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  • The Silence of the Muse
  • Yukai Li

Homeric scholarship has tended to take the Muse at her word—she who is the daughter of Memory, the all-knowing, the keeper of tradition—or rather, more correctly, specifically not at her word, since she never speaks. But the Homeric Muse must speak: she must bring the words and knowledge of the epic past to the singer at the moment of performance and thus underwrite the relationship between the Homeric poet and the Homeric tradition. In the wake of Milman Parry, the general consensus that the Homeric poems are the product of a long performance tradition and yet are also to be read as literary texts has only made the Muse all the more important in her role as the mediator between the individual poem and its tradition.

In what follows, I propose to examine the connection between the figure of the Muse and the presuppositions of Homeric scholarship. How is the way in which we understand the voice and the silence of the Muse linked to the ways in which we think about Homer and the Homeric tradition? Next to the voice and the silence of the Muse, which serves as an image of or an emblem for questions of origin, continuity, and authority in the Homeric tradition, the core of my argument is the concept of kleos, meaning "fame, glory, or rumour." If kleos is what, in important ways, holds the Homeric tradition together—since kleos is what the hero wants and what the Homeric poet celebrates—then how we understand kleos is intimately connected with how we understand the Muse. It is possible, although I do not think anyone does this, to bring together Muse and kleos in a very literal configuration and say that the Muse conveys the kleos of the hero to the poet who celebrates him, thus guaranteeing the continuity and authority of the Homeric tradition with the Muse as its origin. Against this configuration of Muse, kleos, and tradition, we might raise the most basic and most trivial objection: "Sing of the wrath," says the poet of the [End Page 91] Iliad; "Speak to me about that man," says the poet of the Odyssey—but why then is it still the poet who sings the poems? If the literal configuration of Muse and kleos is impossible, since the Muse does not literally speak, we must then confront the questions of what it means for the performance of epic that the Muse does not speak, and what kind of song comes into being in the wake of the Muse's silence.

The consideration of these questions takes place inescapably in the wake of the theory of orality, which has, of course, never been merely an assertion of the fact that the Homeric poems were orally composed but has always brought with it particular ways of thinking about the nature of poetry in the Homeric tradition. In the early parts of this essay, I will demonstrate as a point of departure some aspects of a relatively coherent series of linked propositions that underlie how scholars in the oral theoretical context approach the concept of kleos.

It is helpful to briefly outline these propositions of oral theory: first, the assertion that the Homeric poems were orally composed and not written has tended to oppose the presence of oral performance with the distance of written texts; John Miles Foley, especially, examines the epiphanic aspects of oral performance (1999). Second, oral performance, as the epiphany of the truth and authority of the oral poetic tradition, insists on its own continuity and self-identity; this insistence on self-sameness is in conflict with what is known about the plain fact that oral traditions change and one performance is not the same as another.1 Consideration of the question of self-identity then breaks into two parts: recognising, on the one hand, that the Homeric tradition "objectively" proceeds via diachronic changes, but also incorporating a "subjective" perspective from within the tradition that this tradition is "ancient and immutable" (Nagy 1996b.17). The third proposition is that the insistence on the self-identity of the oral tradition, even if it is only a...


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