Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Yoav Rinon, Homer and the Dual Model of the Tragic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Pp. 220. ISBN 9780472116638. $65.00.
Reviewed by Robert J. Rabel, University of Kentucky

Table of Contents

In this ambitious book, Yoav Rinon defines and discusses what he takes to be the essence of "the tragic" itself, as opposed to its appearance within the genre-specific texts of Greek tragedy. Modern discussions of the tragic have been for the most part confined to discussions of the plays themselves. Plato and Aristotle thought otherwise: both regarded Homer as a tragic poet of the first rank. Rinon's book thus follows from an ancient tradition of Homeric analysis, inasmuch as the tragic is distilled from Plato and Aristotle, mostly from Aristotle, and then made concrete by application to the Homeric poems. The argument is made with clarity and great insight, though I have reservations regarding the way Rinon sees humans as victims without much influence in the making of the tragedies that befall them.

Rinon takes from Aristotle four components he sees as essential characteristics of the tragic: suffering (pathos), recognition (anagnorisis), luck (tuchê), and the two possible directions in which a tragic reversal may move. Suffering is a "destructive or painful act." Recognition for Aristotle involves reaching an understanding over time of one's true status and relationship to others. Rinon widens the scope of tragic recognition to include what he calls "metaphysical recognition," defined as "a deep cognizance of one's total subjection to the gods, fate, or time, powers either indifferent or, more commonly, hostile to individual success and happiness" (p. 10). Thirdly, the Aristotelian concepts of good and bad luck are essential features of the tragic, for no proper explanation, outside of luck, can be given for why a life will turn out well or ill. Luck is the determining factor. Finally, the duality posited in the title also echoes Aristotle's thinking, for the tragic reversal takes place between the poles of good or bad luck, moving across time in either direction. The Iliad reflects the inexplicable and implacable movement over time from good to bad luck, while the Odyssey moves in the opposite direction, one equally incapable of being comprehensible to the tragic personage, from bad to good. Missed kairos, the critical time for the accomplishment or non-accomplishment of one's purposes, is the factor that plays the decisive role in determining the course of a tragic life. Rinon's view of the lot of mortals, when viewed through the lens of a tragic outlook, is stark and grim: people are for the most part unhappy, this unhappiness stemming directly from the fact of their humanness (p. 5). Working with the above concepts, Rinon defines the tragic as "a worldview reflecting the precarious position of the human being in a world determined by two factors, time and the divine, over which he or she has almost no influence" (p. 2). An important and surprising feature of Rinon's analysis of the Iliad in Chapter 1 is that in much the same way both Achilles and Agamemnon emerge equally as tragic figures. They are viewed as having "similar traits that lead to similar tragic outcomes" (p. 21), and they develop much the same tragic outlook over the course of the poem.

Chapter 1 ("A Tragic Pattern in the Iliad: Missed Kairos, Misunderstandings, and Missing the Dead") analyzes the tragic experience and development of a tragic outlook on the macroscopic level in the cases of Achilles and Agamemnon and, incidentally, finds the tragic sketched on the microscopic level in stories told by and about Phoenix and Meleager in Book 9. Rinon views the Iliad as a story of "ill synchronization" reflected in various cases of a missed kairos. First of all, at the beginning of the poem, when Agamemnon is asked to give back Chryseis to her father in return for abundant compensation, he misses the "right time" (kairos) to obtain satisfaction for his loss. Rather, he reacts in anger and dismisses Chryses from the camp. Because of the resultant plague, he is soon required to pay reparations to the god Apollo (p. 19). It is such refusal to give in to what is necessary that sets one on the road to tragedy, while acknowledgment of past error brings "freedom from the vicious circle of the tragic pattern" (p. 14). Agamemnon soon blunders a second time by taking Briseis, Achilles' prize, whereupon Achilles, like the king, responds in anger "at the anticipated loss of a desired object" (p. 22). However, in Book 9, Agamemnon takes responsibility for this mistake; he offers to return Achilles' prize, gives up his claim to possession of Briseis, and offers additional compensation (p. 23 f.). At this point, according to Rinon, the tragic pattern terminates in Agamemnon's case, for "when the human agent gives up both the desired object and any claims for compensation, and when he is willing, in addition, to compensate for his earlier error, the tragic pattern reaches its termination" (p. 24). However, the tragic pattern in Agamemnon's case is only fully consummated when in Book 19 the king makes his great speech about the ruinous effects of atê. According to Rinon, when Agamemnon invokes Zeus, Moira, and Erinus as the cause of his atê, he is expressing "a metaphysical recognition" of the helpless and unfortunate human condition, "delineating the deep and most terrible roots of human conduct" (p. 36). In the case of Achilles, the pattern is realized in similar terms and is consummated in a similar recognition of the tragic human lot. In Book 9, Achilles turns down Agamemnon's offer to return Briseis and receive additional gifts. As a result, he, like Agamemnon in Book 1, misses the appropriate moment (kairos) for receiving compensation and must, again like Agamemnon, suffer additional loss, in this instance the death of Patroclus. Finally, in Achilles' case the tragic pattern is consummated in the tale of the two jars, which Achilles relates to Priam in Book 24 of the poem. According to Achilles, Zeus dispenses good and evil to wretched mortals on principles that mortals simply cannot comprehend (24.525-533). For both Agamemnon and Achilles, the tragic pattern "traces a missed kairos" and "charts the arduous path of one who has missed the right moment as he makes his way toward the painful psychological recognition of the irretrievable nature of his loss" (p. 43).

