English 795
Caroline Whitbeck
Nagy Presentation

Gregory Nagy’s approach to Homeric performance has strong parallels to the tack this (Bernstein’s) class is taking as regards the (or any) attempt to think about poetry not merely “in opposition to” the text as written work but “beyond” it, beyond the (deceptive) authority of the page to include a history or tradition wherein performance is considered a (process of re-) composition, and not a secondary or otherwise alienated aspect of poetry. We preserve these prejudices toward the written word and toward the creative act of writing (as opposed to performing or listening) when we talk about the poems quote-unquote “Homer wrote” or “Wallace Stevens wrote”, etc., which construction privileges the notion, one, of an autonomous, historical, singular author, and, two, of an autonomous, historical, and singular act of composition which has been reified and graphically rendered. Instead of such constructs as “author” and “text”, Nagy prefers to acknowledge concepts of “authority” (conferred upon a performance by an authorizing audience which author-izes the performer and performance in their reception/relation) and “text” as a metaphor (“text”-ile, “text”-ure?) for the process of events (not a singular event, no “big bang” as he calls it) or “evolution” of performances (although, again, he denies Darwinian connotations of preference) that led to the edition of the Homeric epics as written texts today. Nagy uses comparative literature and philology—drawing sources from Navajo rituals, medieval French troubadour poetry, current Indian oral performance practices, and the work of Albert Lord and Milman Parry on South Slavic oral traditions—to debunk the popular fiction of one ancient “Homer” who “wrote” one “authentic” Iliad and one “authentic” Odyssey which we must definitively reconstruct. In the passage from Poetry As Performance, Homer and Beyond cited in Bernstein’s introduction, in fact, Nagy defends two variant readings of an epithet of a nightingale as equally “important” or “correct”, as the privileging of one over the other as opposed to their appreciation together, is an anachronistic retroactive reading from the perspective of a society in which a “text” means “one (written, right) answer.” (As Adalaide Morris later recounts in discussing H.D..’s Helen in Egypt, “additive rather than analytic” rationale is productive when interrogating orality and oral traditions.) The two choices— poludeukea or polucea , either “making imitiation in a varied way” or “with many resoundings”—and their holographic, overlapping coexistance re-present the process of composition-in-performance. The two choices, in their both-and trilling, re-present an aesthetic stance characterized by “mouvance”, borrowing Paul Zumthor’s term as regards the variability (and valorization of same) within medieval French troubadour poetry.

Nagy extends this textual mouvance to the “figure” or “trope” (in its etymological sense from trepw as “turn”, “your turn”!) of the Homeric author, suggesting that any notion of authorship is “assumed” with the authorization of performance, slipping into the pronouns (those shifters) of “Sing in ME, Muse” and the like, which activates the performer as Homer for the space of the performance (here Nagy quotes Eliot’s “you are the music/while the music lasts” from 1941’s Dry Salvage). To say that the performer is “playing Homer” or “acting Homer” would be to posit an untenable split between the particular performance and some transcendental or authentic Homeric “text” or “event”. Nagy discusses this phenomenological collapse of myth (“that”, “that event there”) into/by the ritual space of performance (“this”, “this performance here”) as not a “reperformed composer” but a “recomposed performer,” which reminded me of the General Electric radio ad, wherein the hed booms “Don’t Cry Mother…It’s Only a Program!” but the lede immediately corrects “Of course daughter is wrong.”!

The birth of alphabetic culture, Nagy argues, does not necessitate the fixation and transferal of oral work into written work: instead, he sees the earliest attested written work, inscriptions on statuary, as being performances in themselves as often the reenact a situation of question and answer, re-presencing the object in question through the im-position/in-scription: why is this stone here? I (the stone) answer THIS (HQ, pg. 25). To account for these processes that “read like” proof of textualization Nagy speaks of myth’s tendency to retrojectively rewrite itself, positing culture heroes and other cumulative phenomena to describe or defend its (synchronic) fixity: inventing an aetiology to cope with a current teleology. To account, then, for the texts as written work we have today, Nagy does describe what he calls the Five Ages of Homer, in increasing levels of formulaic and thematic fixity, the final three corresponding to what he terms “transcript”, “script”, and “scripture”, as writing and performance interacted and affected the “event” of the epic: transcript, the broadest relation, in no way limits the performance but presents a moment of contact with text and performance; script, however, suggests a dependence on a text, but is still tied to performance activity; scripture, the final phase, presents a text that exists outside and independent of the moment of performance. Nagy accounts for these changes with the application of alphabetic culture, eventually, to the regulation of ritual performance and festival by the state and by other institutions such as libraries and the editorial “reform” their curators instanced on their behalf.