Words from Elsewhere

The Hatred of Literature - William Marx 2015

Words from Elsewhere

An ordinary scene in the Trojan War. What Teucer saw. Deictic, train, scissors. What Helen saw. The Odyssey as meta-epic. The Muse. Of flowers and mammoths. The shamanic aoidos. Tales of possession. Dancing on Mount Parnassus. Verse and trance. In praise of the autodidact.

THE SCENE is The Iliad. In the tenth year of the Trojan War. Men have been fighting under the eyes of the gods for a long time—probably because of the gods, who intervene here and there, in a haphazard way, tipping the scales sometimes to one side, sometimes to the other. Now the Argives are tired and the Trojans have the advantage: hurried along by valiant Hector, the army of the Achaeans (another name for the Argives) is retreating to its seaside camp in indescribable chaos. Suddenly the Achaeans find themselves trapped between the moat and the wall, which were supposed to protect them but may now serve as their grave. Though nothing offers better protection than a gravestone—it shelters you from the living—it remains a last resort. People generally prefer to try something else. It is a critical moment, as they say: Hector has sworn that if the Trojans succeed in penetrating the camp, his army will burn its ships, and the Danaäns (another name for the Achaeans) will be condemned to die on enemy soil. This would mark the end of the Trojan War and the defeat of Agamemnon’s army—we’re not there yet, but we might as well enjoy some anticipatory shivers.

Meanwhile, heads are sliced off, brains spurt into the air, spears slide through teeth and rip through necks, and other heartwarming deeds take place. Luckily, Agamemnon sees the danger. He crisscrosses the camp haranguing his troops, and presto, they are back in action, further revived because Zeus has just punctuated Agamemnon’s speech with a miracle: an eagle drops a fawn close to the altar of the father of the gods. A rather unusual sign, admittedly, but people have returned to the battlefield for less. So here are all the beautiful heroes again, in a parade worthy of Offenbach: the indomitable Diomedes, of course; then the two Atreides, Agamemnon and Menelaus; the no less inseparable two Ajaxes (the greater and the lesser); Idomeneus and his second-in-command Meriones; Eurypylus, son of Euaemon; and finally, Teucer, son of Telamon. Teucer is a bastard, but he works wonders: he grabs his bow and slays every Trojan in sight, one after the other—a fine slaughter, really. Agamemnon, a connoisseur of the business of killing, comes to congratulate and encourage him: if you continue like this, he essentially tells him, when Ilion (another name for Troy) has fallen, you will be able to choose between a tripod (in bronze, it goes without saying—i.e., a tremendous amount of money), double horsepower (in other words, a two-horse chariot), or a woman to put in your bed (no explanation necessary).

History does not tell us which of these valuable gifts Teucer would have chosen (a difficult decision: in quantity of legs, the two quadrupeds clearly surpass the tripod and the biped, but there are probably other parameters to consider). We do not know whether he was grumpy that day or simply had gotten out of bed on the wrong side; what is indisputable is that he was offended. Word for word, this is his answer to Agamemnon:

Son of Atreus, most lordly: must you then drive me who am eager

myself, as it is? Never, so far as the strength is in me,

have I stopped, since we began driving the Trojans back upon Ilion;

since then have I been lurking here with my bow, to strike down

fighters. And by this I have shot eight long-flanged arrows,

and all of them were driven into the bodies of young men,


One can easily understand Teucer’s state of mind: a hero worthy of the name does not like to be told to do what he is already doing perfectly well, and on his own initiative. As for offering him gifts, isn’t it offensive to assume that he is acting out of self-interest when it is only glory that is driving him? In short, Teucer’s reply is utterly appropriate to this Homeric world in which warriors on the battlefield constantly challenge one another. But that’s not all. Teucer also adds—listen carefully, it’s important: “yet still I am not able to hit this mad dog.”1

Suddenly everything shifts, and we find ourselves entering a new world. Who is “this mad dog”? There is no likely person indicated in the preceding lines, yet there is also nothing to suggest one should take the expression literally and believe that a real mad dog is casually wandering around the battlefield. Only men, horses, and gods have a right to be on the field—and that’s complicated enough as it is. In fact, one needs to go back eighty-three lines to identify the animal in a reference to Hector, the son of King Priam, who is carrying out a horrible massacre and leading the Trojans to victory. It must certainly be Hector whom Teucer wants to hit, in order to reverse the course of the battle.

