BMCR 2005.09.21

Latin Poetry and the Judgment of Taste. An Essay in Aesthetics

, Latin poetry and the judgement of taste : an essay in aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 265 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 019924040X $90.00.

Charles Martindale’s (hereafter M.) latest offering is a compelling study, often insightful and sometimes controversial. M.’s new work revisits some principal claims of his earlier efforts Redeeming the Text and Green Politics but reconfigures them within the aesthetic theories of Pater and Kant, who by M’s own admission are ‘deuteragonist’ and ‘protagonist’, respectively, of his work. But to approach this essay sine ira et studio is rather difficult for those who have enjoyed M.’s previous writings, as this reader has, and now expect another innovative contribution to the scholarship on Latin poetry.

M. writes in a polemical and captivating style that is a pleasure to read. The book should attract a readership beyond the classical community since his discussion of Latin poetry is closely connected with other spheres, namely, philosophical theories on aesthetics, Aestheticism in England, and reception theory. Although the work focuses on complex literary theories, I found the treatment of some of them oversimplified, and his aesthetic interpretations of some pieces of Latin poetry not entirely innovative or convincing. More often than not, however, these interpretations are thought-provoking and in the process of reading I felt either enthusiastically supportive or strongly opposed to his readings. It is this polarity of reaction to M.’s book that I would like to elaborate on in the following pages.

M. establishes the goal of his essay in the Prologue, where he raises the question of why there is a certain degree of hostility toward discussions of beauty in relation to poetry. M’s aim is clearly defined: ‘through a study of Latin poetry to encourage my fellow Latinists and others in the humanities to take an interest in the modern tradition of Western aesthetics as it applies to literature’ (2). M. suggests that there is a need for an aesthetic criticism that does not avoid the issue of quality of literature. M. shares his own examples of an aesthetic type of literary criticism in several brief studies of Horace, Catullus, Propertius, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan. For me these analyses are the most inspiring and fascinating pages of the book even though I do not share his views for some of the studies.

In the first chapter Immanuel Kant and Aesthetic Judgment M. examines Kant’s Critique of Judgment and dissects Kant’s aesthetic theory, pointing out Kant’s assertion that ‘the conditions exist in all human beings to make ‘the judgment of taste’ (10). M.’s purpose is to encourage classical scholars to consider Kant’s philosophical aesthetics in their criticism of Latin poetry. M. declares that his principal opponents whom he terms as ‘vulgar historicists’, are scholars who insist on interpreting Latin poetry only in its original historical context (10). M. argues against classical scholars who style themselves as ‘traditional’ or ‘radical’ and ‘share in the anti-aesthetic bias of the new culturalism’ (11). For example he enters into a polemic with Thomas Habinek’s The Politics of Latin Literature and Yun Lee Too’s The Idea of Ancient Literary Criticism. M. is dissatisfied with Habinek’s view ‘that the aesthetic is necessarily implicated in the evils of formalism’. He also finds that Too ‘reductively collapses aesthetic into politics’ (12). M. does not disagree that a political analysis of literature is a legitimate one but he finds that Habinek’s and Too’s arguments suggest that ‘the aesthetic is merely an occlusion or mystification of the political, or even just that political readings are superior to aesthetic ones’ (12). M. also addresses Stephen Halliwell’s recent book The Aesthetics of Mimesis which proposes an anti-Kantian position. While M. accepts Halliwell’s argument that ‘the mimeticist tradition which derives from Plato and Aristotle has continued to inform Western aesthetics since Kant . . .’ he counters Halliwell’s concern with the history of aesthetics with his own preoccupation ‘with the making of aesthetic judgments today and with advancing particular arguments within an aesthetic framework’ (13).

M. begins his defense of aesthetic criticism by exploring Kant’s central claim that a ‘pure judgment of taste must be disinterested’ (21). M. stresses that Kant’s theory should not imply any detachment or lack of passionate attention by a critic to the object in order to ‘think productively about aesthetics today’ (15). For M. Kantian aesthetics are egalitarian, not elitist, because they do not presuppose any hierarchy or special knowledge on the part of the audience. In M.’s view what makes Kantian aesthetics especially attractive is that Kant, despite his awareness of cultural differences, is a universalist who perceives all human beings as potentially capable of making a judgment of taste. M. also recognizes the virtue of Kantian aesthetics in its freedom from preconceived judgments.

