BMCR 1991.04.01

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd series, 1.1 (Winter 1990)

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd series, 1.1 (Winter 1990). Trustees of Boston University. Pp. 248.

This is the first, programmatic issue of a new series of Arion, a journal well known for its occasional prise de position. However, as a critical position, the “Editorial Statement” (pp. 5-8) is somewhat disappointing; it does not take issue with contemporary theory in a substantial way. The implied opposition of Classics vs theory is a false dichotomy and does not do justice to the discipline since not a few classicists have managed to apply, with considerable success, new theories and methodologies to their respective fields—see for example B. C. Verstraete, “New Approaches in the Literary-Critical Study of Roman Poetry,” EMC/CV 31, n.s. 6 (1987) 341-357. Similarly, the study of Greek drama has benefited from new approaches deriving from anthropology and the study of myth and ritual, as, for example, Richard F. Thomas acknowledges in the more useful “Past and Future in Classical Philology,”Comparative Literature Studies, 27.1 (1990) 66-74. The Editorial Statement studiously avoids any reference, direct or indirect, to specific forms of new scholarship. Its position is essentially a rhetorical one, offering vitality, “feeling”, “imagination”, “freshness”, “genuine” originality, etc. as an antidote to “theory”, which by definition becomes the opposite. But, as Lowell Edmunds points out in his review of Stanley Rosen, The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry, in this very volume (p. 210), almost everyone else would agree that theory is creative, and indeed, poetic. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm per se, but it does not add up to a new critical program. Essentially, one is left with an impression of an increasingly hard-pressed and anxious attempt to resist the changes that have taken place since the original issue of Arion (1962) and the subsequent eclipse of the practice of New Criticism. How hard-pressed is attested by the fact that the present Statement has considerably softened its opposition to traditional, positivistic philology as compared to the original 1962 issue. In this connection, it is worth noting that the present volume actually contains a critique of Arion’s construction of the opposition of philology vs literary criticism (Selden, pp. 157-158). Maybe there is a center to be reclaimed between hard-core positivists and the idolaters of “thingless signifiers”, but the present avowal of “pluralism” (obviously no intentional echo of post-modernism here!) hardly seems a sufficient answer to the ‘problem’ as posed by the editors themselves.

Daniel Selden, in “Classics and Contemporary Criticism” (pp. 155-178), argues that the conflict between philological practice and “imaginative” interpretation has always existed in textual practice and is ultimately “inherent in the nature of reading or in language itself” (p. 176). This is a useful point: there is, inevitably, a tension between objective and subjective tendencies in the act of reading/interpretation. S. calls this tension “self-destructive” (p. 176), but then goes on somewhat paradoxically to express the expectation that the “severe polarization” in present classical scholarship may turn out to be a mark of its “vigor,” a word that features prominently in the vitalistic creed of both the original Editorial Statement of Arion (1962) and the present one. One also wonders at the final evocation of crisis on the very premises rejected by the author himself at the beginning of his article. One can also object that the real conflict is no longer, and has not been for some time, between philology and literary criticism; rather, between philology and relatively new critical orientations such as the study of women in antiquity, or the application of contemporary anthropological theory to the study of ancient culture and society. But here, too, Marilyn Skinner and Phyllis Culham can already look back, ten years (now fifteen) after Pomeroy, and worry that their critical orientation has become “so respectable so fast as to be in danger of cooption” ( Rescuing Creusa, p. 9, n. 3). They can also claim to have raised the awareness of developments in critical theory in related fields of study among classicists. Historically the resistance to “speculative” theory derives, as Selden points out, from the lead taken from Gottfried Hermann ( De officio interpretis, 1834) by classically trained scholars generally—there are notable exceptions, but they were outsiders. It could be added here that the resistance to theory is due to a lack of training. Most graduate students in Classics are not even exposed to a (critical) history of their own discipline, let alone contemporary theory. This is what makes this article unusual and valuable, because it links classical scholarship with the history of hermeneutics. The historical perspective is also useful—although Selden does not stress this point—in that it shows how the methodology of classical scholarship in the nineteenth century was influenced by its main occupation, the editing of texts. Very few classicists nowadays are preoccupied with this, once central, practice of the discipline. Instead, philology now involves an act of literary and historical commentary, which in itself suggests a transition to a more interpretive mode, and the need for a better training in theory.

