Homer’s “Fragments”

It will soon be 80 years since Milman Parry demonstrated, startlingly, that oral and traditional style has deep consequences for those who seek to understand Homeric poetry and narrative. These consequences, nonetheless, have not lead to a settled view of the fundamental matters of Homeric discourse. The Parryan paradigm shift, in fact, has not yielded, over the course of most of a century, to non-controversial conclusions that can guide our journey over the troubled waters surrounding the nature of Homeric poetics. Instead the basics of Homeric composition remain hotly contested to this day, including such issues as the oral-dictated text, the transmission of Homeric narrative from its earliest oral manifestations to its fixity under Hellenistic scholars, preeminently Aristarchus, as well as to what weight one should, in fact, give to the oral-formulaic traditional style in interpreting Homeric narrative. While investigating the modernist notion of the fragment and the implications that that notion has had for poetics over the past 250 years, I came to the conclusion that the notion of the fragment might tell us something about the lively contestations that face those of us who both enthusiastically accept the oral-formulaic theory of composition in performance and stubbornly retain a robust notion of poetic quality and style. In this paper I apply the modernist and postmodernist idea of the fragment to Homeric studies, even under the weight of the paradigmatic shift that Parry provided.

Without doubt, the exciting developments after Parry (by Lord, Nagy, Foley, Bakker, Visser and others) have further strengthened the original paradigm-shift, in precisely the manner that Thomas Kuhn indicates is characteristic of scientific revolutions. Nonetheless, differently from how such revolutions work in science, this preeminent revolution in the humanities has scarcely led to a settled body of theory upon which all students of Homer can safely rest their books and proceed with their work. It is not, I mean to say, that the theory of the traditional character of Homer is at issue but something at a higher level of generality keeps us from consensus. I am suggesting that upon entertaining the notion of Homeric tradition, we bring to bear on that topic assumptions about what constitutes a traditional text. I address here the nature of the text as an artistic whole in the light of the idea of tradition, where, I will argue, “the fragment” poses no problem. What is at stake in my discussion is that we turn to complete the revolution that Parry initiated by looking closely at our assumptions–at ourselves–as we examine what Parry brought into play: the fundamental distinctions between traditional and non-traditional texts.

In this paper, I examine one such assumption, namely, the unity of the literary text: Is the Homeric text, when taken up by a modern reader, a unified whole, complete as that reader encounters it, or is the Homeric text a part of a greater whole, one–or a subset of one — that we call “the tradition”? The contention of this paper will be that the question of unity for modern texts is fundamentally different than the question of unity for pre-modern traditional texts, and that the history of the question of the fragment shines a light on that distinction.

The modernist theory of the fragment, since at its inception, implicates our notion of the difference between a part and a whole. Considerations of unity have been taken up by moderns, since the early Romantic period, through the notion of fragmentation. I examine, in the first part of this paper, the modernist and post-modernist notion of the fragment as it has developed from the early Romantic period of European critical thought to the present, and conclude that we approach Homer with assumptions related to our level of comfort with the basic facts of tradition, namely, that each performance is actually a mere fragment of the narrative possibilities presented by the tradition.

The German romantics and philhellenes, from F. Schlegel on, set the stage by identifying the fragment not with the exuberance of the incomplete, the way the latest version of the romanticized fragment exults in the indeterminacy of linguistic phenomena; for the resistance to closure and completeness that is the hallmark of such thinking about discourse (e.g., in M. Foucault) is modally different from Romanticism’s flirtation with the fragment. Nor does this earliest epiphany of the fragment (where antiquity represented “wholeness” and modernity “fragmentation”) compare with the high-modernist’s despair over a seemingly benighted age, whose fragments are defense mechanisms, engines of mass-protection: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins. ” For Eliot, fragments and ruins are both ours to lean one against the other. The fragmentary products of a despairing moment and the ruins that are the bequest of antiquity, become evidence of one’s own desperate condition, one that mirrors the shards of culture left by antiquity. For certainly the archaeological advances that had but recently come to yield the ruins of Troy itself, had made the image of ruins, the incompleteness of broken stones and holey-writ, betoken antiquity. The result was the widening of the chasms that continue to divide modernity from antiquity.

Yet classicists look at what is fragmentary in a completely different manner.

The fragment is central to the classical task. The wholeness of F. Schlegel’s notional antiquity turns out to be riddled with gaps, fragmentariness producing the legacy whose capital we must reinvest with our labor in a quixotic quest to restore a wholeness that cannot be ours. It turns out, then, that we have found Schlegel’s antiquity and its wholeness to be an illusion. Could it be said that the rise of philhellenism implicates modern anxiety about fragmentariness? After all Roman antiquity had the Roman empire to foster illusions of wholeness. But to turn to the Greeks leaves us with insecurity about the tiny parts of the tradition to which we have access. The Greeks were not only masters of illusion with respect to wholeness, it is also the case that our wish as Hellenists continues to search constantly for one more fragment to emerge from Egyptian sand so that we can shore it against the ruins — not “our” ruins, but the ruins of the past itself.

Nor is it easy for the classicist to embrace a post-modern exuberance at the aesthetic gesture that the fragment presents. I will discuss the bravest classical exposition of such a possibility (by P. Dubois), but whether or not one should delight in the membra disiecta, the fragment remains a question among post-traditional readers.

After exploring the evolution of thinking about what is “fragmentary,” both within the classical community and among intellectuals as a whole, I turn to places in Greek texts where the notion of the fragmentary are good to think with.

The relationship of what we call Homer to what we call the tradition is presented in the second part of this essay, as a series of case studies, each of which indicates how Homeric material is fragmentary with respect to its tradition. I list those case studies now:

Case Study 1: The proem to the catalog of ships.
Case Study 2. The story of Meleager.
Case Study 3: The Iliad and the Odyssey.
Case Study 4: The songs of Demodocus.

In each case study, as in many others, the sense of the text implicates the tradition of which it is “only” a part. From a point of view within the traditional (“emically”) this is the accepted — and welcomed — state of affairs. From outside of the tradition, the position in which we all stand (“etically”) fragmentation is a source of discomfort, welcomed by some as fertile ground for thought and creativity, and eschewed by others as a source for misunderstanding and uncertainty.

T. R. Walsh
U.C. Santa Cruz
For the Center for Hellenic Studies
September 15, 2005