M. concludes his first chapter with a case study of Kantian criticism by discussing Horace’s Ode 3.25, in which the poet describes his experience of poetic inspiration by likening himself to a female worshipper of Bacchus. Although Horace’s ode deals with self-empowerment and the poet’s claim of creating original poetry, he depicts himself as ‘feminized by losing his self-control’ (37). By Horace’s unlikely assumption of a female role, M. argues, ‘this remarkable poem suggests that poetic inspiration cuts across conventional gender lines in thought-provoking ways’ (37). This premise allows M. to explore the relationship between genius and gender as well as aesthetics and gender. M. cites Christine Battersby’s study Gender and Genius in which she demonstrates “the prevailing depths of misogyny evinced by the Western tradition in relation to the concept of genius’ (34). Although Kant has come under attack from feminists for his theory of genius, his language, M. argues, is void of gender-bias prevalent in eighteenth-century aesthetics. Even if Kant may have believed that genius was more frequently found in men than in women, he never actually says so in his Third Critique.

To further illustrate what he means by aesthetic criticism, M. looks at Horace’s Ode 2.5. M. observes that this particular poem was also denied by the commentators ‘the supreme Horatian virtues of humanity and sense’ (51). He does not offer here a novel reading of the poem within a pre-established ideological framework but rather discusses what the poem means to him. This poem, M. argues, can be read today ‘as a part of a discourse of gender and sexuality’ (50). Echoing his discussion of Ode 3.25, M. points out that here again Horace should not be thought of as a ‘distinctly masculinist poet’ (53) since ‘the physical quality of words, the sheer materiality of language’ (52) in this poem can be compared with écriture féminine. M. does not want to look at the poem as sensible or humane but rather beautiful, which he sees as a truly Horatian virtue.

M’s analysis of the form and content of literary artifact is offered in greater detail in his chapter Content, Form and Frame. His principal argument is ‘that the judgment of taste is a judgment of what we call ‘form’ and what we call ‘content’ (however these terms are defined) in conjunction, and thus is not a species of formalism’ (58). I feel M.’s definition of the formalistic approach here is rather narrow and does not do justice to formalist theory. The formalists’ concern with the composition of literary works and their careful analyses of rhyme and poetic form do not necessarily imply the separation of that form from the content of the literary artifact. The purpose of any judgment of taste is to ‘defamiliarize’ our perception of a literary work and in the process to make it come alive again free from preconceived notions. That is the epistemological-aesthetic foundation of several early Russian formalists. I do agree with M’s argument that both form and content must be treated as heuristic rather than reified entities, but I am not convinced of his association of formalism with the reified approach.

M. also revisits the belief in ‘art for art’s sake’ and argues that it has been often misunderstood as a limited kind of formalism rather than merely a claim that art is created not for the sake of information and morality but instead for the sake of beauty. M. develops his argument on the issue of form and content by shifting his focus from the qualities of the artifact itself to the mind of its receiver. Borrowing the terminology of Murray Krieger he distinguishes between ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ modes of reading, where the former approaches the piece of writing with a utilitarian spirit and the latter addresses form as well as content. He suggests that in order to make a judgment of taste one must read ‘intransitively’ even though any piece of writing can be read in either way. This point seems to me somewhat obvious because I find it difficult to imagine any literary critic or even a lover of poetry reading poetry in a purely ‘transitive’ way. ‘Intransitive’ reading seems to me not a conscious choice for readers of poetry, but their only possible one.

M. analyzes Horace’s Odes (1.4; 1.7; 1.6, 4.1; 4.2) and Catullus 64 to illustrate his points on intransitive reading. The length of this review allows me to discuss only M’s treatment of Catullus in order to present an example other than Horace’s Odes. M. takes the reader on a sensory journey of Catullus’ poetic form with its constant shifts in style “now epic, now oratorical, now lyrical, now archaic, now modern” (93). He suggests that the sign under which the twists and turns of this poem are to be understood is one of the labyrinth which Catullus himself describes when Ariadne’s guides Theseus through the maze with help of a thin thread ( tenui filo) alluding to the Callimachean word for refined style, leptos. This is an example which M. sees as encouraging a metapoetical reading of this poem and one which he regards as key to its aesthetic reading. But the beauty of this poem, M. claims, should not be limited merely to Catullus’ style. The content of the poem is as complex and interlaced as its form in its treatment of “genre and gender; the place of art in the world; the fusion of pain and glory; love and betrayal, sex and violence . . .” (99) However, M.’s suggestion that the form of 64 is belated in relation to its content and that belatedness eventually contributes to the content is confusing to me because he never elaborates on what he means by the ‘belated form.’ Despite his insightful discussion of 64, I found M.’s concluding remarks anticlimactic, that ‘the content of [the poem] is unintelligible apart from the form” (100). I was also surprised by M’s statement that ‘for all this the poem was long condemned as frigid, passionless and effete’ (100). In a footnote M. seems to contradict himself by acknowledging that ‘it is true that most professional Latinists today hold a much more positive view, but they are now not many in number.’ I would certainly include myself and most Latinists I know in that number.

