Navigating the Long Reach of Antiquity

Adam Nicholson's book about Homer, The Mighty Dead, is like a telescope trained on the very distant past. Using clues from ancient languages, from burial mounds, from unearthed treasure and other evidence, he dates Homer's epics, The Iliad and The Oddyssey from 2000 BC, or thereabouts, give or take a few centuries. Most scholars have assumed the epic poems were created in about 1200 BC, but Nicholson has had a passionate time of discovering evidence for why Homer -- who might have been might have been the blind poet of legend, but was more probably the name for what has been handed down over the centuries--is older.

"First, abandon any idea of the classic poet. The poems are not objects conceived by a single, gifted person, but profoundly inherited, shaped and reshaped by a preceding culture, stretching far back in time, something as much formed by tradition as the making of pots or the decorations of their surfaces....Homer is the world of tradition-shaped poetry.... and the governing fact in that epic world is the music of the poetry."

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters is a very good book. I read a few chapters, in ebook form, immediately knew it was a book I wanted to hold and refer back to, so bought a second, paper, copy now personalized with many underlined sentences and exclamation marks alongside paragraphs that seemed particularly apt and well written. Nicholson is a relentless researcher. To imagine the days when the epics were recited or sung, he visits the rocky island of Chios, where he finds "a rare and extraordinary ghost of the Homeric world" in the limestone landscape and the building ruins of Emporio. He travels to a river in southern Spain that fits Homer's vision of Hades. He studies bards from other cultures- Gaelic, Serbian- to get an idea of how the poems could have survived for so long, that their essence and even most of the words hardly changed.

"Grief and triumph; a sense of irony and even tragedy; an overwhelming and dominant masculinity, thick with competitive violence; a small but hierarchical society, strung between a semi-nomadic way of life and one that was settled in small wooden houses... in love with horses; no understanding of the city or any relationship to the sea: all of that is very like the background to the world of the Greeks in their camp on the Trojan shore."

Research feeds his imagination as he tries to picture the world from which the epics sprang. Having just gone through a similar exercise with my first historical novel--which concerns a much more recent point in history, only 100 years ago-- I appreciate the exuberance of his efforts to identify with the characters.

"'For seventeen days..sleep never fell on his (Odysseus's) eyelids as he watched the stars above him'....You have only to steer once by the stars for that connection to remain with you for the rest of your life...This exposure of Odysseus to the stars is the closest I ever feel to him... for the sky arrayed above you and the sea and its dark threats half hidden is materially the same for me as it was for him."

If Nicholson's suppositions are correct and the poems have been around for more than four thousand years, it means they have endured through 800 generations (assuming five generations per hundred years.) Even serious genealogists would be hard pressed to successfully trace someone's roots back that far. What's wonderful is that knowledge abides, is gained, lost, added to, reconsidered, expanded on the basis of new discoveries. Certain artists and writers are able to advance it, as Nicholson does, while seining the past-- as when a steady swell rises in the wake of a ship and churns the layers of wine-dark sea beneath, sweeping into sunlight all the ocean holds, that might have been forgotten.

A Modern Wailing Wall

One of my nephews created a closed Facebook group for our large extended family and I joined, despite having had a FB phobia for years, finally opening an account, reluctantly accepting friend requests, never posting, being bullied by people to accept them. Didn't you get my friend request?

I hate all the advertising and find it spooky that the site knows what subjects have flit through my online presence. My artist friends resent that anything they post theoretically belongs to FB. Some people overpost, there is too much silly time wasting stuff otherwise intelligent folks put up to waste time. Occasional gems, of course, but I do a lot of rapid scrolling to avoid doing things I should otherwise be doing. My bad, of course.

Yet, despite all that and talk of FB's imminent demise I have begun to open it more often and occasionally write something. This is primarily because of its social role in our family. One of my nieces posted pretty much her whole journey with breast cancer; there are wedding albums, always new babies from we prolific Burns's, and there are memorials. When it is a deceased relative's birthday, their son, daughter, widow, grandchild puts up a picture of them and reminds them that we are all thinking of them. Notices of recent deaths are responded to with sentiments concerning heaven and how people will be reunited. We all like that idea whether or not we believe that it's true. It is comforting to imagine siblings, husband and wife, child and parent meeting again in the afterlife. At least they won't be alone in some dark place, we think, or may think. Homer, who told of the ghost of Patroclus visiting his mournful companion Achilles in a dream, acknowledged that "something does remain of a man, even in the house of Hades." It feels cruel not to give a thumbs up, a FB like, to these posts because, God, how mean spirited not to. FB has become a wailing wall for the sad and an outlet through which to express condolences, sorrow, loss; to share memories. It is like the guest book at a funeral home.

