Afterthoughts: Reality and Allegory; Place and Text; History and Myth.
J.G.A. Pocock, returning from Trapani, July 1990.
It was a moving experience to attend a conference held so largely in my father’s memory.
I came to think of it as a kind of intellectual ludi di Enea. with L.G. Pocock in the role of pater Anchises: but I could not claim the role of pius Aeneas for myself, since he was the organiser of his father’s funerary games and that burden has been borne this time by Nina, Nat, Stanley and many others. Furthermore, L.G. was a classical scholar and I am an early-modern historian. There were not many classical scholars present at the conference, and we were for the most part an assembly of Sicilian poets and American translators. This leaves something which may still be said about the thesis of “the Sicilian origin of the Odvssev”. as it was put forward by Samuel Butler, L.G. Pocock and Vincenzo Barrabini, and as it may today be received at Trapani.
I owe to one of the poets who read at Selinunte the perception that the Pococks-i Pochi Occhi-are an ancient family of Cyclopean origin, with Nemo me impune lacessit for their mottc. A little less blinkered, however, than poor old Polyphemus. Two eyes may be few, but they are many more than one; they allow us to see that there are three dimensions and two sides to every question. I want to suggest that there are two ways of looking at the possibility that the Odvssev is a Trapanese poem: through the gate of ivory and the gate of horn, with the eye of the poet and the eye of the historian; and this is why this paragraph starts with a mild literary joke and moves towards questions of archaeological and textual verification.
At the end of our second day of discussions at the Libera University del Mediterraneo, Franco De Marco, presiding, raised a crucial question. He asked whether we should treat the Sicilian origin of the Odvssev as a serious historical hypothesis or as an imaginative myth for Sicilian poets, and asked all those who rejected the first alternative to stand up. I believe that only three did so, but there may have been others present who held this view and did not express
t (to say nothing of Giovanni Diecidue, who let it be known that he disapproved of voting on principle). What needs to be emphasised is that my father’s three books on the Qdyssey are filled with denunciations of those he called Tairylanders’-those who hold that the poem is a display of pure fantasy, in which no historical reality can possibly be detected-and that if he had been present and had thought it the sense of the meeting that the Odyssey is an exercise in poetic imagination and nothing else, he would have risen and stamped out of the room. He was a master of the dramatic exit, as is remembered in the history of his university’. I was therefore
relieved when the vote taken by Franco De Marco ended as it did.
The original contention put forward by Butler and followed by Pocock and Barrabini, is that the Odvssev describes real places, which may be seen about Trapani, and links them together in its descriptions of Scheria and Ithaca in ways which provide clues to the poem s structure, authorship and character. Not all of these places can still be visited. It is possible to see the reefs of Punta Ligny and Malconsiglio-which are identified with the Phaeacian ships turned to stone by Poseidon and are situated where they lie in the poem-either from the Torre di Ligny or from a ship on the way to Levanzo, from which you may also see the island and reef of Formica, interpreted as the Asteris of the poem where the Suitors in their galleys lay in wait for Telemachus. But it seems no longer practicable to visit the bay of San Cusumano, where Butler spent much time in 1892 and my father and I in 19522. The importance of this topos is that Butler took it to have been depicted in the Odyssey as the harbour of Rheithron, where Odysseus swims ashore and meets Nausicaa, situated at the right distance from Trapani to fit the
1W.J. Gardner, E.T. Beardsley, and T.E. Carter: A History of the University nf Canterbury. 1873-1973 (Christchurch, New Zealand, 1973), p. 371.
