Friday, February 12, 2016

Reception Studies in classics - an introduction

The end of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new wrinkle in classical studies.  Considered promising by some, the capacity of Reception Studies to revitalize the field remains problematic.  It has nonetheless generated a considerable volume of scholarship, assuring tenure for at least a few academics.

The precursors of this approach were a group of German literary theorists of the School of Konstanz, headed by Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997) and Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007).  Jauss’s English-language book, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (1982) made the approach known outside of Germany.

These scholars upheld the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three major concerns: source-spotting; links with the biography of the creator; and the formal qualities of the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the attentive reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae.  Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading makes way for a new one. Subjectivity is king. 

The specter of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not simply a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

For their part, Jauss and Iser had stressed the role of the individual interpreter.  As the idea spread, though, it was realized that it is unwise to ignore the collective aspects, for we read not just as individuals but, willy-nilly, as participants in a group endeavor

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  Fish stressed the role of interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish maintained that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claimed that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he held, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  

Let us briefly consider a particularly rich example, the work of the great Latin poet Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro; 70 BCE-19 CE).  His first two lyric collections, the Eclogues and the Georgics, are themselves examples of reception, owing much to the examples of the Hellenistic Greek bucolic poetry found in Theocritus and Bion.  His major work, the Aeneid, is indebted to Homer.  

Fortunately, Vergil’s request that the Aeneid be destroyed on his death was not honored, and it quickly took its place as the national epic of Rome.  In late antiquity his somewhat mysterious Fourth Eclogue, featuring a charismatic child as a kind of savior figure, was welcomed by Christians as a prophecy of their faith.  Tertullian hailed the Latin poet as anima naturaliter Christiana.

There were also occult aspects.  In late antiquity, for example, Vergil’s works functioned in a kind of divination exercise, the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby one would open the text of his works at random, seeking guidance from the passage so revealed.  
During the Middle Ages Vergil took on the legendary guise of a magician.  Yet the supreme medieval exemplar of the cult of Vergil is his role as Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy.

In various ways the Aeneid served as a model for Renaissance vernacular epics, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Camoes’ The Lusiads (1572).  

The persistence of Latin as the common vehicle of intellectual communication in Europe assured Vergil a continuing readership.  Yet in eighteenth-century Germany Vergil was somewhat downgraded because of the preference for ancient Greek works, especially Homer.  Still, Italians continued to cherish the Latin poet who was viewed as a national treasure.  In France, the composer Hector Berlioz utilized the Aeneid for the libretto of his grand opera, “Les Troyens,” composed between 1856 and 1858.

With the decline of Latin, Vergil is nowadays mainly read in modern languages, with some inevitable loss of the aesthetic qualities that depend on the special character of the Latin language.

In principle the reception approach can be applied to any past or present cultural manifestation that is regarded as worthy of study.  The following is the expansive view of the Reception Studies Working Group at the University of California, Davis.  “Reception studies confront us with the changing intellectual and cultural roles of sacred and profane canons of art and literature in the broadest sense. Indeed tracking receptions requires an examination of the cultural setting of the reception in which the new work appears; the authority of learned environments and educational systems in general; the relationship of culture and politics where canons and their reception are created, translated, promulgated, and preserved.  [The task is to] examine how the various appropriations of earlier texts and cultural forms have responded to them as prompts, have imitated or echoed them, have inspired new cultural, scientific and artistic developments, selectively read or edited them, undermined them, or otherwise used them, all of which constitute their reception history.”

However this may be, in the present context the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, Pindar, the Pre-Socratics, Thucydides, Epicurus, Cicero, Ovid, Tacitus and many other authors and historical figures.  The approach also serves to address classical achievements in the visual arts, where the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, the sculptural group known as the Laocoon - not to speak of many other works - have had complex reception histories.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concept as too passive and too dependent on the flattering notion that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is more strongly vitalistic: the classics live on - they have an afterlife.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is, are they revenants, kindly ghosts accompanying us on our journey?  

