Homer and the Foundation of the Western Humanities
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
A woman called this morning and said, Oh, Dr. Lee, I would love to hear you tonight, but there’s a demonstration at the Town Clock against Bush’s talk last night, so could you postpone your talk? I’ve been waking up every morning at about 3 or 4 a.m. and lying in bed and rehearsing this– for the last three weeks! The first week it was kind of fun. I got a big kick out of listening to myself. Second week, ehhh. The third week I thought: will this hour never come? I told her no we were going on as scheduled. I’m very pleased to be here and to welcome you to the Dinner Theater Of the Mind, the first in a series of humanities talks at The Attic that we call One Night University. I got the term from a fellow on the East Coast, who started the Saturday University. It’s a sequence of classes that he books and it’s a huge success, as an adult education program. He’s going to franchise it. So I’ve got the dibs on One Night University.
What would we do without Homer? We’d slide back into Egypt. As you know, the Jews made an exodus from Egypt. Egypt represents institutional bondage to a cosmological empire. Homer is another kind of exodus. Both Israel and Greece supersede Egyptian culture and are represented as a gain. I would go so far as to say that Israel makes history possible and Greece makes rationality possible as cultural contributions. The Olympian gods of Homer represent a kind of enlightenment and a gain in terms of the development of rational self-consciousness; it’s the beginning of Humanism in the best sense of the word. So tonight I’m going to pick up from where I started when I first began to teach. I cut my teeth teaching Homer at Harvard in a humanities course called Hum 2, The Epic and the Novel. There’s nothing like learning something when you have to teach it. The professor who was the main lecturer for the course was John Finley, Jr., a Classics professor—a wonderful lecturer. I was a teaching fellow and there were about fifteen of us—it was a very big course and we had a discussion group that we ran every week. It was a wonderful experience to begin my teaching career with the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Harvard was the center for the study of oral culture, which is the culture of Homer. Millman Parry was a Harvard professor of Classics who somehow—I’m not sure how—had the notion that he could go to remote areas of Yugoslavia and find a Homer: the tradition beginning with Homer was transmitted intact to modern Yugoslavia. There would be bards and minstrels who would still carry the Homeric tradition. In 1933 he went to Yugoslavia. He had a very early form of recorder—I think he recorded on an aluminum drum. And he recorded something like 12,500 songs. He went to a remote village in Yugoslavia and he said, I’d like to meet a hero. So a guy stepped forward and said, I’m a hero. Parry said, Well, I’m really glad to meet you. He was six foot eight and he had those cute, pointy shoes on and the Yugoslav regalia and a long, waxed mustache and a scimitar in his belt. And Parry said, “Well, tell me something about yourself.” And the hero spontaneously broke into song and in effect became his own Homer and sang of his deeds in battle.
Parry began collecting these songs and brought them all back to Harvard where they were analyzed, and thus began the school of oral poetry and oral culture. The most important thing to register about Homer, which is news to people, is that Homer was pre-literate and pre-rational. The songs were sung; there were no texts. We are not used to that, because we read the Iliad and the Odyssey as a text, but there was no writing and no reading in the general public in the Homeric period. They had a rudimentary alphabet—Linear A, Linear B—and writing was done by scribes for court purposes, but there was no general literacy and no general rationality. I think they go hand in hand. You don’t really achieve rational self-consciousness until literacy occurs as its accompaniment. This is a large statement but it is central to our theme of the rise of rational self-consciousness in Ancient Greece, an all-determining event for the direction of Western culture. Nothing is the same after literacy and rationality occur as an historic event and we can trace this development from Homer to Socrates/Plato where it comes into full realization.
The understanding of an oral culture, which was also a tribal culture, broke upon the academic world, given the work of Millman Parry. At the same time that I was at Harvard– the same time I was teaching, a book came out called The Discovery of the Mind. It followed upon Parry’s work on the unique significance of an oral culture and oral poetry, epic poetry, and it was by a German Classical philologist name Bruno Snell. The first chapter was on Homeric anthropology. You could call it the Snell corrective, because if you have an oral culture that’s pre-literate and pre-rational, you can’t read back into it what has developed and evolved in the subsequent culture. You can’t read back what happens by the time of Socrates and Plato into Homer, especially if you’re reading it as a text. It would be like treating a child as an adult. And so to run this corrective home, he said, take the word for consciousness. The word is psyche. We’re familiar with that: psychology, psychic. In Homer, according to Snell, the word psyche is only used at the point of death. It’s the only time the word psyche appears as “the last gasp.” I thought whoa, that’s amazing. Here you go from the last gasp of Homer, to Socrates, saying that philosophy is having one foot in the grave. And this “last gasp” as it were, through the development of the tradition, becomes philosophical reflection on having to die. Snell says there’s not really a word for “body” in the Homeric poems; it’s a kind of surface of the skin. So I thought, Oh, I get it: Homeric heroes are bags of blood. And when you puncture it, it goes [last gasp sound], and that’s consciousness flying off to the underworld like a bat, where it becomes a shade or a shadow. A “shade,” think of pulling down a shade. Snell says the word for “mind” in Homer is derived from smelling. The word is nous. Smelling! We still have a residue of it when we say, “It doesn’t smell right.” Or, “Smell it out.” And nous is close to “nose.” So the etymological derivation for the word for “mind” is smelling.
What Snell wanted to make clear was that the Homeric terms for what we would consider to be psychological concepts are quasi-organs, or quasi-bodily functions. As if to say they haven’t been abstracted off to become the kind of psychological concepts they become by the time they get to Plato, where Plato has a structure of human consciousness that is conceptually devised. And I’ve given you a grid for it on your handout sheet.
Homer is more like a field of forces. There’s no centered self that enables one to be rationally self-conscious. One is at the mercy of this field of forces, and in fact, one has recourse to the gods to account for why one acts the way one does. The god made me do it. The gods become the locus for what makes one do things, as if the motive force of one’s behavior has as yet to be integrated as the tradition continues. And you finally—by the time you’ve reached Socrates and Plato, internalize and supersede the gods in order to get a unified self. The world of polytheism begins to disappear by the time you get to Plato, in favor of an incipient monotheism, which for Plato means that god is the Good. Monotheism, as it were, parallels the unification of the human self, in the realm of the divine.
