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Guest Observation: Homer

“…Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
that the son of cunning Cronus flung that omen down for him.
He snatched a winged arrow lying bare on the board—
the rest still bristled deep inside the quiver,
soon to be tasted by all the feasters there. …”

—”The Odyssey,” Book 21. Translated by Robert Fagles.”

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Guest Observation: Homer

“…Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
that the son of cunning Cronus flung that omen down for him.
He snatched a winged arrow lying bare on the board—
the rest still bristled deep inside the quiver,
soon to be tasted by all the feasters there. …”

—”The Odyssey,” Book 21. Translated by Robert Fagles.”

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Liberal Arts Tuesday

Ancient advice

Athena — “clear-eyed,” “her eyes glinting,” “brimming with indignation,” and in disguise — to Telemachus at the opening of “The Odyssey”:

“For you,

I have some good advice, if only you will accept it.

Fit out a ship with twenty oars,, the best in sight,

sail in quest of news of your long-lost father.

Someone may well tell you something

or you may catch a rumor straight from Zeus,

rumor that carries news to men like nothing else. …

Now, if you hear your father’s alive and heading home,

hard-pressed as you are, brave out one more year.

If you hear he’s dead, no longer among the living,

then back you come to the native land you love,

raise his grave-mound, build his honors high

with the full funeral rites that he deserves–

and give your mother to another husband.

“Then,

once you’ve sealed those matters, seen them through,

think hard, reach down deep in your heart and soul

for a way to kill these suitors in your house,

by stealth or in open combat. …”

— From the Robert Fagles translation (and for bonus points, the transcript of a 1997 Fagles interview on the PBS “NewsHour”)

Go Bears

“There’s an old folk saying, ‘Life’s a dream; please don’t wake me up.’ That’s how I feel about my life, my years at Berkeley. When I hear UC Berkeley denounced for lawlessness, debauchery, free thinking, subversion, harboring communists and radicals, exposing students to radical ideas— whenever I hear those charges made, that’s when you’ll hear me, wherever I am, shout: Go Bears!”

–Leon Litwack, UC Berkeley history professor, upon retiring from teaching last spring (and for bonus points, the alumni magazine, California, carried a couple nice pieces on Litwack this fall: one on his career and final lecture, one from a former student).

Book I Want Got

Greatestbattle

“The Greatest Battle.” A friend of ours once had a job that required him to travel to Moscow several times. He recalled a remarkable sight on the road into the city from the airport: a monument-sized tank trap, built to commemorate the Red Army’s last-ditch defense of the capital against Hitler’s army in World War II. The battle’s denouement is a martial epic, with the invaders on the city’s outskirts, below-zero temperatures, and a fierce counterattack by troops rushed thousands of miles from Siberia. I heard the author of the book on NPR today. He got access to Soviet sources, both documentary and human, that were off-limits to western historians until recently.

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[Bracketed]

Homer was “a living voice in firelight or in the open air, a living presence bringing into life his great company of imagined persons, a master performer at his ease, touching the strings, disposing of many voices, many tones and tempos, tragedy, comedy, and glory, holding his [listeners] in the palm of his hand.”

Today’s Writer’s Almanac says Robert Fitzgerald, who grew up in Springfield, Illinois, and became one of Homer’s great translators, said that. I love the quote (and Homer, too) of course, or I wouldn’t have quoted it.

But there’s a catch. There’s that bracketed word, [listeners]. You see the bracketed or parenthesized word in publications that are trying to make quotes clearer for readers; typically, an editor might come along and replace a pronoun (or nonspecific noun) with the person or thing to whom it refers: “Obama said he wasn’t worried by her lead in the polls” might become “Obama said he wasn’t worried by [Clinton’s] lead in the polls.” Or: “We never doubted we could beat them,” might become “We never doubted we could beat [the Cubs].”

Sometimes this is helpful. But some publications — like the San Francisco Chronicle — seem to have a mania for this kind of “clarifying.” Others, like The New York Times, appear to rely on a different method: making the context of the quote clear enough that the reader knows what the speaker is saying without the editor’s helping hand. I don’t think it’s a hard thing to do; it requires some thought, and it requires some trust in the reader’s intelligence.

