Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.08.01

Gian Biagio Conte, Genres and Readers. Translated by Glenn W. Most. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. 185. $32.50. ISBN 0-8018-4679-X.

Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. 827. $65.00. ISBN 0-8018-4638-2.

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, University of California (Los Angeles).

Gian Biagio Conte's first work in English, The Rhetoric of Imitation, had the merit of introducing Americans to one of Italy's most productive and provocative readers of Latin poetry. That was, however, less a coherent book than a sampler drawn from a variety of earlier works. Its unity was necessarily somewhat contrived, and in the process C.'s scholarly style suffered some distortion.1 With the appearance of two more translated works, the picture has become much clearer, and his contribution to Latin studies is easier to assess.

Genres and Readers, too, is a composite work. Its chapters on Lucretius, Ovid, and the elder Pliny were conceived as introductions to Italian editions and translations. A fourth chapter on genre theory was written for a University of Texas symposium in 1990. (These four essays comprise the Italian edition of the present book, Generi e lettori [Milan 1991].) The fifth, a kind of retrospective entitled "The Rhetoric of Imitation as a Rhetoric of Culture," was presented, along with what is now Charles Segal's foreword, at a symposium on Professor Conte's work sponsored by the Vergilian Society at the APA Annual Meeting of 1991. Those two essays have already appeared in Vergilius 30 (1992). The Texas paper, under the title "Empirical and Theoretical Approaches to Literary Genre," was printed in Karl Galinsky's volume, The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics? (Frankfurt 1992), and the essay on Ovid's Remedia amoris appeared in Poetics Today 10 (1989). Thus only the chapters on Lucretius and Pliny are entirely new to English-speaking readers. The volume as a whole is nevertheless much better integrated than RI. It is also much better translated, without the jargon that occasionally mars that earlier representation of C.'s ideas. The voice here is more clearly his own, and it is time to do some serious listening.

"I was not born a theoretician," he tells us, "and theory is not my job; nor do I wish to train a generation of theoreticians. I am a philologist who is happy with his job and who is only trying to explain what he encounters in texts" (131). This is true and important. Despite the occasional claims of his American handlers, C. is not a theorist, and he does not make advances in literary theory. In fact, the one significant flaw in Genres and Readers is its lack of clarity on theoretical matters.

C. is aware, for example, that literary critics have abandoned naive talk of an author's intention. He therefore distinguishes what the author intends from what he calls "the text's intentionality" (xix). All this distinction produces, however, are odd and improbable personifications like "the Lucretian text's intention to transfigure Epicurus" (3) and "the interpretation of phenomena collected by Pliny's text" (88). C. himself can still refer interchangeably to "Pliny" and to "Pliny's text" (e.g. 87- 88), nor does he flinch from saying that "Virgil chooses a lofty voice for his text" or that "for Virgil, writing like Homer meant composing a work that could replace Homer's" (140). This last sounds to me very like a statement of authorial intent.2 C. doubtless relies on the fact that modern students of literature know that "authors" are largely back-formations from our own experience as readers and that "Virgil" thus becomes as much a critical shorthand as a proper noun. Not that C.'s distinction is meaningless. There are indeed verbal productions -- folktales, for example -- that do require us to speak of a text's intentionality because they lack authors. Folklorists face genuine difficulties in distinguishing tales from their tellings, performances from the things performed, and creation from reception. For them, the ideas of text, author, and intention are thoroughly problematic. Literary scholars have a considerable advantage, which we ought to admit without embarrassment or apology.

A second distinction between "the reader-addressee" and "the reader-interpreter" (xx) is much more significant and proves especially helpful in the chapter on Lucretius. C.'s observation of how DRN makes the reader responsive to its message by inducing discomfort with rival ways of thinking is valuable (23-24). Nor is the work's pattern of direct address merely a stylistic ornament: "Memmius" is the poem's creation and only notionally the praetor of 58. Yet the best demonstration of Lucretius' power over readers is not C.'s cool and urbane discussion, but the smoldering passion of William Ellery Leonard's comparable essay, which is as strikingly honest a response to the poem as it is unfashionable a quest for Lucretius the man.3 And here again, some of C.'s most interesting suggestions suffer from the insecurity of their theoretical base. We are told, for example, that Epicurus appears at the beginning of Book 1 as a Homeric hero prepared to duel against the evils of religion, an observation C. illustrates from Iliad 17.166 ff., where Glaucus reproaches Hector for not facing Ajax in single combat. The example is chosen for its verbal parallels, but in what sense is it truly, as C. claims, Lucretius' "model"? If the allusion is to an epic topos, why choose this one Homeric instance rather than another, and why choose a negative instance? C. is surprisingly unclear on what literary modeling means in such a context, and readers will not find help in RI. The point here about Epicurus is far more attractive than his earlier claims that Catullus 101 deliberately recalls the Odyssey proem or that Venus' intervention in Aeneid 2 is modeled on Athena's role in Iliad 1. Neither of those parallels withstands scrutiny: the philological arguments were faulty and C. confused his associations as a reader with those of Catullus and Vergil as writers. The basic insights here are much better and deserve fuller arguments in support.