Continuity is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this term also connotes precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the moniker of traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept is not entirely satisfactory, for in assigning the consumer a passive role as a mere recipient it denies agency at the point of delivery.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled Oedipus at Thebes (1957), the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  Knox displays a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and, if you will, the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are fraught with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were entering a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceed from very different premises.  This approach holds that can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the approach that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions thereof.  A more balanced view combines the recognition of the value of the source works with a delineation of the transformations that have enriched - though also sometimes distorted - our understanding of the source works.  

At all events, even in this era of a crisis in publishing, some academic presses have enthusiastically embraced the reception approach.  Oxford University Press, the leader in this endeavor, now offers more than seventy titles in its Classical Presences series.

Some caveats are appropriate.  Do reception studies truly offer salvation - or even solace - for classical studies?  This hopeful conclusion is questionable, because in place of the older confidence in the intrinsic value of the classics, the new approach relegates them to the modest status of triggers in a process that ends up overshadowing them.  In this way the classics assume a minor role in a narrative that in its many twists and turns inevitably overshadows the originals.  Moreover, in focusing - as it sometimes does - on adaptations in film and television, in the comics and electronic games, the approach runs the risk of pandering to popular taste, with scanty positive yield.  


Mirage or substantive advance?   The upshot is yet to be determined.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

My interests

A few days ago an Internet friend remarked, in a purely friendly way, that he could not readily discern what my areas of expertise/interest are. So I sought to outline them, with the following tentative result.
1) the historiography of art, studies now being realized in my major work in two volumes that is shortly to appear;
2) gay studies, the field I defected to (even though it has almost been strangled at birth by postmodernism); nonetheless I achieved the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality 25 years ago;
3) literary modernism (Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and their precursors Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and Nietzsche);
4) medieval political theory, exemplified by the tension between Ernst Kantorowitz and Walter Ullmann;
5) the Greek and Roman classics;
6) ancient China;
7) comparative religion, as seen in my online book Abrahamica.

London again

Last fall I returned to London (somewhere in England - sic) for two weeks. This was the city where I had settled, semipermanently it seemed at the time, just over fifty years ago. How has it changed? 

My most important finding is that London has not changed - at least in its core. Like the other world cities, it is eternal. To be sure, when I settled in the British capital, there were still bombed-out sites from the blitz - now filled in, not always felicitously, but even the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, and the London Eye don't seem to make that much difference. 

What then has changed? Well, in those days we reckoned in pounds, shillings, and pence. There was even a kind of phantom currency called the guinea, which one used in bargaining to boost one's earnings just a little. Still, there was something monumentally stable about British currency: in banks one could see clerks actually weighing clumps of the silver coins in bulk, so accurate was their alloy. Trips on the Underground were calculated in shillings and pence only, varying minutely according to distance. No Oyster then! One still read in the great circular room at the British Museum, now sadly mutilated. At tea time we repaired to Lyons and the ABC, basically bun shops. You could get milk from machines. The price of basic commodities was kept low; and liquor highly taxed. 

So there has been change, a least a bit. But stability? - yes, Gov!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reception and the classics

Reception Studies

The end of the twentieth century signaled the emergence of a new (or at least newish) methodology in classical studies.

This is the trend known as Reception Studies.   The approach stems from group of German literary scholars of the School of Konstanz with Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss as leading figures. These scholars advanced the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three things: source-spotting; the biography of the creator: and the process of composing the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the individual reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae. 

Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading potentially occasions a new one.  This reign of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not just a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  This is the idea that there are interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish posits that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claims that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he holds, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  Originally, Dante was read in Italy as a great genius who reshaped the Italian language as an instrument for expounding his profound religious and patriotic commitments.  Then in the 17th and 18th centuries the poet came under fire for his nonconformity with neoclassic ideals of literary correctness, as well as for his purported obscurantism.  After 1800 the Romantics rediscovered him as a passionate precursor. 

