BMCR 2005.06.08

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

, Birth of the symbol : ancient readers at the limits of their texts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (x, 316 pages). ISBN 9781400826094 $39.50.

Peter Struck’s superb book about the symbol, perhaps the best since Tzvetan Todorov’s 1977 Theories of the Symbol, attends to the question, “What do we expect from poetry?” (1). Following consciously in the footsteps of Robert Lamberton and perhaps unconsciously in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin’s “On Language as Such”,1 Struck rescues several ancient writers from the dismissive gestures of some philosophers and literary critics, while offering a compelling case for his audience — classicists, philosophers, and literary critics — to rethink the dominant Aristotelian paradigm that has reduced the symbol to an inconspicuous place on a taxonomic chart for figuration.

The book contains an introduction, seven chapters, an epilogue on “post-Proclean theories,” and an appendix on Chrysippus’s reading of a mural. The chapters mainly follow a chronological sequence, starting roughly with Homer and finishing in the epilogue with a reference to Martin Heidegger. Struck’s “study attempts to retrace the oldest segments” of this history of the symbol (1-2). The early chapters gather the data about the symbol’s role in the beginnings of literary criticism, and then show how classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle expressed various levels of discomfort with symbolic discourse in poetry, despite Plato’s own allegiances to esotericism (see his Seventh Letter). Like allegory, the symbol is meaning-full and sometimes seems to present inexhaustible interpretations, including what might be described as hidden messages. This kind of language capable of secrecy presented problems to some philosophers and ancient rhetoricians (e.g., Quintilian), who insisted on the value of clarity and on monological modes of discourse. Call this a preference for a discourse of light over a discourse of darkness. Some see something disreputable in the discourse of darkness, a way of communicating that presents seemingly unnecessary problems to be solved or decoded during reading and that sometimes divides audiences into those who understand the secret discourse and those who are not in on the secret(s).

The first chapter on symbols and riddles begins the task of undoing the Aristotelian paradigm mentioned above. “Precisely reversing the scale of poetic virtues put forward by critics in the Aristotelian line, the allegorists claim that un clear language, whose message is by definition obscured, is the chief marker of great poetry” (4). The allegorists were obviously a special variety of readers, not affronted by figurative language that might seem, from another view, a stumbling block to understanding. The allegorists, in opposition to some famous ancient philosophers, were not the ones who foreclosed their capacities for attention. Rather, the allegorists saw the most enigmatic poetry as the most worthy of thought. Struck writes, “I will be suggesting that Aristotle’s notions of poetic language, which value clarity above all, are actually part of a decidedly anti-allegorical project that sits at the head of rhetorical criticism” (13). Riddles, puzzles, secrets, odd phrasings, are not so much problems for many ancient readers (e.g. Porphyry) as sources of thought, and that viewpoint is precisely at odds with the Aristotelian tradition. “When Aristotle defines a sort of elevated clarity as the mark of greatness in poetic language and, as we will see, simultaneously redefines the enigma, the centerpiece of allegorical poetics, as a flaw of style, we are right to take notice” (24). In fact, Aristotle’s view marks a departure from, say, the Derveni Papyrus, discovered in 1962, and believed to illustrate a different tradition of reading that predates Aristotle and that shows that the enigma leads us to the symbol. The Derveni commentator demonstrates a keen interest in enigmatic, dark language. “In this text [the Derveni Papyrus],” according to Struck, “[the attention to enigmas] is the most prominent marker of an overall stance toward the poetic text as a repository of great (and even sacred) hidden truths, which are conveyed in riddles through the whole poem, in a manner that resembles the semantically dense language of oracular speech, esoteric philosophy, and cultic practice, and so requires an expansive interpretation to unpack the significance of each word” (38). Dark sayings rivet our attention, partly because they tease us toward them by not giving us everything we want all at once.