Rinon's analysis of the tragic pattern in the Iliad is likely to encounter resistance from some readers, since he pays little regard to the dramatic contexts in which Agamemnon's and Achilles' "metaphysical recognitions" take place. Agamemnon is concerned throughout the poem to evade blame for mistakes he makes, a characteristic mode of action we see as early as the testing of the army at the beginning of Book 2. Thus, it seems to me that the king in Book 19 is concerned to hoist responsibility for his mistakes on to higher powers. Though E.R. Dodds saw Agamemnon's speech on atê as a thoughtful meditation by Homeric man on the theme of moral responsibility,1 I am inclined to agree with Oliver Taplin that Agamemnon's speech is a case of "obvious special pleading," carried out by a man who, despite his every advantage, behaves badly throughout the poem. In Taplin's words, Agamemnon is simply "a nasty piece of work".2 Nor can the dramatic context of Achilles' remarks to Priam be ignored. His speech belongs to the rhetorical genre of consolation; he is attempting to offer what comfort he can provide to the old king, who lost his favorite son and brought disaster upon his city by indulging Paris' irresponsible theft of Helen, the event that caused the war in the first place.

R. does a good job in delineating parallels in how Achilles and Agamemnon both miss the right time for receiving compensation, but I disagree with the idea that the two are helpless victims of higher powers. In R.'s reading of the poem, human beings are puppets of the gods and of fate, and the knowledge gained through suffering is but a (metaphysical) recognition of this fundamental human vulnerability. It seems to me that Homer, on the contrary, is concerned to emphasize the element of personal responsibility that Rinon sees as missing from his conception of the tragic, where simple luck, not calculation determines the outcome of a life. In this regard, attention should be paid to Thetis' remark to Achilles in Book 18. Following the death of Patroclus, she tells her son (rightly, I think): "these things have been brought to pass for you by Zeus, as you earlier prayed, that the sons of the Achaeans should be huddled at the sterns of their ships in need of you" (18.74-77). Even Achilles himself recognizes the truth of this judgment (18.79). The lyrics of an old song by Bertolt Brecht nicely seem to fit the case of the tragedies caused and experienced by Agamemnon and Achilles: "We all make the bed we must lie in/ and tuck ourselves into it too./ And if somebody kicks, that will be me, dear,/ and if someone gets kicked that will be you." In the course of the Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon do much kicking, and they get kicked in return, but both make the bed in which they must lie.

Chapter 2 ("Painful Remembrance of Things Past: Passive Suffering, Agonizing Recognition, and Doleful Memories in the Odyssey") investigates the place of suffering and recognition in the establishment of the Odyssey as an epic with strong tragic overtones. Suffering and recognition, Rinon argues, are not in themselves sufficient to qualify a story as tragic. Otherwise, Telemachus would emerge as a tragic figure, since he suffers much in the course of the poem and comes to recognition (in the Aristotelian sense) of his father. Therefore, the idea of missed kairos cannot be applied to him (p. 46). On the other hand, missed kairos occurs frequently in the case of the tragic figure Odysseus, for example, when he falls asleep after leaving the island of Aeolus and on Thrinacia (pp. 48-50). In this chapter, Rinon provides good and reasonable analyses of a number of Odysseus' adventures, such as his meeting with the Sirens and the episode with the dog Argus. As one would expect, he puts emphasis on the idea of Odysseus as a suffering victim of higher powers (p. 64).

