Throughout this work, the central aim was to reintroduce the vitality of performance, of oral tradition in general, to the conceptual framework of the Classics. This aim addresses the need to be vigilant over tradition itself, all tradition. Earlier, I had argued that the field of Classics, which lends itself to the empirical study of tradition, seems ideally suited to articulate the value of tradition in other societies, whether or not these societies are closely comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome, given that we live in an era when the living traditions of traditional societies are rapidly becoming extinct, when many thousands of years of cumulative human experience are becoming obliterated by less than a century or so of modern technological progress. The rapid extinction of old living traditions by the same technological progress that points towards the less rapid but equally certain extinction of Nature itself is forcefully expressed in the poem of a Native American:
Self-portrait: microcosm, or, song of mixed-blood
by Robert Conley [1]

In me the Cherokee
wars against yoneg (white)
I have college degrees (2)
all major credit cards
pay my bills on time each month
on my wall is a photograph
of the Great Spirit {147|148}

Because the meat I eat
comes wrapped in cellophane
I do not understand
the first facts of life

I have never drunk blood
and I hunt
with the channel selector
in front of my tv

When I go to the supermarket
and buy some meat
pre-cut and wrapped
how do I apologize
to the spirit of the animal
whose meat I eat
and where shall I build my fires?

My poems are my fires.
oh gods forgive me all
the things I've failed
to do. the things I should
have done. forgive the meat
I've used without a prayer
without apology forgive
the other prayers I haven’t
said those times I should
but oh ye gods both great
and small I do not know
the ancient forms. my poems
are my fires and my prayers.
I see in this poem a legacy for American Classicists, a legacy emanating from a Native American outcry that carries a special meaning to all Americans. This poem is particularly apt because it is about principles, in the literal sense of first elements. It explores the value of going back in time in order to recover fundamental truths, even when it may not any longer be clear what it is that one is recovering. The key anxiety in the poem seems to be: I do not know the ancient {148|149} forms. The forms are the ritual, the ritual is the performance, the performance is the song. So what can compensate for the ancient forms? The answer is to be found in the very use of tradition, or in what is somehow linked to tradition, which is the essence of poetry as the offshoot of performance. The ritual aspect of performance can best be symbolized in a primary form of ritual, sacrifice, and the essence of sacrifice can best be symbolized in the fires of sacrifice. [2] The key solution to the anxiety is: my poems are my fires.
I link the quest of going back in time through the human experience, rescuing values in societies about to be extinguished, with the quest of rescuing Nature from the onslaught of technology and ideology. Or let us talk about nature as it connects with the human condition, calling it the environment.
I avoid using the word “primitive,” especially with reference to small-scale societies that have in recent times been pushed to the brink of extinction by the advances of technology. A word like that implies that the given society has failed to keep up with Progress, as if there were just one direction in which all societies, all humanity, must be headed. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has remarked, the endangered societies of our world seem to us to be at a standstill “not necessarily because they are so in fact, but because the line of their development has no meaning for us, and cannot be measured in terms of the criteria we employ.” [3] He gives a striking analogy, an intuitive observation generalized from the experience of life:
People of advanced years generally consider that history during their old age is stationary, in contrast to the cumulative history they saw being made when they were young. A period in which they are no longer actively concerned, when they have no part to play, has no real meaning for them; nothing happens, or what does happen seems to them to be unproductive of good; while their grandchildren throw themselves into the life of that same period with all the passionate enthusiasm which their elders have forgotten. [4] {149|150}
Today the environment itself is in danger, but the elders presiding over what they call “Western Civilization” may seem to be indifferent to the damage caused by the technology of this civilization. If we follow for a moment the line of thought suggested just now by Lévi-Strauss, we could say that the ancient world, the world of myth, is in fact still a young world when it comes to the experiencing of Nature. The Ancients, along with what is left of the so-called Primitives of today, see the world in a way that may yet rekindle our own passion for that experience.
This talk of passion brings us back to the assertion, My poems are my fires. Here is where the diachronic perspective is needed, with regard to cultures on the verge of becoming extinguished. Here is where philology is needed, with regard to the poems. I mean philology in the broadest sense of the ancient term, as forcefully restated by Rudolf Pfeiffer: [5]