Homer was interesting to learn about in terms of the remnants of a primitive, native, tribal culture that wasn’t rational and wasn’t self-conscious. Homeric heroes couldn’t think, in the sense of how we think of thinking. They are on the way but they have not arrived. I’ve played this out at the Penny University that meets ever Monday at Calvary Episcopal Church. Page Smith and I started it in 1973, and it still meets every Monday. And I’ve pushed this line of thought. I have found that it’s difficult to have people take it in. What do you mean they don’t “think?” Well, they don’t think conceptually. They wouldn’t know what a definition is. They wouldn’t know what a concept is. It’s all image. It’s all imagination. There’s no cognition, as such. They do not display rational self-consciousness as far as being aware of what they are thinking. The separation of the knower from known has not as yet taken place. Logical thought has as yet to occur although there is an early form of logic, of course, or the poems would be incoherent. The role of comparison in Homer is an early form of logic. The Homeric heroes are proto-thinkers, very rudimentary, like children.
This is what characterizes the terrific discrepancy between the Homeric state of mind and the Platonic state of mind. And that’s why they come into such rude conflict. That’s why Plato banishes Homer from the republic; because he doesn’t want you to persist in the Homeric state of mind. Why? Because it’s basically a trance state. It’s actually a pathological state, according to Plato. Once you’ve reached Socrates, it’s time to wake up, and it’s time to think for yourself and take responsibility for yourself and your behavior. It’s time to achieve an autonomous, centered self with a moral imperative. That is not the case with Homer. So the famous quarrel between poetry and philosophy as it’s called is the quarrel between two states of mind. And that’s one of the things that I’m keen about elaborating for you tonight and two weeks from tonight.
The Snell corrective was a big eye-opener in the sense of these quasi-psychological terms, still functioning as quasi-organs or quasi-bodily functions. My favorite one is thumos. That’s another aspect of Homeric consciousness. What’s thumos? Thumos is this rattling in the chest. The Greek meaning of thumos is courage, vitality or spirit, in the sense of biological spiritedness, as when we talk about a spirited horse or a spirited woman. I don’t know why we don’t talk about spirited men, but we do talk about spirited women—in the sense of a woman who has high spirits, who is very vital. And so thumos is this kind of radiant center, right here in the chest, referenced to the thymus gland. Snell doesn’t say that; I say that. I made the move from thumos to the thymus gland, because of what Snell says about quasi-organs. It’s made to order. He simply missed it because the thymus has as yet to be discovered in terms of modern immunology. The thymus gland is the center of your immunity, so it’s in effect your organ of courage, it’s the center of your vitality because it protects you against illness and disease by programming your T-cells. The thymus, because of thumos, suddenly became of immense interest to me, and I thought, well, Achilles, of all people, has this enormous thymus gland, because he’s the most courageous of all the Homeric heroes.
Okay, it wasn’t all that big. But let’s abstract from it a little bit—the gland itself—and talk about a thymic field. This region in the upper chest is the thymic field, and this is immensely dynamic in the Homeric poems. It’s the center of consciousness in the Platonic construction of the self (psyche), between reason (nous) and desire (epithymia). And unfortunately it begins to fade and fall away after Descartes. We are all now somehow victims of the loss of this thymic center and the affective field it entails. One of the reasons why people struggle about empowerment and self-esteem, is because of the emptiness of this area that should really be full of vigor and vitality. “We are the hollow men”, as T. S. Eliot puts it. Head piece filled with straw.
I learned about thumos from a book that my teacher at Harvard—Paul Tillich—called, The Courage to Be. This is the center of the courage to be—vital self-affirmation. There are no figures in literature that are greater expressions of vital self-affirmation than the Homeric heroes, even though they have a very rudimentary self. By the time you go from Homer to Socrates and Plato, the center moves from here, in the upper chest, to here, in the head. This is the root of consciousness, this is the dark ground of consciousness—the vital ground of consciousness. The more rationality develops, the less this vital center functions. It’s as if rational self-consciousness is purchased at the price of vitality. Especially when literacy occurs. The teacher says: “Johnny, sit still and read and don’t squeak your seat.”
So thumos is my favorite word. If I had to pick a word out of all the words I know, it would be thumos. And it’s thanks to this book by Tillich, The Courage to Be, which I recommend to all of you. He begins with Homer and gives it an analysis of this thymic vigor in Homer, he carries it through Plato, where it’s the middle ground between reason and desire, vital self-affirmation, the bridge between reason and desire, the unreflective striving toward what is noble. That’s thumos. Fabulous word. Cognate, the thymus gland, and believe it or not, the herb, thyme—Thymus vulgaris. I opened a restaurant in Santa Cruz after I left the University. Page Smith was the Maitre D. Joanne LeBoeuf was in the kitchen with my wife, Charlene, and Eloise Smith. I called it The Wild Thyme. And I had a sheet on thumos that I handed out to everybody that came there to dine, designed by my friend, the great typographer of the Greenwood Press, Jack Stauffacher. The specialty of the house was thymus glands. How’s that for carrying through your favorite word. Riz de veau—it’s really the triumph of French cuisine. I was on my thumos kick.
So I press upon you– I want you to focus on this term thumos and the deep meaning of the Greek word for courage and vitality and spiritedness in the biological sense, because we need it so badly. It has been a vanishing point in Western thought since Descartes, because of the subject-object split. I’ll go into that when we get to Socrates two weeks from tonight. I hold in my hand the key to vital self-affirmation.
What is the main theme of the Iliad? There was a period where the Iliad was thought to be a composition—a pastiche of all kinds of poems that circulated after the Trojan war, and they were all gathered together and stitched up and there were many singers of these multiple songs. The Homeric poems were dissected and taken apart, beginning with the catalog of ships. Oh, that got placed there. And so on. And the joke around Harvard was the Homeric poems are not by Homer, but by somebody else with the same name. That’s as funny as it got at Harvard, alluding to the multiple sources.
