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Why Homer is Important

January 30, 2012

We are by and large discouraged from either inventing new words or deploying old phrases in our writing; reading Homer, one gets the impression that he was encouraged to do both.  The Homeric kunstsprach rejoices in building blocks both less than and more than the word; in the combination of individual words themselves it is less interested.

Sometimes I feel like the combination of individual words is the only area in which the language of our English letters trusts us to dabble.




(Of course, one might say that this is all a function of the “individual word” ‘s post-Homeric (and distinctively literate) invention.  A.B. Lord has many interesting things to say about this.  It nonetheless interests me that that narrow band of the linguistic stream we have staked out for ourselves as the “word” is the same band whose σύνταξις interested Homer least.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. nostalgebraist permalink*
    January 31, 2012 3:30 am

    You get to invent new words in English, but only if you’re Shakespeare or Joyce.

    (I have no idea if there’s some analogous “only if you’re Homer” rule. Given what you say about literacy, probably not.)

    • January 31, 2012 10:17 am

      There is of course a massive “only if you’re Homer” rule; it is perhaps the original rule from which all other rules of the form “only if you’re….” derive. From the perspective of someone beyond a certain limit (I’ve been absently reading about black holes on Wikipedia so I both want to and am afraid to make an irresponsible metaphor about “even horizons” — but I’m not quite sure how it would go, anyway, so I’ll avoid embarassing myself) — say, after about 500 BC — Homer can get away with much more than either Joyce or Shakespeare. Good Homer, after all, can nod — to whom else do we extend such a privilege? Not Joyce certainly; all of his privileges depend on him Always Staying Awake and Getting It Right Every Time; it’s only okay for Joyce to break the rules if he Knows What He’s Doing.

      This is, of course, because Joyce knew damn well about the “only if you’re Joyce” rule. How the hell else does one explain Joyce?

      Homer, on the other hand, was necessarily unaware of rules of the form “only if you’re…” since his epics were the precondition such conceptions. They are the product of perplexed Greeks trying to make sense of something they thought was important but couldn’t quite figure out why. μὲγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν! declares Callimachus, πλήν γε τὸ τοῦ Ὁμήρου; a great book is a great evil! — except for Homer’s. Once the precedent had been set, power-hungry young poets could adopt it as a persona, and write their own Tale of Ulysses to forever be the exception to prevailing canons of taste,

      But I digress. Actually, I think all but the first sentence of this response has been one long, incredibly self-indulgent digression. My point: there was an “only if you’re Homer” rule; but it didn’t have to do with neologisms, and I doubt he was aware of it. My impressions about what Homer was “encouraged” to do, I would like to think, have some basis other than what he actually does; possibly the fact, for instance, that I really doubt the Iliad and Odyssey are composed by the same poet, and they share the features I’m talking about. So does Hesiod, and to a lesser degree the early Homeric Hymns and archaic elegiac and iambic. (Probably lyric too — but I’ll get back to you next week on that one.) The “except for” rule gets pretty extensive. “Except for poets” might be a generalization of it, one to which (it is my impression) many today would be fairly sympathetic.

      But Archaic Greece was also a world entirely without a tradition of literary prose. What force would “except for poets” have in a world without prose?

    • January 31, 2012 10:31 am

      Oh & the bit about literacy was probably said with to much confidence given that I’m sure it’s an important part of many versions of modern linguistics that the word really is something in natureal spoken language, pre- or post-literate. I was referring to an anecdote where Albert Lord, interviewing Yugoslavian bards as was his want, observed that the amount they recited them when he asked them things like “repeat that word” varied a great deal, and could be as much as an entire line of verse.

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