Homer and Classical Philology

By Friedrich Nietzsche

Page 10

the Homeric poems.

Since literary history first ceased to be a mere collection of names,
people have attempted to grasp and formulate the individualities of the
poets. A certain mechanism forms part of the method: it must be
explained--i.e., it must be deduced from principles--why this or that
individuality appears in this way and not in that. People now study
biographical details, environment, acquaintances, contemporary events,
and believe that by mixing all these ingredients together they will be
able to manufacture the wished-for individuality. But they forget that
the _punctum saliens_, the indefinable individual characteristics, can
never be obtained from a compound of this nature. The less there is
known about the life and times of the poet, the less applicable is this
mechanism. When, however, we have merely the works and the name of the
writer, it is almost impossible to detect the individuality, at all
events, for those who put their faith in the mechanism in question; and
particularly when the works are perfect, when they are pieces of popular
poetry. For the best way for these mechanicians to grasp individual
characteristics is by perceiving deviations from the genius of the
people; the aberrations and hidden allusions: and the fewer
discrepancies to be found in a poem the fainter will be the traces of
the individual poet who composed it.

All those deviations, everything dull and below the ordinary standard
which scholars think they perceive in the Homeric poems, were attributed
to tradition, which thus became the scapegoat. What was left of Homer's
own individual work? Nothing but a series of beautiful and prominent
passages chosen in accordance with subjective taste. The sum total of
aesthetic singularity which every individual scholar perceived with his
own artistic gifts, he now called Homer.

This is the central point of the Homeric errors. The name of Homer, from
the very beginning, has no connection either with the conception of
aesthetic perfection or yet with the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_. Homer as
the composer of the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_ is not a historical
tradition, but an _aesthetic judgment_.

The only path which leads back beyond the time of Pisistratus and helps
us to elucidate the meaning of the name Homer, takes its way on the one
hand through the reports which have reached us concerning Homer's
birthplace: from which we see that, although his name is always
associated with heroic epic poems, he is on the other hand no more
referred to as the composer of the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_ than as the
author of the _Thebais_ or any other cyclical epic. On the other hand,
again, an old tradition

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they go when antiquity peremptorily orders them to withdraw? Must they not be sacrificed to those powers of the present who, day after day, call out to them from the never-ending columns of the press 'We are culture! We are education! We are at the zenith! We are the apexes of the pyramids! We are the aims of universal history!'--when they hear the seductive promises, when the shameful signs of non-culture, the plebeian publicity of the so-called 'interests of culture' are extolled for their benefit in magazines and newspapers as an entirely new and the best possible, full-grown form of culture! Whither shall the poor fellows fly when they feel the presentiment that these promises are not true--where but to the most obtuse, sterile scientificality, that here the shriek of culture may no longer be audible to them? Pursued in this way, must they not end, like the ostrich, by burying their heads in the sand? Is it not a real happiness for them, buried as they are among dialects, etymologies, and conjectures, to lead a life like that of the ants, even though they are miles removed from true culture, if only they can close their ears tightly and be deaf to the voice of the 'elegant' culture of the time.
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