Res agens: towards an ontology of the Homeric self.
Such a line of inquiry might, of course, strike some readers as problematic and "question-begging" in the extreme. Inasmuch as the Iliad and Odyssey are poems, not philosophic tracts, we might wish to resist the attempt to associate them with anything like an "ontological theory of self." In response to this sort of reaction, however, I would stress, in the first place, that what is here proposed is not the presentation of a supposed "Homeric ontology of self," but rather the formulation of (what is not at all the same thing) an ontology of the self in Homer. In other words, I do not wish to argue that the epics themselves provide us with a theory of the self (for obviously, the poems have nothing to do with the work of theory as such--with the work, that is, of making assumptions explicit, considering rival claims, drawing out implications, etc.). The poems provide us rather with certain images and characterizations of the self which it is our task to theorize. It is for us to make explicit the poems' assumptions about selfhood, to defend a certain version of the way those assumptions fit together to form a coherent whole, and to see what those assumptions and their "fit" consequently imply. (2)
Another serious objection to this undertaking, though, would be the claim that there just may be no single way to unite all the various assumptions made about the self in Homer into one fully integrated picture. Even granted, on the basis of the "implication of the pronouns," that the Homeric epics do rely upon some operative conception of selfhood (a point that in fact has not always been granted (3)), it is far from necessary that there be just one such conception at work in the poetry, or that they need cohere in any logically consistent fashion (how consistent or unitary, after all, are the various views of "love" expressed in a typical work of romance, not to mention the linguistic usages of everyday life?). Ultimately, of course, though I think there are a number of factors that speak in favor of the plausibility of the Homeric poems being composed with a unitary picture of the self in mind, (4) there is no simple a priori way to argue definitively against the objection that there are multiple conceptions of the self at work in Homer, a multiplicity which would of course render any attempt at a systematic "ontology of self in Homer" futile. As Leslie Kurke states in her study of the coherence of Pindaric ode, one can finally only argue for the possibility that thematically related images in a poem are meant to be understood by its audience as forming a "coherent system": the proof lies finally "in the conviction individual readings inspire" (1991, 12). In what follows, then, my task will be to inspire the conviction that the diverse constellation of images and linguistic constructs connected with the self in Homer does in fact form a "coherent system," a consistent and unitary picture of what it is to be a self; that the presentation of this picture forms one of the basic literary projects of Homeric epic; and finally, that a properly theoretical appreciation of this picture is thus, quite apart from its interest to the intellectual historian, of key importance to the interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey alike, both as individual poems, and in their mutual relation to one another.
Part One: The Body, The Soul, and the Homeric "Un-Self"
"But what then am I? A thing which thinks ... a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels." (Descartes, Meditations HR II, 153)
With this famous and fateful declaration from the Second Meditation, Renee Descartes gave decisive expression to what has served for centuries now as the fundamental presupposition concerning the nature of the self in all modern, Western cultures--namely, the identification of self with acts of conscious intellection. (5) As we begin our investigation into the precise nature of the Homeric self, it is worth stating, right at the outset, that whatever kind (or kinds) of thing this self turns out to be, we may be assured that it is at any rate no Cartesian "thinking thing," no res cogitans. (6) This much is made clear for us in Book XXIII of the Iliad, in the strange, pathos-ridden exchange Achilles has with the "death-spirit," the psuche, of his recently dead friend, Patroclus. As Achilles falls asleep, this psuche comes to admonish him for his apparent neglect of his friend's body and burial; it goes on then to instruct him as to how the burial should be conducted, offers predictions of Achilles's own future fate, and even "reminisces" over the first meeting between the two friends in days gone by. On almost any modern understanding of the self, therefore, we should have to say that Achilles has spoken with none other than Patroclus--a dead Patroclus, it is true--but, inasmuch as this psuche wills and thinks, and inasmuch as it shows an "apperceptive" awareness of the continuity of these willings and thinkings with those experienced by Patroclus when he was alive, it would clearly seem that this psuche is indeed one in "self" and "person" with the once-living hero of the same name.
Subsequent events, however, simply do not support this seemingly "natural" interpretive assumption. For as their interview comes to a close, Achilles desperately attempts to embrace the death-spirit of his friend, but finds he cannot do so: oud' elabe ("he did not take hold of it," XXIII.100). The psuche of Patroclus eludes Achilles' grasp, and "like smoke, it was gone beneath the earth," kata chthonos eute kapnos oicheto (XXIII.100-101). (7) This turn of events prompts a shocked Achilles to exclaim that "there is indeed something in the house of Hades," e ra ti esti kai ein Aidao domoisi (XXIII.103); as to the exact nature of this psuche, however, Achilles can only conclude that it was "amazingly like the very self" of his dear friend," eikto de theskelon autoi (XXIII.107); which is of course to say that, whatever this fully conscious and intelligent "entity" may have been, it was simply not Patroclus--it was not the man himself. (8) Manifestly, genuine Homeric selfhood is to be grounded in something other, something more than mere acts of self-conscious intellection.
The reason Achilles refuses to equate the psuche of his friend with the man himself, apparently, is that psuche offers him nothing to "take hold of." This in turn would encourage us to think, as Michael Clarke has recently argued, that in Homer, real "selfhood" is not finally based in consciousness per se, but is rather to be identified, strictly speaking, with the body. And indeed, there is an abundance of evidence in both Homeric poems to support just such a notion. In the proem to the Iliad, for instance, we are told that the wrath of Achilles sent the psuchai of many men to Hades, "but the men themselves," autous, were made the spoils of every dog and bird" (I.3-5). In a similar way, Priam makes the dire prediction that once he has been killed and the Achaeans have sacked Troy, "me myself (auton) will the raw-eating dogs rend last of all before the front gates," (XXII.66-67). In such cases, as the use of the intensive personal pronoun makes clear, the self is to be equated with nothing more or less than the "stuff" of the body--the physical kind of stuff a bird or dog could tear at and consume (cf. Clarke 1999, 158-59). Clarke finds additional support for this view, too, in the consistent Homeric habit of placing the terms for "corpse"--nekus and nekros--in apposition to a fallen hero's proper name (where we, for instance, might more naturally speak of the corpse of "so-and-so"): "The corpse, Patroclus, lies beside the ships, unwept and unburied ..." keitai par neessi nekus aklautos athaptos, Patroklos (XXII.386-87);"And then I sent my comrades into Circe's halls to bring the corpse, Elpenor ..." de tote ego hetarous proiein es domata Kirkes / oisemenai nekron Elpenora, (12.9-10). On the basis of such evidence, therefore, it might seem that the proper Homeric "self" is nothing other than a certain mass of bodily stuffs and substances: blood, bone, sinews, etc. And yet, as Clarke himself points out, the situation is somewhat more complex than that. For though the Homeric poems will sometimes refer to the corpse as though it were the person himself, they are equally capable of making a conceptual distinction between the hero properly speaking and his physical remains. So, for example, there are cases in which the personal name of the hero is significantly not placed in apposition to nekus, but is put in the genitive instead:
For nine days strife has risen up amongst the immortals concerning the corpse of Hector (Hektoros ... nekui) and Achilles, sacker of cities. (Iliad XXIV. 107-08)
In this case, clearly, the bodily stuffs of the nekus are not conceived as being identical with Hector, but are thought of as something belonging to the man himself. The same distinction is evidently at work in another Homeric term for the corpse, the soma. From amidst the Planctae, the "Wandering Rocks," we are told, no ship has ever escaped,
But the waves of the sea and blasts of destructive fire bear the planks of ships and the bodies of men, kai somata photon, all together in a mass. (Odyssey 12.67-68)
Here, again, the term for "body" governs the genitive, demonstrating the existence of a certain conceptual divide between the person and his physical "stuffs." (The parallelism between the phrases "planks of ships" and "bodies of men" is also quite suggestive: like planks, bodies are strictly speaking only the constituent material of the thing, and not the thing itself.) Most famously, of course, there is Apollo's reference to the corpse of Hector as kophen ... gaian (XXIV.54), or mere "dull earth." Here the sense of distinction between the person that once was and the matter of the corpse before us now is overwhelmingly strong, and has in a certain sense been "thematized."
