Homer at the Edge of the World

August 12, 2000

Source: British Museum

This essay on Homer appeared in an edited form as “Homer, Mover of Souls” in The Straits Times (12 August 2000).

Homer as a single poet or many, as son of any one of seven contending birthplaces, does not begin to chip at the Homeric cornerstone on which a tenacious world literature must be built.

I say “world” and not just “western” because, while Homer inhabits the zero point of western civilization, the notion of history is so much a construction of its opposite, of discontinuities, that the West staring through its own archaeology can hardly find itself more Homeric than the East.

What this also means, paradoxically, is that Homer has become more personable to all of us today.

To say this is not to have forgotten Homer’s cultural background but to recognize that, in him, something has so fulfilled specificity that any more we know can only raise his universality, not encrypt it.

In a line, Homer has become synonymous with the myths he writes about and, while these do not need Homer to defy the amnesia of time, they nonetheless need him to transcend themselves.

With Homer, myths become less of the numinous in story form and more of a storyteller’s desire to work through a thoroughly human world that resists the human. In him is thus that believable portrayal, on the one hand, of a sense of self always trembling under a tactual macrocosm of too much individuality or, for that matter, non-individuality.

On the other hand, there is an inexplicable force of community or universal fluidity reacting directly to the heartfelt beliefs of individuals as if this can only live through them. Little in either respect has changed for us and such stable content makes it possible to mark out timeless truths about the way we feel or function.

Indeed, considering Homer’s own fondness for human parallels, it appears that Homer has long cracked that massive modern puzzle we call our genetic code.

Echoes of this — like Diomedes’s rage matching Achilles’s central rage and Telemachus’s quest for his father paralleling Odysseus’s for his home Ithaca — are sometimes more audible than his stories. When war demands a total image of impotence, even Great Zeus is not spared, grieving for Sarpedon as King Priam of Troy and Phaenops, one of countless minor fathers, weep alike for their dead sons.

To thus list the Iliad among war epics is perhaps misleading although, unlike modern sensitive depictions, Homer never flinches from admitting war’s hypnotic glory. Similarly, the Odyssey, his adventure story, is not naïve about the lure of off-base adventures at a cost to domestic cohesion, about the impossibility of two centres of commitment.

Such insight draws more from the ordinary reality we experience than either the promises of materialism or the idealism at work in media and politics. When Homer celebrates virtues, he does so without trivializing the breadwinner’s burden, the strains of marital faithfulness, filial piety and citizenry, the fragility of wise government and the non-equation of religious faith and well-being.

These as plain truths of things mean that our wish to pursue a more “desirable” life by seeing them as poor choices cannot make them any less relevant. We would have only fallen back on those drives whose patterns embody them and whose intensity renders us vulnerable to those who know them better than we do.

Like Homeric heroes, we rise and fall within these balances, but Homer, in understanding them too well, has curiously come to exist somewhere outside, looking at his heroes and us as only a writer of gods can.

It is therefore immeasurably noble that someone this wise and compelling has chosen not to rule over men or establish sects but simply to tell stories. For Homer, as the coincidence of his myths and all we know of the story-teller, is finally that dividing-line between two kinds of world-movers: those who change the world we live in but do nothing for our souls and those who change us by meeting us that we may live better in our world.

The latter, as the least to themselves, stand enduringly as our best promise of ourselves to ourselves.

Gwee Li Sui


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