Reception and the Classics of the Future

In 2004 six classics departments (Bristol, Durham, Nottingham, OU, Oxford, Reading) formed the Classical Reception Studies Network in order to promote the study of reception within the discipline and help address some of the problems such study currently faces at both teaching and research levels. The Network decided to launch itself in public at the Classical Association Conference at Reading in 2005 with a debate on reception between Charles Martindale and Christopher Rowe, whose addresses are given here essentially as delivered.

This is a shortened version of the introduction to Classics and the Uses of Reception, edited by Charles Martindale and Richard Thomas, to be published by Blackwell in 2006, and reproduced here with permission.

In Redeeming the Text (1993) I issued what was in effect a manifesto for the adoption of reception theory within the discipline of classics, a position at that time somewhat controversial. Since then there has been a significant expansion of activities carried out under the banner of 'reception', particularly in the UK. One sign of the change of attitude was the decision by Cambridge University Press in the mid 1990s that Cambridge Companions to ancient authors should contain a substantial reception element. Another was the addition of 'reception', in 2001, to the categories of work specified within classics in the Research Assessment Exercise.

Reception has thus helped to challenge the traditional idea of what 'classics' is (something most classicists, including myself, simply took for granted 30, or even 20 years ago), prompting reflection on how the discipline has been constituted, variously and often amid disputes, over past centuries. It is not merely a matter of looking at what happened to classics after what we now like to call 'late antiquity', but of contesting the idea that classics is something fixed, whose boundaries can be shown, and whose essential nature we can understand on its own terms. Many classicists (though by no means necessarily the majority) are in consequence reasonably happy, if only to keep the discipline alive in some form, to work with an enlarged sense of what classics might be, no longer confined to the study of classical antiquity 'in itself' - so that classics can include writing about Paradise Lost, or the mythological poesie of Titian, or the film Gladiator, or the iconography of fascism. However, most Anglophone classicists (whatever they may claim) remain largely committed to fairly positivistic forms of historical enquiry, the attempt through the accumulation of supposedly factual data to establish the-past-as-it-really-was, of the kind I criticised in Redeeming the Text. To my thinking this commitment is mistaken, partly because such positivism is conceptually flawed, partly for pragmatic reasons because, given the over-whelmingly 'presentist' character of the contemporary scene, a classics which over-invests in such historicist approaches risks failing to attract tomorrow's students, or achieve any wider cultural significance. Above all such positivism misses the opportunities for much fascinating work, including work that is 'historical' in a broad sense.

One symbolically important date for the adherent of reception is April 1967, when Hans Robert Jauss delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Constance, 'What is and for what purpose does one study Literary History?'. Jauss argued for a paradigm shift in literary interpretation which he called Rezeptionsästhetik (sometimes translated as 'the poetics of reception').[1] It was to be one that would avoid the mistakes of Russian Formalism on the one hand (which paid insufficient attention to the sociology and historicity of literature) and of Marxism, with its grim historical determinism, on the other, while also building on their insights. The new model would acknowledge the historicity of texts, but also allow for the aesthetic response of readers in the present (any present of reading). It thus involved a significant turn to the reader, something which was to characterize a whole range of literary approaches over the remaining years of the century. A text (I am using the word in the extended post-structuralist sense, that could mean a painting, or a marriage ceremony, or a person, or history) is never just 'itself', appeals to that reified entity being mere rhetorical flag-waving - rather it is something that a reader reads, differently. Most versions of reception theory stress the mediated, situated, contingent character of readings, and that includes our own readings quite as much as those of past centuries; there is no Archimedean point from which we can arrive at a final, correct meaning for any text. Jauss' approach owes a great deal to the hermeneutics espoused by his teacher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Modifying Gadamer's idea of the fusion of horizons of text and reader, Jauss speaks of 'the horizon of expectation' of the text, 'an intersubjective system or structure of expectations',[2] which enters, and may substantially modify, the different 'horizon of expectation' of the reader.

