Sunday, May 13, 2007

Just finished reading the Odyssey, which I hadn't gone all the way through before. Oh, my, it's good writing indeed (both in the Fitzgerald translation, which I read, and in the Lattimore, which my friend Ryan has been reading). "Crisp" and "clean" are adjectives the two of us have repeatedly used to describe it.

This love of crispness is something of a novelty for me, a writer with a general attraction to sudden messes, disruptions of the ongoing tone, instances of clownish performed ineptitude, places where structural flaws are so profound that the edifice nearly collapses and, in the face of that near-disaster, we have to look at the whole work in a radically different way (perhaps discarding the idea of a "whole work," or seeing the work as acting out a double life, as a totality made up of unstable and widely differentiated elements that, in their interactions, set off energetic events that call the totality into question, disrupt its thing(noun)ness).

And Homer does have this, too, in his way. The casual anecdote, the dramatic tale, the brag, the catalog, the elaborate lie can slide into each other at an instant. Mournful tragedy or gory and detached depictions of slaughter (reminding me at times of Sade) are suddenly interrupted by/mixed with mischievous humor or moralizing. Disruption of tone, sudden shift in mode of speech, the artifice of repeated motifs (often entire speeches), the explicit appearance of the third-person narrator in the form of declarations ("O swineherd!") and injunctions to his audience to participate imaginatively in the upcoming simile--Homer's text is full of devices and lopsided structures that give the whole work a great deal of air.

As I write this I'm making bread. I've never done it before, and am
excited to find that the dough is actually rising. I hope for a coherent
loaf with no significant structural flaws, but don't expect it this time.
I'm mostly looking forward to the smell of the baking.

The range of Homer's similes is enormous, the connections and comparisons often quite odd. Here's Odysseus, disguised as an old man, sleeping in the entryway of his house:
His rage
held hard in leash, submitted to his mind,
while he himself rocked, rolling from side to side,
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he turned left and right [...]
Odyssey, bk. 20, lines 23-28

And here he's hanging onto a tree limb above Kharybdis, waiting for his mast and keel to be vomited back up:

And ah! how long, with what desire, I waited!
till, at the twilight hour, when one who hears
and judges pleas in the marketplace all day
between contentious men, goes home to supper,
the long poles at last reared from the sea.
bk. 12, lines 42-46

Such elaborate comparisons could be employed as attempts to describe something that can't be described directly, but I don't think that's what happens in the Odyssey; the things described by comparison are often quite mundane. It's instead Homer's way of weaving society into the poem without subordinating it to the narrative of individuals. The similes have a life of their own and a much wider range than that encompassed by the plot(s) of Odysseus' adventures. Comparisons are made to farming, legal debate, medicine, cooking, politics, wild nature, the domestic scene... chosen to contrast sharply with the region of human existence the main story inhabits at that time. This contrast, and the development of each simile into a vivid and detailed image, ensures the self-sufficiency, the independence of the metaphor from that which it's supposed to represent. Comparison not to explain or make a point, but to allow unordered elements of the outside into the form.

It's in these similes that some of the most "crisp" writing occurs. I'm mostly thinking of Homer's descriptions when I use that word ("descrisptions?").

Actually, I should replace the word with "presentations." Here's a bit of Pound:
When Shakespeare talks of the "Dawn in russet mantle clad" he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing one can call description; he presents.
(Literary Essays, p.6)
Similarly (as Mark Enslin pointed out on reading the first draft of this post), it's a lot easier to imagine the dawn than to imagine "rosy fingers;" Homer's figure doesn't employ a more immediate or familiar term to illustrate a less immediate one. He presents the dawn in a certain light.

Minimal and direct depiction of a staggering range of phenomena. Here I'll restrict myself to modifiers, particularly as used to present characters. A Homeric device: one adjective or adjectival phrase at most in any instance of characterization ("grey-eyed Athena" is a famous motif). When the adjective varies from one presentation of the character to another, Homer's economy has a complex effect. The restriction of adjectives puts the focus on activity, process and context (what the character does in a particular situation) rather than on psychology (what or how the character is). At the same time, the singularity of the adjective gives it a strong role in the sentence, and since the people in the Odyssey are far from what we'd call "fleshed-out," the modifier can often take over our image of the individual entirely, making for a vivid characterization, but one without a character, or whose character is less vivid than the aspect highlighted.
A display of a way of behaving, a "comportment" in relation to circumstances that's detachable from the individual.

This is the general way I'm thinking about Homer's devices: ways of setting a chunk of the poem free from the (anti?)heroic individual and his plots, allowing modes of behavior, aspects of persons, roles, economic activities, and ethical contexts to leak in from outside the realm of the story proper. The Odyssey's ways of opening out into a larger overall scale (the "world" of the Greeks as Homer and his listeners knew it), more than its presentation of the spatial and temporal scale of Odysseus' journey, are what make it an "epic."

the bread turned out just fine; improvements to come. funny shapes, good crust.
I'll try to come back and add more quotations later.

& more on Pound soon, I think... perhaps the vile politics in Homer, if I can find anything interesting to say about that... and I may take up the thread of "presentation through an aspect" again, fiddling with the lens of Heidegger's earlier phenomenology.