Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity. Cornell studies in classical philology. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 190. ISBN 9780801452765. $49.95.

Reviewed by Marco Formisano, Ghent University (marco.formisano@ugent.be)

Version at BMCR home site

Let's imagine a world where the literature of the classical period has been irreparably lost or is available only in a highly fragmentary condition. In this hypothetical situation "classicists" would be able to read Greek and Latin texts only via late antiquity, and would have to make sense of them without considering the works of Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Ovid or Statius. How different our perception and appreciation of late antique literature would be and, consequently, how different our methodologies for investigating the uncertain terrain of late antique textuality would be!

As it is, scholars of late antique literature have a hard time of it and operate in a peculiar situation. First, they deal with an epoch which escapes definition: classicists, naive as they sometimes can be, may take late only as a chronologically neutral indication, but more attentive readers cannot avoid seeing a pejorative term: here antiquity, there late antiquity. Secondly, they are classicists (truth to tell, more in certain parts of the world than in others), who have been almost exclusively trained in the canonical texts of the classical periods and more importantly have internalized a certain approach to ancient texts, and a certain conception of literature in general which in fact might not be universally valid. A typical example is the use of intertextuality as prime interpretive criterion. This has an important practical implication: in order to have a successful academic career, scholars working on late antique literature are generally (again, perhaps particularly within certain academic traditions) expected to demonstrate the conformity of the texts they write about to the aesthetic values and research methodologies applied in the field of Classics. It is as if a scholar of late antiquity not only has to convince her readers of the aesthetic quality of the texts of her inquiry but also to reassure them that these texts are worthy elements in the venerable tradition of the discipline. Thirdly, because of a particular characteristic of late antique literature which very much makes knowledge and the mechanisms of its transmission a pillar of its own textual language, scholars tend to consider late antique writers more as distinguished classicist colleagues than as poets: after all, they too wrote commentaries and monographs!

I have made these points not (only) to be provocative, but more importantly because the book under review shows — in an exemplary way, and precisely because it is a good book — the methodological and epistemological impasses that any scholar of late antique literature (still) has to face. The Space That Remains (the title alludes to Giorgio Agamben's Il tempo che resta) is an ambitious book which addresses the question of whether there exists a distinctive literary aesthetic of late antiquity. In consonance with the growing interest devoted to the literature of this period, this issue has increasingly attracted scholarly attention, after decades in which late antique literature was studied almost exclusively from a historical and philological perspective (the latest monumental manifestation of this approach is Alan Cameron's The Last Pagans of Rome). Pelttari, however, provides a hypothesis which represents the macro-theme of his book: late antique textuality creates a space for the reader, whose role is inscribed within the text in a more accentuated manner than it was before. Placing the reader at the center of his investigation, Pelttari rightly emphasizes that he is not interested in the historical and material aspects of reading. His Reader, Pelttari argues, "is not an individual or historical person, but an abstraction drawn from the individual texts of late antiquity" (p. 8). Pelttari acknowledges that the inscribed reader already played a role in the poetic production of previous ages of Latin literature, but it is his argument that in late antiquity "the poet writes for a reader who he expects will make sense out of the fragments of the text" (p. 8). According to Pelttari, precisely this attention on the part of poets towards their readers, who are called to play an active part within the text, marks a fundamental shift within the new literary aesthetic of late antiquity. In order to demonstrate his hypothesis, Pelttari navigates through an impressive number of authors and texts. His authors are both Christian and secular, they wrote in prose and poetry, and they worked in the fourth century, a particularly productive period for a specifically late antique aesthetic sensibility. In particular, however, Pelttari focuses on Ausonius, Claudian, and Prudentius as poets who "stand out" in that context (p. 2).

Pelttari's relatively small book contains an introduction, four chapters, and a short conclusion. Both its size and structure invite a comparison with Michael Roberts' The Jeweled Style, described as "fundamental" in the jacket text and published in 1989 by the same publisher. Chapter 1 ("Text, Interpretation, and Authority") is devoted to the most prominent late Latin interpreters of the Bible and Vergil: Jerome and Augustine on the one hand, Macrobius on the other. Pelttari rightly considers these authors' works as texts in their own right, nicely emphasizing the double role of these writers as readers: on the one hand they are themselves readers and interpreters of canonical texts, therefore their work is an act of reading. But on the other they launch exegesis as a literary form that is inherently directed towards other readers of the Bible or of Vergil. As Pelttari argues at the end of the chapter, the massive attention directed by late antique writers towards canonical and authoritative texts needs to be considered in its own terms as a factor which situates the reader more than before at the center of textuality. In Chapter 2 the focus is on the preface as a typical feature of late antique texts. Following the definition of the paratext given by Genette in his famous Seuils, Pelttari considers the omnipresence of prefaces in late Latin texts as clear proof of the centrality of the reader since — quite as one would expect — "they are directed towards an audience interested in the creation of poetic meaning" (p. 46). Moreover, applying Genette's discussion to the late antique context, Pelttari introduces the distinction between a proem — i.e. the introductory part directly embedded in the text — and a preface, which stands apart and creates the space for the author as such to have the function of commenting over the text. After a helpful overview of the how authors used the preface during previous ages, Pelttari concentrates on the allegorical prefaces by Claudian and Prudentius, along with those by Ausonius. While the former are presented as allegory, which needs to be decoded, the latter problematize both the role of the author and the text, which presents itself to the hermeneutic ability of a powerful reader. Both kinds of prefaces create a distance between text and author, and emphasize the instability of the text by advocating — and eventually implicitly exalting — the function of the reader.

