Dr. Zlatan Colakovic Homerist, Philologist and Researcher

Dr. Zlatan Colakovic, homerist, philologist, and researcher of south slavic epics. Author of Three Eagles of the Tragic World, Dead Head Utters Words, and Epics of Avdo Medjedovic.

The Epics of Avdo Međedović, A Critical Edition, Volume I and II


 Introduction: (Professor Robert L. Fowler)

The importance to Homeric studies1 of these previously unpublished Bosnian epics, together with an authoritative text of the Wedding of Smailagic Meho, is great. Since Milman Parry's epoch-making study of South Slavic epic in the early decades of the last century, these poems have been central to the understanding of Homer. Parry's conclusions may have been challenged and refined in this of that particular, but that he changed forever the fundamental nature of the debate is not in doubt. yet, astonishingly, the full archive of his materials (whether Parry's recording of poems, or other records of his and others' researches) has never been made available, much less the rich horde of other poems waiting to be collected and published from the region. These volumes are a contribution to this ongoing effort.

Zlatan Colakovic first came to the attention of Homerists with his publication 'South Slavic Muslim Epic Songs. Problems of Collecting, Editing, and Publishing', in California Slavic Studies 14 (1992) 232-69. In this article he laid bare the shortcomings of existing editions, and stressed the difficulties and challenges confronting the editor of the Bosnian epics. It became obvious how much remained to be done, not only in respect of basic publication but also of analysis. Most Homerists (the present writer not excepted) have accepted uncritically what they have been told in the standard publications about the South Slavic epics, and what they might mean for Homer. In particular, the idea of composition-in-performance with which all Homerists work derives from this source. It is an undifferentiated concept: no one, so far as I know, has thought that singers in the Bosnian tradition might have fundamentally different techniques. Oralists have looked to many other parts of the globe, and argued that other traditions offer a range of models; the oral/literate boundary is clearly quite variable, and what 'oral might mean is quite culturally specific. The interplay of oral and literate, fixed and unfixed (which are not synonymous pairs of terms) needs to be assessed in each context and tradition. So much is now  clear; but in the background of these studies it was always assumed that the South Slavic provided a stable model of one kind of oral tradition.

Colakovic's work has shown that this is very far from being the case. In particular Avdo Mededovic, one of the great singer, who has always been presented as the principal exemplar of the Bosnian tradition, turns out to be sui generis. Though deeply informed by tradition , and still practicing composition-in-performance, he has a unique relationship with his heritage, which sets him apart from other singers. Designating this stance 'post-traditional', Colakovic in the essay published here sets out the characteristics of Mededovic's compositional technique, together with material from the Parry archive which demonstrates that other singers recognized the difference (and did not approve). There is clearly more than just jealousy among singers or rhetorical posturing at work here; this is a deep-running disagreement about oral poetics. Colakovic's account of Mededovic's post-traditional art repeatedly identifies features which also characterize Homer, and which in both cases lie at the heart of their craft: incorporating elements of one poem into another, novel uses of traditional stylistic devices, very free and elaborate expansion of traditional poems to reach monumental proportions, a searching and critical attitude towards the values exemplified in the traditional poems, innovations in formulae and themes, developed characterization of the heroes, more speeches, etc. If these differences in Mededovic's case arise from a new attitude to tradition, the suspicion must be that the same is true of Homer. Homerists who have long argued this on other grounds may find confirmation of their views here. But more than that, they may find much new comparative evidence for thinking about how this transition actually takes place in a mixed oral/literate environment, and what the implications might be for such notions as traditional referentiality, oral intertextuality, bardic transmission, textual fixation, linguistic innovation, and so on. The ground to till is very rich here, the yield potentially vast.

Particularly interesting to me were Colakovic's remarks on the degree and kind of variance between poems in traditional and post-traditional environments. Both display rigidity and flexibility, but in different ways. The traditional poems can vary widely in the ordering and deployment of traditional elements, creating much variety especially on the level of plot, but all elements are nevertheless drawn from the common pool, and each finds close parallels in other songs. Each singer inevitably introduces subtle modifications to these elements, and the tradition as a whole will slowly change--but only slowly. The individual traditional singer, once having learned his craft, will not change his style more than superficially throughout his life. His repeat performances of individual songs also vary but within predictable and reasonable limits. His songs can be learned by other singers at one listening, because they deal in thoroughly familiar currency. The post-traditional singer, by contrast, produces such a unique composition that other singers can only learn it by memorizing a transcript. In such cases (learning songs from a published sources) the plots of the poems are slavishly reproduced. The style of the post-traditional poet does change over time, as he freely admits neologisms and numerous elements drawn from sources extraneous to his region, or from his own invention. The variation from performance to performance of the same song by a post-traditional poet can far exceed the usual limits. One can extrapolate from this observation: if an entire community of poets behaved post-traditionally, one would find rapid development in every aspect of the art, to the point where post-traditional would become non-traditional; in the midst of this turmoil, however, if the possibility of recording great performances existed, one would find such masterpieces circulating and being performed in a non-traditional manner, that is memorized. The existence of some post-traditional poems would give rise to the creation of others which, if good enough, might be recorded in their turn; or their own creators might intend to write them down from the start. One would also find that the traditional singers continued to ply their trade (some would doubtless perform both kinds of songs); but they would be much less visible to posterity, because unrecorded and eclipsed even in their own day by the dominant classics. Finally, Colakovic notes that the transition occurred in the Bosnian tradition at a time of rapid social change.

