Monday, September 23, 2019


Richard J. Defouw, The Subtlety of Homer. Boulder, CO: Richard J. Defouw, 2018. Pp. xi, 350. ISBN 9780692185438.

Reviewed by Bill Beck, Indiana University, Bloomington (

Version at BMCR home site

Of all the proposed solutions to the Homeric Question, The Subtlety of Homer is certainly one of the most unorthodox. Like many before him, Defouw argues that the answer to the Homeric Question can be found in (apparent) inconsistencies within and between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Where he departs from his predecessors is in his argument that many of these inconsistencies were intentional: "many inconsistencies in the Homeric epics should not be attributed to the difficulties of composition in performance, to progressive fixation of the text, or to any of the other mechanisms that have previously been proposed, but are best understood as having been introduced intentionally" (189).

Defouw argues that Homer created inconsistencies "not in furtherance of some narrative aim," but "for the sake of inconsistency itself" (189). As such, he considers the Iliad and the Odyssey to be prime examples of what G. I. Gurdjieff termed 'objective art' (on which see below). Given that 'objective art' can only be created by someone who "lives on a much higher level than that of an ordinary person" (246), Defouw reasons that "Homer must have possessed inner unity" and "must have experienced at least flashes of objective consciousness"—that is, "enlightenment": "Homer was not only an extraordinary poet but an awakened individual" (247, 248). Considering the improbability that two contemporary poets would have "both reached the required level of consciousness" to create objective art, Defouw infers "that the two poems were composed by the same person," though he also allows for the possibility that the Odyssey poet "was both the poetic apprentice and the spiritual pupil of the Iliad poet" (248). Homerists have hitherto failed to reach this conclusion, Defouw argues, because they have not attained to the "higher levels of consciousness" necessary to understand Homer's intent: "these poems were composed by someone who possessed an inner unity that is beyond the experience of Homeric scholars" (247).

Defouw recognizes that his readers are likely to be "reluctant to accept" his case for intentional inconsistency and predicts that his conclusions are "likely to generate vigorous opposition" (189). Though I am independently convinced of the truth of Defouw's convictions that the subtlety of Homeric narrative is often overlooked and that the topic of Homeric inconsistency deserves a fresh consideration, Defouw's conclusions are undercut by impressionistic readings and specious argumentation.

The argument unfolds in two parts. Chapters 1–3 argue that scenes from the Homeric poems "may contain a key element that is not stated explicitly but must be inferred from what is given and from what may reasonably be surmised" (45). Drawing on the inconsistencies identified in the first three chapters, chapters 4-9 "propose a new answer to the Homeric Question" (82).

Chapter 1 deals with the perceived problem of Odysseus's weeping at the Phaeacian court. Given that Odysseus has recently "been promised conveyance home" and "has just heard his deeds at Troy celebrated in song," Defouw reasons that he "should be overjoyed" (5). Defouw regards Odysseus as an individual of "exceptional self-control" (5) who "would not weep involuntarily at a Phaiakian banquet once, much less twice" (6). Rejecting the possibility that Odysseus sheds tears out of empathy or remorse, Defouw argues that Odysseus's "weeping can be understood as a calculated maneuver" designed to extract as many gifts from the Phaeacians as possible (6). Why does Odysseus try to conceal his crying (Od. 8.84-8)? "[I]n deference to social convention" (6). Why does the narrator remark that Odysseus was "ashamed" of his crying (Od. 8.86)? "[I]t is not shame but rather consideration for what is proper […] that prevents Odysseus from weeping openly" (10). When Lattimore's translation of Ὀδυσσεὺς τήκετο (Od. 8.521) makes Odysseus's tears seem "sincere rather than premeditated," Defouw proposes a dubious alternative: "Odysseus made himself melt [into tears]" (11). Similarly, when the narrator refers to Odysseus's "pitiful tears" (Od. 8.531), Defouw argues that the adjective is focalized through the Phaeacians' perspective and should not be taken seriously (11).

