from a talk given at New College Franklin in the Fall of 2013
Homer’s Odyssey, Book 8, lines 42-45, 62-94, 483-499, 521-534
Homer’s Iliad, Book VI, lines 440-465
My goal in giving this talk is to inspire wonder and excitement about the program of study here, to encourage intellectual enthusiasm. With this goal in mind, I will try to direct our attention to one of the central underlying questions of our existence, that of unity (What is it? Is it real? etc.)
At the same time, and perhaps in light of this goal, I want to suggest that our curriculum is a cohesive whole. In fact, wholeness or the search for wholeness is part and parcel to this talk and to the liberal arts. Unity is a divine gift. In as much as it is the given structure of being, and insofar as we discover this to be so, we have received the gift twice-over.
The first and central question I am exploring in here concerns song. What is song? Why might it be a divine gift? The question is not my own. It too is a gift from someone, a tutor at St. Johns, the late Ms. Elizabeth Blettner, to whom I am ever indebted, both spiritually and intellectually.* She asked this question in a Greek class she led on the Odyssey where she focused our attention upon the poem’s essential elements–placing it within the framework of Aristotle’s Poetics, in the framework of recognition, reversal, unity, homecoming, recollection and memory.
The Odyssey is a return story, a homecoming. It is the story of a return from Troy, from the war depicted in the Iliad. In particular, it tells of Odysseus’s return home after a twenty year absence. Many of you have yet to have lived this long.
It begins on the island of Kalypso (whose name means ‘covered-over’ or ‘hidden’). We will reckon with the nature of being hidden or covered over this afternoon, and with what it has to do with homecoming, song, and unity. I am suggesting that these things are all tied together
Odysseus is the man of many ways (polumetis); his wife, the circumspect of heart or periphrone-Penelope. Perhaps in their unity there is already a depiction of something at the center of the liberal arts, the one and many; perhaps in Homer, we have a profounder depiction of this theme even than that in Plato, and thus in all philosophy.
After much loss, loss of men, shipwreck at sea, violence and in-hospitality, Odysseus lands or rather is cast up upon Phaicia. He is washed ashore, more drowned then alive and nearly without hope. He awakes to a vision of Nausika, a lovely virgin whose heart has been stirred with a nascent longing for marriage when she appears before him, this tired, shipwrecked, home-bereft man.
Odysseus then likens her to an olive shoot, a sacred plant he once saw on the sacred island of Delos (the place or shrine of divine manifestion). He likens her to the sacred shoot of a plant in its early life–a memory of what is tender and sacred. The contrast of his own condition and this young girl is striking.
This man of war is reminded of what is tender, green, and holy. He is reminded of early youth, of beauty, life, fragility, but also what is firm or potentially firm and rooted (for the olive grows into one of the most hearty of plants). And of course how can he not also be reminded of his own marriage–of what is personally sacred to him? For how could such a girl not stir those memories? (Odysseus had himself carved his marriage bed from an olive tree ). It is worth reflecting on the manner in which he blesses and honors Nausica, but also respects her.
He is brought home with her as a guest. In their interactions, there has already been an exchange of gifts, of winged words and blessings.
While in the Phaician palace, the court singer Demodocus takes up song. We are told that he is inspired, gifted by the Muses, blessed by the gods, taught by Apollo, and that a goddess has given him the gift of singing. (We are also told that he is blind, much like Homer.)
We will hopefully see the divine nature of this song soon. But already in the text, we have seen how the givenness of one person before another serves as a gift, a divine provocation to remember.
In singing, Demodocus brings tears to Odysseus, a man who has been at war for ten years, and at sea for another ten. Odysseus covers his head that he may hide himself and weep. But he then requests that Demodocus show if he truly is inspired by the gods, that is, by singing to him the tale of Trojan war.
Literally, Odysseus asks to hear the cosmos (the order or array, or world) of the horse. The cosmos of the hippou is a kind of synecdoche, in which a part stands for a whole, in this case in which the crucial stratagem, devised by none other than Odysseus himself, stands for the whole war, for the victory, and also for the destruction of the city. This part for whole relation has something to do with the very nature of song and unity, and before we explore the story of the horse, we will need to explore this.
The unity of song is the unity of a part within a larger whole. Song is itself a cosmos in miniature. It is a poiesis or imitative creation. It achieves this through purposive limitation or selection.
Cosmos in Miniature
It may be beyond obvious that a song is a kind of arrangement or cosmos. After all, as Aristotle would remind us, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must have rhythm and tone, an architecture. It must also be selective and decisive in order to have a definite character or unity.
Song collects and orders a whole, but to do so it must limit itself, it must be intentional and selective. To sing is in this sense to choose, to give attention to certain things and not to others, and to put the selected parts in relation to each other. If this were not the case, every act of speech, all poetry or song would be infinite and meaningless. There is no human speech or music without limitation and exclusion.
