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Breathing Homer’s Pure Serene

Why Homer Matters is the best book about literature I have read in decades. Significantly, its author, Adam Nicolson, is not a tenured professor at some famous university or even an independent classical scholar. And this difference shows, all to the benefit of the reader.  An accomplished sailor, Nicolson has endured gales and felt the spume and spray of sail, like Odysseus. He has faced the cold steel of a dagger point against him on the plains of the Levant, not unlike the warriors of Troy.  He is not some old, bald head, annotating lines from his study, but instead advances our understanding of the poems through his own travels and personal discoveries from a life fully lived.   Particularly in this age when so much literature is refracted through the prism of political correctness, it is invigorating to read a book so loud and bold in its reassertion of the centrality of these canonical texts to seeing our own world.

That is not to say that the book is not learned. Nicolson has a comprehensive understanding of the most important aspects of Homeric scholarship. For instance, he defends Milman Parry’s claim that the formulaic nature of Homeric epithets shows that these great epics were sung for generations before they were committed to paper. To this insight, he adds his own that the poem may thus capture the worldview of a far older age than that in which they were codified.

That certainly accords with my own experience of such epic poetry. Years ago I trekked in the High Himalaya and one night on the trail there came a stir in the camp as our guide told us that foremost bard of Bhutan had come to visit.  He sang a tale of shepherds and men fighting with weapons that seemed more from the Bronze Age than the Middle Ages.  I had never felt closer to Homer, even though I was in Asia, not Europe, and in the mountains, not by the sea.

Nicolson also provides arresting ideas of his own about the works. He sees the essential conflict in the Iliad as one of different eras and places.   Achilles “carries a presouthern, precomplicated world of purity and integrity within him.” In contrast, Agamemnon is an urban leader, deeply invested in possessions and status. Achilles’s rage is in part against the triviality of “ownership.”  Achilles reflects the sensibility of a nomad of the northern steppes where honor is all, but most of the Greeks embrace a new, more cosmopolitan view, imbued by the social organization developing later in the Mediterranean. As a result, “The Iliad’s subject is not war or its wickedness but a crisis in how to be.”

Within the short compass of this post, I can only touch on the richness of his enterprise. Nicolson also contrasts Homer’s epics with ancient Egyptian literature, where the highest good seems to be the achievement not of glory but a life of ease and plenty.   Nicolson is at his best when he sums up the understanding that comes from his close reading:

“The Homeric view of the world is essentially traumatic and multiple. All is contention; power is something to be fought for, not accepted; the gods themselves are at each other’s throats; nature may stand there as beautiful background, but it too is drenched in conflict and pain.”

The rise of ISIS and the reality of death and separation should remind us of the power of the Homeric perspective. But in our apparently comfortable world with secure borders and antibiotics, it is often easy to become complacent about the nature of reality.  Nicolson’s book is a great work, because it helps Homer do for our age what it has done for previous ages—force on us hard truths that we spend much of our life avoiding.

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