Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.26

Don Fowler, Roman Constructions. Readings in Postmodern Latin.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. xvi, 350.  ISBN 0-19-815309-0.  

Reviewed by William S. Anderson, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 1925 words

Don Fowler, for twenty years the beloved Tutor at Jesus College, Oxford and the admired theorist and practitioner of postmodern reading of Latin literature, died at 46 in October, 1999. He had been working on the collection of essays that I am reviewing when he received the grim news of his terminal cancer, to which he referred ironically in the final section of the book, which has its special title, "Ending Up." But well into 1999 he had led an active scholar's life, participating in conferences in Western Europe and completing publications.

This collection consists of nine partly revised articles that Fowler published between 1989 and 1998, to which he has added three papers that appear here for the first time. For those not familiar with Fowler's work -- and there can't be many Latinists in that unfortunate state at this time -- the dust cover chosen by Oxford University Press (and perhaps by Fowler himself) introduces us to the kind of irony of which he was fond. It shows a photograph of a young Roman plastering over a street sign formerly identifying a piazza named for the reactionary poet-soldier Gabriele d'Annunzio, giving it a new name, Piazza della Repubblica. The arm and camera of another photographer is seen fixing this significant moment for Italian history. The Piazza now brings the upper end of the Via Nazionale to a majestic close, then opens onto the National Museum in the Baths of Diocletian and the approach to the modern railroad station. The occasion for that re-naming, several years before Fowler's birth, was the postwar referendum in 1946 that broke all connection with the Kingdom of Italy and its dictator Mussolini and created the Republic, which has prevailed through government after government for over fifty years now. The irony inheres not only in the apparent political emphasis of the photograph but also in the historical change from Kingdom to Republic: the very reverse of the situation in Rome for the writers Fowler treated. Moreover, it seems evident that the political changes, from Kingdom to Republic in 1946 or from Republic to Principate after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., were constitutional constructions achieved by the Roman leaders and the populace, whereas the "Roman Constructions" that Fowler discusses are essentially his constructions (and de-constructions) based on his reading of various Latin texts. He was a challenging, provocative reader, but there has been no public referendum to discredit permanently the criticism that Fowler challenged and replace it with Fowler's. That makes reading these essays, even ten years after their appearance, an exciting experience not just an historical exercise. Latin literature is less constructively settled than Roman history, whether ancient or modern, and Fowler's valuable ideas deserve our close consideration.

Fowler wrote a useful general introduction to his collected essays. Then, after arranging them into four groups, he wrote short introductions to each of these. These introductions are his latest critical thoughts: they often not only explain the origins of the individual papers but also offer some self-criticism and updating of his readings. Since two of the chief virtues of Fowler's style of post-modernism are the serious but ironic manner in which he pursues his goals and the always modest way in which he articulates his really impressive achievements, we always feel we are engaged with a probing mind who enjoys the demands of literary criticism and seeks to make his readers do the same. He was a remarkably clear writer as well as a penetrating reader of Latin, Greek, and a vast range of criticism.

Fowler placed an essay of 1994 first, to function as still another introduction to his thinking: "Postmodernism, Romantic Irony, and Classical Closure." Arguing effectively against the common assumption that classical works achieve a satisfactory closure, he came to a striking formulation at the end: Romantic irony "is the only attitude toward antiquity that it is possible for us now to take." (p.33) Then, he cleverly added that such an assertion was "contingent." He did in fact soon modify that view.

Part I of the collection Fowler entitled "Points of View," and here he placed some of his earliest and most provocative papers: the famous one on "Deviant Focalization in the Aeneid" of 1990, another entitled "Narrate and Describe: The Problem of Ekphrasis" of 1991; and finally "Even Better than the Real Thing: A Tale of Two Cities"(1996). Deviant focalization was a technique that Vergil employed to expose his audience to a viewpoint that was not simply that of the poet or of the narrator within the poem but that functioned in conflict with the context. Thus, the Aeneid registers the complexity and multiplicity of meanings which make it so rich and always appealing to the inquiring mind of Fowler. Ekphrasis was just becoming an interesting topic to classicists in 1991, but now, with the book of Putnam, it has advanced considerably for Vergil's epic. Fowler used the ekphrasis of Aeneas viewing the scenes at Juno's temple in Carthage, an extraordinarily rich episode; and he was already able to show that the description occupied a vital role in the narrative: that there was more to be realized than the relatively obvious fact that Aeneas was a very mistaken reader of the scenes. In the third paper, from 1996, Fowler again studied ekphrasis, this time using a series of scenes in a temple at Liternum that Silius Italicus showed Hannibal studying in Punica 6.657 ff., shortly after the great victory at Trasimene. The scenes supposedly depict in successive panels the complete triumph of the Romans over the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. Hannibal studies them with increasing indignation and, with the confidence inspired by his recent successes, wildly predicts the total extermination of Rome and the victory of the power of Carthage. Again, Fowler goes beyond that mistaken reading to emphasize the importance of multiple viewpoints. If many of us grew up with the ideal of the single correct reading attained by proper philology, we are challenged by Fowler's ideal critical scene: a group of friends arguing in a pub afterwards about a film that they have just seen together and separately interpreted (p.107).