Glenn W. Most’s “Canon Fathers: Literacy, Mortality, Power” starts from the basic presupposition that “our need for canons is the result of the conflict between the proliferation of texts produced by writing on the one hand, and our sense of our mortality on the other” (p. 49; cf. pp. 36-37): so many books, so little time to read. The applicability of this motive, derived from a print culture, to a study of the origin of canon formation in Greek literature, oral and written, is debatable. For example, the suggestion that Protagoras’ writings may have been burned because “some people at least thought that there were too many books” (p. 46) is misleading (see Diog. Laert. 9.51-52, not cited here). In a general way it is true enough that, in an oral culture, there is an “irreversible displacement of less desired texts by more desired ones” (p. 44), whereas “an unpopular written text can survive for centuries, waiting to be rediscovered and revalued” (p. 43). Yet, the sharp contrast drawn here between “an ideal oral culture” (p. 43) and a worldview based on textuality obscures the actual processes of interaction between the oral and the written, surely of great importance for the subject of canon formation. As a result, M. has to fall back on a generalised notion of a “gradual separating out” (p. 48) of the Homeric epics as qualitatively different, i.e. superior. This characterization may work as a metaphor, but hardly as a description of the reception and valuation of Homer in the transition from oral to written culture. The (few) authorities cited certainly do not support a “separating-out” process. Simonides and Pindar do not distinguish between Homeric and non-Homeric; the “systematic distinction” between Homer and the Cyclic poets thought to be “implicit” in Plato (p. 48) remains purely hypothetical; Aristotle’s criterion of “a higher degree of unity of action” (p. 49) in the Homeric poems is an inappropriate, retroactive application of this compositional principle to an oral genre in the first place, here cited uncritically.

M. is not inclined to question the validity of the established canon he is studying. He implicitly repeats and transmits the values of that canon, with its typical valuation of archaic and classical literature over Hellenistic “epigones” (p. 53). Some concession is made to the spirit of the (present) times, but the desirability of introducing “new and hitherto neglected works” (p. 58), once admitted, is immediately undercut by the observation that a change in canon is not going to make any difference to the “real world” anyway (back to the ivory tower?). In the same context the author raises the issue of the “political ends” some critics may want to achieve by questioning the existing canon. At the same time, it has been argued throughout that the formation of a canon—and, presumably, its retention—is related to an elite and the power it exercises. Somehow this principle is not related directly to the author’s own canon, a typical blind spot that allows for the “objective” validity of the status quo. The embarrassment caused by this position is palpable in the lame conclusion that “canons are likely to be with us for a long time to come” (p. 57).

Herbert Golder’s “Sophocles’ Ajax: Beyond the Shadow of Time” is an enthusiastic and occasionally eloquent survey of the play. He usefully stresses the problematic nature of the madness of Ajax (exaggerated by Sophocles) and of his suicide for an Athenian audience watching the evolution of an Athenian tribal hero, and also the surprisingness for them of an “eloquent and reflective” Ajax. The general burden of Golder’s account is that Ajax is ruined because his rigid sense of heroic honor is betrayed by shifting standards of human arete revealed in the award of Achilles’ arms to Odysseus, and he can “become himself”, transcending the limitations and compromises of this world, only through the suicide and the attainment of a supra-mortal and supra-temporal heroic status. This is a familiar enough line, though one wishes it had been confronted with (say) the far more critical account of Ajax’s moral position offered by M. Whitlock Blundell in Helping Friends and Harming Enemies (Cambridge, 1989). In its finer flourishes Golder’s argument does not command confidence. On page 13, for example, he offers a striking contrast between Sophocles’ play and Aeschylus’ Ajax-trilogy, asserting that Aeschylus presented a moral progression and a redemptive pattern, with Ajax befriended in death by heaven and his death “revealed as part of a more universal scheme” (cf. the Oresteia!). Only in a footnote is the unwary reader told that “my reconstruction of this trilogy is of course conjectural,” and even this masks the sad fact that from the three plays of the presumed trilogy the certain fragments amount to about ten lines, which tell us something about Aeschylus’ plot but very little indeed about his interpretation of the story.

