Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Shane Butler (ed.), Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception​. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. ix, 347. ISBN 9781474260510. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Mathura Umachandran, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site


[A note from the editors: When BMCR assigned this book, we were not made aware that three chapters were written by faculty at the reviewer's home institution. Upon learning this, we asked the reviewer to omit any mention of essays by faculty exercising a supervisory role over her work, and she graciously agreed.]

A major landmark for classical reception studies is approaching. In 2018, it will be twenty-five years since the publication of Charles Martindale's Redeeming the text [1993]. Deep Classics takes up some of the challenges, anxieties and energies produced by Martindale's Grundtext. In its capacity for provocation as much as theoretical self-awareness, the present volume is a major intervention in classical reception studies. It provides an excellent core sample of the state of the art with the confident hallmarks1 of a sub-discipline that is no longer required to make the case for its existence, or perhaps worse, domesticated as "a detachable postscript," (p 16).

This edited volume of fifteen chapters, emerging from a conference at the University of Bristol, November 2014, is candid about situating itself in the context of reception studies as practiced in the United Kingdom, its preference for Greek rather than Roman antiquity and its focus on the reception of antiquity in the last three centuries (p 17). Beyond this, there are various loose thematic constellations across the set of fifteen papers. Three papers cluster around the uncanny, that is, the contributions by Edmund Richardson, Mark Payne and Davide Susanetti. This review identifies two further themes across the volume: the affective and the [homo]erotic. Since this review cannot cover all the contributions to the volume here, it will discuss a chapter from each of these three themes. To put these contributions in context of the volume as a whole, this review starts with a discussion of the conceptual formulation of Deep Classics.

Deep Classics positions the activity of classicists within the concept of "deep time", that is, alongside that of scientists who deal with vast stretches of time. All these investigators of the human and earthly pasts, Butler claims, deal with evidence that collapses these inconceivable temporal distances to produce sometimes "jarring juxtapositions" (p 4). Classics, then, genetically resembles Enlightenment discourses of scientifically approaching the distant past. Butler complicates this scientificity by pointing to the epistemic resistance that antiquity per se produces rather than the distance between knower and object being the obstacle to knowledge. Deep Classics aims to recognize rather than solve this resistance when it occurs. In addition to the problems thrown up from the temporal and epistemological abysses separating the inquirer from the past, Butler indicates that the spatial dimensions of the governing metaphor are also implicated in the conceptual apparatus of Deep Classics.

While it explicitly eschews manifesto-making, this volume has programmatic notions about methodology. Butler calls for a hermeneutics of mediatedness, situated between attitudes to antiquity committed either to assimilation or alterity. By focussing on this tertium quid, Butler intentionally circumvents the agon between aestheticism and historicism that animated classical reception studies in its formative stages. Another concern is to attend to the "pose by which the human present turns its attention to the distant human past" (p 14). This notion of "pose" usefully shifts the immediate point of critical scrutiny to the cultural and political situatedness of a person inquiring after and into Greco-Roman antiquity. How these concerns add up to a "re-thinking of classical reception" will perhaps orient the work of reception scholars to come, taking this volume as a provocative starting point.

Butler's contribution to the volume, "Homer's Deep" puts the punchiness of the introduction to work. Butler argues that John Addington Symonds, Victorian man of letters and friend of Oscar Wilde, is the paradigmatic Deep Classicist. (There will be other nominations for this job: for Jansen it is Borges; Nooter makes the case for Pasolini.) Butler sets up the case for Symonds in an exploration of the interpretative history of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship. In the crucible of that history, polarized between prurience and repression, Butler argues that Symonds's complex classicism was formed. Butler insists that Symonds's grasp of the Achilles-Patroclus relationship extended beyond an idealized and deeply repressed Victorian gay reading of the past. Along parallel tracks of homoerotic love and antiquity, Butler traces how Symonds installs a distance between the dynamics of a desire to know and impossibility to articulate. These emerge as Butler's key criteria of the Deep Classicist that Symonds fulfills, in addition to a keen sense of "untimeliness", that is, anachronistic self-awareness. This essay constitutes a setting out of the stall for Deep Classics in action - it is alive to the politics, vicissitudes and subterranean ways of reading the past.

If the messy range of sexuality is arguably bypassed in Butler's essay, Sebastian Matzner's contribution to this volume does justice to the theoretical and hermeneutic productivity of queerness. "Queer Unhistoricism: Scholars, Metalepsis and interventions of the Unruly Past" works out some of the implications of Matzner's suggestion that reception studies is the queer Other to "straight" classics (p 192). Intersectional postcolonial theorists have recently formulated the rambunctious notion of "queer unhistoricism", that is, a privileging of anachronism as a mapping out of the space between both of the binary choices of straight/gay and past as completely similar/other. Matzner takes up an unruly version of a queer unhistoricist perspective together with the figure of metalepsis, understood as "the rhetorical strategy that links A to D but elides the intervening steps of B and C" (182). He brings these to bear on two postmodern novels: Este latente mundo (1999) by Jose Luis de Juan and Boy Caesar (2004) by Jeremy Reed. Since both novels have scholars as protagonists, Matzner reads them as parables that problematize the epistemic limits, gestures and dynamics shaping the totalizing thrust of academic research. The conceptual work that Matzner calls for, in the end, is "the complex shifting web in which proximity and distance, similarity and difference are constantly re-negotiated" (p 192). The main payoff of this, at least for this reviewer, is the possibility of being able to forge untimely community [both political and erotic] across the abyss. A potential concern of Matzner's approach is that it runs the risk of turning philology into something of a straw, if not straight, man. Despite itself, this essay discloses the working assumption that the inquiring queer subject is "cis-gendered white male". One can only imagine the possibilities that Matzner might open up in considering the variety of epistemic queer subjects gazing into the abyss, instead of re-inscribing the privileged subject within contemporary queer politics. Nevertheless, that is a small objection. This essay has the kind of energy that feminist and queer theory brought to Classics in the first instance and deserves to be read and re-read.