Chapter 2 promises to resolve what Defouw regards as "some of the most glaring defects in the Odyssey" (15), a set of perceived problems involving the contest for Penelope's hand in marriage. Judging the "conventional understanding" of the contest—that Penelope conceived the idea—to be inconsistent with Odysseus's reputation for resourcefulness, Defouw argues that "the destruction of the suitors is actually another triumph of his craftiness" (15). On this reading, "Odysseus comes up with the idea of the twofold contest" and "inform[s] Athene so that she can put the idea in Penelope's mind" (24). Defouw thereby "allows the hero of the poem to live up to his reputation" (38), but his defense of Odysseus's reputation comes at the expense of Penelope's. While Odysseus is presented as a master schemer, Penelope is unable "to maintain her composure" because of her propensity to "emotional turmoil," and acts not on her own agency, but "under the power of hypnotic suggestion" (25).

Chapter 3 focuses on a passage of the Iliad "that has usually […] been completely misconstrued": namely, the (spurious) reconciliation between Achilles and Agamemnon in book 19 (56). Defouw argues that Achilles' declaration, "now I end my grudge" (Il. 19.67), "clearly does not mean that he is somehow terminating his emotional response to the quarrel," but rather suggests that he will temporarily restrain the anger "he still feels toward Agamemnon" (58). Far from signaling the resolution of the quarrel, the way in which Agamemnon "has gotten Achilles to accept the gifts without anything approaching a real apology" constitutes an "affront to his [Achilles'] dignity [that] would surely have re-ignited" the quarrel (60). Reasoning that "we should be surprised if Achilles does not exact retribution against Agamemnon" (60), Defouw identifies a "retaliatory stroke" (78) that Achilles deals "with surgical precision" (64): Achilles "forces Agamemnon to accept a prize in which he has no interest" (65). Defouw argues that Achilles' bestowal of a gift that was (perhaps) intended to be the second prize in the spear-throw constitutes "an intense humiliation for Agamemnon that he will never forget" (68). That Achilles' gift to Agamemnon—a cauldron inlaid with floral decorations—is described by the narrator as "very beautiful" (Il. 23.897) is "irrelevant" (62). That Agamemnon does not protest is explained by Agamemnon's certainty "that he would be struck down instantly" if he were to refuse Achilles' gift (66). Thus, the final event of the funeral games "brings to a decisive close the theme of Achilles' original wrath" (72).

Chapter 4 provides a brief but helpful overview of "how inconsistencies in Homer have been explained in the past" (79) and introduces the aim of the rest of the book: to demonstrate how a fresh consideration of Homeric inconsistencies points to "a new answer to the Homeric Question" (82). Key terminology is also introduced in this chapter. Defouw distinguishes between intentional and inadvertent inconsistencies (82). Intentional inconsistencies are further subdivided into comprehensible inconsistencies ("any intentional inconsistency for which there is a plausible explanation") and perverse inconsistencies (intentional inconsistencies for which there are no plausible explanations) (82). Defouw also introduces the concept of "objective art," a kind of art in which "the artist may make use of inconsistencies to provoke […] experiences which […] communicate ideas or feelings that are too subtle to be transmitted by ordinary means" (83).

Chapter 5 and 6 "document th[e] counterintuitive phenomenon" of "perverse inconsistency" between (chapter five) and within (chapter six) the Homeric poems (84). Chapter 5 argues that certain passages in the Odyssey "were designed to be inconsistent with the Iliad" (131). Chapter 6 argues that "perverse inconsistencies" are also "found in each poem considered by itself" (84). Together, these chapters make the case that "some of the many inconsistencies in the Homeric epics" were "introduced intentionally […] for the sake of inconsistency itself" (189).

