15 November 2007

The Astronautilia and the shadow of Homer

A bit more than a year ago I mentioned the Astronautilia and its author, Jan Křesadlo. Thanks to the help of his son, who very kindly sent me a PDF copy of the Greek portion of the manuscript (all of it), I can now present the opening to that work: Astronautilia (PDF).

As in the Ode to Stalin, Křesadlo's use of the heroic hexameter is sometimes a bit of a shock. When I first started reading the Astronautilia I found this a bit off-putting. Now I'm inclined to look on this more favorably, even if not all of his verses are things you'd want to show to a tutor at Oxford, say, for fear of inducing a stroke.

Based on current web logs, the commentary I did on Theocritus 13 may go down in Aoidoi.org history as the least popular effort ever — worse even than the notes on Pindar. I myself came away from working on that with a sense that Theocritus, and the Alexandrian poets in general, were on the near edge of artistic panic thanks to the overwhelming shadow of Homer. Part of this impression may come from my choice of reading to prepare for Theocritus, but it's hard not to see the dialect, the curious twisting of Homeric words and phasing, and the bucolic digressions as a desperate attempt to get out of that massive shadow. Right now I'm not sure I want to read Theocritus again, but I have some sympathy for the guy. He made a good effort to make the hexameter his own.

Having seen Theocritus' struggles, I'm now a lot more kindly disposed toward Křesadlo's sometimes radical innovations in his Epic hexameters. He observed the licenses Homer allowed himself and then ran with those ideas. The manuscript as sent to me — I don't know if it appears in the edition with the facing Czech translation — has a glossary of "unusual forms and words." In that you can really see Křesadlo taking hold of Epic Greek and making it serve his own purposes. Excepting the imports from Modern Greek, his process is clearly modeled on variations found in standard Epic Greek. The very first line announces he's not producing a school exercise in the style of Homer:

ἀρχόμενος πρῶτον Μουσῶν χορῷ εἰξ Ἑλικῶνος

In Epic the preposition represented in Attic by ἐν, "in," has two additional metrical variants, ἐνί and εἰν. There is no metrical reason at all to lengthen the preposition ἐξ, "out (of)," but Křesadlo has produced a free Homerism, εἰξ, unexampled in any Greek I've ever seen.

There are curiosities of declension:

ἄνηρες = ἄνερες = ἄνδρες (influenced by Modern, Greek, evidently)
κύωνες = κύνες modeled on ἄνηρες

He produces numerous doublets, giving him several metrical choices for a single word:

ἑλκήθρος -ου ὁ = ἑλκήθρον -ου τό "sledge"
ἐξίσωσις -εως ἡ = ἐξισώοσις "equation," a shocking reinterpretation of Epic distraction

"Robot" got special attention, as is appropriate in science fiction, with no fewer than four forms: ῥόβοτος -ου ὁ, ῥοβότης -ου ὁ, ῥόβως -ωτος ὁ, ῤουβώτης -ου ὁ, as well as ῥοβότη ἡ “she-robot.” My favorite definition is φεῖσρος -ου ὁ “fazer - an established sci-fi weapon shooting pernicious rays.” The resulting mix of Homeric phrasing and robots is interesting (Αν. ι. 25, p.89):

βῆν ἴμεν πρὸς πτολίεθρον ἐγὼ καὶ Φράντα ῥοβώτης

His freedom with the hexameter is also on display in this line. And he hasn't just used the Epic dialect for his art. He grabbed the scholarly apparatus of ancient texts and turned that into part of the work, too — sometimes he marks his own lines as doubtful, putting them [in square brackets.]

With the possible exception of Nonnos' Dionysiaca, the Astronautilia has to be the most wild and even disorienting appropriation of Homeric language I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see. I simply cannot imagine what motivated Křesadlo to produce such a work, and my innocence of the Czech language leaves me with little chance to compare this with his other works. But even with the shocks of meter I can't help but be delighted the Astronautilia exists.


vzjp said...

"...for fear of inducing a stroke", "Shocking" "Wild", "Disorienting"

In what respect, more exactly? Is it the very idea of Homeric greek sci-fi, the iconoclastic lack of awe of the traditional? Or the way it is done? How else might it be done?

Do tell ;).

Wm said...

In what respect, more exactly?

Well, the combination of robots and Homeric vocabulary is a a bit wild, but the big thing that'd shock your Greek tutor is the meter. Even among later Greeks Homer's own freedom in this regard drew comment, but the Astronautilia has lines that don't scan even under the exceptions of Homer's freedoms. Mostly everything scans, but there's no shortage of puzzles, either.

Greek has little words called "particles" which are used for various discourse functions. They're famously hard to translate and Homer uses them with wild abandon. The Astronautilia is also full of particles, but not quite the same set you'd expect in Epic, and not as frequently. That leaves the experienced reader of Homer — well, at least this one — with a very strong sense of, ah, being on another planet, I suppose.

Finally, it's not uncommon to run through a few lines that are perfectly Homeric in vocabulary, phrasing and meter. Then the robot or some other new piece of vocabulary or phrasing presents itself, which gives my brain a little twist.

opoudjis said...

Theodore Metochites did the same kind of overgeneralising of Homeric lengthening. Ironically, Metochites was also the guy who did the heart-breaking apologia about Byzantium in the shadow of Homer and the ancients: "We have nothing left to say, either in literature or theology, that the ancients have not already said." (Of course, that was in the introduction to a book-length collection of miscellanea...)

Wm said...

Google books has failed me. I can find many editions of Metochites' essays, but nothing on his versifying. Not yet anway.

opoudjis said...

It's there, but of course being a 2000 edition, you can't pry inside.


ὥς κεν ἅπαντες ταρπόμεθ’ ἀρικύδιστ’ ἔμμεν
ἢ δοκέειν ἔμμεν πανδέξιοι πᾶσαν ἄρα
σουφίαν, ἔργα πάνθ’ ἅμαδις ἃ πονεῦσ’ ἄνθρωποι,
πάντα πρήγματα πουλὺ μάλ’ ἴδριες, ἀπαράμιλλοι.
τῷ γ’ ἄρα κἀμὲ θυμός νύ τ’ ἄνωγε δι’ εἴδεα πάντα
σουφίας ἀμφαδίην πουνάματα εἰνέγκασθαι·

Wm said...

At this point I say "duuuude" a few times. Slowly.

πουνάματα is πονήματα, I suppose?

opoudjis said...

... why, isn't it obvious? :-)

Wm said...

... why, isn't it obvious? :-)

Um. Yes?

Some day I hope to understand where this jar of Doric sprinkles used so randomly on post-classical verse comes from.