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Gregory Nagy: An appropriately rambling appreciation

August 5, 2011

So it’s been a while since I’ve done any real writing.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever quite allowed myself to do this.  But at any rate; I hope it won’t try your patience too much.  Much of it is the same stuff I’ve been babbling about for years, but hopefully with a couple new twists.

For most of the last year or so, I’ve been studiously avoiding reading anything by Gregory Nagy.  My goal has been to read books that will make my peer-reviewer happy, and it was immediately apparent from certain comments that my peer-reviewer had a bone to pick with Nagy:

it may be said that Gregory Nagy ‘argued’ that “certain pieces of traditional phraseology predate meter”, not that he ‘proved’ it; it is still contentious, to say the least.

the invocation of Gregory Nagy’s extremely contentious crystallisation theory, esp. since no-one who is not one of his students actually believes it, is unnecessary for the argument.

Of course, Mr. Crotchety Peer-Reviewer is right; I was making too great claims for Nagy, in part because he had been a great supporter of my project, and in part because I was strongly disagreeing with certain other of his arguments.  But the tone makes it clear that he is one of the many academics who takes particular exception to Nagy’s theories, and it cast a new light on his comment that my bibliography is “disturbingly insular” — it was clearly time to branch out from Nagy and his circle.

So I’ve been ignoring the siren call of all the Nagy volumes that decorate my shelf in favor of works which are less controversial, or which (inasmuch as I could judge these things) place themselves in diametric opposition to his theories. I even — as the time went by — succeeded in distancing myself from those positions (e.g. the “crystallisation theory”) which I had earlier found fairly compelling.

Over the course of this broadening, I decided to read the series of articles I like to call “The Finkelberg Contraversy,” after Margalit Finkelberg’s provocative article “Is Κλέος Ἄφθιτον a Homeric Formula?”  Since this article is in part a critique of Nagy’s Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter, it only seemed fair to read his response, which (such as it is) is printed in Greek Mythology and Poetics.  I read the relevant chapter; and then — since I was cheating on my low-Nagy diet anyway — I decided to read the one titled “Meter and Formula,” which seemed obviously relevant.

And then I remembered just how much I like Nagy.  I remembered why it was that he so dominated my thesis: I continue to rather feel that he is the only Homerist whose ideas on the relationship between meter and phraseology are worth taking seriously — perhaps because it is a relationship which (sometimes it seems) only he takes seriously.  Of course, it is ultimately only to defend the determination by theme over that by meter, and I reject his axiom that “Diachronically, the content . . . determines the form, even if the form affects the content synchronically” (Nagy 1992, 29-30) as not only deeply flawed, but in fact utter nonsense.  (What would it even mean for something to affect something else synchronically but not diachronically?  How can a relationship exist if it was not at some point formed?)  But nonetheless — as flawed as his arguments are — inasmuch as they pose the question the influence of meter and content directly and in general, they are an important step towards establishing a true dialectic between meter and what he calls theme in traditional poetic phraseology.

One of the strengths of Nagy’s work is that he is his insistence that we cannot study meter without reference to phraseology: the history of meter, for Nagy, is always a history of phraseology in meter, rather than a history of the abstract patterns themselves.  Unfortunately, he preserves the meter/phraseology divide, and doing so allows him to imply that phraseology is in some sense essentially non-metered. I suppose this is to some extent reasonable: there is, after all, non-metrical phraseology.  (One might counter that — in music — there is also such a thing as non-linguistic meter.)  But Homeric phraseology is always metrical and attempting a an account of Homeric phraseology which is not also an account of the Homeric meter is as futile as limiting one’s consideration of meter to abstract patterns without considering the phraseology they “contain.”  Ultimately (I believe) it is more productive to view phraseology — the language which actually makes up the Homeric poems — as a whole of which both meter and “theme” are aspects.

And (as a Bakhtinian at heart) I would rather treat these aspects of Homer as forces at work in the Homeric Kunstsprache.  Meter is a set of forces which work consistently and regularly on the signifier in a given poem.  (This definition of meter, it should be noted, is broader than many, and includes such phenomena as rhyme and syntactic (but not semantic) parallelism.)   “Theme” and “meaning” are (I believe) both inadequate characterizations of the remainder of the forces in a text, and particularly those that purport access to the “signified” — inadequate characterizations because they both presume a unity in a variety of different ideological forces which I believe to be unjustified.  Combined, perhaps, they dwarf meter in their effect on the poem’s meaning.  But they seldom present a unified front, and meter is often a powerful ally in the conflicts between them.