It is not exactly the case, therefore, that in Homer the self is perfectly identical with the tangible stuffs of the body. It seems, rather, that the application of pronouns and personal names to the corpse represents a case of what Aristotle would have called "homonymy": though we are sometimes inclined to call a corpse by a person's name, Aristotle explains, the corpse is really no more the person than a dismembered hand is properly speaking a hand, or a sightless eye an eye (cf. Politics.I.2, 1253a18-23; de Anima II.1, 412b20-23). A dead body can have the same configuration as a living one, but, "for all that, is not a man" (Parts of Animals, 1.1, 640b36). The ambiguous treatment of the corpse in Homer, as something that can receive the person's name and is yet somehow different from the person himself, in my view reflects the same kind of distinction: a Homeric person is not, strictly speaking, just a "body," but as Aristotle might put it, is rather "something of, something pertaining to the body," (de Anima 414a20-21). Of course, just what that "something" is still remains to be seen.
In fact, it might be noticed that in our search for a definition of Homeric selfhood, our results have thus far been largely negative. All we can fairly conclude at this point is that the proper Homeric "self" can be equated neither with the (variably) conscious psuche, nor with the physical stuffs of the body. Taken together, however, these observations lead to a rather interesting and productive result. For we might ask ourselves, what exactly happens to the Homeric self, to the entity that stands behind the name and pronoun, when the Homeric hero dies? It does not go with the psuche to Hades, and it cannot strictly speaking be located in the mass of bodily substances lying on the field of battle; apparently, then, it is nowhere--it has simply ceased to be. Death, that is to say, is conceived of in Homer as the annihilation of the self. Once accepted, this conclusion will allow us to view Homeric depictions of death in the Iliad and the Odyssey in a new and uniquely informative way. These poems, after all, are replete with scenes of death and dying, and feature numerous characterizations of the state and condition of the dead, both as corpses on the field of battle and as "shades" in Hades. Taken simply as the reflections of certain beliefs concerning death and the afterlife, these various depictions can appear hopelessly (and notoriously) contradictory and disjointed. (9) I would submit, however, that we shall be able to perceive a certain unity in this multiplicity of representation once we realize that the real object of these depictions is not to present a coherent picture of death and the state of the dead as such, but is rather to present, in negative terms, exactly what it means to be a true and fully existent self. It seems to me, in other words, that the presentation of death operates in the epics in much the same way that, according to Froma Zeitlin, the seemingly "inconsistent presentation" of women functions in Greek tragedy: "functionally women are never an end in themselves," claims Zeitlin, but are designed instead "primarily for exploring the male project of selfhood in the larger world" (1993, 69). Understood as the radical "other" of the male, the female affords the tragic author opportunities to articulate exactly what it is to be a man; just so, when conceived of as various negations of the self in death, the "otherness" of the psuche and the corpse, as various manifestations of a Homeric "un-self," allow the epics to articulate what it means, at the most general level, for a person, for a genuine self, "to be." In this way, we see that what might otherwise be considered "abstract philosophic speculation," supposedly out of place in a strictly poetic context, belongs rather intimately, in fact, to the literary purposes of Homeric epic.
Part Two: Dying as Dissolution
One of our primary clues as to how the Homeric epics envision the self--especially in its relation to the physical stuff of the body--lies in the two poems' consistent characterization of dying as a dissolution, a lusis. Often, of course, this dissolution is expressed through the physical separation and dismemberment of the body into its constituent parts and substances, as, for instance (to choose one incident from among many), in the death of Cebriones:
And both his brows did the stone dash together, and the bone held not, but his eyes fell to the ground before his feet, and the life-force (thumos) left his bones. (Iliad XVI.740-42)
In the Odyssey, too, we find death conceived of in just such terms of physical disunion: the psuche of Anticleia tells her yet living son that it is the "way/lot of mortals," dike broton, that when they die "the sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones," (11.119). One might be tempted to suppose, then, that Homer has no more sophisticated a notion of dying than that of decomposition, a notion in which death is nothing more than the loss of a certain compactness and configuration of the body's constituent parts. Further examination shows, however, that there is a somewhat more thoughtful conception at work in these Homeric representations of death. For we see, by way of the verb luein ("to dissolve, to break up"), that the "dissolution" image is applied to the dead and the dying even in cases where the body itself suffers no actual or immediate disintegration. Frequently in Homer, to suffer death is to have one's limbs and one's knees dissolved, or better yet, keeping in mind the "technical application" of this verb to the untying of horses from the chariots they pull, it is to have them unyoked (cf. IV.167, XVI.339, XI.579; for the unyoking of horses from a chariot car, cf. VIII.49, XI.619, etc.); this "unyoking," however, rarely involves the spatial separation of the limbs from the trunk of the body or from one another--the fatal wound that results in the "loosening of the knees and limbs" will most often occur in some other part of the body than the limbs themselves (cf. XVI.465, where Sarpedon's attendant's "limbs are loosened" from a blow suffered not in arms, legs, or knees, but "in the lower belly"). In such cases, what the imagery of dissolution is meant to convey is obviously not the physical separation of the body's parts; what it expresses, rather, is the loss of functioning unity among those parts. The dead body is like a chariot unhitched from its horses in that its various parts have lost their operational coordination; whether or not these parts remain "physically attached" to one another is in a sense irrelevant (thus, a person's limbs can also be "dissolved" in sleep, fright, dejection, swoons, and so forth--cf. XXI.114, iv.703, etc.; the limbs are likewise considered "loosened," leluntai, in the loss of function that comes with old age--cf. 8.233; obviously, none of the these states involves physical disintegration either). The primary intent of the application of the verb luein ("to loosen,") to the process of dying, then, is to convey the body's descent into a state of disorganized "inoperability." To have the body suffer actual dismemberment in death only underscores the fact that the erstwhile functioning unity of the parts that the body once possessed is now irrevocably and irremediably lost.
The implications of this conception of dying for notions of Homeric selfhood are immense. The genuine Homeric self is lost in death; but death itself is represented to us in the epics as a loss of functioning unity among the body's various members. I would submit, therefore, at least as a first approximation, that the real Homeric self, the "entity" to which names and pronouns most properly refer throughout both Homeric epics, is nothing other than that functioning. The self is, so to speak, a "working assembly" greater than the sum of its "members" (significantly, the verb, luein, used to denote destruction in death, is the same verb used to denote the break-up of political assemblies: cf. I.304= 2.257, etc.). That working and functioning depends integrally, of course, upon the various stuffs of the body for its existence (hence the homonymous confusion of corpse and self in the epics); still, it is not identical with those stuffs; it is, rather, the dynamic interaction among them. What the notion that death is a kind of "unyoking" of the body's members suggests is that, in Homer, the real nature of personal "entity" is, in fact, "activity" (or, better yet: "inter-activity"). Achilles, Patroclus, Hector--these are names not for "tangible things," but for the unified "working" of things tangible. There are some, of course, who might object that this notion of selfhood is too sophisticated, too conceptually abstract--or perhaps just too anachronistically Aristotelean--for Homeric poetry to encompass (I am thinking here of Aristotle's notion of "real being"--ousia and entelecheia--as energeia, "activity," or as Joe Sachs helpfully translates the term in his edition of the Metaphysics, a "being-at-work"; cf., Metaphysics IX.8, 1050a15-24; Sachs 1999, li). Yet the Homeric texts themselves provide us with important evidence in confirmation of the theory that in Homer, the self is strictly speaking the unified interaction of bodily stuffs, and not just the "stuff" of the body itself. What I am referring to here is the common Homeric idiom of identifying a person with the abstract nouns bie, is (cognate with Latin, vis), menos, sthenos--terms whose meanings overlap somewhat, but which might be (very roughly) translated as "force," "power," "might," and "strength." Throughout both epics we find these nouns employed in curious periphrastic substitutions for the name of the hero himself. Thus, where we might expect the poem simply to say, "Deiphobus and Lord Helenus have departed," the epic will read instead, "Deiphobus and the force, bie, of Lord Helenus have departed" (XIII.781); where one might expect the command, "Bring Priam here!" Menelaus demands that the Trojans "Bring the force of Priam (Priamoio bien) here!" (III.105), and Hector is said to have "stripped the force of Patroclus (Patrokloio bien) of its/his beautiful armor," (XXII.323). There are many more instances of this usage of bie in the epics, of course, and similar examples abound for is, menos, and sthenos as well: the sacred is, or "power," of Telemachus "hears" and even "smiles at his father" (22.354; 16.476); the menos, or "might," of Hector "falls quickly