On the problem of envisioning Homeric composition: A co-authored essay highlighting some relevant comparative observations

2021.10.11 | By Gregory Nagy and Olga M. Davidson

§1. A shorter version of this essay is to be jointly presented by the two authors as an introduction to a topic assigned for discussion in Panel 1 on the first day of a three-day colloquium, “Homer 2021,” scheduled for October 21-23 and hosted by the Université Côte d’Azur in Nice, France. The topic, as signaled in the title of the essay here, involves a problem of capital importance for those interested in comparative oral poetics. The problem is, how to envision the actual composition of Homeric poetry? In the following paragraphs, some are written separately and others jointly by the two authors, tagged as “{GN}” and “{OMD}” at the start of each paragraph.

§2. {GN and OMD} The co-authors of this essay have worked together before in bringing comparative approaches to bear on the overall problem of envisioning Homeric composition, and, on one occasion, they even produced a joint presentation about this topic online, in Classical Inquiries 2015.12.18, linked here. In that posting, the relevant point of comparison centered on the reception of oral poetry as reflected in traditional “lives of poets” narratives, and the comparanda started with “Life of Homer” narratives in ancient Greek traditions (Nagy 2004, extending into Nagy 2010|2009 Chapter 2). In the present essay, the joint inquiry will go deeper, since the task at hand on this new occasion is to investigate a more basic problem: how can oral composition be seen as an art of verbal creation—and how is such a form of traditional verbal art different from the writerly art of textual composition? As in the posting just cited, the comparanda will involve ancient Greek and medieval Persian poetic traditions, but now there will also be a third comparandum to be added—in the form of medieval French and Provençal poetics.

§3. {GN and OMD}A term of comparison that applies to all three of these forms of composition, as we will see in the paragraphs that follow, is mouvance, as coined by the French medievalist Paul Zumthor. The idea of mouvance will be applied as a point of comparison that leads, it is hoped, to a deeper understanding of oral poetics in general and of Homeric poetry in particular.

§4. {GN} In the case of medieval French and Provençal poetics, some clarification is needed, before proceeding any further, with reference to the term “Provençal,” preferred by old-school medievalists. This term is near-synonymous with a more inclusive term used by linguists, “Occitan,” which is the ‘language of oc’, langue d’oc, referring to the word oc, meaning ‘yes’ in southern France as distinct from oui in northern France (both forms go back to Vulgar Latin hoc illud). Either way, these two terms “Provençal” and “Occitan” are most relevant to the venue of the two talks previewed here—if we keep in mind that “Niçard,” the local dialect of Nice, tucked away in the extreme south-east corner of the modern state of France, is a variant dialectal form of “Occitan”—even though the word for ‘yes’ in Niçard and in a few other Occitan dialects is not oc but ahì (by way of Vulgar Latin ad ibi). More relevant for now, in any case, is the fact that this dialect called Niçard is actually related, albeit distantly, to the medieval poetic language of the troubadours of Occitania writ large.

§5. {GN} The focus here is on the poetic language of an Occitan troubadour named Jaufré Rudel, the textual tradition of whose songs dates back to the era of the Second Crusade in the twelfth century CE. A native of Blaye, an Occitan locale situated far further to the west of Nice in today’s France, Jaufré Rudel exemplifies, in his songs as textually transmitted by way of medieval chansonniers, a form of lyric composition that proves to be typologically comparable to the forms of epic composition exemplified by the ancient Greek poet known as Homer the ‘hostage’ and by the medieval Persian poet known as Ferdowsi, that ‘man of paradise’.

§6. {GN} It was with specific reference to the songs of Jaufré Rudel that I first applied the idea of mouvance. I did so in Chapter 1 of a book titled Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Nagy 1996, translated into French as La poésie en acte: Homère et autres chants (Nagy 2000) by the genial Jean Bouffartigue, where I introduced the topic by noting that the actual term mouvance had been initiated by Paul Zumthor (1972) as a way of formulating his perception that a medieval epic like the Chanson de Roland is not so much a finished product, un achèvement, as it is a text in progress, un texte en train de se faire. Viewing mouvance as a widespread phenomenon in medieval manuscript transmission, Zumthor had defined it as a quasi-abstraction that becomes a reality in the interplay of variant readings in different manuscripts of a given work; he pictured mouvance as a kind of “incessant vibration,” a fundamental process of instability (Zumthor 1972:507). And he linked mouvance with the workings of oral tradition: for example, he suggested that certain textual variations in the Carmina Burana reflect the potential for actual variations in performance (Zumthor 1987:160–161).

