ElAnt v1n8 - New Directions in Latin Literary Criticism

Volume 1, Number 8
April 1994


Review article:
Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception ,
Charles Martindale,
Cambridge, C.U.P. 1993, pp xvii + 117

Elaine Fantham,
Department of Classics,
Princeton University,
NJ 08544,
e-mail: fantham@pucc.Princeton.edu

Charles' Martindale's provocative book is one of the three opening sallies in the innovative critical series Roman Literature and its Contexts edited by Denis Feeney and Stephen Hinds. Both Martindale's own work --some powerful articles on Lucan, and two volumes Ovid Renewed (1988) and Horace Made New (1993) -- and the quality of the companion volumes of the new series by Philip Hardie ( The Epic Successors of Virgil ) and Duncan Kennedy ( The Arts of Love ) gave me high hopes in approaching the new book. The Table of Contents, with lively chapter and section headings, was appealing, and the preface set forth admirable principles: that we should seek to learn about great poets from their reception and incorporation by the tradition, indeed that the study of how Virgil (or Ovid or Lucan) was used by Dante or T.S.Eliot can throw as much light on the earlier poets as on their distinguished successors. M also promised analysis of specific texts for those (like me) 'whose taste for exegesis of texts exceeds their interests in explicit matters of theory'. Three of the four strands identified by M in his current thinking-- New Criticism with close textual reading, Bakhtinian theories of dialogue, and Reception theory have indisputably enriched contemporary approaches to Classical Literature, and M's declared preoccupation with the High Anglican metaphysics of T.S. Eliot seemed only legitimate in view of Eliot's significance in our jaded century and his renowned absorption of the Greek and Latin Classics into his thought and expression.

All this is positive, but is obviously leading to a negative response. The first problem is that M prefers the oracular indirect approach to communication. Thus his first chapter based on a five point approach through the concepts of reception, context, history, tradition and dialogue (xiv), is preceded by five unrelated epigraphs, each of which urges the indeterminacy and relativity of all reading or judgment: 1) that one's choice of theory determines what one is able to observe 2) that when the world is literary it is not 'wide enough for all of us', and we must proceed by tokens or traces 3) that an utterance with no intended application can lead others to false conclusions 4) that words are not stable but imprecise and elusive and 5)?? That we do not have the right to determine our use of words. Here I have taken liberties in trying to abstract a message from Humpty Dumpty's verbal solipsism (cf p. 34). But since M offers no connecting argumentation I may have misconstrued his intent: is it not M's responsibility to draw some immediate inferences from his adopted texts?

In fact his very proper protests at the relativity of our literary judgments swing to the opposite extreme from his first target, Richard Jenkyns. Certainly Jenkyns is mistaken in implying that without the subsequent pastoral tradition we would have had a 'Natural' understanding of Virgil's Eclogues : as M points out the reader/listener is never a tabula rasa and Virgil's first audience, whether or not they knew Theocritus, must have been discomfitted by the strange world that fuses Gallus with Daphnis and foretells a marvellous birth heralding a new age.

But is it really 'a denial of history' to attempt to recover the readings of an author's contemporaries? Because study of Rezeptions-Geschichte is fruitful it does not follow that the old Wilamowitzian requirement of reconstructing the world of the original audience is misguided. This is not to deny M's positive claims; that we can derive insights into ancient literature from imitations, metaphrase and paraphrastic translations, that 'our current interpretations are constructed by the chain of receptions through which their continued readability has been effected: that the very identity of a period is recognized as such only at the point of reception'. But what M goes on to say suggests that 'recognize' here (implying awareness of something true) is a misnomer, and that all periodizations are subjective and their relative validity unascertainable. Indeed we are threatened with the sin of 'occluded idealism' if we disagree. If, as he maintains, all the approaches (authorial intention, historical control, ideology, genre, literary history, the nature of language) are problematic, does it follow that we should not use a combination of three or four to reach a nicer appreciation of the text? Lowell Edmunds has recently demonstrated in From a Sabine Jar how repeated readings in and beyond the spirit of Jauss may progressively enrich our understanding of Horace Odes 1.9. Several approaches may converge on the same reading; indeed M's stimulating sample 'feminist' reading of Horace Odes 1.37 differs only in focus and terminology, not in outcome, from previous interpretations.

The fourth section, on history 'telling stories about the past' shows M at his best in detecting the subjectivity of historical thinking and therefore writing, but, as if he had let himself become too open, ends in the first of many unidentified quotations (from Eliot's Four Quartets p. 23). If M is unwilling to interpret the relevance of his text he could at least identify it so that the reader could return to Eliot's original context. This habit climaxes on p. 72 where a section ends with oneliners from Eliot, Macbeth , Hamlet and a German aphorism 'Gott is ein lauter (sic) Nichts' which no German friend of mine has been able to identify. How can we learn from his second hand wisdom if the contexts are suppressed? Or is M more concerned to impress his readers than to help them?

This is followed by an excellent discussion of canon formation by both critics and poets (note M's shrewd detection of Virgil 'inserting himself into the tradition of didactic by gathering to gather the whole spectrum of previous didactic literature'). But given the narrowing limits imposed on non-technical education in modern schools and universities, syllabuses themselves generate canons; better to hold to and gradually modify a canon of texts one has found important, and one confirmed by generations of reception and creative imitation before us.

