Review: The Epic Question Mark of Western Lit, Homer: The Very Idea, by James I. Porter

Nobody knows anything about Homer except what’s in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, even there, it gets dicey, as James I. Porter details in his challenging and provocative Homer: The Very Idea, newly available in paperback from the University of Chicago Press.

It’s a convenient shorthand to speak of the author of those two epics—the foundation of Western literature—as a man named Homer. But the fact is that no one knows if the same person created both works, and no one knows that person's name or how the works were created.

Did the epics begin as long songs? And, as unlikely as it might be, were they written down right then? Or were they passed down as songs through generations of singers? If so, when were they put down in writing and who did that? And who was the “author,” the one we call Homer? The one who created the songs (if it was one person)? Or the one who wrote them down (if it was one person)?

As Porter, a literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in Homer: The Very Idea:

The great irony here—it is really something of an embarrassment—is that the two founding documents of Western culture have no birth certificate, no assignable date, no parents, and no clear place of origin. At their center lies an enigma that goes by the name of Homer, their hypothesized origin.

An unknown quantity and a question mark with no answers, “Homer” is little more than a way of bridging this lack of information, one that was given a name, a face, a body a life, a death, and an immortal afterlife—or rather innumerable different versions of each of these things.

In other words, Homer is an idea. Nothing more, nothing less.

The focus of Porter’s book, initially published in 2021, is on “the repeated manufacture of Homer from antiquity to the present day”—on how the idea of Homer has been used and abused down the centuries by literary critics and commentators to promote their own ideas and themselves.

From antiquity to the present day, a career could be built by praising or by attacking Homer and his epics. 

Francois Hedelin, abbe d’Aubignac, jolted 17th-century Paris by asserting, “Homer was not a good poet, and what is more he never even existed.”

For instance, Porter notes that, in the second century BCE, Demetrius of Scepsis combined “conventional philology, autopsy, and polemical fury” to create a massive commentary of 30 books—on just 62 lines of the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad (Book 2, lines 816–77).

By contrast, Francois Hedelin, abbe d’Aubignac, jolted 17th-century Paris by asserting, “Homer was not a good poet, and what is more he never even existed.” 

“Mischievous Madness”

More than two centuries later, in 1897, Samuel Butler, a satirist and novelist best known today for The Way of All Flesh, published a book that Porter describes as “curious and whimsical” and not at all serious. Its title: The Authoress of the “Odyssey”: Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the “Iliad,” & How the Poem Grew under Her Hands.

The book—Porter calls it “mischievous madness”—argued that the Odyssey was written not by Homer but by a young, unmarried, isolated woman who wanted to counter the Iliad and its false assertion that Troy had fallen to the Greeks. The point was “to upend the primacy and sanctity of Homer and all that this entails”—to skewer the literary conventions of his age—by exploiting the lack of any knowledge, any facts, about the supposed writer of the two epics. 

Given the impenetrable fog around the origins of the two epics, Butler could argue not only that an unknown, unrecognized, untraveled woman wrote the Odyssey but also, and even more, that, in the Iliad, Homer lied about the fall of Troy. 

While not satirical like Butler’s work, Homer: The Very Idea confronts a lot of lazy and/or self-serving theorizing about the two epics and their supposed creator over the past 28 centuries.

Porter’s critique, however, grows more pointed in his final chapter “Why War?” which examines how Homer’s descriptions of the battles in the Iliad and the Odyssey have been sugar-coated by commentators from antiquity to the present. The creativity is sublime, the argument has gone, the images superb. And such poetic artistry turns the violence depicted into, well, art.

But Porter is having none of that:

Rather than pretending the Iliad and the Odyssey are unproblematically great works of art and unrivaled paradigms of cultural value, it is perhaps better to acknowledge that the Homeric poems are at bottom contradictory objects that present hard problems and no easy solutions, not only because the epics are blood-soaked but because any pleasure or solace they present is tainted by the horrors they depict.

Extricating pure, untainted cultural and aesthetic or ethical value from Homer is an impossible task.

Down the ages, Homer has often been identified as the most sublime of all the sublime poets and the epics as the cradle of Western values and humanity. Yet, Porter asks, “What has to be ignored in order to pronounce this aesthetic judgment?”

“No Beauty to Be Found”

Consider, for instance, how Achilles desecrates the body of Hector in the Iliad. Or, in the Odyssey, how Odysseus, almost single-handedly, kills more than 100 young men who had been hanging around his house as suitors for his wife’s hand in marriage—and then orders his son to kill the slave women who had slept with these young men.

Porter notes that Erich Auerbach, a Jewish refugee from Germany, writing in 1942, wrote a long critique of the Homeric epics, comparing the Nazis and their propaganda to Homer in terms of simplifying reality to offer only surface reflections. His aim, according to Porter, wasn’t to argue Homer’s naïveté but to attack naïve readings of Homer.

Writing at the same time, Simone Weil, a French activist, philosopher and mystic, wrote an essay that began: “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.” Porter comments:

At a stroke, Weil radically decenters the focus of conventional readings of Homer, thereby dispossessing his poetry of its classical allure, its humanity, and its canonical literary virtues.

For Weil, there is no beauty to be found in Homer—no beautiful deaths, no shows of power that are not self-vitiating and horrifically empty, “no consoling prospect of immortality,” no kleos or glory for the glittering heroes, “no washed-out halo of patriotism” that might “descend” “on the hero’s head,” no redemption from the brutal logic of force that turns living men into inanimate things whether they are victims or so-called victors.

With all the sweet-talking silenced, this is what the Iliad and the Odyssey are about—force and violence. And, yes, both poems are at the center of Western culture, both expressing the violence and force at the heart of Western civilization.

The Iliad has been called “a poem of death,” but Porter insists, “It is a poem of war. And Homer, however we choose to understand the name, never lets us forget the difference.”

Homer: The Very Idea is available at bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press website.

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Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).