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Let us imagine ourselves as living in the time of Pisistratus: the word "Homer" then comprehended an abundance of dissimilarities. What was meant by "Homer" at that time? It is evident that that generation found itself unable to grasp a personality and the limits of its manifestations. Homer had now become of small consequence. And then we meet with the weighty question: What lies before this period? Has Homer's personality, because it cannot be grasped, gradually faded away into an empty name? Or had all the Homeric poems been gathered together in a body, the nation naively representing itself by the figure of Homer? Was the person created out of a conception, or the conception out of a person? This is the real "Homeric question," the central problem of the personality.
The difficulty of answering this question, however, is increased when we seek a reply in another direction, from the standpoint of the poems themselves which have come down to us. As it is difficult for us at the present day, and necessitates [Pg 156]a serious effort on our part, to understand the law of gravitation clearly—that the earth alters its form of motion when another heavenly body changes its position in space, although no material connection unites one to the other—it likewise costs us some trouble to obtain a clear impression of that wonderful problem which, like a coin long passed from hand to hand, has lost its original and highly conspicuous stamp. Poetical works, which cause the hearts of even the greatest geniuses to fail when they endeavour to vie with them, and in which unsurpassable images are held up for the admiration of posterity—and yet the poet who wrote them with only a hollow, shaky name, whenever we do lay hold on him; nowhere the solid kernel of a powerful personality. "For who would wage war with the gods: who, even with the one god?" asks Goethe even, who, though a genius, strove in vain to solve that mysterious problem of the Homeric inaccessibility.
The conception of popular poetry seemed to lead like a bridge over this problem—a deeper and more original power than that of every single creative individual was said to have become active; the happiest people, in the happiest period of its existence, in the highest activity of fantasy and formative power, was said to have created those immeasurable poems. In this universality there is something almost intoxicating in the thought of a popular poem: we feel, with artistic pleasure, the broad, overpowering liberation of a popular gift, and we delight in this natural phenomenon as we do in an uncontrollable cataract. But as [Pg 157]soon as we examine this thought at close quarters, we involuntarily put a poetic mass of people in the place of the poetising soul of the people: a long row of popular poets in whom individuality has no meaning, and in whom the tumultuous movement of a people's soul, the intuitive strength of a people's eye, and the unabated profusion of a people's fantasy, were once powerful: a row of original geniuses, attached to a time, to a poetic genus, to a subject-matter.
Such a conception justly made people suspicious. Could it be possible that that same Nature who so sparingly distributed her rarest and most precious production—genius—should suddenly take the notion of lavishing her gifts in one sole direction? And here the thorny question again made its appearance: Could we not get along with one genius only, and explain the present existence of that unattainable excellence? And now eyes were keenly on the lookout for whatever that excellence and singularity might consist of. Impossible for it to be in the construction of the complete works, said one party, for this is far from faultless; but doubtless to be found in single songs: in the single pieces above all; not in the whole. A second party, on the other hand, sheltered themselves beneath the authority of Aristotle, who especially admired Homer's "divine" nature in the choice of his entire subject, and the manner in which he planned and carried it out. If, however, this construction was not clearly seen, this fault was due to the way the poems were handed down to posterity and not to the poet himself [Pg 158]—it was the result of retouchings and interpolations, owing to which the original setting of the work gradually became obscured. The more the first school looked for inequalities, contradictions, perplexities, the more energetically did the other school brush aside what in their opinion obscured the original plan, in order, if possible, that nothing might be left remaining but the actual words of the original epic itself. The second school of thought of course held fast by the conception of an epoch-making genius as the composer of the great works. The first school, on the other hand, wavered between the supposition of one genius plus a number of minor poets, and another hypothesis which assumed only a number of superior and even mediocre individual bards, but also postulated a mysterious discharging, a deep, national, artistic impulse, which shows itself in individual minstrels as an almost indifferent medium. It is to this latter school that we must attribute the representation of the Homeric poems as the expression of that mysterious impulse.
All these schools of thought start from the assumption that the problem of the present form of these epics can be solved from the standpoint of an sthetic judgment—but we must await the decision as to the authorised line of demarcation between the man of genius and the poetical soul of the people. Are there characteristic differences between the utterances of the man of genius and the poetical soul of the people?
This whole contrast, however, is unjust and misleading. There is no more dangerous [Pg 159]assumption in modern sthetics than that of popular poetry and individual poetry, or, as it is usually called, artistic poetry. This is the reaction, or, if you will, the superstition, which followed upon the most momentous discovery of historico-philological science, the discovery and appreciation of the soul of the people. For this discovery prepared the way for a coming scientific view of history, which was until then, and in many respects is even now, a mere collection of materials, with the prospect that new materials would continue to be added, and that the huge, overflowing pile would never be systematically arranged. The people now understood for the first time that the long-felt power of greater individualities and wills was larger than the pitifully small will of an individual man; they now saw that everything truly great in the kingdom of the will could not have its deepest root in the inefficacious and ephemeral individual will; and, finally, they now discovered the powerful instincts of the masses, and diagnosed those unconscious impulses to be the foundations and supports of the so-called universal history. But the newly-lighted flame also cast its shadow: and this shadow was none other than that superstition already referred to, which popular poetry set up in opposition to individual poetry, and thus enlarged the comprehension of the people's soul to that of the people's mind. By the misapplication of a tempting analogical inference, people had [Pg 160]reached the point of applying in the domain of the intellect and artistic ideas that principle of greater individuality which is truly applicable only in the domain of the will. The masses have never experienced more flattering treatment than in thus having the laurel of genius set upon their empty heads. It was imagined that new shells were forming round a small kernel, so to speak, and that those pieces of popular poetry originated like avalanches, in the drift and flow of tradition. They were, however, ready to consider that kernel as being of the smallest possible dimensions, so that they might occasionally get rid of it altogether without losing anything of the mass of the avalanche. According to this view, the text itself and the stories built round it are one and the same thing.