Fowler entitled Part II "Intertextualities," and he assigned it three papers from a more recent period that particularly reflect the interests of the last six or seven years. The first originally functioned as the introduction to the volume edited by himself and Stephen Hinds, Memory, Allusion, Intertextuality for Materiali e discussioni 39 (1997), and deals with the theory of intertextuality in classical studies. Fowler argued effectively that intertexts are less a matter of the writer's intention and conscious allusion than a fact of language itself; as such, there is not one right intertext for a passage but multiple numbers, whose validity depends on how special and interesting they turn out to be. Theoretically, the list of intertexts would be almost infinite, to which the reader's ideology gives meaning by personal choice and emphasis. The second paper, "Philosophy and Literature in Lucretian Intertextuality," has never been published, but it was originally given at a conference in 1995 and was slated to appear in a volume containing the papers of that gathering, which appeared in 1997. Not having finished it satisfactorily for publication at that time, Fowler did a nice job of fitting it to this last volume. Typically, he started with an apparent antithesis familiar to most classicists, which he then deconstructed, demonstrating that Lucretius used literary myth to make philosophic points and later readers used his philosophic accounts, for example, of mental disturbances, to produce personal poetry on the symptoms of love, as Catullus does in C. 51. Finally, a completely new paper, "Pyramus, Thisbe, King Kong: Ovid and the Presence of Poetry," takes up the theme of presence in Ovid's story of Pyramus and Thisbe, then shows the theme again in a curious opera staged at Glyndebourne in 1995, Harrison Birtwhistle's The Second Mrs. Kong.

Part III, entitled "Realities," deals, in three papers, with what Fowler's introduction (p.171) ironically terms "an adaptation to the market of the early 1990s, where intertextuality with monuments, inscriptions, and sociological constructions became fashionable." They again come from the last period of his life, 1996-98, and all are concerned with Vergil. In the first chapter, "Opening the Gates of War: Aeneid 7.601-40," Fowler showed that we cannot fix a satisfactory meaning to this scene except by letting our personal ideology decide the issue. Is war the essence of Rome, or is Rome ideally a creative mix of war and peace striving for imperial order? But we should deconstruct that antithesis and realize that shutting the gates is an action of deadening male control, whereas Juno's "illegal" smashing open of the gates is an act of female creative energy. The next chapter, "The Ruins of Time: Monuments and Survival at Rome," argues that all ruins become monuments, and vice-versa: all monuments become ruins. As in the preceding paper, the point is that every monument is always subject to "multiple interpretation." And Fowler ended on the conflicted meanings of the baldric stripped from Pallas and worn by Turnus as he appealed for mercy to Aeneas: it was monimenta doloris (12.945), with different meanings for its original maker, for the savagely angry Aeneas, and for Vergil's audience then and now. Lastly, "God the Father (Himself) in Vergil" was originally given to the Vergilian Society. It responded to recent investigation of the Roman family which tended to alter the prevailing bias against the Roman father as harsh, cold, and overbearing: the fact is, that many Roman fathers were warmly concerned for their children and their future, and many died before they could exercise fatherly tyranny against their grown children. They were the source of authority in the family, but the members of the family could often recognize that that authority worked in distinctly personal ways relevant to themselves. Fowler examined the use of pater ipse in Latin, especially in Aeneid 2.617-18, where Aeneas hears that Jupiter in his role as "father himself" has given the advantage over Troy to the Greeks. That shows the ambivalence that Fowler found in Roman paternal authority.

Part IV devotes two chapters to closure, under the title of "Ending Up." The first is the earliest paper Fowler included in this collection, from MD 22 (1989): "First Thoughts on Closure: Problems and Prospects." It is a wonderful survey for its time of the critical situation with regard to closure and the areas that need exploration among classicists. As an early article, it tends to maintain the antithesis between closed and open works, but to explore it with great sensitivity. As he showed, despite the commonplace of some students of later European literature, it simply is not true that classical drama and lyric poetry aimed for and achieved a satisfactory and expectable closure. Many classical works are open-ended, of which the Aeneid is a notable example. Eight years later, Fowler came back to the subject in the introduction to a volume of essays on Classical Closure which he edited with Roberts and Dunn in 1997. He argued for deconstructing that antithesis between closed and open, between male and female in the Aeneid. So Fowler ended up this collection, as he began, on closure, but he had come a long way: his near constructions of his early papers gave way to ironic deconstructions. It is a tragedy that his inquiring critical mind did not have time to lead us into further ironies. But these papers are a fitting memorial to his significant achievement for Latin studies.

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