§7. {GN} This noun mouvance as used by Zumthor is derived from the French verb mouvoir ‘to move’. And, as I pointed out in Poetry as Performance, the Occitan verb mover ‘move’, cognate of French mouvoir, is actually used in the poetic language of the medieval troubadours in a way that approximates the process of mouvance as defined by Zumthor. This word mover, cognate with French mouvoir, which is the basis for Zumthor’s term mouvance, is used in the songmaking of the troubadours in referring to its own capacity for variation.

§8. {GN} Such use of this verb mover can be found in the songs of Jaufré Rudel, prince of Blaye, which I analyzed in Chapter 1 of Poetry as Performance while following an earlier analysis by Rupert T. Pickens in his introduction to a most thorough edition of these medieval songs (Pickens 1978). This editor discovered that the Occitan word mover in the sense of French mouvoir and English move is actually used in the songs of Jaufré Rudel to express an idea of mouvance. I will not dwell here on the examples that I analyzed in Poetry as Performance. Instead, I will now simply quote a general inference about mouvance as we see it operate in the textual transmission of two songs by Jaufré Rudel, “Song 1” and “Song 5,” as noted by the editor, Rupert Pickens (1978:32–33) and as quoted by me (Nagy 1996:17–18): “Jaufré’s authorship of at least two formally and linguistically distinct versions of [Song 1] and two of [Song 5] cannot be disproved; the poems have equal claims for authenticity and there is no reason to suppose that Jaufré did not compose them. If he could have produced two or three versions of the same song, then why could he not also have produced six or ten or fifteen? Corollary to the theory is the assumption that Jaufré was a troubadour-performer creating his works in an atmosphere heavy with the esthetics of oral composition. As epic criticism [that is, the study of chansons de geste and the like] has suggested, orality and mutation, not writing and fixity, were the compositional medium and consequent destiny of chanson de geste texts. The courtly lyric is also an oral genre, performed orally and heard, not read. It is not unreasonable to suppose, therefore, that Jaufré altered his works frequently in conformity with the practices of oral tradition and that, in concert with all poetic practice, he strove to ‘perfect’ his poetry by reworking, adding and casting out.”

§9. {GN} In this formulation centering on questions of “authorship” in an oral tradition, I note what this editor of medieval poetry has just said about “alterations” in such a tradition. He then adds this follow-up statement about Jaufré Rudel as “author” (Pickens 1978:33): “but, like all who publish, the person who changes must still ever be confronted by what has previously been released to the public.” So, what does it mean here, “to publish,” that is, “to make public,” in such a historical context? As I argued in Poetry as Performance, it all depends on the “public” who hears and sees the performer of a song, since that “public” will condition the performance of the song. And, as I also argued, such performance—in the context of oral traditions—would amount to ongoing occasions for reperformance, leading to ongoing occasions for recomposition.

§10. {GN} Here I find it most relevant, with regard to the recomposed songs of Jaufré Rudel, to quote a most striking formulation by “his” editor, Rupert Pickens (1978:40): “The conventions and traditions of the courtly lyric have conspired to efface the author and to create at least as many Jaufré Rudels as there are medieval anthologies.”

§11. {GN} In such a historical context, as indicated by the reference here to medieval anthologies, the record of multiple oral “authorship” is of course only textual. Obviously, no “audio” recording was possible. Thus the record of oral multiformity could survive only in a written record of corresponding textual multiformity. That is why I found it most apt to quote, in Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:26) a most telling formulation by Rupert Pickens in a retrospective work of his where he describes, with good reason, his 1978 edition of Jaufré Rudel, featuring what he calls its “multitext format,” as “the first widely recognized edition attempting to incorporate a procedure to account for re-creative textual change” (Pickens 1994:61). Beyond my book Poetry as Performance, I have more to say about this most useful term “multitext” in a more recent work (Nagy 2010), and I am proud to note the brilliant application of the very idea of “multitext” in the ongoing project of editing a “Multitext Homer.” Leading that project are Casey Dué Hackney and Mary Ebbott, and I single out their brilliant proof of concept in their edition of Iliad 10, with commentary (Dué and Ebbott 2010).