The same scholarly tradition occurred with the Bible. The Bible was subjected to intense literary criticism with scientific standards, and the five books of Moses—the Pentateuch—were regarded as compositions by multiple authors—J, E, P, and D. It’s called the Documentary hypothesis. The Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly writer and the Deuteronomist. The five books of the Bible were not by Moses, but they were a mosaic. Get it? Well, it’s just as funny.
There is a unitary theme in the Iliad that I think argues for a single author, composer, singer. Notice I didn’t say writer. Homer didn’t write. And the theme is the fact that Achilles is singled out to be told a prophesy that he’s going to die at Troy at the hands of Hector. The unitary theme of the Iliad is the fate of Achilles to die at Troy. It’s a prospect for everybody fighting there, but Achilles is singled out to be told that at Troy you’re going to die. Whenever his mother appears to him, she laments his death. Alas, my child, that I should have given birth to you. Shortest lived of all mortals. And she repeats it again and again. It’s the lament of Thetis, the goddess who is Achilles’ mother. What does Achilles do? He tries to cheat his fate; he’s got a chip on his shoulder. So when he has his quarrel with Agamemnon in the opening of the Iliad, Agamemnon knocks the chip off. He threatens to take Achilles’ bride, because he’s got to give his up. And Achilles says, Okay. He is going to kill Agamemnon as a consequence of just being threatened the loss of his bride. And Athena comes and pulls at his hair. I’ll show you a slide of it in a minute. And says, nuh-u-u-u—uh-uh—Don’t—no, no, don’t do that; you may want me to listen to you when you want something from me, so come on, Achilles. It’s unseemly to kill the king— put your sword up.
This amazing thing happens in the Iliad. This black fluid starts up from Achilles’ feet, almost like a thermometer with the mercury rising. This black fluid overcomes Achilles, and this black fluid is his wrath. I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you. It’s happened to me, maybe four or five times, where—when the fluid rises and hits here, at the top of your head, there’s a cork that pops. It’s called losing your temper, but I mean big time. Big time. We even refer to it as popping your cork. What’s happening with Achilles is that he’s forced to internalize his aggression because Athena will not let him carry out his aggressive intention. He has to eat his heart out. He wants to kill Agamemnon but Athena intervenes and stops it. So he says, Okay, I’m out of here, I may go back to my kingdom and live out my life as a king, forget about immortal song and the deeds that are sung about—hey, I’m going to quit fighting and longing for Achilles—l o n g i n g for Achilles, will come over the Achaean forces when they drop and die at the hands of the Trojans. I have this line: longing for Achilles, ingrained in my brain. It is a hard ‘g’. Like a hard six in craps. Longing for Achilles… Oh, my, the desire this phrase contains.
So Achilles sits brooding by his ships, thinking that he’s somehow going to cheat his fate. He’s not going to die at Troy, he’s going home. He sits by his ships and sings songs of war; he becomes his own Homer, like that Balkan hero who sang to Parry. The same thing happens in the Odyssey. Odysseus comes back to Ithaca disguised as a beggar and he sits next to Penelope, disguised, singing songs about Odysseus. So there sits Achilles. The Trojans encroach upon the Achaean ships and start burning them and Patroclus says, give me your armor and I’ll go in and beat them back. And Achilles says, Okay, and Patroclus goes in and he’s killed by Hector and uh-oh…Achilles realizes the jig is up, he’s got to go in and avenge the death of Patroclus, his dear alter-ego friend, and with that, fulfill his fate to die at Troy.
That’s the theme of the Iliad— this coming to terms with fate as in the case with Achilles. It makes him a kind of proto-Socrates for me. I mean: he meditates on having to die. That’s his fate. He’s a proto-philosopher. Socrates makes that the main theme of philosophy, having one foot in the grave and reflecting on one’s mortality. That’s the major thematic of philosophy. So let’s go through some of the slides.
Isn’t this terrific? That’s Homer. One of the great images. I was thinking, if I ever had a tattoo, I’d have that one, not on my back, but maybe a small one on my right arm—I’m left handed. What’s a wonderful image: the minstrel.
I read an article in the New Yorker about two months ago about how the tradition of the minstrel singing epic poetry—the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita is still extant in India. And they have a festival every year, where minstrels, like Homer, with these enormous memories are able to recite from memory epic poems of India. And 15 to 20 thousand people gather for days to sit in rapt, ecstatic attention, listening to the epics of their culture. That goes on today. They draw a parallel to Millman Parry going to Yugoslavia—that’s mentioned in the article—and they talk about how India is worried that this tradition is dying out as I’m probably sure that it has died out in Yugoslavia.
There’s the man that is the hero of recovering ancient civilization: Heinrich Schliemann. He’s a really funny guy. I refer you to a book to read if you want: Lost and Found. It’s a wonderful story about Schliemann, written in a beautiful prose style. It’s a delight to read. The author tells the whole story of how Schliemann set about to go up against the entire learned tradition of his time, over 150 years ago. It was thought that there were no historical figures involved—this is all poetry; it’s all imagination, there was no Troy, there was no Ithaca, there was no Agamemnon, Achilles. It’s made up; poets make up stuff.; poets tell many a lie. And Schliemann said No, uh-uh. I don’t believe that; I believe that they really existed. I’m going to find them. I’m going to go dig them up.
He realized he had to make a lot of money to be able to do that. So he set about to make millions of dollars. And where would he go to make the money he needed to dig up the gold of Troy, but to the Gold Rush in California. So he comes to California in the—what— ‘49ers. There’s Schliemann. He opens a bank and he’s an expert at assaying gold and he makes a million dollars and he fulfills his ambition to have the financial resources to go to Greece to accomplish what he has set out to do. He marries a Greek girl, Sophie. She comes next. There she is. She was sixteen when he married her. He had a lot of money, so the family said, —Okay. And first night they were in bed, Heinrich, who is this kind of stuffy German-looking guy says, Listen my dear, there will come a time when I will put around your neck the ornaments of Helen of Troy. There she is wearing them. It was a wonderful marriage. They actually devotedly loved one another, and she was a perfect companion to him in his excavations and his exploratory work. This stuffy German, going against the established knowledge of the time—that there were no historical figures to be found or historical places to be found—went and dug them up. He took Homer literally. He read the Iliad so carefully that he could discern from the Iliad where Troy was. And there was a guy already there, near Hissarlik—that was the name of the town near the site of Troy— named Frank Calvert, who owned part of the actual site and who was an archaeologist and who was a big help to Schliemann in locating Troy.
