Homerizon Conference: Tom Walsh

Tom Walsh

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Homer’s “Fragments”

It will soon be 80 years since Milman Parry demonstrated, startlingly, that   oral and traditional style has deep consequences for those who seek to understand   Homeric poetry and narrative. These consequences, nonetheless, have not lead   to a settled view of the fundamental matters of Homeric discourse. The Parryan   paradigm shift, in fact, has not yielded, over the course of most of a century,   to non-controversial conclusions that can guide our journey over the troubled   waters surrounding the nature of Homeric poetics. Instead the basics of Homeric   composition remain hotly contested to this day, including such issues as the   oral-dictated text, the transmission of Homeric narrative from its earliest   oral manifestations to its fixity under Hellenistic scholars, preeminently Aristarchus,   as well as to what weight one should, in fact, give to the oral-formulaic traditional   style in interpreting Homeric narrative. While investigating the modernist notion   of the fragment and the implications that that notion has had for poetics over   the past 250 years, I came to the conclusion that the notion of the fragment   might tell us something about the lively contestations that face those of us   who both enthusiastically accept the oral-formulaic theory of composition in   performance and stubbornly retain a robust notion of poetic quality and style.   In this paper I apply the modernist and postmodernist idea of the fragment to   Homeric studies, even under the weight of the paradigmatic shift that Parry   provided.

Without doubt, the exciting developments after Parry (by Lord, Nagy, Foley,   Bakker, Visser and others) have further strengthened the original paradigm-shift,   in precisely the manner that Thomas Kuhn indicates is characteristic of scientific   revolutions. Nonetheless, differently from how such revolutions work in science,   this preeminent revolution in the humanities has scarcely led to a settled body   of theory upon which all students of Homer can safely rest their books and proceed   with their work. It is not, I mean to say, that the theory of the traditional   character of Homer is at issue but something at a higher level of generality   keeps us from consensus. I am suggesting that upon entertaining the notion of   Homeric tradition, we bring to bear on that topic assumptions about what constitutes   a traditional text. I address here the nature of the text as an artistic whole   in the light of the idea of tradition, where, I will argue, “the fragment”   poses no problem. What is at stake in my discussion is that we turn to complete   the revolution that Parry initiated by looking closely at our assumptions–at   ourselves–as we examine what Parry brought into play: the fundamental distinctions   between traditional and non-traditional texts.

In this paper, I examine one such assumption, namely, the unity of the literary   text: Is the Homeric text, when taken up by a modern reader, a unified whole,   complete as that reader encounters it, or is the Homeric text a part of a greater   whole, one–or a subset of one — that we call “the tradition”?   The contention of this paper will be that the question of unity for modern texts   is fundamentally different than the question of unity for pre-modern traditional   texts, and that the history of the question of the fragment shines a light on   that distinction.

The modernist theory of the fragment, since at its inception, implicates our   notion of the difference between a part and a whole. Considerations of unity   have been taken up by moderns, since the early Romantic period, through the   notion of fragmentation. I examine, in the first part of this paper, the modernist   and post-modernist notion of the fragment as it has developed from the early   Romantic period of European critical thought to the present, and conclude that   we approach Homer with assumptions related to our level of comfort with the   basic facts of tradition, namely, that each performance is actually a mere fragment   of the narrative possibilities presented by the tradition.

The German romantics and philhellenes, from F. Schlegel on, set the stage by   identifying the fragment not with the exuberance of the incomplete, the way   the latest version of the romanticized fragment exults in the indeterminacy   of linguistic phenomena; for the resistance to closure and completeness that   is the hallmark of such thinking about discourse (e.g., in M. Foucault) is modally   different from Romanticism’s flirtation with the fragment. Nor does this   earliest epiphany of the fragment (where antiquity represented “wholeness”   and modernity “fragmentation”) compare with the high-modernist’s   despair over a seemingly benighted age, whose fragments are defense mechanisms,   engines of mass-protection: “these fragments I have shored against my   ruins. ” For Eliot, fragments and ruins are both ours to lean one against   the other. The fragmentary products of a despairing moment and the ruins that   are the bequest of antiquity, become evidence of one’s own desperate condition,   one that mirrors the shards of culture left by antiquity. For certainly the   archaeological advances that had but recently come to yield the ruins of Troy   itself, had made the image of ruins, the incompleteness of broken stones and   holey-writ, betoken antiquity. The result was the widening of the chasms that   continue to divide modernity from antiquity.

Yet classicists look at what is fragmentary in a completely different manner.

The fragment is central to the classical task. The wholeness of F. Schlegel’s   notional antiquity turns out to be riddled with gaps, fragmentariness producing   the legacy whose capital we must reinvest with our labor in a quixotic quest   to restore a wholeness that cannot be ours. It turns out, then, that we have   found Schlegel’s antiquity and its wholeness to be an illusion. Could   it be said that the rise of philhellenism implicates modern anxiety about fragmentariness?   After all Roman antiquity had the Roman empire to foster illusions of wholeness.   But to turn to the Greeks leaves us with insecurity about the tiny parts of   the tradition to which we have access. The Greeks were not only masters of illusion   with respect to wholeness, it is also the case that our wish as Hellenists continues   to search constantly for one more fragment to emerge from Egyptian sand so that   we can shore it against the ruins — not “our” ruins, but the   ruins of the past itself.

Nor is it easy for the classicist to embrace a post-modern exuberance at the   aesthetic gesture that the fragment presents. I will discuss the bravest classical   exposition of such a possibility (by P. Dubois), but whether or not one should   delight in the membra disiecta, the fragment remains a question among post-traditional   readers.

After exploring the evolution of thinking about what is “fragmentary,”   both within the classical community and among intellectuals as a whole, I turn   to places in Greek texts where the notion of the fragmentary are good to think   with.

The relationship of what we call Homer to what we call the tradition is presented   in the second part of this essay, as a series of case studies, each of which   indicates how Homeric material is fragmentary with respect to its tradition.   I list those case studies now:

Case Study 1: The proem to the catalog of ships.
Case Study 2. The story of Meleager.
Case Study 3: The Iliad and the Odyssey.
Case Study 4: The songs of Demodocus.

In each case study, as in many others, the sense of the text implicates the   tradition of which it is “only” a part. From a point of view within   the traditional (“emically”) this is the accepted — and welcomed   — state of affairs. From outside of the tradition, the position in which   we all stand (“etically”) fragmentation is a source of discomfort,   welcomed by some as fertile ground for thought and creativity, and eschewed   by others as a source for misunderstanding and uncertainty.

T. R. Walsh
U.C. Santa Cruz
For the Center for Hellenic Studies
September 15, 2005