A key distinction made by Erich Auerbach in "Odysseus' Scar," the first chapter of Mimesis, comes through his differentiation of legend and history:
Now the difference between legend and history is in most cases easily perceived by a reasonably experienced reader.. . . .Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally quickly recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly; not until it has produced results in a definite domain are we able, with their help, to classify it to a certain extent; and how often the order to which we think we have attained becomes doubtful again, how often we ask ourselves if the data before us have not led us to a far too simple classification of the original events!The distinguished Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy describes Homeric remembering as linked to oral song:
The process of remembering in ancient Greek song culture requires a special medium,song. When I say song here, I include poetry, even though the word poetry in modern usage is understood to be different from song. In the ancient Greek song culture, however, both poetry and song are understood to be a medium of singing. And such singing is an oral tradition. The epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey derives from such an oral tradition of singing, which is a process of composition-in-performance. That is, composition is an aspect of performance and vice versa. In this kind of oral tradition, there is no script, since the technology of writing is not required for composition-in-performance. In Homeric poetry, the basic medium of remembering is heroic song or kleos.On Tuesday, Sept. 6, Prof. Nagy will offer a talk relating this notion of song to the work of Sappho. The talk will be offered live online here at 11:30 am.