A clear consequence of all this for classicists is, in the words of Julia Haig Gaisser, author of an exemplary study of the reception of Catullus in the Renaissance,[3] 'the understanding that classical texts are not only moving but changing targets'. We are not the direct inheritors of antiquity. As Gaisser colourfully puts it, such texts 'are not teflon-coated baseballs hurtling through time and gazed up at uncomprehendingly by the natives of various times and places, until they reach our enlightened grasp; rather, they are pliable and sticky artifacts gripped, molded, and stamped with new meanings by every generation of readers, and they come to us irreversibly altered by their experience'.[4] On this model the sharp distinction between antiquity itself and its reception over the centuries is dissolved. A particular historical moment does not limit the significance of a poem; indeed the same Roman reader might construe, say, an ode of Horace very differently at different historical junctures - texts mean differently in different situations. One objection to historicism thus becomes that it is not historical enough.

Given the stress, within reception, on the situatedness and mediated character of all readings, there is no necessary quarrel between reception and 'history' (that most elusive of jargon terms) - though, for the reasons we have just seen, Jauss was hostile to what he called 'dogmatic historicism and positivism'.[5] Indeed one value of reception is to bring to consciousness the factors that may have contributed to our responses to the texts of the past, factors of which we may well be 'ignorant' but are not therefore 'innocent';[6] hence the importance of possessing reception histories for individual texts. A poem is, from one point of view, a social event in history, as is any public response to it. But we also need to avoid privileging history over the other element in Jauss's model, the present moment in which the text is experienced, received, partly aesthetically (though that moment too is always potentially subject to historicization). If we respect both elements, our interpretations can become 'critical', self-aware, recognizing our self-implication, but they will not thereby (necessarily) stand forever. History, as Duncan Kennedy well puts it, 'is as much about eventuation as it is about original context'.[7]

My own view is that reception, on a Jaussian model, provides one intellectually coherent way of avoiding both crude presentism (in the words of Isobel Armstrong 'the reading that too peremptorily assimilates a text to contemporary concerns'[8]) and crude historicism. Antiquity and modernity, present and past, are always implicated in each other, always in dialogue - to understand either one, you need to think in terms of the other. James Porter, arguing that classics 'so far from being an outmoded pursuit' is 'essential and vital', observes that 'modernity requires the study of antiquity for its self-definition: only so can it misrecognize itself in its own image of the past, that of a so-called classical antiquity'.[9] But that is only to give half of the picture, for the reverse is also true; moreover, to use the word 'misrecognition' rather than 'recognition' is to move too swiftly to a particular hermeneutic stance. This is no new insight. In 'We Philologists' (1875) Nietzsche writes, 'This is the antinomy of philology: antiquity has in fact always been understood from the perspective of the present - and should the present now be understood from the perspective of antiquity?'[10] Charles Baudelaire, in what became a founding text for Modernism and theories of modernity, 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1863), sees antiquity and modernity as always interpenetrating, superimposed.[11] He starts by arguing that 'beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition', an eternal element, and 'a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions'. The second element is the element of modernity, 'the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent'.[12] Baudelaire would almost certainly have recalled a passage about Pheidias' building programme in Athens from Plutarch's Life of Pericles:

So then the works arose, no less towering in their grandeur than inimitable in the grace of their outlines, since the workmen eagerly strove to surpass themselves in the beauty of their handicraft. And yet the most wonderful thing about them was the speed with which they rose For this reason are the works of Pericles all the more to be wondered at; they were created in a short time for all time. Each one of them, in its beauty, was even then and at once antique; but in the freshness of its vigour it is, even to the present day, recent and newly wrought. Such is the bloom of perpetual newness, as it were, upon these works of his, which makes them ever to look untouched by time, as though the unfaltering breath of an ageless spirit had been infused into them.[13]

Thus from the moment of their creation the Parthenon sculptures were both old and new. But even in the work of the illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire's 'painter of modern life' himself, whose rapidly executed sketches brilliantly caught (or should that be catch?) the fleeting contingencies and ephemera of the modern world, the eternal element necessarily enters in, because the immediacy of the moment of modernity has been frozen in a finished work of art, destined to become itself antiquity to our modernity. As Baudelaire puts it, 'for any "modernity" to be worthy of one day taking its place as "antiquity", it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it'.