Eighty-three lines is long, very long. In fact, it is too long for the audience members listening to Homer (or the aoidos, it doesn’t matter which one), who do not have the poem’s text in hand and cannot immediately consult it. In practice, therefore, the demonstrative this, in this mad dog, cannot refer to the last mention of Hector in line 216 of book 8. It does not refer to anything that is literally in the text of The Iliad (in grammatical terms, it is not an anaphora). Instead, it fulfills an entirely different function: it indicates someone or something that Teucer (for he is the one speaking) sees on the battlefield and points out to Agamemnon. Someone or something that Agamemnon can therefore also see by turning his head, but whom the audience members, comfortably seated listening to the aoidos, cannot see with their own eyes—no matter which way they turn. The epic poem’s audience can only be surprised by the use of this demonstrative that refers to nothing in the previous lines. This is exactly the effect that Homer is looking for.

Merely by using the word this (touton, in Greek, standing out at the beginning of the line), Teucer summons the audience of The Iliad to the battlefield: forced to put themselves in the hero’s place, they suddenly discover right before their eyes a reality that is entirely different from the one surrounding them. In an instant, the devastated landscape of the plain of Troy a few centuries earlier opens out before them: there’s a mêlée, the ground strewn with bodies, and here is the figure of Hector silhouetted on the horizon, relentlessly carving his way through the Achaeans. The abruptness of this demonstrative without a textual referent would have been practically unprecedented in Homeric times. Today its effect is probably blunted, so blasé are we after close to three thousand years of development of the verbal arts, which use or have used devices far more effective and sophisticated—in the same way that Diomedes’s javelin would be no match for a nuclear missile. But we must put ourselves in the state of mind of someone listening to Homer. All things being relative, this deictic demonstrative would have had the intensity of the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving at the station in La Ciotat, sending the first cinematograph audience running in fear, or the suggestive power of the first films made in 3D. This little word singlehandedly creates the illusion of seeing Hector, practically in the flesh, no less present than Grace Kelly’s desperate hand coming off the screen to grab a pair of scissors in Dial M for Murder—except that in Homer’s case, we do not need stereoscopic glasses.2

Fully aware of the coup de force he has carried out, Homer is careful not to overwhelm his audience and to ensure that surprise does not hamper their involvement with the narrative. In the very next line, he explains the meaning of this mad dog: “He spoke, and let fly another shaft from the bowstring, straight for Hector, and all his heart was straining to hit him.”3 It’s about time: the slightly distracted listener finally understands who Teucer was talking about. Homer is not as provocative as Paul Valéry, whose audacious use of a single demonstrative plunges his reader into uncertainty for the whole length of a poem. (Some would even accuse him of mystification, furious that they had been unable to decipher the nature of “this” famous “quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by” in Le Cimetière marin [The Graveyard by the Sea]).4

It is not the first time that Homer uses this technique. In book 3, while watching the battle from atop the ramparts of Troy, old King Priam asks Helen a question:

So you could tell me the name of this man who is so tremendous;

who is this Achaian man of power and stature?

Though in truth there are others taller by a head than he is,

yet these eyes have never yet looked on a man so splendid

nor so lordly as this: such a man might well be royal.

Helen answers him, of course, but one has to wait eight lines for her to satisfy the old man’s curiosity and finally name the splendid Achaian: it is none other than “Atreus’s son Agamemnon, widely powerful, at the same time a good king and a strong spearfighter.”5 The uncertainty of the audience, as well as that of Priam, therefore lasts longer than in book 8. Yet the uncertainty is also less acute: though he is not named, Agamemnon is described. Those in the audience know no more than the king of Troy. Like him, they wait for a reply. Book 8 puts an end to this fine equivalence between the audience’s knowledge and that of the characters: both Teucer and Agamemnon know who “this mad dog” is before the audience does. Line 299 briefly opens a window onto another world: by means of this linguistic expression of a hallucinatory or shamanic vision, another reality suddenly appears about which the audience lacks information—a reality greater than the words that refer to it, conjured by words but not limited to them.

