[lit-ideas] Re: Greek To Me

  • From: karltrogge@xxxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 13 Jul 2009 02:17:57 +0200

On 13-Jul-09, at 12:23 AM, Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx wrote:

But you'll grant that Janny Parker is not a native speaker of Greek. So what does SHE know?

Neither you nor I are native speakers of Greek either. Nevertheless, open your copy of THE ODYSSEY and take a look at the very first line.

Now listen to what Douglas Frame (also probably not a native speaker of Greek) in the introduction to his THE MYTH OF RETURN IN EARLY GREEK EPIC (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978) has to say about it.

"When at the very outset Homer calls his hero polútropos, one cannot tell whether he intends this to mean “very wily” or “much-wandering,” for both of these meanings are possible and both suit Odysseus equally well. One strongly suspects, however, that the ambiguity itself is what Homer intended – that he chose the word polútropos precisely because it captures two such basic features of his hero: what he is (“wily”) and what he does (“wander”). The main argument of this book is that the connection suggested by Homer between the “wiles” and the “wanderings” of Odysseus in fact rested upon an earlier tradition both significant and deep. The origin of this tradition has to do with the etymology of the Greek word nóos, “mind,” which I propose to connect with the Greek verb néomai, “return home.” Such an effort requires that nóos be reconstructed as *nos-os, a derivative from the verbal root *nes-.

The significance of this proposal for the tradition underlying the Odyssey is clear. It implies that the connection still felt by Homer between the “wiliness” and the “wandering” of Odysseus goes back to a fundamental connection between “mind” and “returning home,” and that the relation between what Odysseus “is” and what he “does” has a solid basis in the history of the Greek language."

<end of quote from Frame>

Now I'll be the first to admit that my classical Greek is a little rusty. (Ha! Look at that dog's breakfast you made of that sentence from Plato's SYMPOSIUM Stephanos # 201c, Karl - you call that 'rusty'?) But I do seem to recall learning that many 'abstract' concepts were expressed in terminology that had a very 'concrete 'base'. So I'm at least willing to listen to Frame argue his thesis.

My point, however, is not Frame's - so before I get what some would perhaps call otiose, let me make it.

To say, for example, that 'polútropos' has ONE AND ONLY ONE meaning in line one of THE ODYSSEY is to impoverish one of the earliest and greatest works of literature that we possess and to rob Homer of his genius. Intended ambiguity is one of the prime features of much great literature. Unintended ambiguity is one of the prime features of language use per se. To deny either is to limit the insight that the use of language gives us into the human condition to a very small keyhole indeed.

Karl Trogge


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