Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2010.03.07

Version at BMCR home site
Richard Hunter, Critical Moments in Classical Literature: Studies in the Ancient View of Literature and Its Uses. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. vii, 217. ISBN 9780521519854. $95.00.
Reviewed by Nancy Worman, Barnard College, Columbia University

Richard Hunter has been a central figure in the study of Hellenistic and Latin poetics and ancient literary criticism for some time now, and this book brings together many of his wide-ranging interests in poetic programs and literary reflection on them under the loose rubric of "moments." The chapters are indeed quite disparate in subject matter, time period, and genre; and each displays an impressive reach backwards and forwards in the course of pursuing different strands of critical focus and judgment. Aristophanes' Frogs is, not surprisingly, a dominant text, occupying an extended first chapter ("Aristophanes' Frogs and the Critical Tradition"), surfacing briefly along with other Aristophanes texts in a chapter on Plutarch's assessment of the comic poets (Ch. 3, "Comic Moments"), and also emerging as the underlying stylistic model for the discussion of "Longinus" (Ch. 5, "The Grand and the Less Grand: 'Longinus', On the Sublime"). Other chapters take up Homeric imagery and Platonic themes (Ch. 2, "Readings of Homer: Euripides' Cyclops" and Ch. 4, "The Ugly Peasant and the Naked Virgins: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Imitation"). Plutarch's responses to and use of earlier Greek poetry serve as prevalent moments of critical reception, occupying one and a half out of the six chapters.

Homer and Plato also dominate Hunter's discussions, which, as with Aristophanes, reflects their centrality and influence in the shaping of ancient literary critical arguments. In Chapters 3, 5, and 6 ("Reading for Life: Plutarch, 'How the Young Man Should Study Poetry'"), Homeric narrative and stylistic tactics underpin discussions of a number of different concepts. These range over the critical elements inherent in meta-theatrical reference, the means by which "Longinus" demonstrates the necessary components of stylistic grandeur, and the deployment of Homeric characters and attitudes as protreptic or cautionary educational guides. Plato, and especially the theory of Forms, buttresses the discussion in Chapter 4 of Dionysius' conception of mimesis; his ideas also help to frame in important ways the analysis of Aristophanes' treatment of Euripides in Chapter 1 and Plutarch's educational modeling in Chapters 3 and 6. Finally, Euripides himself plays an important role throughout, since not only his texts but his character as a poet and critic turn out repeatedly to be instructive in crucial ways (Chs. 1, 2, 3 [very briefly], 5, and 6 [at the end]).

Despite the absence of a single unifying or overarching discussion, we thus have in Hunter's book a compelling clutch of dominant authors and ideas, which motivates a focus on some central themes in ancient criticism. Since the book is clearly not intended to be exhaustive, this sustained (though quite diverse) emphasis on certain authors and themes is effective as a means of giving the reader a sense of coherence and intellectual trajectory. So, for instance, consideration of stylistic differentiations drives discussions in Chapters 3 (on comic genres) and 5 (on "Longinus"); Hunter initially highlights some of these ideas in Chapter 1 (on Frogs) (29-36) and appends a few more to Chapter 4 (on Dionysius), apparently from an earlier article (124n. 52). Another slightly more elusive theme appears to be that of mimesis in a broad sense--that is, including both Platonic notions (Dionysius) and the act of "reading" through poetic imitation (Euripides) or instructive modeling (Plutarch). Adjacent to this is a more subtle but repeatedly surfacing emphasis on moral education and the pertinence of critical judgment to it, especially in relation to character representation and authorial stature. Chapter 1 devotes a section to such concerns (25-29) and Chapter 6 focuses more directly on them, but different aspects of them also emerge in Chapters 3 (passim) and 4 (esp. 112-13).

The individual chapters themselves can tend to feel a bit loose in their focus--not exactly broad, but rather casually jointed. This looseness does, however, serve to display repeatedly Hunter's impressive breadth of knowledge. Chapter 1 in particular reads like a survey of the literary critical topics that the Frogs appears to initiate, each of which Hunter situates within the long tradition of critical attitudes and appropriations. Some of the topics he identifies will be familiar to anyone who has studied ancient literary criticism, especially the section on tragic style (29-36). Most sections, in contrast, take up topics that readers might not even perceive as such, or not from the perspective that Hunter chooses. One of the most intriguing of these is entitled "Practical Criticism," a section that details the pragmatic aspects of Euripides' intellectualism and its relation to his use of "low" content and style. Hunter draws connections among Euripides' sophistic or philosophical interests, his mimetic choices, and the beginning of a critical interest in literary "problems" in a far-reaching and intriguing manner. The same is true of a section entitled "Classical Tragedy," which takes off from an argument that the Frogs is itself already engaged in a form of classicism in its distanced representation of Aeschylus' poetry as from a lost and admired past, in order to consider how Dio Chrysostom reiterates this fantasized past in a latter-day, readerly mode.

