Identifying and correcting errors made in the transmission process

Identifying and correcting errors made in the transmission process

Guided Inquiry #5

The Iliad

Last week, your readings encouraged a consideration of the material conditions of literary production alongside the literary artifact itself. Texts are made from something; they come from some place. I encouraged you to begin thinking about the function and characteristics of papyrus and the importance of these features when reflecting on the origin of The Iliad.

Bird’s Multitextuality and the Homeric Iliad advances some of these potential analytical trajectories by demonstrating how the material history of the text of The Iliad is extremely complex.

Bird’s essay comes from the discipline of textual studies, a brand of scholarship that aims to analyze textual details like a science. As a field, textual studies is primarily concerned with making informed decisions about texts: this includes the activity of editing (professional, commercial, or scholarly) and textual criticism (the production of essays related to the material aspects of texts). The terminology used by Bird in the first chapter is drawn from this discipline. Since the 3rd century BCE, the goal of textual criticism is to establish a single text from many different versions of that text. Textual scholars attempt to establish an ideal, singular version of what the author wrote. This basic goal typically involves the following practices:

1) Identifying and correcting errors made in the transmission process. The transmission process relates to the medium, or the physical means by which a text has been communicated through time. Because mediums are physical, they come from a place, and the transmission history relates to the materiality (here, papyrus) and being-there-ness of the physical document (i.e. how many papyrus rolls are there, where do they come from)

2) When confronted with multiple witnesses of the same text, making decisions

about what should or should not be included in establishing a single text. In his book, Bird will use the terms “corrupted” and “contaminated” as aspects of this approach that are set against terms like “authentic” and “original.”

The basic principles of this methodology were established at the library of Alexandria by scholars seeking to preserve and correct the multiplicity of witnesses (what we call independent versions of the same work) for texts in authorial canons. This is one important stage in the process of transmission that has enabled us, in 2019, to read what survives of Plato, Aristotle, and of course, “Homer.” In many ways, you could argue that the desire to impose a single text model by managing variants (or, any observable differences between multiple witnesses) is related to a curatorial impulse in the institutions that control the production and distribution of knowledge. But more on that in a bit…

Bird’s discussion of the textual problems of The Iliad uses some of these terms to demonstrate methodological and terminological aspects of the discipline of textual studies. However, from what you read of Parry, you also know that the traditional approach to textual problems may not be applicable to Homer. In most scenarios, a textual scholar proceeds with methodological principles that in many ways require:

a) that there is an original author

b) the author wrote an original manuscript

c) the original manuscript is worth trying to reconstruct

The textual scholar needs an author because that is the basis for interpreting, on the basis of a known style, what seems “authentic” and what appears to be “corrupted” in the text. In theory, anyone involved in the transmission process (from the author to one of many scribes that copied the manuscript a) for selling it, or b) archiving it) can influence what is present in the text. Think about the activity of copying by hand an entire novel: how many mistakes (or, deviations from the original) do you think you would make? HINT: THOUSANDS. An editor’s job is to spot these mistakes and correct them, often without recourse to the author’s original manuscript. As an editor myself, I can tell you that it can be a fucking nightmare.

As Bird describes, there is a major problem with the transmission history of The Iliad: there are 1,900 DIFFERENT MANUSCRIPT WITNESSES OF THE ILIAD across approx. 1,500 fragments of papyrus.

INT. PAGAN HOLE, 400 BCE. DIONYSUS click-clacks his hooves; a snake dies.

GREEK LIBRARIAN (WITH MOLD IN HIS BEARD, HOLDING A DEAD CROW): Let’s make… an edition….. of…… The Iliad!”


OK, so what exactly are we supposed to do with this information? Why are there so many independent witnesses of The Iliad? What should be included in it? The first stage should be obvious: there is no single text of The Iliad. What we are currently reading is an inherently unstable document that, in a singular form, reflects the long history and tradition of decisions made by textual scholars about the “authenticity” of variants across roughly 1,900 different witnesses.

The essay by Parry that you read last week can guide the second stage. As you know there is strong evidence that suggests The Iliad was initially an oral composition. The material conditions of oral traditional poetics can therefore provide a way to explain the contours of this problem and therefore ways to approach it.

