BMCR 2006.02.01

Iphigenias at Aulis: Textual Multiplicity, Radical Philology

Sean Alexander Gurd, Iphigenias at Aulis : textual multiplicity, radical philology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (188 pages). ISBN 9781501725388 $39.95.

This will be a problematic review of a problematic book. After months of reading and re-reading Sean Gurd’s Iphigenias at Aulis: Textual Multiplicity, Radical Philology, I cannot decide whether it is productively provocative or simply frustrating, yet my recommendation to any scholars remotely interested in the application of literary theory to classical studies, Euripidean drama or textual criticism is that they read this rich and important book themselves, as any review is unlikely to do it full justice. Few will come way from reading Gurd’s work without a much greater understanding of the contingent nature of the texts classicists read, yet many of those same classicists, even those sympathetic with Gurd’s methods and aims will, I suspect, want more answers and explanations than Gurd is willing to supply in this book (which ultimately seems like the prolegomenon to something else). Part of my concern lies with the second and last adjective in the book’s title, for its publication seems more inevitable than radical, despite the claims of its subtitle, as their skeptical bent has had those two unlikely bed partners, Deconstruction and textual criticism, unknown to themselves, inching towards an affair for some time. Gurd begins with the evocation of Barthes, Derrida and De Man yet winds up heroizing James Diggle. Thus, perhaps the most pressing question this book raises is what, exactly, does Gurd mean by “radical”?

For clarity’s sake, I shall postpone discussion of this question in order to present first what is at stake in Gurd’s book. Gurd observes that all single texts from antiquity are in fact composed of multiple texts by a range of editors, and thus he asserts (p.x) that his “goal is to assess the realities involved in the multiple productions of a classical text so as to facilitate a literary philology alive to the fact of plurality. I call this a radical philology.” IA, perhaps the most contested Greek text over the past two centuries, is an appropriate case study in that it (p.72) “contains an incipient plurality of hands because it is posthumous. But this is a most illuminating singularity. It means, in effect, that Iphigenia at Aulis has always been in need of an editor, that its formation has always been coeval with some text-critical performance.” In order to examine critically the texts of IA, Gurd in Part 1 lays out the case for a radical philology with the basic fact of the variability of critical editions, and concludes (p.x) with “three hypotheses intended to establish a philology intent on critical variability. My central proposition is that critical texts are singular plural — that every single edition models and reflects a plurality of other versions and variants — and that this singular plurality of the critical edition constitutes its sense.” “Singular plural” becomes the main catch phrase of his argument, and productively so, although it is a complete mystery why he never explicitly attributes the phrase to Derrida, even though it is buried in the middle of an extended quote from Derrida on page 49. Part 2, to continue with Gurd’s own words,” is a reading of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis through some of its texts. It is not a complete history of textual criticism on the play or an extended bibliographical essay; it is a limited discussion of some critical approaches to the play that I find particularly interesting, and an experiment aimed at developing and illustrating the radical philology proposed in part 1.” This sounds fair enough, yet one might be troubled by the language of limitation and personal interest, rather than a reasoned and justified course of investigation. This implication of arbitrariness is particularly unfortunate because Part 2 is by far the more compelling and interesting section of the book, one that achieves Gurd’s goal of providing a model for textual criticism based more on knowledge and theory than on intuition.

