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Milman Parry, who changed the way scholars think about Homer (lithub.com)
54 points by diodorus 13 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 15 comments

I have always found Borges’ discussion on Homer interesting. Specifically, his reference to Oscar Wilde’s idea that Homer was depicted as being blind in order to convey that poetry is an aural, and not visual, art form.

From On Blindness:

I will begin with that obvious example of the friendship of poetry and blindness, with the one who has been called the greatest of poets: Homer. (We know of another blind Greek poet, Tamiris, whose work has been lost. Tamiris was defeated in a battle with the Muses, who broke his lyre and took away his sight.)

Oscar Wilde had a curious hypothesis, one which I don't think is his­torically correct but which is intellectually agreeable. In general, writers try to make what they say seem profound; Wilde was a profound man who tried to seem frivolous. He wanted us to think of him as a conversationalist; he wanted us to consider him as Plato considered poetry, as "that winged, fickle, sacred thing." Well, that winged, fickle, sacred thing called Oscar Wilde said that Antiquity had deliberately represented Homer as blind.

We do not know if Homer existed. The fact that seven cities vie for his name is enough to make us doubt his historicity. Perhaps there was no sin­ gle Homer; perhaps there were many Greeks whom we conceal under the name of Homer. The traditions are unanimous in showing us a blind poet, yet Homer's poetry is visual, often splendidly visual-as was, to a far lesser degree, that of Oscar Wilde. Wilde realized that his own poetry was too visual, and he wanted to cure himself of that defect. He wanted to make poetry that was aural, musical-let us say like the poetry of Tennyson, or of Verlaine, whom he loved and admired so. Wilde said that the Greeks claimed that Homer was blind in order to emphasize that poetry must be aural, not visual. From that comes the "de la musique avant toute chose" of Verlaine and the symbolism contemporary to Wilde.

We may believe that Homer never existed, but that the Greeks imagined him as blind in order to insist on the fact that poetry is, above all, music; that poetry is, above all, the lyre; that the visual can or cannot exist in a poet. I know of great visual poets and great poets who are not visual-intellectual poets, mental ones-there's no need to mention names.*

There was another fascinating piece on the history of the Homeric question early last year: "Having Had No Predecessor to Imitate, He Had No Successor Capable of Imitating Him". If your interest is more in the subject as a whole than one scholar's role in it, I think it gives a better overview, and the ending is just beautiful.


> But in fact it was Albert Lord, saddled with all those aluminum discs in 1935, who would further establish Parry’s reputation

What are the aluminum discs referred to?

Sound recordings Parry made in Yugoslavia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminum_disc

I had assumed wax cylinders. Thank you very much

What about Gilbert Murray, reading about the literary scene in the first half of 20th century, he seemed to be the one spoken off as the most important classicist esp on Ancient Greece at that time.

I believe that's an Anglocentric story: as far as I know, German scholars were very much aware of the same properties of orally composed South Slavic epic poems for more than a century longer.

If this was the case then it cannot be the case that this was a new idea to English speaking classicists because typically the third language they would learn is German. This is because so much 19th century classical philology was done in German (Nietzsche was of course a classicist before he was anything else and I've always thought that his attitude to Christianity was, at least aesthetically, not so much radically new as radically old). Milman Perry actually wrote his original thesis in French under Meillet and knew all the Annales crowd very well from his time in Paris. Meillet was himself a scholar of Slavic languages.

It is the case that these ideas didn't just come from nowhere, Düntzer is important here along with other German speaking experts on orality and the metrics of poetry and Matija Murko along with many other scholars of oral South Slavic poetry.

I'm not an expert but I've always understood that the consensus on Parry's contribution was that he developed not the idea about how oral poetry differs from written poetry when compared side by side but on developing techniques to detect the traces of previous oral traditions in poetry that was now exclusively written.

In some ways, the only really sui generis contributions of Perry and Lord which are not part of a larger tradition and the importance of which should not be underestimated is the vast collection of recordings of South Slavic oral epic poetry. There was narrow window where that was possible, any earlier and the recording technology didn't exist. Any later and that culture was completely disrupted. Obviously there remain South Slavic oral poetry traditions but something like that doesn't make it through universal literacy, radio, and television unchanged and all of those came rapidly to the Balkans in the period immediately after.

Friedrich August Wolf is a German Classical Scholar who argued in his 1795 "Prolegomena ad Homerum" that there might be no single author.

Gottfried Herrman seems to have argued the same just from the textual structure of the works in 1840.

Source is the german version of this english Wikipedia article:


The english version mentions Wolf in a sentence but then concludes

> This perspective, however, did not receive mainstream recognition until after the seminal work of Milman Parry

Which might be a fair assessment.

The german part on Wolf's work is here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homerische_Frage#Die_Forschung...

They had to destroy Homer because he was not german but greek.

Had Homer been german, they would never have questioned a national hero.

Minor point of contention: There was no "Germany" to have "national heroes" in 1795. F.A. Wolf was Prussian.

Prussia, in turn, was very much in love with classicism (like pretty much everybody at the time), which pretty much amounts to worshipping Hellenic and Roman culture.

Fascinating! TFA gave me one new rabbit hole to climb down. This one’s another. Thank you!


Maybe this article is paired with

“Matt Groening, who changed the way non-scholars think about Homer”

Parry sounds like an old-school Jordan Peterson: taking the mythologies from obscurity and bringing them to life by showing their relevance today.

The idea that Homer did not create the mythologies, but catalogued oral history, makes some sense.

Homer and Greek mythology was certainly not obscure at the time! The influence was pervasive in Western art and literature throughout history. In the middle ages it was mostly known through Latin sources, but deeply influential nonetheless. From the renaissance and forward, Homer was generally recognized as the most important poet in history. Parry performed research into how Homer (understood as a tradition rather than a single person) composed his epic.

I fail to see the connection to Peterson, who I admittedly only know of as a self-help guru.

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