Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.07


Karl Galinsky, The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics? Studien zur klassischen Philologie 67. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992. Pp. x + 249. ISBN 3-631-44741-8.


Reviewed by Denis C. Feeney, University of Wisconsin.

This book collects the papers given at a conference in Austin, Texas, in spring 1990, the intention being to provide non-classicists with examples of good current work in Latin, and to provide classicists with reflections on methodological issues. The fourteen papers are introduced by a substantial overview from the editor, Karl Galinsky. The techniques on display and the attitudes to contemporary literary theory are fairly disparate, but the overall atmosphere is one of guardedly open-minded conservatism. Latin studies are nowadays so split that this atmosphere will please only a small group: those to the 'left' will wonder why so many dead horses are still being so energetically flogged, while those to the 'right' will not see the point of engaging with theory at all, subscribing instead to the opinion of the fish in the pot in The Cat in the Hat ('He said, "Do I like this? Oh no! I do not."'). For my part, I agree with Karl Galinsky's view that we need to keep thrashing these issues out, not least because the alternative is to remain in the position described by Thomas Habinek (p. 239), in which 'we are treated with disdain by others in the humanities, and isolated from the larger discourse developing outside Departments of Classics'. As practically comical proof of Habinek's statement, reflect upon the fact that many Latinists will simply stop reading a sentence like that as soon as they bump into the word 'discourse'.

Someone who is not a zealot may feel that the debate is just hair-splitting, and that all unrancorous persons can meet together in the middle. But then I read Michael von Albrecht saying that 'it is hard to assess [the sincerity of Propertius' conversion to Augustanism] since we do not have external evidence such as private letters' (p. 178), or Peter Wiseman saying that Catullus' 'poem 16 presents Aurelius and Furius evidently assuming that the kiss poems told them something not about an implied narrator but about the author himself' (p. 60) -- and I find that their attitudes towards literarity are so different from mine that explicit discussion of the differences is necessary before we can get anywhere (are 'private letters' innocent documents, and is their relationship with poetry an innocent one? -- doesn't poem 16 take as its starting point the gap between poeta ipse and his uersiculi, a gap which Aurelius and Furius are mocked for not understanding?). Again, some of the contributors use the talismanic phrase 'the text itself', or 'the texts themselves', and are commended for doing so by the editor, who himself has a plea (in the middle of a discussion of reception-theory, of all places) that we 'take a fresh look at the text itself and proceed from there' (p. 11). I have to confess -- in no spirit of irony -- that I have no idea what people think they are saying when they utter this phrase nowadays (in use, of course, the phrase signals clearly enough 'my set of prior assumptions rather than yours'). The fact that professional Latinists can differ so much in such matters is proof that Galinsky was right to think that a lot more debate was necessary (and he has his own diverting anecdotes to make the point). Whatever else the book may achieve, it certainly demonstrates that we cannot avoid reflecting upon what we do. Avoiding 'theory' (however defined) is no longer an option, as is proven by W.R. Johnson's paper: this exhilarating plea that we should return to the 'fairly simple' delight of reading comes buttressed with footnotes debating the finer points of the interpretation of Roland Barthes.

The volume's main methodological contribution is to be found in Karl Galinsky's substantial introductory essay, the longest paper in the volume. Since it is the only piece to attempt systematically to locate Latin studies within a wide range of contemporary theoretical debates, it is bound to attract the bulk of a reviewer's attention. Galinsky commands a robustly knock-about style (which is, as you will see, rather contagious). Many writers on these topics follow the advice given to writers on the staff of The Economist: 'Simplify, then exaggerate'. Galinsky turns this dictum on its head, preferring 'Simplify, then minimise'. His rhetorical method is to give an anodyne version of a contemporary school's position, and then draw the few remaining teeth by saying that this is no more than any decent classicist had known all along. A bit of Terry Eagleton against interpretative free-for-all goes in (p. 24), not because Galinsky has any sympathy for the Marxist position which informs and conditions the quotation, but because Eagleton's is an authoritative name and 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Galinsky gives us a tour of reception-theory which aims at showing (p. 11) that we can take 'into account the historicity of the ancient text and that of subsequent interpretations, including ours' (but not including Michael Putnam's, pp. 9-11); despite pages of close argument, it is still a shock to discover that a discussion of reception-theory can lead to the business-as-usual conclusion that 'we are dealing with an intentional and authorially defined polysemy' (p. 12). Again, the New Historicists turn out to be little Wilamowitzes après la lettre, aiming 'at the illumination of culture ... from the perspective of various relevant academic fields: literature, history, anthropology, art history, religion, etc.' (pp. 17-18). Even after detouring through New Historicism's acknowledged 'congeniality to postmodern attitudes', Galinsky still feels able to claim that 'attention to the historical aspects of literature is by no means old-fashioned but turns out to be a constituent part of the current critical scene' (p. 18). The sortie has left the categories of 'history' and 'literature' wholly unscathed.

