M.L. West, Cementing a Legacy

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, by JMW Turner

M.L.West, Cementing a Legacy

M.L. West, ed., Homerus Odyssea, Berlin/Boston, Walter de Gruyter, 2017, Pp. LXII, 519

One hundred and fifty years ago, German academics were strides ahead of their non-Teutonic, classicist peers. Since then, a text-critical revolution has occurred: a select few men and women adapted and improved German classical implements for the betterment of classical studies as a whole. The distribution of good judgment in the editing of ancient Greek and Latin texts has now has been equalized, and to good effect

This edition of “Homer’s” Odyssey supersedes P. von der Mühll, Homeri Odyssea (Teubner, 1984), and is the culmination of five decades of academic study of Greek epic by West. The critical text exhibits all the scientific principles set forth in previous editions of Greek texts edited by him. Scholarly debts are repaid by him to several competent scholars (XXV). By June of 2015 the book was in effect finished (XXVI). Dr. Stephanie West, a distinguished classicist in her own right, tells readers that M.L. West (1937-2015), her husband, died before he could put the finishing touches to the final pages (XXVI). So the task fell to her. She is to be commended for her efforts.

The volume is characteristic of editions of Bibliotheca Teubneriana: there is an overgenerous amount of reference material. The data incorporated necessitate their study, not by laypersons, but by advanced pupils and scholars. As a publication it is a praiseworthy achievement. The red hardback is firm and sturdy. The Greek text is printed in a beautiful font. The darker shade makes it look as if the letters were slightly bold-faced. The prefatory material is in Latin. Sections are concise. West’s Latin is clear but direct: words are not wasted. There is an Index Nominum at the end of the book.

The Iliad covers an event (c. 1200 BC) in the last year of the siege and fall of Troy. The Odyssey chronicles Odysseus’ vicissitudes and trials in his return home after fighting in that war. The battles described in the Iliad were fierce and vividly depicted. Odysseus’ decade-long journey home was told with no less verve, too, by Homer. Some children in ancient times learned their Greek and acquired knowledge of the gods by reading these two books. For centuries, each was regarded as a foundational text of the literature of Western civilization. Homer at one time was esteemed a model-poet, beloved by all who could grasp his Archaic Greek.

M.L. West comprehended Homer’s turn of phrases very well. A wide-ranging Hellenic scholar, he possessed first-rate analytical gifts, and also displayed capabilities for examining near-eastern texts (see his books The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry, Oxford, 1997 and Old Avestan Syntax and Stylistics, De Gruyter, 2011); but he was not a Unitarian in his beliefs about the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His outlook tended toward skepticism. As a result, he argued forcefully and vigorously to that end through the ensuing years, often depreciating the value of competing opinions. In his writings and lectures he bravely engaged in polemic: at times his attitude was dismissive toward adverse judgments on his findings.

I have one cavil in regard to this series of critical texts: as usual in Teubner editions, the prefatory material is slight. There is much about MSS. Preliminary researches of editors usually had been published in classical journals or other publications. But there is no reason why a brief historical assessment of scholarship on the Odyssey in past centuries could not have been included. West’s views were summed up a few years ago. For his authoritative reconstruction of matters related to the Odyssey’s composition, he refers readers on page VII to his volume The Making of the Odyssey (Oxford, 2014), a book whose negative features are many, despite the many astute philological comments included therein.

Authoritativeness is a term that is easier to define than it is to apply in philological discussions. What is it precisely that lends authoritativeness to a view? Most scholars would claim that a consensus gives force to original claims; but West showed little regard for the former while offering his own versions of the latter. He held tenaciously to the heterodox view that Hesiod’s texts were older than Homeric literature. For the most part he hung unaided and alone from that belief’s precipice.

No such figure as Homer really existed in West’s later scholarship (see his paper, ‘The Invention of Homer’ in Hellenica I, Oxford, 2011). Literary differences in style, vocabulary and idiom took him further down a skeptical road which ended with him noting the presence of far too many editorial intrusions for one poet to be able to have written both epics. Reams of paper were used by him to advance arguments that were difficult to rebut. Even still, I recur to G.E. Dimock (1917-2000), former Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Smith College. In his appraisal, recorded in the Loeb edition he edited, he wrote:

“Whether the same poet produced the Iliad and Odyssey remains a disputed question. Separate authorship for the Odyssey has by no means been proved, however, and until it is we would do well to follow the practice of the centuries and think of a single poet named Homer as the author of both epics”. See Homer Odyssey, (Harvard, 1998), 2.

West’s text shows all the originality we had come to expect from him, often innovating on points of orthography (XVII-XXV). The standards that governed his modification of ancient Greek word-forms were mastered only by him: e.g., so West= “‘σπέεσι’ verum est, non ‘σπέσσι’”, (p. XXIV). Reasons for such changes are not clear always. Moreover, conjectures advanced by him on a wide variety of Greek texts buttressed his theories of scribal alterations in the text he examined and collated. Numerous conjectures were unneeded, although they pinpointed cruces that disturbed him.

Thankfully West’s approach to this text of Homer at least was not violent. In many places we find brackets: e.g., 8.141, 10.189, 10.497-499, 12.441, 20.256, 23.100-102, but the text is not nearly as radical in its construction as other texts edited by him. For the foreseeable future this text will surely serve as a model critical edition, serviceable to scholars and quite necessary for obtaining any and all requisite data for understanding ancient testimonies of Homer’s Odyssey and the transmission of its textual readings.

As for the items in the critical apparatus at the bottom of the page, I do not venture to comment. It is worth saying however that there are two segments of footnotes: the upper portion provides many testimonies of ancient writers, the lower portion offers manuscript readings. The Sigla section (XXVII-LII) must be read through several times in order to profit from all the marginalia beneath the text. There are a few false attributions of facts. Scholars who specialize in the pericopae of each book eventually will discover them to readers in their researches. Nonetheless this volume will become the basis of the researches of future commentators, and the book handily evinces any assertion that West’s industry and scholarly acumen were expended usefully to better the critical resources available to classicists and historians.

I recall someone stating that M.L. West’s contributions to Greek Studies in England were comparable to those of U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), the 19th and 20th century Berlin Hellenist whose repute was acknowledged world-wide. The influence of both men in their respective fields of study was great; but comparisons are odious. There was only one Martin Litchfield West. There will not be another.

Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

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1 Response to M.L. West, Cementing a Legacy

  1. Nicholas Lane says:

    Who is this carping rector from the Great Plains? And how is he qualified to criticise West’s Odyssey? At any rate, I would have thought that a man of the cloth would be rather more eager to observe the courtesy of not speaking ill of the (recent) dead.

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