Reply to Charles Martindale

Christopher Rowe

The text that follows is almost exactly the text that was read, and then discussed, at the 2005 Classical Association Conference in Reading, under the auspices of the recently established Classical Reception Studies Network (of which Charles Martindale and I are both among the founder-members). I have merely added a final paragraph, which builds on a point that was raised in the discussion. I am grateful to the editor of the Bulletin for agreeing to print Charles Martindale's paper and my response to it: it was an extremely lively session, as befits the importance of the issues we debated, and it would, we think, have been a shame if the debate itself disappeared entirely without trace. We both hope that it will have served to stir further, and equally passionate, argument.


In the same year that Charles published his Redeeming the Text, I myself began a collaboration with the philosopher Terry Penner, in Madison, Wisconsin, that has lasted ever since, and will this year reach a culmination in the publication of a large book on a very small Platonic dialogue: the Lysis. As it happens, the book - adventurously entitled Plato's Lysis - will be published by the same press that published Charles's. But the two volumes could not be more different. Charles wrote against 'positivistic forms of historical enquiry, the attempt through the accumulation of supposedly factual data to establish the-past-as-it-really-was' (p. 6 above); for the five years it has taken us to write our book, Terry Penner and I have been doing what Charles rails against - for what we have been trying to do, and what we reckon we have succeeded in doing, is precisely to re-establish what Plato was actually saying in the Lysis, in the process rejecting practically every other reading of the dialogue, over the last two-and-a-half millennia, that we have been able to track down (though it has to be said that the Lysis seems not to have been much read in much of that time). I say 'practically every other reading': in fact we think Aristotle knew pretty well what the Lysis was about, but he thought it philosophically so unrewarding that he - not untypically - prefers to recall the dialogue (as he does quite a lot) in an already Aristotelianised, philosophically cleansed, form.

The essence of our reading of the dialogue is that it proposes a theory of desire, and of action, that is not only systematic and internally coherent, but actually succeeds in grasping an aspect of the world as it really is: that is to say, we propose that the Lysis gets some sort of grasp on the truth about what makes us human beings tick - and a better grasp than other, rival, and more familiar theories like Aristotle's, or St Paul's, or Augustine's, or Kant's. In fact the evidence for the existence of this theory in Plato (who was later himself to abandon it) doesn't just depend on the Lysis; it is simply that - as we propose - the theory is more coherently and systematically argued there than anywhere else. But in order to see that, we (Penner and Rowe) had progressively to throw overboard whole shiploads of philosophical assumptions, and assumptions about the way to do philosophy, that seem to come so naturally to anyone brought up in the analytical tradition (or indeed in the Kantian; but to admit that Plato is no Kantian is now no longer quite as controversial as it used to be). What has emerged, after five years of hard slog and frequent sleeplessness, is a reading that explains more of the Lysis than any other, and one that moreover appears to have hardly less power when it comes to the explanation of other Platonic dialogues.

All of this will help to explain why I sign up so readily to that view of 'reception' that treats it (inter alia, of course), as a way of 'see[ing] antiquity for itself with greater clarity' (p. 11). Charles dismisses this view, on grounds provided by Jauss, 'poststructuralism', and Gadamer (I'll return to them), but also on the extraordinarily flimsy grounds, first, that one would never know 'if one had truly stripped away all the layers of "anachronism"', and second that 'what would be left [at the end of the stripping away] might turn out to be rather evidently insubstantial' (p. 11). On the first point, we might still be using assumptions that Plato never shared (if I may stick with my own example), but that hardly means that it will be better to put back the ones we've managed to strip off; and on the second, it is actually the modern readings that make the Lysis 'insubstantial'. As for Sappho, I myself would be perfectly happy to admit and enjoy the fact that all the 'richness' of modern readings is a sort of ideological dance upon the ruins - and then at once reject the whole lot (as Charles seems to suggest no one should), some at least because they now look, after the event, so comic. (So much for 'richness'.)