Thus there are three Dantes - and more.  This medieval example shows that the concept lends itself to any past cultural manifestation that we regard as valuable.  Yet in this study the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, Vergil, Lucretius, and many other authors.  The approach may also address works of sculpture, painting, and architecture.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concepts too passive and too closely tied to the flattering idea that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is vitalistic: the classics live on.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is they are revenants.  Continuing life is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this term suggests precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the tool of Traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept also elides the decisive role of the consumer who in effect reshapes the work as he or she assimilates it.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled “Oedipus at Thebes,” 1957, the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  This is a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and if you will the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are frought with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were founding a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceeds from very different premises.  We can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the mentality that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions.

Like the approaches that preceded it, Reception Studies is prone to narrowness.  It is a new broom that sweeps too efficiently, carrying away earlier findings that we should still honor.  Conversely, in diluted form it may be said to embrace the whole of classical studies - an expansiveness that has been termed a Greedy Set.

While the emphasis on Reception of classical exemplars is particularly characteristic of the opening years of the 21st century, the interest is not entirely new.  For a long time a version of this pursuit had been exemplified by the somewhat lonely efforts of London’s Warburg Institute.

The Institute traces its origins to the Hamburg library of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), an innovative scholar of Renaissance art and culture who was a scion of a distinguished Jewish family.  In 1900 Warburg decided to establish the Warburg-Bibliothek für Kulturwissenschaft, a large private library, built around issues stemming from the classical survival.  The Library was funded privately, for Aby Warburg famously forfeited his right to a share of his fortune on condition that his younger brother Max would buy him any books he required,  

In 1933, under the shadow of Nazism, the facility migrated to England, where it came under the aegis of the University of London.  Today, the Warburg Institute maintains a research library of more than 350,000 items. These volumes, except for a small number of rare and valuable books, are kept on open shelves where they are accessible to all users. The Institute also maintains a large photographic collection, together with the personal archives of Aby Warburg. The Institute is notable for its unusual reference system, for the collection is arranged by subject according to Warburg's division of human history into the categories of Action, Orientation, Word, and Image. 

The Warburg Institute has never attracted many students, and from time to time its funding has come under review. Some would say for good reason. Even though its mission was defined as the study of the classical tradition, it failed to shift with the times.  Warburg himself had been interested in the occult aspects of the Renaissance tradition, a pursuit continued with great distinction into the 1960s and 70s by Frances Yates.  Yet the Institute disdained the Counterculture of that era.  More recently it has shown no real interest in the bonding of the classical tradition with modernism, including popular culture.  This neglect left room for the emergence of other institutions and groupings of scholars which, especially in Britain, have risen to prominence.


Time will tell whether the current version of Reception Studies will revitalize classics - or merely give their decline new gloss.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Middle Kingdom exalted

Yesterday I took in the wonderful exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aimed mainly at true connoisseurs, the show is unlikely to rank as a blockbuster event, though one never knows.

The exhibition has two major strengths. The first consists of small, delicate panels and figurines with their modest accounts of daily life in the period.

Soaring over all, however, are the extraordinary portraits of the pharaohs of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties. While the Middle Kingdom liked to regard itself as simply a restoration of the glories of the Old Kingdom - a typical neoclassical posture - it achieved a decisive advance in these portraits.