earthward, into the dust," and "sharp pains come upon the might of the son of Atreus," (XIV.468; XI.268); the sthenos, or "strength," of Idomeneus "addresses his attendant" (XIII.248). In each of these cases, and in many more not cited here, "force" and "power" are treated as the real "subjects" of those actions and passions which we would normally ascribe to the "whole person"--it is "force" that speaks, falls, hears, feels, and so forth. And in a way, this is precisely the point. The "person" in Homer is clearly interchangeable with the idea of "force" and "might," and the genitive in these phrases denotes not possession, but predication (a certain grammatical inconsistency in the employment of these periphrases makes this point unambiguously clear: though bie and is are feminine nouns, and menos a neuter, the periphrastic phrase as a whole is regularly treated as masculine, reflecting the gender of the hero himself--cf. XVIII.117, where the feminine noun, bie, is the antecedent of the masculine relative pronoun, "he who," or hos ...; cf. too 16.476, in which is is modified with the masculine, not feminine, aorist participle, idon, "(he)-having-seen"; or 23.20, in which menos takes the masculine participle, ion, "(he)-going"). In fact, one might go so far as to say that "force" and "might" are the "essence" and "real nature" of the Homeric person: the grammatical substitution of bie for the proper name seems to reflect a conviction that "power" and "force" are what the person really is. Thus we often find personal names attached to "force" as nothing more than adjectives: it is "Iphiclean might" that releases Melampus from his bonds (11.296); men feast at the house of "the force Eteoclean," (IV.386); in such cases--that is to say, cases in which the personal name is transformed into an adjective--it seems clear that the name provides an answer to the question "which one?," whereas it is the noun "force" that really answers to the "what?" or "what kind of thing?" of Homeric personhood. But of course, "force" and "power" and "strength" and "might" are not bodily stuffs; they are not parts of the body, nor even the sum of its parts; they are the product, the "end result" of the successful functioning and interaction of bone and sinew and breath and flesh; the "force" and "power" which the epics identify so closely with the person are what the functioning of the body makes possible. Once again, then, we see that the nature of that entity which stands behind the Homeric name and pronoun is better thought of in terms of dynamic "activity" than tangible substance. (11)
These peculiar, periphrastic locutions do somewhat more, however, than merely confirm our quasi-Aristotelean formulation of the Homeric self as a "unified functioning of bodily stuffs"; they also help us to complement that characterization in a certain crucial way, one which indicates an important distinction between the Homeric and Aristotelean notions of dynamic selfhood. In the first place, it should be apparent that defining the self simply as "an interactive unity of bodily substances" offers a rather under-specified account of Homeric selfhood. It is as if we were to define an automobile, say, as nothing more than a certain "interactive unity" of metal, rubber, and gasoline. Plainly, this is insufficient. Functions are defined in terms of their ends--an "automobile," strictly speaking, is rubber and gas and metal organized in such a way as to be made capable of transporting people and goods along a road. The specification of the end is a necessary complement to the general definition, "activity." So, though it may be true enough to claim that the Homeric epics conceive of the person, in the strictest sense, as a functioning unity of bodily substances--as the coordinated activity of breath and bone and sinew and flesh--we still need to inquire what "end" those substances fulfill when thus unified. Exactly what is achieved in and by the successful coordination of Homeric bodily stuffs? What defining "point" does such coordination serve?
A strict Aristotelean, of course, would answer that bodily stuffs are organized for the end of making them capable of unified "movement and perception." And indeed, there would seem to be some grounds for supposing that Homer shares at least partly in this sense of things. In Book IX of the Iliad, for instance, Achilles equates his existence in the world precisely with the "movement" of his knees: "As long as there is breath in my chest, and my own ('dear') knees are in motion" (IX.609). Here it may well seem that the functioning of the Homeric hero's bodily stuffs is fulfilled in physical movement alone.
Of course, if abstract spatial movement were all that was at stake in Homeric selfhood, then the Homeric self could exist, quite fully and successfully, in a vacuum--or at the very least, within an abstract Cartesian grid. What the periphrastic locutions equating force with the self suggest, however, is that there really is much more to Homeric selfhood than the mere power to "stir one's own limbs." For we see that throughout the epics, the terms bie, is, menos, sthenos designate not primarily a power to move oneself, but a power to move other things, to "move," that is to say, in the transitive sense. (At XI.531, young boys use their "puny/childish bie" to drive a lazy mule from its feed; at V.526, the menos of the winds scatter clouds this way and that; the is of the wind likewise drives a ship off course (19.187); and at XVII.751 it is with its sthenos that a river attempts, though unsuccessfully, to break through a ridge.) A force, after all, is an intrinsically relative thing--it is defined and measured, it "exists," strictly in relation to the larger interactive "field" of which it is a part (cf. XXI.482, VI.101, where one man's menos is defined explicitly in terms of a "rivalry" with another's, through the verbs antipheresthai and isopharizein," to match oneself against, to vie with" (12)). To be a force, a bie, is to be capable of effecting certain differences in the surrounding "field" of the world, of making it proceed in a way other than it might have done in the absence of that force. In identifying the self with force and power, the epics show that it is no "autarkic" or monadic notion of movement (Aristotelean, Leibnizian, or otherwise) that serves as the end and fulfillment of the Homeric body's unified functioning; the identification with "force" shows, rather, that the Homeric self, that working assemblage of breath, blood, and bone, achieves its proper end only in action--action that must be registered in, and upon, a surrounding world. (13) Selfhood, as conceived in the epics, is precisely this capability of making the world otherwise, of deflecting, through the unified functioning of the body, the run of things from their usual course; it is a dynamic, "disruptive" power of directing things elsewhere. (14) Such a "self," of course, is best characterized not in terms of mere "movement and perception," as Aristotle would have it, but in terms, rather, of effectuality--the effectuality that movement and perception make possible. The Homeric self is what I would call--to draw as strong a contrast with Descartes as possible--a res agens: a "doing," and more precisely (to trade in on the etymology of the Latin agere a little more extensively), a "herding, driving" thing--a thing which defines itself in relation to, and "in contest" with, other forces.
Here, then, is the "ontological" account of the Homeric self we have been seeking all along; it is, moreover, an account--as I claimed at the outset--that both Homeric epics actively and extensively seek to promulgate and establish as part of their general world-picture. For it should be noted that although we ourselves have thus far relied on the evidence of a single idiomatic peculiarity to confirm the existence of this particular conception of the self in Homer, the epics themselves are in no way content to rely upon such a slender hint for the effective conveyance of this centrally important notion; the idea of the "self" as a certain power to effect changes in the world is in fact one that the Iliad and the Odyssey seek to suggest to their audiences repeatedly: once again, they do so precisely through their representations of death and of the dead. It is to the interpretation of those representations that we now turn.
Part Three: The Failures of the Dead--The Fecklessness of Shade and Corpse
After his death, after the "unyoking" of his limbs, the Homeric hero is survived, as we have seen, by two different sorts of entities, both the shade and the corpse. These entities are objects of much comment and scrutiny in the epics. The psuche and corpse, however, are never really treated as objects of speculation and interest in their own right in the poems--what peculiar "mode of being" a psuche possesses is a question we would put to the Homeric epics in vain (of what "stuff" is the psuche composed? is it a "stuff" at all? what accounts for its visual similarity to the hero?). Rather, what the poems consistently seek to emphasize about the dead, in both their forms, are their negative characteristics, the ways in which shade and corpse "fall short" of the unified functioning of bodily substances that, once upon a time, bore the hero's name, and bore it unambiguously. The Homeric dead, in other words, are presented to us specifically as "deficient likenesses" of the genuine Homeric self--wherever we turn the emphasis consistently and ubiquitously falls upon the ways in which the dead corpse and shade fail to do and achieve what the functioning, fully corporeal hero once could. And the peculiar failure of the dead, as it turns out--the deficiency that unites virtually every portrayal of shade and corpse, in the Odyssey and the Iliad alike--is nothing other than an inability to register any effect upon the various doings of the world. The Homeric dead form a double portrait, a diptych, united by the theme of fecklessness. (15) From the definition of self just given above, it is easy to see that what motivates such a portrait is at heart, a certain "ontological" preoccupation. For it only stands to reason that if what fails "to be" fails through ineffectiveness, it is precisely by effectiveness that a thing really "is." In their constant reflection on the failure and fecklessness of the dead, the Homeric epics are in fact attempting to articulate, by negation, exactly what it is for a Homeric self "to be."