The other problem with C.'s occasional nods to theory is the unnecessarily turgid and portentous language they induce. Examples: Lucretius' embrace of didactic poetry makes poetic expression "the noble raiment of a discourse that rediscovers its adequate codification, the necessary form of a discourse that wants to recuperate the linguistic charge of emotion" (10). I have only a vague idea of what this means, and no idea of why it must be so obscurely expressed. Nor does it help to say of Ovid that "elegiac subjectivity and didactic objectivity, almost like the elements of an emulsion, naturally tend to separate from each other, and they end up depositing a pure didactic form" (50). Is "pure didactic form" different from "didactic objectivity"? Is the change physical as one "substance" drops from the "emulsion," or is the precipitate a new compound formed by the literary equivalent of chemical means? The simile only gets in the way, and when C. then claims that the Remedia amoris "made authenticity the very form of its discourse" (54), my pedantic soul begins to protest that the elegiac couplet is the very form of its discourse. Not that C. cannot think and write clearly. He is good on the Remedia's play on the topos of love as sickness (35-44) and how the poem becomes not a palinode but a continuation of the praeceptor's lesson in love (56-60). I agree with him about the inadequacy of the Kreuzung der Gattungen notion (120-23) and the role of allusion in neoteric poetry (136-37). It is pleasant to see such comfortable ideas so elegantly expressed.

The virtues and limitations of C.'s approach are most apparent in the chapter on Pliny. He has the happy idea of introducing Pliny by setting the encyclopedist's passion in an intellectual context: "It is not the explorer's glory that can ever belong to Pliny. Instead, his was the good luck of coming at the beginning of a whole culture's autumn, when the fruits of the great classical season had already ripened..." (70). Pliny is "the first addressee" of the Greco-Roman book of nature, a transmitter rather than creator of knowledge. As he himself proclaims at NH 11.8, he will point out manifest properties (naturas manifestas indicare), not search for obscure causes (causas indagare dubias). This is not quite the aphorism C. implies -- the context is whether insects breathe -- but the general point is surely more true than otherwise.4 C.'s approach yields an appealing and appreciative treatment. Yet the picture starts to change its character, if not its broad outline, when we start filling in the details he omits.

There is indeed no text quite like Pliny's, but not because encyclopedism was inconceivable before him. If Pliny lived in his culture's autumn, that autumn was already over a century long. Though the encyclopedic impulse can no longer be claimed for the elder Cato, something very like it was certainly driving Varro, whose total oeuvre, had it survived, would be at least as impressive as Pliny's.5 Nor are Pliny's organizing principles easily categorized: a work on this scale defies generalization. C. nevertheless tries to generalize, and with mixed results.

He draws, for example, on Pliny's vast assortment of folk beliefs to illustrate how a principle of natural sympathy and antipathy (odia amicitiaeque rerum surdarum ac sensu carentium, 20.1) dominates his thinking. Thus, says C., deer's breath burns snakes and the odor of burnt deer's horn repels them (NH 11.279; 10.195, cf. C. p. 93). Folk belief, however, is not so easily rationalized. The efficacy of the burnt horn lies less in the deer than in the burning. Pliny is talking at 10.195 about odors (at 11.279 the subject was breath). Not only does burnt deer horn drive away snakes, but so especially (sed maxime, he goes on to say) does the smell of styrax-tree gum. Even today -- the beliefs Pliny reports are by no means restricted to ancient or pre-modern Europe -- burnt shoes and tablecloths ward off snakes. Garlic around the bed and onions in the shoe are supposed to work, just as the odor of gourds or mint planted around the house is thought to repel mice and rats.6 Antipathy (odium) can be a factor: sprinkle the ashes of a burned cat in your barn to ward off mice (the Romans of course recommended a weasel). Yet likeness (amicitia) may also do the trick: burn the mice you catch to discourage the others.7 No single principle explains such beliefs. The material is too complex and varied, a fact Pliny perhaps appreciated better than C. does. He works hard and enthusiastically to grasp the significance of this extraordinary work, but his schematizing is ultimately too parochial to do justice either to Pliny or to the Historia Naturalis.