First Schliemann went to Mycenae. I think he dug up Mycenae first—the kingdom of Agamemnon, where they had these shaft graves. And he dug through the shaft grave and looked down and this is what he saw: he saw Agamemnon. Ha! He was lying at the bottom of the grave with his gold mask on his face. And the body—the corpse of Agamemnon was partly preserved. The skeletal structure was there, there were hair and teeth. And over the face or the head of Agamemnon was this gold mask—one of the greatest artifacts in the history of human culture. Now scholars say, No, no, come on, now that’s not really Agamemnon—I mean, come on, Schliemann thought it was, but it’s probably somebody else—yeah, with the same name? No kidding. I mean, I’m willing to give him this. As far as I’m concerned, that’s Agamemnon’s; that’s his mask. Because it’s too good to be true!
Schliemann went ahead and dug up Troy and so the whole ancient world was discovered in its archaeological foundation. He is to be praised in spite of all the criticism. They say he dug past Troy. Troy was at 7A or B and he went down to 8, 9, 10, or 11. Oh, whoa! Schliemann! You just dug past it! Okay, he was an amateur. But for him, it wouldn’t have been found. I suppose eventually, archaeology would have located these sites, but it was Schliemann who did the pioneer work.
These are the lion gates of Mycenae that Schliemann uncovered—the kingdom of Agamemnon—incredible. Nigel put on Aeschylus’ Orestia, which is Agamemnon coming back from the Trojan wars and being assassinated by Clytemnestra, so it always reminds me of that when I look at these lion gates that Agamemnon walked through upon his return to his terrible fate.
These are the shaft graves at Mycenae that Schliemann unearthed and where he found the mask of Agamemnon.
The Archaic smile in the period of Homer is a vexing smile; you wonder, what are they smiling about? It’s characteristic of the Greek sculptings of this period—the Archaic period. I finally decided why Meryl Streep is so beautiful. She’s got the Archaic Smile. So maybe we could get in touch with Meryl Streep and ask what are they smiling about, Meryl? Do you have a clue? Because it’s the Archaic period, I thought, well, are they smiling because it’s a period of dreaming innocence before the rise of rational self-consciousness, and the separation of the knower from the known, and the split between subject and object—Ah? The smile of dreaming innocence. Like infancy? The smiling response in an infant? That’s an enigma, too. There’s been work done on that by John Bowlby. Why do infants smile? As though it’s some kind of strange instinct. So here you have this archaic smile so characteristic of these archaic sculptings. Add an “i”, and you get simile. I’d like you to think of Homeric similes, which we’ll get to, in reference to the archaic smile. I’ll tell you why present
These are all archaic figures. What you can do with Greek sculpting from the archaic period up to the classical period is practically trace the evolution of rational self-consciousness as it comes into expression through the sculptings. The early sculptings are stiff like this—arms straight at the side, the archaic smile— dreaming innocence. They haven’t entered the centered self in correlation with a structured world. It’s a great way to register the evolution that’s occurs. By the time you get to Classical Greece, you have the most fully formed, exquisitely detailed, rationally self-conscious heads and faces, like of the philosophers and even of the gods than anybody could ask for. Now, here’s three of them. They’re kores, they call them. And you see the one on the left, where she’s holding a pomegranate. It’s a very, you know, awesome figure, and all three are characteristically bearing the archaic smile. 30.
Now three other figures, just to give you the sense—you know, the right one, maybe you can begin to see a little dynamic movement, but not quite yet. Not until the period evolves further. Here’s Homer. This is a beautiful sculpting. It’s a very early head. And very early image of Homer. The blind seer. Think of the kind of existential motif of blindness and sight. The Greeks were good at such couplets. They had these—I think of them as existentials; they’re structures of existence. Blindness and sight, Soberness and drunkenness, the fall of the soul into the prison body, sleeping and waking, creatures that live for a day— these become symbolic metaphors for existential states. So here’s Homer, who’s blind and therefore is a seer. The most dramatic example of it would be Oedipus, who when he finally sees, blinds himself. This is the reverse of Homer who is blinded in order to see. It’s a way of understanding that the Homeric minstrels didn’t think of themselves as composing the poems. They prayed to the muses to be given the words of the poems that the muses hold. The muses were the daughters of Memory. They’re the ones who remembered the poems. And so the opening line of the Iliad is, Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, as though the minstrel says, Sing through me—I’m the vehicle for the song of the muses. It’s a transcendent song one is inspired to sing. I like that.
This is the Arundel Homer, a famous bronze in the British Museum.
And that gives you a very good image of the blind Homer. The story is that he went blind when he looked at the shield of Achilles, when Achilles was buried. And the sight of the shield of Achilles that Hephaestus forged after Achilles lost his armor when Patroclus went into the fighting and is killed, the shield of Achilles made by Hephaestus to replace the lost shield was so—Hephaestus kind of like figured the whole world on it, and when Homer looked upon it at Achilles f unreal he was blinded.
And that’s Apollo. Okay. I said that the Homeric gods are kind of enlightenment—the Olympian gods are the beginning of humanism. Homer is revered in reference to the Olympian gods because the Olympians superseded the Erinyes, the elemental deities of wrath and blood and curse—the elemental forces that are summoned when blood is spilled. It’s all blood. And you get it in Aeschylus in the Orestia, when the Erinyes rise up from the spilled blood of Clytemnestra, murdered by her son Orestes. And they want Orestes’ blood as revenge. And they’re transformed from the Erinyes, the wrathful deities of spilled blood only thirsting for revenge into the kindly ones, the Eumenides, which is the subject matter of Aeschylus’ trilogy celebrating the institution of courts of law in Athens and the triumph of the Olympian order over the Uranian.