To justify my claim, in the first place, that the Homeric dead really are conceived primarily in terms of deficiency, we can consult the testimony of the dead themselves (or at the very least, the testimony that Odysseus would have the Phaeacians believe comes from the dead themselves). For in the Odyssey, Odysseus famously relates his encounters with various shades of the deceased, and in his interview with Achilles's psuche, the shade of the late, great hero is made to characterize (and lament) its present condition specifically as a kind of "falling short": "I am not such a one (literally, not of such kind) as I once was," ou gar egon ... toios eon, hoios pot' ... 11.498-99). To know in precisely what respect the shade of Achilles falls short of the dynamic, corporeal thing it now merely "resembles," we need only look to the larger context in which these words are spoken. The shade's specific concern, it turns out, is for the old man, Peleus. The psuche is anxious that, since the death of his famous son, Peleus may have become prey to other men's insults and disrespect--a thought which agonizes the shade of Achilles, since, as it explains,
"I myself am not under the rays of the sun as his protector, being such a one as I once was in wide Troy, when I slew the best of the army in defense of the Argives." (Odyssey 11.498-500)
And as if this were not proof enough, the shade then follows this reflection with a cry of grief and longing that makes perfectly clear in what specific way the dead fall miserably short of the corporeal self:
Would that I might come as such a one [i.e., as I once was], though but briefly, into my father's house; then I would make hateful my seething-might [menos] and my invincible hands to any who would do that man violence and keep him from his honor. (Odyssey 11.501-03)
The specific failure of Achilles's psuche is the failure to deflect his father's enemies from their intended course of action, to make them "shrink back" from himself (the verb translated above as "make hateful," stuxaimi, is the transitive form of the usually intransitive stugeo, "to shrink away, recoil from": cf. I.186, VIII.515, etc.). What is truly abhorrent in no longer being a dynamic unity of breath and hands, a real Homeric self, is not the loss of one's ability to move about in and around the world, but the failure to act upon the world. It is the loss of this capability that makes the psuche no longer the "kind of thing"--the being--that it once was. (16)
The notion that the dead "fall short" specifically in terms of their failure to "alter the course of things and make them otherwise" is reflected too in the frequent comparisons of the psuche with the aged. The identification of the two states is made quite explicit in the Iliad, where we learn that when a hero dies, his psuche "abandons its youth," lipous' heben (XVI.857, XX.363). Death and old age are also connected implicitly through many identical terms and locutions employed to describe them. Discussing his dead son, Priam adds the pathos-laden, parenthetical remark, "My child--if ever he was" (XXIV.426). This though is the very same parenthesis which the aged Nestor applies to himself when discussing his lost youth: "Such was I--if ever I was--among men" (XI.762). The reason for this connection between senescence and mortality is not far to seek: both states are conceived of in terms of a lost effectuality. Death negates the effective, functioning unity of the body; in a similar way, old age negates youth, a state in which this functioning is at its flourishing height, and one's effect upon the world (for Nestor, one has one's being specifically "among men") is at a maximum. (17) To be young, in Homer, is to be a "power" in the world. Thus the "half-grizzled" (mesaipolios, XIII.361) Idomeneus says of the still-youthful Aeneas:
He is very mighty at slaying men in battle, and he has the flowering prime of youth, which is the greatest strength. (Iliad III.483-84)
And if youth is efficacy, then conversely, old age is its loss--a point which Nestor in particular is wont to dwell upon:
My strength [is] is not such as it previously was in my supple limbs. Would that I were still young, and my power [bie] were as firm as when strife arose among the Eleans and our people about the stealing of cattle, when I slew Itumoneus ... (Iliad XI.668-72)
The resemblances between the speech of the old man on the one hand, and the speech ascribed to Achilles's psuche at 11.498-503 on the other, are obvious; the similarity of the old man's words to Odysseus's comments on Agamemnon's psuche are more striking still:
But his strength was no longer firm for him, nor his might [kikus], such as previously was in his supple limbs. (Odyssey 11. 393)
Death and old age in Homeric epic exist on the same conceptual continuum--the continuum of fecklessness. (18) The notion of ineffectuality, the inability to turn the tide of battle, to affect the procession of events in the world in general, serves as the common conceptual basis--something akin to what Nagler might call the "generative Gestalt"--that results in the production and application of the same "formulaic" phrases to both conditions. (19) Finally, in defense of the idea that the shades of the dead in Homer are conceived largely in terms of ineffectuality, we might adduce the description of psuchai as eidola kamonton (11.476): to be a psuche is to be the "likeness" of a being "worn-out" and "exhausted," a being, that is to say, incapable of doing any further work in or upon the world.
Thus far, of course, we have only drawn examples of "death's fecklessness" from depictions of the psuche. In fact, the same basic thought can be recognized just as easily, and ubiquitously, in depictions of that other deficient likeness of the Homeric self, the corpse. Surrounding the body of the recently killed Hector, each in turn delivering a new wound upon it, the Achaean chieftains make the jeering, but significant remark that in this new condition, the Trojan prince is "much softer to handle" (XXII.373) than he had been while he was putting fire to their ships. What most impresses the Achaeans, in other words--what strikes them as an open invitation to mockery--is the sudden inability of this huge and beautiful mass of bodily stuffs (now officially become a soma) to offer the least resistance to any kind of "manipulation" or insult (malakos, frequently applied in Homer to items like beds, bedclothes, tunics, and metaphorically, "winning words," always suggests a yielding, accommodating quality in the thing it describes; the verb, amphaphao, is employed at 15.462 to describe the "handling" of goods prior to their purchase, at 8.195 to describe the groping of a blind man's hands, at 8.215 the easy manipulation of a bow, and so forth). Not only the psuche, then, but the corpse as well is offered to us in Homer as a "conspicuously feckless" thing--something prey to casual violations it is helpless to make "otherwise."
Such, for instance, seems also to be what motivates the depictions of the deaths of Lycaon and Asteropaeus in Book XXI: in the early part of that book, Achilles taunts the dead Lycaon with the prospect of having to lie inert as the fish "lick away the blood from his wounds uncaringly" (haim' apolichmesontai akedees, XXI.123). And in the death of Asteropaeus, we see what was merely threatened against Lycaon actually carried out in full (and fulsome) detail:
And he [Achilles] abandoned him in the same place, when he had robbed him of his life/heart [etor], lying in the sands, the dark water wetting him. And the eels and fish busied themselves about him, nibbling and tearing at the fat upon his kidneys. (Iliad XXI.203-04)
In both of these deaths, great emphasis is placed upon the inert state of the corpse as it "lies" there in one place, unmoving, vulnerable to any violence the consuming world has to offer it. The effect becomes even more pronounced, however, when we read these moments against the simile that opens Book XXI, a simile in which Achilles's attack on the Trojans is compared to the effect a dolphin has on a school of fish:
And as before a monstrous dolphin other fishes flee and fill the recesses of some harbor or fair anchorage in their terror, for (greedily) does he devour any he catches, so cowered the Trojans in the streams of the dread river beneath the steep banks. (Iliad XXI.22-26)
In the powerful, dynamic presence of the dolphin/Achilles (the hero is previously described as having "leapt like a god" into the river, esthore daimoni isos--XXI.18), the fish/Trojans scatter in terror--precisely the kind of effect the inert, dead bodies of Lycaon and Asteropaeus signally fail to have upon their "uncaring," busy assailants.
