Swift-footed Achilles is not always running

Inspired by the brilliant musing of a great writer, I’m going to mask my own unoriginality by taking his thoughts and mapping them onto my studies of Archaic Greece. It has always seemed to me that our objection to cliché is not something inherent in the cliché itself, but rests instead in our perception of it. That is to say, if we refuse to allow ourselves to experience the cliché as a whole, and step back to see it for its parts, and absorb the cumulative wisdom which lies behind its creation, there is something valuable still to be had. And yet it is almost impossible to experience a cliché freshly, at least at first: it irks us immediately. This reaction says a great deal about our culture and its attitude to originality and innovation; it also says a great deal about us biologically that we almost compulsively use clichés despite this cultural orientation.

Now let’s step back from the specific notion of a cliché to a more general notion of traditional material versus originality. This is a central problem for all scholars of Greek and Roman literature (and probably for other fields too) but much more so for those who wish to study Archaic Greece. The divide between Archaic and Classical Greece is artificially assigned to 479 BC and the successful resistance to the Persian invasions, but there is a real cultural transition in this period that begins earlier and culminates later. Scholars have wanted to see the transition as a result of a single factor, such as the spread of writing, the rise of democracy, or the invention of coinage, but almost certainly these are either symptoms or only contributors to the change. I am fascinated by this cultural shift. One of the most interesting ways to study this is to look at two contemporary writers, Pindar and Aeschylus. I picture them standing back-to-back in the first half of the fifth-century, Pindar looking back into the past and Aeschylus looking forward. This is, of course, overly simplistic, but accurate in some ways. Pindar preserves an extremely ancient Indo-European poetic tradition and concerns himself with aristocratic and traditional values; Aeschylus is developing the new genre of tragedy and exploring issue of the individual and community in the polis. To some degree this picture might be the result of chance survival of material. We have almost exclusively epinikian works from Pindar, written for aristocratic men, which represent only four of the seventeen books which the Alexandrians possessed of his work. Of Aeschylus, we have only six (or seven, depending on your opinion of Prometheus Bound) plays out of the ninety titles which are attributed to him, and of those six (or seven) three are from the only surviving trilogy, dealing with the justice system at Athens, which means that we have essentially only four (or five) different works. Our view might be different if we had more material.

There are other ways to explore this change: the rise of philosophical and scientific writing, and, related, the development of prose; the increasing interest in naturalistic and mimetic art; the perception of text and reading, and so the practice of quotation and scholarship; the creation of participatory democracy at Athens and the power of the individual. Related to all of these is a curious phenomenon of recognition of authorship. Visual artists begin to sign their work. Philosophical and scientific ideas are attributed to individuals so that dialectic can begin. Herodotus and Thucydides sign their works in the opening lines. In fact, there is a powerful urge to assign even ancient, anonymous work to specific individuals, and so we find the Greeks creating eponymous originators for music and poetry and art and law. Many people think that the figure of Homer is such a person, and some have even seen Hesiod in a similar role.

Despite the potential differences between Aeschylus and Pindar, they both share an attitude toward traditional material which is characterized as Archaic (see the wonderful Sather Lectures of John Herington published as “Poetry into Drama”). They both move in the “forest of myth” which was the collective possession of the Greek speaking people from the most ancient times. They feel no hesitation to reproduce well-known material unchanged, without attribution, nor do they hesitate to change the stories in minor or major ways. Some of the gnomic statements in Pindar might in fact have struck listeners more as clichés than as proverbs, if we can make any distinction. And yet there is a real sense of a person behind these works: they have styles and attitudes.

Even more drastic is the case of Homer. Except for the implicit cases of the invocations of the muses, the poet never intrudes into his poems, which is different even from Hesiod, regardless of whether the latter is historical or legendary. The question took on a new dimension with the research of Milman Parry, who first explained how the structure of the poetry was related to an oral tradition. The meter of the poetry was a result of a highly developed system of formulas, which allowed the poet not to memorize, but to create extemporaneously “new” poetry. He knew instinctively how to work the names of all the characters and locations into a hexameter line. Suddenly there was a crisis in Homeric scholarship: how much of this poetry was formulaic? For some, every single line was formulaic, and there was no trace of the poet. In other words, Homer was not a great poet at all, but the poems were merely (sic) traditional tales. There was even talk of Homer “not having any choice” in his diction and narrative. When this extreme view began to give way, scholars started to develop new parameters for the study of Homeric poetry, to understand how the collective oral culture was different from our individualistic written poetry. It has slowly begun to inform our understanding of other early Greek poetry, and even of visual arts to some degree.

While this is undoubtedly problematic coming from our cultural perspective, there is a great deal to be gained historically and personally from contemplating the history of song and poetry from the earliest moments of human existence down to the historical period. The whole range of culture—science, history, genealogy, religion, legend, ethics, philosophy—was passed from generation to generation, always with the individual mutations of great artists, but primarily as a collective possession. They served not only as entertainment or even record keeping, but effected real changes on the physical world when spoken. I love individuality and originality and it is to be praised and studied, but I think we might reconsider the value of a collective possession of style and mythology in our era: there are certainly great things yet to be done traditionally. It would serve us well to overcome any “paralyzing obsession with originality" and, what is more, to at least consider our obsession with recognition and attribution. It would be nice if more of us could genuinely say: "Then I got over it; it was the myth of fingerprints; maybe we conflate inimitability with immortality."


  1. mills said: You are way too kind, particularly because your brilliant piece exposes a silly assumption I’ve made and which I will write about in the context of you and Propellers for Umbrellas as soon as I’m able. I’m so excited! An amazing post.
  2. superfluidity posted this