The Sophists had a predilection for compounds with phílo-, and it may be due to them that we find philólogos first in Plato ... and once in a comedy of Alexis in the later fourth century...; it means [someone] fond of talk, dispute, dialectic in a wide and rather vague or ironical sense. But when Eratosthenes used it, or when the new Diegesis ... to the first Iambus of Callimachus says that Hipponax coming from the dead calls toùs philológous eis to Parmeníōnos kaloúmenon Sarapideîon, the compound refers (according to Suetonius) to persons who are familiar with various branches of knowledge or even the whole of the logos.
We come back to the report of Suetonius that Eratosthenes was the first scholar to formalize this term philologos in referring to his identity as a scholar, [6] and that in doing so he was drawing attention to a doctrina that is multiplex variaque, a course of studies that is many-sided and composed of many different elements. This ideal is built into the name of the American Philological Association, into its very identity as a group of scholars that is multiplex variaque. It is an ideal that is built into the city where it met for its 1991 annual convention. More than that, it is an ideal that is built into the very country whose name is part of the name, the American Philological Association. In {150|151} this particular moment in the history of the organization, when some of its members may be anguished at perhaps being made to feel that they do not really belong to the American Philological Association, this ideal of a doctrina that is many-sided and composed of many different elements needs to be reaffirmed. It is an ideal that we can reaffirm in the lingua franca of America, the English language, if we use the Anglo-Saxon word love to recapture our shared longing for the Logos. I am thinking here of the way in which Gilbert Murray happened to use this word in his own musings about philology:
‘Wind, wind of the deep sea,’ begins a chorus in the Hecuba... How slight the words are! Yet there is in them just that inexplicable beauty, that quick shiver of joy and longing, which as it was fresh then in a world whose very bone and iron have long since passed into dust, is fresh still and alive still; only harder to reach; more easy to forget, to disregard, to smother with irrelevancies; far more in danger of death. For, like certain other of the things of the spirit, it will die if it is not loved. [7]
As we ponder this idea of death, a sort of death of words, we may recollect the undying words of Phoenix in Iliad IX 527–528 as he introduces the story of the hero Meleagros to Achilles and the rest of the audience: μέμνημαι ‘I remember [mnē-]’. [8]
μέμνημαι τόδε ἔργον ἐγὼ πάλαι οὔ τι νέον γε
ὡς ἦν· ἐν δ᾿ ὑμῖν ἐρέω πάντεσσι φίλοισι
I remember, I do, this thing that happened a long time ago, not recently,
I remember how it was, and I will tell you, loved ones [ phíloi ] that you all are.
As Martin argues, the Homeric notion of speech-act or performance is associated with such narrating from memory, [9] which he equates with the rhetorical act of recollection. [10] We have seen that this speech-act of {151|152} recollection, which qualifies explicitly as a mûthos (as at Iliad I 273), is the act of mémnēmai ‘I remember’. [11] The failure of any such speech-act is marked by the act of lēth- ‘forgetting’ (as with λήθεαι at Iliad IX 259), [12] which reminds us of the anxiety of forgetting the forms in the poem by the Native American.
In our passage from the Iliad, the accusative object τόδε ἔργον ‘this thing that happened’ following mémnēmai, ‘I remember’, makes clear that the act of remembering is not just perceptual. [13] It is an active conjuring up, by the words themselves, of what is felt to be real. And the words in this passage from the Iliad take on their authority because those who do listen are presumed to be, all of them, phíloi ‘near and dear’, or ‘loved ones’: ἐν δ᾿ ὑμῖν ἐρέω πάντεσσι φίλοισι. Here we see the essence of reception, of performer-audience interaction. The listeners are bound to the speaker of the word by their presumed love for him, presumably reciprocating his love for them. For us to be able to listen as well, to listen in, there has to be love of the word, in a word, philology.
When Achilles predicts in Iliad IX that the song about him will last for all time, unwilting forever, we may marvel at the fact that his prediction holds true—up till now. If we follow Gilbert Murray’s reasoning, the word did not die, has not yet died, and will not die if it is indeed loved. Philology lives. Long live philology! {152|153}


[ back ] 1. Printed in Hobson 1981:69.
[ back ] 2. I have explored at length the ritual aspects of performing song or poetry in Nagy 1990a:29–46; for variations on the theme of fire as a symbol of sacrifice and ritual in general, see Nagy 1990b:143–180.
[ back ] 3. Lévi-Strauss 1958:23.
[ back ] 4. Ibid.
[ back ] 5. Pfeiffer 1968:159.
[ back ] 6. Suetonius De grammaticis et rhetoribus c. 10 (see Pfeiffer 1968:158n8).
[ back ] 7. Murray 1909:19.
[ back ] 8. On the function of the myth of Meleagros as retold by Phoenix to Achilles and the rest of the audience, see Nagy 1990a:196–197, 205, 253, 310n164, following up on Nagy 1979:105–111.
[ back ] 9. Martin 1989:44. See pp. 122–123 above.
[ back ] 10. Martin 1989:80.
[ back ] 11. See pp. 122–123 above.
[ back ] 12. Martin 1989:77–88.
[ back ] 13. The accusative case of an object of a verb of remembering seems to denote an exterior goal, as opposed to the genitive case, denoting an interior goal. The genitive, as a partitive, implies the remembering of a part of something. The accusative implies total recall.