So the Olympian regime supersedes the prior regime when the demonic forces crawled up your pant-leg and bit you in the ‘huh.’ I mean, it was fear—all fear. Think voodoo. And the transformation that was wrought by the Olympians, these fabulous figures of Olympus is what Homer is credited with. And it had an enormous impact on the Greek state of mind to worship such gods, as opposed to the prior order of elemental, demonic forces thirsting for blood. Apollo is the primary example of the Olympians. His epithet is “he who shoots from afar,” which means he’s the god of distance, of measure, of rationality. You know, you have to be detached, as it were, in order to get a line on things. And that’s Apollo—that’s [Apolline?]. Apollonian. And so he’s one of the primary gods of the Olympian order.
And this is Athena, the great female goddess, the goddess of Athens. And I’ll tell you now, because I want to—I could save it for next time—but, you know, it knocked me out when I found out that Athena was born from the forehead of Zeus. You know, what greater symbol could you want for the expression of rational self-consciousness occurring in Athens, than for Athena, the goddess of reason to be born from the forehead of Zeus? And Socrates can then be said to be born from the forehead of Athena. So it’s a stunning metaphor for me. Next.
So here’s Achilles being grabbed by Athena, by the hair, to prevent him from stabbing Agamemnon. Now, what happens here—there’s another example which I’ll give you—and it’s when Hector is about to be killed by Achilles, and he manages to grab Achilles by the knees. Now, the knees were thought to be a seat of life, because there was fluid in the knees. And so if you could get somebody by the knees before he killed you, you could make an entreaty. It’s a moment where there’s a pause between impulse and act. It’s intercepted. I think that’s a beginning of rational self-consciousness. You know, we deliberate and weigh a course of action and decide what to do and you become responsible for it—well, that hasn’t really happened yet with the figures of the Iliad, but there is this moment that’s the moment of entreaty that intercepts the dynamic of the impulse to act. And it’s happening here with Athena being the agent for the interception, to get Achilles not to run through Agamemnon. Next.
So there he is. This is one of the most beautiful vase paintings. That’s Achilles. See how beautiful he was, even though he was a man-slaughterer, and harried them when they died, and could kill more than everybody at Troy probably put together. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him there. Next.
That’s Achilles bandaging somebody. It could be Patroclus—I forget who it is. Maybe it’s Ajax . Next.
Achilles playing dice. It’s a wonderful vase painting. Next.
Here’s Death of Sarpedon. It’s a beautiful vase painting and it sets up the death of Patroclus, which comes next.
Well, the death of Hector. I guess I don’t have one of Patroclus.
So, as I said, Achilles retrieves the body of Patroclus, having been killed by Hector, and he prepares the body for burial. Now listen to his, ‘cause this is to give you a line on Homeric similes. There’s kind of the simile at large—you know, where the poem resonates one part with another. They’re not similes writ small, where there’s always a “just,” “so,” or “as,” “so.” You know, As a swarm of bees yada-yada-yada-yada, so the army yada-yada-yada. That’s a simile in a nutshell. But there are resonances across the board, probably because of Homeric formulae. And I’m going to give you an example of it, because it makes the poem so beautiful and practically symphonic.
Achilles is going to prepare the body of Patroclus for burial. He calls out to his long-haired henchman to set great cauldrons over the fire, so that there would be water for the bathing of Patroclus. And when the hot water is prepared, Achilles bathes the body of Patroclus, puts healing ointments into the wounds made up of yarrow. He had an herb teacher named Chiron the Centaur who gave him yarrow when he graduated from his herbal class and said, This herb will be called Achillea millifolium after you. And you’ll be able to use it to heal the wounds of your comrades at Troy. So he puts Patroclus then on a bed and covers him with a white sheet and a white linen mantel. I mean, it’s such an image, and goes out to kill Hector.
He finally gets Hector around the battlements of Troy, and he’s about to run him through, and Hector manages to grab Achilles’ knees and make his entreaty: We’ll give you all this ransom—I mean, you have no idea how much we’re going to give you if you spare me. And it’s a kind of ridiculous amount. And Achilles says, Hey, I’d rather hack away your meat and eat it raw. Die, dog, and I’ll take my own death whenever the gods decree it. The greatest words of the poem. And he runs Hector through. He then punctures at the Achilles tendon and puts thongs through and ties Hector up to his chariot, ‘cause he’s going to do shameful treatment to Hector’s body, and he drives him around the battlements of Troy. And all that head that was once so handsome was tumbled in the dust.
Andromache, the wife of Hector had not heard. She called out to her lovely-haired handmaiden to set great cauldrons over the fire so that there would be hot water for Hector’s bathing when he came out of the fighting. Poor innocent, nor knew how, far from waters for bathing. Pallas Athena had cut him down at the hands of Achilles. That’s Homer at his best. Just to juxtapose those two scenes through the formulae. Next.
There he is being dragged and all that head tumbled in the dust. Next.
This is the charioteer of Delphi. This takes us into the Odyssey. And I’m going to speed up now. Let’s say we have ten more minutes, and then we’ll have some time for some questions. Telemachus sets out on a chariot ride to find out about his father. And there’s a funny line that is uttered in his doing so. He said, I don’t really know if he is my father. He expresses a doubt about his paternity. I thought, Oh, I get it, that’s the beginning of philosophy. You know, to kind of ask where’d you come from and who’s responsible for you. It begins with questioning whether your parents are your parents. It’s the shock of non-being. Why is there anything? Why not nothing? That’s what the doubt about one’s paternity leads to. That’s called the beginning of philosophy—the shock of non-being.
So this charioteer of Delphi reminds me of the chariot ride taken by Patroclus and the chariot ride that Parmenides, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers takes to the vision of being. And we’ll go into that to some degree next time. Next.