Laura Jansen makes an alternative nomination for Deep Classicist par excellence (p 295) in "Borges and the Disclosure of Antiquity". Jansen starts by arguing that Lucretius's Epicurus is an instantiation of total epistemic mastery offering an impossible model for those interested in knowing the ancient past. Instead, Jansen argues that the pursuit of the past is better described as a douleur exquise (p 293), an epistemic exercise wherein pleasure is derived from the chase rather than the catching of the desired object. Jorge Luis Borges, Jansen claims, has best described this [almost] self-defeating affective dynamic of epistemic pursuit. She points to his short story "The Library of Babel" in which Borges carefully parses the mechanisms of joy and dismay in the failure to master knowledge entirely. Jansen finds Borges's approach to the past valuable because "it's all about the entry points and meaning in between and never attempting to recuperate full what we know, and accept, is lost" (p 304).

Jansen's endorsement of doing classics à la Borges requires bold imagination and self-reflexivity on the part of a reader. Where this approach falls short is made clear by the coda to Jansen's essay that, standing as the last contribution in the volume, also functions as a coda to Deep Classics. Jansen discusses a photograph of an aging and blind Borges gazing at the ruins of Selinunte in Sicily, his back completely turned to the viewer (p 307). In reading this photograph as a description of Borges's complicated limits to knowing the ancient past, Jansen aligns the excavation efforts at Selinunte with an epistemology of totality that she traces back to Epicurus. This reviewer would suggest that engaging with the ancient past materially does not necessarily have to re-ground totalizing ways of knowing. Furthermore, a rejection of "digging into the earth" as an approach to the ancient past is at odds with the metaphor of depth that governs this volume, which depends figuratively if not methodologically on 'digging' down. Thus, the use of the photograph alerts us to how the Borgesian approach to classical past flattens antiquity out to the point of being iconic. Borges' flattening out maneuver crucially misses the historicized situation of knower and un/knowable object. Therefore, while Jansen's conclusion works well as a capstone to her own contribution, it is a jarring note to wrap up volume as a whole.

The final contribution I discuss here is Mark Payne's "Relic | Channel | Ghost: Centaurs in Algernon Blackwood's The Centaur". Payne takes up Algernon Blackwood's 1911 The Centaur, a generically unconventional piece of fiction, possibly a "weird tale". It is about a man, O'Malley, who nearly became a centaur and tried to write about this metamorphic near-miss. O'Malley's friend posthumously attempts to write his biography from the garbled notes that he left behind. It is a real joy to read Payne working through how The Centaur's frame and inset narratives warp the relationships between man and the concept of Nature. Payne hangs his three conceptual hooks (relic, channel and ghost) from the idea that by the turn of the 20th century, the cultural confidence in translating Nature from an ontological to a textual reality had crumbled. For Payne, "relic" takes the place of language to ground the nexus of the past, poetry and nature. Payne argues that the relic is a material and uncanny surplus of the past and therefore "interpolates us" into that lost world of the past. Interpolation here is a mechanism that implies alterity: material, historical, discursive. In the capacity to interpolate, Payne insists that the relic runs a "subvenient" path of communication, which formulates his second term "channel". In order to make sense of these channels, Payne argues that the relic therefore cues the historical philologist to re-create a horizon in which the relic can make sense. Thus, Payne draws a parallel between this horizon-making as the basic conceptual labour of both the historical philologist and the historical evolutionist, who deals with animals as imprints of much older, prior creatures.

If Greco-Roman antiquity and Payne's final term "ghost" register a notable absence in this thumbnail sketch, that is because neither is the main quarry for Payne. Indeed Payne frames his analysis as "a more provocative intervention in our understanding of discourse networks and media theory" (p240). That Greco-Roman antiquity is only one of a set of analytic concepts rather than a governing term is not a drawback per se. However, Payne misses a golden opportunity to refine and push the concept of Deep Classics. The vast timespans of ecological life that Payne explores here in the context of the relic could have productively coincided with the geological chronologies on which the Deep Classics program predicates itself.

If the selected essays discussed here tend towards the theoretical, this is where this reviewer sees the greatest overall strength of the Deep Classics enterprise. Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception is essential and stimulating reading for those both in the field of classical reception studies and beyond: it certainly deserves a wide audience.

Table of Contents

On the origin of "deep classics" / Shane Butler
Homer's deep / Shane Butler
The sigh of philhellenism / Joshua Billings
Feeling on the surface: touch and emotion in Fuseli and Homer / Alex Purves
Perceiving (in) depth: landscape, sculpture, ruin / Helen Slaney
Etymological "alterity": depths and heights / Joshua Katz
Shut your eyes and see / Adam Lecznar
The loss of telos: Pasolini, Fugard, and the Oresteia / Sarah Nooter
Kings of the stone age, or how to read an ancient inscription / Stephanie Ann Frampton
Queer unhistoricism: scholars, metalepsis, and interventions of the unruly past / Sebastian Matzner
Affects and contexts: a deep history of erotic anger / Giulia Sissa
Ghostwritten classics / Edmund Richardson
Relic, channel, ghost: centaurs in Algernon Blackwood's The centaur / Mark Payne
Circulation of spectres: ghosts and spells / Davide Susanetti
Cosmopoiesis in the field of the classical / Brooke Holmes
Borges and the disclosure of antiquity / Laura Jansen.


1.   For example, as an index of self-assuredness, Frampton notes that Deep Classics is always capitalized (p 177 note 5).

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