On page 20 Ajax in the so-called deception-speech “does not even speak to Tekmessa and the Chorus”—true enough of the main body of the speech, but at its conclusion he does speak to them (684-692) using words which do seem deliberately equivocal (686, 690, 692); this weakens Golder’s contention that it is completely wrongheaded to attribute any deception to Ajax. On page 25 we learn that in 845-9 Ajax “commands Helios to rein in his chariot: to halt the Sun is to stop Time. Ajax has transformed death into an epitome of permanence. His huge body covering the sword, he will eclipse Time and die, not in darkness but, as his final invocation suggests, radiantly in the light.” You would not guess from this that actually Ajax is asking Helios as a witness to pause above Salamis and report his death to his parents. On page 26 the “final invocation of heavenly light and sustaining earth” at 859 “suggests something like the apotheosis of Oedipus at Colonus. The hero belongs to both heaven and earth. Elemental powers … are summoned from above and below to converge on the hero.” In fact, Ajax is saying farewell to daylight and his homeland of Salamis (and also to his ancestral house, Athens and its people, and the springs, rivers and plain of Troy) as he sets off for the underworld. And what is one to make of the rather fanciful idea that the suicide-sword is “Time’s sword,” casting “a long shadow—like the needle of a giant sundial—across the ekkyklema on which Ajax stands” (p. 25) when on the next page Golder asserts that it does not much matter whether or not the suicide took place in view of the audience. One finishes reading this article with the feeling that too much of what distinguishes it from established accounts of the play is a little specious—including the claim (p. 31) that endurance, tragic solitude and heroic hybris are “the basis of the permanent values that energise the democratic city.” The journal’s editorial statement speaks of fusing learning and imagination, and of writing criticism “from an exclusive point of view that opens the most horizons” (p. 7). Here it has perhaps been interpreted too liberally.

In “Just for the thrill: sycophantising Aristotle’s Poetics” (pp. 142-154) Anne Carson sets out, claiming Aristotle’s own practice as an excuse, to “subject Aristotle’s Poetics text to apparently random and irresponsible extrapolation in the interest of understanding what mimesis is, or would be, from the lyric point of view.” The result is some pleasantly self-subverting scholastic arabesques as Carson manufactures connections between statements in the Poetics and dynamic verbal effects in Simonides and Sappho. What we learn comes largely from her acute analyses of the effects themselves, especially in Sappho 31 where we are led to see how “the action of the poem is in a true sense spectacular.” Some readers will find Carson’s ingenuity occasionally tiresome (“Clearly Aristotle hits the nail on the head when he says that Theodoros is a voice outside time whose parts have no meaning”); but often enough it works, as on Sappho 55: “Crasis quickens the connective action of the conjunction kai [sc., in kan, line 3] and syncopates your posthumous nonentity upon its counterpart in present life. By the time you realize the retroactive force of this conjunction, you have already floated forward to verse 4 and to your darkening future, leaving behind you, lodged in a single kappa, the whole implication of your life without roses.” Some again will wonder if all the mistakes are deliberate: onomata hritheminh in Poetics 1451b10 can hardly mean “by affixing names”, and it is a bit misleading to treat Sappho 55 and Alkman 20 as “poems” rather than fragments. But Carson can always appeal to the value of fruitful error, which “can sometimes be more true than correct information”—a value which she convincingly suggests is of the essence of mimetic effect (pp. 151-2). The essay repays in a small way the rather large demands it makes of its readers.

David Rosand’s “Ekphrasis and the Generation of Images” (pp. 61-105) has essentially a fairly simple point to make. Since the work of the painters of antiquity had vanished, Renaissance artists initially used the literary descriptions of Pliny, Lucian and Philostratus (mediated in part through Alberti’s De Pictura) to recreate the famous masterpieces of, in particular, Apelles. Subsequent painters, however, were indebted for their own reconstructions less to the original text themselves than the actual paintings inspired by them: hence “that cycle is my topic: the re-creation as it were, of the shield of Achilles.” This is given a basis in contemporary theory by a brief discussion of the De Pictura and the programme it set for the artists of the day, and then largely made concrete by the example of the influence of Titian’s Cupids and The Andrians (both inspired by the Imagines) on Rubens. This all seems sound enough in principle, and is in the detailed examination of its examples clearly and cogently argued. But there is a certain feeling of anti-climax, since the whole (like much else in this volume) is rather less wide-reaching and comprehensive—indeed, less exciting—than one might be led to expect from the jazzy title and the jazzier fanfare at the end of the first paragraph: “The history of Western art can be seen as a cycle of such exchange, the intercalation of texts and pictures through the helix of time—image begetting image.” In general the article—its length, its prominence, its lavish quota of no fewer than sixteen plates—looks designed to fulfil the pledge that “We are interested in the world as mediated by painting, architecture, and sculpture” (p. 7).