Even Teucer’s words come from this other world, having been uttered through fictional lips that refer to an elsewhere that is inaccessible other than through language. Such is the transcendence of the aoidos’s song: it is not him speaking, but another—in this case, Teucer, dead so many centuries ago. In The Odyssey, Odysseus himself expresses surprise at this mysterious power, saying to Demodocus:

… you sing the Achaians’

venture, all they did and had done to them, all the sufferings

of these Achaians, as if you had been there yourself or heard it

from one who was.6

This passage displays the meta-epic, nearly reflexive aspect of The Odyssey, in which Homer—whoever may bear that name—wonders about the definition of his art and the conditions under which it is exercised. (Let’s take this opportunity to ask whether one can really say there ever was a golden age of the epic if the second great Homeric poem already proposes its critique and deconstruction. Setting the epic down in writing was in and of itself a betrayal of the rhapsode’s trade: The Iliad betrays The Iliad. In other words, the transcribed poem as we know it disfigures the infinite modulation of the rhapsodic songs about the Trojan War by setting them in stone. The period of decline had already come. This statement comes with a corollary, however: if decline has always existed, then it is only a myth.)

As it happens, neither Demodocus nor Homer ever visited Troy. If both are able to know with extreme accuracy what the war was like, to describe its slightest incident, to speak for Agamemnon and Teucer, and to create the impression that they can see in detail the horrible chaos of a battlefield several centuries earlier, it can only be because that power came from a god. The Muse, or perhaps Apollo, has either instructed them or speaks through them—it comes down to the same thing. Odysseus says as much about Demodocus:

“Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you.

Surely the Muse, Zeus’s daughter or else Apollo has taught you

If you can tell me the course of all these things as they happened,

I will speak of you before all mankind, and tell them

how freely the goddess gave you the magical gift of singing.”

He spoke, and the singer, stirred by the goddess, began, and showed them

his song.7

Thus, Demodocus begins his poem in the same way as Homer, who plainly admits in the first lines of The Iliad that his song belongs not to him, but to the Muse.

LONG BEFORE RIMBAUD, the poet was an other—except that this metamorphosis was in no way a metaphor glossed to dullness: it was experienced as a reality.8 And why not? All things considered, there is a change of identity as soon as language serves a function unrelated to the immediate action or to a simple description of surrounding reality, as soon as one is no longer speaking in one’s own name but borrowing someone else’s words. If you stop to think about it, recounting an event distant in time or space or reporting another person’s words is not self-evident. To bring forward an absent reality, to be able to modify one’s own self, is a privilege no less than a danger: it is one quick step from here to misunderstanding, even scandal. Poetry and fiction were bound to eventually take that step.

There is a big leap from, “I’m off to find us a mammoth for lunch” to “Daddy said: ’I’m off to find us a mammoth for lunch.’ ” In the latter statement, the speaker is retrospectively repeating someone else’s words, rather than speaking directly in the here and now. The leap is even greater to, “And the Great Goddess said: ’Let us create mammoths so that humans can have lunch’ ” (for these linguistic developments took place in the far distant past, long before Homer, perhaps in the era of the great goddess mothers—that is, if they themselves are not a myth invented in modern times). In this last statement, one imagines the words of a fictional and distant creature in the context of a vision of the world that structures the visible and the invisible, the past, the present, and the future.9 The practice of reported speech involves a twist applied to language, an act of violence against ordinary utterance, in so far as the first person no longer refers to someone speaking hic et nunc, but to a being distant in time and space, dead or imaginary. As soon as the deixis no longer corresponds to the lexis, language functions like a shamanic mask: it alters the speaker and makes an absent being appear instead. At the same time, a strange veil falls over the environment shared by the speaker and listener, and another world appears indistinctly, brought forth in its entirety by the absent being who is suddenly present.