These are all my own thoughts, many of them directly contradicting Nagy’s ideas.  But I am also responding to him directly, and I have not found a rival with whom my disagreements were so productive.  Nagy, even in the madness of his contradictions, shifts the argumentative field onto grounds where I am substantially more comfortable.  For instance, his insistence that metrical influence is limited to the synchronic system is both intimately related to and entirely incompatible with his infinitely more important observation that “the language of a body of oral poetry like the Iliad and Odyssey  does not and cannot belong to any one time, any one place: in a word: it defies synchronic analysis” (Nagy 1990, 29).  But what is “. . .the form affects the content synchronically. . .” if not a synchronic analysis?  Yet the two statements are part of the same argument: oral poetry defines synchronic analysis; form only effects content synchronically; [therefore, in the only possible analysis of oral poetry (the diachronic), content determines form].  I have bracketed the conclusion because it always remains unsaid; meter continues to be treated somehow as a synchronic system within a body of work which resists synchronic analysis.

And yet — by bringing the synchronic-diachronic opposition into the picture so radically and by emphasizing that what Parry attempted was in fact a purely synchronic analysis (Nagy 1990, 20-21) — Nagy brings to our attention that what is stifling in Parry’s analysis is neither the concentration on repeated formulas nor the “sovereign influence of the hexameter” over those formulas but Parry’s neglect of diachrony.  Creativity, after all, is — like all forms of change — a diachronic process.(1)  By denying meter a diachronic role, Nagy capitulates to the common assumption (which he shares, after all, with Parry himself) that meter cannot have a creative role; it is therefore to his credit that the remainder of his analysis is sensitive enough to render this axiom nonsensical.

Of course, for most people (since meter is ultimately unimportant or uninteresting ) this is not what Nagy is known for; he is known for the fairly successful and well-established arguments about cult and epic he set forth in The Best of the Achaeans and for his highly controversial theories about the origins of the Homeric poems — the crystallization theory I mentioned earlier.  Essentially, Nagy’s “evolutionary theory” rejects the notion of monumental composition, i.e., that some particular poet composed the Iliad (for example) at some particular moment, and the text has remained fairly stable ever since.(2)  Instead, Nagy argues, the texts solidified over a period of centuries of oral transmission: the rhapsodes who recited the Iliad and Odyssey more or less exactly from memory during the fourth century are actually the end of a continuous tradition going back to the aoidoi who composed the epics in performance.  The solidification of the epics was a process of “crystallization” which was already occurring in the oral tradition; there were texts, but no text was definitive until Aristarchus produced his Alexandrian editions.  Instead, there were a series of texts — first texts as transcripts of performance, then as scripts for performance, and finally with Aristarchus texts as scripture — texts which did not presuppose performance at all.

As my peer-reviewer pointed out, basically nobody believes this.  Sean (the grad student who taught me Greek) does; but Sean is a Greg fan-boy if I’ve ever seen one.  I suspect Nigel (my undergraduate advisor) of being fond of the idea, but he stays clear of the whole mess by not publishing on Homer.  I suspect I’m unlike a lot of the older scholars who have taken vehement objection to the idea (e.g. Janko 1998) in that it accords fairly well with my notion of the way things work.  I’m young enough and I’ve been sufficiently indoctrinated into the “Death of the Author” way of thinking about things that it doesn’t particularly bother me to think of the Homeric texts as “the product of no particular place, time, or mind”; this is my opinion about many things.  In fact — were Nagy’s theory true — it would go a long way towards explaining why no one seems to agree on which place, time, or mind they might be the product of.

The problem is that Nagy doesn’t actually argue the point very well.  I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; it isn’t the kind of hypothesis which lends itself to any kind of simple proof.  Ultimately, the only way to demonstrate such a claim is to show that persuasive and compelling interpretations emerge when we consider the poems not in the context of a given period or region, but as panhellenic phenomena which developed alongside the entire sweep of archaic and classical Greek history; and this is both lengthy work and work which involves first assuming the hypothesis one is setting out to prove.  My impression is that this is exactly what Nagy has been up to for the last couple of decades, but he hasn’t exactly made it clear; he just provides a summary of his ideas at the beginning of each of his dozens of monographs, and proceeds from there.