2Samuel Butler, Ihe Authoress of the Odvssev (English ed., 1922), pp. 167-70. L.G. Pocock’ The Sicilian Origin of the Odvssey (ed. and trans. Scammacca, 1985), pp. 45-49, where the caves help to establish San Cusumano as “the harbour of Phorcys” and Odysseus’s landing on Ithaca.
description of Odysseus’s journey to the house of Alcinous; though the situation is further
complicated by Butler’s conviction-which my father subsequently abandoned-that a cave is the cliff-face there might have been described as the cavern of Polyphemus. It was the identification of San Cusumano with Rheithron which was crucial, in the same way as the view beyond Formica of the Isole Egadi fitting the poem’s description of Ithaca and its sister islands better than the historic Ithaca and its group can be made to do. All these places identifiable with texts from the Odvssev fitted together like pieces in a puzzle to convince Butler and Pocock that Trapani and its landscapes formed a theatrical mise-en-sc6ne for key events in the poem. But apparently one can no longer explore San Cusumano. The cave and the cliff-face were enclosed by a steel mesh fence when I returned in 1957; and according to Vincenzo Barrabini in his second (and posthumous) book L’Odissea a Trapani, the outfall of a river, necessary to the identification of San Cusumano with Rheithron, was destroyed by the construction of a salina after Butler’s visit and then by its demolition. After that the terrain was further altered by floods in 1965 and 1976, and when Barrabini finished his book in 1977 it was about to be concreted over in a development project3. One of the most significant of the places seen with the eye by Butler and Pocock, and then read in the text of the Odvssev. can therefore be seen no longer.
This is important if unlucky in considering the question how far “the Sicilian origin of the Odvssev” is a proposition in history as well as in poetry, it must constantly be remembered that Butler, Pocock and Barrabini-whose two books on the Odvssev4 rank him beside my father as an expositor of Butler-all believed that they were treading upon reality and had found something. It is tempting but misleading to compare them with Schliemann. He took the poems
3L’Odissea a Trapani, a cura di Vincenzo Barrabini (Trapani, luglio 1980), pp. 25-30, The best photographs of San Cusumano are in L’Odissea Rivelata. plates 9, 19
4L’Odissea Rivelata (Palermo, n.d., but 1968); L’Odissea a Trapani, already cited.
of Homer and Aeschylus to be history, and claimed that he had excavated the walls of Troy and the tomb of Agamemmon; but they claimed to have found not Odysseus but the Odvssev-to have established that the poem was written at Trapani, used Trapanese topography, and was inspired by Trapanese experience. The places to be found in the poem locate the author and the process of composition; the question of the author’s gender cannot be brought into the same critical focus. The Trapanese school-to group our three scholars under that name–were convinced of reality; the poem described places that were real, and itself was really written among them. Their intellects formed in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, Butler, Pocock and Barrabini were moderns, not postmoderns; they believed in the possibility of discovery, not merely of interpretation. By reading, they could find; and finding was more than reading.
Since the American scholars who spoke at the conference were translators, they were attuned to the idea that a text (like that of the Odvssev) is essentially a text, articulating and subverting itself and giving rise to new imaginative possibilities which are to be read as if they were (as they frequently become) texts in themselves. This is a deeply important insight, but once it becomes dogma the world itself becomes a text, and there can only be interpretation, never discovery; “our islands lost again, all earth one island, and all our travel circumnavigation”. Here the postmodern consciousness collides with the modern, in which discoveries can be made and there are islands to be found. My father (who probably never heard of postmodernism) was well aware of this opposition, and prefixed to Reality and Alleoorv in the Qdvssey the following passage from a nineteenth-century dialogue between the Owl and the Pussycat5.
5He gives the source as “Froude, Short Studies: The Cat’s Pilgrimage.” J.A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects; First Series (London, 1915), vol. 1, p. 639. The Owl adds: “The beauty of the question is that its solution is impossible.”
“Find out!” said the Owl. “We can never find out! What would become of all our delightful reasonings, O unwise Cat, if we were so unhappy as to know?”