Here’s [laughs]—this is sailing by the Sirens. Now I gave you a kind of keepsake, namely Kafka’s parable about the silence of the Siren. It’s, to me, fabulous. You almost can’t interpret it; you just have to reread it. But I ask you to, you know, read it again and again, and let the meaning of it express itself to you. Because in a way, Odysseus sailing past the sirens is a kind of symbolic expression of incipient rational self-consciousness going past the old powers that have lost their power. And here’s another parable about Kafka, called just The Sirens.
“These are the seductive voices of the night. The sirens, too, sang that way. You would be doing them an injustice if you thought they had any desire to allure. They knew they had claws and sterile wounds, and they lamented this aloud. They couldn’t help it sounded so beautiful.” Next.
This is another vase painting of Odysseus sailing by the Sirens. Next.
This is by Max Beckmann, one of my favorite artists –great German Expressionist. And it’s his rendition of Odysseus sailing past the Sirens.
This is the cave of the Nymphs. I mean, this is almost as good as Schliemann digging up Agamemnon’s mask. There’s an episode in the Odyssey where Odysseus encounters this cave, and they found it. Now, this is an actual place. You can go there and go into the cave. And I’ll bring it u p next time when we talk about the Myth of Er because in a sense, this cave is the entrance into the Myth of Er, which is the great Platonic myth about what happens to souls after they die. Next.
Okay, now, this to me is the triumphant expression of Homeric similes. And this all opened up for me when I read a paper called Homer’s Contribution to the Meaning of Truth. Great title. And it’s by a guy that used to teach at the New School, a German émigré named Kurt Riezler and he does an analysis of this moment in the Odyssey, where Odysseus disguised as a beggar has come back and maintains his disguise in order to get a sense of the lay of the land and how he’s going to kill all the suitors and finally reveal himself as the King of Ithaca and Penelope’s husband. But while he’s still disguised as a beggar, he sits with Penelope and sings songs of Odysseus. Now, Riezler in this article uses a translation of William Cowper, who was an 18th century British poet. This is his 1791 translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey—he did both. And this is how it reads:
“She, melting at the sound, with drops of tenderest grief her cheeks bedewed, and as the snow by the fibers diffused melts on the mountain top, when [Uris?] breathes and fills the channels of the running streams, so melted she, and down her lovely cheeks poured fast the tears, him mourning as remote who sat beside her.”
You can put the words up, Nigel. I think they’re on the next. I mean, this knocked me out, because Riezler says the following: “The comparison encompasses the whole of Penelope’s fate, past and future, in one visible picture. Our very eyes looking at mountains, snow and brooks see her becoming numb and rigid in long and dreary years, see the hardness, coldness, darkness in her soul soften, warm and brighten, anticipate even by a silent motion in the picture itself the future when the ice will fully break, life flower again, and Penelope will come to know that the beggar is Odysseus himself. Thus the image of the approaching spring entwines and relates to one another the implicit features of Penelope’s inner life and makes their impact visible.”
And he goes into a exact, detailed explanation of the simile and how the terms of the simile are held together by an implied third thing—you know, snow and skin are white, tears and streams flow, and it was just through reading his analysis of this Homeric simile and its unique translation by Cowper, I can’t find anything equal to it in Lattimore or Fagles or Fitzgerald. It’s it—you know, and he makes it clear that in this simile the entire fate of Penelope is expressed. And I wish we had more time to devote to this to really unlock the beauty and wonder of Homeric similes. But that’s that.
So now Odysseus and Penelope are reunited. It’s as if she’s a little annoyed with him dissembling and pretending to be a beggar and not revealing himself to her. So when he finally does, she goes, Oh, wait a minute now, I’m not going to just jump into your arms; you could be a god in disguise. And I’ve learned to arm myself against such stratagems. So let’s wait until tomorrow. Eurycleia, make up the bed, bring it out in the hallway here and we’ll pi ck it up from there. And Odysseus goes, Hey wait a minute. Who can move my bed? See they’ve got a secret sign and it’s their bed. And Odysseus tells this story about how he made his bed. He took an olive tree and he staked out his bedroom around this growing olive tree and he lopped off all the branches, left the tree growing, got three other trees that he cut off and used as the other posts of the bed and built his bedroom around this living olive tree—and you know, Who could move my bed? And Penelope goes, It’s you; it’s the secret sign. And she knows it is indeed Odysseus come back. And she sinks into his arm, and Homer has a simile that flashes back to when Odysseus was in the ocean for days, if not weeks. And finally wins shore on the island of [Ithaca], the land of […?…] and he just manages to miss the rocks and so on and he crawls on shore, clotted with brine, and he looks behind at the abyss that he’s left and has been spared from, and he looks for a place to sleep at night and he beds down under a fall of leaves, and then Homer does another simile: as a farmer far out in his field can’t make it home, he keeps some coals that could be a fire the next day, and so Odysseus hid himself under these leaves so that he would win home and soon, soon. And so when they’re reunited and he’s in an embrace with Penelope, the simile goes, As a swimmer who has finally won shore and looks back at the abyss behind, so they were reunited and saved from one another and he has won home.
It’s a fabulous encounter. And so they’re in bed and Odysseus says, Hey, Penelope, when I went to the underworld, I met Tyresias the blind prophet and he told me I had to set sail again. I’ve gotta do one more voyage and then I’m done; I’ll fulfill my destiny. What are you talking about? I’ve gotta do another voyage. Tyresias said I have to sail west beyond the sun and finally win land and walk inland carrying an oar over my shoulder until somebody says, Why are you carrying that winnowing fan?—because they won’t have known of the sea. And then I can plant the oar and I’ll be released and have fulfilled my destiny. I can come home and live out the rest of my life over my people. Well, she says, Okay. Hurry up.