The desire to experience, say, Homer in himself untouched by any taint of modernity is part of the pathology of many classicists, but it is a deluded desire (even were such a thing possible, it could not satisfy, for it would no longer be 'we' who were reading Homer). Walter Pater, classicist, philosopher, and aesthetician, makes the point with characteristic suavity in his review of the poems of William Morris (Westminster Review, 1868):

The composite experience of all the ages is part of each one of us; to deduct from that experience, to obliterate any part of it, to come face to face with a people of a past age, as if the middle age, the Renaissance, the eighteenth century had not been, is as impossible as to become a little child, or enter again into the womb and be born. But though it is not possible to repress a single phase of that humanity, which, because we live and move and have our being in the life of humanity, makes us what we are; it is possible to isolate such a phase, to throw it into relief, to be divided against ourselves in zeal for it, as we may hark back to some choice space of our own individual life. We cannot conceive the age; we can conceive the element it has contributed to our culture; we can treat the subjects of the age bringing that into relief. Such an attitude towards Greece, aspiring to but never actually reaching its way of conceiving life, is what is possible for art.[14]
The religious language that saturates the passage suggests that Pater felt in full the lure of the idea of an originary experience (according to Christ, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children), but he also knew the limits, and the advantages, of the possible. Accordingly he commends Morris, in his retelling of the old Greek stories, for eschewing a pastiche, and therefore fake, classicism in a merely antiquarian spirit, as well as, conversely, something that is 'a disguised reflex of modern sentiment'. We cannot read Morris' Greeks either as stock classical characters or as 'just like us' in some vision of eternal human nature; instead the early-ness of Greek myth is interpreted through the earliest stirrings of the Renaissance in late medieval art and literature. By thus setting the medieval against the Hellenic Morris creates, in Pater's words, 'a world in which the centaur and the ram with the fleece of gold are conceivable', even if 'anything in the way of an actual revival must always be impossible'. The medievalism makes it evident that Morris' project is neither a mere reproduction nor one of unthinking modernisa-tion, erasing the difference between past and present. What we have in Morris is a kind of 'double-distancing'[15] (like the multiple-distancing in the passage from Pater's essay on Morris), and the friction between the various historical layers evoked allows the construal of our relationship to the past to be made in a sophisticated way.

For a classicism to be successful, in Pater's terms, it needs to be significant in both its classical aspect and in its modern one, not to subsume either one into the other. Indeed modernity can only be modern insofar as it postdates or supersedes the past, the embedded traces of which are, indeed, the very proof of modernity. Thus Pater shows us we cannot have antiquity without modernity, something which gives us a classics that does not belong merely to the past, but to the present and the future. In general Pater's thought is always dialectical in just this way. He is drawn to historicism, attracted by the absence within it of absolute values, the underlying relativism; but he also believes in the 'House Beautiful', as something that exists in the present and is (at least potentially) alive for us, not in the form of some coercive Western tradition but as a sodality of artists who communicate across the ages.[16] Things that have had value from different times and places in the past are available in the here and now, with the result we are not doomed either to a narrow and relentless presentism or to any form of historical teleology.