Somewhat like this vision of the ancient reader, in which Dio reads tragedy and finds his own classicizing patterns there, Chapter 3 offers us another look at ancient readers, but ones who work more concertedly in revisionist modes. Hunter begins with a passage from the Moralia, in which Plutarch expresses his disgust at the rowdiness of Aristophanic poetry in favor of the refinements of Menander, whom he finds more suited to philosophical contemplation. As Hunter shows, Plutarch's critique of Aristophanes' poetry as too self-consciously witty and obscene is shot through with class anxieties, especially those bound up with elite political dominance and education. One of the most compelling aspects of Hunter's analysis is his emphasis on the social hierarchies underlying such critiques, which purport to target stylistic or more generally literary effects. The second half of the chapter centers on Horace's engagement with the reception of Plautus and his negotiations with earlier Roman satire as well as Attic comedy. Since the chapter is entitled "Comic Moments," perhaps it should not be surprising that the connections between the two halves of the chapter are rather difficult to pin down. Both do treat ancient readers reading comedy; and the chapter's conclusion suggests ways in which Plutarch and Horace approach similar issues from different angles. But, as with Chapter 1, the strength of Chapter 3 is less its overarching conceptual coherence and more its lively, erudite exploratory mode. One learns a lot from such discussions, and the variegation of perspective can make for entertaining reading.

Chapter 4, in some contrast, focuses more narrowly on Dionysius' On Imitation, a text that exists only as a few fragments and an epitome from late antiquity. Hunter argues that these spare remains can best be understood in relation to the Platonic theory of mimesis, which he uses to frame passages from On Imitation that address a number of different aspects of what might be understood as the mimetic process. One passage involves the exposure to and assessment of the styles of earlier writers, so that they may serve as appropriate models for contemporary students and would-be orators. Another fragment uses two anecdotes that themselves appear to highlight two different mimetic processes, one relating a story in which an ugly farmer's wife looks at beautiful images and thereby produces beautiful children, the other taking as a model the painter Zeuxis' assembling of beautiful parts of disparate female bodies to compose the most perfect whole (i.e., Helen). While Hunter finds in these passages connections to, for instance, the idea of giving birth in beauty from Plato's Symposium, all three of them seem to me to aim in their different ways at highlighting the two elements necessary to good composition: contemplating fine exempla and choosing their finest parts in proper combination. They do not, in fact, in their details engage with the more abstract notions that Plato relates to mimesis, such as the development of the soul and communing with the Forms. Dionysius' emphases are instead educational in a more mundane sense: looking at beautiful images affects one (and indeed one's soul) in positive ways, just as reading the great ancient writers will if one is properly attuned and directed. The end of the farmer anecdote and the Zeuxis anecdote as a whole both emphasize composition--that is, how to take up the right parts of things and combine them to the greatest effect.

Chapter 5 similarly centers on one text, Ps.-Longinus' On the Sublime, and here as elsewhere Hunter broadens his exploration by interleaving discussions of other texts with this main one. This technique, which can be by turns enriching and confounding, is quite effective in this chapter, as it allows for an understanding of the various ways in which the stylistic distinctions that structure the "Longinus" text resonate with, most especially, Aristophanes' Frogs. The discussion is well handled, interesting, and illuminating. Hunter expands on his insights into what constitutes a lofty style, both for "Longinus" and for Dionysus in Frogs by connecting, section to section: discussions of noble phrasing, images that aim (and sometimes fail) at the awful, depiction of divine contact, conveying appropriate scale and enormity, and finally the relation of natural genius to the handling of styles. The chapter therefore makes its way from "mere" stylistic concerns to concepts that open out onto more cosmic issues, and so effectively demonstrates the multiple ways in which style is not a superficial concern.

Chapter 6 nicely rounds out one of the book's larger themes by bringing back a central question of Frogs, namely what poetry is for. In taking up Plutarch again Hunter returns, but from another vantage point, to the classicizing "models" model that I think Dionysius also promotes. While Plutarch's emphasis is more squarely on educating the elite to appreciate philosophy, rather than on the training of future orators, both writers view ancient authors as providing essential models for teaching. This chapter also ties other themes together, most prominently that of imitating and critiquing Homer, which can often mean negotiating with Plato's Homer as well. Hunter has addressed before the aspects of mimesis that pertain to models and revisions, not only in the chapters discussed above, but also in the chapter that I find the most puzzling: Chapter 2 on Euripides' Cyclops. Although one might appreciate that in some general sense the Cyclops offers us a unique view on how classical authors engaged with Homeric models, it is more difficult to see this text as central to the ancient literary critical tradition. But this does seem to be what Hunter is claiming (55); and while his reading of the play is certainly interesting in its own right, the mere presence of self-referential and meta-theatrical elements does not a critical agenda make. Or rather, one could point to similar elements in many if not all of the extant satyric fragments and tragedies; and numerous dramas in the late fifth century focus on various aspects of rhetoric and oratory, mostly to their detriment. If the point is that Euripides here engages with Homer as a reader and thus with the literary critical discourse growing up around the poet in the late fifth century, this does not come through as effectively as it might in Hunter's discussion.

Such minor reservations aside, this is a thought-provoking and enjoyable book. It is both accessible and challenging, especially in its introduction of little known or discussed texts that usually remain at the outer edges of students' and many scholars' awareness. It is not a long book, but it nevertheless possesses a distinctive reach. And while it omits topics, authors, and texts that one might expect to be central to a book on literary criticism, its selection is elegant and judicious. Most refreshingly, it is in no way a survey of ancient literary critical ideas; instead it takes up in animated and fast-paced succession many of the crucial judgments offered by much earlier readers of texts that still urge engagement with the essential questions.

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