Much of Genres and Readers seems somewhat overblown, but none of it is without intelligence. What would happen, I started to wonder, if C. dropped his oracular pose and set out in plain language what he finds interesting and important in Latin literature? The result might be compelling ... and so it proves.

It is no mere hype to say that Conte's History of Latin Literature, newly revised for this English edition, is not just an extraordinary intellectual achievement but a genuinely wonderful book. Elegantly translated by Joseph Solodow, it includes new sections on reception by Glenn Most and bibliographies recast for Anglophone readers by Don Fowler.8 Johns Hopkins has been generous, permitting margins wide enough for subheadings (an almost forgotten luxury these days), uncluttered pages, and clear type. Using this book is as much a physical as an intellectual pleasure, which is a good thing since it is destined to be used often. Its scope is immense, from Appius Claudius Caecus and Livius Andronicus to Venantius Fortunatus and the Venerable Bede, from the Twelve Tables to the dawn of national literatures. This scale confers a double benefit. The sheer scope of literary achievement in Latin is graphically displayed: 130 pages precede Catullus (only a fraction of these dedicated to Plautus and Terence), and over 150 remain after we finish with Apuleius. Detailed, sympathetic treatments of figures like Macrobius and Jerome are not just interesting in their own right, but encourage us to consider their roles in the reception of classical literature. In addition to all this are four appendices: a chronological table with parallel columns for Greek and Roman milestones from 814 B.C. (Timaeus' date for the founding of Rome) to A.D. 800 (the coronation of Charlemagne), an extremely useful list of Greek authors and texts (where, as befits the ecumenical design, Paul of Tarsus claims his rightful place between Parthenius of Nicaea and Phanocles), an explanation of Roman cultural terms from ambitio/ambitus to urbanitas/rusticitas (where even such controversial concepts as amicitia and clientela are judiciously presented), and a rather less satisfactory grab bag of rhetorical, metrical and literary critical terms (tolerable on things like anadiplosis and intertextuality, much weaker on res metrica). The emphasis throughout is on utility for newcomers and veterans alike.

C.'s book thus meets an important need: other seemingly comparable works are outdated or too uneven. Its very success, however, raises interesting questions about the relationship of literary theory to critical practice and about the stylistic registers we adopt for scholarly communication.

For one thing, the work is quite traditional. There is hardly a trace here of current debates over the objectives and methods of literary history and its legitimacy as a scholarly enterprise.9 C. adopts without hesitation such familiar headings as "The Age of Caesar" (surely Cicero would hesitate!), "The Age of Augustus," and "The Dawn of the Middle Ages." His presentation is largely chronological and distinctly author-centered: a typical entry presents an author's life, sources, works, reception, and bibliography in that order. All this is far from dry. C. has fresh thoughts on almost every author; excellent mini-essays on cultural and literary background bridge the inevitable gaps. C. also understands the artificiality of period divisions and is not afraid to violate them. Thus he occasionally disrupts the chronological scheme to make connections across their boundaries: discussion of Roman philology, for example, is delayed until the end of "The Early Empire" to provide a continuous history from Crates of Mallos to Aulus Gellius (pp. 571-87).

So predictable and uniform a presentation facilitates consultation, but the price for this administrative convenience is a certain loss of shape. An essay on "Neoteric Poetry and Catullus," for example, rightly observes that the emerging taste of the poetae novi "marks a decisive turn in the history of Latin literature" (136), but the volume itself is too unwieldly to negotiate so tight a corner. Nearly two hundred pages pass before, following discussions of Cicero, Caesar, Vergil, Horace, and more, C. returns to the neoteric legacy with Gallus and love elegy. All the pieces are present, but not the patterns and not the creative energy that shaped them. This is not necessarily a fault. C. has simply sacrificed fashion for utility.10 Those responsible for bringing this English version to fruition, however, have perhaps been less sensitive to the underlying theoretical problems than is C. himself. The Italian subtitle, manuale storico, is more honest, for this is indeed a handbook rather than a narrative history. The fact remains, however, that by largely ignoring theory, C. has produced a work that every Latinist will want within reach.

