By Ralph M. Rosen
Featured Image: George Gershwin Self-portrait by George Gershwin 1934
Homer enjoys an unquestionably privileged status in our own time as one of the grand cultural legacies of antiquity, so it can come as a surprise to realize that his greatness was not always unchallenged. Even in antiquity there were signs that Homeric poetry did not suit all tastes and aesthetic standards, and some readers today still find various features of Homeric style jarring. His great works, the Iliad and Odyssey, often feel “different” from other literature—a bit “primitive,” perhaps, less self-consciously “literary” or “literate” (whatever we mean by these terms exactly), with roots in folk and mythological traditions that complicate, at least, their stature as icons of high culture.
In American cultural history of the past century, we can trace a curiously parallel aesthetic dilemma in the case of jazz music, which, to this day, occupies an unstable, culturally fraught position between the high and low, the “serious” and “popular.” I’d like to suggest that the aesthetic “problems” ascribed to each art form, Homeric epic and jazz, have much to do with the compositional and stylistic techniques idiosyncratic to each genre—techniques that rely first and foremost on memory, and only secondarily, if at all, on literacy (whether verbal or musical). Poetry or music that is essentially composed during the course of a performance, as is the case for the Homeric epics and many forms of jazz, simply look and sound different from poetry and music composed in advance and fixed as text before a performance. It is not surprising, therefore, that such art forms will sit uncomfortably in a culture such as ours which has come to privilege the literate and literary over the spontaneous and improvisational.