The thing I don't like about FB  is how easy it makes things. A "like" takes no more than a key tap and counts as recognizing someone's birthday or someone's grief, now matter how well you knew the person being feted or grieved. It's like the "friend" concept. The reason I haven't accepted all my friend requests is because some of the people who wanted to "friend" me are people I have nothing in common with in the actual as opposed to the virtual world.  Genuine friendship is not that easy.  FB was cynical to employ that term in the first place. Friendship takes time and so do the complications of mourning and the development of a vision of afterlife. Have we been fooled into thinking that they don't ? Do speed and ease devalue emotion, making FB a sort of drive thru, the McDonalds for traditional human rituals? Or are the virtual and physical worlds interchangeable, the like's, emoticons, and one-liners being simply the modern equivalent of greeting cards, almost as good as an embrace or a handwritten note or a conversation. My "oh well" side says, FB gestures are better than nothing, and since it has become a part of our lives, an event that's not mentioned on FB seems neglected. Nevertheless I wonder if something that is here and gone so quickly can make a meaningful impact on anything.

Also Known As: the name game

Funny how topics tend to cluster in life and in the mind. Lately it's been names and naming. The annual list of the most common baby names appeared in the news media, Olivia and Liam coming out as the most popular where I live. Will parents who choose these names hand their kids the challenge of distinguishing themselves from other Olivia's and Liam's? Because names do make a first impression and bring with them all sorts of baggage. Wayne? Oh you don't look like a Wayne.
Italica (M.B., 2008)
     Homer names some of the fallen and those who felled them in The Iliad, and goes further to provide a sense of lineage. Zeus is the son of Kronos and the father of Sarpedon, old Nestor the son of Peleus and father of Antilochos and a second son. Other descriptions are rather general, mighty Aias, the famous spearman Odysseus, bronze-armoured Hektor, handsome Paris a.k.a Alexandros. That's the thing about the names in classic and also Russian literature, it is common to find more than one name for the same character, so clarity is sacrificed for, what? Local colour or customs? Homer feels it important to identify the battlers by name, but he realizes that he can't include everyone, not with the masses necessary for the slaughter that goes on between the gates of Troy and the fast ships of the Achaians, or Argives or Danaans, the other names by which the Greeks are known. Choose your favourite handle. Instead, in his catalog of ships he names most of the leaders. The way he refers to them suggests that his audience must have known who he was talking about, at least their reputations, otherwise why bother. What's in a name?
     The chronicler who accompanies the Pasha on an attempt to expand the Ottoman Empire into Albania instinctively realizes that names are only a beginning. He needs to note some characteristic of the principle players to distinguish them in the history he is writing of the the siege, in the novel by the same name, The Siege, by Ismail Kadare. It was great of Kadare to include such a character, someone whose very purpose in his fictional life is to describe, to chronicle events. You'd think there would have to have been similar functionaries in all wars, perhaps poets like Homer, though Homer purportedly got his material from oral tradition, for the war he wrote about happened in the 13th century BCE, say scholars, and The Iliad is said to have first appeared in the 8th century BCE. You know those games of telephone, where one persons whispers something to someone else
and by the end of the line the original message is distorted? Makes you wonder about the oral tradition. Too bad Homer could not draw on the work of a chronicler like the Sultan sent along with his troops.
   This last thought tempts me to open the Pandora's box of historical accuracy and fiction, but that's for another time. Today it's names that cluster in random thoughts and another reference comes to mind from the classic WW II poem, Naming of Parts by John Reed.  Reed speaks in the voice of a soldier who is learning the parts of his gun, but the brilliance is in his juxtaposition of the names of spring flowers - japonica, almond blossom - and "lower swing swivel" and "cocking piece," two of the parts of his gun, i.e. the exuberant beauty and promise of new life the image of flowers produces contrasted with the utilitarian names that apply to an instrument used for killing.
     I like the sound of words and found a way to make a sort of poetry out of the names of tools in sculptor Geoffrey Smedley's workshop.  Meaning and language play into his metaphorical machines, to all the parts of which he gives names. A ball that rolls down a chute, for example, is called The Seed of Intention, another part Confession, another Double Derogators.
     Olivia? Liam?  For many years Michael came out on top for boys. In fact one semester in my classroom I had so many that I called them the Mike section, which immediately stripped them of their individuality, at least briefly, and that wasn't fair because you really cannot assume that similarly named people have the same characteristics. Maybe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but what about the fragrance of all the girls named Rose?