BMCR 2012.04.24

Reception and the Classics: an Interdisciplinary Approach to the Classical Tradition. Yale classical studies, 36

, , , , Reception and the Classics: an Interdisciplinary Approach to the Classical Tradition. Yale classical studies, 36. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. x, 188. ISBN 9780521764322 $95.00.


This is a selection of papers originally presented at a Yale conference some time ago (2007), but the contributions, all by established scholars, have been adapted and bibliographically updated during their lengthy, pre-publication gestation so that they will likely seem “old” only to their authors. And maybe not even to them, for this is a marvelous collection. In fact, I will say (casting aside the persnickety BMCR voice) that I have not so enjoyed a “proceedings” publication for a good long time. The volume will occupy about a day of thoughtful reading, but you should take more time with it; it is rewarding and suggestive of further thought at every turn.

There are just a few glitches. The editors have had a tough job in their introduction-by-committee casting a conceptual loop over quite different papers, ranging as they do from Servius to Bob Dylan and touching on art, music, critical commentary, translation, and literary modernism. Undaunted, they have separated the contributions into two parts, entitling them “Transmission and Philology” and “Self-Fashioning.” Both categories are too spacious to be terribly helpful, with the result that very unlike essays rest cheek by jowl in their groupings. Yet in thinking through the organizational conundrum the editors have generated some singularly insightful ideas on the much discussed topic of reception. It is nice to see, for instance, in a single short introduction an interrogation of several of the central assumptions attending reception: the nature and status of the “classic” text, the relation of reception to early-modern humanism and its scholarship, the actual distinctions and similarities entailed in the terms “reception” and “classical tradition” (here much closer conceptually than is often claimed). On the last of these, due and conventional emphasis is given to the broadly-conceived reader’s role in generating meaning (after Charles Martindale’s oft-quoted dictum, “meaning…is always realized at the point of reception”1) even while questioning the complacency of (us) reception critics who try hard to distinguish our methodologies from the scholarship of, particularly, the mediaeval and early modern “classical tradition.” The brilliant work of Yale’s Thomas Greene is rightly instanced as an avant la lettre example, and James Porter’s claim quoted approvingly (7, n. 19) has traction as well: “In fact, transmission and reception are not two faces of a single coin. Rather they are two names for the selfsame activity. Classical studies are not merely the beneficiary of this activity. They are subsumed by it.”

The introduction touches on much else and bears close reading. The few quibbles I have about it are not crucial. Among them, the notion that reception theory has reminded us of “the impossibility of perfect fidelity in translation” claims too much for reception and allows too little to centuries of translation theorists. So too there may be some overstatement in the editors’ claim to be doing something unusual in “sit[ting] scholars of antiquity and post- antiquity side by side to see how they approach the classical tradition” (7). Most of the contributors are in fact classicists, many of whom have been sitting more or less comfortably over such intellectual fare with scholars from other disciplines for quite some time, in conference and in print. Finally, the editors note a little mysteriously that the conference papers of Julia Haig Gaisser, Charles Martindale, David Quint, and Claude Rawson “could not be included in this collection.” There could be a number of good reasons for their absence, but I at least can’t but wish they were in the mix. Martindale’s in particular, since his was the keynote paper and since it is referred to, along with his other work, in the introduction and, prominently, in the closing “Envoi.” Here, at least, something crucial in this conversation has gone missing.

Turning to the essays that are here, readers won’t be disappointed. James Zetzel begins with a thoroughly engaging treatment of Monsignor Angelo Mai’s discovery and publication of long lost sections of Cicero’s De re publica. Both the discovery, in 1819, and publication were pitched by the ambitious Mai as a symbolic coup and adornment for the papal states under Pius VII and a rising tide of Italian nationalism after the defeat of Napoleon. Others, notably the Prussian Barthold Niebuhr, saw the new text as a potentially valuable historical resource, and worked closely with Mai (with little acknowledgement from the Italian) in the text’s publication in 1922. Zetzel recounts the failure of the Ciceronian text to answer to either objective; the new fragments were seen as contributing little new knowledge of Roman history while their symbolic impact was vitiated by Cicero’s long association with stylistic elegance (over against practical utility) and a growing sense of the failure of Ciceronian republicanism in modern Europe. The tale Zetzel tells conspicuously points up the political dynamics of reception and, I think particularly intriguingly, historical moments when the presumed authority of an ancient text falls flat—when classical belatedness becomes particularly poignant.

