BMCR 2000.05.19

Commentaries – Kommentare. Aporemata: Kritische Studien zur Philologiegeschichte, Band 4

, Commentaries - Kommentare. Aporemata: Kritische Studien zur Philologiegeschichte, Band 4. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1999. xvi, 468. DM 142.

For a wide-ranging, venturesome, and immensely learned volume comprising essays on the history and practice of “commentary” in classical studies, one would surely want Glenn Most to be either contributor, editor, or reviewer. In this case, he is editor, with a bracing diversity of contributors. Any ordinary reviewer (such as myself) must enter on the task of review with an awareness of limits — those of his own abilities and those of the reader’s patience.

In form this volume follows Most’s earlier edited collections, Collecting Fragments – Fragmente sammeln, volume 1 in the same series of Aporemata, and Editing Texts – Texte edieren, volume 2. The titles of both volumes suggest the ocean-arching bilingualism: all contributions here are in German (7) or English (10). The volume emerged from a 1997 conference in Heidelberg, and Most’s preface contains (at xii-xiv) a very interesting manifesto, ‘Some Reflections on Commentaries’, which sets out to pose questions for the conferees (though in the way of those who pose questions, it inevitably answers some as well, at least implicitly).

The organizing principle selected was genre of the object of commentary. Thus there are five papers on commentaries on religious texts (Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek Christian, Buddhist/Taoist, and Islamic), four on commentaries on scientific and philosophical texts (Hellenistic and later Greek), three on commentaries on paintings and sculptures (quite intriguing but well beyond this reviewer’s competence to do more than admire: all three represent early modern receptions of ancient works), and four on commentaries on literary texts. That last category, which a traditional classicist might have expected to see privileged, is curiously divided into two papers on medieval receptions of the commentary genre and two (by Simon Goldhill and the lamented Don Fowler) on modern activities of classicists (or rather modern to postmodern [Goldhill] and postmodern to electronic [Fowler]). A last wide-ranging provocation by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht appears as “Final Reflections”.

Most rightly says that any attempt at synthesis is premature. It always is.

The basic editorial decision in this volume was to arrange by object of commentary. A deeper methodological assumption goes along with this decision, and that is to leave “commentary” surprisingly under-examined in itself. The essays here are at their best when they talk of the social uses of commentary, which leads by implication to some of the circumstances of the making of commentary. But the attention is always forward from commentary to audience first, and then only secondarily back to commentary and its tangled relationship with the object of commentary — more often, indeed, back to anterior forms of commentary than to the putative primal scene of commentary itself. What this gets us is the opportunity to compare and contrast cultural practices across a range of communities of discourse.

My own background and bias thus led me to enjoy most the discussions central to, and then tangent to, communities of my own. Thus I could not resist going to the end to read Fowler and Goldhill first: de nobis fabula narratur. But for all that those essays contain useful observations about the trajectory commentary-making has followed among classicists in this century (Goldhill in particular covering some ground already seen in Christopher Stray’s Classics Transformed, which saw print the year after the conference at which these papers were delivered); they were in a way too easy and too familiar as topics. The challenge in that area is to do what Stray did and bring real methodological difference of background (Stray is a sociologist) to familiar material, not merely freshened eyes.

But the essays on the various traditions of commentary on religious texts genuinely open new ground precisely by their juxtaposition with each other. Rudolf Wagner’s paper on Buddhist/Taoist debates (focusing on fifth century Buddhist use of earlier Taoist classic texts) is particularly rich in the way it shows commentary as a place of outright contestation of ownership. To write a commentary is to claim a text for yourself. The philologist makes such a claim as a matter of course, and most of the world goes blithely on. But religious texts are “owned” in a different way, and claims of ownership implicit in commentary-writing are more deliberate and confrontational. Daniel Boyarin’s piece on Midrash, by juxtaposition in this volume, is more clearly about such similar contestation within a given religious tradition than it would seem to be if published in a volume of other pieces on the history of Jewish interpretation.

What this collection foregoes should be said much more briefly. In organizing by object rather than subject of commentary, it misses some horizontal links. Ineke Sluiter’s ‘Commentaries and the Didactic Tradition’ ranges most widely and suggestively, but few of the other papers succeed in isolating commentary-making as a practice in itself. Second, there is little attention to the material form of the thing called ‘commentary’, and this is unfortunate. The term is used, in my experience, for a range of things including but not limited to: transcription (with or without editing) of oral presentation of exposition of a text read aloud to a broad public (many Christian sermons take this form, but many books passed down as commentaries began as such sermons with greater [Ambrose] and lesser [Augustine, some of the time] degrees of revision afterwards); marginal notes and interlineations in an authoritative text (with important transformation that occurs when the marginalia of an authoritative commentator are extracted and made the center of a book and the text reduced to lemmata — Pelagius on Paul went through an important shift of this sort); compilations of marginalia (e.g., the Glossa Ordinaria or the Talmud); and deliberate writing of a “commentary” as a vehicle for the exposition of the commentator’s own views (from Hellenistic readers of Plato and Aristotle down to Aquinas down to the present — with the particular further distinction in our own time between the ambitious learned commentary, the humble commentary-for-students, and [very commonly practiced by classicists] the ambitious learned commentary headed by a recusatio purporting that the subjoined work is only a humble commentary-for-students [these last not infrequently published with handsome two-toned covers]). To continue to lump those practices together as often as this volume does is to leave a task of distinction for a future conference.

But when I go so far, I suggest the strength of this volume, in the learning and success of the individual papers and the provocation the collection as a whole provides.