“The picture that emerges is not really one of conflict between preserver of tradition and creative artist; it is rather one of the preservation of tradition by the constant re-creation of it. The ideal is a true story well and truly told.”
—Albert Lord, “The Singer of Tales”
One of the biggest challenges researchers of any kind face is achieving what might be called critical distance, which is nothing more or less than respecting that the subject under study is not a mirror of the researcher but an entity or being complete in itself. I tend to feel this sounds easier to achieve than it is, in practice. And yet, the most groundbreaking research seems to follow when genuine curiosity and a desire to understand lead researchers beyond the surface of their own or their fields’ beliefs, to explore the invisible architecture of ideas and beliefs, aka assumptions.
Examples in ancient studies include, for example, Barbara Graziosi asking what the ancient Greeks thought of Homer that led to her brilliant Inventing Homer, Sarah Pomeroy wondering what women were doing while men were philosophizing that led to her landmark studies of women in antiquity, and Milman Parry pondering the purpose of formulas in Homer, which led to research across fields and continents. His theories so thoroughly transformed our understanding of epic that the field has been divided into “before” and “after.”
Parry’s research examined our invisible assumptions about literature, namely that it is composed in writing by an individual imagination that seeks to create something new and is studied from the vantage point of its receivers, ie readers. Parry’s methodology, traveling to Yugoslavia to record Serbo-Croatian epic singers, suggested a new way to understand epics, as being composed orally in performance to fulfill a sacred responsibility to preserve the stories of a collective and are studied from the perspective of composers. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist, Parry died at 32 before his research could be published, but his assistant in Yugoslavia, Albert Lord, carried on his work. His PhD dissertation and the book subsequently published of it, are both called Singer of Tales,” the title Parry had picked out.
The book is divided into sections in which Lord analyzes the Serbo-Croatian epics, applies the findings to the Homeric epics, and discusses their applicability to medieval epics. The analysis of the Serbo-Croatian epics is especially fascinating, illuminating both the oral poetic creative process and the mind of the researcher who is unpacking how the songs are constructed and performed and for what reason.
It’s a compelling read that I recommend to anyone who studies the ancient world and especially Homer. What’s most inspiring about it is not necessarily the findings themselves, which have been transcended by the very research they made possible, which is part of the point of groundbreaking research, but seeing how genuine curiosity and can create new knowledge.