But this is still skirting round the differences between Charles and myself. In Charles's view, my approach must be 'positivistic', and 'positivism [he declares: 6] is conceptually flawed'. He does not give much in the way of grounds for this, apart from the Jauss lecture, the 'turn to the reader' that came to 'characterize a whole range of literary approaches' (safety in numbers?), and an ideological statement about the nature of a 'text' - 'A text - is never just "itself", appeals to that reified entity being mere rhetorical flag-waving - rather it is something that a reader reads, differently - there is no Archimedean point from which we can arrive at a final, correct meaning for any text' (p. 7). But as Charles must be the first to accept, some readings will be more 'correct' than others, since otherwise there would be no way of establishing the membership of that 'sodality of artists who communicate through the ages' (p. 9 - more on this later). Of course, we can never be sure of having exhausted the meaning of any but the simplest of texts. (The 'poststructuralist' line will include even these, thus itself indulging in 'mere rhetorical flag-waving'.) But only the stupidest of 'positivists' would insist that they'd got every detail right; nor do Penner and I insist on it. We just insist that, if readers follow our argument (rather than just forming their own, perverse, view of what our argument is), they will see more clearly what Plato's text is saying - where the clarity is a matter of things coming out right, of our being able to see how Socrates gets from here, precisely, to there rather than somewhere else. Nor does this presuppose a 'reified' text 'in itself'; it presupposes only that Plato is trying to communicate something systematic, in the same way as I presuppose that Charles is trying to communicate something systematic, and as Charles will, I imagine, will try to respond systematically to what he supposes I'm saying, rather than just his view of what I'm saying.

Now one might say that Charles and I are talking about different kinds of texts: he about literary texts, I about philosophical. But that line is not open to Charles; he wants to claim that reception, and classics, as a whole are inseparable from the 'poststructuralist' insight about texts. That approach seems to me strangely 'imperialistic' (cf. p. 11); it certainly seems exclusive, even elitist - though the latter adjective I reserve specifically for that moment, near the end of Charles's piece, when he talks about how 'we form ourselves by the company we keep, and - in general material of high quality is better company for our intellects and hearts than the banal or the quotidian' (p. 10). Compare also the reference to that 'sodality of artists' I mentioned just now. But I won't mind elitism if it can be justified. My real problem, as I've already hinted, is with the peculiar combination in Charles's piece of this certainty about 'quality', and the 'eternal', with poststructuralism; well, that combination, plus the assertion of post-structuralist ideology itself. Let me deal with that first, and all too briefly.

Charles's appeal to Gadamer, and to his pupil Jauss, is evidently meant to reassure us of the respectability of his, Charles's, position (and presumably to frighten 'conceptually flawed' individuals like myself). And it is certainly true that intersubjectivism, of different varieties, is nowadays quite the rage: the late and redoubtable Donald Davidson, for one, was a supporter. I even concede that in order to begin accounting for our relationship with the world, we can't do without intersubjectivism, insofar as the world does not present itself to us ready-formed. But any decent intersubjectivist theory, as I understand it, will accept that things happen, and that different things happen, whether in the UK, in Turkmenistan, or Rome, modern or ancient; that is, it will allow both that our various perceptions have causes, and that different perceptions will be explained, at least in part, by a difference in those causes. Any decent intersubjectivist theory, moreover, will allow for regularities, or patterns, in things, even while claiming, perhaps rightly, that we should never suppose that we shall ever fully and finally understand them.

What Charles appears to me to be doing is to assimilate intersubjectivism to a kind of Protagorean relativism; a mistake into which he is lured by the apparent coincidence between a theory that seems to privilege the observer and a reader-centred theory of literature (and especially poetry) - which he then feels himself justified in extending to all 'texts', i.e., apparently, to everything, insofar as everything needs to be 'read' (my inference from the bottom of his p. 6). History itself, like a poem, will apparently on Charles's view 'mean differently in different situations'; by his argument, it seems that history will also be (to adapt the sentence he quotes from Julia Gaisser, on p. 7), no less than classical texts, a 'pliable and sticky artifact gripped, molded, and stamped with new meanings by every generation of readers, and comes to us irreversibly altered by its experience'. I have to say that I find no sympathy with that 'irreversibly' even in the case of poetry: Gaisser has a point, precisely in that case, but even there it is overstated; in the case of history it won't look remotely attractive to anyone who isn't already committed to a theory that demands that it be true. It will look unattractive not least because even while pretending to privilege the reader it sets extreme limits on what the reader is capable of doing - and because even while arguing for an 'active' role for that reader (p. 10), actually makes him/her, in one respect, rather distinctly passive. But I shouldn't put too much weight on this criticism, because Charles himself seems to waver on it, e.g. when he declares (p. 10 11) that 'certainly part of the potential virtue of reception is a commitment to pluralism'. Evidently our responses even to literature are not (merely) culturally determined. But in that case, what Charles dismisses as 'historicism' seems already to get a foot in the door; or at least, it would be able to, if Charles could see his way to softening his stance against 'positivism'.