Response Question #1

How does Parry’s analysis of the social and material context of Homer’s epic explain why there are so many versions of The Iliad (as described by Bird)? Further, how does Bassett’s essay support and / or refute such a theory? Use EVIDENCE to support your position.

If you spent time on that question and really thought through it’s implications, then you have created a THEORY that informs decisions about a TEXT. This activity is of primary importance in the history of human civilization. Why? Because it guides decisions about textual problems (i.e. The Iliad, all of Greek philosophy, the fucking BIBLE, etc.) that in turn shapes the substance of our public memory.

The Iliad and Public Memory

We will take a brief detour from the content of The Iliad to discuss the idea of a Canon, here the Western Canon, and the function that canons serve within the cultural order (that fabric of reality that has in many ways produced WHO you are):

1) Canons are curatorial: canons–or, texts–that are considered important because they preserve rich, complex frameworks for interpreting human experience. Every single literary work that you have been asked to read within the context of institutional education relates to this idea. It can explain why you read Shakespeare, why you read plays like Hamlet, why THIS book as opposed to that book. The curatorial aspect of canons relates to:

2) Canons involve values in terms of what they preserve (i.e. The Iliad, Hamlet) and in the principles related to the act of preserving (textual studies: i.e., this version of The Iliad as opposed to THAT version)

Canons call attention to what can be done in the literary medium. As examples of craft, they are a reparatory of inventions, a challenge, indeed a call, to CREATE or to LEARN. They are models of wisdom, or at least an institutional idealization of what wisdom is important to live in society. Canons shape civilizations.

This in part explains why the ideals of a liberal education are so important: reading enables us to use the creations of the past to shape ourselves in the present (i.e. The Republic, democracy etc). These custodial concerns for past ideals help us shape values and they also provide contrastive frameworks for thinking about human life.

Canons are cultural structures that function within public memory to define who we are as human beings.

But…canon formation is complex. In an established canon, we get the impression that there is one text of The Iliad and that it is important (why it is important is completely up to you). The reality: there are 1,900 Iliads! The work of textual studies is designed to produce the effect of a single text.

Response Question #2

From the perspective of canon formation, why does it seem necessary to stabilize texts like The Iliad? That is, why does the cultural construct of A Canon seem to require the production of a single text from many different witnesses? Use evidence to support your position.

If you spent time on that question and really thought through it’s implications, then you have created a way to theorize the structural role of canons and their relationship to the discipline of textual studies.

Back to The Iliad…

So, we know that there are many texts of The Iliad and that the theories controlling textual studies of it indicate that its many witnesses are inconsistent with a single authorial vision. The single text before you that you are reading is the result of thousands of year’s worth of judgments about what should, what should not be included in it. Most texts that are considered important in the Western Canon follow this same complex trajectory.

Most of these judgments took place at the library of Alexandria. How do we know? Because the flow of variation among the 1,900 witnesses stops with papyri dated around 150 BCE, a time when it is therefore believed that a single text was being produced. On the basis of style, Alexandrian scholars like Zenodotus, Aristophanes, and Aristarchus added and removed sections of The Iliad that they believed to be the best. Of what??! THAT’S UP TO YOU. This version of The Iliad served as the basis of the text that was adopted as a school text by the Roman empire, then adopted by the West under the influence of Patristic scholars after the fall of Rome, then now by us in 2019.

So why the fuck is this epic poem so damn important? Let’s talk about that.

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians

hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

of heroes…” 1.1-4 [book.lines]

The poet, through the Muse (to whom he will occasionally utter a direct appeal), knows the history of long-dead heroes and is able to tell us of the thoughts and actions of the gods (i.e. “the will of Zeus was accomplished” 1.5). This is a characteristic of what we often call an omniscient narrator. The poet’s closeness with an audience sometimes emerges in it’s own persona in the form of direct address: “So they fought on in the likeness of fire, nor would you have thought the sun was still secure in his place in the sky, nor the moon, since the mist was closed over all that part of the fight…”(17.366-8). This feature also appears in the form of rhetorical questions: “But what man could tell forth from his heart the names of the others, / all who after these waked the war strength of the Achaians?” (17.260-1); as well as direct address to the Muse (i.e. 1.1).

This closeness to us is also enhanced when we are told the private thoughts of a character (i.e. seeing through a character’s eyes). Can you think of any examples of this? What does this do? As an aspect of style, it aligns us in closer sympathy with a character; it expands our emotional involvement with them. The objective of the narrator is to draw our attention to things. In the case of The Iliad, what we are drawn to and why is of primary importance.