Having now established the basic nature of Iphigenias at Aulis, I shall return to the problem of the term “radical”. One of the standard tactics of Deconstructive criticism, particularly among its American practitioners, has been to open with a dictionary entry of particular critical terms and then tease out the implications of the different meanings circulating around those terms; see, for example, page ix of Barbara Johnson’s The Critical Difference. Gurd never defines “radical,” yet hammers at this term relentlessly, and this elision creates some dissonances in his argument. That Gurd interlaces his philological concerns with references to “freedom” suggests some vague political undercurrent. Certainly, Diggle, whose text of IA becomes the philological equivalent of John the Baptist to Gurd’s radical evangelism, is not the Cambridge luminary one would most immediately associate with scholarship that is progressive in both the academic and political senses, especially in comparison with, say, Simon Goldhill, who in turn does receive frequent and extended attention from Gurd, most notable in pages 24-33. But I do not recognize the Simon Goldhill discussed in these pages. Gurd’s Goldhill is the latest in a long line of romanticizers of Greece and one who, according to Gurd, is persistently and overly reliant on the thought of Foucault. Scholars who have used Foucault as part of the intellectual framework of the ideological study of Athenian drama have chosen the wrong French theorist, since ideological readings of Athenian drama assume some kind of unitary ancient culture from which modernity is alienated and, moreover, elide fundamental questions of the contingency of the extant textual evidence. Yet this is a highly selective reading of Goldhill’s large output, one which ignores the more Barthian and Derridean readings of Goldhill’s (often itself frustrating) first book on Aeschylus and several of his early articles. Such selectivity is not fair and allows Gurd to make some overly simplistic attacks on Goldhill. Let us glance, for example, at the close of an extended passage on the relationship between language and ideology from Reading Greek Tragedy (p.75) which Gurd quotes: “Fifth-century Athens is truly the city of words.” Gurd repeats those last four words and asks (p.33): “Can this suggest anything other than that Athens is the Hellenist’s city of God, from which one is exiled but to whom one always pays first allegiance in a scholarly nostalgia and a committed philological practice?” To this seemingly rhetorical question, I answer “yes,” for that phrase, especially in its sound, has always evoked for me not Augustine but the Aristophanic fantasy of a city of birds, a polis whose very existence relies on the persuasive skills of the protagonist of Aristophanes’ Birds. Gurd simply pushes his argument too far here and assumes too much. Perhaps one might say that Goldhill’s main sin (keeping the Augustinian discourse) is simply not being interested in textual production, and I am not sure such faults require such detailed exposition and prominence in Gurd’s narrative. So perhaps the ultimate goal here is to kill the radical father so that the radical son might claim the title. How else to explain an argument that places Finley and Goldhill on the side of the dewy-eyed nostalgic conservatives and Page and Diggle as the leaders of a radical movement? Greater conceptual clarity would help avoid reaching such a paradoxical conclusion.

Gurd wants a paradigm shift in how scholars approach Greek tragedy and thus spends Part 1 (58 of the 168 pages) laying the groundwork for his “radical philology,” yet, as I have just suggested, it is not clear that he needs this much space, some of which might more productively have been used to unpack some of the denser aspects of his argument with more comparative material. Gurd’s readings of other critics here are often sensitive and perspicuous, yet often pull up frustratingly short. After laying out a dizzying range of variant texts of some early lines in the IA, Gurd laments the “well-established division of scholarly labor” (p.11) between textual critics and literary scholars, and then, in order to show the interpretive ramifications of textual scholarship, he engages in a truly wonderful reading (pp. 12-20) of the narrative of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but one which, Gurd shows, is only possible in Page’s OCT, and not the texts of Fraenkel and West. But Gurd simply asserts the difference of those other texts without any exploration of how they differ and what the interpretive implications of those differences are. The sudden interruption of the argument is quite frustrating. On the other hand, while this division of scholarly labor is certainly “well-established,” there is not such a rigid wall between the two parts of the factory. Fraenkel, for example, himself made interpretive judgments. Bernard Knox once wrote an article on the text of IA, “Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulide 1-163 (in that order)” (reprinted as pp. 275-94 in Word and Action) and Helene Foley’s analysis of this drama in Ritual Irony included an appendix (pp. 102-5) in which she defended Knox’s textual arguments from attacks by Bain. I add here that Gurd almost completely ignores Knox’s article and does not mention Foley’s work on this drama at all. Gurd’s advocacy of contingency thus extends to his own style, as he prefers to write in the subjunctive, so that when he does turn to literary and not philological questions he raises questions and offers possibilities, but generally not answers. Thus, in his final appendix that argues against the certainty of Kovacs’ dismissal of the “public prophecy” theme, an interpretive move key to Kovacs’ own textual decisions, he posits, “It is important that I not be perceived as arguing that Kovacs is wrong: all that is needed from my perspective is that he is not necessarily right.”