§12. {GN} That said, let us now “move” beyond problems raised by examples of oral tradition in any particular historical context and ask a more general question: what is it, in any case, to be an “author” in any oral tradition, where performance is of course needed to make the composition of a song come to life? Applying the observation of Albert Lord (1960, following Milman Parry) that composition and performance are aspects of the same process in oral traditions, I suggest that authority in performance is a key to the very concept of authorship in composition. Here I refer to my relevant argumentation in an essay about the oral poetics of the Delphic Oracle (Nagy 2016.11.03, linked here).

§13. {GN} Before I say anything more about “authorship” in any oral tradition, I have to insert here some basic observations about the very idea of “oral tradition.” In an article that focused on the evolution of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry from oral traditions (Nagy 2009:282–283, linked here), I posited four—not just two—essential features of oral traditions in general: not only composition and performance but also reception and transmission. The starting point, of course, is the binarism of composition and performance. In any oral tradition, the process of composition is linked to the process of performance, and any given composition can be recomposed each time it is reperformed. The performer who recomposes the composition in performance may be the same performer who composed it earlier, or it may be a new performer, even a succession of new performers. That said, I proceed to another binarism involved in oral traditions, reception and transmission. In terms of this binarism, recomposition-in-reperformance is the essence of transmission in oral tradition, and this kind of transmission is the key to a broader understanding of reception. Unlike what happens in literature that is meant for reading, where reception by the public happens only after a piece of literature is transmitted, reception in oral traditions happens during as well as after transmission. That is because the process of composition in oral traditions allows for recomposition on each new occasion of performance for a “public” that hears and sees the performer. In oral traditions, there is an organic link between reception and performance, since no performance can succeed without a successful reception by the public that hears and sees the performer or performers.

§14. {GN} Here I circle back to the example of songs composed by Jaufré Rudel. The first-person ‘I’ of the composer here may simply take the role of the person who is singing or, more deeply, some role that fits not so much the historical person but rather the generic persona of the speaker who is self-dramatized within the genre of, say, a love song. A shining example is the persona of a melancholy lover in the amorous songs of Jaufré Rudel. In the case of this example, the composer of such songs is technically the troubadour—or, to say this French version of the word in the poetic language of Jaufré Rudel, he is the trobador. In this same poetic language, I should add, there exists a separate word for ‘performer’, which is joglar, matching the word for ‘composer’, which as we have seen is trobador. Just as I use the French version for trobador, which is troubadour, for joglar I will hereafter say simply jongleur.

§15. {GN} Pursuing the point I made about genre as a determinant of a persona such as a melancholy lover, I now turn to an essay (Nagy 2021.08.23, linked here) that analyzes a prosaic story-telling tradition about our melancholy troubadour Jaufré Rudel. In this tradition, the first-person ‘I’ of the composer has been converted into a third-person ‘he’, and a casual reader may be tempted, at first sight, to interpret this ‘he’ as the historical figure identified as Jaufré Rudel, whose life and times can be dated to the twelfth century CE. Here too, however, as in the case of the actual songs composed by Jaufré Rudel, we need to reckon with questions of genre. In this case, the form of the story that tells, in prose, about the troubadour in love is known as a vida or ‘life’ in Occitan poetic language. The vida, as the ‘life story’ of a given troubadour, has been aptly described as a prose “prelude” that was recited by a jongleur who would then proceed, after the recitation, to sing the composition of the given troubadour (Boutière and Schutz 1950:xii–xiii; Boutière and Cluzel 1964:viii). This description of the vida applies also to a related Occitan prosaic genre, the razo (from Latin ratio), which was the equivalent of a ‘commentary’.

§16. {GN} In such performances, by jongleurs, the actual songs composed by troubadours in some earlier era could be brought back to life again. After a prosaic retelling of the life and times of a given troubadour, with or without further commentary, the jongleur would proceed to sing the songs of the troubadour.

§17. {GN} All this is not to say, however, that “troubadours in some earlier era,” as I have just now referred to poets like Jaufré Rudel, cannot be seen as potential jongleurs in their own right. The troubadours whose songs were performed and occasionally even explicated by jongleurs in a later era could themselves have performed as jongleurs in their own “earlier” era. Like any jongleur in a later era, the troubadour himself could perform his own compositions. He too, like a jongleur, could be accompanying himself on a string instrument, and the singing could even make room for dancing, as we see in the illumination that accompanies this essay. We see pictured here an ensemble of ladies who are dancing to the song of a troubadour—and, potentially, they would be singing along with the master singer.