So one piece of this that I want to give you is that when Odysseus was young, just like Achilles, he was apprenticed to Chiron the Centaur to learn about herbs. And when he came up for his graduation ceremony, Chiron said, I’m not going to give you an herb that will be named after you for the rest of your life like I did Achilles; I’m going to give you an herb as a task. And with that, he hands Odysseus a handful of garlic—little bag of garlic. And he said, Now wherever you go on your many voyages, I want you to plant this garlic. That’s your task. And remember that the word “garlic” means spear-shape, because of the leaves. And Odysseus says, Yeah, yeah, okay. And Chiron says, And moreover, when you get to Circes Island, Hermes will come with a special yellow flowering garlic called Holy Moly. And that will enable you to overcome Circes’ snares. And Odysseus says, Okay. So he takes off, puts his bag of garlic in his pocket, gets on his ship, sales west beyond the sun, comes around the cape, comes up the coast and by god, if he doesn’t land, you know, in the area of Watsonville! And he gets out of his ship and he says, You know, I’ll be back in a while, you guys, just wait here for me, and he puts his oar over his shoulder and he walks inland over Mount Madonna into Gilroy until a Gilroy Indian says to him, Why are you carrying that winnowing fan? And Odysseus goes, Oh, thank god! And he plants his oar in the ground and he steps back and goes, Oar, winnowing fan, spear, garlic! And that’s how Odysseus discovered America and planted garlic in Gilroy.
Whoo! That wasn’t too bad. I wanted to go for an hour and I think I just about made it. I’m only about 2 or 3 minutes over. That’s about the amount of time an audience can bear. So we can take some questions for maybe another ten minutes, and then we’ll break until two weeks from tonight when I carry on with Socrates.
So what do you want to ask?
Question: 26 suitors weren’t just hanging around for no reason. Was there a party going on?
Oh, big party. They just about ate him up. And that’s why he wants to kill them all. He’s mad, because they’ve depleted his whole kingdom over 20 years of feasting there. But the first question you asked is the big one. We didn’t really get into it. You know, the Minoan civilization of Minos, which was located on Crete precedes Mycenaean civilization. And the earth goddess holds sway in the Minoan realm. And when the Aryan migrations come down from Europe that bring the male sky gods with their female consorts, there’s a whole revolution from the earth goddess to the male sky gods, with Zeus finally triumphant. And so, you have kind of two streams. You can go back to the Erinyes prior to the Olympians as the elemental spirits of blood and so on, or you can go back to Crete and the earth goddess. Now, that’s become a big theme for women’s lib, partly thanks to Riana Eisler who lives in Carmel and wrote—what—the Chalice and the Blade. Isn’t that it? and she picks up this whole theme—that, you know, prior to the Achaeans and their male sky gods the Olympians with Zeus in charge and the female consorts, you had the primacy of the earth goddess and it was a peaceful kind of partnership society, according to her. And that was all located on Crete and that got superseded by the Olympians. And that’s the beginning of male domination, beginning with the symbols of the divine and finally eventuating in rational self-consciousness.
I should have said—I taught a course at Harvard my last two years there with Paul Tillich. It was called the “Self-interpretation of Man.” You couldn’t do that again! And it was a four-semester course. I got to give every third lecture, and it was a sweep from early Greece up to Existentialism. A fantastic course—probably one of the best courses and surveys of western culture ever given in this country. Well, in four semesters, not a single woman was mentioned. Not one! You know, it was 1960 to 62. And the women’s movement hadn’t happened as yet until what—the later ‘60s. Yeah. ’65. So we were like the last gasp of the old tired white male Europeans. And what made it even more remarkable is that half the class were Radcliff students and they never said a word. And I met one later on in life, and she expressed resentment over that, and that nobody spoke up and that there was not a single woman included and, you know, what can you say? I mean, it’s the case. I mean, women haven’t really entered into cultural history, and certainly into philosophy until, you know, like 50 years ago. So this whole male-domination number is come under, you know, intense scrutiny, largely to the disadvantage of the teaching of the humanities altogether. You know, the core curriculum has eroded at almost every institution. And you just don’t read Homer any more. You read Black Elk Speaks. I asked my nephew, who went to Santa Cruz—Harrison Ford’s son, Willard Ford, and when he was a senior, I said, What’s the best course you’ve had here at Santa Cruz? He said, oh, the American Indian in film. Yeah, okay. I mean, I didn’t want to say anything. The American Indian in film. Well, there it is. Next.
Question: Did Odysseus ever get together with Penelope—
Oh, yeah. I mean, there is this legend that he had to sail again, and there’s actually a wonderful little essay by Herman Broch, I think on this voyage of Odysseus. That’s where I picked it up that he discovered American and planted Garlic in Gilroy. But they reunited and it’s a glorious reunion. It’s so tender, I mean, you should read it. It’s a fabulous account. I mean, their actual reunion.
Question: And they lived happily ever after?
Yeah, they did live happily ever after—very much so.
Question: There’s a book about the 12 steps of healing—I’ve forgotten the name of the fellow who wrote that, and it goes through the different centers of the body and then back down again. In other words, he talks about us going through these different levels of healing and then returning and starting over again. And the question that comes to my mind—the emergence of rational self-consciousness seems to me has led us to situations where we our separateness from all that is and the unity of all consciousness and the field of unified consciousness is that I think you’re saying that Homer was kind of tuned into—certainly the native people were and in some places still are—that this has led us to being on the brink of destroying the planet, so it seems like it’s time to go around again and come back up again and so that this—you know, the tribal consciousness has something to offer us in reconnecting with all life and the dynamic unity of all life.
No question about it.
Question (cont’d): To go there now after having done the rational self-consciousness, it seems it’s not exactly the same as it was before, but it has tremendous gifts to give us now.
