Count yourself lucky. You’ve just read a work that has taken nearly three thousand years to surface from the depths of cultural suppression. Score one point for the artistic freedom of all creative souls, one point against the self-appointed arbiters of “good taste” down through the ages.
In the heyday of Greek epic poetry, plundering the Oedipus story for one’s subject matter was evidently quite common. Before the manuscript of Homer’s Oedipus Aroused came to light, however, all we had were cryptic references here and there to these invariably salacious works, and two surviving lines—so dull I won’t bother to quote them here—from an anonymous Oidipodia. Had not Homer, already revered for his Iliad and Odyssey, put his hand to the same theme, this work too might have been lost to us. One can imagine many a censor, daunted by the name Homerus on the title page, putting off, one day at a time, the destruction of a manuscript which, had it come from any other poet, would have gone up in flames at once.
How the text of Oedipus Aroused came to us from ancient times is a subject I address at length in the Preface to my scholarly edition of the work (soon to be published, I trust, by a university press with balls enough to brave the bovine prejudices of the herd of establishment Classicists). But it’s a sufficiently interesting tale to warrant a summary retelling here.
Since the groundbreaking work of Milman Parry and others on poetic technique among Serbo-Croat bards of the present day, it has generally been conceded (though the theory is by no means universally embraced) that Homer’s works could have been delivered orally with no recourse to writing. But a few hundred years later, during the sixth century, when that band of reciters calling themselves the Homeridae claimed (according to Pindar’s scholiast) to recite Homer’s epic works by right of succession, the evidence is strong, albeit circumstantial, that they were in possession of manuscript versions which lent credence to their claims. A reference in Acusilaus of Argos, a chronicler coeval with the Homeridae, to the three great works of Homer is usually dismissed as a slip of the pen.
We now know better.
From the Homeridae in Ionia, one Hipparchus brought all three works to an obscure festival in Athens called the Panathenaea. There he coached the rhapsodes in the strict performance of them. The account related in the fourth century dialogue Hipparchus is suggestive in the extreme. From what we can piece together (the account seems deliberately to have been tampered with), Oedipus Aroused caused rioting in Athens. Here may well have begun the poem’s underground odyssey, beloved by the creative few (Shakespeare clearly among them), scorned and suppressed by the philistine many. In ancient literature, veiled allusions and even direct quotations proliferate from this point. A passage in the Song of Solomon, for example, is taken almost verbatim from Pleusidippus’ praise of Merope’s body in Book Twelve.
Obscure references to Oedipus Aroused crop up in the writings of such Homeric scholars as Theagenes of Rhegium, Stesimbrotus of Thasos, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus, but in what has been allowed to survive of their works, the references are fleeting at best.
Underground, however, the poem continued to flourish.
With the assiduity which characterized the conqueror youth, Alexander the Great brought a copy with him when he invaded Persia. Legend has it he stored his copy in an ornamented cylinder filched from the Persian treasury. It occupied an honored spot in the great Alexandrian library until, early in the third century, Zenodotus of Ephesus became head librarian and athetized (square-bracketed) the entire poem. Quietly removed, it bobbed once more on the undercurrents of culture.
Passed from scholar to scholar but jealously kept from the ken of the general populace, it lived on in the tantalizing allusions of Didymus, Herodian, Aristonicus, and Nicanor. Indeed, Nicanor’s On Punctuation quotes whole swatches of the tamer passages of Oedipus Aroused—without naming the work—to strengthen its arguments.
At this point, the Christian clergy—expert as always in the suppression of even the remotely suggestive, let alone the out-and-out erotic—clamped down hard on Homer’s third epic poem, expunging every reference to it they could find, while preserving the work itself painstakingly in the locked rooms of libraries everywhere. In particular, we owe its survival to two men: Arethas of Patrae, an enthusiastic collector and annotator of manuscripts, who served as archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia early in the tenth century; and Cardinal Bessarion, whose love for ancient manuscripts likewise gave us the earliest complete version of the Iliad.
There is one other brave churchman, I’ll call him Cardinal X, who some eight years ago entrusted to a young ingenuous Classics professor from America the Vatican copy of Oedipus Aroused. Long days and longer nights that awed scholar spent, oblivious to the myriad temptations of sunny Italy, copying page by page the sacred manuscript; every letter, every accent, every breathmark a precious imprint from the mind of that greatest of poets. Then our grateful academician spirited the manuscript back to the good cardinal, and to America he flew with the illicit copy he had made, ready to bend his whole being to its translation. He shrouded himself in a gauzy secrecy that put paid to his career—a sharp drop in publication leads inevitably to the swift termination of the untenured—but would, he knew, one day redeem an hundredfold his good name when the translation broke into print.
