‘The mighty dead’- or how to write a great piece of academic scholarship

The mighty dead. Why Homer matters‘ by Adam Nicolson (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015): To start with, I am not sure this book was imagined as an academic book, or if its author would describe it as such, but regardless it’s a damn good example of one. I’ve read this book over the span of the last 6 months, and every time I’ve stumbled upon a new chapter or paragraph the above rang true.

In short, this book, longlisted in 2014 for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, aims at understanding the world and values of the Iliad and Odysey, by bringing together archaeological evidence, personal experiences, lines in the poems and the history of the scholarship on the topic. Thus, anything can trigger an account down/up memory lane (as the narrative bounces back and forth from the third millenium BC, through the Mycaenean world, from the 8th century to the 21st)- a display case in Athens Museum or in Bodrum, a line of Homer’s, an evening in the Balkans or out at sea. Networks and entanglements are two of the catchy phrases of contemporary academia, but it is only in works like this where you see them brought to life in an organic manner- Homer blooming under ones eyes, entangled in the world of archaeology, literary scholarship or ontological choices:

“Homer loomed up again at another Magny dinner the following October. They were talking about God, whether God was definable or even knowable.[…]These conversations seem as distant as the Bronze Age. Where now is our violence on behalf of a poet? Who feels this much about Homer? The Goncourts, with their scepticism and their modernism, their contempt for antiquity, have won the day.[..] Everyone has heard of Homer,probably of the two poems,and many have read some passages; but no one today ends up shouting at dinner about him.[…] Why should they? The place of Homer in our culture has largely withered away.[…] He is not a friend,a lover or a wife; far more an underlayer than that, a form of reassurance that in the end there is some kind of understanding in the world. […] That quality does not exist in some floating metaphysical outer space. It is precisely in the words he uses, and it is on that level that something like ‘the unharvestable sea’ is a beautiful expression. It is the twin and opposite of another…formulaic phrases, ‘the grain-giving earth’. And why is it beautiful? Because it encapsulates the sensation of standing on a beach and looking out at the breaking surf, and seeing in it the unforgiving brutality of the salt desert before you. Everything you are not stares back at what you are.” (Nicolson 2015)

In one place, Nicolson uses DNA analysis to link it to Bronze age trade, and the creation of a new type of city-states societies, of which Troy was an example, while “further north [..] a cluster of economic, social, military and psychological changes came about in a wide swathe of country which stretched from the steppelands around the Caspian Sea through the Balkans and on into northern Europe. These changes created the civilisation of which Achilles is the symbol: not a city world, but a warriour elite [..] a fascination with weaponry, speed and violence” (Nicolson 2015, 117). In another paragraph, decorative patterns on a ritual cup from the Athens Museum become symbols of the “meeting, engaging, twisting, intertwisting and emerging” that mark the Mycenaean culture in all its aspects.

For me, Nicolson has found a great “recipe” for linking the material evidence brought to light through archaeological investigations to the values that transcend these materialities. Of course we can agree or not with his interpretations, but the method in itself, along his goal of showing why Homer and the dead matter to our contemporary times, offer an inspiring story.

Featured image source.

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