Monday, December 9, 2019


Response: Defouw on Beck on Defouw, The Subtlety of Homer. Response to 2019.09.44

Response by Richard J. Defouw (

Version at BMCR home site

I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to Bill Beck's review of The Subtlety of Homer. For ease of orientation and reference, each of the following paragraphs begins with a label such as §3b, which indicates that the paragraph contains my second criticism of Beck's treatment of chapter 3 (the letter in the label is omitted if I make only one criticism for a given chapter or group of chapters).

§1–3. Beck asserts that the argument in chapters 4–9 draws on the Homeric inconsistencies identified in chapters 1–3. This assertion is a mystery to me, as no inconsistencies are identified in the opening chapters. On the contrary, chapter 2 shows that certain supposed inconsistencies in the Odyssey need not be inconsistencies at all (see §2a). It is true that the main conclusion of chapter 3 is used in chapter 5 to identify an inconsistency between the Iliad and the Odyssey (see §5–6a). But the concern of chapter 3 itself, like that of chapters 1 and 2, is to discuss an aspect of Homeric subtlety that is distinct from the type of subtlety treated later in the book.

§1. I reject the possibility that the weeping of Odysseus in response to a song about his sack of Troy is to be understood in terms of his empathy or remorse, because he shows no trace of these emotions when, shortly afterwards, he matter-of-factly describes his sack of Ismaros. Beck cites my conclusion but fails to mention my reasoning, giving the impression that I am prone to making arbitrary statements with no justification.

§2a. In his discussion of the thesis that the contest of the bow is a stratagem devised by Odysseus, Beck correctly reports my belief that this thesis is attractive because it allows the hero to live up to his reputation for resourcefulness. However, he shows no appreciation for the coherence of the story line, which is the principal attraction of the thesis. The idea of a contest for Penelope's hand becomes tenable only after she has told the suitors that she has decided to remarry. And indeed, shortly after this, and after a relaxed interval during which Odysseus could have conceived the idea of the contest, we are given a hint that he has come up with a new strategy for dealing with the suitors: he and Telemachos remove the arms from the hall without leaving behind two sets of arms for themselves as originally planned. The new strategy is evidently the contest of the bow, which does in fact make it unnecessary for two panoplies to be left in the hall. Athene's presence at the removal of the arms gives Odysseus the opportunity to make her aware of his strategy. Later in the evening, when the conversation between Penelope and the beggar has reached a natural stopping point, Penelope has Eurykleia give the beggar a footbath. Evidently distracted, Penelope does not notice when Eurykleia drops the beggar's foot and knocks over the basin of water. The poet tells us that Athene had turned Penelope's thoughts elsewhere. I suggest that Athene had been implanting in Penelope's mind the idea of holding the contest. This explains why Penelope unexpectedly resumes her conversation with the beggar after the footbath and does so with new misgivings about her course of action. Crucially, it also explains her otherwise illogical decision to hold a contest for her hand in marriage just when she has reason to believe that her husband's return is imminent.

§2b. Beck complains that Penelope must be diminished in our eyes if, in setting the contest, she acts not on her own agency but "as if under the power of hypnotic suggestion" (25; Beck omits the "as if"). This is debatable since an illogical decision to hold the contest would not reflect well on her. But the more important point is that Athene's ability to influence Penelope to do something she would not do on her own initiative is demonstrated earlier in the day when she has Penelope show herself to the suitors. The two occasions on which Athene has Penelope do something that goes against her own inclinations, first in a minor way (showing herself to the suitors) and then in a major way (holding a contest for her hand in marriage), together form a nice instance of a narrative pattern first studied by Bernard Fenik.

§3a. I argue, as Norman Postlethwaite does on different grounds, that Achilles exacts revenge for the dishonor done to him in the Quarrel and its aftermath by humiliating Agamemnon in the final event of the funeral games for Patroklos. "The most remarkable and telling aspect of the spear-throwing event may be the silence of Agamemnon," who would surely make a speech if, as many believe, Achilles is honoring him by awarding him first prize without the need to compete for it (62). Although its importance is clearly marked, Beck ignores this simple observation.

§3b. In my discussion of the spear-throwing event, I claim that Achilles exacts his revenge with surgical precision by putting Agamemnon in a position analogous to his own position in the Quarrel. Whereas Achilles is acknowledged to be the best warrior, he asserts (whether truthfully or not, it does not matter) that Agamemnon is acknowledged to be the best spear-thrower. By using his authority as host of the games to deprive Agamemnon of the winner's prize, he therefore inflicts on him an injustice that parallels the one he was made to suffer during the Quarrel. Beck's explanation of the surgical precision I claim to see in Achilles' revenge omits this most important point. This omission undermines my argument because it leaves unexplained Achilles' assertion that Agamemnon is the best spear-thrower, an assertion that otherwise can be used to support the common view that Achilles awards Agamemnon the prize intended for the winner.

