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.