Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.21

Alison Sharrock, Helen Morales (ed.), Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. xii, 363.  ISBN 0-19-924093-0.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Ellen Oliensis, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 2611 words

When I volunteered to review this collection, I was planning to take the occasion to compose a polemic in favor of partial reading. Here's what I mean: When I pick up a collection in a bookstore, I don't ask myself if, and how well, it hangs together. Instead, I look to see if it contains individual essays I think I'd find interesting; if it has enough of them, I buy it. This probably means that I am a bad reader of collections . But I can't believe I am the only one. How many readers sit down and read collections -- or monographs, for that matter -- cover to cover? (Some readers usually do, I grant; even I do, sometimes, when a book falls right at the center of my interests; but still ...) What is the point of table of contents and index, if not to enable readers to hopscotch through a book, producing their own individualized, abbreviated editions for personal use? So I am usually dissatisfied with reviews that blast collections (or laud them) for failing to achieve (or achieving) some higher good, some larger goal. This isn't what I mostly care about anyway. My own inclination would be to deal with the collection piecemeal, for example by discussing in detail my two favorite essays, or by skewering the two I liked least, or by following the Wittgensteinian thread that winds through the volume (difficult, in the absence of an index entry, but potentially rewarding).

This inclination might well make me an ideal reviewer of Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations. As the title suggests, the collection addresses the internal articulations of texts -- in Alison Sharrock's elegant formulation, "how parts relate to parts, wholes, and holes" (5). How the parts of this collection relate to each other, and to the collection taken "as a whole," is thus a question implicated in the collection's own concerns. How to approach it? A partial reader such as myself may be heartened by the editors' insistence that "the strategy of intratextuality, as we are developing it here, is a self-consciously anti-totalizing concept" (7), and from their warning that the collection will yield no "grand theory" of intratextuality (7, 326). And yet, reading this collection as a reviewer, i.e. cover to cover, I found it harder and harder to justify presenting for general consumption the idiosyncratic hopscotching I would have performed, had I confronted the collection as an "ordinary" reader. Isn't the reviewer there precisely to enable the user to dip in and out of a book without worrying too much about the big picture? So I find I have changed into the very creature I was posing as: a reviewer, interested in the theoretical questions raised by the collection taken as a "whole" and considering its parts chiefly from that perspective.

Let me begin, however, by offering a summary itemization of parts. The collection is framed by the editors' meditations on the intratextual project: Alison Sharrock contributes an extended theoretical introduction ("Intratextuality: Parts, (W)holes, and Texts in Theory"), Helen Morales a brief "Endtext." In between, we get the following, sorted out in two parts (the second heralded by a brief "Editorial Preface"):

Part I: Richard Martin, "Wrapping Homer Up: Cohesion, Discourse, and Deviation in the Iliad"; Helen Morales, "Sense and Sententiousness in the Greek Novels"; Don Fowler, "Epic in the Middle of the Wood: Mise en Abyme in the Nisus and Euryalus Episode"; Elena Theodorakopoulos, "Catullus, 64: Footprints in the Labyrinth"; Andrew Laird, "Design and Designation in Virgil's Aeneid, Tacitus' Annals, and Michelangelo's Conversion of Saint Paul"; Carole Newlands, "Connecting the Disconnected: Reading Ovid's Fasti";

Part II: Duncan Kennedy, "Making a Text of the Universe: Perspectives on Discursive Order in the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius"; Jon Hesk, "Intratext and Irony in Aristophanes"; Matthew Fox, "Dialogue and Irony in Cicero: Reading De Republica"; John Henderson, "The Life and Soul of the Party: Plato, Symposium."

The collection is in some respects a counterpart to the 1997 collection Classical Closure, edited by Deborah Roberts, Francis Dunn, and Don Fowler. Like the earlier volume, this one features a wide range of styles, approaches, and topics. But it is inevitably less coherent; intratextuality is a larger, looser concept than "closure" (itself large and loose enough). As I noted above, the editors did not compel contributors to sign onto a single definition of intratextuality, and there are several different versions laid out here. For this reader, the most satisfying -- comprehensible, usable -- is that offered by the editors. This is a definition grounded in form, "intratextuality" as a practice of textual segmentation and recombination: "part-ing," as Sharrock puts it (11); "a property of texts where the internal design, structure, and partition of the text are particularly paraded," in Morales' words (326). One paradigmatic strategy of intratextual reading is to consider the contribution of seemingly wayward parts (digressions, purple patches, etc.) to the "wholes" from which they diverge; one key issue, especially for Sharrock, is the possibility of resisting this movement toward totalization, of granting the parts some measure of autonomy.