He thought he knew, and had found out, that the Odvssev was written at Trapani and depicted its landscape; this was the reality on which he based his further claim that the poem contained an allegory of Elymian, Sican and Phoenician relationships. That the poem contained this allegory was for him a reality. He would be absolutely opposed to the claim that it can only be imagined that the poem was written at Trapani; and it was on this point that I intervened in the discussion promoted by Franco De Marco, to suggest that he would have invited us to use our own eyes, to read the text of the Odvssev. look at the landscapes of Trapani, and see that the two fitted together. He would have repudiated-to use no stronger word-any suggestion that to fit words and places together is an act of fantasy or mythopoeic imagination. Yet Mario Gallo6, after giving a very moving account of Vincenzo Barrabini-who lived at Trapani for many years, walking over its landscape and making Odyssean identifications –concludes by professing his own inability to settle the question and proposing that the Trapanese origin is chiefly valuable as a means of stimulating young people’s awareness of their landscape and environment, which they may yet save from the spoliation and pollution which Barrabini foresaw overtaking San Cusumano. Here we have the poetic imagination active in promoting a Western Sicilian awareness of the regional self; part at least, one supposes, of the message of the Antigruppo.
The poet’s vision is as valid as the historian’s; we have two eyes, two ways of seeing, and must use them both. But the question raised by both Gallo and De Marco is whether we are obliged to use one becausethe other is weak: to treat the Trapanese origin of the Odvssev as a myth because it is too difficult to test it as a hypothesis. The historian’s eye questions its own vision; the poet’s eye challenges itself differently. The problem we now encounter is that the
eye’s identification of place with text-the affirmation “yes, this place is described in the Qdyssev”-is not independently verifiable. It can convince and satisfy; it can be communicated, and convince others, by means of eloquent speech. But it is the fate of the scholar who believes he has proved something in one way to find himself instantly faced with the demand to prove it in another, and the eye’s certainty that text describes place does not contain, and we may not be able to find elsewhere, the means of corroborating or falsifying itself; it may be not a hypothesis so much as a conviction. Butler, Pocock and Barrabini sometimes found themselves-like witnesses at an identity parade-reduced to affirming that they had seen what they had seen, and challenging others to look for themselves. A place is not a text, though it can sometimes be reduced to one; because it does not consist of images and propositions, it deflects our attempts to construct images and propositions which render its meanings finite. The temple at Segesta is one of the great silent holy places of the world: a topos and temenos where history and present fall silent as soon as we step within the pillars and can hear only the sound of the birds in the marble. Because it was made with hands, it can remain silent in face of our attempts to understand why it was made at all, and there are not many texts which offer to tell us. Malconsiglio and Punta Ligny were not made with hands, but there is one of the great texts of the world which we are attempting to say was made among them.
If we cannot find alternative texts or contexts which enable us to say that the identifications of Trapanese places with Odyssean texts have been confirmed or refuted, strengthened or weakened, to affirm these identifications may be an act of imagination, a making of myths; we may havelo leave the poets to affirm the myths. But we ought not to say, on these grounds alone, that the Trapanese origin can only be a myth and can never be a hypothesis; we should continue the search for means of testing it as a hypothesis. On the facade of the Palazzo Riccio in historic Trapani, I read a number of bombastic inscriptions proclaiming the glories of Italia Una. One of them includes the words “DOVE NON E STORIA NON E POPOLO”, and leads to
much harmful nonsense, with a Futuristic and proto-Fascist flavour to it, about the sort of history the people should believe in; but the words quoted are true all the same. A people cannot be a people unless it can discuss its own character, and it cannot do this unless it believes that it has a past, can make statements about it, and can discuss whether these statements are true or false, verifiable or non-verifiable, hypotheses or myths. I am not impertinently lecturing my Sicilian friends, but speaking out of the experience of my own island people, which is finding survival and self respect none too easy. If we are not to be helpless one-eyed Cyclopes, constantly robbed and injured by raiders whose names we do not even know, we need the two eyes of history and poetry, and we need to know other people’s history as well as our own. We need to frame hypotheses about our past, saying that this or that really happened, and we need means of testing these hypotheses. The means may not be final, and the truth of the hypothesis may have to remain an open question; but we can discuss how far this too is the case. Merely to reduce history to myth is to weaken the force of myth itself. Both are excellent ways of stating and criticising our own being; but we need them both.