The community of Classical scholars worldwide, while it pretends to be oh-so-cosmopolitan, is, by and large, quite provincial. They have their little niches, their cozy nooks by the fire, where they close their musty minds around the Great Books and bask in reflected glory.
Scoffers and doubters abound, to be sure, in all ages, but never in such numbers as now. And they are aided and abetted by the centuries-old conspiracy of suppression surrounding this particular work.
Their bitching and moaning have already begun. Cries of fraud now muffled inside the covers of dry philological journals no one ever opens—not even the authors’ mothers make it past the stultification of the Table of Contents, right, Mom?—will doubtless spill shamelessly onto the pages of the popular press once the reading public takes this work to its collective bosom and gives it suck.
So let me rehash their specious arguments against Homer’s authorship and then summarize the incontrovertible facts on the other side. I have no illusions, mind, that doing so will have the slightest dampening effect on these unworthy scholars’ attacks; but those who give ear to my detractors and then turn to this Afterword will see for themselves that the calm beacon of truth burns brightest in my words.
To begin with, they raise the issue of anachronism. Even in Homer’s day, they say, let alone the time he was writing about, the Delphic oracle was given only once a year; it wasn’t until the sixth century that monthly sessions began. My reply: Big fucking deal, assholes! That once-a-year happened to fall on the seventh day of Bysios, so you can just eat my weenie!
Moreover, in Pleusidippus’ extensive castigation of the oracles in Books Four and Seven, he mentions several which weren’t established until centuries later: Claros, Argos, and the Sybil at Cumae in particular are cited again and again. Well of course, any first-grader in this day and age knows we’re talking eighth century for the Sybil, third century or later for the other two. Hey, so there was a little interpolation here and there by some over-enthusiastic scribes. Same damn thing happened with the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad, but I don’t hear anybody raising a big stink about that, do you?
Ah, they say, but Homer’s two other epics have come down to us in twenty-four books. Why does this one have twenty-five? And people wonder why I’m so thrilled to be free of academia! In my scholarly edition, I devote three appendices and over two hundred footnotes to an exhaustive analysis of the work’s structure. In a nutshell, it helps to picture Book Thirteen as the vertex of a V, books rising backward along its left leg, frontward along its right. Books at the same level on the V share things in common: tonality, deployment of characters, thematic concerns, mirroring actions, and so forth. At the heart of the work—at the very tip of the V—we find Oedipus’ dream, the turning point (a crux in flux, if you will) in his feelings toward his parents. For further details, my critics will just have to fork over their ill-gotten earnings for the scholarly edition, for which I hope my university press publisher, once I select one from the deluge of offers which should at any moment inundate my desk, will charge an arm and a leg; if they charge a prick or even the tiniest part of a testicle, most of my so-called male detractors will have to be content with a squinty-eyed look at a library copy.
Finally, the most absurd objection put forward is the argument from decorum. How, they ask, never staying for an answer, could the sublime Homer stoop so low as to treat of such indecorous subjects? How could he use such consistently vile and vulgar language, demeaning to men and women alike? Bite my belly, say I. Poor old fart wanted to let his hair down at the end of his life, have a bit of fun. Where’s the harm in that?
What then have I to offer in support of Homer’s authorship? Only countless years of the most painstaking textual studies, comparing in every conceivable way the known works of Homer with this work. The details can be found in Appendix Q of my forthcoming scholarly edition, but I summarize the essence of the argument here.
I have relied heavily on the methodology set down in R. Merkelbach, Studien zur Textgeschichte und Textkritik (Koln und Opladen, 1959). Comparing the Iliad and the Odyssey with Oedipus Aroused, I find these demonstrable similarities in meter and prosody between the three works:
—Patterns for the observance and neglect of the digamma are virtually identical.
—Metrical lengthening occurs only in the final arsis, never in the first-foot thesis. In this respect, Oedipus Aroused is more Homeric than the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
—The synizesis of certain neuter plural nouns occurs typically at the end of the verse. Moreover (and this, I believe, caps the argument), the synizesis of a monosyllable coming before the bucolic diaeresis is extremely rare in all three poems.