The Derveni Papyrus serves as the crossroad for Struck. From the evidence in the Papyrus, Struck is able to fashion a Wittgensteinian case that binds language to the world. Aristotle’s mimetic view of the world rolls out of his theory of language, which valorizes clear, referential discourse, and establishes a place where words and their meanings can find one another without difficulty. Struck points to the value of the difficulties when words and their referents do not make one another’s acquaintance so easily. Struck focuses on what Wittgenstein calls the bumps that the understanding has received by running its head up against the limits of language. Let’s say the bumps mark an expansiveness that is required when dealing with dark texts. This Wittgensteinian image of the bump on understanding is not alien to Struck’s project, for, in a section dealing with the prominent role that interpretation plays in the later history of the symbolic, he investigates some notions connected to the verbal form of the Greek term for symbol. συμβάλλειν“carries with it a notion of a meeting, as in bumping into someone or something” (90).

Apparently, the ancients might not have been uncomfortable with the later Wittgenstein (e.g. the Stoic point that we fabricate concepts for linguistic convenience is repeated in the Philosophical Investigations), but Aristotle’s views of language constitute a departure, according to Struck, not only from the Derveni commentator, but also from a number of ancient interpreters. “Aristotle’s notion of clear language, sensible as it seems, was actually a radical departure from the intellectual currents of his day” (51). One boon of Struck’s book is his capacity for reestablishing the sense that many ancient interpreters did not approach opaque texts as problems to be solved. Struck does not want anyone to miss the point that the “Greeks … imbue the senseless with the highest order of significance” (201). One would not know that from, say, Aristotle’s Poetics, a work far more influential than most of the ones that play prominent roles in Struck’s book. Partly, Aristotle succeeded not simply by being systematic but also by sprinkling into his work ominous anecdotes, such as the one he tells about Cratylus. The representational view of language absorbed Aristotle to the point that he offered vivid examples of the consequences of those who might think otherwise. “In book 4 of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle begins his investigation proper, he tells us that Cratylus became so crippled by the observation that our language may not correspond to the world that, at the end of his life, he no longer spoke but only moved his finger” (59). The Derveni commentator would probably want to explore the significance that might accrue from knowing which finger Cratylus moved.

Struck’s aims in the later chapters are to undo the anti-symbolic and anti-allegorical project (attributable in some measure to Aristotle), and to provide a persuasive case to rethink the symbol in a larger context that includes magic, philosophy, philology, religion, and literary criticism. For instance, we learn that “symbols belong as a matter of definition to the sphere of convention and social agreement” (84). They also played a pertinent role in literary criticism and in religion. The chapters on the Stoics and Neoplatonists merit close attention on that front. Struck’s command of the Stoic and Neoplatonic material should convince many readers to broaden their thinking about the symbolic/allegorical beyond the categories of rhetoric or literary criticism, though it is easy to begin exploration with those categories. “The allegorical interpretation of poetic texts occupied an important place in Stoic thought” (111). However, poetry and religion occasionally meld for the Stoics, especially Chrysippus. (By the time of Proclus and Dionysius, poetry becomes theology (271)). “[Chrysippus] tells us that a truly religious person ‘retraces’ or ‘rereads’ everything that has to do with the gods and makes what sense he or she can from it” (117). With a clear or plain text, one reading suffices, but this Stoic injunction on the religious reader turns reading into a pious, complicated activity, for “symbolic discourse consistently asks more of its audience than first appears” (165). The injunction emerges from Chrysippus’s thinking together the ontological and the linguistic, for Chrysippus thought that “words were ambiguous by nature” (131), that the nature of the gods has something to do with the nature of words. Again, in this example from antiquity, ambiguity is not taken to be a problem or a failure of composition (133). The world is legible, à la Hans Blumenberg’s not-famous-enough book,2 though reading the world requires special hermeneutical talents on occasion, the kind that Struck possesses, the kind that includes a recognition of both the Orphic powers of language and of language’s limits. As the Scottish prayer tells us, language might not deliver us from things that go bump in the night.


1. Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

2. Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986).