Since 1993 few have attempted, within classics, to theorise reception, or explore how such studies should best be pursued; indeed reception has been largely turned back into a form of positivist history, often of a rather amateurish kind (the principle needs to be this: research on, say, the Victorians must be credible to Victorianists as well as classicists). An exception to this reluctance to theorise is Simon Goldhill, who argues for a move away from a primarily literary approach to investigate broader cultural formations.[17] This seems to be part of a wider trend to collapse reception into cultural studies, witness the title of a recent collection from outside classics, Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies.[18] Goldhill's chapter on Plutarch shows both the strength and the blind-spots of his approach. From the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century Plutarch was one of the most admired ancient authors. The Lives was one of the works given to Frankenstein's monster to teach him about humanity and its ways. However Plutarch then suffered a catastrophic decline in reputation from which he has not yet recovered. Plutarch, it thus might seem, is exactly the kind of author who invites resuscitation through reception studies. Goldhill is primarily interested in what Plutarch shows us about being Greek in the Roman world, about cultural self-definition. He does not seem to envisage the possibility that Plutarch could be truly alive again for us, other than as part of a purely historical enquiry. At one point he comments, 'A modern reader must be bored by Plutarch' - like so many of our current historicists Goldhill is, in his heart, a Hegelian, sharing Hegel's belief in the relentless and progressive forward march of Geist. Goldhill concludes his discussion thus:

The title of this chapter posed the question 'Why Save Plutarch?' not so that I can answer simply 'because he is a good and interesting writer whose huge influence in pre-nineteenth century Europe and America requires attention rather than ignoring, especially if writers of the stature of Rousseau, Shakespeare, Emerson are to be fully appreciated.' Rather, it is because this question opens up the issue of cultural value itself, and of our inevitable complicity with its construction.
The trouble with this formulation is that, for such a purpose, countless other writers would do just as well. To my thinking Goldhill's account ignores too much of what constitutes Plutarch's special 'virtue' (Pater's word, in The Renaissance, for the unique aesthetic character of an artwork). As a result of that virtue Plutarch at least once changed the world, as the scholar and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch, in a defence of the value of Greek, observed:
I warn my countrymen - that gracious as the old Greek spirit is, and, apt to be despised because it comes jingling no money in its pocket, using no art but intellectual persuasion, they had wiselier, if only for their skins' sake, keep it a friend than exile or cage it. For, embodying the free spirit of man, it is bound to break out sooner or later, to re-invade - You may think this a fancy: but I warn you, it is no fancy. Twice the imprisoned spirit has broken loose upon Europe. The first time it slew over half of Europe an enthroned religion; the second time it slew an idea of monarchy. Its first access made, through the Renascence, a Reformation: its second made the French Revolution. And it made the French Revolution very largely (as any one who cares may assure himself by reading the memoirs of that time) by a simple translation of a Greek book - Plutarch's Lives. Now Plutarch is not, as we estimate ancient authors, one of the first rank. A late Greek, you may call him, an ancient
   musical at close of day:
an easy garrulous tale-teller. That but weights the warning. If Plutarch, being such a man, could sway as he did the men who made the French Revolution, what will happen to our Church and State in the day when a Plato comes along to probe and test the foundations of both with his Socratic irony? Were this the last word I ever spoke, in my time here, I would bid any lover of compulsory 'Natural Science' - our new tyranny - to beware that day.[19]
Quiller-Couch shares the dominant estimate of Plutarch of his time. But for some reader who dares break through the zeitgeist, somewhere - who knows? - Plutarch might yet change the world again. I fear too that, if we abandon a serious commitment to the value of the texts we choose for our attention and those of our students, we may end by trivialising reception within the discipline; already a classics student is far more likely to spend time analysing Gladiator than the Commedia of Dante. I find that worrying. This is not to decry the study of a wide range of cultural artefacts (there are many more good things in the world than the canon knows), and certainly not to criticize the study of film or of popular culture; it is simply to say that we form ourselves by the company that we keep, and that in general material of high quality is better company for our intellects and hearts than the banal or the quotidian (often we use the latter, archly and somewhat cheaply, merely to celebrate our own cultural superiority). We need to believe in the value of what we do, and whatever we do we need to do it in all seriousness.

