Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Introducing Homer and Retribution

I will be discussing part of my dissertation on Monday at the Kenan colloquium in ethics. For this event I have written a new introduction to my dissertation that deals in a general way with many of the topics of interest to me. Here it is:

Ce châtiment d'une rigueur géométrique, qui punit automatiquement l'abus de la force, fut l'objet premier de la méditation chez les Grecs. Il constitue l'âme de l'épopée.
-Simone Weil, "L’Iliad ou le Poème de la Force," Paris, 1940

Simone Weil’s realization that retribution, châtiment, lies at the heart of the Iliad remains true, perhaps even more true, of the Odyssey. At its center is a thematic organization articulated by the Greek concept tisis and dealing with the foundational issues of retribution, suffering, justice, and their mutual relations.

Tisis, which I provisionally define as the act of exacting or suffering retributive justice, frames the narrative. In his opening, programmatic speech (1.32-43), Zeus justifies the ways of gods against the complaints of men, using the concept of tisis, thus presenting to the poem’s audience at the outset a working interpretive paradigm that is to be developed as the poem proceeds. The closing scene of the poem presents another situation where the concept of tisis organizes and motivates the action: the kin of the suitors, whom Odysseus, acting out of a claim to tisis, has just slain, themselves make claims to tisis against Odysseus and his household (24.426-37). Accordingly, they mobilize a force, seeking after retributive killings of their own. In the event, hostilities between the parties are not so much resolved as obliterated. Athena, appearing as a dea ex machina, imposes a final, peaceful settlement by fiat. Zeus causes the killings of the suitors that Odysseus performed out of tisis to be forgotten, as he proclaims in another programmatic speech that one feels must lie in responsion to his first (24.478-86).

The final scenes of the poem have often been considered—going back, perhaps, as far as the Alexandrian scholars Aristophanes and Aristarchus—deficient and inorganic with respect to rest of the poem. But the “Continuation,” as this section is sometimes called, reinforces an oft overlooked unity of structure and theme: hanging over the whole epic is the problem of tisis, which in the end only an act of divine intervention can, if not solve, at least, seemingly remove—though the contingent effects of the grand act of collective amnesia are left unexplored. What will be done with the beds, the vineyards, the homes—in short, all the spaces that the suitors occupied in the lives of the survivors—now inexplicably empty? But the poem claims for itself a happy ending in which philotes, wealth, and peace abound (24.476,486). This glücklicher Ausgang, as Uvo Hölscher calls it, is only the contingent dénouement of a more primary story of tisis, which, properly, has no end, only new beginnings. Thus when Athena complains to Zeus that a new civil war is about to break out between the suitors’ kin and Odysseus’ household, he responds, “Didn’t you yourself devise the plan that Odysseus should return and take vengeance (tisis) upon those men?” The implication is that one plot of tisis necessarily begets another.

With this new threat, the poem itself seems in danger of coming undone at its end and trailing off indefinitely, as a new epic of war, a new Iliad, impends. At its close, the poem settles on an arbitrary ending—perhaps the only kind of ending possible—in which the claims of the suitors’ kin are simply deleted, though ironically they achieved remembrance far beyond the limitations of mortal memory in the form of immortal epic. For the poem’s audience, who, thanks to the distance that the mediation of the text imposes, escape the spell of forgetting, the impression of the centrality of tisis to the plot remains indelible. Any feeling of arbitrariness in the construction of the ending of the poem only enhances the sense that the claims of tisis, being inherently arbitrary themselves, form the central structure of the plot. Tisis characterizes the conflicts that shape the plot and meaning of the entire epic’s story.

Monday, November 17, 2008


The Black Mountains. As we climbed (in our car) above 3500 feet or so, we saw the first snow of the year on our way back from Asheville via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I just returned from the CAMWS-southern section meeting. Overall, it went fairly well. The audience was attentive and supportive. (I would highly recommend this conference to any scholar just starting out who is nervous about making conference presentations.)

I got two questions, each dealing with the same topic.

1. What model of interaction do I see in operation between the mythic tradition of the "Oresteia" (i.e., the myths surrounding Agamemnon's death and the revenge of Orestes) and the Homeric epic of Odysseus? I responded to this by saying I saw a long tradition behind each, and that these traditions are multiform--though it must be said our evidence is not great.

