By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant
The Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows Seminar began on August 29th with a session led by Dr. Deborah Beck, Associate Professor in the Department of Classics. Dr. Beck shared her unpublished interdisciplinary project on epic simile, entitled The Stories of Similes in Greek and Roman Epic. The book aims to engage with epic simile as a linguistic comparison between two narratives given equal weight–the mythological story (or plot) and the simile. Dr. Beck’s book will also emphasize the importance of simile in five ancient epics, including Homer’s Iliad and Apollonius’s Argonautica.
Similes proliferate throughout common speech, containing complex thoughts and concepts in everything from day-to-day conversation to novels and stories. Rather than ornamental, similes fulfill a specific narrative function for epic poems, creating complex webs of relationships between similes across the work. Extended similes–or similes that span more than the simple standard of “x is like y”– in epic poetry in particular cover repeat topics, for instance using a span of several similes to vividly portray a shepherd and his flock. Beck noted that she herself was engaged in a kind of simile or at least complex comparison in her own project, comparing the story outlined in these similes to the mythological story as mutually constitutive. Essential to Beck’s own complex interweaving is the project’s digital component, a database that catalogued the 486 extended similes that appear in these epic poems. This database will stand as its own scholarly resource after the book’s publication.
Both in her assigned blog post, “On Reading (And Writing) for Pleasure” and in the seminar, Beck advocated for an approach to narrative that would “create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.” She aimed to begin her seminar with similar considerations, questioning seminar participants’ own use of narrative and storytelling, and questioning the ways in which they found their own discipline intersecting with Beck’s readings for the week. Before the seminar began to unpack the details of Beck’s work, Beck provided participants the opportunity to reflect on the assigned readings with a short freewriting icebreaker, asking the seminar to consider the connections to their own discipline and anything they found surprising about what they had read. This beginning exercise opened several lines of conversation between participants, including the benefits and/or drawbacks of viewing The Iliad as solely an oral text versus a written text, and the kinds of listening/reading engagement that epic poetry encourages by including extended similes. Some participants declared that the similes made the poems much more porous than they otherwise would have been, providing multiple ways of engaging with the work, while others noted that rather than consistent active engagement, the similes allowed a looser reading or listening style, allowing readers to focus on the similes they most preferred.
Some seminar participants responded to Beck’s emphasis on distinguishing narrative from story. Beck affirmed that her formulation of narrative had more to do with the story that arises from both the similes and the mythological story (plot). In other words, “story” refers to the events being narrated, while “narrative” also includes the way those events are presented to the audience, including the use of abundant interrelated similes in the case of The Iliad. Pursuant to this, participants noted that what struck them about the selections of The Illiad they had been tasked to read was the humanist message that arose from the interplay of simile and story. Similes have a visual, and indeed almost performative quality that forces the reader to consider themselves in relation to the text, interpolating their own viewpoint and experience. Additionally, many noted that the project’s digital database lent itself to a non-linear approach to narrative.
The conversation turned to the kinds of narratives participants frequently draw on in their own disciplines and in their own writing. Beck and seminar participants pondered the ways in which storytelling, simile, metaphor, and language as a whole structures their own work, including how accessible to non-specialists their work is or isn’t. Beck herself noted in college, she only fell in love with The Iliad after she read Book 24 in Greek and found herself deeply affected by the power of Priam’s plea to Achilles for his son’s body. Similarly, seminar participants noted, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to promote empathy for more than one side of a conflict. Storytelling can create unexpected inroads for readers across disciplines–a feature session leaders may yet explore over the course of the fall seminar.