Did the Iliad have an author? Since this is probably the best known text from the ancient Greek world, one might find the question a puzzling one: of course the Iliad had an author; it was Homer. But it turns out that this answer is no longer accepted by experts in classical literature — and hasn’t been for at least ninety years. Adam Kirsch’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Classicist Who Killed Homer,” sheds light on the topic, and also raises highly interesting questions about the nature of imagination, narrative, and story-telling. Kirsh’s piece is a discussion of Robert Kanigel’s biography of Milman Parry, Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry. Parry was a young professor of classics at Harvard in the 1930s, and his treatment of “Homer” created, according to Kanigel, a permanent change in the way that classicists conceived of the making of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The time of Homer — or at least, the time at which the oral poems that eventually became the Iliad and the Odyssey originated — is perhaps five or six centuries before the time of Socrates; it was ancient history, even for the ancient Greeks. Homer is indeed discussed by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, but with essentially no basis in historical fact. So how could modern scholars — scholars in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries — arrive at evidence-based conclusions about the authorship of these great works? This is the question that Parry sought to answer; and here is Kirsch’s summary of Parry’s considered conclusion:
Parry’s thesis was simple but momentous: “It is my own view, as those who have read my studies on Homeric style know, that the nature of Homeric poetry can be grasped only when one has seen that it is composed in a diction which is oral, and so formulaic, and so traditional.” In other words, the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, because they weren’t written at all. They were products of an oral tradition, performed by generations of anonymous Greek bards who gradually shaped them into the epics we know today. Earlier scholars had advanced this as a hypothesis, but it was Parry who demonstrated it beyond a reasonable doubt. (73)
The primary clue that Parry pursued was the most evident stylistic fact about the poems: their meter and their continual use of stylized epithets for the key actors. The epithets and the meter of the verses give the oral poet a manageable framework from which to create line after line of verse.
Rather, [the poet] had a supply of ready-made epithets in different metrical patterns that could be slotted in depending on the needs of the verse, like Tetris blocks. As Parry wrote in one of his papers, “The Homeric language is the work of the Homeric verse,” not the other way around. (75)
Most interesting is the account that Kirsch provides of Parry’s method of research and argument. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not the work of a single author as well. But their arguments were largely textual: each of the books had a distinctive style and vocabulary, and it was straightforward to argue that these texts are an amalgam of multiple earlier texts. Parry proceeded differently in his treatment of the Iliad and the Odyssey. From a textual point of view, these poems are fairly consistent over their thousands of lines. But Parry asked himself a different question: how do pre-literate communities compose and transmit their stories? And he investigated this question through fieldwork in the 1930s. He undertook to observe the process of the creation of an oral tradition in the making. He functioned as a kind of “ethno-poeticist” — an observer and collector of oral traditions in these “spoken-word” communities of Yugoslavia.
Here is an especially interesting part of Parry’s research in Yugoslavia:
Parry’s research showed that, in an oral-performance tradition, it makes no sense to speak of a poem as having an authentic, original text. He found that, when he asked a guslar to perform the same poem on consecutive days, the transcripts could be dramatically different, with lines and whole episodes appearing or disappearing. With the guslar he considered the most gifted, a man in his sixties named Avdo Međedović, Parry tried an experiment: he had Međedović listen to a tale he’d never heard before, performed by a singer from another village, and then asked him to repeat it. After one hearing, Međedović not only could retell the whole thing but made it three times longer, and, in Lord’s recollection, much better: “The ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing.” (75)
What is interesting to me in this experiment is the light it sheds on the cognitive and creative process of the oral poet him- or herself. What seems to be going on in this account is a complex act of narrative cognition: hearing the unfamiliar story, linking it to a broader context of allusions and metaphors within the ambient oral tradition, remembering the story, and retelling the story with embellishments and refinements that make it more complex and more aesthetically satisfying to the listening audience. Parry seems to be observing the process of “oral poetry composition and transformation” in action, through the skilled intellectual and poetic work of the guslar Međedović. It is skillful improvisation joined with an immersion in a tradition of heroes and other stories, leading to a better and even more satisfying story. If this were Tolstoy’s work, we might say that the refinement of the story is the result of a repetitive process of drafting, editing, rewriting, and enhancement; but that iterative process is plainly absent in Međedović’s performance. Instead, Međedović is given the frame of the story and the key details, and — in real time — he weaves together an ornamented and rich version of the story “with a depth of feeling that had been missing.” This is a very plausible mechanism for explaining the richness and complexity of the storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey — not a single Tolstoy writing an epic, but a series of more and less talented “guslars” in the pre-Athenian world rehearsing, refining, and extending the stories in a way that is astonishing in its comprehensiveness and richness by the time it was collected and recorded.
