Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: Why Homer Matters

Why Homer Matters
Adam Nicolson
Literature, ethnography

This is a Romantic book. I am an Enlightenment reader. It's a bad mix.

If Adam Nicholson had stuck to writing a book called Why I Love the Iliad and the Odyssey, he'd have done fine. The bits where he tells his personal reactions or interweaves his own stories with Homeric prose are good. Unfortunately, he doesn't stop there. He tries to mix his own passions with actual scholarship, and he's not good at it. 

A few--a very few--of the things that irritated me in Why Homer Matters can stand for the whole.

Nicolson loves fine-sounding generalizations divorced from any actual logic or evidence, because they fit whatever grandiose theory he's propounding at the moment. For example, discussing the decoration of some Bronze-Age artifacts, he comes up with this:
Spirals are everywhere ... The spirals might be taken as abstractions of the waves of the sea, but they are more than that: a recognition that this pattern of bind-and-release, alternating connectedness and separateness, is intimate with the nature of existence, of the thinking mind, the experiencing heart, the world that weaves and severs.
Really, Adam? Good thing you're a time-traveling psychic to tell us so confidently what a bunch of craftsmen were thinking when they drew their spirals five thousand years ago. Otherwise we might be fooled into thinking that the spirals might symbolize something else, or that--I know this thought is shocking--maybe they don't symbolize anything; maybe the craftsmen put them they're because they're neat designs, or the equivalent of a coat of arms, or for some reason that we would never think of. But none of that can possibly be true, because Adam Nicholson says "they are ... a recognition etc. etc. etc.", and he just knows.

Similarly, he spends far too much time gassing on about the fact that some of the Bronze-Age stick figures carved into the rocks of Extremadura (Spain) have disproportionately large hands, because that suits some airy thesis that he's building. Well, it turns out (I know from experience) that drawing hands is tricky, even with a pencil--but of course, in Nicholson's world, this must be a Deeply Meaningful Fact. OK, fine ... but a glance at the accompanying illustration shows that the hands aren't really all that prominent. Rather, the most noticeable thing about these figures by far is that their legs look like they're about nine inches long. But Adam Nicolson doesn't notice. Homer talks about "man-slaughtering hands" and not about "little stubby legs," so obviously the legs are not a Deeply Meaningful Fact. Q.E.D.

Finally, take the matter of dating. Most scholars think the Siege of Troy occurred some time around 1100-1200 BC. Nicolson prefers a substantially earlier date. He presents some evidence for his side--pretty decent evidence, it seems to me--and then he gets around to refuting the conventional date, which he does by saying: No it isn't. His view seems to be that it's a better story if you take the earlier date, so anyone who disagrees with him is a stupid poopy-head.

Here and elsewhere, Nicolson shows a complete grasp of how to make a fallacious argument. He has a wide variety of techniques, and he deploys them all with skill: the selective evidence, the out-of-context quotation, the assertion-presented-as-fact, the beautifully-worded but vacuous generalization, the cherry-picked facts ...

It's a pity. When he isn't making meaningless noises about some unprovable generality or insisting that Homer is an uncanny fit for the 21st-century worldview, Nicolson is a very fine writer. I was particularly struck by some of his insights, such as the parallels between modern gang mores and the behavior of the Greek chieftains before Troy. If you're a Romantic reader, Nicolson's prose may sweep you off your feet. But if you're not--if you read Why Homer Matters with a cold, rationalist eye--you'll end up seeing the empty, anti-intellectual vacuum lurking under the flashy surface.

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