Friday, December 23, 2011

The Oral Tradition - Hits and Misses

I have a confession to make: I didn’t read Gilgamesh, so much as listen to it. The library had an unabridged audiobook of Stephen Mitchell’s excellent version and so I gave it a try. I found the narrator, George Guidall, pleasant to listen to. The reading of the poem itself was about two hours. Two more discs in the set contain critical essays from the book. Highly recommended.

Ian McKellen, with "Homer"

Believing that hearing, rather than just reading, Homer’s Odyssey would be appropriate, since it came from an oral tradition (some think Homer – if Homer ever existed – was illiterate) I was happy to find that our library had an audiobook of Robert Fagles’ translation, narrated by Ian McKellen.

I was doubly enthused over the listening plan after I got bogged down with my reading of the first book (chapter) of the epic. So many characters, mortal and divine, filled the first few pages of the poem I felt compelled to check the notes and get clear about the identity and genealogy of each one. This is exactly what Mortimer Adler warned about in How to Read a Book. So I figured that listening to the audiobook first would allow me to catch the drift of the story and I could follow-up with a more studied reading.

Ian McKellen is a tremendous actor with a lovely voice. Herein lies a problem. While his approach might be fine for stage or screen, it is not so well suited to the audiobook format. His theatricality draws attention to itself. I had to adjust the bass on my tape player to tone down the boom of the sonorous round sounds of the actor’s voice. Listening to an audiobook is a more intimate setting than watching an actor on stage. The best readers seem to realize this, and don’t allow their performance to detract from the work itself. The “Radio Reader” Dick Estell comes to mind as someone who presents the material in a pleasant way that holds attention to the book, rather than the narrator. In Gilgamesh, George Guidall did a good job of becoming “transparent” to my listening ears.

With McKellen, it was a different story. When he was at his worst, I heard echoes of the campiest lines from Boris Pickett's rock and roll classic, “Monster Mash.”

When McKellen was at his best, I was ever conscious of his theatricality, and could picture him clutching his chest and wailing to the heavens, "m’lord." Months from now, when I make it to Shakespeare, I might want to hear McKellen. But not now. Not for Homer.

I knew that something else about McKellen’s reading seemed out of place and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was perusing “The Greek Way of Writing” in Edith Hamilton’s book, The Greek Way. She points out that the Greek classics are distinguished by their unadorned clarity, as opposed to the more elaborate style found in the masterpieces of English literature:

The Greeks wrote on the same lines as they did everything else. Greek writing depends no more on ornament than the Greek statue does. It is plain writing, direct, matter-of-fact…The English poet puts before his audience the full tragedy as they would never see it but for him. He does it all for them in words so splendid, in images so poignant, they are lifted to a vision that completely transcends themselves. The Greek poet lifts one corner of the curtain only. A glimpse is given, no more, but by it the mind is fired to see for itself what lies behind.

To make her point, she presents this passage from Byron -

…the monarch of mountains;
They crown'd him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow.

- comparing it with a similar thought from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus –

…the mighty summit, neighbor to the stars.

Hamilton discusses the influence of the Bible on English literature and how this reflects old and divergent attitudes about the world:

Hebrew and Greek are poles apart. Hebrew poetry is directed to the emotions; it is designed to make the hearer feel, not think. Therefore, it is a poetry based on reiteration. Everyone knows the emotional effect that repetition produces, from the tom-tom in the African forest to the rolling sound of “Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us – to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them – when we assemble and meet together – to ask those things which are requisite and necessary-“ Nothing is gained for the idea by these repetitions; the words are synonyms; but the beat upon the ear dulls the critical reason and opens the way to gathering emotion.

Hamilton contrasts a Bible passage with a similar concept from Aeschylus:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
(Matthew 7:7-8)

Men search out God and searching find him.
(from Agamemnon)

Hamilton concludes:

The English method is to fill the mind with beauty; the Greek method was to set the mind to work.

I've given up on the audiobook of The Odyssey - I couldn’t stomach McKellen’s ham-fest anymore. Thanks to Edith Hamilton, I understand why.

And, since I overcame my initial trepidation over the many names in the story, I have found the Fagles translation to be extremely readable on its own.

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