Supernatural Knowledge in Homeric Poetics
THERE IS AN INFLUENTIAL reading of Homer that found its classic formulation in E. Auerbach's essay, “The Scar of Odysseus.”1 There, Auerbach argued that certain formal features of the Iliad and Odyssey combine to discourage any interpretation that would seek to derive from the poems implicit teachings or ulterior meaning. In Homer, Auerbach observes, all phenomena are at the fore and in focus: “never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.” There is never a hint that something remains to be expressed, nor a sense that events are “fraught with background.” Homer articulates complexity not through implied layers of meaning, but through the succession of events and emotions, each of which presents itself, for the time it is before the audience, as a “pure present” unadorned by perspective.2
These successive “pure presents” that for Auerbach characterize the immediacy of Homeric narrative offer a perceptual model of poetic experience. In the Homeric poems, Auerbach says, “Delight in physical existence is everything …, and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us.”3 This perceptual model likens reading Homer to the passive viewing of images that absorb viewers in their own reality, but prompt neither inference to generalizable truths nor to moral instruction, and so tend to suppress reflection and interpretation: “Homer can be analyzed,… but he cannot be interpreted.”4 Thus Auerbach famously contrasted Homeric narrative, which he claims invites no relating of our own lives, with Biblical narrative, which demands that we “fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history”5
C. S. Lewis offered a second and complementary account of the same peculiarity of Homeric poetry in his discussion of primary epic in A Preface to Paradise lost.6 Lewis traces the preternatural believability of Home
1 E. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. W. R.
Trask (Princeton, 1953), pp. 1–20.
2 P. Vivante, The Homeric Imagination: A Study of Homer's Poetic Perception of Reality
(Bloomington and London, 1970), pp. 3–34; 120–209, echoes Auerbach's notion of a “pure
present” by positing the autonomy and primacy of the “aesthetic moment” in Homeric epic.
3 Auerbach 1953, p. 13.
4 Auerbach 195 3, p. 13.
5 Auerbach 1953, p. 15.
6 C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York, 1961), p. 23.