BMCR 2008.04.15

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 $35.00.

Table of Contents

The book under review here is the paperback reissue of Martindale’s 2005 hardback, which he characterizes as “a plea to my fellow Latinists—and indeed all classicists and students of literature in general—to return to the aesthetic, to give aesthetics a turn” (10). Since the hardback has already received a thorough close-reading in BMCR 2005.09.21, as well as at least two thoughtful, balanced, and comprehensive reviews elsewhere,1 this review will be relatively brief and will take a slightly different approach. First I will discuss the (very few) ways in which the paperback is different from the hardback, as well as what I see as its potential for use in the classroom. I will then give a brief summary of the book’s purpose and some of my major points of agreement and disagreement. I will end with an account of what I think are the book’s distinctive virtues, a perhaps idiosyncratic account but one nonetheless authorized (I believe) by the kind of aesthetic reading Martindale promotes in the book, which is not embarrassed to consider ‘what is this [book] to me ?’.

Of course the most important difference between the hardback and the paperback is the price, with the hardback listed at $99 and the paperback about a third of that. Even at $35, though, the paperback strikes me as overpriced, being of moderate length and entirely lacking in images to enhance Martindale’s discussions of visual art. Given the price, and the fact that the four chapters of the book stand well individually (the first chapter, in fact, is an expanded journal article), I would choose to forego having students (graduate or undergraduate) buy the book and would instead put a copy of one of the chapters on reserve in the university library (which is normally within fair use). Beyond the price, nothing has changed as far as I can tell, aside from the appearance of the expected blurbs and a short summary on the back cover. The text is beautifully presented; I found but a single, negligible typo, which has persisted uncorrected from the hardcover.2

Simply put, the purpose of Martindale’s text is to encourage Latinists to pay more attention to aesthetics. Martindale is concerned with the rise in Classics and in the humanities generally of ‘ideology criticism’, exemplified for him by Thomas Habinek’s The Politics of Latin Literature and Yun Lee Too’s The Idea of Ancient Literary Criticism, both of which were published in 1998. So what is ‘ideology criticism’, and why do Latinists need to counterbalance its growth with a return to aesthetic criticism? As Martindale explains it, ‘ideology criticism’ in the Classics is a way of thinking which supposes that ancient literature and criticism is saturated with ‘interestedness’, so that the production of literature and criticism is inevitably a political and social intervention to the benefit of some interested party (be it the author, a dedicatee, or someone else). According to Martindale, a work like that of Habinek or Too “reductively collapses aesthetics into politics” and presents us with the “decidedly nightmarish” world in which political interests “exhaust [the] meaning and significance” of a text (12).

In resisting the idea of the pervasive ‘interestedness’ put forward by ideology critics, Martindale tries to stake out some proper theoretical space for aesthetics. To do this, he looks to Kant’s Critique of Judgement, which provides him with an argument for the possibility of an aesthetic judgement completely free from interests of any kind—political, social or other. In the opening chapter Martindale lays out the Kantian theoretical material and then he goes on to use this material in the remaining chapters to discuss a variety of critical issues (e.g., the relationship between margin and center in art and literature, in chapter 2). He also undertakes, in the final chapter, three short studies (on Lucretius, Ovid and Lucan) which he intends to serve as “gestures” in the direction of this kind of aesthetic criticism (181).

In the course of his discussion of Kantian aesthetics and the Critique of Judgement Martindale gives the following example which is meant to illuminate the idea of a “pure judgement of taste” which is “disinterested”:

If I call a poem beautiful because I hope to make money out of it, or because I am proud that it was written by a member of my family, or because I happen to share the politics of the writer, the judgement clearly would not be disinterested. For the judgement of taste I have to try to get my needs and wants out of the way (22).

It would of course be wrong to think that this brief example somehow sums up Martindale’s nuanced discussion; yet in its attempt to connect Kant’s theory in a concrete way to the practice of reading poetry it shows something of the provocative and (to my mind) odd character of the theory. For is it really desirable—let alone possible—for a reader of poetry to set aside her needs and wants as she appreciates the beauty of a poem? Aren’t her needs and wants an important part of the particular kind of reader she is? On the one hand, I sympathize with the idea that a thing of beauty can and should be appreciated as such without moral and intellectual issues muddying up the view. On the other hand, I wonder whether the ability to read and appreciate the beauty of a Latin poem today, an ability which usually depends on years of training and institutional instruction, is not immutably bound up with more far-reaching and systematic needs and wants which can never effectively be set aside, even if they may not be apparent.

Given the book’s expressly polemical nature, it is to be expected that Martindale somewhat oversimplifies the case of his opposition. For example: in laying out the thinking of the ideology critics, Martindale quotes Habinek as saying: “what interests me. . .about a literary utterance is not its truth value or its formal features so much as the question cui bono ?”3 What Martindale occludes with his ellipsis is the short phrase “at first glance,” which when re-inserted might give the reader the impression that Habinek is not as single-mindedly fixated on the idea of ‘interestedness’ as Martindale tries to make him out to be. Although ‘interestedness’ may be a crucial aspect, I do not believe from what I have read of his work that Habinek thinks it “exhausts” the meaning of a literary text.

Still, I sympathize with Martindale’s concern that, in probing for what might lie behind a poem—the interests associated with its production and consumption—readers run the risk of neglecting important qualities of the poem which give it its particular character, which make it the unique poem it is. In his many provocative analyses Martindale stays close to the texture of the poetry—its structure, (a)symmetries, quality of syntax, arragement of images, transitions, alliteration, anaphora, etc. He is wary of abstracting easy meaning from what he reads, and he is deeply concerned with how a single poem can produce multiple meanings which are often conflicting, ironic, or self-deconstructing. These characteristics of Martindale’s approach to reading poetry—being wary of abstracting easy meaning, and staying close to its texture—are characteristics that every student of literature ought to cultivate passionately, and it is for this reason that I would choose to have graduate or undergraduate students read selections from this book. Although I am not persuaded by his reading of Kant, and although all of his analyses here are not of equally high quality, Martindale nonetheless presents what is to me a compelling model for reading and appreciating poetry.


1. Times Literary Supplement, June 10, 2005 (William Fitzgerald); Translation and Literature 15.2 (2006) 254-261 (Joseph Farrell).

2. p. 93: middle of the page: ‘interrrupted.’

3. p. 12, quoting Habinek, The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome. Princeton University Press, 1998: 8-9.