2. Is it necessary to use the method of neoanalysis? The presider of the panel, Douglas Olson, asked this. With this question he got at something I realize now that I had a certain, subconscious suspicion about. As I read through my final version of the talk, I realized that I introduced the method at the beginning of my talk, but I did not revisit it and explain how what I was doing fit within the framework of neoanalysis. The problem for my paper with regard to this method is that neoanalysis typically assumes that there are fixed, preceding versions of myth (often in the form of an actual text) that the Homeric poem borrows from and adapts. And we can see Homeric "innovations" in myth when myths are retold with details that seem out-of-place for the original or are not preserved in other versions of the myth we have. I, however, don't think that there are such fixed examples of myth (in the form of texts of poems or otherwise). If I am honest about my project, I have been using neoanalysis in a rather loose way as a label for almost any process of reading the Homeric narratives as in dialogue with extra-Homeric traditions such as the "Oresteia." I am confident that I can approach the Odyssey this way, only, as Prof. Olson suggested, I could dispense with the armature of neoanalysis. This is more than a bit frustrating, since I spent a good month at least working on coming to grips with that method and writing up a literature survey and statement of methods using neoanalysis. I would be very frustrating if I don't use that in my final version.

Anyway, I have much to do now before my next deadline, Dec. 3, when I have to send out a paper to be read a critiqued by the Kenan colloquium in ethics in which I am participating. I covet your prayers for my progress.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A new direction

I am going to repurpose this blog for distributing some of my thoughts on classics (and a few other things too), especially as relates to my research interests. Hopefully some of my friends and family will find this interesting. At least I'll be better able to share with you this way what I am working on.

On Friday I am giving a paper at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South-Southern Section biennial meeting . The paper is titled "Neoanalysis, Competitive 'Framing,' and Homer's 'Oresteia.' My paper goes over some well-trodden ground: the use of the "Oresteia" story in the Odyssey. But I believe I am approaching it with a somewhat different set of analytical tools and goals.

I have included my abstract at the end of this post, but here's
in nuce what I am going to say. Homer uses the "Oresteia,"--the story of Agamemnon's return, murder, and his son's revenge upon his murderers--to set up paradigmatic relationships between the characters of this parallel story (Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus) and those of the Odyssey (Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors). These are not static relationships, however; characters place themselves in different roles at different times. What's interesting for me is that it is through the retelling of this "Oresteia" myth that the characters of the Odyssey make ethical choices. Characters retell and manipulate myth in order to make themselves and their world fit the patterns of the stories they know from tradition and thus determine how to act rightly in their circumstances.

The paper I will present on Friday differs some from the abstract below, mostly because the part on Odysseus as Aegisthus is too involved and contentious for the limits of the event. Here's the abstract.

Neoanalysis, Competitive “Framing,” and Homer’s “Oresteia”

Neoanalysis assumes the active, intertextual participation of parallel narrative traditions alongside the principal epic fabula in the construction of the poem. This method of criticism, originally developed in the mid-twentieth century with explicitly textualist assumptions as a kind of “third-way” around the analyst/unitarian impasse (Pestalozzi 1945; Kakridis 1949; Schadewaldt 1959; Kullmann 1960), has seen a resurgence of interest. Now, combined with the discoveries of Parry, Lord, and their oralist followers, this new, modified form of neoanalysis could be termed a “fifth-way.” It combines the powerful tools of neoanalytic attention to the artful interplay between reconstructed earlier poetic models and the Homeric epics together with the insights of oral poetics on the use of traditional material in a process of composition-in-performance. As with the earlier generation of neoanalysts, recent scholarship in this line has largely focused on the Iliad (Allan 2005; Burgess 2006, 2001, 1997; Marks 2005; Edwards 1990), while a smaller number of studies have used these methods on the Odyssey (Danek 1998; Marks 2003; Reece 1994). There remains considerable opportunity for further study of the Odyssey with these methods.

Even with the refinements of oral poetics, neoanalytic criticism often puts too much weight on the identification of models or sources for the composition of the Homeric epics, as though simply demonstrating the origin of the poet’s material constituted the end of interpretation. More nuanced criticism is possible. Parallel narratives often appear as mythological paradeigmata, which characters are presented as offering in order to make an argument by analogy to another tradition. In the more complex cases, these paradeigmata are subject to competing applications and interpretations. Zeus’ opening speech in the Odyssey (1.28-43), read on one level, suggests that Odysseus parallels Aegisthus, but Athena contests the application of the Aegisthus paradeigma in this situation (44-62). Later, an alternative parallel will be suggested—the suitors as Aegisthus (3.229-329)—and this is hardly the last variant on the parallels between the Odyssey and the “Oresteia” narrative. What we see, as characters competitively compose alternative paradigmatic interpretations of parallel traditions fitted to their own current context, is a dramatization of their attempts to construe their actions and actions of others as moral agents in what social-scientists call “frames” (Goffman 1974). This drama of “framing” involves the audience as well, as it asks them to experience and participate in mimetic acts of interpreting and applying different frames they know from inherited traditions. This use of paradeigmata can be seen as another technique of oral poetry. The traditional tool of the paradeigma, on par with the type-scene or the formula, is brought forth and recomposed to suit a new epic poem.

