Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.17

Malcolm Heath, Interpreting Classical Texts.   London:  Duckworth, 2002.  Pp. 153.  ISBN 0-7156-3174-8.  £9.99.  

Reviewed by Janet Sullivan, University of Leeds (
Word count: 2204 words

I have, at the outset, to declare an interest. Malcolm Heath is a colleague of mine, and was one of my doctoral examiners. This makes it particularly difficult to say that this is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking little books that I have read for a very long time. Interpreting Classical Texts is fundamentally a critique of literary criticism which urges and argues for reflective disagreement as a positive force in textual interpretation. The book is part of a series which aims to introduce polemical, revisionist, or exploratory essays. In a sense, H.'s book is none of these. It is not polemical in that it is a critique, rather than a criticism, and is based on theoretical common sense rather than controversy; it is not revisionist, except in so far as some might still consider it unnecessary to engage in systematic thought about the way in which ancient texts might be approached, a mind-set that H. suggests in his preface set him apart as eccentric during his own doctoral studies at Oxford; and it is not exploratory, unless one expands the term to allow for a personal journey to an open-ended discovery of one's own preconceptions, prejudices and cultural constraints.

The book is divided into four chapters: interpretation and dissent; variety in interpretation; good intentions; and contexts and consequences. Each chapter is itself subdivided into four or five sub-sections which develop an argument that leads gently but inexorably into deeper and more detailed considerations of stances of textual interpretation in the subsequent sections.

In 1.1 H. considers disagreement: he argues that not only might consensus be consensus in error, but that disagreement itself can be productive, with variant interpretations helping to refine and consolidate each other; as such, it is unimportant that disagreements can thus become more entrenched, because this itself signals a safeguard against complacency and can therefore be seen as a necessary dynamic that drives enquiry forward. 1.2 takes the argument forward, and introduces us to Alan and Barbara as mechanisms for determining the need to ascertain the specific questions that are being asked about any particular text. Alan, for example, argues that Sophocles meant to make explicit from the start of the Antigone that Creon was in error when he banned Polynices' burial -- this is a question about Sophocles' intention; Barbara takes a different stance, claiming that Creon's behaviour would have been perceived as statesmanlike and patriotic, at least at first -- this is, however, a question about audience reception. H.'s argument is that before disagreement can be identified, the particular questions that appear to give rise to variant answers must themselves be clarified. Having identified that their questions are different, Alan and Barbara can none the less feed off each other's stance to consolidate and adapt their own particular interpretations: as H. notes, an interpretation is not a mass of isolated, individual propositions, but a network of interrelated ideas which must adapt in order to accommodate and integrate new propositions. This is why disagreement is inevitable: no two conceptual networks will encompass the same ideas, nor will they integrate new ideas and adapt through time in the same way. At the end of 1.2, we meet Charles, who is essentially a personification of the theoretical stance that authorial intentions are not only irrecoverable, but irrelevant, an issue that H. returns to in chapter 3.

In 1.3 H. introduces theory head on, and sets out his programmatic stall: textual interpretation requires reflection, and because reflection is intrinsically theoretical, classicists are obliged to engage with theory. But this is theory of a common-sensical and accessible kind, for H. eschews specific literary-theoretical discussions, claiming that restrictive appropriations of the word 'theory' are tendentious. H.'s own use of the word designates open reflection on the act of interpretation and on interpretations themselves, a definition which he argues covers many approaches which would not inherently be designated as theoretical. Section 1.4 considers the relationship of theoretical discussions to philosophy but needs to be read in the overall context of sections 1.3 to 1.5, where H. finally discloses that, to a certain extent, he has been leading his readers up the garden path, for, however much theory and philosophy contribute to theoretical (in H.'s sense) discussions, their value lies directly in that contribution itself, rather than in providing resolution to disagreements which not only generate a positive dynamic, but also can only exist in an environment of shared agreements. It is here that we meet Zog, a Martian, whose alien milieu demonstrates the point: how, H. asks, can one have a meaningful dispute with someone who systematically argues that the opening words of Sophocles' Antigone are concerned with pickled cabbage? While Zog demonstrates that shared assumptions often underpin disagreement, he also allows H. to argue that agreement itself should be taken as a provisional starting point for further critical investigation, rather than a sanctuary of consensus: individual critical stances and shared agreements need constant self-enquiry, and frequent reality-checks of the complexities and uncertainties which beset each interpretative exercise.

Chapter 1 goes a long way to setting the ground rules for the remainder of H.'s argument. Chapter 2 builds on the argument of chapter 1 that pluralistic interpretations are inevitable and desirable, to consider ways in which pluralism should be viewed positively. H. argues that seeking a definitive and correct theory of interpretation is restrictive in aspiration and could lead to a consensus in error which he highlighted in chapter 1 as a primary danger of agreement. Asking what something means, in any case, is a pseudo-question for H., for it does not clarify its own interrogative status: what, for example does 'mean' mean? For H., meaning is related to the individual interpreter's interest in the text, and he defends what is fundamentally a post-structuralist stance by arguing that conservative criticisms along the lines of 'anything goes' do not, in fact, pay sufficient attention to the probability that a commitment to a set interpretation will lead inevitably to a reading that creates that particular interpretation. H. is no card-carrying poststructuralist, however, for his emphasis is less on irreducible multiple interpretations, or perhaps indiscriminate pluralism, than on individual interpretations which are directly relative both to the exact shade of interest that a reader will have in a text at any given time, and more particularly, to the specific questions that reader is asking.