M.’s following discussion of the internal frame of a poem does not help to avert the anticlimactic feeling of his argument. M. expands his discussion on the unity of form and content by examining ‘Derrida’s deconstruction of the neo-Kantian notion of the autonomy of art and the issue of the frame’ (4). M. talks about the internal frame of the artifact, which at first sight anchors the discourse but in reality complicates its interpretation. M. uses Propertius’ 1.16 as an illustration of his point. The main part of the poem contains the instance of the paraklausithyron framed within a discourse delivered by the door itself who deplores the decline of moral values. M. argues that the speech delivered by the door fails to dominate the discourse by means of framing it, and the interpretation of the poem must occur on the boundary that separates the two discourses — one of the lamenting lover and another of the moralizing door. Hence the precise frame of interpretation is not achieved and the judgment of taste becomes a product of a free play of the mind rather than the result of conceptual considerations. M. concludes that the difficulties about the frame complicate but do not contradict his argument that the aesthetic judgment is always a judgment of form and content. I found M’s interpretation a bit unimpressive because the author does not seem to dissent from any traditional view of the poem nor does his analysis of the poem offer any new insights.

In the third chapter M. discusses the possibility of formulating an aesthetic judgment by considering the political and aesthetic interpretations of poetry as ‘rival discourses’ (5). The title of the chapter Distinguishing the Aesthetic: Politics of Art alludes to Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction in which Bourdieu replaces the Kantian concept of taste with a sociological perception of art. Entering into a dialogue with the works of A. C. Swinburne, M. raises a question whether value of literature has anything to do with its moral message. M. examines two celebrated libel cases of the nineteenth century that illustrate the perpetual tension between ars gratia artis and the moral concerns of society: Whistler v. Ruskin and Wilde v. Queensberry. M. suggests that in both cases the opposing sides employ incompatible discourses reminiscent of that between Pentheus and Dionysus in the Bacchae and producing ‘a lack of fit between point and counter point’ (113). M. then proceeds to analyzing Wilde’s recognition of art as an autonomous entity and thus aesthetically perceived according to each individual’s self-realization, but he does not see politics and poetics at the extremes of the interpretation spectrum.

In this chapter M. offers a timely discussion contributing to the possible understanding of ‘ideology criticism’ and of the Western literary canon. M. maintains that issues of canonicity should not involve aesthetics in any Kantian sense. Therefore, a critic opposed to the idea of canon should not be opposed to the idea of aesthetic judgment. M. uses the discussion of canon to further his interpretation of what art is and what he considers a legitimate judgment of a work of art. In M’s opinion art has to have a capacity for autonomy. Then the judgment of taste can be made ‘without reference to specific ends’ (128). M’s thesis of the chapter is, as he writes, ‘a modest one’, namely, that ‘an aesthetic judgment of a work of art can be as legitimate as a political one’ (127) and that one does not necessarily rule out the other. M. offers two insightful examples to illustrate this approach: Horace’s Ode 2.7 and Vergil’s Eclogues.

The customary interpretation of Horace’s poem is political (David West) since the text is concerned with the Philippi campaign and Horace’s escape from it. This poem then is an attempt on Horace’s part to excuse his unseemly behavior and to negotiate his relationship with Augustus. M. also offers a more literary reading of the poem by Gregson Davis, in which the poem is treated as ‘the enactment of the imbellis lyra, negotiating the rhetorical polarities of bellum and convivium‘ (134). M. believes that the aesthetic and political readings are not necessarily opposed but often complement each other. Sometimes a reader might be forced to choose between these readings in a given encounter with a text, but the repressed reading can always be re-invoked later. His analysis of Vergil’s Eclogues draws upon M’s previous work, ‘Green Politics: The Eclogues‘. M’s scholarship on the Eclogues focuses on what the poems represent and how they represent. M. favors Iser’s reading of the corpus, namely, that in Vergil’s pastoral ‘politics are inscribed within poetry that has become its own concern’ (153). The Eclogues can be interpreted politically or aesthetically or both ways even though these interpretations might be incompatible. M. also explores the arguments of Schiller and Pater in their discussion of ideological and aesthetic approaches to art: both writers view art as essential in human life, Schiller ‘for its power to create the conditions of possibility for a more harmonious existence’ (158), Pater for most beneficially filling the interval between life and death. M. argues that despite the indisputable utility of their theories both Schiller and Pater ‘compromise the radical purity of Kant’s system’ because they ‘blur the distinction between judgments of taste and judgment of practical reason’ (158).