In contrast the too rapid array of critical approaches in the section on dialogue teases with a plurality of reasons for despairing of communication as inaccessible or at best a fleeting happy accident; at the last minute however M swerves away from his negativity, rescuing the discouraged reader with two quotations that invoke faith in the power of the dead to communicate, although he has been using reason to deny it.

The second chapter proceeds from Harold Bloom's analysis of the inevitably parasitic relationship between the poet and a) his successors b) his critics, to study recent tendencies to find in Virgil a melancholy protest at the cost of Empire and cherish the aesthetics of sensitivity at the expense of Virgil's ideological message. M rightly suggests that we should judge the poet's purpose by his effect -- on Dante, who as a Christian implicitly rejects Virgilian Manicheism and a world view that cannot face evil and practices exclusion of other traditions -- on Lucan, who (as M shows in a fine comparison of Lucan's Caesar at the site of Troy with Aeneas at the site of Rome) deliberately destabilizes epic values, inverting Virgilian idealism. M sees Lucan's self-identification with Caesar's achievements as a 'kind of self-loathing and contempt for a worn- out and compromised tradition'. But is it Lucan or Virgil, or M who detects in Evander's Rome the '(attempted) erasure of conflict between Augustus' metropolis and rural simplicity'? And later, when M deals with 'Lucan restored', may I suggest that if we now read Lucan against the much later horrors of Jacobean tragedy or Goya or Lorca (p. 65), we would be more inclined to normalize him and less aware of his unique, unprecedented, political and aesthetic protest against tradition. It seems that those of us who recognized Lucan's brilliance before Henderson did not shout loud enough to claim attention. Why is it that one agrees with (has always already agreed with--I too can play this game) M's primary message but has to fight irritation and frustration at his polemics and deconstructive feints and baulks and disappearing acts in order to isolate the constructive aspects of his discourse?

In the third chapter M has much to offer our understanding of Ovid's challenge to the boundaries of genre and personality, and the narrative dissonances and ironies of the Metamorphoses . As an experienced student of Ovidian reception he draws vivid lessons whether from Marlowe's idiosyncratic Hero and Leander narrative or from Titian's versions of Actaeon and Marsyas: but surely he too is guilty of the subjective aesthetic he criticizes. When I saw Titian's Marsyas (cf. pp. 63-4) what struck me most forcibly was the denial of the pastoral, and the exclusion of clear colour and outline in favour of deaestheticized smudged contours of victim and flayers alike.

Ch 4. Translation as Rereading abridges a lively essay that appeared in Comparative literature 6 (1984); this begins with a well argued contrast between the Miltonic metaphrase and Dryden's paraphrase of Horace Odes 1.5: but surely M's praise of Miton's Pyrrha and Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius for 'driving a wedge between "then" and "now"' for political iconoclasm and defamiliarization, misses the point; in this age neither Propertius nor Horace need defamiliarizing and there are too many who may know Horace only through Milton's un-Englished word order or Propertius by Pound's self-indulgent distortion. Later, when M compares Dryden's version of Myrrha's soliloquy with Ovid's Latin text, he seems too rapidly to leave Dryden behind in favour of direct analysis, but at the same time neglects what could have been inferred about Ovidian moral relativity from other analogies drawn by Ovid from 'natural' animal behavior in the erotic corpus.

In the postscript, Redeeming the text , M passes with dizzying speed through a series of alternative critical approaches, before moving to a new level of argument. He seems to reject 'logocentric and rationalist critical modes', implying that they lack rspect for the texts they attempt to explain, and rejoices that instead 'language of a type which in the last two centuries would have appeared mainly in religious discourse has now been recovered within modern literary theory'. There is however something xeclusive in the prospect he offers the reader 'the idea of a tradition . . . a (partly) self-sufficient discourse habitable only from within in a (hopefully) non- exclusive communality with others' (M's parentheses, my asterisks). M does not notice the inherent contradiction between "inhabitable only from within" and the intended outreach of 'communality'. It is difficult to follow at this point his rapid passage into religious concepts, which surround his otherwise admirable major tenet that "any text has to be treated both as transhistorical and as contingent on a particular moment of history ' (p. 104), and his legitimate ideal of achieving ' a simultaneity of communion and difference ' between reader and text (p. 106).

At this point the postscript seems to discard once and for all literary considerations to meditate instead on the inadequacies of human exchanges and the need for 'self-transcendence'. This is indeed a religious message, which may reach very few and determany. I would go so far as to call it both regrettable and inappropriate, since pre-Christian Latin poetry -- M's ostensible subject matter -- is seldom metaphysical, and was intended for the pleasure of less exalted readers. If I cannot join in this higher game, I do not regret it, but like Dante's Virgil ( Purgatorio 30, see p. 48) feel it is time to part company and return to my unredeemed classical companions.

What ultimately matters most, of course, is not the critical reaction of old Fogies who grew up with the Classics, but the ability of the book to lead the next generation towards the texts which M clearly loves. And here M is his own enemy, enveloping hispositive approach in language more hermetic than hermeneutic. The texts still await redemption.

Elaine Fantham
e-mail: fantham@pucc.Princeton.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 8 - April 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606