“I say: a flower!” writes Mallarmé, “and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets.”10 In the late nineteenth century, the poet of the Coup de dés desperately sought to restore to language the evocative power it must originally have had. For that is also what is meant by “[giving] a purer sense to the words of the tribe”: restoring a power that Archaic poets still had at their disposal, with which they could play without fearing to exhaust its spells.11

The aoidos was a shaman—or at least wanted to be, and presented himself as such—and Mallarmé, the poet of the rue de Rome, was trying to become one too. Yet the Muses were never seen roaming his bourgeois Paris neighborhood: they would certainly have attracted attention wandering around in a pack. They might even have been mistaken for cheap hussies in revealing outfits.

TODAY the Muses are met with indifference at best, or with a mocking smile. Unless they are beautiful teases with vaguely libidinous artists hanging off their arms (“Let me introduce you to my muse,” one artiste says in a whisper either flattering or ironic, wearily gesturing to his female companion—or to the glass in which the last drop of his dry martini quivers), they are to be locked up in a closet with other poetic relics. Who would want to bring them back out? Ronsard did not believe in the Muses anymore, only using them as cold allegories of poetry. Horace and Virgil were hardly more enthusiastic.

Homer’s case is entirely different: the Muse that opens The Iliad and The Odyssey is no joke. In fact, she does better than open the books: she sings them. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’s son Achilleus,” “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways”: the aoidos can only sing what the source of divine inspiration sings in him and through him.12 One could provide a more literal translation of the first verse of The Odyssey: “Tell in me, Muse …” Let the Greek words speak for themselves: moi ennepe. The Muse speaks in the poet, who lends her his mouth. Medium, shaman, whirling dervish: any of the comparisons made today accurately conveys the supernatural origin of this song in which the human being serves only as a go-between.

The poet’s knowledge is only borrowed, particularly when it’s a question of listing all the combatants on the plain of Troy. I refer to the famous catalog of ships in the second book of The Iliad: three hundred interminable lines naming all the Greek leaders, followed by a less expansive enumeration of the Trojan leaders. Now, before launching into this perilous anthology piece, the aoidos again invokes the Muses:

For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things,

and we have heard only the rumor of it and know nothing.

Who then of those who were the chief men and the lords of the Danaäns?

I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them,

not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had

a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me,

not unless the Muses of Olympia, daughters

of Zeus of the aegis, remembered all those who came beneath Ilion.13

Homer’s knowledge, like Demodocus’s, comes from elsewhere: both men allow us to hear a voice that is not theirs. They are inspired—or possessed.

A few decades later, Hesiod says the same thing: not content with opening his Theogony with the usual invocation of the Muses, he puts them first in the long series of divine genealogies that make up the poem. Before even mentioning the origins of the world, he begins to sing the birth of the Muses, daughters of Zeus and Memory (Mnemosyne): the first one hundred and fifteen lines are devoted to the Muses. This they ordered the poet to do through an irrevocable decree, and the order is logical, given that without the Muses there would be no poem and no origin of the world, either: the Muses are the source of every truth, as well as “lies identical to the truth,” as Hesiod adds in a cutting remark that may be meant for Homer. It is through them that the poet can “name what will be and what has been,” and from them that the poet’s knowledge and authority derive legitimacy.14

Many of the most ancient surviving Greek poems begin with an invocation to the Muses or to Calliope, the principal Muse: “Muse, sing a hymn to Hermes,” “Muse, tell me of the feats of Aphrodite, shining with so much gold,” “Muse, sing a hymn to Artemis,” “Harmonious Muse, sing a hymn to the mother of all the gods and all men,” “Muse, speak to me of the son of Hermes.”15 Muse here, Muse there, Muse everywhere … Yet the Muse never explicitly takes the floor; it is the invocation itself that imperceptibly develops into the evocation of the requested hero:

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, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished

since that time when first there stood in division of conflict

Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.16

This is the beginning of The Iliad. The entire thread of the story unspools from the initial call to the Muse, through successive additions to the opening sentence, without ever marking a break between the voice of the poet and that of the goddess, which take each other’s place through the snowball effect of the invocation. Is it not significant that the Homeric I most often appears only to invoke the you of the goddess, as if the two persons remained inseparable?17 Such is the linguistic formula of that particular type of possession known as poetic inspiration.18

The Iliad presents itself both as a single long prayer to the Muse and as an actual song sung by the Muse. Here, one must forget the modern claim that no clause can have two concurrent speakers: what is true of the ordinary use of language cannot be applied to the poetic liturgy of the Muse.19 One is reminded of the character in H. P. Lovecraft’s fantastic tales whose voice alters when he is possessed by the demon.20 The same is true of all the hymns to the Muse mentioned above. This Greek poetry is literally a godsend—at least it presents itself as such.