The perception of the dead body as a specifically ineffective thing provides as well, so it seems to me, the most satisfying explanation of why Apollo is enraged at Achilles for his mistreatment of Hector's corpse, and why he describes it as "dull earth," kophen gaian (XXIV.54). There has been a tendency amongst interpreters of this passage, both ancient and modern, to read the meaning of kophos here as something like "insensate" (Aeschylus, for example, tries to gloss the passage in this way in a fragment from The Ransoming of Hector-cf. Macleod 1992, 94; the LSJ similarly glosses XXIV.54 as "maltreating dumb, senseless earth"--LSJ, 1019). The justification behind this reading, apparently, is that from its literal sense of "blunt," kophos comes to be applied, metaphorically, first to sounds that are "dull," and then, secondarily, to bodies that lack resonance ("of the metals, iron rings least," Plu2.721f, cited in LSJ, 1019); thence it is argued that kophos means "neither heard nor hearing," just as tuphlos and caecus mean 'unseen' and 'unseeing'" (Janko 1992, 153); on this reading, therefore, what Apollo wishes to convey about the dead, dissolute corpse of Hector is, finally, its "insensibility." And yet, as Macleod points out, this way of taking the line is "not entirely happy, since if kophen means that the dead feel nothing, that tends to play down both Achilles' misdeed and the importance of the gods' intervention" (1992, 94). We would do better, I think, once again to "clarify Homer out of Homer" in this case, and let the epic's own gloss of kophos guide our interpretation of the phrase at XXIV.54. In particular, we might look (as Macleod himself suggests) to the use of the term at XI.390. In this scene, Paris exults over his wounding of Diomedes with an arrow--in response to which boast Diomedes makes the infuriated, scornful reply,
But now having scratched the flat of my foot you boast--to no effect! I care nothing about it--it is as if a woman or a witless child had struck me. For blunt [kophon] is the arrow of a man who is an invalorous nothing. Otherwise indeed when cast by me, even if but touches one a little, does the missile prove itself sharp--it renders its man immediately lifeless. And his wife's cheeks are torn with wailing, and his children become orphans...." (Iliad XI.388-94)
In this context, to be "dull" or "blunt" is to be ineffectual, to fail to make any difference in the procession of events in the world at large. The sharp weapon of a potent warrior, by contrast, proves itself such in the way it affects not just the man it strikes, but that man's whole universe of relationships--it renders his entire world "otherwise." These, I submit, are the sorts of connotations we are to take away from the application of the adjective kophe to gaia; it is another instance in which the Homeric poems have attempted to communicate their sense of death as a degeneration into utter ineffectuality. The corpse which Apollo invites the gods (and us) to consider is nothing more than "blunted earth"--earth that cannot effect any change in the course of things, and in particular, cannot offer any "sharp," effective resistance to its own present desecration at Achilles's hands. This interpretation, it will be noticed, fits the immediate context of Apollo's angry denunciation much better than the translation "senseless," since the specific charge leveled at Achilles by the god is that he has destroyed "pity" (eleon, XXIV.44). The meaning of this charge, as Jinyo Kim points out, is not simply that Achilles has failed to feel a certain emotion, but that he has violated a specific social protocol (thus Apollo's further accusation that Achilles has no "social conscience/consciousness," that no aidos is his--XXIV.44-45; on the meaning of "pity," cf. Kim 2000, 35-67, and especially p.67:" 'to pity' ... signifies 'to avenge', 'to save', 'to heal' and 'to give burial.'"). And the social protocol of "pity" requires that the powerful assist those who are powerless to help themselves--so Apollo's indictment of Achilles only makes sense if we think of Hector's corpse not as utterly senseless, but utterly helpless.
Of course, to identify Hector's corpse as "earth" all by itself conveys quite vividly a sense of the inert helplessness of the thing the once great hero has become--as a comparable identification from earlier in the poem shows. In Book VII of the Iliad, Hector issues a challenge of single combat to the Achaian champions, a challenge which, initially at least, none is willing to accept. Enraged by the cowardice of his allies, Menelaus himself decides to accept Hector's challenge, but first imprecates his daunted companions with the wish,
But might all of you be turned to water and earth--each of you sitting there in one [same] spot [authi], spiritless, utterly [literally, autos, "samely"] inglorious. (Iliad VII.99-100)
The "inertial" connotations of hemenoi ("sitting"), and the close collocation of authi (shortened from autothi) and autos work to convey one central idea--all is the "same" with these allies, nothing moves, nothing is made "otherwise" in the world by the kind of men they have shown themselves to be (i.e., those who cannot win renown, and therefore "lack reputations," who are aklees). In this condition, Menelaus implies, they are no better than "earth and water," no better, that is to say, than the inert substances of which they are composed (for the creation of humans from earth and water, cp. Hesiod's Works and Days, in which Hephaestus is ordered to make Pandora by "mixing earth with water," WD 61; cf. also, Kirk 1990, 247). We can assume, then, that when Apollo identifies the corpse of Hector with "earth" he is similarly implying that the great hero has become as feckless as his original, inert stuffs in their un-composed, non-functioning form.
Finally, perhaps the most poignant characterization of the corpse as a thing which fails of the effectiveness of the functioning, corporeal self is the brief final description of the fallen warrior, Cebriones, as one who "lay in the whirl of dust, huge in his hugeness, forgetful of his horsemanship" (XVI.775-76). In the "horse-driving" culture of the Homeric hero, the ability to curb and to guide a pair of good horses is one of the primary and in fact "paradigmatic" images of a man's functioning effectiveness, an all-important measure of his ability to "deflect" worldly forces from paths they would otherwise run, and guide them to his own particular ends:
Alcimedon, who else of men was of like sort to curb and tame the might of immortal steeds, save only Patroclus, peer of the gods in counsel, while he still lived? (Iliad XVII.475-78)
In describing Cebriones as one who has "forgotten his horsemanship," the poem lays particular emphasis upon the inability of this warrior's corpse to have any significant effect upon the doings of his world (an impression strengthened by his depiction as an inert mass, lying in the very midst of a swirling movement of dust and arms and men he himself is incapable of affecting in any way).
This reference to the "forgetfulness" of the corpse brings us to another important theme in many Homeric descriptions of the dead--namely, their mental incapacity. As its connection with Cebriones should make quite clear, the "stupidity" of the shade and the corpse should also be read as part of the epics' overall effort to depict death as a descent into a state of utter ineffectuality. As we have seen, the Homeric body is conceived as existing for the specific end of acting in and upon its world; but genuine "action," of course, requires something more than the furious movement of the limbs. To "act," properly speaking, is to move intentionally, in accordance with a well-directed, well "ap-pointed" end. Action requires, that is to say, not only the physical "momentum" of the coordinated body, but the ability to conceive of a plan to direct that momentum--lacking which, of course, all movement would be mere twitching. (Thus, the potency of the Homeric "actor" always resides in his or her ability to "achieve the end" he or she has previously announced--in the ability, so to speak, first to "call the shot" and then "sink it": "But I shall tell you this, and I deem it a thing that will be accomplished (teleesthai)" (I.204). (20) But since "action" is, as it were, the "essence" of the Homeric self, a self that is annihilated in death, we may well expect that not only the hero's "physical" force, but his "intending power," his ability to posit and focus upon an end by which to direct the body's functioning, will also be dissipated in the final unyoking of his various substances and stuffs. This, I believe, is why in the Odyssey we find the dead, the nekroi, famously described as aphradees (11.477).
As with kophos, there has been a tendency to understand aphrades as denoting something along the lines of "unheeding" (Murray/Dimock), or "senseless" (Lattimore)--the tendency, in other words, has been (once again) to extend the meaning of the word in such a way as to equate death with the negation of consciousness (an equation based, one supposes, on the "Cartesian" assumption that existence is nothing other than "thought"). Such an interpretation, however, leaves the relation of aphrades to the basic meaning of terms like phrazo and phrazomai somewhat unclear. The root of all these words, phrad-, refers to the act of directing or pointing, whether it be physically pointing something out to someone so as to direct them to it ("we arrived at the spot that Circe had indicated (phrase)"--11.22; cf. also XXIII.138, XIV.3, etc.), or directing (in the middle voice) one's own mind and attention to something, most frequently so as to plan or devise some course of action ("he will devise--phrassetai--a way to return"--i.205; "let them devise a better plan," phrazontai--IX.423). To describe the dead as aphades, therefore, is not merely to suggest that they lack basic awareness, or simple perception, but more precisely, that they are "incapable of intending," that they lack the mental pointedness and focus that constitute genuine agency. The dead simply cannot train themselves upon an "end." As "unpointing," "unintending" entities, the dead are negations therefore not of the Cartesian res cogitans, but of the more properly Homeric res agens--the "effective agent," the thing that with both mind and force "drives" and "directs" the recalcitrant forces of its world into courses which they would not otherwise pursue, and aligning them with the "vector" (so to speak) that is themselves.
