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.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Following the law

Apparently the Kentucky judge who sentenced Kim Davis to do jail time for refusing to issue marriage licenses  is not entirely sympathetic to same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, he has faithfully adhered to one of the cornerstone principles of our law: "Dura lex sed lex." (The law may be harsh but it is the law.) This principle goes back at least as far as the legal theorist Burchard a thousand years ago, and possibly even earlier to Socrates.

When I made this observation on Facebook a few days ago, a friend commented as follows:  
"Antigone had a different idea.  Also Thoreau.  Also Gandhi.  Also Martin Luther King."

In fact, examples noted constitute a weighty challenge. First, I offer a general comment; then in the following paragraph I address the question of Sophocles' Antigone, the first major landmark in the tradition of resistance. In my view the precept Dura Lex Sed Lex makes no special claim for the morality of the existing body of laws. It simply asserts that this is the way things work. It may well be that we should oppose some particular law as unjust, even though pro tem it remains in force. Or the comment could be more general (the Latin is ambiguous): law is a body of constraints that is inimical to the flourishing of free spirits, but that is the price we pay for affirming the principle of the rule of law.

  • In Sophocles' play, Creon, the ruler of Thebes, was justified in issuing the edict which deprived funeral rites to Polyneices, who had led a foreign army to lay siege to his own city. Creon, as head of the state, viewed exemplary punishment as appropriate. For her part, Antigone, the sister of the deceased rebel. had a right to assert that in defying Creon's edict she was loyal to an unwritten law which had a higher sanction. "The unwritten and unfailing laws of the gods" must override Creon's pronouncement, which is merely the utterance of a human ruler. The laws of Antigone "live forever, were not born today or yesterday, and no-one knows whence they sprang." As Victor Ehrenberg remarks: "[t]hese famous words, full of emotion and belief, clearly indicate something that is essential, fundamental and universal." Perhaps so. But since the laws Antigone appeals to are unwritten, how can we know that her citation is correct and her interpretation is valid? Based on Mesopotamian examples, and compilations of their own, the Greeks were perfectly familiar with written law, where the text is written down and may be consulted. Not here. Although she appeals to the priests and to immemorial tradition, at base Antigone is simply saying "trust me." Later, under the Stoics and others, the Greeks sought to elaborate something approximating international law. Yet even today this concept of an overarching law that can supersede the laws of nations remains controversial.

    Reflection suggests a modification of these observations about Antigone's assertions.  In the Greek text she does not use the common word for law, nomos, but nomima, observances, so that she is referring to the age-old deposit of custom or tradition, and not to an alternative system of law which can be invoked to ride herd over the transient enactments of Creon.  Her assertion then may be regarded as conservative. the application of her conscience, far from being bold and revolutionary, is in obeisance to tradition.  And tradition can be just as oppressive if not more so, than legal enactments in the proper sense.  Still, Antigone's arguments may have given impetus to a later tradition of defiance of laws perceived as unjust in the name of individual conscience.  

    Yet there is another, more sobering consideration.  Let us suppose that the confrontation with Creon had gone differently.  In this rewriting Antigone simply says that it is duty to her family that causes here to bury her slain brother.  To this assertion Creon replies: "I am sorry, my dear, but this cannot be allowed because I must adhere to the Unwritten Law, which stipulates that the preservation of the state is the supreme good.  As even barbarians in Italy recognize, "Salus populi suprema lex est."  It is for this high and unanswerable imperative that you are condemned."  In other words, tyrants can invoke the Unwritten Law principle to justify their arbitrary actions.

    The expression "agrapta nomima," unwritten stipulations, occurs in other texts of the period, and a fuller examination, not offered here, would suggest further nuances.