THE MUSES WERE FAR more than beautiful young women who charm poets, as they are portrayed in seventeenth-century paintings. They were also not abstract allegories, cold emblems of the roles they were each assigned by tradition, mere mannequins to which accessories could be attached: there would be no Euterpe without her flute, as we know, or Melpomene without a tragic mask. Urania didn’t have an easy life, either, with her armillary sphere and compass, so cumbersome when it’s time to go to bed.

This division of labor did not occur until late in the history of the Muses. There are not nine Muses because there are nine arts. On the contrary: there are nine arts because there are nine Muses. There are nine Muses because the Parcae (Fates), Furies, Hours, and Graces all come in threes, and nine is the natural outgrowth of three (furthermore, there may originally only have been three, venerated in a sanctuary on Mount Helicon).21 There are nine Muses because the memory of the world rests on them; since they are charged with enumerating the world, they must have all the numbers available to them. There are nine Muses because they themselves are the daughters of Memory, and Zeus made love to this Titaness nine nights in a row. There are nine Muses because, as everyone knows, children embody the memory of the most intimate and fleeting moments in their parents’ lives. There are nine Muses because the responsibility to remember falls to children. There are nine Muses because it takes at least nine of them to celebrate the victory of the gods of Olympus over the Titans, which inspired their first song. There are nine Muses because it takes nine to tirelessly twirl on Mount Parnassus in a perpetual dance. There are nine Muses because multiplicity and polyphony are the principles of poetry. There are nine Muses because there is a tenth one: Apollo. Or more precisely: Apollo Musagetes, literally, “the leader of the Muses,” the one who leads their songs and their dances.

But careful: this is no night out at the disco. On Mount Parnassus, dance has a liturgical function; it is the great rite of the advent of the presence, of the appearance of the divinity, which can also be found in Phrygia with the Corybantes or Crete with the Curetes. The Curetes danced without respite, loudly banging their weapons together to drown out little Zeus’s wailing with the crashing of bronze and thus to prevent his father, Cronus, from becoming aware of the infant’s existence. What more needs to be said about the power of the dance than that it ensured the survival of the most powerful of the gods? According to some sources, there were also nine Curetes, and they shared the Muses’ gift of clairvoyance and prophecy.

It is no coincidence that Mount Parnassus dominates the site of Delphi: while the Muses dance up high on the mountain, the Pythia vaticinates on her tripod. Apollo Musagetes is the god both of music and of oracles. These two activities only appear separate to us profane moderns, for whom truth is separate from beauty and science from music and poetry. Yet the authority of Apollonian speech manifests itself first in its particular form, which allows the divine to be present here below.

Plutarch tells us that the oracles of the Pythia were originally given in verse:

Accordingly, the God [namely Apollo] did not begrudge to the art of prophecy adornment and pleasing grace, nor did he drive away from here [i.e., from Delphi] the honored Muse of the tripod, but introduced her rather by awakening and welcoming poetic natures.22

However, Plutarch considerably reduces the role of verse: according to him, rhythm and poetry are only adornments gratuitously added to truthful content, at best useful for mnemotechnic purposes. This is how Plutarch justifies the fact that in his time, the turn of the second century CE, it was no longer necessary for the Pythia to express herself in verse.