While Old Kingdom portraits show some individuality, their idealist treatment precluded full embrace of the inherent, and sometimes tragic potential of portraiture as we have come to know it. The faces of the Middle Kingdom works are simply amazing, recasting the human visage as it were as the record of one's lifelong battle for integrity and wholeness - a battle that inevitably none of us can really win. As such they are existentialist portrayals. Not until the time of Rembrandt was this model recaptured and surpassed, if then.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pablo Neruda

Recently I participated in a brief discussion concerning the poetic status of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and acclaimed by at least one critic as the "greatest poet of the 20th century."
While I am not an expert on poetry, inclined as I am to the belief that we live in a post-poetic age, I am fluent in Spanish. So I went back to my copy of Neruda's magnum opus, the Canto General, a kind of segmental epic on the Americas in 15,000 lines. The loose-ranging prosody derives from Walt Whitman, a choice that seems perfectly valid. Not so much the story line.
The narrative starts with an idealized portrait of Amerindian cultures before the arrival of the conquistadores, who spoiled everything in Neruda's view. Right at the start, then, we have a conflict between indigenismo, the idealization of the original inhabitants of our continents, and hispanidad, the cherishing of the Spanish heritage and language.
Later, the poem declines into what can only be termed a series of rants against gringos and their corrupt allies in Latin America. All this is colored by Neruda's lifelong Stalinism. Yet for many admirers this far-left commitment is almost a plus, showing a "progressive" tendency.
I have never understood why fascism should be condemned - as it certainly should be - while Marxist totalitarianism is let off the hook. Yet this dichotomy is common in some bien-pensant circles.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Christianity and me

Some may ask what credentials I possess for commenting on religion. After all I was brought up in a decidedly secular home, as my parents adhered to a far-left political sect. When I opened the Bible for the first time at the age of twenty, I was struck by how many quotations it contained, from "giants in the earth" to "turning the other cheek."
Yet I did not long remain in this state of bemused perplexity. Grad school (art history) gave me a new purchase on these matters.
When in the early sixties I commenced work on the illuminated Stavelot Bible (with copies of the diss. still bouncing around here and there), I only partially understood how to proceed. I knew that the MS was a product, art historically speaking, of the Mosan Romanesque. Obviously, there was a major theological background. I understood that the Libri Carolini were still authoritative in 1097, offering a bulwark against the rigors of iconoclasm.
So far so good. In addition, a flyleaf in the Bible contained a catalogue of the abbey library at Stavelot, featuring major works by Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great (who turned out to be most relevant for my research). I also boned up on modern critical research on the text of the Bible, as well as on such theologians as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. The latter pair are old hat now, but they remain formidable intellects. Thus while I was not a fan of Benedict 16, I recognized that he had a deep knowledge of contemporary theology, especially in the so-called Resourcement trend.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Arab socialism

Many will be surprised to find me uttering a good word for socialism. Yet there is one aspect of this amalgam that it is our misfortune - and the misfortune of the Middle East - to have lost.
I am referring to the movement known as Arab socialism, a political ideology that combined Pan-Arabism and socialism. The term "Arab socialism" was coined by the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq, the principal founder of Ba'athism and the Arab Ba'ath Party, in order to distinguish his version of socialist ideology from the international socialist movement.
Socialism was a major component of Ba'athist thought, and it featured in the party's slogan of "Unity, liberty, socialism/” However by using the term Arab socialism Aflaq did not mean socialism as the term is normally employed in the West; his version equated socialism with Arab nationalism.
The socialism envisaged in the party's constitution of 1947 and in later writings up to the establishment of the United Arab Republic, is moderate and shows little formal impress of Marxism.
In 1950 Aflaq defined socialism as "not an aim in itself, but rather a necessary means to guarantee society the highest standard of production with the farthest limit of cooperation and solidarity among the citizens ... Arab society ... needs a social order with deeper foundations, wider horizons, and more forceful realization than moderate British socialism."
The cardinal difference between Arab socialism and communism was, according to Aflaq and Ba'athist thinkers in general, the central role allocated to nationalism.
In other words, the movement sought to give Arabs a sense of unity and pride without basing these things on religion.
If Arab socialism was a good thing, as I think it was, what happened to it? For one thing, it came to be identified with the leadership of Gamal Albdel Nasser in Egypt, and over time he let the country run down. Saddam Hussein's expropriation of it also tarnished the movement Then there was the opposition of the United States and the Western powers, who mistakenly saw the movement as in league with the Soviet Union.