Carne-Ross, in “Jocasta’s Divine Head: English with a Foreign Accent,” (pp. 106-141) wants to push “original composition in which the writer ‘takes us abroad’,” but translation keeps intruding. Encouraged by Milton’s creation of a “third language … between English and Latin,” C-R urges the contemporary poet to “submit his language to the transforming pressure of foreign idioms, construction, and rhythms” (p. 108). He will have little luck pushing poets to do what they aren’t inclined to do; the corpus of poetry in English shows little deficiency in the exploitation of its native resources, and the implication that poetry in the modern languages needs the cross-fertilization of the (superior?) classical medium will not win friends. Moreover, after providing some examples like Jonson’s Latinate poem for his tutor, Camden, a very special case, C-R seems to lose his nerve and grow despondent. Sohrab and Rustum is too obviously imitation of Homeric practice (p. 120). Browning’s Agamemnon “violates English while only occasionally managing to sound Greek.” The situation deteriorates when C-R undertakes to encourage modern poets to use classical meters. What possessed C-R to flog galliambics? The claim that Shelley’s Hymn to Pan is articulated into metrically distinct units like the choral odes of tragedy isolates a kind of technical expertise from the context in which alone it can be evaluated as beautiful or effective. Is it cause for celebration that Campion “manages one choriamb well enough?” The problems are apparent in Swinburne’s remark that anapest, iamb, and trochee work but dactyl and spondee don’t (p. 128), and in C-R’s own comment that “Choriambs” is a “Virtuoso exercise rather than a poem, and that all the major 19th-century poets except Keats knew Greek. What he says of Campion’s “Canto Secundo” applies generally: “the best course is to let the poem move to its own delicate, wayward music without bothering much about the classical [metrical] model.”

C-R wants a translation to provide “the directest experience one can have of a foreign work,” a view shared by many. How shall that aim be achieved? The problem is that “the divine head of Jocasta” is far more foreign to English than is its original to Greek with its tradition of similar circumlocutions. Foreign can become alien, even short of such violations of English as Browning’s “bad-wave-outbreak evils.” C-R has a go at Agamemnon 1126f. “In the cloths with a blackhorned CAUGHT HIM thing she strikes.” How well does this produce what the ancient Greek experienced, given the inflected language and a generation of Pindaric lyric?

The translations in Anne Carson’s article aim for less but achieve more. The word-for-word translation of Alcman’s Spring poem (20) works except that maintaining the Greek word order is too dearly bought at the end “but to eat enough is not.” Alcman is being simple, perhaps prosaic, but not clumsy. Sappho 55 also keeps its word order—but successfully. Sappho 31 is well-done, but why maintain the impression that the Sapphic was a four-line stanza?

The volume also contains a section devoted to translations. Rosanna Warren translates three fragments of Alcman (p. 179). I (3) is rather an imitation which suppresses mapsidios and m’ouden ameibetai (“swaying past me”), turns the initial contextless dative into an absolute, and gives the false impression that the poem was in six-line stanzas. But it reads well. III (16) makes fact of assumption by the addition of “poet.” II (89) is hurt by “brooks” (wrong word), “footed” (dubious), “republic” and “cloud-tipped” (meringue).

Alistair Elliot’s translation of Horace, Satires 1.5 (pp. 180-183) is a highly competent rendering which generally captures the movement and the chatty tone (not to say the slight smugness) of the original. But not everyone will approve of his choice of rhyming couplets, and Rudd’s affable line of six variable beats seems on the whole a better vehicle for sermoni propiora: see further Rudd’s observations on the limitations of the rhyming couplet on p. 33 of the Penguin edition. The despised philologist, too, will be disappointed that, for example, the glorious parody of epic style at 1.5.54ff. comes out as “Now Muse, I hope/You’re not averse to measuring me a short/Tale, of how Messius and the Jester fought.”

Diane Arnson Svarlien’s versions of Propertius 2.26A (p. 184) and Horace’s Pyrrha Ode (p. 185), by way of contrast, are far freer adaptations. The imitation of Propertius powerfully communicates the strangeness of the dream recalled, and has a rich texture effectively mixing the smooth (Cynthia’s “weak arms weary”) with the forcefully rough (nymphs “would sulk, and crackle with jealousy as you passed.”). Pyrrha, on the other hand, may seem to some a little too “Plain in (her) neatness,” liberally sprinkled as she is with contractions and other colloquialisms. But Horace and Milton are a hard act to follow: Hapless they / To whom thou untried seem’st fair.

This volume also contains reviews by Stanley Rosen, Lowell Edmunds (of Stanley Rosen), Charles Segal, Brian Vickers, and R. Bracht Branham (of Brian Vickers, a.o.), which we have chosen not to review, but Lowell Edmund’s railing against the “elitism of postmodernism” (pp. 215-216) should not be missed.