This same point--namely, that the "stupidity" suffered in death is another way the Homeric poems articulate the notion that death is a state of worldly ineffectuality--can be made concerning the dead shade's loss of noos ("mind" or "reason" is the usual translation) and "prudent understanding" (a loss implied, for instance, in Circe's statement that "Persephone granted noon to Teiresias, even when dead", to him alone a 'breathed-in' power of prudent understanding-cf. x.494-95). Though conceding the point that "Homer is pre-Cartesian, and for that matter, pre-Socratic," Redfield nonetheless sought to define the noos as a "consciousness of the world in which the organism is," as a purely "theoretical" power of mind--for "Homer ... does, in his own way, make a sharp distinction between theory and practice" (Redfield 1994, 175-76). If this were so, the loss of noos would imply nothing more than "loss of consciousness." In fact, though, it can be shown quite easily that the noos is patently "practical" in its orientation and meaning in Homer. The noos, for instance, is often paired with words "plan" and "counsel" (cf. 2.281, 4. 267, 11.177; VII.447, XV.509); it appears in close collocation with phrazomai, "I point out to myself, I think" as a power of mind that works specifically for the accomplishment of a given end:
"Let us take counsel how these works will be, if (or "given that") noos will accomplish something." (Iliad XIV.61-62)
As Clarke (following Onians, Vivante, and Claus) has recognized, noos is somewhat different from other mental entities in Homer, because it represents not the "stuffs" or instruments by which thought occurs, but is rather the end result, the "conclusion of the thinking process, the product of the act named by the cognate verb noein or noeisthai" (1999, 122); and invariably, the process which culminates in the hero's possession of noos is an externally directed one: "the action denoted by noein is a movement out of the self to the external objects of ... mental activities" (123); "it expresses either the particular movement, purpose, or, relatively permanent, that which moves, the purposing consciousness" (Onians 1951, 83). The Homeric noos, in other words, is quite specifically a power of "planning" and "intending"--the sort of thing that can be "turned," trepetai, (3.147) or "bent aside," epignamptei, (IX.514). The destruction of the noos in death, therefore, does not simply betoken the loss of a certain theoretical "awareness" and passive comprehension--"it is not mere intellect" (Onians 1951, 83)--it signals rather the loss of the hero's ability to keep the "external ends" of his body's functioning in focus (note, for instance, how the shades of the dead "dart about": skiai aissousin, 10.495); it shows, once again, the inability of the dead to direct forcefully, to act upon, their world.
Taken in sum, then, the depictions of death, dying, and the dead in Homer form a rich linguistic and ideational portrait of utter ineffectuality--in their corporeal dissolution, in their mental incapacity, what impresses itself most insistently upon us about the dead is their failure to impress themselves in any way upon the shape and course of things in the world at large. This portrait in turn functions as a precise "negative image" of that in which genuine Homeric selfhood really consists: the power and capability--the bie and the is--to make the world "otherwise." The Homeric epics present us, therefore, with a distinctive and, as I hope I have shown, fairly consistent conception of the self. But as I suggested at the beginning of this paper, this notion of self, lying as it does so deeply embedded in the roots of the Homeric world-view, could not help but implicate itself into the general literary structure and meaning of the epics overall. In my concluding pages, therefore, I would like to make some brief suggestions on the ways in which the notions of self worked out and defended in the pages above might inform our "large-scale" readings of the Iliad and the Odyssey, both separately and in relation to one another. (21)
Part Four: On Being, and Not Being, in the World
The Iliad opens with a frank and unembarrassed quarrel over matters of social prestige. The great king, Agamemnon, deprives Achilles of his rightful geras, or "war-prize," and in retaliation for this infraction against his time, the public honor and "esteem" in which he feels he ought to be held, Achilles withdraws his support from the Greeks, and thus brings death and destruction upon the men who are supposedly his allies. It is, for modern audiences at least, a deeply troubling gesture, and one of the central issues of Homeric criticism has always been the problem of its proper evaluation: how precisely does the Iliad mean for us to take Achilles' act of revenge? Some, like Bowra, have claimed we are simply meant to condemn it outright; others (e.g., Muellner) attempt to justify it, on the grounds that Achilles should be understood as acting on behalf of the public good; still others (Whitman, Zanker) claim that though Achilles is initially culpable, he "develops" over the course of the Iliad towards a position of greater ethical insight; thus, the hero's first transgressions are necessary ones. Without entering into a discussion of the particulars of these sorts of approach to the Iliad (none, I think, is ultimately defensible), I should like to point out that our discussion of Homeric selfhood opens up a possibility that they simply ignore--namely, that from the perspective of the poem (if not from a modern one), Achilles's act need inspire no condemnation, nor does it require justification in terms of the "public good." If it is true that in the world of Homeric epic, one "exists" precisely to the extent that one deflects and directs the course of things in the world at large, we can see that Agamemnon's insult presents Achilles with nothing less than a threat to his very being. (22) In Homer, if our previous analyses have been correct, the "due payment of honor" is no mere trivial perquisite that happens to make life a little more pleasant to those lucky enough to obtain it; it is rather the way a hero might, though having to live within the context of ordered civil life, yet succeed in registering a certain "disruptive" effect on things; it is, in short, a way for him "to be." Achilles's retaliatory gesture stems from nothing less than a desire to defend his own "being in the world."
I would argue, in fact, that this is precisely what drives every action Achilles takes in the Iliad: the sum of all his heroic striving is, at base, really just a striving "to be." Tragically, however, and ironically, this undertaking is doomed to failure from the outset. To register his "effect" upon the world, Achilles must withdraw from battle; but as we have just seen, the Homeric self, because of the basic "relationality" that its force-based nature implies, depends integrally upon a world in which to act--a res cogitans may not need an exterior world in which to exist, but a res agens does. So even as he withdraws from battle to defend his selfhood, his being, Achilles also thereby loses it: sitting apart from the places of battle and assembly "wherein men win glory (kudianeiran)," Achilles "allowed his heart to waste away, as he remained in the selfsame spot (authi)" (1.489-92). Herein is the tragic irony of Achilles's career in toto: he must be engaged with the world if he is to "be" in any way at all, yet every engagement Achilles has with the world in some way negates the purity of his "effectiveness," and thus his being. (Achilles's subsequent deployment of Patroclus into battle is obviously intended as a way to evade this dilemma--to be both "in" and "out" of the world simultaneously--but this stratagem too finally only offers Achilles further insult to his sense of himself as an effective res agens. For Hector kills Achilles's "substitute" in utter disregard of Achilles himself, causing the latter to exclaim: "You took no thought of me!" (eme d' ouden opizeo, XXII.332.)
Nor does this difficulty, this worldly corruption of effectiveness, belong to Achilles alone. In the Iliad, so I would suggest, every form of force or effectiveness (every mortal form, at any rate) is subject to necessary fluctuation and impermanence, to inescapable groundlessness and variability (that Achilles must do battle with the flux of a river at the climax of the epic is, I think, highly relevant to this general point). And yet--as Heraclitus, Plato, and others have observed--those things which are subject to fluctuation, that lack any permanent self-consistency and constancy, can scarcely be said to "be" in any meaningful sense at all. So we see that from the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles wishes not only to be "effective," but to be effective in an absolutely stable, absolutely constant and non-contradictory fashion: once again, his entire object is the establishment of full, genuine being. This, of course, is just what the fluctuating world of the Iliad denies him (and everyone)--and so Achilles's career in the Iliad, the mimesis of the hero's "striving to be," is also, importantly, the mimesis of a failure. In the Iliad, in the very strictest sense of the term, there is no "being" in the world whatsoever.
