Sunday, November 11, 2012


Brooke Holmes, W. H. Shearin (ed.), Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 383; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199794959. $85.00.

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy; Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


The July 2012 listing of books received by this journal included eighteen edited volumes: handbooks and companions, conference proceedings, Festschriften, and other gatherings of contributions by different authors gathered around some topic or other. In 2009 the president of the American Philological Association wondered if we have too many companions to this or that and announced his intention to refuse invitations to contribute to them.1 That sentiment, with which I sympathize, makes it necessary to insist that the volume under review is important, coherent, and original. It treats the reception of Epicureanism from Nepos, Gellius, and Diogenes Laertius to Strauss, Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. Scholarship is gathering around this topic,2 and readers should not find it difficult to see why. Pain and anxiety are everywhere, and the divine can seem remote or non-existent. Epicurus has things to say about this condition. By suggesting that Lucretius played a role in creating it, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern became a best-seller in 2009 and won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

I begin with "Introduction: Swerves, Events, and Unexpected Effects," by the co-editors. It is easy to skip or skim introductions to edited collections, but this one should not be passed over. Dynamic Reading, like most of its contributors, comes from the world of Comparative Literature, not Classics, and its value lies at least as much in its unsettling theoretical vision of reception as in what it says about the uses and reuses of Epicureanism. Because of the introduction's importance in establishing a theoretical basis for the volume, I will concentrate on it and mention only a few individual contributions. All are worth reading. Their titles, which can be found through the link above, are free of academic whimsy and will not mislead.

Holmes and Shearin take their departure from Constance and the Rezeptionsästhetik of H. R. Jauss and Wirkungsästhetik of Wolfgang Iser; from there they advance through more recent work in reception studies by Charles Martindale. Like Martindale, they regard the reception of a work or idea as analogous to musical performance; that is, as a dynamic transaction between a score and its performer which recreates the work in a complex, unique event. Receptions of the De Rerum Natura differ just as performances of Bach differ. We cannot say that Glenn Gould's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations is true to an original and András Schiff's false, or that the real Goldberg Variations are something else. Each encounter with a text, like each performance of a score, is a distinct event that bears a "family resemblance" to other readings of the same text.

Into this widely but not universally accepted view of reception as dynamic performance Holmes and Shearin introduce the idea of contingency, which they relate to the Epicurean eventum, "accident" (p.11; cf. DRN 1.449-482). Receptions, that is, are not entirely under the control of the receivers. Time and chance, and the random swerve of matter, play a part in all of them. This contingency may even extend, the editors suggest, to the bodily state of a reader; there may be, they write, "a somewhat intransigent material or bodily presence in reading" that affects understanding and reception (16).3

This model calls unqualified agency, intention, and knowledge into question, and many readers, and even some scholars in reception studies, find it unpalatable. Surely that good dinner last night or the state of my sinuses on this humid day are mere accidents and have no part in shaping the meaning I find in Middlemarch as I pick it up at bedtime? How, also, can I explain an event of reception (and giving that explanation, after all, is what scholars in reception studies expect and are expected to do) if explaining it means accounting for an infinitude of random events, the swerve and collision of countless reader-atoms and text-atoms in the void of literature? Can we keep a place around the table of reception for the integrity of every reading and the idea of knowing something about a text?

One way to arrive at such an explanation, as Harold Bloom saw in the course of an exchange with Paul de Man, is to recognize the power of metaphor as a kind of calculus of the imagination, able to sum up infinite series of events and intentions. If, as Bloom wrote, "literature relies on troping" (quoted p.17), then "any stance that anyone takes up towards a metaphorical work will itself be metaphorical." Metaphor thus becomes an inevitable feature of criticism. The consequence of that view can be seen throughout this book. In every contribution, metaphors in abundance mix, swerve, and collide. Epicureanism, say the editors, is "a 'text', an interlocking, if not watertight, network of concepts that travels through history both as a relatively cohesive system (e.g., in the De Rerun Natura) and in fragments and paraphrases and sound bites to be cited, praised, appropriated, reinvented, critiqued, and mocked" (p.4); it manifests itself as "ghosts" and "hauntings" in Nepos' life of Atticus (Shearin, "Haunting Nepos").

By understanding Epicureanism as this kind of fluid, reticulated, ectoplasmic text, Holmes and Shearin open up space (to use a contributor's metaphor; see Gerard Passannante, "Reading for Pleasure" p.95) for their colleagues to explore both texts that explicitly invoke Epicurus and texts that mention him incidentally or not at all, and by so doing they raise the important question of what counts as Epicureanism or as its reception. Some cases seem clear; when Plutarch and Seneca criticize Epicureans for their slavish adherence to the Kuriai Doxai or "Master Doctrines" (Richard Fletcher, "Epicurus's Mistresses") or Julien Offray de la Mettrie publishes a work called Système d' Épicure (James A. Steintrager, "Oscillate and Reflect"), they are certainly performing acts of reception. Other performances need to be argued, but I at least ended up convinced that Epicurus, mediated not only by Lucretius but also by the associations of the Hebrew word for "heretic," apiqores, played a role in Leo Strauss's thinking about political hedonism (Benjamin Aldes Wright, "From Heresy to Nature").