One school of thought, Derridaean deconstruction, cannot be sanitised in this fashion, and the solution is to travesty it. According to Galinsky (p. 5), in answer to the question 'What does this text mean?', 'deconstructionists by and large will answer with "nothing at all"'. As far as I can see, deconstructionists by and large will answer with 'far too much for anyone to cope with'. Bernard Harrison puts it well in Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory (New Haven, 1991), the only remotely plausible attempt at reconciling res olim dissociabiles, deconstruction and humanism: 'Deconstruction is not ... to be equated with the thesis that texts can mean anything you like, but with the thesis that texts can always turn out to mean more than you might prefer them to mean, which ... is a very different matter' (p. 37). Those who are used to establishing firm conclusions are bound to be impatient with talk of 'indeterminacy', and they want to equate it with 'meaninglessness', but this is a category-mistake, one closely analogous to the confusion between 'contingency' and 'randomness' in history and evolution (on which see Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History [NewYork, 1989], p. 283).

Well, I said that Galinsky's style was contagious. Even if I do think that his approach is, as they say, recuperative, he is addressing the issues, and it is certainly refreshing to see a professional Latinist who is not apologising all the time, but who thinks the discipline has something to teach others. Galinsky is quite correct to claim that there are areas in which classicists -- even Latinists -- have anticipated scholars in other fields (though this may only be an illustration of the fact that in scholarship, as in long-distance running, you can be so far behind that, just before you get lapped, it looks as if you are ahead). Latinists have too often tended to use their pride in their hard-won interdisciplinary philological skills as an excuse not to cultivate any other skills, but the fact remains that the skills, so long as they do not become an end in themselves, are something to be proud of. Frances Yates attracts the awe of Frank Kermode for having good Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and he asks 'How many scholars could you say that of quickly?' (Poetry, Narrative, History [Oxford, 1990], p. 96). No doubt Frances Yates was more fluent in more of these languages than are all but a handful of us, but Kermode is nonetheless listing only the basic linguistic equipment of the professional classicist. The question is whether we can preserve those skills while acquiring the extra ones we need for breaking out of the slender beachhead we now occupy.

The papers create the cumulative impression that the conference must have been an enjoyable and exciting occasion. There is one piece of discussion included à la Fondation Hardt, following Charles Segal on 'Boundaries and Lucretius' and Frederick Ahl's response. The transcript shows people speaking clearly and frankly, and helping each other to get somewhere in the process. Segal adopts a psychoanalytic approach to the issue of fear of boundary violation in Lucretius, and in so doing touches on one of the most difficult issues in criticism today, 'of whether concepts and procedures that are completely extraneous to the culture and historical moment of an ancient text can validly be brought to bear on it' (p. 153). He takes the sting out of his question, though, with his assumption (shared, I imagine, by the majority of classicists) that 'certain categories of human experience are universal', stating: 'We all have bodies and we all fear death'. Ahl acutely calls the universality of the statement into question, pointing to those ancients who had a passion for death, and bringing up the problem of how natural it is to assume that the experience of the body is a trans-cultural constant (pp. 162-3). Segal in discussion shows that he has not taken the force of Ahl's objections (p. 171), but the whole encounter nonetheless shows the value of Galinsky's wish to have open debate about why we read the way we do.

Each reader of this volume will differ over which essays to like most and least. For me the high points were Gian Biagio Conte on genre, a paper which glides through the 'life-literature' jungle with an irresistible convincingness, together with Thomas Habinek on the disasters inflicted on Latin studies by the Romantic creation 'of a hierarchy between Greece and Rome that privileged the former and denigrated the latter' (pp. 227-8). Habinek has some splendid things to say about the way in which 'Latinists have acquiesced in their own subordination. Like colonized people everywhere, we have tended to mimic, even to exaggerate, the discourse and attitudes of the metropolitan power' (p. 236). It is striking that these essays are coming from a recognisably and uniquely Latinist tradition, since no one but a Latinist could have written them, and that they are informed by a range of modern methodologies without being in thrall to any single one. Nowhere in the collection are we subjected to what so often passes for innovative Latin criticism, in which a grid of one kind or another is borrowed from a modern school and pressed, immutatis mutandis, upon the hapless body of the Latin text. Nor is there anywhere an ostentatious parade of code words, of the kind which already attracted the derision of Addison almost three hundred years ago: 'A few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicious and formidable critic' (The Spectator no. 291, Saturday Feb. 2, 1712). Rather, each writer in the volume would give some kind of assent to Johnson's claim that 'literary theory, like the various branches of classical philology itself, exists for the sake of the poems, not the poems for the sake of the literary theory' (p. 211).

The papers in this volume show that Latinists do have something distinctive and valuable to contribute. Maybe the Hellenists, after their extraordinary spurt of the last twenty-five years, are running out of puff. Maybe organicist myths are finally going out of style, and the late twentieth century may find more to respond to in 'the sorrows of the ancient Romans'. As Galinsky says, it is up to us to make it possible, so that we can be credible when we tell our colleagues that they cannot go on teaching Renaissance studies without knowing Latin themselves and demanding it of their students. All it needs is a bit of humility and a bit of nerve.