I argue that (modified) methods of neoanalysis, when applied to the Odyssey, can explicate the artistry of the epic’s use of different traditions to create a poem that dramatizes competitive “framing.” I demonstrate this with a case study of the use of the “Oresteia” tradition. Strikingly, the first paradeigma offered implicitly connects Odysseus with Aegisthus (1.28-43). However incongruous this may seem, the traditions about Aegisthus that lie behind the poem, I argue, present these two figures as more alike than first supposed. For example, in the version of Agamemnon’s murder told by Proteus, Aegisthus ambushes Agamemnon and his companions in his own ancestral home at a feast, not at a bath in Mycenae (4.512-37). Artistic evidence about the Nostoi epic tradition, known to us chiefly through Proclus’ summary of the later, cyclic poem attributed to Agias of Troezen based on this material but certainly having much earlier, oral antecedents, also supports this reconstruction (Berlin: PM 4996). Thus, Odysseus’ ambush of the suitors in his own home at a feast could be read paradigmatically as having Aegisthus-like characteristics. One conclusion of this analysis is that contained within the Odyssey, and very likely circulating in the wider epic traditions about Odysseus—though this is harder to prove—, there exist multiple, valid ways to construe the ethics of the epic hero Odysseus.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I've had the chance to talk to Alex a few times this week, and he's having a wonderful time in Crete. It sounds like a really beautiful place with striking craggy landscapes. There's been lots of hot hiking, made more difficult by an absent minded professor leader who seems to forget that people need to eat breakfast before heading out.

Today's pictures come from the Propylaea. From my brief google research, I can tell you that the Propylaea is the gateway leading into the Acropolis (in Athens). Here's some more information:

The Propylaea, located at the west end of the hill, is a roofed entrance structure into the sacred precincts of the Acropolis. It was designed by the renown architect Mnesicles, and constructed between the years 437 BC and 432 BC. However, the construction was ended during the Peloponessian wars, and the building never reached completion for unknown reasons. The Propylaea which can still be seen today were built during the age of Pericles, and were supposed to replace an earlier one built under the administration of Pissistratus in 530 BC. (The Acropolis of Athens)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Alex adds: Many of these pictures are from inside the Parthenon, where we managed to get special access. You can see much of the elaborate reconstruction/preservation project ongoing as we're dodging the booms of cranes and swing of hammers amidst newly hewn marble and orders barked in Greek. Perhaps the feel of it wasn't too much different than when this temple was first built 2500 year earlier. But this time, the reconstruction will probably take at least 50 years, while the original project, without modern machinery (and without union labor) took 15 years.

Ancient Legos?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Athens Central Market

Alex is in Crete this week, so I'll be posting some pictures from his Flickr site until he returns. Today's set comes from the Fish/Meat pavilion at the Athens Central Market.

For more pictures from the market, click here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

On "sweat towels"

Emily labeled the man in the post below with a towel as having a "sweat towel." That's not really accurate, though that's a fitting guess because it sure is hot! These are actually the locals who carry around their stolen goods in large towels, looking for a place to vend them on the sidewalk. These men have their illegal wares (e.g., shoes, watches, cheap jewelry) set out on these blankets so they can at a moment's notice wrap up their merchandise and run around the block when the cops show up. And as I was walking by, a whole group of them suddenly gathered up their stuff and bolted. Sure enough the cops were right behind. But as I walked down the street, I turned back and could, from a single vantage point, see on one side of a corner, these men with their goods slung over their shoulder and the cops inspecting the place on the sidewalk where a moment before they had been selling their stuff. These 2 photos were taken on the same spot, with essentially single 90 degree pivot to the left.

The vendors (the guys in the back looking to the left):

The cops:

This was block from my hotel the first night (off Omonia square). Kind of borderline neighborhood.