“We don’t read great books. They read us.” George Steiner
Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante, and other great authors matter because their great works serve as magic carpets that transport us back in time to the plains of ancient Troy or the royal palace in Thebes, of course, but also enable us to embark on our own journey of self-discovery.
This is what Adam Nicolson has in mind when citing a passage from one of George Seferis’ poems and what he had said about man’s relationship to the past. “‘The poem is everywhere,” he wrote. ‘Our own imaginative life
sometimes travels beside it
Like a dolphin keeping company for a while
With a golden sloop in the sunlight, then vanishing again.’
‘This glowing, if passing, connection is also what this book is about, the moment when the dolphin is alongside you, unsummoned and as transient,’ as Seferis also said,
‘as the wings of the wind moved by the wind.'”
Great works can indeed nourish our imaginative life. They have certainly nourished mine. Aided by several years of studying the Greek language in college, with the invaluable assistance 0f a Greek/English dictionary provided by Oxford University, I managed to work my way through Homer’s Iliad and about half of his Odyssey. That was years ago. During a recent holiday break, I re-read Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, each accompanied by an introduction by one of my graduate school professors, Bernard Know. Homer really does matter to me, perhaps for reasons that differ (at least somewhat) from those that Nicolson has.
His book is a joy to read. He invites his reader to climb aboard a magic carpet so that he can accompany Nicolson on a shared journey through a dozen lively and eloquent encounters various dimensions of Homer’s own imaginative life. Consider these brief excerpts that are (albeit taken out of context) representative of the thrust and flavor of Nicolson’s perspectives:
o On Odysseus: “He is no victim. He suffers, but he does not buckle. His virtue is his elasticity, his rubber vigor. If he is pushed, he bends, but he bends back, and that half-giving strength was to me a beautiful model fo0r a man.” (Page 9)
o On Glaucus for whom “all life goes back into the earth and returns again. Earth’s abundance and indifference are the same thing. But this resolved simplicity in the face of death, a philosophical calm and a knowledge that the armies of men gathered on the Trojan plain are ‘as many as the leaves and flowers that appear in the spring’ — that is not the usual Homeric attitude…impermanence is life’s central sorrow and the source of its most lasting pain.” (101)
o With Hector’s death “the city’s fabric is irreparably torn. Hector’s mother casts aside her ‘shining veil.’ [His wife Andromache] i9s weaving a cloth in the inner room of her high house…[and later] sees Hector’s body dragged around the city walls, his head in the dirt, Achilles triumphant. She collapses, ‘grasping the life breath out of her,’ while the woven things fall from her…The woven and the severed; the heart of Homer’s meaning.” (202-203)
o On Odyssey again, “an unblinking fraud who in the passing of a smile will slip from deceit to the defense of honor and back again. At his most soothingly and persuasively elegant, his words fall ‘like winter snowflakes.’ But he is no weakling…dapple skilled, with so much woven into him that he shimmers and flickers like an embroidered cloth.” (224)
This is one of few books I have read in recent years that, as I approached the last chapter, I felt a sense of imminent sadness that this “magic carpet journey of mine” would soon end. As for Adam Nicolson’s concluding remarks, he suggests that Homer provides no answers. “Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to those questions; he merely dramatizes their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.”