Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An anniversary and personal aside

It struck me the other day that this blog is nearly at its fifth anniversary. Of course, the classics group has been in existence far longer -- I've been happily participating since, I think, 2001 -- joining the group in the middle of Homer's Odyssey as I recall. It was a few years before the idea of making some online notes about our readings occurred to me.

The blog's first post, of Oct. 7th, 2005, was entitled "A few links to start with," and concerned sources for Hesiod, Genesis, and the Enuma Elish, a reminder of the days at the Fruitville Library where we looked at cosmogonies from the Greeks, Hebrews, and others, discovering intriguing differences, and becoming acquainted with myths of origin that have returned again and again through the subsequent years.

If I were to highlight a few key themes from our readings -- not an easy exercise, as the works we've been dealing with possess extraordinary thematic range -- I'd probably start with three:

a) Stories of generation (like the ones we started with) allow certain possibilities of how stories are told - and preempt others, giving rise to highly articulated traditions with distinct genres, modes of narrative and styles. We've adverted several times to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis in this regard.

b) Western "tradition," as T.S. Eliot reminds us, is a way that minds and texts have linked across centuries -- kind of a long, slow macro-conversation. An element in a tradition can be a monocultural growth, as the Book of Samuel appears to be vis a vis the Old Testament, or bi-cultural, as with the poetics of Horace in relation to Greece, or it can be cross-cultural, as we find with poets who craft large systemic visions, like Dante or Milton. They're grappling with powerful yet deeply incompatible assumptions about the nature of reality inherited from the classical world on the one hand, and from the Bible, Old Testament and New, on the other. Then we have Nietzsche, who seems to be having an intense exchange less with a single text than with all ancient Greece at once.

c) The third "theme" I'd choose is more of a meta-theme, as it concerns our modus operandi rather than the content of works we've been reading. By reading aloud, listening closely and discussing them with attention to their unique qualities, our group apparently has been doing something both rare and suddenly fashionable, engaging in what is called "close reading," or "slow reading." Strange to say, the act of experiencing a text by actually reading it -- whether it's Augustine's Confessions, or Dickinson's "These are the days when Birds come back" (130) -- is not so common as to be undeserving of note or notoriety.

There's a brief piece entitled "The Return to Philology" that speaks to this third aspect of what we've been doing. It was written perhaps 30 years ago by one of my profs. Here's the salient bit, his description of a Harvard Humanities Course taught by Reuben Brower in the 1950s.
Students, as they began to write on the writings of others . . . were not to make any statements that they could not support by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge. ~  The Resistance to Theory.

While it sounds somewhat Draconian in the way it's stated, one could say we've been adherents of its principles without quite so fussily formalizing them (much as  Moliere's M. Jourdain finds he's long been "doing prose").

I'd welcome your thoughts on themes from our reading that have been significant for you. Also, as a way to spend time, this rocks! I'm look forward to future macro and micro conversations with gratitude and delight.

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