Song and story are here virtually synonymous (they are not in opposition for Homer or Aristotle in the way they often are for us today). It is likely that Homer identified himself with the blind court singer, and identified his work as the work of song–sing muses…
Homer knew, as Aristotle tells us, that to tell a good story, to sing a good song, one must sing of that which is one. But true unity is not simply the unity of historical sequence, of everything including the kitchen sink, nor is it the unity of one event after another. Rather, it is the intelligible unity of an action that is one–it is the unity of meaning. Aristotle compares such oneness to the unity of a living animal whose body is in proper proportion and thus beautiful to behold.
Therefore, Homer does not tell us about the entire Trojan war in the Iliad, but sings of only a few days of the battle, focusing neither on its beginning nor its end, but on the wrath of Achilles and what results.
This is not the place to explore the Iliad or Achilles wrath, how it is indeed a single action and the remarkable conclusion of it, but we can say that the kind of unity it possess is neither temporal, nor physical, but essentially an intelligible one. What orders the array, what causes selection and collection in good poetry is meaning–meaning which transcends and informs history, what would otherwise be mere succession–it is only intelligence that can create or discover this kind of oneness. Therefore true song is an act of intelligent arrangement, an act of logos which creates or discovers what is one.
In this, we have begun to uncover the divine nature of song, that of logos and its likeness to the Logos, John 1:1, the intelligible unity or pattern of all being. Aristotle will go on to explain that bound up in this intelligibility is recognition, or a particularly human kind of knowledge–and such knowledge is itself cosmic.
The parallel between arrangement in song and in speech (the intelligible act of man) is unmistakable. The very root of the word for speech in the Greek (‘leg’) itself means to select or collect. In this is a recognition that speech is itself a world oriented act. Did not the world come to exist through speech, through Word?
For this reason, the liberal arts painstakingly pursues the nature of unity, of the one and many. For at bottom, this is what the intellect, what man desires–the intimate possession of unity.
Can you begin to see why our work here is not just that of finding out facts or truths? We are here rather to discover the many ways of knowing what is one. It is not accidental that we each long to see how or whether the many things which men and our arts, sciences, and inventions, our philosophies and deeds describe, whether there is something one here, or only history… only sequence and muchness, mere histrionics at best.
Is there truly unity to all this? Are we left with many truths in the end and so no real truth? And will this question be resolved in the course of years or over a life time? Will this question be resolved by the intellect alone or by means of the heart also, by the virtues of rational thinking, or also through faith, hope, and love?
Back to song and speech.
Because of the nature of our quest, because we desire more than history or information, we must find a means of discovering this ‘more’, this meaning. And in song, we have such a means, in speech, in the nature of logos, this gift has already been given.
Again, to speak is to arrange; it is to create or recognize a cosmos.
In Augustine’s Confessions, he meditates on the nature of time after his conversion and considers how man knows a whole only through time, how song as a whole is not experienced in a moment, but through the succession of parts, each which must cease so that the next may follow, through parts which make a whole by means of memory. It is only God who is omnipresent, who is outside of time, who possess himself and his knowledge in a ever complete eternity. It is only his Word or Logos which is complete and whole at every moment, which does not move from one thought to another, but stays fixed on a truth which exceeds all human comprehension, and yet is the longing of every human heart.
Yet in certain kinds of speech, through certain poetic or musical acts, we may experience some inkling of this wholeness, of that which unites and informs and finally directs and satisfies the heart.
This kind of memory or recognition allows us to discover and rediscover that a whole is not always merely the sum of its parts, that certain parts are essential parts, that in some cases there are centers from which meaning radiates outward. Sometimes there are wholes which exceed the our power of our articulation–and somehow good poetry directs us to these inarticulable unities.
For this reason, the challenge of the liberal arts, of the rational mind, and of the human heart is not simply the challenge of seeing or knowing, but the challenge of remembering how to see.
Song and poetry, good poetry offers just this gift. Song can itself call up such memory. For song is not bound by sequence of time/history, but can choose to juxtapose, to re-position, to focus by means of imagery and language upon what it is we truly need to know.
For instance, why does the Bible begin at Genesis and not with the Law at Sinai? Why does Donne use the image of a compass to depict love? Why does the Iliad end with the meeting of Priam and Achilles and the funeral of Hector?
Song reveals in this fashion something we know but do not know as we ought
We can recognize the crucial role of order wherever we turn. As human beings, we are placed within a particular community full of roles and relations. At the literary level, we can appreciate Biblical order, juxtaposition, and re-framing. Christ himself spoke in parables which placed diverse realities beside one another, setting them in relation, (within a parabolic arc so as to illumine the invisible order by means of the visible).
This is perhaps the very nature of revelation and here we arrive at the clearest depiction of divine gift. The supreme revelation, the supreme juxtaposition or ordering by means of word, that is, God’s very Word placed among us, ordered in the fullness of time, informing all meaning by his act in history–ensuring that history is more than history or sequence, that existence remains story or song. (The very Word from which the cosmos had its origin came in the flesh to poetically reorder it). He came as a poetic gift.