It is this version of intratextuality that is assumed and explored by the essays grouped in Part I, those defined by Sharrock (with intentional looseness) as "more concerned with 'formal' issues" (8). An exemplary evasion of the parts-vs.-whole controversy is performed by Martin's essay on the Iliadic Nestor, which rejects both "tight" (monumentally structured) and "loose" (purely paratactic) approaches in favor of the middle ground of the episode and the local intratextual relations of framing, mise en abyme, and juxtaposition. Another suggestively middling approach is furnished by Fowler's Virgilian meditation on the "under-theorized" (109) labyrinthine middle in which, as Fowler underscores, we are fated to live and read most of our lives. The labyrinth is also a key figure in Theodorakopoulos' exploration of the ecphrastic complexities of Catullus 64. Morales makes a case for the reading sententiae, those sharply demarcated textual bits, back into the novels they stud; and Newlands demonstrates the interpretive rewards of connecting disparate and distant sections of Ovid's Fasti. Laird theorizes and illustrates the mutual entanglement of intra- and intertextuality.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, these essays, singly and/or collectively, should prompt a good number of readers to copy down the recipe, or at least to take note of the ingredients. They offer, as Sharrock promised they would, "a more explicitly self-conscious 'grammar' of the contribution of internal textual relationship to reading" (6). I have more trouble with Part II of the collection. It's not that readers won't find this part -- parts of it anyway, according to taste -- quite delicious; it's just that there doesn't seem to be a recipe. "Intratextuality" has become so capacious, encompasses so much, as to be without obvious utility. For Hesk, for example, intratextual thinking "engages with the question of how different 'parts' of a discrete work ... relate or do not relate to each other" (227); here "parts" appears in quotes because it includes not only textual segments (digressions, speeches, chapters, etc.) but any element a critic might isolate and compare with another element -- elements of characterization, theme, politics, and so on. For Fox, likewise, "intratextuality pertains not just to different portions of the text, but to different kinds of authority and different forms of expression" (267). This "intratextuality" is an unwieldy instrument, and in the event its deployment does not advance but actually hampers the arguments Hesk and Fox have in train. For Kennedy, by contrast, "intratextuality" describes the position of the reader who confronts from within the Lucretian "text of the world, the world as text" (225) -- an elegant application of the term (effectively encapsulating the Derridean "il n'y a pas de hors-texte"), but one that keeps its distance from reading practices, and that remains peripheral to Kennedy's essay, which focuses on the uses and risks of anthropomorphism in Lucretius' poem. (The Hendersonian finale, with its interest in segmentation and practice of fragmentation, is more engaged with (what I'd call) specifiably intratextual questions, and could have appeared in Part I, were it not Henderson's fate always to be given the last word -- the life and soul of the party.) I resist these extensions of "intratextuality" because I think they deprive the term of its value. In its narrower acceptation, the one involving "parts" in the sense of textual units -- "words, sentences, paragraphs, episodes, scenes, exempla, digressions, ekphrases" (Sharrock, 19) -- I believe the term deserves and will achieve currency.

I'll move toward ending by bringing up two issues that the collection raises but cannot resolve. The first concerns the old problem of authorial intention. According to Laird, who mounts a lucid defense of the collection's new-fangled term, it is precisely that problem that "intratextuality" is designed to address. Like intertextuality, "intratextuality" enables readers to describe textual phenomena without attaching them to authorial intention: "'design' implies authorial intention ('the author designs'); 'intratextuality' does not" (Laird, 146). Being anything but a purist, I am not distressed (neither is Sharrock; see 10 n.19) to find that other contributors to Intratextuality do not cleave to this distinction: Theodorakopoulos, while evincing a deconstructive pleasure in the displacement of origins, has no hesitation in identifying Catullus' authoritative voice and intentions (117, 136, 137); Newlands argues that the fragmentation of the Fasti is "part of a conscious design" (201); Fox puts Cicero in control of the ironies generated by the dialogue form (272); and so on. The persistence of the author in no way invalidates the project of this volume; indeed, that persistence, in the face of the depersonalizing intratext, shows how hard it is to do away with that originary origin. Is it necessary? I've never felt it was, except where the author was appealed to, in circular style, to close down argument, whether by authenticating or by ruling out a given reading ("This isn't my idea, it's Virgil's"; "That's your idea, not Virgil's"). This strategy shows up here too; the aesthetics of some of the authors under discussion bear a suspicious resemblance to those of the scholars writing about them (e.g., Catullus shares Theodorakopoulos' "mistrust of grand teleological narratives," 124). Even so, how serious a problem is this? I can just make the translation silently in my mind, from one author to the other, and then I may find that the approach does after all illuminates dimensions of the text that had been shadowed before. The only theoretical objection I will raise -- and this only because Laird is himself something of a purist -- is directed at Laird's oddly positivistic confidence in naming as an index of interpretive validity. Arguing that Virgil's relation to Homer is a readerly construction (not an "objective truth"), Laird emphasizes that "nowhere does the Aeneid name Homer, the Iliad, or the Odyssey" (148); "even if Virgil may seem (to some readers) to quote Homer, no verdict can be decisive unless Homer is named" (148 n.11). But would the verdict be decisive if Homer were named? The inclusion of Homer's name within Virgil's text, even in the neighborhood of an apparent Homeric citation, would prove nothing about Virgil's relation to Homer (compare Dante's naming of Homer in the Commedia, or T. S. Eliot's notorious footnotes to "The Waste Land"); the name would be just another textual fact, with no special supratextual status, as subject to interpretation as everything else in the text.