You can call it immediacy at second hand. It’s a term that Kierkegaard uses. I agree with you. I had to go through a big corrective, and I did it by virtue of my friendship with Ted Carpenter who is a famous anthropologist who’s done a lot of work with the Inuit or the Eskimos. He’s published photographic albums of Inuit or Eskimo peoples from, oh, let’s say 50 to 75, to a hundred years ago. He thinks they’re all gone. I mean, they’ve pretty much died out. And to look at these faces… Nanook of the North would be a good example. You’re trying to tell me that they’re not intelligent? No, I had to give it up. Rational self-consciousness is the contribution of the Greeks to western culture. Hey, but it ain’t all that good. Literacy isn’t even all that good. If I were an American Indian, I’d run. You have to give up your tribal consciousness if you want to become rationally self-conscious and literate. That’s the tragedy of this western hegemony that’s inflicted on all native peoples everywhere, to their disadvantage. So how do you account for that kind of tragedy? I don’t know. The Greeks were the first colonialists. In a way that’s what made them rationally self-conscious. They were able to leave their place. Education in the Greek mode is defined as overcoming the narrow confines of one’s birth. And the migratory impulse of the Greeks had some bearing on their mental abilities. The mind has an affinity for migration. So when you try to answer the question, Why did this all happen in Greece? The colonizing enterprising spirit of the Greeks is part of their self-transcendence; they weren’t rooted to given places. The migratory impulse is what begins this terrific enterprise, but to see the impact that rational self-consciousness and collaboration with literacy has on native peoples and tribal peoples world wide is a huge tragedy and conflict that we’re not over with yet. To return to an appreciation of native consciousness and the self-nature correlation, the notion of immediacy at second hand, is something to be prized.
Question: What is the prescription for a literate rational civilization or individual to recapture the best of the pre-rational consciousness and not lose what advantages do come from the Socratic development?
Well, Homeric similes and the Archaic Smile are a big antidote for me. Whenever I want to renew my appreciation for archaic culture, I go back to that. When I turned 50, I sat down at my typewriter and wrote the Long Lost Last Dialogues of Socrates. I had this inspirational fit on my 50th birthday. Socrates didn’t really die; he was given some kind of a poison formula, but it only put him into a deep trance state. It simulated death; the authorities proclaimed him dead; they released his body for burial and he revived. He was kept quiet in seclusion for about 2 or 3 years before he finally died, and this is what he said.
I have Socrates revise everything. He’s gone through a death experience and he thinks anew about the Homeric state of mind and reviews everything and thinks differently about it, so it was my effort to offset, as it were, the Platonic emphasis on rationality. You can play it any way you like. I did it by looking at photographs of Eskimos and it had an enormous impact on me. I made a vow that every year I’d watch Nanook of the North. You can’t believe it! This guy in a constant blizzard with snow as high as this room, builds an igloo and gets along. I think I’ve got it tough ‘cause I have to walk outside to pick up the New York Times? Couldn’t I have a dog that does it for me? The subject-object split really is so pronounced for us–the differentiation between knower and known– that we can’t put it together again.
Subject-object sat on a wall, subject-object had a big fall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put subject-object together again. The Humpty-dumpty predicament is the outcome of rational self-consciousness.
Question: But you could say that Kierkegaard and those guys saw consciousness as a curse.
Question: Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard—those guys saw consciousness as a curse.
Yes, it’s the burden of rational self-consciousness with Kierkegaard, that’s for sure. And that’s why I like him, because he really makes it clear that this is a very, very heavy load. And he’s instructive to read for that very reason. His whole pseudonymous authorship is an expression of the burden of rational self-consciousness. He assumes these fictitious mentalities to write a book to play out a line of thought. And it’s just unbelievably clever and wonderful. There was a German trend to think of rational self-consciousness as a curse which includes a number of figures, Nietzsche among them. They got Hitler as a result.
Question: Do you see a difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey? I mean, there are some people who’ve actually suggested different authors.
Yes, I know.
Question: And they do seem to have slightly different takes on exactly what you’re talking about.
I can see that, but I still like to think of a unitary authorship. And to me there are enough parallels between the Odyssey and the Iliad not make me worry about it. You can argue either way.
Question: Maybe the greatest essay ever written on the Iliad of all the essays is Simone Weil on The Iliad and the Use of Force, and it’s all about the Iliad.
I had it on the bibliography, but somehow it didn’t get printed in this version. It’s Simone Weil. Fantastic French philosopher who died during the 2nd World War. And she wrote an essay called The Iliad as a Poem of Force. She drives home the notion that force in the Iliad is what turns a living hero into a dead thing on the ground. And that’s another simile that: “As the luxuriant olive, by a swain reared in some solitude where rills abound, puts forth her buds, and fanned by genial airs on all sides, hangs her bows with whitest flowers, but by a sudden whirlwind from its trench uptorn, it lies extended on the field. Such was Euphorbus of the ash spear when he was struck down.” So Simone Weil is one of the great commentators on the Iliad and that essay came out when I was teaching the Iliad at Harvard.
Question: What do you think about the theme of death in the Odyssey?
I would have loved to have talked some more about Odysseus’ descent into the underworld. I can probably bring it up when we talk about the Myth of Er, which is Plato’s “update” of the Odyssean descent. They have to give the ghosts, the shades, blood, in order to give them some kind of presence, and they have to slaughter an animal so that the ghosts can drink of the blood and then they can converse and have some interaction. And Odysseus’ mother steps up–he didn’t know she had died. And he tries to embrace her, and she goes through his arms like smoke and he’s so undone, he turns away and she says: “Odysseus, all mortals meet this judgment when they die.” He’s very shaken and shattered by it. And then he sees Achilles, and he calls him Old Knife. Hey, Old Knife—I mean, every time I think of that, it just knocks me out—“Old Knife?!” Odysseus says, Achilles, you know, we honored you as a god when you were alive and you’ve become the subject of immortal song; surely you can say something reassuring about being dead. And Achilles says, I’d rather be the slave to some farmer on iron rations than the lord over all these flibberty-gibbets—the after-images of used-up men! It’s such a moment in Homer, because here’s Homer, who sings the memory of the heroic deeds in immortal song, and he has Achilles saying, Hey, forget about it, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s an amazing critical stop-point in the Odyssey.
Okay, you guys. I want to thank you. I’m glad I stuck my neck out. [applause] I want to thank you all for coming, because I did stick my neck out. I had no idea whether anybody would come out for Homer, and then the dopey Metro weekly said I was going to talk about Homer Simpson. Maybe that’s why you all came. I hope you weren’t disappointed. So thanks again for coming, and I’ll see you here in two weeks.