This, I believe, is why in the Iliad Achilles is finally made to turn--or rather, return--to the winning of kleos, a repute in song and talk among men. The hero's kleos, unlike other mortal things, is unwasting--aphthiton (IX.413); it is not subject to the flux that mortal things usually are. And through its "culture-shaping" power, it offers the hero a way to be forceful, though "at a distance," in the lives of human beings, and in a way, moreover, that is not subject to variability and self-cancellation. Since there is no "being" in the world, Achilles, it seems, will finally elect to exert his force and effectiveness from outside it--"transcendentally," as it were. (23) The Odyssey, however, which in many respects presents its hero with the same kind of dilemmas that Achilles faces in the Iliad (for such, I suspect, are the problems confronting anyone who should subscribe to a res agens conception of the self), elects to take a different course entirely. Where Achilles sought to put his effectiveness on an "existentially" firm footing by deciding to leave the world, to "exist," so to speak, strictly in and through his kleos, Odysseus remains firmly within the world, in spite of the fact that he can find no "firm footing" within it (cf. 12.434: "I could in no way fix my feet firmly," ouden pei eichon / oute sterixai posin empedon; cp. Achilles's lament in IX.335, in which he complains that nothing remains "firm," empeda, for him). Odysseus is content to allow for variability and fluctuation in his exercise of force, in his effectiveness in the world. That decision, of course, means that he must also forego any constant, self-consistent sense of "identity" or "being" as well; but that of course is what Odysseus does learn to accept--the existential condition, finally, of never being any "one" person or thing, of being No One ("No-one is my name," [Outis emoi g'onoma, 9.366). (24) Against the sorrows of the Iliad, the sorrows that belong to the failure to be, the Odyssey sets joy ("he rejoiced in his life-force," chaire de thumoi--24.545), which is not the joy of being, but the joy of "not-being"--of becoming--in the world.
(1) Frankel's comments on the Homeric self in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, though important, are frustratingly brief (cf. 1975, 79; and note 14 below). Some of the most influential and compelling remarks on ancient Greek selfhood in general have of course been made by Vernant; see, e.g., his introductory essay to The Greeks, esp. pp 16-18 (see note 23 below); Vernant's treatment, though, tends to be only slightly less desultory than Frankel's. Michael Clarke's recent work, Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer, though not addressing itself to the notion of Homeric selfhood per se, contains many valuable insights on the subject, and provides, moreover, an exemplary methodology and general theoretical framework for the conducting of such an investigation (those familiar with Clarke's important work will no doubt recognize a general debt to him that exceeds the many specific citations he receives within this study). The first chapter of Simon Haines' 2005 work, Poetry and Philosophy from Homer to Rousseau, in its attempt to show how the Homeric self can form the basis of an ethics and morality quite distinct from (and perhaps even superior to) those founded on so-called "punctual" conceptions of the self, brings the problem of the nature of Homeric selfhood into sharp, contemporary focus. Haines's work, though, preoccupied as it is with establishing the genuinely "moral quality" of the actions of Homeric warriors, is not so much concerned to derive in a systematic way the nature of the Homeric self from the evidence of the Homeric texts themselves (and in terms specifically appropriate to them) as with the formulation and characterization of the nature of that self in terms that might speak to an entire subsequent tradition of Western, moral philosophy (cf. 2005, x, 6, 10, 175; see note 6 below; cp. too Williams, 1993, a work that provides the framework for Haines' basic argument).
(2) Thus the present project has its precise analogue in Redfield's attempt to develop a "cultural anthropology" of Homer, to "develop a picture of Homeric society as a functioning cultural system" (to which end Redfield came to think of Homeric heroes as "an ethnographer thinks of his tribe"; cf. 1994, xii; xv); it is analogous too to the efforts of Finley, Donlan, and others to describe the economic system at work in the "virtual world" of Homer's poetry, and Osbourne's efforts to describe its political system (cf., e.g., Finley 1954; for Donlan, see pp 649-67 in Morris and Powell, 1997; for Osbourne, see pp 206-19, in Fowler 2004). Just as these scholars can perform anthropological and economic analyses of Homer without having to assume "Homer" was an anthropologist or economist, so I too feel confident I can perform an ontological analysis of selfhood in the virtual universe of Homeric poetry--that is, I can give a reasoned account of what constitutes selfhood as Homer represents it--without having to assume that "Homer" (either as oral poet or oral tradition) had a full-fledged theory of the self; all that we need assume (as the next section of text should make clear) is that the poems were composed with some one picture of the self in mind, that there is indeed an object there to "theorize."
(3) On some interpretations of his work, Bruno Snell is thought to have argued against the existence of a true concept of self, or least a "psychically unified self," in Homer; but as Adkins (generally so supportive of Snell's claims) recognized, the "implication of the personal pronoun" makes such an interpretation untenable; cf. Snell (1953, 1-22), Adkins (1960, 22, 26-27).
(4) The Homeric poetic tradition's overriding thematic concern with "kleos," for instance, with the song of fame that is meant somehow to perpetuate the hero's existence beyond death, would seem to invite (if not positively to compel) the poet to develop a definite view of the self that is to be thus "perpetuated"; see also Clarke (1999, 14, 25-35), for an account of the way the medium of traditional oral poetry favors the possibility of systematic, conceptual coherence in ways that everyday spoken language does not.
(5) Cp. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, xxvii.11, in which "person" is defined as a "thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places."
(6) So too Haines, for whom the Homeric sense of self stands in sharp contrast to the view of selfhood promulgated by those 17th and 18th century philosophers (among others) "for whom the self is a willing, choosing, deciding, reasoning, or believing center of being" (Haines 2005, xiii). Indeed, many of the claims Haines makes concerning the Homeric self seem to resonate strongly with the results of the present study (his claims, for instance, that the Homeric self is "relational," and "radically active" (xii; 15) bear a striking resemblance to claims made in this paper). I suspect, however, that, beyond a certain common desire to oppose Homeric to Cartesian notions of the self, these resemblances are really more nominal than substantive. In the one passage in which he directly attempts to tackle the problem of the kind of thing a Homeric self is, Haines declares that the "Homeric kind of self might be termed 'spirit'," and quickly thereafter as "passional spirit extended over time" (13). Haines does not attempt to clarify what sense of the term "spirit" he has in mind (it cannot simply be "thumos," as Haines himself seems to realize, since the thumos is recognized everywhere in Homer to be not the whole self but merely a component of it); if it is something like "Hegelian spirit," (as his many references to the "recognitive" character of Homeric selves may suggest), then our two notions of what it is to be a Homeric self are really quite distinct (see note 22 below). Haines's further contention that "in Homer the soul is the whole self" (see note 22 below) does little to clarify the situation, as this does not all further define the Homeric self, but rather works with some already presumed sense of what the Homeric self is so as to place it into relation with later philosophic and poetic traditions. As I attempt to make clear in note 8 below, though, and in a way throughout the entirety of this paper, notions like "soul" and "spirit" have little to do with any genuinely Homeric conception of the self. While I am fully sympathetic with Haines's efforts to enrich modern moral theory by consideration of what Homer has to tell us concerning the self, it is important, as Clarke observes, that we ground such efforts not so much on mere "translation," the imposition onto Homeric texts of the kind of concepts that make sense only on modern assumptions, but on "interpretation," the systematic effort to perceive the "internal logic" that exists amongst the Homeric terms themselves (cf. 1999, 109-110).
(7) Greek citations from the Iliad are from Murray (revised by Wyatt), 1999; from the Odyssey, Murray (revised by Dimock), 1995; translations of the Greek based upon my own adaptations of the same. Upper case Roman numeral citations refer to the Iliad, Arabic numeral citations refer to the Odyssey.
(8) It is important to note that in Homer, the "last-cold-breath/death-image" known as the psuche is most definitely not conceived of as either the severely truncated "essence" or a surviving component of the person; conscious though it may be, this "something" that is the psuche of Patroclus is given no greater status than that of a mere deceptive imitation or "image," an eidolon (XXIII.104), of Achilles's companion--it is no more of the essence of the real person of the young warrior, as Michael Clarke has aptly and brilliantly pointed out, than that deceptive eidolon which Apollo "fashioned in likeness to Aeneas himself" (V.450) when the real hero had been swept off to safety in Pergamum (cf.V.445-453, and Clarke 1999, 195-97). The eidolon that is the psuche, like the eidolon of the living warrior, is a separate kind of entity altogether, one the poem apparently wishes to keep quite distinct from the actual man. Following Clarke's lead, we might also look to the strange linguistic usage in Odyssey 11.71-72, in which the "shade" or psuche of the dead Elpenor speaks in the first person, "I/me," not about itself as a shade presently in Hades, but rather as the body of Elpenor lying elsewhere; in its pathetic plea, "Do not leave me behind, unwept and unburied"--the shade is strangely (yet significantly) unwilling to confer the status of Elpenor's "I" upon itself as shade. (This would of course suggest that for Homer, the real self is related strictly to the physical body, not the psuche--a point we are about to explore in full.) Nor, once again, should it be supposed that the psuche is conceived in Homer as a part of the genuine, living self (as though, for instance, the self were a "combination" of body and psuche). As Clarke makes quite plain, strict attention to Homeric usage shows us that the psuche, literally the "cool breath" (psucho "I blow, I cool by blowing") exhaled when the living body ceases from activity, makes no appearance in the living human being. Rather, it "appears only in the context of life lost or threatened, never of life held and enjoyed ... to see it as the basis of life as lived and enjoyed would be to step beyond the Homeric description of man, and to do so in a way that would map Homeric ideas willy nilly onto our own culture ... we can be confident that the mental life and identity of Homeric man are not pinned on psuche" (1999, 57, 60).