Had I been allowed in this edition to publish the Greek text facing the English translation, these points would have leaped out at the common reader without the necessity of my enumerating them here. Suffice it to say that my position, based as it is on exhaustive textual scrutiny and just plain common sense, is unassailable.
The title in the ancient Greek is Οἰδίπους Οργίλος—transliterated as Oidipous Orgilos. Astute readers will recognize in that second word the root of our modern orgy. The Greek word implies high passion of any sort, but particularly excessive rage or lust. Aroused, I think, captures nicely that duality of meaning.
The etymology of the name Oidipous is disputed. All are pretty much in agreement that the first two syllables mean swollen. The third syllable is variously rendered as leg, limb, or foot. Thus, Oedipus is he whose feet were pierced in babyhood, which caused them to swell up. But Homer’s extension into limb qua prick makes eminently more sense. Let me also observe that our word pussy is derived from precisely the same root. In Oedipus Aroused, Homer rings changes on the prick-and-pussy echoes, changes impossible to do more than suggest in a translation.
Also impossible to capture has been the full erotic flavor of the original, especially the five books which constitute the long night of love. Reading the Homeric manuscript, I freely admit I had to “stop and get ahold of myself” quite often. Many other readers of the work in the original Greek, male and female alike, have confessed to me, usually after an ouzo or two, that they too needed to “stop and get ahold of themselves” after reading this or that part of the manuscript.
I have done my best to render Homer’s words in a contemporary idiom. I have tried—with what degree of success you may judge—to bring out the full range of feeling and expression in the original. Now that it comes before the reading public, I urge my adversaries in the academy to take this brainchild of Homer to your hearts; let the Fitzgeralds, the Lattimores, the Fagels among you, in every land and clime, come forward and bestow upon the world new translations. You will find me a reasonable man, one quick to forgive the grievous wrongs inflicted upon me in years past, the humiliations I have been made to suffer at professional gatherings, the looks of scorn and rejection that will burn forever in my brain, God damn your motherfucking souls to hell!
It has come to my attention that my publisher may try to market this book as a novel, preferring to get into bed with my collegial enemies rather than take up the cudgel of truth against them. When I bring up this concern, my editor laughs it off as just another paranoid fear from one who lies in the dust, still smarting from his academic disgrace. Both these gentlefucks couch it in nicer terms, but I can tell what they’re thinking.
While paying them a surprise visit recently, I passed on my way into the building a dead-ringer for myself, even down to the length, color, and cut of his beard. Should my book garner sufficient attention, I would not put it past them to hire this Thespian double to do the whole publicity bit in my behalf, admitting quite openly that Oedipus Aroused is only an egotistical young American’s first novel pretending to be a suppressed erotic epic by Homer.
Don’t fall for that, please. It has never been true; it’s not true now; it won’t be true then. And if mine enemies dare to kidnap me, be assured I will eventually return and reveal all. I will unearth my double and expose him for the fraud he is. I will bring suit against my oppressors. I will preach to the end of my days the authenticity of the work you hold in your hands.
And someday, somehow, I will publish the scholarly edition, with full critical apparatus, mentioned above. This I pledge to you, my faithful reader, by the sacred solemnity of that bond which prevails between all writers and their readers throughout all space and time for ever and ever.
A work of this magnitude is seldom a solitary effort, but in this case it was. I got not a scrap of help from anyone, though I asked politely for it. Librarians spat on me, former colleagues returned my mail unopened, all three of my wives left me (on the same day!).
It’s customary in an Acknowledgements section to pin your book’s many faults on your own hide while extolling to the heavens those who’ve helped you for any virtues your masterpiece might possess. Bullshit! I’ve taken all the blame I’m going to take for this book and now I’m ready for a pat on the back from every one of you out there. It was damned hard work, I’m a cultural hero, and I deserve a medal and a million bucks. Tell you what: Fork over the dough and you can keep your fucking medal.
One thing more: You show me you’re on my side by buying the hell out of Oedipus Aroused, and I’ll do my best to track down Queen Merope’s Daughters, the sequel Homer hints at in the closing verses—a work, alas, completely unknown to my sources. Yet I have a lead—the vaguest hint of one—in the private journals of Demetrius Damilas, the fifteenth century Florentine printer who brought out the first printed editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The money, that’s all I ask, just the money, and I’ll pursue that lead to the ends of the earth.
Robert C. Devereaux, Ph.D.
Iowa City, Iowa
September 11, 1987
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