 The parallels with archaic Greece are patent. The rapid development of the tradition as a whole, at a time of great social transformation, has been statistically traced by Richard Janko. The post-traditional poem, if we have it, must by definition be the latest version; previous and later versions would have differed so much as to be effectively different poems. If Homer is post-traditional, the poem we have was recorded at the time of performance: what came before was another poem; what came after, if composed in the same way, was also different, and is lost. If re-performed on the basis of a fixed text, minor variants would creep in, as well as interpolations; the traditional craft would still have an impact on this part or that, perhaps to the point where some authority--a guild of poets, say, or a city sponsoring a competition--might intervene to establish a standard text. Other post-traditional poems sprang up, taking the place of traditional predecessors. The tradition as a whole became both textual and textualized, and encyclopedic.

 In my chapter on the 'Homeric Question', I set out the arguments for thinking that the Iliad and Odyssey were conceived as new kinds of texts by their author or authors, and for thinking that their contemporary recording could not be coincidental. The difficulty was in knowing which was cause, and which was effect: did the conception of the poem as qualitatively new, distinctive, and unique lead to the desire to record this particular version in writing, or did the new conception arise from contemplating the potential of writing? I hypothesized two transitional phases between purely oral/traditional and purely written/non-traditional, viz. 'oral, with consciously fixed passages' and 'mostly fixed, and therefore written'. I was thinking of a kind of cognitive shift in the minds of poets, whereby within a framework of oral (unfixed) composition, a notion of textuality takes hold, such that the poet wishes to distinguish his individual creation from those of the tradition, and can do so only by creating a personal, partly untraditional style, which must obviously remain self-identical and recognizable as untraditional from performance to performance: this does not require fixity but fixity would surely come naturally and would greatly assist the enterprise. I imagined careful premeditation of the composition (which we know does occur in an oral environment) becoming ever more precise and extensive, restricting the scope for composition-in-performance. The more this habit takes hold, the greater the fixity on the level of diction; and given the technology to record them, the poems naturally would have been recorded (and circulated as texts). I think still that our evidence does not suffice to say at what point in this process in ancient Greece writing intervened; the 'notion of textuality' could arise without it. Colakovic, however, following his argument where it leads him, makes so bold as to suggest that the presence of other written poems (dictated, presumably) even before Homer might have triggered his post-traditionality.

There are differences between the way I described the transition in ancient Greece, and the way Colakovic assesses the transition in Bosnia, but the two can be mapped onto one another. In Colakovic's terms, the first of my transitional phases would be post-traditional, if seen in a certain way. In a  post-traditional poem with many unique, untraditional features, or traditional features used in untraditional ways, each such feature will be in many, if not most, cases a one-off occurrence; it will not be possible, ex hypothesi, to provide a precise parallel, though one might be able to see where it came from (a combination of traditional items, for instance). Now, even if the poem is never performed again in the same way, so is as a whole unfixed, those unparalleled passages can be regarded as fixed in effect since they are not subject to the same forces as the traditional kind of compossition-in-performance; the phrases are not part of extended and economical systems of formulae. In this respect, they are essentially the same as a phrase created by a literate poet, pen in hand, even if they are deeply conditioned by the traditional art and composed in performance. They might as well be fixed, and pretty soon became fixed; that is my second transitional phase.

Colakovic identifies a single poet as post-traditional, and describes in detail the dynamic interplay between this individual talent and his tradition. He has the great advantage of having empirical evidence. My model, by contrast, both assesses the transformation in a tradition and imagines the change in attitude, and cognitive capability, implied in the individual poet (always tracherous ground). In retrospect, I think there is slippage in my description between the two spheres of operation, traditional and individual, probably springing from an unconscious desire to keep the divine Homer on his pedestal (for which I do not apologize). My image of a traditional poet's composition gradually becoming a monumental, fixed text within his own mind finds no parallel in Colakovic's material, and is suspiciously Romantic in its depiction of the contemplative, unsurpassed genius, thrown entirely upon his own resources. But it is not impossible for all that, or necessarily Romantic, as the example of Milton shows.

These are only a few of the thoughts encouraged by reading the new material and Colakovic's analysis. The implications for both Slavic and Homeric studies are obviously vast, and only starting to be realized. The great desideratum is for publication of further poems in critical editions with commentaries, which can it turn lay the basis for synthetic and comprehensive study of the Bosnian tradition. A thorough comparison of this tradition with others, not just the Homeric, can then begin in earnest.

Robert L. Fowler