§3c. Homer tells us that Agamemnon's prize is worth one ox. This appears to be a relatively poor prize inasmuch as first and second prizes for the wrestling match are worth twelve oxen and four oxen, respectively. Of course, we cannot be sure on this basis alone that Agamemnon's prize is the prize intended for the loser, since the other prize could conceivably be worth less than one ox. However, the fact that Agamemnon's prize is said to be very beautiful has no bearing on the question because, whatever good qualities it may have, we know it is worth only one ox. Beck omits the second clause of the previous sentence, once again giving the impression that I am prone to making arbitrary statements with no justification (cf. §1).

§3d. Beck ignores the support for my interpretation that can be found in passages whose connection to the spear-throwing event is not immediately apparent. Consider the dispute between Menelaos and Antilochos at the end of the chariot race, the first event of the funeral games. The exemplary behavior of Menelaos in this dispute—his unwillingness to be seen as prevailing by virtue of his political power, his gratitude to Antilochos for his contribution to the war effort, and his aversion to being seen as arrogant or stubborn—is so pointedly opposed to that of Agamemnon during the Quarrel that it serves as a reminder of the Quarrel and the egregiousness of Agamemnon's behavior. With this reminder at the beginning of the funeral games still fresh in our minds when we reach the end of the games, we are practically forced to accept the interpretation of the spear-throwing event that is already strongly suggested by the psychological context and Homer's description of the event itself.

§5–6a. The central point of chapters 5 and 6 is that many inconsistencies in Homer seem to be intentional. Remarkably, Beck gives no attention to the many indications of intentionality cited in these chapters. To make up for this, I summarize here the indications of intentionality for one particular inconsistency. The interpretation of the spear-throwing event proposed in chapter 3 makes clear that the friendly conversation between the shades of Achilles and Agamemnon in Odyssey 24 is inconsistent with the relationship between these characters in the Iliad, up to and including their final interaction in that poem. As I discuss in section 5.3, there are three indications that this inconsistency was intentionally created by the poet. First, Homer seems to make a point of the contradiction by having the shade of Achilles endorse the very principle he flouted when he stood up to Agamemnon in the Quarrel (compare Od. 24.24–27 with Il. 1.277–281). Second, the conversation that is so at odds with the Iliad also exhibits an awareness of this poem (Od. 24.71–79 alludes to Il. 23.80–92). Finally, the same strange combination of inconsistency with the Iliad and allusion to it is also found in the other two Odyssean scenes where the protagonist of the Iliad plays an active role.

§5–6b. Findings such as these reveal a sophisticated intertextual relationship. Beck believes I should focus on the intertextuality rather than the inconsistency. The reason I do not is explained in the book: in addition to the apparently intentional inconsistencies between the poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey each contain internal inconsistencies that appear to be intentional; thus, intentional inconsistency is a property of the Homeric corpus as a whole, not merely an aspect of the relationship between the two poems. (Here and elsewhere in this response, "intentional inconsistency" is used as a synonym for the more precise term "perverse inconsistency" defined in the book.)

§5–6c. The existence of the strange phenomenon of intentional inconsistency in both the Iliad and the Odyssey leads me to conclude at the end of chapter 6 that the two poems were composed by the same person. In chapter 9 I go on to explain that unity of authorship remains probable if the intentional inconsistency is to be understood in terms of Gurdjieff's concept of objective art. Beck unnecessarily ties my conclusion directly to the ideas of Gurdjieff. This is unfortunate both from the standpoint of logic and because it places my conclusion beyond the purview of Homerists. The challenge for scholars is to not let the counterintuitiveness of intentional inconsistency prevent them from impartially evaluating the evidence for it presented in chapters 5 and 6.

§7. Beck regards what I call the most stunning inconsistency in the entire Gurdjieffian corpus as a narrative detail of no significance. He neglects to mention two facts. First, the contradiction is contained in what is said to be a quotation from a certain document, but the "quotation" actually appears nowhere in that document and would be quite out of place there. Second, the thesis of the document is repeated so many times in Gurdjieff's book that the reader is shocked when it is subsequently contradicted by the (fake) quotation (192–193).

§8. One of the allusions to Homer that I see in Meetings with Remarkable Men is Gurdjieff's definition of a remarkable man, which has no obvious relation to most of the remarkable people described in his book but is a surprisingly apt characterization of Odysseus. Instead of mentioning this, Beck highlights what I explicitly acknowledge is a much weaker candidate for an allusion (214–215). Beck is also unfair when he dismisses the allusion of a certain passage in Meetings to the incident of the dogs at Od. 14.29–31. I quote Schliemann and others to show that this incident was "in the air" during Gurdjieff's formative years, making it a very suitable target for allusion.

§9. Beck ignores the important generalization made in section 9.2: the hypothesis of objective art accounts for any passage where Homer seems to go out of his way to surprise or disturb his audience for no apparent reason, even if no inconsistency is involved (e.g., Il. 13.459–461).

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