(9) Most recently, Sourvinou-Inwood, in Reading Greek Death (1996), attempts to explain the contradictory presentations of death and the afterlife in Homer as reflecting changes in the perception of death that occurred in the course of the poems' long period of composition. In what follows below, and in contrast to this strictly "diachronic" reading, I shall attempt to offer a unified "synchronic," analysis of the same phenomena.
(10) For thumos as "life-force," cf. Claus (1981, 21-22); see also, Onians (1951, 44); Austin (1975, 106-14); Clarke (1999, 53-55, 73-83).
(11) Important additional evidence for this point is provided by D.B. Claus's discussion of "soul words" in Homer, especially that of the term aion. Drawing on earlier work by Benveniste, Claus concludes that "the concrete manifestation of aion as 'marrow' appears to be secondary to the intangible sense of 'life-force' both chronologically and in importance" (1981, 12). Cf. too Michael Clarke's related conclusion, that "the life of Homeric man is defined in terms of processes more precisely than of things" (1999, 115).
(12) Cp. Nietzsche's comment in The Will to Power notebooks, that the "essence" of "dynamic quanta ... lies in its relation to all other quanta, in their 'effect' upon the same" (1968, 635). For a further, more refined discussion of the problem of defining a "thing" in terms of force, and the interplay of forces, cf. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, especially Chapter Two, "Active and Reactive," pp 39-72.
(13) Cf. Frankel: "It is in conflict above all that a man confirms his own existence, to himself and to others, whether it be in armed battle or discussions and quarrels" (1975, 84). Cf. also Muellner's comment on Zeus' seemingly constant need to meet the challenge of rivals: "It is almost as if Zeus' power over the world would end if no one resisted it, or to put it another way, in this portrait of the world the need to test and challenge the authority that rules the world is as irresistible and unclosable and constitutive of experience as the need for that authority to resist subversion and so persist" (1990, 80). The personal existence of the gods themselves, it would seem, also subsists in mutual relations of power and force.
(14) On the idea that Homeric heroes exist as "disruptions," cf. Hannah Arendt, who-thinking much upon the Homeric example-characterized the most peculiarly human mode of existence, the vita activa, as an "insertion" which is "like a second birth," one in which "something new is started which cannot be expected from what may have happened before" (1998, 176, 178). Cf. too Heidegger's essay on Antigone, "The Restriction of Being," in Introduction to Metaphysics, in which the human being is characterized as one who "needs to use violence-and does not just have violence at his disposal but is violence-doing, insofar as violence is the basic trait not just of his doing, but of his Da-sein" (2000, 160). Homeric notions of self, it seems, may have much light to shed upon our more recent efforts to rethink the self in non-Cartesian terms; it could in fact be argued that many post-modern, "inerrelational" versions of the self originate (such is most certainly the case with Nietzsche) from the careful study and absorption of the peculiar world-view of Homeric epic.
(15) I am of course using the word in its original, archaic, and etymological sense of being so deficient in vigor as to be without feck, i.e., "effect."
(16) Significantly, the fighter who fights in the front lines of battle, who does not shirk in the back, is in Homer called esthlos; but the word esthlos itself is derived from the root *es-, that is, "to be" (cf. Nagy, 1990, 121).
(17) Cf. Hannah Arendt's allusion in The Human Condition (1998, 7-8) to the Latin equivalent of Nestor's eon met' andrasin-namely, inter homines esse-in her discussion of the vita activa.
(18) It is interesting to note, for instance, that the term kikus (translated here as "might"), is used in The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (its only other known attestation) to characterize the "deficient" condition of Tithonus, the unfortunate paramour of the Dawn, who, being granted eternal life without eternal youth, experiences the most extreme condition of senescence: "His voice drones on [literally "flows"] limitlessly, nor is any kikus his, such as was previously in his supple limbs" (Homeric Hymns, 6.10-11). Whether based on Homeric epic, or informing it, there is apparently a "tradition," then, in which old age and death tend to collapse into one another; the hapless Tithonus exists at an imagined extreme, a mythical asymptote, at which the two conditions become indistinguishable.
(19) For Nagler's discussion of the "generative Gestalt" (1994, 13-26). Defining a person's "being" in terms of force and effect has a disturbing corollary for the aged in Homer (and the Greeks in general)--to the extent that they become ineffectual in the world, the aged, at a far enough extreme, simply cease to "exist" at all. This perhaps explains Nestor's despairing "if ever I was." It may explain, as well, the Iliad's anxiety to secure some kind of distinctive contribution-specifically that of "counsel"-to the old. This point forestalls too the possible objection that the mode of "being" I am here attempting to describe applies only to warriors, not humans in general. The standard of effectuality applies even to those who have trouble fulfilling it. Cf. the remark of Aeschylus' Pythian priestess in Eumenides: "A frightened old woman is a nothing, like a child" (1 38). The notion that one's existence is defined in terms of effectuality places being itself on a kind of "sliding scale," so that there are in fact many conditions that consequently fail of full existence: childhood, insanity, age, are some of these. Indeed, in certain moods of Sophoclean despair, "being human" itself is to fail to possess any "real being" whatsoever when measured on the scale of effectuality (especially in comparison to the effectuality the gods possess): cf. Odysseus's dark remark in the Ajax that "I see that all of us who live are nothing--nothing other than phantom-likenesses and weightless shadow," (Ajax, 125-26). It should be noted, though, in the case of women, that they need not entirely fail of effectual being simply because they cannot go to war: feminine beauty (such as Helen's in Book III of the Iliad, and Hera's in Book XIV) can "overmaster" others as effectively as physical force (in the way that old men's counsel is effective too). In addition, a woman like Penelope consistently registers her effect upon the world through what is called the "attendance motif" (cf. Nagler [1974, 45, 47ff]): whenever Penelope moves, wherever she goes, she goes "not alone" (1.331, 16.413, 21.63), for the household must stir with her; thus is her "effect" felt.
(20) It is interesting to note, in relation to these twin requirements of genuine, effective action, Nagy's speculation that the quarrel over whether Achilles or Odysseus is the best of the Achaeans "seems to be based on an epic tradition that contrasted the heroic worth of Odysseus with that of Achilles in terms of a contrast between metis and bie" (Nagy 1979, 45).
(21) I have attempted to work out some of these suggestions in full in my doctoral dissertation, "To Be and Not To Be: The Metaphysics of Reputation, Honor, and the Self in Homer's Iliad" (UCLA, 2004).
(22) The man who submits to insult without retaliation is in Homer outidanos, literally, a "nothing" one. Cf. Vernant's remark that "any public attack" on a hero's dignity is tantamount to the "annihilation of his very being" (1995, 18); Vernant's views, however, are grounded in a (more or less) Hegelian, or "shame-culture," notion of the self, a self based upon the "recognition" and the "mutual gaze" of two subjects of consciousness, as opposed to the (more or less) "Nietzschean," corporeal-force thesis advanced here.
(23) It might be noted, in defense of this "existential" interpretation of Achilles's final determination to win kleos, that one of the basic formulaic epithets of kleos is esthlon, a term derived from the root whose meaning is "to be." Cf. note 16 above.
(24) Cf. Peradotto (1990, 147-70).
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Damian Stocking is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
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|Title Annotation:||Essays: Interpreting Homer's Texts|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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