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Meeting Homer Again for the First Time (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 7, 2015: The Renaissance humanists encouraged the study of the three classical languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. But Latin was studied far more than Greek -- or Hebrew. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are among Americans who knew Greek. However, Hellenism never became as prominent in American culture as it did in British culture and in European culture over the centuries. We Americans should be thankful for this.

As part of his British formal education, Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, studied Greek. Vita Sackville-West was Virginia Woolf's friend and perhaps her lover as well. In any event, Virginia Woolf deeply regretted that as a woman she was excluded from studying at Cambridge University, where her brother had matriculated -- and where Adam Nicolson also matriculated at a later time. However, with the assistance of tutors, Virginia Woolf studied Greek to a certain extent, as Theodore Koulouris explains in his book HELLENISM AND LOSS IN THE WORK OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (2011).

The theme of loss is also a prominent part of Adam Nicolson's clear-sighted book WHY HOMER MATTERS (2014). For example, Nicolson claims that the Homeric epics about the imagined Trojan War are "driven by the demands of grief" (page 5). He characterizes Achilles' grief as "the lunacy of grief over Patroclus's death" (page 149). He also says that Achilles on his killing rampage is driven by his being "grief-mad from the death of Patroclus" (page 199).

Toward the end of the text of his book, Nicolson rounds off his discussion of grief in various places throughout his book by saying that "the ability [of Homer in both Homeric epics, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY] to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye . . . is his value, a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief" (pages 244, 245).

No doubt men and women today who participate in wars and see their comrades in arms die need to allow themselves later on to experience grief and mourn their losses.

No doubt all of us have experienced losses in our lives due to the deaths of loved ones, as Virginia Woolf experienced at a young age. In addition, all of us have experienced non-death losses that we should also mourn in a healthy way.

Even though Nicolson does not come right out and say that the Homeric epics can serve to encourage people to mourn their various losses in life, he seems to intimate that they can do this -- and might have done this for the ancient people who listened to them and participated imaginatively in the actions being described.

This possibility is intimated by Nicolson's combined emphasis on audience participation in the oral presentations of the Homeric epics and on the sense of immediacy of the poetry on these two epics (pages 2, 8, 30, 31, 32, 92, 227, 246).

Nicolson's emphasis on the sense of immediacy in these two epics dovetails nicely with Walter J. Ong's characterization of the world-as-event sense of life in primary oral cultures, and in residual forms of primary oral cultures. See Ong's article "World as View and World as Event" in the journal the AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647.

Moreover, what Nicolson refers to as the sense of immediacy in the Homeric epics dovetails with what C. G. Jung refers to as active imagination that activates images and imagery from the collective unconscious. Of course each Homeric epic begins with an invocation of the Muse. Each Homeric epic is inspired by the Muse. So it may not be a stretch to associate inspiration by the Muse with the collective unconscious. A selection of Jung's writings about active imagination can be found in the book JUNG ON ACTIVE IMAGINATION, edited and introduced by Joan Chodorow (1997).

Jung's view of active imagination is not inconsistent with the view of Homer that the character named Socrates voices in Plato's REPUBLIC: "There is no invention in him [Homer] until he has been inspired [by the Muse] and is out of his senses, and the [conscious] mind is no longer in him" (quoted by Nicolson, page 33).

Closely related to Nicolson's theme about the immediacy of the Homeric epics is his theme about their deep retrospective orientation (pages 4, 55, 64, 65, 245-246). Despite their deep retrospective orientation, he claims that they are not nostalgic or sentimental.

In Ong's book INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (1977), he also discusses retrospectivity (posteriority) in literature, which he connects with nostalgia (pages 240-244). In the same essay Ong says, "The way material anterior to the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY is incorporated into these poems leaves such material hardly any discernible historical base of its own to stand on" (pages 252-253).

Exactly! The ILIAD and the ODYSSEY are constructed in mythic time and space, not in historical time and space. As I indicated above, the Trojan War is an imagined war. No siege of a city in the ancient world could have possibly lasted nearly ten years. And within the mythical time and space of the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, Nicolson claims, they are presented with a sense of imaginative immediacy, as though they were happening in historical time and space.

Even though Nicolson does not happen to mention the collective unconscious, he says that the ODYSSEY "is not a poem about 'then' and 'there,' but 'now' and 'here'" (page 8).

In addition, Nicolson says, "These [Homeric] epic poems may enshrine the past, but they exist in a radiant present and in that way are hymns to present being" (page 246).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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