The poets should go on imagining that the Odvssev may have been written at Trapani, and imagining what it would mean if it was; the scholars should go on looking for ways of testing the hypotheses that it could have been, and even that it was. (To find out that it couldn’t, or that it wasn’t, is a risk one takes in committing oneself to self-knowledge.) This seems to mean looking for ways of validating or invalidating interpretations of the text, and this in turn may mean finding out as much as one can about the Elymi-those partly Greek people who did great Greek things but seem to have preferred the rule of Carthage to that of Syracuse. They built Segesta; could they have produced the Odvssev? (Both may have been jokes.) Did they speak a Greek in which the poem could have been written, at a time when it could have taken shape and made its way along the sea-routes of the ancient world? Are there other texts or artefacts which may come to light and tell us things about the relations of the Elymi to the Odvssev?
These are questions to which we need to go on looking for answers even if we cannot immediately find them. The Owl in the quotation has given up looking. He risks being left like Polyphemus, complaining that he has been robbed by someone whose real name he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t know the right way of asking it.
So there are history and poetry. Epic, not history, was the ancient world’s way of creating and remembering a past; but we know how to read history into epic. With this bifocal vision we can see that the parting of the heroes on the way home from Troy becomes a moment of great symbolic importance in Hellenic history. Agamemnon sailed for Mycenae, got home quickly but was murdered on arrival, becoming the sacrificial victim at the foundation of the three greatest intellectual pursuits of classical Western man: tragedy, because the complexities of blood-guilt drove Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra to actions they would rather not have taken; politics, because the blood-guilt of Orestes could be resolved only by the judgement of the polis, at the cost of excluding women from public life; and philosophy, because the Eumenides remained beneath the city, and after another expedition to Sicily it was decided that the heroes really must reflect on the inwardness of what they were doing. (At Reggio, the Philosopher of Portinello has risen from the seabed to take his place beside the heroes of Riace.) “But Odysseus rounded Cape Malea and vanished into the west, escaping tragedy, politics and philosophy into a world of heroic comedy where he outwitted men, women, gods and monsters by his many-mindedness. Without being at all diminished, he became a marginal figure whom the mainstreams of Western thought have always sought to recapture: Dante, Tennyson and Kazantsakis by depicting him as tragic hero, the playwrights of Margaret Jones’s paper? by depicting him as alienated modern, unable to sustain his heroic double tongue in a world where the public person is separated from the private and the reflective life from the active. But it
may be better strategy to imagine him continuing his adventures, never to be captured or pinned down8 because he exists on the margins of history or in the marginal history of the mixed peoples of the distant west. Sicilians, who live on the margins of history and have never commanded their own, know something about many-mindedness, the double vision and the double tongue; how can it be an accident that Santo Call lived in the town of Linguaglossa? Perhaps James Joyce, inhabitant of another mixed and marginal island, understood too. But the danger of living on the margins is that history is imposed on you by others, and the many-mindedness of the hero may become the many-mindedness of the clever slave. I sometimes think that postmodernism is a slave ideology; as we lose control of our lives we are offered an infinite capacity to interpret what is done to us by others, to give Outis as many names as we like. Therefore myth is not enough, and the marginal peoples (we are all marginal now) must find ways of writing their own history; precisely because myth will persist whether they do this or not, it is an invaluable resource for converting back into history.
I could argue that, though he did not know he was doing this, my father’s thesis that the Odvssev is an allegory founded in reality offers Sicilians a means of interpreting their history on the margins of so many empires, through the double vision of scienza and fantasia. They can read the text and look at the places (as many of these as survive). After that the poets will develop the mythic significance of supposing that the poem may have been written here; the historians and archaeologists will continue to look for means of deciding whether it was or not. They may find that it could not have been; they may never find a way of testing the hypothesis. One runs these risks when one undertakes a historical enquiry; the point is that one should run them. Odysseus is not just voyaging on, into distant seas of legend and the unknown; he is at the same time on his way home to Ithaca, if he can find it. The Phaeacians may be able to help.
8For an earlier development of this perception, see Pocock, “Machiavelli in the Liberal Cosmos”, Political Theory. XIII, 4 (1985), pp. 559-74.