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Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / Homer and the Sentence

Homer and the Sentence

  1. East is West and West is East. HERMES shuttles between the two. Part of Second is set in what, alongside the Dardanelles, is called “Asia.” Homer’s Trojans are really Greeks, with Greek names and a language in common with their Greek adversaries. (Some suppose that the Trojan War was originally a civil war of Greeks against Greeks.) The Biblical God, the divinity of Every, has Asiatic origins (see El, and the opening paragraph of Stevenson’s Chapter 6). Magic,1 alternates between MM and Osiris, a god of early Asiatic origin. Realization interweaves with in situ description of the USA Upanishad, Dhammapada and Gita, Engendering, in situ description of Norman with Analects and Dao De Jing. Her combines the text of Hesiod with the “text” of Angkor Wat. The Sentence’s universality is fundamentally syncretistic. Likewise Homer, the first Pan-Hellenic among the Greeks, whose major motifs, conflict and travel, are also universal.

  2. Like Homer’s, MM’s thematology is eroticized. This is especially visible in the APHRODITE sequence but is also apparent in HERMES. Homer’s take on reality derives from what Nagy calls “an Indo-European paradigm,” the Judgment of Paris, wherein Aphrodite is chosen, Athena and Artemis rejected. War in the Iliad is a sublimation of Eros, which comes to dominate the Odyssey’s amorous adventures. See the comparable sublimation in SOL and LUNA — Apollo and Artemis, and the comparably martial spirit of ARES — out of which emerge, in Her, the HERA, and in turn APHRODITE, sequences. EL re-submerges us in repression, as Thanatos triumphs over Eros — though Life and its representation are the ultimate goal of Sentence of the Gods, which at any rate reverses the grammatical sentence that culminates in EL to read it backwards: Life, Excelling, This, In, Divine, Or, Renewed, Happening, Possibly, All, Regarding, Exists, etc.

  3. The tripartite world of Heaven, Earth and Hell, a basic feature of the Homeric cosmology (as in the Traiphum of the Buddhist and in the Paradiso-Purgatorio-Inferno of the Christian), is also reflected in the form of the Sentence, where SOLUNA-ARES is infernal, HERMES, purgatorial and HERA-APHRODITE-EL, paradisal. Dante too composed his epic as a trilogy. Read backwards, the Sentence includes a trilogy of trilogies: All Regarding Exists, Her Engendering Realization, Magic Every Second. SOL, LUNA and ARES, however, also constitute a trilogy, as do ARES, HERMES and HERA, HERA, APHRODITE and EL. This tripartition is reflected too in the Sleep O Light of SOL, in the All Possibly Happening, Renewed Or Divine and In This Excelling of APHRODITE, and also in the double trilogy of HERMES, where another series of pairings, Second and Her, Every and Engendering, Magic and Realization is discernible.

  4. Homer we usually think of as bi- rather than tri-partite: thus Iliad and Odyssey; Odyssey 1-12 and 13-24. As Vergil saw, however, there are other structures. In his Aeneid he superimposes a tripartite I-IV, V-VIII, IX-XII over his basic I-VI and VII-XII. Sentence of the Gods has (1) pre-HERMES sequences, (2) HERMES and (3) post-HERMES sequences but also thirteen books from Sleep through Engendering and thirteen books from Her through Life. Numerology is not as important to Homer as it is to Vergil and Vergilian poets (notably Dante and Spenser), for Homer is fundamentally oral just as Vergil, Dante, Spenser and MM are fundamentally scripted. In Dante and Spenser numerology complements the “numbers” of their prosody. In MM numerology substitutes for prosody, at least in the books written in prose (i.e. nineteen of the 26). Homer is nonetheless surprisingly formal (see Cedric Whitman on the Iliad’s “ring composition”).

  5. What is the relation, we might ask, of Homer’s “mythology” to MM’s? Homer’s gods are humanized (if also allegorical), MM’s, abstract (SOL, LUNA, ARES, etc.). As Nagy argues, myth in Homer is realized in ritual performance. In MM the corresponding process is revision. Though Spenser contains a strong element of orality, his Faerie Queene is nonetheless composed in numbers, on the page. Likewise MM’s Sentence. MM’s archetypal gods emerge in a structure parallel with Spenser’s six books and epilogue (Mutabilitie Cantos). In Spenser, Britomart contains within a single character the archetypes of Dido and Aeneas. In MM we witness a similar transmogrification of the archetypes of Odysseus/Hermes, of Achilles/Ares, and not merely in the eponymous sequences but throughout the epic, in interplay between stasis and motion. Odysseus, Aeneas and Dante are wanderers; Achilles-Hector, Aeneas-Turnus and Vergil-Beatrice are fixtures.

  6. As Frances Fergusson shows (see “The Shield of Achilles,” in her Poetics of Disguise) the Iliad is a giant metaphor “that spans the lifetime of mankind, including its prehistory.” “Between the wrath of Achilleus and the death of Hektor, Homer depicts civilization’s history from its origin to the point at which he himself has arrived. The real end, the conquest of Troy, is not described, because it represents the end of human history, which is yet to be experienced.” The open-ended Sentence is an “Allegory of Life” (as Tasso calls his own epic). Like Homer’s Odyssey, it is also a journey. For Fergusson the battles before Troy “show the Iliad as a poem of space,” whereas for her the Odyssey “is enacted in temporal sequences.” The later epic is “a poem of freedom which nonetheless represents scenes of captivity.” Attention to similar motifs and structures will reveal that Sentence of the Gods follows Homer in many of these respects.