And this I think he must do in any case. That talk about 'quality' ('in general material of high quality is better company', etc.) cannot coexist with any sort of Protagoreanism. Charles eats his cake and wants to have it as well: historicism 'appeals to [a] reified entity', but Martindalian aestheticism apparently does not. But surely it must. [In the discussion following our exchange at the Classical Association conference, Charles's allegiance to Kantian aesthetics became ever clearer. But merely appealing to Kant is not enough; great person as he was, he managed sometimes to get things wrong - as, in my view, he got things really horribly wrong in ethics.] Who is to establish which material is of 'high quality', and which not? Only, it seems, some group whose membership is established by Charles himself: a group who will be happy to flirt with talk of an 'eternal element' (p. 8), 'mysterious beauty' (p. 8), and the '"House Beautiful"' (p. 9) - that 'sodality of artists who communicate across the ages' (p. 9). Maybe the latter phrase is meant to lull us into thinking that Charles is still being a genuine Gadamerian intersubjectivist, even here; but that is mere smoke and mirrors, for the artists (and presumably critics) who are being said to 'communicate' do so only by virtue of - supposedly - sharing the same sensitivity to, and capacity to express, beauty. The very idea seems to me to entail that this beauty somehow exists, dare I say it, as some kind of reified entity. So even while railing against historical 'positivism', Charles proposes to introduce an aesthetic positivism of his own.

Yet here too I cannot press too hard, because Charles also talks about '[t]hings that have had value from different times and places in the past' (p. 9), and about resurrecting the reputation (e.g.) of Plutarch, apparently just because he was so highly regarded in the past. So value is, for Charles, at once relative and, somehow, absolute: something will be of high quality, perhaps, just insofar as it has been accorded value. But that won't work very well, because one then has to say by whom it has been accorded value, which will reintroduce the idea of aesthetic sensibility. Here too I cannot avoid the suspicion that Charles is trying to eat his cake and still have it as well.

However all this is becoming too ad hominem. What is the upshot for reception studies? Charles, in broadening the field of 'Classics', narrows the field properly to be labeled as belonging to 'reception' excessively, and for no good reason. I think Charles is quite wrong to find the 'sheer diversity of [what] reception embraces' 'worrying' (p. 11). I appreciate his subtle approach, to the extent that I understand it, but at the same time I find it merely one possible approach, among many; its main weakness is that it tries to treat an insight into part of the whole as if it were that whole. And there is room, I claim, for the larger perspectives of a Goldhill; even for myself and for Terry Penner, busy boring our way, as we claim, down to Platonic/Socratic strata - a process which throws as much light on modern approaches to Plato as it does, or so I and my fellow-author claim, on Plato himself. (That, in turn, is my main claim to being a 'receptionist' myself, apart, that is, from my interest in reception theory.)

If [and this thought surfaced during the discussion] it may seem extraordinary, if not just plain arrogant, to claim that one might have discovered something that other readers, over twenty-three centuries, have missed, nevertheless it seems to me - pace Charles - in principle impossible to say in advance that that could not happen. And if the only alternative is to say that perhaps after all the Penner-Rowe reading, or anyone's argued interpretation of any text (especially a philosophical one), is just another reading among many, proposed to divert the audience, I can only say that that is not how it seems to us (Penner and Rowe), nor do we see any reason even to pretend that it does. The only way in which our reading will be shown to be 'just another reading' will be if someone else comes along with a reading which illuminates and explains more of what Plato has Socrates and his interlocutors in the Lysis say, and/or explains it better. (That may indeed happen, but at present we do not see how it could.) If this is arrogance, it is not intended, and it seems a better option than succumbing either to false modesty or to bad arguments about the general nature of 'texts'. Some such a defence, I may finally add, may well be needed if we are to retain at all the very notion of 'research' in the sphere of the arts and the humanities.

Christopher Rowe
University of Durham


CUCD Bulletin 34 (2005)
© Christopher Rowe 2005

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