In other cases, though, I detected a slippage between Epicureanism understood as the philosophy of Epicurus or one explicitly in contact with it and Epicureanism understood as any ideas, however derived, that happen also to occur in Epicurus and his followers. Glenn Most's brilliant "The Sublime, Today?" offers an alternative to the "standard model" of the sublime, according to which the idea surfaced with Pseudo-Longinus De Sublimitate but then disappeared until Boileau's 1674 translation made the sublime an inspirational idea for early modern aesthetics. Most suggests that Lucretius implies another concept of the sublime that does not depend, as Longinus does, on a belief that to experience the sublime is to approach the divine purpose for man. The Lucretian sublime exalts human intellectual heroism in a world abandoned by the gods. It runs as a countercurrent against the Longinian ideal in Klopstock, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and it can be found in the twentieth century, especially in painting by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

So far, so good. I found myself asking, though, where Epicureanism and Lucretius were in this convincing picture. Most acknowledges the question only to dismiss it: "This is not to say that artists like Newman and Rothko actually studied the De Rerum Natura, but that is not the point" (p. 253). It may not be, but as I struggled to keep open the possibility that knowing something about the uses and performances of a text might be part of reception studies, setting the table of reception began to seem more and more like a game of musical chairs, with knowledge left standing outside the hermeneutic circle. It seemed important to try to answer a few questions. Does it matter whether the person receiving a text has any actual experience of it? Can we know anything about that experience, and how can we know? Indirect experience is certainly possible--I do not need to have read the Bible to have been influenced by it--but at what point does indirect experience of a text become experience of something else altogether? If, as Most writes, "Rothko does not seem ever to refer in his writings to Lucretius or to the sublime. But his discussions of beauty repeatedly invoke classic features of the sublime like exaltation, terror, pain, and death" (p. 250, n. 10), does it make sense to talk about Rothko's reception of a specifically Lucretian idea of the sublime? Can we give a valid account of Rothko's invocation of terror, pain, and death without thinking of Lucretius or Epicurus at all? (I have singled out Most's essay not because his is the only one in the volume that gives rise to these questions, but because he is exceptionally forthright in recognizing them.)

The editors' embrace of contingency in their model of reception offers a possible route through these questions. In "Discourse Ex Nihilo: Epicurus and Lucretius in Sixteenth-Century England" Adam Rzepka appeals to the work of Michel Serres and Jaques Lezra to argue that the De Rerum Natura itself provides a model for its own reception. Attempts to assess the reception of Lucretius in the English Renaissance, Rzepka suggests, inevitably reach a place where the conditions constituting an act of reception turn out to be "persistently elsewhere and thus never fully resolvable" (p. 118). Just as the seemingly solid world proves with Epicurean insight to be only an accident created by fluid, contingent combinations of elementa, so each act of reception, seemingly so definite, proves to be no more tangible than an eddy in a stream. Meaning is always somewhere else, and Most is right: once we recognize Rothko and Lucretius as eddies in the stream of Epicurean discourse, it does not matter whether Rothko had ever heard of Lucretius. We can still talk about Rothko's reception and performance of a Lucretian sublime, even though we cannot point to any connection between them.

The Pragmatist and Classicist in me wonder how I will use this deconstruction of reception. What William James called the "cash value" of the idea seems limited. Just as we perforce must behave as though we inhabited a world of solid, tangible objects, not quarks and quanta, so reception studies seem able to advance only by behaving as though a moment of reception, some documented or hypothetical evening when Rothko met Lucretius, existed. Otherwise reception studies become themselves an act of reception and fair game for study in turn. Yet by raising the questions that I have explored here, Holmes, Shearin, and their collaborators have destabilized the idea of reception for me and will do so for other readers as well. That discomfiting idea makes this coherent collection worth reading, and reading carefully.


1.   Josiah Ober in American Philological Association, Newsletter April 2009; see also the response from a senior editor at Wiley-Blackwell, Newsletter October/December 2009.
2.   See for example Neven Leddy and Avi Lifschitz (edd.), Epicurus in the Enlightenment (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009).
3.   One of the editors, Brooke Holmes, has demonstrated an interest in connections between the body and philosophy; see The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece (Princeton 2010).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.