  7. Fate figures prominently in Homer’s and MM’s basic conceptions. For the Greeks the principle of moira was a kind of antecedent or precedent for the action of the gods, of Zeus in particular, who sometimes assumes the fatal powers of a Near Eastern or Biblical God. Achilles is fated either to live a long banal life or to die young and achieve immortality. Odysseus’ story is less fatalistic and in classical as well as post-classical times was revised so as to have other endings: Hellianicus says, for example, that Aeneas and Odysseus founded Rome together; a famous tradition says that Odysseus (as in Dante’s retelling), after the hero returned to Ithaca, set out again (with Diomedes). The “Sentence” of MM’s title has three meanings: (1) the grammatical unit, (2) “sententia,” and (3) the judicial proclamation. We are sentenced to pass endlessly through the cycle of the days of the week and thus to experience the influence of their corresponding divinities.

  8. What, then, of the relationship between Homer’s plots and MM’s? In a sense, like Byron’s open-ended Don Juan, Sentence of the Gods has no fixed plot, whereas Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, traditional stories, have strict, predetermined plots. As we have noted, however, the Odyssey had been subjected, already in Greek antiquity, to many retellings. Some versions of Achilles’ story described his death, which Homer does not. Some versions of Helen’s story had Paris abandon her on Crete, for example, whence a false Helen was transported to Troy. Thus Homer’s plots may be more “open-ended” or subject to revision than we thought. MM’s epic has no plot in the customary sense of characters set in motion, their courses determined by their actions. In another sense, however, it has a nearly iron-clad plot, the progression of the days and gods and the words of the sentence itself: Sleep, O, Light, etc., or, in its retrograde form, Life, Excelling, This, etc.

  9. Some would have us believe that Homer, in the Odyssey, is autobiographical. Since Whitman, Byron and Dante are patently so; since Milton embodies God, Satan, Adam and Eve; since other epic heroes resemble their authors, perhaps Homer is Odysseus, Odysseus, Homer. We moderns are prone to read all literature as experiential, as the product, that is, of the author’s life experience. Is the Sentence, then, autobiographical? Yes and no. In much the same way that Homer’s epics may reflect his life, so the Sentence reflects MM’s life, but it also reflects much more. Homer’s “objectivity” is in fact one of MM’s ideals. The in situ method of reportage is for him the equivalent of what tradition was for Homer, a way of escaping from subjectivity, of composing sentences that have an ulterior grounding in reality, that in combination add up to a more dependable, because more objective, treatment of myth, of tradition, of actuality, of the truth.

  10. Do the actual plots of the Iliad and the Odyssey figure in the Sentence? Joyce’s Ulysses, his modern comic epic in prose, clearly follows, in parody, the events of the Odyssey (some have even supposed that Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s “Iliad”). A fuller discussion of the relation of Homer’s plots and MM’s would require that a critic examine the whole of the Sentence in detail for parallels with Homer’s plots. She might, for example, look for characters or configurations that echo Achilles and Hektor, Agamemnon and Menelaus; others that echo the characters and incidents of the Odyssey. Are there equivalents to its various episodes (the Laestrygonians, the Kine of Helios), places (Aiaia, Kalypso’s isle; Skheria, the realm of Arête) and characters (such as Circe and Penelope)? Or do the moral, thematic and allegorical parallels run much deeper? In other words, what effect upon MM did his 40 years of reading and teaching Homer have, of his considering four dozen scholarly books about the Iliad and the Odyssey?

  11. What is the importance of Second with regard to the Homeric influence? In Part 1 MM consciously imitates the Iliad, in Part 2, the Odyssey. Part 1 he set in Istanbul, displacing Troy (whose ruins he deliberately avoided) into the city, much as Vergil in a sense displaced Troy into Carthage. In Part 2 he continued westward, first to Thrace, then among many of the islands that Odysseus would have visited; he complicated Homer’s plot by devising more than one Ithaca and by reporting on Telemakhos’s return rather than his outward voyage. Second,1&2 are clearly crucial texts for discussing the Homeric element in MM, as is the text of Her, in which an epitome of the “Shield of Achilles” (itself an epitome of the Iliad) will figure. Nonetheless, the critic should not overemphasize Second,1&2 in discussing MM’s Homeric element any more than Marthe Robert does Don Quixote’s Homeric references in discussing Cervantes’ relation to Homer.

  12. Is Second,3, then, a commentary on Homer? And if so, where does it stand in relation to the more explicit discussion of Homer in “Allegory and the Epic” (see Chapter 5 of Particular and Universal)? Second,3 is about Vergil, whom MM regards as the greatest critic of Homer. Vergil’s relation to Homer is also a subtle subject. We have given up the simplistic view that Aeneid I-VI is “Odyssean,” Aeneid VII-XII, “Iliadic.” Virtually every line of the Aeneid is “Homeric.” Iliadic books alternate with Odyssean books, Iliadic passages with Odyssean passages, Iliadic lines with Odyssean lines. MM has eschewed Vergil’s method for a different approach to Homer. It will require a critic of considerable synthetic power to investigate MM’s relation to Homer and Vergil. As in Dante, so in Second,3, Vergil is a character but also a larger literary influence (Adam and Eve are Milton’s Aeneas and Dido, etc.). These are merely suggestions.