In his final chapter The Aesthetic Turn: Latin Poetry and Aesthetic Criticism M. outlines what he sees as a possible aesthetic approach for the next generation of critics of Latin poetry. The writings of Pater who ‘sought to isolate the ‘virtue’, the unique aesthetic character, of artworks’ (5) dominate M’s findings. M. argues that the aesthetic reader is a different type of reader because he ‘might prefer to describe than to interpret’ (177). What M. sees as an attractive side of aesthetic criticism is that it can incorporate a variety of other readings thereby avoiding solipsism. M. offers three short exegeses on Lucretius, Ovid, and Lucan as examples of aesthetic criticism, which, he believes, might prepare the way for what he calls ‘an aesthetic turn’ in literary studies. While illustrating in these textual analyses the theoretical points of his book, M. also involves in his discussion the reception of Latin poetry since he believes that the reaction to Latin poets by later writers helps the aesthetic readings of the texts.

In his discussion of Lucretius M. refers to Dante, Shelley, Lessing, Shiller, Hegel, and Coleridge as formative opinions for what M. sees as customary aesthetic judgment of Lucretius’ poem best expressed in Coleridge’s words that ‘whatever in Lucretius is poetry is not philosophical, whatever is philosophical is not poetry’ (182). By analyzing several excerpts from De Rerum Natura M. demonstrates that Lucretius deserves a more favorable aesthetic judgment than the Hegelian accusation that ‘Lucretius gives a merely decorative form to a wholly pre-existing content’ (188). Many Latin scholars do not view L’s didactic opus as an attempt by a versifier to render in meter a philosophical system. M’s analysis of the relationship of form and content in Lucretius offers an obvious conclusion that ‘the power and expressiveness (and beauty) of the Latin language was vastly extended by what L. did with it” (183). Many modern critics would find this statement rather banal because few, if any, read Lucretius in search of ‘the history of the development of Epicurean doctrine’ (184) which according to M. is not an aesthetic reading.

M.’s exploration of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is more interesting. In his discussion of the Daphne and Apollo episode (Met. 452-56) M. finds allusions to different genres, as well as ‘a tension between antagonistic genres, epic and love poetry’ as Apollo undergoes his own metamorphosis from the ‘epic conqueror of Python to the locked-out lover . . . of elegy’ (209). Although this is not a particularly innovative approach (Steven Hinds (1987) demonstrated a hybridization of genres in Ovid’s epic), M’s analysis of this single passage advances some insightful readings. The episode, he suggests, offers a duality of interpretation. The instances of rape and ‘violated bodies’ are central to Ovid’s poem, but sexual violence becomes closely associated with beauty and ‘female suffering is aestheticized into an art which gives pleasure, at least to men’ (213). Especially interesting is M’s exploration of the appropriation of the Daphne and Apollo story by women writers who did not always sympathize with a violated female. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, among other poetesses, deplored Daphne’s choice as unfortunate.

I found less convincing M’s piece on Lucan, in which he maintains that the so-called ‘faults’ of the Pharsalia can be viewed as its ‘virtues.’ M. contends that Lucan’s literary reputation suffered due to the criticism of the late nineteenth century that condemned his verse as rhetoric not poetry. Here M. again invokes reception since the later poets responded most favorably to those parts in Lucan which the literary critics found to be in poor taste. M. discusses a passage in Book 9 in which Nasidius is bitten by a prester and which many critics found ‘ridiculous and disgusting’ (221). M. explains how aesthetic pleasure can be found even in the description of such horrors although one’s sense of morality might be offended by these images. Dante’s powerful evocation of Lucan, M. argues, is an indication that Dante the poet had an aesthetic sense of Lucan’s poetic ability. M. points out that because Pharsalia is conveniently interpreted as a political poem, the reading of it tends to move towards politics and away from aesthetics. The prevalence of this political perception is increased by ‘the Lucan myth,’ central especially to the Republican reading of the Pharsalia. The history of the poem’s reception also shows that a political reading became common especially during times of social upheavals such as the English Civil War or French Revolution. Here M. returns to the premise expressed earlier in the book that the aesthetic reading should not preclude the political one. He suggests that the Republicanism of Lucan’s poem is “always already deconstructed — historically and politically of course but also aesthetically’ (236). In my opinion, however, M. does not offer a convincing aesthetic reading of Lucan as less ‘fractured and fragmented and defective’ (236), and so I am reluctant to perceive its ‘distinctive and severe ponderosity’ (229) as a virtue rather than a fault.

In conclusion: despite its controversial argument and occasional generalization this book is certainly beneficial reading for literary scholars. The book would certainly be well-suited for Latin literature survey courses, even if its high price restricts its instructional use to the reserved reading shelf.