Then there are those instances where scholarship can turn its lens on historical moments of quickened attention which may or may not survive the circumstances of their immediate occasions. Robert Kaster’s location of Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid in the “honor culture” of the late fourth and early fifth centuries is an example of the latter. Kaster does not much go into the composition of the commentary or its relation to Donatus, nor does he more than allude to the social context (this more than the others retains its identity as a delivered talk), but he presents a persuasive reading of passages that may seem to moderns uselessly or willfully wrongheaded as, instead, inflected by a culturally determined instinct to praise or blame. Richard Tarrant’s discussion of musical settings of Horace from the middle ages into the twentieth century presents another form of localizing attention. Horace is the Roman author most commonly set to music, yet, as Tarrant observes, almost all settings up to the twentieth century are partial and contemporary in musical style. Renaissance motets setting Horace will sound like motets setting biblical scripture. But in the early twentieth century Randall Thompson, for example, can present Horace’s words, deliberately archaizing, in the manner of Palestrina, a procedure that is interesting in a way Thomas Greene would have recognized. Tarrant brings up another kind of receptive failure, too, in music’s limited ability to bring across “the variety of tone and content Horace often encompasses within a single ode” (84). Thus the tendency to excerpt, a tendency, one might add, seen in selective quotations of Horace in moralizing or patriotic contexts. Selective textual setting to music taken to an extreme is at the center of Richard Thomas’s paper on the surprising presence of classical authors in the lyrics of Bob Dylan. You gotta love Dylan to really appreciate this essay, for it has a density of reference that feeds the hunger of Dylanologists. But even the more casual fan will be startled to discover just how many instances of quotation (in translation) there are. Dylan can’t, I think, be characterized as a deep reader of the classics, but he does ingeniously process language from a huge array of sources, the classics not least: Vergil (via Mandelbaum) in “Lonesome Day Blues,” and, conspicuously, Ovid (via Greene, Tristia, Ex ponto) in the songs “Ain’t Talkin,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” and “Spirit on the Water.” Thomas gives us a rather full list of quotations and allusions out of which Dylan crafts his lyrical art. It is an art, in its performative variation and selective omissions, as Thomas demonstrates, akin in striking ways to the performance practices of the pre-literate oral tradition: “Dylan works like a blend of rhapsode (performance artist) and poet on the border between oral and literary cultures” (152).

Words, classical words, occupy the attention of the remainder of the volume. In the case of Joseph Farrell’s paper on Joyce, Latin words take center stage—and this is in contradistinction to the generally higher stock Greek had in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary culture. Farrell presents Joyce as consciously writing against this disposition, notably in his satirically edged characterization of Buck Mulligan (pompously calling out schoolboy Greek) as well as in Joyce’s apparently positively valorized lyrical patches colored by Latin words and phrases. Joyce, writing out of Catholic Latinity, writes his Stephen Daedalus as prompted by the Latin once drilled into him, which as Farrell rightly points out has implications for our reading of modernist aesthetics. Broadly scaled classical “sources” are also on show in Giuseppe Mazzotta’s discussion of Petrarch’s adoption of the classical models that were to shape his Rerum familiarum libri : Cicero, for his organization and publication of his protreptic letters and Odysseus, or Ulysses here, for his self-fashioning as hero in (Florentine) exile. Mazzotta neatly points out some of the ways Petrarch adumbrates his larger cultural politics through his reconstruction of a classical tradition that he both shares and stands apart from.

Emily Wilson’s and Gordon Braden’s strong contributions bring us back to literature per se. Wilson considers Gavin Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid within the context of Scottish nationalism and, especially, a kind of personal struggle in which Aeneas, Vergil, and Douglas assume parallel roles in “translating” one cultural and political identity into another. Particularly revealing is Wilson’s discussion of the relationship between Douglas’s prologues and the translated text of the epic. Braden, in a fine paper that appeared in modified form elsewhere in 2009,2 takes on the much discussed Shakespeare/Ovid nexus, particularly in respect of the Tempest and Prospero’s great resignation speech near the end of the play. The invocation of spirits there echoes Met. 7.197ff., Shakespeare probably leaning on both Golding’s translation and the original Latin; but Braden links another intertext, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. Also available to Shakespeare, Scot, a skeptic rather than witch hunter, draws substantially on Ovid for instances of charms and magic commonly seen as black magic in his day. It is Scot’s incredulity about all this magical fuss that Braden sees, in his conclusion, as paralleling Shakespeare’s resignation of the illusory show of the dramatist—“… the great Globe it selfe.”

The volume is brought to a close by Christopher Wood’s “Envoi.” Wood is here full of ideas and forceful assertions— and who should mind that? But the piece is strangely out of temper with the rest of the book. For starters, he doesn’t much attend to the published essays save to observe that most do not attempt the radical receptive project (Martindale’s) of “reading a classical text through a modern one.” Wood opines that classicists have particular trouble with this, though Renaissance scholars have long assimilated the methodology, as they have Reception Studies as a whole. The trouble for classicists is bound up in their persistent empiricist/historicist approaches and a failure to practice a criticism that recognizes, à la Martindale, the “excess of literariness that escapes empirical reconstruction” (164). Then there is the issue of what exactly the “Classics” are in the context of reception. While there has been recent discussion of this question that Wood doesn’t note,3 he moves quickly to an unusual claim of his own that the classics are “true,” or truer than the modern because closer to, even when exercising their alienation from, the gods, the divine, the numinous dawn of literary discourse. Putting it thus bluntly robs Wood of the subtlety of his notion, but it is clearly channeled through the scholarship of German and English Romanticism that Wood knows well (Yale’s Geoffrey Hartman on Wordsworth is quoted (170) adumbrating one form of the idea), and so another case of historicized reception. Like any good, provocative paper, virtually every point of Wood’s essay, including his invocation of Aby Warburg’s (to me very odd) “pathos formula,” invites detailed argument—and therefore can’t be argued here. Tolle, lege, discepta for yourself; this is a stimulating book.


1. Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 3.

2. Gorden Braden, “Ovid and Shakespeare,” in Peter E. Knox, ed., A Companion to Ovid. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009, pp. 442-54.

3. See, for instance, Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko, Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.