A fundamental shortcoming of this book, and of these chapters in particular, is Defouw's failure to establish what constitutes an 'inconsistency.' Telemachus's statement that "men will see to speech" (Od. 1.358), for example, is taken to be inconsistent with the fact that "Helen and Arete […] are full participants in the conversation elsewhere in the Odyssey" (86–7). Similarly, Telemachus's assertion that "authority in the house" is his (Od. 21.353) is said to be in "contradiction" with "the reality that the unwelcome suitors […] have been able to take over the household" (88). Telemachus's pretension to authority is androcentric and ironic, not inconsistent. At times, Defouw's conception of 'inconsistency' seems indistinguishable from intertextuality. For Defouw, the conversation between the shades of Achilles and Agamemnon in Odyssey 24 is "perverse[ly] inconsisten[t]" with the Iliad in that it alludes to it (thereby "exhibit[ing] an awareness of" it), but does not corroborate its version of the story (thereby "deny[ing] the very existence of the earlier epic") (92). What Defouw deems "inconsistent" (95, 99) others might consider a necessity for a sophisticated intertextual relationship.

The final three chapters draw a parallel between the Homeric poems and the writings of Gurdjieff in order to contextualize the claims of the preceding chapters. Chapter 7 aims to demonstrate that Gurdjieff's writings are "filled with inconsistencies that are certainly perverse" (189). On this basis, Defouw argues that "the possibility of perverse inconsistency [in the Homeric poems] cannot simply be dismissed" (189). From the "numerous inconsistencies" (189) in Gurdjieff's writings, Defouw argues that one is "forced to conclude either that Gurdjieff was extraordinarily incompetent […] or that the inconsistencies in his writings were intentional" (190). The latter conclusion is considered "inescapable" on the grounds that "the former is simply out of the question" (190). Defouw has a remarkably high bar for consistency; as a result, a great many narrative details fall under the umbrella of inconsistency. Consider, for example, "the most stunning inconsistency in the entire Gurdjieffian corpus" (192). In a passage from Beezelbub's Tales to His Grandson, Ashiata Shiemash, the so-called Messenger from Above, concludes that "it would still be possible to save people […] if the data in their subconsciousness for the impulse of objective conscience were to participate in the functioning of their ordinary 'waking consciousness'"; 759 pages later, however, Shiemash is quoted by Beelzebub as having written that "Time alone" can save humankind (192). For Defouw, the divergence between the two accounts constitutes a "contradiction [that] could not be more complete" (192).

Chapter 8 argues that "Gurdjieff appears to have thought there was a deep connection between his work and that of Homer" (186). Defouw admits that it "may seem awkward for the thesis of this chapter that Homer is not mentioned anywhere in the writings of Gurdjieff," but he dismisses this as "a fact […] of little consequence," given that Gurdjieff took "an indirect approach in his […] teaching" (200). Defouw's claims for Homeric allusion includes, for example, the fact that "wealth in the form of flocks and herds is […] mentioned" in both the Odyssey and Meetings with Remarkable Men" (214). Similarly, Defouw links Gurdjieff's recollection of sitting down to calm a pack of angry sheep-dogs with Odyssey 14.29–31.

Chapter 9 argues that the purpose of the apparent Homeric allusions in Gurdjieff's writings is to suggest that "the Homeric epics are works of objective art," since Gurdjieff would not have alluded to the Odyssey "unless he considered that poem to be objective art" (225, 233). (Note, however, that the term 'objective art,' however, like the name 'Homer,' "do[es] not appear anywhere in the writings of Gurdjieff" (230).) If the Homeric epics are works of objective art, Defouw argues, then "the perverse inconsistency in the poem" can be explained by the fact that "objective art transmits knowledge through unexpected experiences engendered in the observer" (233). This, in turn, "implies a novel answer to the Homeric Question" (227): "the inconsistencies in the poems of Homer can be used to argue that these poems were composed by someone who possessed an inner unity that is beyond" that of "ordinary men and women" (247).

The Subtlety of Homer is well produced. Greek appears without diacritics, which is unfortunate but unproblematic.

[For a response to this review by Richard J. Defouw, please see BMCR 2019.12.16.]

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