It is worth asking if the concept of 'reception' today serves any useful purpose, now that the word's power to provoke has largely subsided. Simon Goldhill thinks it 'too blunt, too passive a term for the dynamics of resistance and appropriation, recognition and self-aggrandisement' that he sees in the cultural processes he explores. Perhaps so, but it is worth remembering that reception was chosen, in place of words like 'tradition' or 'heritage', precisely to stress the active role played by receivers. Reception can still serve the interests of a wider range of those receivers than classics has traditionally ac-knowledged, by recovering or rescuing diverse receptions. In that sense there could be said to be a democratic politics of reception. Lorna Hardwick talks of the power of such a classics to decolonize the mind[20] (though we should beware of complacency in that regard); certainly part of the potential virtue of reception is a com-mitment to pluralism. More worrying perhaps is the sheer diversity of the procedures and assumptions that reception embraces, or on occasion occludes. For some, reception is defined in terms of its postclassical subject matter, for others (including myself) it is a way of doing classics that is at odds with the positivism of much that is now labelled 'reception'. Others rather hope, through reception, to strip away accretions, and see antiquity for itself with greater clarity. What follows is taken from a bid to the AHRB for ring-fenced doctoral awards in classical reception, in which Christopher Rowe, among others, was involved:

Although sharing with more familiar and traditional approaches to Classical scholarship a commitment to advancing collective understanding of Greek and Roman antiquity, this new approach is also quite distinct: it is set apart by its conviction that the ancient texts can only ever be truly understood in the social and cultural contexts which originally produced them if the layers of meaning which have become attached to them over the intervening centuries are systematically excavated and brought to consciousness - By considering how individual texts, authors, intellectual currents and historical periods have been 'received' in diverse later contexts, this approach enhances the clarity with which texts can be seen when returned to their original producers, now separated, to an extent, from the anachronistic meanings imposed upon them.

I have already given reasons against such an approach, and there are others. How could one ever know if one had truly stripped away all the layers of 'anachronism' in this process of intellectual ascesis? And, even could one do so, what would be left might turn out to be rather evidently insubstantial. We shall not, for example, find a 'real' Sappho if by that we mean one for which there is convincing corroborating evidence from her own time (we have anyway only about 3% of what she wrote). We may sneer at Wilamowitz's view that Sappho ran a girl's school; but is a widespread current view that she created 'a cohesive social group for women' any less transparently ideological?[21] Our self-implication is more than usually self-evident in such cases - and why should we seek to pretend otherwise? Whatever the case in Archaic Lesbos, the certainty is that Sappho is now a lesbian (as Emily Wilson wittily puts it, 'it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Baudelaire, through Sappho, invented modern lesbianism, and Swinburne brought it to England'). Should we give up all this richness - in exchange for nothing?

What's in a name? In the years to come people may, or they may not, find 'reception' a useful label for certain scholarly activities. But the issues raised by Jauss's Rezeptionsästhetik will not readily go away. Two things above all I would have classics embrace: a relaxed, not to say imperialist, attitude towards what we may study as part of the subject, and a subtle and supple conception of the relationship between the past and the present, modern and ancient. Then classics could again become a leading player among the humanities, a classics neither merely antiquarian nor crudely presentist, a classics of the present certainly, but also, truly, of the future.


A few additional reflections, following the Reading debate:

First, I am not, of course, saying that everyone should adopt my theory of reading, only that we should all think through what we are doing when we read.

Secondly, if the process of unmediated transhistorical communication desiderated by Christopher Rowe is possible, why is it so difficult? Why has no-one else except Professor Rowe and his collaborator, and possibly Aristotle, discerned what Plato was 'actually saying' in the Lysis? Rowe's very intellectual integrity and his willingness to press his argument to the point when it risks self- destruction produces a result that is (perhaps to the surprise of some) rather evidently less commonsensical than mine. The underlying disagreement between us, of course, is about where, and how, meaning is to be located. When Rowe says that I will try to respond to what I suppose he is saying, rather than just my view of what he is saying, I would replace his 'either/or' with a 'both/and', or point out how easily this distinction can be reconfigured or deconstructed.