Creation is God’s poetic work, but its order is brought to completion and perfection by God himself–we are saved and perfected by divine meaning. We are created in this very Image, and so we are poetic creatures–poetically made and in turn makers of poetry, ordering the world through speech and knowledge, and relational communion. We are as Paul tells us “God’s poetry created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
The fullest speech, the clearest Word is Christ who is beginning, middle and end, Alpha and Omega. But today we are more concerned with Homer. It is enough to have said that God has a preeminent role in arrangement, in the poetic act. If creation and re-creation is a gift of God, if to exist is to exist in an ordered world, we can begin to see why song is a gift.
So how is song, the song of the Horse, a gift for Odysseus?
Odysseus is at the last stretch of his journey, but is not yet ready for the return, having been long away from home and long busy with the work of war. There on Phaicia, however, he requests a song from the divinely inspired singer, he requests the cosmos of the hippou, and in hearing this he weeps.
What sort of song did he request? On the surface it seems he simply wants to hear his own glory recounted, his own story told by a distant people. But what is that story? It is the story of his own devising and craft, but not of craft for the sake of poetry or cultivation, but of cunning (the Trojan horse) purposed to bring a great city and its people to ruin.
Something, whatever it may be, has lead Odysseus to ask the poet to recount his own deeds of devastation–the destruction which he has wrought. And in hearing these deeds, we can surmise that he sees them now in a new light, in the light of his own longing and loss. He can see that he has taken away the hope of home for so many–and he knows what sorrow this means.
Thus the song he hears brings with it the gift of grief or repentance, which contains in it a new unity. Does this kind of unity surpass what we are humanely capable of on our own? This unity is not simply that of one man with another, but the unity of one with another who was once his enemy. True repentance, true empathy and identification with such an Other only happens when we encounter truth: truth about ourselves, the world, and our fellows. This kind of truth has the power to pierce us to the core, and in being so pierced, we become one with a story far larger than we realize.
One might think this a far fetched reading, but what are we to make of Odysseus’s tears, particularly when Homer himself characterizes Odysseus in this extraordinary way, not only as one who has lost his city, but in the form of a woman!
As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people
as he tried to bet off the pitiless day from the city and children;
she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her,
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and shoulders,
force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping.
(Homer, Odyssey 8.523-530, trans. Lattimore)
This becomes yet more striking when we consider a parallel passage in the Iliad. In perhaps the only domestic moment of the poem, and so more striking for its singularity, Hector’s wife Andromache begs Hector to forgo fighting. Hector responds thus:
For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.
But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans
that troubles me, not even of Priam the king nor Hekabe,
not the though of my brothers who in their numbers and valor
shall drop in the dust under the hands of men who hate them,
as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armored
Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty,
in tears; and in Argos you must work at the loom of another,
and carry water from the spring Messeis or Hypereia,
all unwilling, but strong will be the necessity upon you;
and some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you:
‘This is the wife of Hektor, who was ever the bravest fighter
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, in the days when they fought about Ilion.’
So one will speak of you; and for you it will be fresh grief,
to be widowed of such a man who could fight off the day of your slaver.
But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I
hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.”
(Homer, Iliad VI. 447-465, trans. Lattimore)
We know indeed that this is the last meeting between Hector and his wife, that his words are not just psychological projection, but prophetic. Homer now depicts Odysseus in the very form of the woman Hector has imagined. Odysseus embodies the very suffering which Hector predicts, that is, he becomes one with those whom he has brought so low.
Thus the poetic act in Homer depicts a poetic act of the human soul. The soul which is itself imitative, rational, and cosmic, is ultimately capable of knowing and entering into a unity which we can hardly comprehend.
The unity which Odysseus longs to share with his wife is preceded by a reunion with what is most deeply human in him. But this unity is only facilitated or made possible by entering into the suffering of others. He is prepared for his homecoming by being spiritually united to those whose homecoming he has denied.
Song has indeed provided a most unexpected gift here, one which is truly divine: the gift of repentance and restoration.
The poetic act which I have been describing as cosmic is in Homer revealed not only to take on the grand dimension of all creation, but the deeply personal, human dimension of our mortal existence. Perhaps good poetry must do this, must span the gap between the great and small, between the personal and the cosmic. Perhaps in doing so poetry reveals the nature of the one and many most profoundly. For the personal, that is in the fullest sense of that reality, truly is the cosmic.
This is where I leave you. This is where the liberal arts both end and begin, in the question of what is one, what is the world, what is man, who is God? We are left at the threshold of the human heart and mind, wondering what we shall discover when we cross that threshold.
It is my hope that you will find that Homer, and Aristotle, and many of the great thinkers of the Western tradition are right, that recognition and homecoming await us.
For this reason, I hope what T.S. Eliot says in his Four Quartets shall be true for us, that:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
As you embark on this journey of education, may you be continually be surprised by the gifts of God, who has made music in the most unexpected places.
*She herself passed away unable to speak, but surrounded by song at her bedside.