Here, Plutarch is guilty of excessive rationalization: he is forgetting verse’s ritual quality in Archaic Greece. Five or six centuries earlier, song, dance, music, and poetry had not yet become simple adornments of the rite; they made up the rite, which, along with sacrifice, was one of the doors through which divinity entered this world. After centuries of church organs and hymns having been pushed into the background, as mere liturgical ornaments which the mass could easily do without, it’s time to get rid of our modern habits: throughout its history, Christianity has constantly intellectualized most of the pagan and even Christian observances that related to the body, and turned them at best into mere supplements to the liturgy. In many ways, fans of techno parties and Wagner aficionados who dress to the nines to flock to Bayreuth in search of ecstasy are rediscovering a physiology of trance and transcendence that modern religions have often tended to neglect, if not scorn.

In another section of the text quoted above, Plutarch recalls that in the Archaic period “history and philosophy” were themselves expressed through verse and music. Far from being incompatible with a discourse of truth, poetry was its distinguishing feature; what was formulated in verse necessarily fell under a superior order, unrelated to the usages of ordinary language. It was not merely the seal of truth; it brought the truth out with the help of Apollo and the Muses, who only agreed to reveal it once the yoke of a determined rhythm and cadence had been imposed.

Honor of mankind, Sacred LANGUAGE,

Ordered and prophetic speech,

Chains of beauty that enwind

The god bewildered in the flesh,

Illumination, and largess!

Now a wisdom makes utterance,

And rings out in that sovereign voice

Which when it rings can only know

It is no longer anyone’s

So much as the woods’ and the waters’ voice!23

By a finely-wrought coincidence, these lines by Valéry present the curious twentieth-century resurrection of a poetics of possession not so far removed from that of most Archaic Antiquity, where the voice of truth necessarily comes from elsewhere, from high above or deep inside, without becoming identified with the poet’s voice, which only serves as a medium.

This is how one should interpret the famous lines of The Odyssey in which the aoidos Phemius, at great risk of being slaughtered by Odysseus during the killing of the suitors, tries to plead his case to the vengeful hero: “I am an autodidact,” he exclaims (autodidaktos in Greek), “and the god has inspired in me the song ways of every kind.”24 In this case, autodidact cannot mean “a self-taught person,” in the modern sense of the word, nor even “a person who has not had a teacher,” as it is sometimes translated: this clause would be in flagrant contradiction with the reference to divine inspiration that immediately follows. The word simply indicates that the aoidos did not seek his knowledge where it is usually found, that is in learning (mathêsis), listening (akroasis), or inquiry (historia), but that this knowledge appears in him spontaneously, in a manner both natural and miraculous, irreducible to human reason. Ultimately, Phemius is saying, “I am innately all-knowing” and “My knowledge arises spontaneously.” Marvelous knowledge, indeed, for it is sufficient to give Odysseus justification to spare the aoidos, which he does without hesitation. But it is also a terribly fragile knowledge in that it is not put to the test of truth and does not know the conditions under which it was produced.

Through the mere presence of characters like the aoidoi Phemius and Demodocus, The Odyssey initiates an examination of the art of the rhapsodic song, and of poetry in general, that is absent in The Iliad. While the author of the earlier epic poem seemed to practice a happy art, free of doubt and criticism, the author of the poem of Odysseus—regardless of whether or not he also wrote the poem of Achilles—insists on justifying here and there, in subtle ways, the importance of his role and the value of his words.

One should frankly also ask whether Homer himself believed in the Muse. It is not at all certain that he did. It would be reckless to see The Iliad and The Odyssey as naïve evidence of an allegedly original state of literature: they are only the oldest surviving works, the last representatives of a tradition that was already in decline or in the midst of transformation. Homer’s relationship with the Muse appears to be typical of archaism, but that appearance may be illusory. At least he pretends to believe in her, in the context of an authentic theory of poetry—for Homer was, before Aristotle, the first theorist of Western literature. And why not? After all, it was inevitable that the knowledge of the aoidos would eventually have to become its own object: the innate knowledge that came from Apollo and the Muses could not long ignore the Apollonian injunction “Know thyself,” which was inscribed on the pediment of the temple at Delphi. This set in motion a spiral of endless justification from which poetry would not emerge unscathed.

Or could it be that The Odyssey was already seeking to respond to external criticism now forgotten, of which the only implicit trace is this fragmented praise addressed to the mythical Phemius and Demodocus? Patience! The denigrators of poetry would soon appear in broad daylight. Then the time of anti-literature would be upon us.