Chapter 3 ("The Pivotal Scene and the Tragic: Heteroglossia, Focalization, and Colonialism in Odyssey 9") looks in detail at the Cyclops episode. Here Rinon employs Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia ("double-voiced discourse") in order to describe the Cyclops episode as the pivot around which a transition is accomplished from the old heroic ethic of the Iliad to a new postwar ethic, represented by the eventual return of Odysseus to Ithaca. Rinon provides persuasive and compelling arguments to the effect that Odysseus' adventures on the way home--especially the Cyclops episode--force him to rethink and re-evaluate his position in the world (p. 70). While the old heroic values are rejected, the new values are yet to be explicitly formulated (p. 91), yet in their inchoate form they involve a deeper understanding of human feelings and motives (p. 94) and reflect a broader postwar perspective. Once again, however, I question the emphasis on the idea of helplessness in the face of external powers. Such subjugation to fate or other powers leaves little room for a recognition of Odysseus' versatility and cunning intelligence (mêtis) as the determining factors in his reacquisition of home and family. Rinon must deny to Odysseus this aspect of active agency in the face of external threats in order to qualify the Odyssey as tragic in his sense of the word. But Odysseus must be recognized as more than a passive victim of fate or the gods, unless one wishes to argue that Homer sees Odyssean mêtis as itself a gift of fate or the gods, for which the hero can claim no responsibility. In that case, Homer would be seeing Odysseus' employment of mêtis as itself a fated occurrence. Such an argument would perhaps be analogous to the response the Stoics made to the so-called "lazy argument" (argos logos, no pun intended!) that the Skeptics later employed against the Stoics3.

Chapters 4 ("Hector in Flight: The Absurd and the Tragic in the Iliad") returns to the Iliad. Rinon argues that the postwar ethic fully developed in the Odyssey is adumbrated in the poem's description of the unheroic death of Hector in Book 22. Homer accomplishes "an evisceration of heroic signification in general" (p. 109) by overloading detail and deleting mention of important aspects of Hector's flight from Achilles. Albert Camus' idea of the "absurd," comprising suffering and psychological recognition "of the horrifying aspects of the human condition" (p. 107), provides the methodological underpinnings of this discussion.

Chapters 5 and 6 ("Mise en abyme and the Tragic: Metaphysical Recognition in the Three Songs of Demodocus" and "Tragic Hephaestus: The Humanized God in the Iliad and the Odyssey") make use of the concept of mise en abyme ("a certain part of a literary work of art that represents the work of art as a whole" [p. 115]). These chapters argue that the songs of Demodocus in the Odyssey and the characterization of Hephaestus in both poems as a god endowed with human characteristics offer ways by which scenes within the Iliad and the Odyssey reflect upon what Rinon has defined as their tragic nature. A brief summary chapter at the conclusion of the book ("The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Dual Model of the Tragic") recapitulates the argument in brief compass.

The book has been well edited and produced by the University of Michigan Press. I detected two typos: "seemly" should be "seemingly" on p. 22, and "dew" should be "due" on p. 30.

While offering detailed analyses of the tragic element in the Homeric poems, the author (quite deliberately) bypasses the question of the extent to which his model of the tragic can be applied to the surviving works of the Greek tragedians. I am left wondering whether the Greek tragedians (and Homer as well) had such an orderly and concise understanding of what constitutes the tragic. Does Rinon's conception of the tragic fit the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides any better than, say, Sir Philip Sidney's ideas about the tragic illuminate and explain the element of the tragic in Shakespeare's plays? (Sidney, like Rinon, also based his theories on Aristotle.) Regardless, my personal reservations should in no way be taken to detract from my admiration for a book from which I have learned much. All students and teachers of Homer and of Greek tragedy will profit much from a careful reading and consideration of Rinon's work.


1.   See E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 1-27.
2.   See Oliver Taplin, "Agamemnon's Role in the Iliad," in Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature, ed. C. Pelling (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990), 65 and 75.
3.   Carneades and the Skeptics employed the "lazy argument" to argue that it would be useless to do anything if, as the Stoics thought, all things were fated. It would be useless, for example, to call in a doctor in the event of illness, if one were already fated to recover or not. Chrysippus and Stoics countered with the claim that calling in the doctor would itself be a fated act. It is at least historically interesting that this may be how the Stoics interpreted reference to fated and divinely caused events in Homer, whom they regarded as having anticipated much of their philosophy.

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