The omniscient narration of The Iliad often produces the effect of foreshadowing. This gives the impression that things are not left to random chance, but instead to a cause (mostly divine, but also very human). Our alignment with this aspect of the narration creates a condition of shared knowledge that is usually denied to the characters.

Like us, the audience, Achilleus is the only character that knows ‘what will happen’ in advance: a) he will defeat Hektor, b) his death is imminent.

This creates pathos: there is a constant juxtaposition of his mortality with his superiority and divine origins.

This pathos creates….SADNESS: he is greater than all men, has an immortal mother, yet he is doomed not only to die young but to do so with advanced knowledge and by his own choice.

This theme is introduced gradually:

1) “But Achilleus weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions beside the beach and of the grey sea looking out on the infinite water. Many times stretching forth his hands he called upon his mother: “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life, therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me honor at least. But now he has given me not even a little. Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon, has dishonored me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.” (1.348-356)

This complicates the initial conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon, doesn’t it? It’s not just about the taking of his “prize,” it involves the relationship between honor and his own death.

The following quotes build on these related ideas:





18.21-31: a tableaux of Achilleus as a corpse

Response Question #3

How do these feature of the narrative align us with Achilleus? Why is that important? Use evidence to support your position.

As you know by now, Achilleus does not die in The Iliad, but we share his knowledge of its immanence with increasing intensity. The primary questions to approach, given this narrative emphasis and our alignment with it, is:

a) do we admire his resolution in facing his own death?

b) are we to question the choice he made and wonder if his wrath is a flaw that in fact leads to his premature death?

For Response Question #4, answer them both. Use evidence to support your position.

From these general observations, lets move to Book 18. This marks the conclusion of the theme of Achilleus’ withdraw from battle and begins the theme of revenge, preparing the way for his confrontation with Hektor (which, as we know, also means his own destruction).

Let’s take an opportunity to analyze the narrative structure of this important episode. Structure is an aspect of style.

18.1-14: this book begins with a transitional verse, a commonly repeated phrase that marks the beginning and ending of ‘books.’ From this formulaic utterance, our attention is drawn immediately to Achilleus. His thoughts are initially revealed by the narrator (“thinking over in his heart things which had now been accomplished”) and then a QUICK transition from this alignment to Achilleus’ own voice: “Ah me…against Hektor! (6-14).

Response Question # 5: What does this shift accomplish, structurally and stylistically? How does it relate to other instances in the epic that tie the audience to Achillues more generally? Use evidence to support your position.

Concerning the textual status of The Iliad, Aristophanes REJECTED lines 10-12 as ‘un-Homeric’ and they were not included in early manuscripts of the epic. Something to think about: what is the effect of not including them here?

From here, Achilleus learns of the death of Patroklos and this begins a series of formal lamentations for someone he loved:


18.98-126: note especially: “I will accept my own death” (115)

In both speeches, grief leads to reflection and meditation on impossibility. This is accomplished through a fixation on death and vengeance. This process, extending through funeral rites, leads to one of the most magnificent passages in this entire work: 18.490-549; the description of Achilleus new shield.

Ok, now it’s time to really think about some things.

Response Question #6: How do you interpret the description of this shield in the context of Achilleus’ acceptance of his own death? HINT: it is a giant SIMILE and it relates to every previous question. Use evidence to support your position.

After he is geared up, Achilleus goes on a rampage in books 19-21. This section of the narrative is his aristeia; or his great actions (an essential characteristic of the epic genre according to Aristotle). He basically obliterates the entire Trojan army singlehandedly. That’s fine and good. Well done, bro. But through this, we must constantly remember that in doing this, Achilleus is essentially killing himself. Book 24, the conclusion of this epic, strangely transitions to show the kindness and mercy of Achilleus.

Response Question #7: Why is empathy the closing event of this epic? Use evidence to support your position.

Response Question #8: What does The Iliad teach us about dying; specifically how to die and how to accept our own inevitable death? Connect your answer to considerations of why The Iliad is so important in the Western Canon. Use evidence to support your position.

Response Questions

1) Using the readings for this week, describe how the material characteristic of a text determine: a) what survives, and b) our attitudes about what survives

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