Troubadour and dancers. Troubadour and dancers. Illumination from the Romance of Alexander, Bodleian MS 264, fol. 97v. Photo © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC-BY-NC 4.0.

§18. {GN} The observations I have made here about troubadours and jongleurs emanate from a small footnote I once wrote in my book Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Nagy 1990a:80n40, 2§50), where my overall aim had been to compare Homeric poetry as a prime example of epic composition with the songmaking of Pindar as a prime example of lyric composition. While analyzing various constructs of authorship as found in ancient Greek epic and lyric traditions (Nagy 1990a:79–80, 2§§50–51), I was comparing such constructs with parallels to be found in other poetic traditions—parallels that are only typological, that is, not historically related to each other. And among the parallels I highlighted was the medieval custom, as just described, where a jongleur would recite a vida or a razo about a given troubadour before proceeding to sing a song composed by that troubadour (again I cite the relevant footnote in the book: 2§50n40).

§19. {OMD and GN} In the spirit of rhapsodic sequencing, the “performance” in this essay now shifts, in “rhapsodic relay,” from one “performer” (“{GN}”) to the next (“{OMD}”). The technical term “rhapsodic sequencing” is actually relevant to the joint project of the two authors here, who have just now described themselves, rather playfully, as “performers,” since this project centers on the need to address a basic problem for anyone attempting to understand Homeric composition in terms of Homeric performance. The question is, how does the art of the rhapsōidos or ‘rhapsode’ as a professional performer of Homeric poetry correspond to the art of Homeric composition in and of itself? Such a question is addressed by one of the authors in an online book about the sequence of content in Homeric poetry as performed by a sequence of competing rhapsodes at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, starting in the preclassical period of the sixth century BCE and extending well into the classical period and thereafter (Nagy 2021:10:01, Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens, ed. 3, 1§§10–16: 2§§15–17, 24, 46: §3§1). For now, however, the focus is not on rhapsodic sequencing in particular but rather, more generally, on rhapsodic traditions of narrating the life and times of “Homer” as a mythologized proto-poet. Such a narration is a prelude to—or, at least, is a supplement for—the performance of Homeric poetry.

§20. {OMD} Here is where a typological comparison of ancient Greek “Life of Homer” traditions with medieval Persian “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions, as formulated at the beginning of this essay (§§1–3), comes to the fore. Such “lives of poets” traditions—to which we may now also add the medieval French and Occitan “Life of Troubadour X” traditions—are a stylized way of recording the reception of oral poetry and songmaking, where the reception itself is an aspect of such oral traditions.

§21. {OMD} Most remarkably, the “life of the poet” can even get embedded in the poetry of the poet, so that the background, as it were, for understanding the context of a given performance can be built into the composition that is actually being reperformed. Such is the case, as I have argued, in the satirizing of the Sultan Maḥmud of Ghazna, ostensibly the patron of the poet Ferdowsi, within the textual tradition of this poet’s Shāhnāma or ‘Book of Kings’ (Davidson 2020.03.02, linked here).

§22. {OMD} Here we return to the idea of reception and transmission in oral traditions—and to the related idea of (re)composition in (re)performance. In correlating these two ideas, as formulated at a mid-point in this essay (§13), I offer the following bipartite reformulation:

A) The transmission of oral poetry depends on its reception in the social context of performance and successive reperformances.

B) This social context conditions various degrees of recomposition in each reperformance.

§23. {OMD} The actual “life of the poet,” in the process of transmission, can of course become textualized, so that the text that survives can no longer be considered, from then on, to be an active aspect of oral tradition. Nevertheless, the reception, even in a textual phase, is still derived from an oral phase. Such is the case with the ancient Greek “Life of Homer” narratives, which of course survive only as texts, as also with the comparable medieval Persian “Life of Ferdowsi” and the medieval French/Occitan “Life of Troubadour X” narratives.

§24. {OMD} There are also other ways in which the oral traditions of reception can be textualized. A most striking example is the mythologizing of oral tradition itself as an archetypal text that becomes fragmented—metaphorically disassembeld—only to become whole again— metaphorically reassembled—by being reperformed. I have documented such mythologization of the Shāhnāma or ‘Book of Kings’ by Ferdowsi, and such myths about the reassembling of a disassembled text are analogous, I have argued, to the narratives about the “Peisistratean Recension” of Homeric poetry in ancient Greek traditions (Davidson 2016, with references to earlier work listed under “Davidson” in the Bibliography below).

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