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Multitext vs. “urtext”

As of this writing, the most recent modern edition of Homeric poetry is the Iliad of Martin West (1998b / 2000). West based his edition on the theory of an original written Iliad and Odyssey composed in writing by an original poet. As West says about his edition (1998a:95), “We may assume that there existed a complete and coherent Urtext of each epic, the result of the first writing down.” But the fact is, and West candidly admits it, the existing manuscript traditions of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey cannot be traced back directly to such a hypothetical Urtext . The variants that we find in these traditions simply cannot be reconciled with each other in terms of an Urtext , and editors like West who assume the pre-existence of such an Urtext are forced to choose, on a case-by-case basis, which is the right variant and which are the wrong variants in the existing manuscript traditions.

As I have argued, however, “we cannot simplistically apply the criteria of right or wrong, better or worse, original or altered, in the editorial process of sorting out the Homeric variants” (Nagy 1996:153). If Homeric poetry, as a system, derives from traditional oral poetry, then we can expect such a system to be capable of generating multiform versions, not one uniform version, and no single version can be privileged as superior in and of itself whenever we apply the empirical methods of comparative philology and the study of oral tradition (Nagy 1996:117-118).

In my review of West’s Iliad (Nagy 2000, republished in Nagy 2004:40-74), I argued against his idea of a Homeric Urtext , which would require a “unitext” edition, and I argued for the alternative idea of a multitext Homer, which would require a multitext edition designed to account for the historical reality of multiformity as we find it attested in Homeric textual traditions (Nagy 2000 = 2004:70). Work on such a multitext edition of Homeric poetry, as I noted at the outset of my presentation here, is in progress (Dué and Ebbott 2009+).

In the previous paragraph, I emphasized the historical reality of multiformity in the Homeric textual traditions. This emphasis is needed in order to counteract the false impression that each variant is a “right” version, as it were, in the editing of a multitext that reflects the multiformity of the textual tradition. A multitext edition, which requires a combination of synchronic, diachronic, and historical perspectives, shows something quite different: that each variant is the “right” version only in its own historical setting . In other words, different variants were perceived as the “right” version at different points in the history of the Homeric tradition . Here is my overall formulation, as presented originally in a review (Nagy 2003) of a book by West (2001b) and as recast in a book entitled Homer’s Text and Language (Nagy 2004:77-78):

West misreads the concept of multitext when he claims that a multitext edition of Homer promotes an attitude of indifference toward the critical evaluation of variant readings in the history of the Homeric textual tradition. Contrary to West’s claim, a multitext edition of Homer does indeed allow for the privileging of one variant over others—but only in relative terms, since the editor may find that different variants became dominant in different phases of the Homeric tradition. In terms of a multitext edition, the editor of Homer needs to adopt a diachronic perspective—as an alternative to a pseudo-synchronic perspective. The term “pseudo-synchronic” will be explained further below.
From a diachronic and even historical point of view, it is indeed possible to think of a single given variant as the definitive variant at a single given time and a single given place. But the privileging of any given variant by any given audience is itself a matter of variation, and a diachronic perspective makes it clear that different variants were perceived as the “right” version at different points in the history of the Homeric tradition.
It is not that a diachronic perspective avoids “passing any value judgments,” as West claims [2001b:159n2; also his p. 3]. The point is, rather, that the modern value judgments of the editor need to be responsive to changes in the ancient value judgments about Homeric poetry throughout the historical continuum of the Homeric tradition. West applies the term “value judgments” only to the critical stances of modern editors and their readers. But what about the “value judgments” of the ancient world? In this case, a more suitable term is “reception.” The problem is, West does not take into account the history of Homeric reception. If indeed Homeric poetry—as recorded by the Homeric textual tradition—reflects a system derived from oral poetry, then the value judgments of an editor need to be responsive to the multiple value judgments represented by that system as it evolves through time. An empirical analysis of the textual evidence reveals an underlying system capable of generating a multiplicity of versions, and it is methodologically unsound for an editor to assume that only one of these extant versions was basic while the others were derivative. Such an assumption exemplifies what I call a “pseudo-synchronic” point of view. I define such a point of view as one that treats irregularities within a given traditional system as if they could never have been regularities in other phases of that same system.

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Source:  OpenStax, Online humanities scholarship: the shape of things to come. OpenStax CNX. May 08, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/1.1
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