This is one of the problems with Nagy in general — his academic writing is  peculiar to say the least.  Hainsworth (1982, 4) puts the matter particularly eloquently and sympathetically: “whereas many researchers begin from many premises and work towards a single goal, Nagy proceeds like ivy up a wall, beginning from one point (Od. 8. 75), ramifying, joining up, blanketing all.” West is less sympathetic and more condescending:

In fields like ancient mythology and religion, an intelligent man, in the sense of one able to see connections between previously unrelated data, can go on indefinitely indulging this faculty and building mansions of many rooms that are labyrinths to anyone.  The investigator needs to discipline himself.  He needs to realize that being so fertile in ideas, he can afford to look at them critically, as anyone else will, and discard those which are unlikely to carry conviction.  And he will do well to choose particular thesis he wants to prove, and select his material accordingly, and not go racing off in all directions like a dog in a forest full of exciting smells. (West 1980, 893)

Both perspectives have merit; I first encountered Nagy at a time when I was fed up with everybody telling me that I needed to go after one particular thesis, so I found him quite refreshing; however, it’s possible that he would have managed to convince more people of his “evolutionary hypothesis” if he would stick with it, instead of introducing it as an approach and then proceeding to (e.g.) a comparison of Sapphic poetry and Native American ritual.

Perhaps less forgivable is his tendency to repeat himself.  As his career has progressed, his works have contained more and more lengthy quotations from previous books, and every one opens up with the a practically identical discussion of his key concepts: dichronic and synchronic, marked and unmarked terms, the evolutionary hypothesis.  The chapter I read on formula and meter (thought-provoking as it was) was more or less a mash-up of the Comparative Studies and one of the particularly compelling chapters of The Best of the Achaeans.  When I saw him speak, his presentation consisted of highlighted .pdfs of his books, which he flipped between, reading the highlighted portions to create somewhat different set of connections than he had emphasized in the texts themselves.

But if Nagy is repetitive and digression, these are also the faults which might be imputed to the author to whom he has devoted the majority of his career; Homer and Nagy strike me as really an excellent match.  And in Homer these are not faults, but rather the very characteristics of his particular breed of oral verse-making.  One wonders if the source of Nagy’s peculiarities is that he has become so immersed in the conventions of the oral poetry he is studying that he forgets those of scholarship itself.  Certainly my fondness for Homer makes me more indulgent of him.

For many The Best of the Achaeans (published in 1979) is by far his greatest book; for me and (sometimes) Leslie Kurke it is Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Either way, it’s a fairly depressing career-path — one to avoid, Professor Kurke sighed to me.  I think his tendency towards repetition hit critical mass at some point, and since then his works have not contained as many new insights as one might like.  Furthermore, he has become such a superstar that he no longer has editors keeping a close eye on him — and no one is so brilliant that he does not benefit from editorial control.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time not liking Nagy simply because he’s such a nice guy.  His support of my own scholarship was astounding, particularly given that I had some harsh words for him in my thesis.  I’ve only ever heard similar reports.  This of course means that his followers tend to be a bit cult-like, and this (along with his fame) fuels the resentment of his peers.  But ultimately, he has managed to break free from the usual terms in which we discuss Homer, and I would almost always rather be using his terms than any other that has been suggested


1. It is, of course, very much the attempt of the generative school of linguistics to introduce a kind of creativity into a purely synchronic system.  Anyone who has spent any time with me will know what I think of this desperate maneuver.

2. The monumental composition hypothesis has two variants: the theory of a literate Homer, wherein the poet himself made use of the emerging technology of writing to create epics of a length and quality previously unknown; and the dictated text hypothesis associated with Nagy’s teacher Albert B. Lord, which posits that the “Homer” dictated the epics to a scribe on some particular occasion.


Finkelberg, M. “Is Κλέος Ἄφθιτον a Homeric Formula?” Classical Quarterly 36.1 (1986) : 1–5.
Hainsworth, J. B. “Review: The Best of the Achaeans.” The Classical Review 32.1 (1982) : 3-4.
Janko, R. “Review of Nagy G, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998) : 206–207.
Nagy, Gregory. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
—. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. Print.
—. “Homeric Questions.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 122 (1992) : 17-60. Web. 5 Aug 2011.
—. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
West, M.L. “The First Hero-worshippers.” Times Literary Supplement 4037 (1980) : 893.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011 5:52 pm

    “But if Nagy is repetitive and digression, these are also the faults which might be imputed to the author to whom he has devoted the majority of his career; Homer and Nagy strike me as really an excellent match.” Good point! But is he as exciting in performance?

    • August 8, 2011 7:42 pm

      It’s hard to tell — I’ve never actually seen Homer in performance. Perhaps he was quite a dull performer.

      The one time I saw Nagy, he was fairly engaging; but I’ve heard he’s sometimes better. My high school Latin teacher said that the part fo his lectures everyone looks forward to is when he starts reciting a poem in some obscure language; that part never quite arrived. Perhaps we might compare the Nagy lecture I saw to the setting sun, of which — although its vehemence has departed — the greatness remains.

    • August 10, 2011 6:33 pm

      Perhaps — for example — some brilliant young scribe came up to Homer after the show, and said: “You know, Homer, it’s good stuff, but you ain’t no performer. Let’s just write this stuff down.”

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