Gurd’s intellectual armor for his “radical philology” in Part 1 is composed of a strong, but at times unstable, alloy of French literary theory, German textual scholarship and European intellectual history. Indeed, through the book, his argument is particularly rich and compelling when he grounds developments in textual criticism in larger intellectual movements. This works especially well in Part 2. Particularly exciting is his connection of the growing importance of conjecture in modern philosophy and mathematics (pp. 145-57) to Page’s recognition of productive conjecture in Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, which Diggle then systematized in his own OCT of IA. Similarly, the previous chapter, “Allegories of Instability,” skillfully sets German grapplings with the text of IA in the context of nineteenth-century melancholy and the Romantic fragment, though I also think that readers without a thorough grounding in German Romanticism could use a more substantial discussion of such matters as the importance of the fragment to nineteen-century culture, extending even to music. One would have to assume, then, that the predominance of Deconstructive theory in Part 1 is Gurd’s similar attempt to provide his own intellectual milieu. This attempt, alas, is not as successful as his subsequent contextualizations of other textual critics. Not that Gurd does not work extremely hard to make modern theory serve his ends; rather, he almost works too hard at it and the strain is apparent in the more jargon-filled, somewhat rambling pages inspired by or actually on De Man and Derrida, some of which do not clearly serve a productive purpose, are occasionally predictable (I had a bet with myself how long it would take the De Man “resistance to theory” quote to appear), and at other times simply get in the way. The introduction of the “cyborg” (pp. 42-3) still leaves me scratching my head, and passages such as the Afterword to Part 1, in particular page 58, seem to wander off in strange directions. The strains further show in how acutely self-conscious Gurd’s writing becomes; on page 46 alone we find: “I could be taken as proposing,” “what I propose to call radical philology,” and“the radical philology I am proposing”.

These odd epiphanies are particularly unfortunate because Part 2, for the most part, really is a pleasure to read; in other words, once Deconstruction moves to the background, Gurd becomes once again a lively, clear and genuinely insightful writer. His overview of the tension between external forms of evidence (the Aelian fragment) and internal (the likelihood that Euripides wrote in a certain manner) at the beginning of Part 2 lucidly sets the stage for the textual shows that ensue, ranging from Musgrave’s early edition to Diggle’s most recent version, which eschews offering a definitive text in favor of a constantly shifting spectrum based on a systematized probability. Gurd had earlier observed that traditional textual criticism could have no theoretical basis because it was thought to be based too much on subjectivity, but now, given Gurd’s perceived evolution of the role of informed conjecture, Diggle can be spoken of as the scholar who made textual criticism “unresistant to theory”. We now can have not the text of an Iphigenia at Aulis, but certainly a (the) text of Iphigenias at Aulis, which thus becomes fully singular plural. Diggle becomes heroized as the father of radical philology because he formalized the “probability of critical conjecture” (p.156). Since Diggle’s text is based on a “graded canon of probability,” or a “systematization of the subjectivity and incompleteness of text-critical insight,” it can be stable in a way that no text of IA had been before.

Now, it is difficult to say what Gurd’s insights will have for the future of textual criticism, whether in studies done by Gurd himself or by others. His claims for “radical philology” smack a little too much of Nietzsche’s for a “philology of the future,” so easily parodied in the German by Wilamowitz. And, in an important respect, Iphigenia at Aulis was the perfect text for Gurd, as he himself acknowledges early on, but I look forward to seeing what he would do with a text less fraught with peril. Nonetheless, Iphigenias at Aulis is, by itself, a singular achievement.

I found two typographical errors on p. 38 (“coning an ars poetica and “Reneham”), and one each on p. 137 (“when Kovacs basis his argument”) and p. 139 (“these addition”).