Why do we still read Homer?

Author:Szegedy-Maszak, Andrew
 
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I am a professor of classical studies. Today, when the field's very name seems to be accompanied by a puff of dust and the soft rustle of old books falling apart, it can be difficult to recapture how important the classics once were in higher education and in the culture at large. At the beginning of this century, the great Cambridge scholar F. M. Cornford reflected on the enduring allure of Greek and Roman antiquity: "The ancient classics resemble the universe. They are always there, and they are very much the same as ever. But as the philosophy of every new age puts a fresh construction on the universe, so in the classics scholarship finds a perennial object for ever fresh and original interpretation."

I find Cornford's remarks both touching and heartening, even though the social and academic context within which he wrote was so vastly different from our own. In 1903, despite some major university reforms, classical antiquity still served as the matrix within which leading intellectuals could debate the most urgent issues of their own time. Whether the topic at hand was the extension of democracy, or women's rights, or the definition of virtue in civil society, or the ennobling--or destructive--effects of art, classical antecedents and allusions were deployed to reinforce the argument. William Ewart Gladstone, to choose an exceptional example, was not only one of the most powerful and energetic politicians in the Victorian world but also the author of numerous articles and four books on Homer, one of which--Studies on Homer--weighs in at three volumes and almost seventeen hundred pages. As Richard Jenkyns has noted, Homer and politics were very closely associated in Gladstone's life. For instance, while Gladstone was writing one section of Studies on Homer, he was campaigning in Parliament against the Divorce Bill, so in that chapter he emphasized the absence of divorce in Homeric society. In this regard, Gladstone was unique only in the prominence of his position and the intensity of his dedication. No matter what profession a student was preparing for, he or she was expected to have some acquaintance with the classics.

Francis Cornford himself was a source for much fresh and original interpretation, especially of Thucydides and Plato. Brilliant as he was, he could not, of course, foresee the devastation of World War I, which broke out almost exactly a decade after he delivered the address from which I have quoted. I do not mean to be flippant about the horrible sufferings entailed by that war when I say that one of its casualties was the secure primacy of classical studies. From its active position at the center of intellectual life, our discipline was moved to a kind of honorable semi-retirement.

This does not mean, however, that it has gone dormant. As Cornford observed, fresh and original interpretation keeps the field alive. In fact, we are now in the middle of an oddly extensive revival of popular interest in classical studies. A few years ago NBC produced a two-night Odyssey extravaganza. The program's Web site did give credit where credit is due; I quote verbatim:

Time & dates: Sunday and Monday, May 18 & 19, 1997 (9-11 p.m. ET) on NBC Executive producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, Robert Halmi Sr. and Nicholas Meyer Producer: Dyson Lovell Teleplay by: Andrei Konchalovsky and Christopher Solimine Based on the epic poem by: Homer So far, so good, but to indicate the level at which this entire enterprise was pitched, I might cite a question from the network's Odyssey trivia quiz:

Where is the Parthenon located?

* Troy * Rome * Athens * Ithaca

The correct answer could win you a prize.

The NBC Odyssey turned out to be an embarrassing mess, reducing Homer's wonderful saga to an incoherent series of dopey or hysterical episodes. Disney's Hercules was far more entertaining. The plot, pure Disney, has Hercules grow out of adolescent clumsiness into full hero-hood, complete with triumph over the cheerfully malevolent Hades and romance with the winsome Megara. The radio and TV ads featured a perky jingle whose refrain was "Who put the glad in gladiator? Hercules!" I must admit that I was mildly disappointed that the cartoon did not include the part of the myth in which Hercules goes berserk and murders his wife and children. That probably would have taken too much of the glad out of gladiator for family viewing.

Speaking of gladiators, I did not see the recent sword-and-sandal blockbuster, but my classicist colleagues spent a lot of time and bandwidth debating it on various on-line discussion groups. They seemed evenly split between those who cheerfully asserted that we should applaud anything that draws public attention to our little corner of academe and those who gloomily decried the film's historical inaccuracies. It is easy and amusing to make fun of such obviously giddy commercial excess, like the film's virtual-reality version of the ancient Roman cityscape in which, some claim, the dome of St. Peter's is clearly visible. Nonetheless, in this instance I tend to agree with the more optimistic faction. I do not think that "popular culture" is necessarily a contradiction in terms, and if Gladiator has kindled some interest in Roman history, so much the better.

Classical studies, however, have also been playing a more serious role in contemporary culture. It is striking, for example, that within a few months of its publication in 1996, Robert Fagles's brilliant new translation of the Odyssey became a bona fide best-seller. When Fagles came to read at Wesleyan, where I teach, he was greeted by an overflowing and hugely enthusiastic audience, many of whose members were carrying his book. As a rough-and-ready gauge of this translation's continuing popularity, an Amazon.com ranking last autumn put the paperback edition of Fagles's Odyssey at 3,470 out of a possible several hundred...

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