The third chapter, in my opinion the most problematic part of the book, draws inspiration from one of the most used and abused terms of 20th century literary criticism, the opera aperta as conceived by Umberto Eco in the 1960s. In order to show that many late antique works can be considered open texts, Pelttari discusses three strands of late Latin textuality: figural poetry, famously represented by the work of Optatian; allegory, as conceived in Prudentius' Psychomachia; and the Vergilian centos. In general, this chapter applies a term that can be used to describe virtually any kind of text written in any age. A further reservation concerns the way in which Pelttari, regardless of arguments to the contrary, nonetheless conceives of the cento exclusively as a text that receives its own meaning from another text (i.e. Vergil); in this Pelttari follows recent scholarly trends on the cento.

The last chapter, "The Presence of the Reader," is devoted to the use of allusion in late Latin poetry. Here Pelttari argues that late antique allusion — by being quite transparent and lying on the very surface — more than any other factor points to the presence of the reader within the text. A factor of particular interest is that late antique allusion is not referential in the way classical allusion was. It is also usually not directed towards aemulatio, i.e. that competition through imitation which we tend to conceive as a typical mark of classical Latin poetry. Late antique poets, directly appropriating the words of the canonical text as they do, tend to ignore the meaning of the context from which they draw those very words. According to Pelttari another important distinction is that, while the textual world mapped out by a classical poet is "devoid of temporality" (p. 130), the poetical universe of late antique poetry is conceived sub specie praeteritatis, i.e. quotations and allusions clearly indicate a past, which is in turn perceived and depicted as distant, and thematized as such. Pelttari furthermore distinguishes among nonreferential allusions, i.e. as allusions to classical texts which remain undetermined, juxtaposed fragments of classical poetry (typical of the mos centonarius), and the apposed allusion, i.e. an allusion that is not well integrated within the text and therefore ends up marking itself as an extraneous element. (Here Pelttari re-discusses the term Kontrastimitation, first introduced by Klaus Thraede and more recently applied to Prudentius' work by Maria L├╝hken.)

Here I have offered only a compact overview of the structure and content of the book, which is of course much more complex. Pelttari has produced an important and useful book, perhaps more convincing in the discussion and analysis of individual texts rather than for its overarching hypothesis that the figure of the reader plays such a particularly important and original role within late antique literature. This book is destined to be quoted in every discussion on late antique literary studies and it makes a significant contribution to the debate on Latin poetry of the 4th century.

Final coda

The Space That Remains like the majority of scholarly contributions to the field, rests on a set of methodological principles that remain undiscussed and accepted as such. A short review is not the place to enter into a detailed discussion, but it is perhaps worthwhile to indicate some of those principles, which are tightly connected with my remarks presented above in the opening paragraph. Since Pelttari dedicates a chapter to the discussion of paratexts, I will limit myself here to the subtitle of the book: Reading Latin Poetry In Late Antiquity. The most noticeable element is the preposition in, rather than for example of. That little word in Pelttari's title powerfully resonates as a hint at a specific methodology. On the one hand, Pelttari aims at reconstructing both the late antique context in which poetry was read and produced and, on a more implicit level, the intentions of the authors as historical individuals situated in that context. Perhaps more importantly still: the subtitle shows that the true aim of the book is to explore how Latin poetry was read in late antiquity; another book might have borne the subtitle Reading Late Latin Poetry. But which Latin poetry? Why not just Reading Poetry? The Latin poetry at stake here is in fact the classical canonical poetry of the Augustan age, in particular Vergil. The subtitle, together with the rather apologetic text of the jacket, seems to indicate that the true object of this study is in fact classical Latin poetry. The orientation of Pelttari's study, in accordance with the way in which he conceives of late Latin poetry, is directed at the past, i.e. texts are always read as dialoguing with or contrasting to the classical background, as texts deprived of their own voice and as such only able to ventriloquize the canon.

The most relevant implications of this methodological background are two: on the one hand late Latin poetry as discussed by Pelttari turns out to be a supreme act of reception, and on the other he implicitly takes for granted that late antique authors shared the same concept of literature which informs classical texts. This point emerges in both a presence and an absence. A presence: Pelttari's discussion of the cento, a genre which, despite its critical revival in the last years, still remains studied from the limited perspective of the classical hypotext. And an absence: Pelttari excludes biblical epic from his study precisely because he considers it a "secondary" type of text. The discourse of the discipline of Classics strongly if invisibly influences this book on another level. As his establishment of the triad Ausonius, Claudian, and Prudentius seems to suggest, Pelttari tends to canonize one of the most uncanonical ages of European literature — an age whose own "signature" is precisely un-canonicity.

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