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He was incapable of reading one classic without relating it to another — in his edition of Chapman's Homer he scrawled lines he preferred from Pope's Homer — or else contemplating how he himself would render the same material. —Source

Is this usage the same as just "or"? Why did he add "else" here? I would like a native speaker's opinion.

Does this mean "he couldn't read Homer with just one translation. He need another translation and he couldn't read the original so he couldn't translate by himself."

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  1. As you suspect, or else is equivalent to or. Formally, else here acts as an adverb roughly equivalent to otherwise or in other cases; or else is thus an intensive form of or.

    Else in this sense was at one time employed by itself as, in effect, a conjunction. Pope's letters, for instance, show else and or else pretty much in random variation.

    I pray God you may have found success in that journey, else I shall continue to think there is a fatality in all Your Lordship's undertakings ...

    Take care of your health and money; be less modest and more active; or else turn Parson and get a Bishopric here ...

    But the bare use, without or, has been pretty much obsolete since the 18th century.

  2. This passage has nothing to do with Melville’s ability to read Greek. Melville's annotation of Chapman’s Homer is a parenthetical remark offered as an example of his propensity for reading one classic work in the context of another: the two translations of Homer, that by Chapman and that by Pope, are on their own account classics of English literature. Melville, as a widely read man of the 19th century, was undoubtedly familiar with both, just as a modern student of literature would be familiar with both Marlowe's and Goethe's versions of the Faust story. If you ‘bracket out’ what lies between the dashes you are left with

    He was incapable of reading one classic without relating it to another or else contemplating how he himself would render the same material.

    This may be paraphrased

    Whenever he read a classic he was impelled to either relate it to another classic or wonder how he himself would treat the same material.

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  • Thank you, but this "incapable" means "unable" so it is negative. So I thought this was about his lack of ability. Is there another meaning? – user2492 Dec 26 '13 at 3:58
  • @kih1930 It doesn't mean incapable of reading - it means incapable of reading-without-relating-&c. He could not resist relating the classic he was reading to other classics. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 26 '13 at 13:09
  • Oh I see. So "contemplating" is part of "without", not "incapable of"? – user2492 Dec 26 '13 at 15:50
  • @kih the gerund contemplating takes a compound object [A or B], where A is 'relating it to &c' and B is 'contemplating how &c'. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 26 '13 at 17:47

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