Homer erectus

A leaf from the Ambrosian Iliad, the only illustrated manuscript of the Iliad, dating from the 5th century AD, now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan

Imagine living in a literary world where every book you’ve ever read was written by an uncertain, unknown, anonymous author. Where nothing is known about the author except what can be gleaned from the text itself. And with the exception of vigorously autobiographical works, you wouldn’t be able to get much headway into figuring out who the writer was. We’ve experienced a little bit what this world would look like with the books of Emile Ajar, a long undisclosed pseudonym of the French novelist Romain Gary (who also became the first to win the famous Goncourt Prize for two books written under two different names), or Elena Ferrante, whose identity still eludes critics and readers alike. But whether genuine or pseudonymous authorship, we still expect that books should be ascribed to named authors. The idea of reading anonymous works is almost unbearable to our modern sensibilities. ‘I read a remarkable novel this month’. ‘Who by?’. ‘I don’t know’. Just think about it.

But things have not always been this way. The premodern reader was far more comfortable reading works which couldn’t be ascribed to a named individual. For centuries, books had circulated under cover of authorial darkness, with only a title, if even that, to identify them. And, as far as scholars can tell, there was no reader anxiety around the idea that narratives could float around without authorial heads.

Beowulf is a remarkable poem whose authorship remains unidentified. That didn’t seem to bother anyone, as far as we know, who engaged with the work until modern scholarship got its hands on it. But I suspect any publisher nowadays would sell their mother to put out a book demonstrating beyond doubt that the 11th century poem (and the jury’s still out on when the poem was composed) was written, and not merely copied in the only manuscript it survives in, by an identifiable individual.

And consider Homer. For centuries scholars have argued in favour of every possibility with regard to the Iliad and the Odyssey‘s authorship. Were the poems written by a single man, by two, or by a woman? Was Homer a historical individual or a nom de plume? The Homeric question rages on, though there is some agreement that the two poems couldn’t have been written by the same individual, and that Homer is a literary construct, almost like a code. Many scholars, I suspect, would wish to move away from the Homeric ascription altogether and release the poems into the anonymous domain. This goes against the grain of the modern paradigm, which cannot tolerate an anonymous poem, regardless of what the scholarship points to.

So we uphold the idea of a single Homer, an author like all other authors, man or woman, who one day decided to lay down the 27,000 lines that make up the Iliad and the Odyssey and create one of the most complex and enduring works of literature ever written. An author, standing on two feet, reed in hand, speaking to us across millenia, faraway and yet so close.

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