Thirdly, it seems misguided to dismiss (say) the rich reception of Sappho in the last three centuries (when many believed she was among the greatest poets of all time) as worthless and indeed 'comic'. More than that, it seems unduly presentist and parochial. Surely it is more productive to explore the possible intellectual frameworks within which that reception might assume coherence and indeed evince a continuing power and authority. We should not too quickly assume that the men and women of the past were stupider than we are.

Fourthly, if you strip away all the 'accretions' of reception, you don't get the 'original' truth, you get something far more impoverished. You need a method for compensating for losses, and reception theory provides such a method.

Finally, to my thinking Christopher Rowe operates throughout with a major category error. When it comes to readings of complex texts or to aesthetic judgements, the stark binary 'correct'/'incorrect' is unlikely to prove helpful. Judgements of value are not facts (even if they might be held to be, in some sense, 'true'). Professor Rowe completely misunderstands my aesthetic position, which derives from Kant's Third Critique. Thus there are no 'reified entities' in the Kantian aesthetic, and the Kantian judgement of taste ('this poem is beautiful') is always singular, never hierarchical. For the reader who is interested I have set out my position in full in Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste: An Essay in Aesthetics (Oxford 2005).

Charles Martindale
University of Bristol

[1]The lecture was subsequently retitled 'Literary History as a Provocation to Literary Scholarship', and under that title included in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Brighton and Minneapolis 1982).
[2]Robert C. Holub in Raman Selden, ed., The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Volume 8 (Cambridge 1995) 323.
[3]Catullus and his Renaissance Readers (Oxford 1993).
[4]'The Reception of Classical Texts in the Renaissance', in The Italian Renaissance in the Twentieth Century, ed. Allen J. Grieco, Michael Rocke, and Firela Gioffredi Superbi (Florence 2002) 387. Like Christopher Rowe in his response, however, I would demur at 'irreversibly' (p. 14 below); it suggests a view of historical process that is too teleological, insufficiently contingent.
[5]Rien T. Segers, 'An Interview with Hans Robert Jauss', New Literary History 11 (1979 80) 84.
[6]I take my terminology from Jerome J. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford 1985) 87. McGann offers a spirited defence of what we might call 'historicist' reception studies.
[7]Review of Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective, ed. Oliver Taplin, Greece and Rome 48 (2000) 88.
[8]'A Fine-knit Tribute', TLS (November 21, 2003) 29.
[9]'The Materiality of Cultural Studies', Parallax 9 (2003) 64.
[10]Cited James I. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Stanford 2000) 15.
[11]Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London and New York 1983) 87.
[12]Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (New York 1964) 3, 13 (subsequent quotation from pp. 13 14).
[13]Pericles, ch. 13 (translation by Bernadotte Perrin, from the Loeb Plutarch, vol. 3).
[14]'Poems by William Morris', Westminster Review ns 34 (1868) 307 (subsequent quotations are, in order, from pp. 300, 305, 307, 300).
[15]I borrow this term from Michael Ann Holly, who used it in a response at the conference '"Old Fancy" or "Modern Idea"?: Re-inventing the Renaissance in the 19th Century', held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 10 11 Sept. 2004.
[16]Appreciations (London 1913) 241: 'that House Beautiful, which the creative minds of all generations--the artists and those who have treated life in the spirit of art --are always building together, for the refreshment of the human spirit' (from the Postscript). Pater anticipates, though in a much less authoritarian form, the arguments of T. S. Eliot's famous essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919), another key text for students of reception.
[17]Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (Cambridge 2002) 12 (subsequent quotations are from pp. 292 3, 297).
[18]Ed. James Machor and Philip Goldstein (New York and London 2001).
[19]Cambridge Lectures (London and New York 1943) 192 3.
[20]Reception Studies (Oxford 2003) 110.
[21]'Tongue Breaks', LRB (Jan 8, 2004) 27 8 (the subsequent quotation is from p. 27).

CUCD Bulletin 34 (2005)
© Charles Martindale 2005

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