Kirsch doesn’t provide this analogy, but we might say that Parry proceeded somewhat analogously to Darwin in his careful observation of finches and other organisms in the Galapagos, supporting eventually a powerful hypothesis about the genesis of species (natural selection based on differential reproductive success). In Parry’s case, the result is an account of the multigenerational genesis of stories told by specialized story-tellers like Međedović — or the proto-Homers who contributed to the construction of the Iliad and the Odyssey over a period of centuries.
Notice how different this process of story composition and transmission is from other kinds of familiar narratives — novels and academic histories, for example. When David Hume attempted to tell the story of a century of English politics in The History of England, his narrative is structured by written sources, extensive notes, and a narrative plan. And it is an iterative process of editing and revision, with a conception of the whole that guides corrections throughout the narrative. When Tolstoy composed War and Peace, he too had the opportunity of revision, reconciliation, and recomposition, to ensure consistency of plot and character development. The oral poet, by contrast, is doing his creative work in real time; no corrections, no going back to an earlier chapter, no reminding himself/herself of the gist of the plot in earlier stages of the story. This presents an entirely different problem of creative cognition for the oral poet that is quite different from that facing the historian or the novelist. Memory, metaphor, fable, and humor through the unexpected all play a role in the oral poet’s performance.
Is there a field of cognitive psychology that studies narrative improvisation? Interestingly enough, there is. Here is an interesting research report (link) from a group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who have studied improv theater. The group includes Brian Magerko, Waleed Manzoul, Mark Riedl, Allan Baumer, Daniel Fuller, Kurt Luther, and Celia Pearce. They describe the object of their research in these terms:
Improvisation is a relatively understudied aspect of creativity and cognition. One way of viewing improvisation is as the act of real-time dynamic problem solving . One of the most recognizable manifestations of improvisational problem solving comes from the theatre arts community. Improvisational theatre – or simply improv – is a rich source of data for reaching a better understanding of improvisational problem solving and cognition [11, 32]. This is in part due to the diversity of performative activities in improv, which allows us to manipulate independent variables for purposes of experimentation, and the decoupling from real-world problems (e.g., emergency management) that are hard to control or recreate. Focusing on improv theatre, we can more specifically define improvisation as a creative act to be the “creation of an artifact and/or performance with aesthetic goals in real-time that is not completely prescribed in terms of functional and/or content constraints.” Our definition here intentionally focuses on the process of creating; improvisation is viewed as an active endeavor that is equally, or more, important than the final product. That is, how you get to an outcome is more important than the outcome.
Like the topic of skilled bodily performance discussed elsewhere here (link), there is a great deal of room for important research on the question of improvisational narrative composition. This refreshes my own notion that many of the most ordinary parts of human life repay fascinating results when studied from a fresh point of view.
(I realize that I myself have had a little bit of personal experience of this kind of story-telling. Over the past six years or so I have developed a tradition with my grandchildren of an ongoing series of stories about a young French boy (Pierre) who worked with the French intelligence agency in the 1960s. Pierre has many adventures, and each story is initiated by a “seed event” that I bring to mind and then embroider with many exciting and laughable adventures. Among other things, I’ve learned that drama and humor must be mixed — the boys love absurd situations and wordplay as much as they enjoy complicated and sinister plots with figures like the mysterious X and Y. Most recently on vacation we enjoyed a few new stories based on Pierre’s secret visit to Dien Bien Phu and Dien Bien Phuie. In a very simple way, this is the work of a guslar! Here are a few of the stories that I’ve written down and recorded for the grandchildren during the pandemic; link.)