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Institute of Advanced Study

The Iliad: Configurations of the Future

Abstract

The Iliad promises to grant ‘imperishable fame' to the heroes who fought at Troy and, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the poem has (so far) succeeded in its aim: Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and Odysseus are global household names, and those who died at Troy are remembered through successive editions of the Iliad, a poem that has never gone out of print. This paper investigates the relationship between the future as configured within the Iliad and the actual future of the Iliad, i.e., from our perspective, the history of its reception. Its primary aim is to shed light on three issues in the field of Homeric studies, and of literary criticism more generally: (1) the Homeric Question and the problem of allusion; (2) conceptions of time and authorial intention; (3) the making of a classic, understood here as the cooperation between a text and successive generations of readers. Beyond the field of literary studies, the argument offered in this paper bears on a larger social question: the degree to which care for the future is shaped by the concerns of the past. The Iliad featured continuously in education for over 2,600 years: this is a surprising degree of continuity, which is not the necessary consequence of qualities intrinsic to the text, for those are always subject to judgement. The success of the Iliad depends, rather, on the choices made by over 100 generations of listeners and readers. The interaction between the contents of the Iliad (the future as configured within the poem) and the responses of its listeners and readers (the successive generations who debated the desirability of continuity and change) is at the heart of the exploration in this paper.

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