The other issue I'd raise about this collection stems from its recurrent (occasionally disdainful) collocation of traditional or "academic" scholarship in classics with the drive toward totalization, unity, closure -- this collection marking, by contrast, a liberating, postmodern appreciation of fragmentation and discontinuity. By and large, however (one interesting exception is the carefully bifurcated Aristophanes offered up by Hesk), the essays in Intratextuality, practice, in this regard, a traditional mode of analysis, integrating parts with parts into larger wholes: "connecting the disconnected," in Newlands' phrase. Sharrock is eloquent and intelligent on the lures of unity (22); it is a lure that these essays tend not to resist. And why should they? Once upon a time the threat came from the other side; I remember with what strong emotion I read, twenty years after the fact, J. P. Sullivan's introduction to the 1962 collection Critical Essays on Roman Literature, where the very possibility that criticism (New Criticism) of Roman literature could be written, could be legitimate, was raised. Sullivan's opening sally sets the tone: "A book which purports to be a collection of critical essays on ancient literature has to face the misgivings of the sceptical reader, who is well aware that the study of Greek and Latin literature as literature presents peculiar difficulties in a way linguistic scholarship and textual criticism do not." It was this tone that moved me: determined, but painfully polite, hedged about with concessions and disclaimers, the elaboration of the formulae of apology indicating how threatening Sullivan believed the collection would be to, how hostile its reception by, the then establishment. In fact one aim of Intratextuality is to mount a defense of the continuing value and relevance of close reading, this time in the face not of philological philistinism but of (certain impoverished versions of?) cultural studies: "close readings of the textuality of texts are essential for effective historicist analysis" (Morales, 88; see further Sharrock, 3 and Morales, 329; the practitioners of detextualized historicism pass unnamed, and are I suspect straw people). I don't mean to suggest that Intratextuality is the direct heir to Sullivan's collection (which is dated, unlike some of the more enduring monuments of New Criticism, by its emphasis on evaluation), or that reading practices haven't moved well beyond new criticism, and in directions the New Critics would have found quite objectionable. But the collection does owe a debt, as do most of us who spend our time interpreting Greek and Latin texts, to the venture Sullivan was helping to launch. This debt is acknowledged by Morales, who notes that the collection's project, while diverging in its emphasis on the "political consequences" of intratextual description, "has its roots" in "New Criticism" (328).

If one were really, radically to resist unity, if one were seeking the best forum for the celebration of surface and discontinuity, one would circle back behind New Criticism and take up not the interpretive essay but the commentary. At one point Sharrock alludes to the commentary-tradition as a staple of classical training and as a "genre, more than any other" that "encourages fragmentation" (5). It would have been interesting to see someone take on this "genre" directly, or at least put its radical aesthetics into play. Henderson, it is no surprise, comes the closest here, providing in effect a running commentary on the Symposium, one that offers less a thesis than a reading procedure. In fact there is a whole generation of classical scholars who began by writing literary criticism and have since composed or are now at work on commentaries. How do these commentaries interact with their author's interpretive studies? Do/should their authors resist the seductions of synthetic interpretation? Will they scatter their readings, like the torn body of Orpheus, across their texts, to be painstakingly recomposed by their studious readers? And should we be braced for the possibility, in the case of some commentaries "in preparation," that their notes ad loc. may slip out of their assigned niches, reappearing some months later as articles, thereby indefinitely deferring their authors' submission to the tyranny of the form? What are the pleasures, finally, that lurk, as they must, in the writing of a commentary, apart from the pleasures of duty performed, the community served? Guilty pleasures? Pleasures of the part?

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