant. Wolf’s interest is mainly on later, post-Homeric periods that treat the epic as a cultural form that is prior, yet relevant to them. What Müller does, instead, is to rephrases Wolf with a much stronger focus on Homeric practice, as he imagines it, setting it in its quasi-realistic context. To describe both song practice and its Greek environment, he liberally employs imagery that recurs in his other writings on the modern use of song and on contemporary, revolutionary Greece, as it seeks to liberate itself. From the late eighteenth century, nature had become an ambivalent term denoting emancipation (both from nature and back to nature, always on the assumption that the modern individual is by necessity at a critical distance to it). Like nature, Homer was another term that absorbed concerns of identity. Both of these terms follow a similar pattern: each features as a lost origin and a formative goal, although in a different shape, and each is seen in relation to the individual, either within the one (nature) or producing the other (epic poetry). What is more, Homer as a poet of nature is described preferably in natural imagery; here the dual function of natural imagery as descriptive and metaphorical suits the imagery of Greece both as something historically specific and as a timeless material marker of Greekness, which is in turn translatable, usable – and visible in the modern landscape of Greece.
In a further section of the paper, the complexity of the terminology around “folk song” and oral, or naïve, culture is stressed: it rests on a deep and often ambivalent awareness of modernity. While it created potential, in the late eighteenth century and on, for a new role of the author as editor, this role, as Susan Stewart (Crimes of Writing 1991:125) expresses it, “was destined to collapse into self-parody because of its impossible claims of authenticity”.
As for Greece, the echo of this “natural Homer” is both more varied and initially weaker than might be expected. Ever since the didactic project of Adamantios Korais, around 1800, to bring Greece back into the congress of civilized Europe, by making the re-familiarization with its ancient heritage the founding act of such a new nation, Homer was a necessary part of that “tradition”, now suddenly moving center-stage, and of the aspirations to compatibility with the educated west, but not a privileged part, at least not before the later nineteenth century. Korais, around 1800, embarked on a series of classical text editions, fitted out with elaborate prefaces, or prolegomena, which offer a running commentary on the educational state of the nation. The series includes editions of four books of the Iliad (1811-1820), prefaced with a fictionalized account of the genesis of this pedagogical project on Homer’s island of Chios. While the affinity of Homeric practice with the natural ground and environment of Homer carries the drift of the argument, it is not the return to a Homeric intimacy with that past and present environment that was at issue (whether as positive, creative nostalgia or negative criticism), but the strong tendency towards the need for enlightenment from the present into the future. A basic classical education, a basic fluency in Homer becomes the prolegomenon to Greece’s joining at the table of the nations.
Although the link between heroic song culture and its equivalent in contemporary Greece is made in writings of the early period of independence (always aware of the European paradigm), it is not before the second half of the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth, that the theme is used with deliberate argumentative force, most prominently maybe by Alexander Pallis in his demotic translation of the Iliad (1892-1904). Even Pallis, though, is a part of a larger linguistic-cultural question rather than an advocate of Homer specifically. His Homer is a piece in the puzzle of the larger language question, i.e. the question of how and whether to reflect cultural and linguistic continuity in the language of the nation state.
A selective look at two other authors, Dionysios Solomos and A.R. Rangavis, underlines that the reception of Homer is strongly a reception of the Homeric tradition in Europe, and for a developing modern Greek literature, and its criticism, mastering Homer is deeply linked to mastering expectations of Homer.
Mostly, Homer is perceived as a part of the Western literary canon already, be he Ossianized or filtered through the French and Italian traditions. Still, the figure of Homer is not only a necessary, elusive attribute of the contemporary European writer; there is also the Homer who authored works such as the Batrachomyomachia, and who was himself the object of satire (especially in France): in other words, Homer’s shade brings in its wake also both the challenge of satire and the anxiety of parody and redundancy, leaving the Greek authors exposed to a marginality and threatening “collapse into self-parody” similar to that of the author-editor who in this new role had approached Homer across Europe in the preceding decades.