Beyond the matter of whether the reader needs the editor’s guidance to get what the speaker is saying, there’s a serious issue here: journalists and scholars are under an obligation to use quotes accurately. They run the risk of interfering with a quote’s meaning and integrity when they substitute their own words for those of the speaker. (And yes, if the writer or editor must clarify a speaker’s meaning, there’s a tried and true way to do it without bastardizing a statement in quotation marks; it’s called paraphrasing.)

Let’s go back to the Writer’s Almanac quote from Fitzgerald. I’m looking at the phrase “holding his [listeners] in the palm of his hand” and trying to figure out what in the world [listeners] is standing in for. It can’t have been a pronoun — ”holding his he/she/it in the palm of his hand.” It’s unlikely to have been a derogatory term or inappropriate slang “holding his hoes and homeboys in the palm of his hand” (though who’s to say Homer didn’t do all that and more?). Maybe it was an ancient Greek or technical literary term that’s so far out there that we poor Writer’s Almanac readers would be stumped if we encountered it.

Thanks to the miracle of the Web, I was able to find the original Fitzgerald quote, which appears in “The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs & Selected Writings.” If you leaf through the portions of the book available online, you’ll find that Fitzgerald does indeed use plenty of phrases straight out of the Greek to illustrate his points. I don’t have a clue to what he’s saying because, among other handicaps, I don’t know the Greek alphabet. Homer this, Homer that — I need an editor’s help to get what Fitzgerald is on about.

Now, here’s the quote The Writer’s Almanac doctored:

“A living voice in firelight or in the open air, a living presence bringing into life his great company of imagined persons, a master performer at his ease, touching the strings, disposing of many voices, many tones and tempos, tragedy, comedy, and glory, holding his auditors in the palm of his hand: was Homer all of this? We can only suppose he was.”

First, and this has nothing to do with word substitution, there’s a real question here whether The Writer’s Almanac has misquoted Fitzgerald. His description of Homer is not a declaration — Homer was all these things — but a question: was he all these things? And it’s not a question he poses idly: He goes out of his way to say that if Homer is all he is imagined to be, the notion is “astonishing, and it is difficult to believe it.” But let’s skip a joy-killing consideration of using quotes in context and go on to the main event.

The horribly difficult and arcane word that needed to be excised in favor of [listeners] was “auditors.” As if readers would stumble on that and picture a crowd of IRS field agents with briefcases instead of an audience. One thing The Writer’s Almanac editors ought to keep in mind the next time they’re faced with a word they think is too hard: Their audience, by virtue of even looking at the site or newsletter, has declared itself literate and willing to do the brain work necessary to understand a few tough words — even ones that you wouldn’t find in “The Pet Goat.”

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Guest Observation

“… The U.S. military announced that a total of 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash on Memorial Day, making May [with 116 troops dead] the third deadliest month of the war [for the United States].” An Associated Press Iraq war roundup



“… Patroclus fought like dreaming:

His head thrown back, his mouth–wide as a shrieking mask–

Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind

And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,

To lock them round his waist, red water, washed against his chest,

To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.

–Is it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness?–

Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,

Cuts them back:

–Kill them!

My sweet Patroclus,

–Kill them!

As many as you can,

For

Coming behind you through the dust you felt

–What was it?–felt creation part, and then

APOLLO!

Who had been patient with you

Struck.

His hand came from the east,

And in his wrist lay all eternity;

And every atom of his mythic weight

Was poised between his fist and bent left leg.

Your eyes lurched out. Achilles’ helmet rang

Far and away beneath the cannon-bones of Trojan horses,

And you were footless … staggering … amazed …

Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself,

Dazed by the brilliance in your eyes,

The noise–like weirs heard far away–

Dabbling your astounded fingers

In the vomit on your chest.

And all the Trojans lay and stared at you;

Propped themselves up and stared at you;

Feeling themselves as blest as you felt cursed. …”

–From “War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad

By Christopher Logue, Copyright 1981

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