This brings me to a second point of interest, the striking difference in style between this and C.'s other works. The same observations that in Genres and Readers seemed belabored and obscure are here elegantly and compelling presented. There are good pages, for example, on Lucretius and sublimity (161-62). What C. really meant about Pliny and encyclopedism is now clear and correct (499-502), and the generous treatment of Varro provides important background (310-20). C.'s use of Latin examples can still be problematic. He quotes, for example, Vergil on the tents of Rhesus, "niveis tentoria velis / ... primo quae prodita somno / Tydides multa vastabat caede cruentus" (Aen. 1.469-71) and comments, "The reader perceives the whiteness of the tents only to see them stained with blood..." (283) as if Vergil had written cruenta.11 Such imprecision, however, is rare, and the intellectual slip-and-slide of RI is not much in evidence. This is, on the whole, an honest book honestly presented.

I put it down at last with immense respect for Professor Conte's knowledge and acumen, which now -- thinking back to Genres and Readers -- leaves me with a puzzle. C. can write clearly. He has good things to say. He can use theory without being intimidated by it. He loves Latin literature and wants others to love it, too. Why then is he ever turgid and imprecise?


  • [1] G. B. Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation. Trans. from the Italian. Edited with a Foreword by Charles Segal (Ithaca 1986). Cf. Conte's comments now in Genres and Readers, 130-31.
  • [2] Not all the Italian originals have been available to me, but where I have been able to check, the English translation accurately represents C.'s usage.
  • [3] W. E. Leonard, "Lucretius: The Man, the Poet, and the Times" in W. E. Leonard and S. B. Smith, T. Lucreti Cari De rerum natura Libri Sex (Madison 1942) 3-91.
  • [4] Rival 'aphorisms' could be found, e.g. 17.132: "as we are inquiring into the proper method not for a particular region but for the whole of nature" ("nobis non tractatus alicuius rationem verum naturae totius indagantibus"). Natura and indagare sound significant, but the method in question involves the grafting of plants.
  • [5] Cf. H. Dahlmann, "Varroniana," ANRW 1.3 (1973) 5: "Seine Polyhistorie und sein Encyclopädismus sicherten ihm einen Rang, wie ihn in der griechischen Welt niemand vergleichbar in allen Bereichen zugleich einnehmen konnte." A. E. Astin, Cato the Censor (Oxford 1978) 332-40 explodes the notion of Cato's libri ad filium as an encyclopedic work. C. of course knows all this (86), but does not allow that knowledge to complicate his picture.
  • [6] Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (Berlin 1927-42) 7: 1157 (Penn. Dutch) for shoes and tablecloths. Popular Beliefs and Superstitions ... from the Ohio Collection of N. N. Puckett, edd. W. Hand et al. (Boston 1981) no. 30810 (garlic); no. 30811 (onions); 17807, 17823 (mint). For the gourds, V. Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore (New York 1964) p. 258.
  • [7] For the cat ash, HdA 6: 50; the weasel variant is at Plin. NH 18.160. For the mice, Puckett no. 17811, cf. HdA 7: 519.
  • [8] These bibliographies, which do not ignore important scholarship in other languages, are extremely well done, but Americans will detect a certain privileging of British work. I first suspected this with the absence of J.T. Ramsey's excellent edition of the Bellum Catilinae (a best-selling APA textbook) from the Sallust bibliography, where even McGushin's commentary on the Penguin translation gets a mention. I became sure of it by the time I reached Vergil, which singles out Aeneid translations by Jasper Griffin and David West (no Fitzgerald or Mandelbaum), ignores W.S. Anderson's The Art of the Aeneid in favor of lesser books by Camps, Gransden, and (R.D.) Williams, and recommends Johnson's Darkness Visible (too brilliant and too American?) merely for its introductory survey of twentieth-century opinions.
  • [9] The introductory essay "Literary History and Historiography" (pp. 1-10) alludes -- without bibliography -- to the theorists' concerns. For the nature of the problem, see L. Patterson, "Literary History" in Critical Terms for Literary Study, edd. F. Lentricchia and T. McLaughlin (Chicago 1990) 250-62 and D. Perkins, Is Literary History Possible? (Baltimore 1992).
  • [10] Contrast the New History of French Literature (Cambridge, MA 1989), whose theory-wise editors produced a much more innovative and dramatic volume -- winning the MLA's equivalent of the Goodwin prize for their effort -- but not nearly as useful a reference work as C.'s.
  • [11] The English translation provided, "... the snowy-white canvas of the tents ... and Diomedes laying waste to them, bloodied with slaughter," supports C.'s comment with an ambiguity not found in the original. This tendency to fudge in C.'s direction is characteristic of RI.