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.