Chapter 3 considers H.'s own interest in particular types of questions, especially those which focus on authorial intention. In a copy-book example of practising what he has been preaching, H. uses the three principal levels of theoretical reflection which he identified as necessary in 1.3, namely the clarification, evaluation and methodological orientation of interpretative questions, to defend his own intentionalist stance. Since, moreover, questions about intention lead inevitably to other kinds of questions, H.'s defence rests on the pluralistic framework which was argued for in chapter 2. This itself is not a problem, but the deceptively simple question, what are intentions?, which heads Section 3.1 leads to perhaps the most problematic part of the essay. H. claims that he will put forward rebuttals to criticisms made by anti-intentionalist polemic which, he argues, are grounded in misconceptions of intentionalism and can be countered with positive alternatives. The aim of the section is to show how intentionalist approaches view the author as an agent and a text as an intentionally created product of that agent. Some of the twelve criticisms, however, seem not to be all that critical in nature and could be argued to be attempting to engage with the intentionalist debate instead of offering a polemic grounded in a misconception of intentionalism. As such, H.'s rebuttals often seem like sciamachia, rather than the flooring of polemical opponents.

From the beginning of 3.2, however, H., who summarises the purpose of 3.1 as designed to indicate why he believes that intentionalists are not committed to an inherently flawed position, moves on to consider whether authorial intentions are knowable, and whether they are interesting. He concludes that although intentions are accessible only potentially and in principle, there is no reason to despair that they cannot be ascertained at all. H. then advances a prime argument in favour of intentionalism: in order to answer the questions we might be interested in, we may first have to address questions in which authorial intention is implicated. To pose questions about classical Athenian society or culture, for example, it is not necessary primarily to be interested in authorial intentions, but to use an author's text as evidence without any reference to his intentions might invalidate the answers which are being applied to the initial questions. Here H. is in his element. He considers the use of Greek tragedy to illuminate some social and cultural aspect of classical Athens: tragedies portray ethically problematic situations where attempts to apply even basic moral principles lead to conflict or contradiction. Two divergent arguments could be created from this: that tragedians wrote to offer a critique of their society's moral principles or that tragedians wrote primarily to elicit an emotional response even though it seems to us that there is a presentation of the problematic nature of applying moral principles. For H., therefore, authorial intention is central to interpretations not just of the text but of its wider social and cultural context, and, whilst authorial intention is simply the object of enquiry for some kinds of interpretation, it is a necessary premise in other kinds. Since H.'s whole argument is for pluralism, however, he ends chapter 3 with an impassioned plea for pluralistic interpretation, and not just in respect of intentionalism, a plea for readers to be receptive to the 'vocabularies' of meaning, not simply of contemporaries but also of voices from the past, which, in turn, may create the resources for critical reflection on our own.

In the final chapter, H. suggests ways in which these voices from the past can be made audible. He builds on his claims for the value of pluralism and intentionalism by arguing that a text is embedded in the social context of its author and discusses the history of his own reading of Aristophanes' Wasps to illustrate the point. H. originally thought of Aristophanes as using comedy to influence the audience's political behaviour. Thus his own reading was influenced by his expectation of finding in the play a pointed critique of the dicasteria. Through an increasing awareness of the play's mockery of the political elite and its complaints about the lack of true democratia, H. developed a more informed reading, which perceived Aristophanes to be using political material to amuse and win, without having any direct political intent beyond the theatre. This serves to make Aristophanes' political outlook more opaque but does not sever the political and social contexts of comedy. Rather, it illuminates an ambivalent attitude towards the elite by the comic audience, which in turns highlights democratic ideological tensions. More importantly, such a reading informs, but does not constrain, interpretation.

Important too are the intermediate contexts of transmission and reception: an awareness of the history of others' readings over the years helps to illustrate not only how our own preconceptions have been reached, but how they may themselves be historically contingent. Preconceptions confirm readings, but an acceptance of different vocabularies of meaning allows interpretations to be challenged, and different questions to be asked. To validate the conclusions reached throughout the book, H. argues that the fundamental task of enquiry is not to eliminate prejudices but to render them capable of being critically modified. Thus Heath's Law is formulated: we are likely to achieve a better understanding of ancient texts if we allow a sustained but critical use of ancient testimony to inform our reconstruction of the assumptions about literary form and function underlying the composition of those texts than if we rely on assumptions about literary form and function developed without sustained reference to ancient testimony.

I have avoided referring in any detail to theories and theorists throughout this review because that would have given a misleading impression of the way H. presents his arguments. He provides masterly syntheses of both theories and theorists without once making his argument inaccessible. This is a book that can, and should, be read by a far wider constituency than those already versed or engaged in literary theoretical debates. None the less, in two concise final sections, H. provides notes and suggestions for further reading which engage with theoretical and literary critical stances relevant to his arguments. Overall, however, the entire essay is Heath in full flow: impassioned, ultra-rational, idiosyncratic and (thank goodness) still eccentric. If I have one quibble, it is H.'s focus on the purely literary, despite his assertion that 'classical' is used as a macro for Greco-Roman antiquity with no limitation to a literary canon. Maybe it's because I'm an historian, as the old song almost says, but H.'s ideas on intentionalism seem to me to be particularly relevant to oratory, and perhaps especially to historiography, as do his ideas of the significance of the social embeddedness of an author, and the intermediary contexts of transmission and reception, yet the nearest we get to a non-literary text is a couple of pages on the Egesta decree.1


1.   Since H. found only one error in my own thesis (admittedly the only one that the other examiners had missed), he might appreciate the irony that I was only able to find one error in this book: the omission of 'to' between lines 4 and 5 on page 117. The book is otherwise well-edited and produced, and I think I can guarantee that nowhere else will a single index be found that contains 'doodahs, Ruritanian'; 'fishmongers'; 'Leeds Castle'; 'systemic linguistics'; and 'Zog -- a Martian'!

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