The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

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The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Wed Sep 11, 2019 10:54 am

My bedtime reading this past week has been Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life". This is described as being her autobiography, though that's a little misleading, since she wrote this when she was 23 (1903), and it is strictly about her youth up to her first two years at Radcliffe College.

Near the end, she dedicates a chapter to books and her history of reading - "how much I have depended on books not only for pleasure and for the wisdom they bring to all who read, but also for that knowledge which comes to others through their eyes and their ears".

Her love affair with books began in earnest as a little girl with "Little Lord Fauntleroy", which was followed up with the likes of "Greek Heroes", La Fontaine's "Fables", Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare", "Little Women", etc. Fast forward to her college preparatory years, when she learned French, German, Latin and Greek.

I was struck, and thought some of you might be too, by her appreciation of the Iliad, by her comparison (in a striking piece of prose) to the Aeneid, and by her unromanticized account of the drudgery of grammars and dictionaries and of secondary literature! (Several aspects of this passage reminded me of Joel's recent account about reading the Odyssey while on his vacation.)
My mind opened naturally and joyously to a conception of antiquity. Greece, ancient Greece, exercised a mysterious fascination over me. In my fancy the pagan gods and goddesses still walked on earth and talked face to face with men, and in my heart I secretly built shrines to those I loved best. I knew and loved the whole tribe of nymphs and heros and demigods - no, not quite all, for the tyranny and greed of Medea and Jason were too monstrous to be forgiven, and I used to wonder why the gods permitted them to do wrong and then punished them for their wickedness. And the mystery is still unsolved. I often wonder how God can dumbness keep While Sin creeps grinning through His house of Time.

It was the Iliad that made Greece my paradise. I was familiar with the story of Troy before I read it in the original, and consequently I had little difficulty in making the words surrender their treasures after I had passed the borderland of grammar. Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart. Would that the host of those who make the great works of the poets odious by their analysis, impositions and laborious comments might learn this simple truth! It is not necessary that one should be able to define every word and give it its principle parts and its grammatical position in the sentence in order to understand and appreciate a fine poem. I know my learned professors have found greater riches in the Iliad than I shall ever find; but I am not avaricious. I am content that others should be wiser than I. But with all their wide and comprehensive knowledge, they cannot measure their enjoyment of that splendid epic, nor can I. When I read the finest passages of the Iliad, I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life. My physical limitations are forgotten - my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!

My admiration of the Aeneid is not so great, but it is none the less real. I read it as much as possible without the help of notes or dictionary, and I always like to translate the episodes that please me especially. The word-painting of Virgil is wonderful sometimes; but his gods and men move through the scenes of passion and strife and pity and love like the graceful figures in an Elizabethan mask, whereas in the Iliad they give three leaps and go on singing. Virgil is serene and lovely like a marble Apollo in the moonlight; Homer is a beautiful, animated youth in the full sunlight with the wind in his hair.

How easy it is to fly on paper wings! From "Greek Heroes" to the Iliad was no day's journey, nor was it altogether pleasant. One could have traveled round the world many times while I trudged my weary way through the labyrinthine mazes of grammars and dictionaries, or fell into those dreadful pitfalls called examinations, set by schools and colleges for the confusion of those who seek after knowledge. I suppose this sort of Pilgrim's Progress was justified by the end; but it seemed interminable to me, in spite of the pleasant surprises that met me now and then at a turn in the road.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Wed Sep 11, 2019 11:24 am

Thank you for sharing that, Randy. I particularly appreciate this thought:
RandyGibbons wrote:
Wed Sep 11, 2019 10:54 am
Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by jeidsath » Wed Sep 11, 2019 12:39 pm

I'm not sure what Latin and Greek resources she would have had in Braille. Some of it must have been transcribed on demand for her? One advantage she would have had is that the two alphabets are the same in Braille.

But the description sounds a little too poetic to take entirely seriously, I think.
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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Wed Sep 11, 2019 12:39 pm

As superficially attractive as these warm words might be, you will not be surprised that it is a position that I have little sympathy with. Whilst a love for the subject is perhaps something that we can all endorse, it is no substitute for rigorous argument and analysis. Keller's preference for the Iliad over the Aeneid reflects more a 19th century prejudice than “a responsive heart”. In fact a sensitive reader will find that Homer and Virgil are complementary in their rivalry. Keller rushes to judge and rank rather than understand. A common 19th century approach shared by many today.

I always advocate reading commentaries and secondary literature. It seems to me the only way in which one’s own ideas can be developed and challenged. They of course have to be treated with care and scepticism. Her advice is pernicious and unhelpful.

Thanks for posting Randy as it raises many interesting questions. Does anyone else detect the influence of Oscar Wilde in this piece? ‘“In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer”.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Wed Sep 11, 2019 1:01 pm

I think the point of her book is to inspire others to overcome their shortcomings, be they physical or otherwise. That, I believe is done better in lyrical prose rather than bland argumentation.
EDIT: Seneca, I just saw your post and although it doesn't change my reaction to Keller's words, I do agree with you that reading secondary literature enhances one's appreciation.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Wed Sep 11, 2019 1:40 pm

Aetos wrote,
RandyGibbons wrote: ↑
Wed Sep 11, 2019 5:54 am
Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart.
Thanks, Aetos. One minor but important correction: Helen Keller wrote, not Randy Gibbons!

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by jeidsath » Wed Sep 11, 2019 2:14 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Wed Sep 11, 2019 12:39 pm
As superficially attractive...In fact a sensitive reader...A common 19th century approach...I always advocate...
I feel sorry for picking on the poor blind girl now.
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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Wed Sep 11, 2019 2:18 pm

RandyGibbons wrote:
Wed Sep 11, 2019 1:40 pm
One minor but important correction: Helen Keller wrote, not Randy Gibbons!
I knew I should have corrected that.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Wed Sep 11, 2019 2:31 pm

I feel sorry for picking on the poor blind girl now.
Blind and deaf. Take a little time to think about that.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Wed Sep 11, 2019 4:34 pm

I feel sorry for picking on the poor blind girl now.
Blind and deaf. Take a little time to think about that.
I think the personal story of great courage shown in the face of what to me would have been insuperable obstacles should not insulate the opinions offered as beyond criticism.

There are too many on these boards including some who should know better who decry the use of commentaries. We don’t need shroud waving, however respectable it’s origins in ancient rhetoric, to bolster that position.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by jeidsath » Thu Sep 12, 2019 12:12 am

seneca2008 wrote:
Wed Sep 11, 2019 4:34 pm
too many on these boards including some who should know better who decry the use of commentaries
I think you might be referring to my Odyssey read-through, and my aside there that "language errors are self-correcting and commentary errors are self-perpetuating"? It was a true statement; though I wouldn't decry commentaries, if you mean 'decry' as in coinage. I've used them frequently enough.

Aides like commentaries and lexicons are very useful, and among other things they can allow someone without fluent Greek to approach any text. But if you want to level up and be able to read without such aides, you'll have to work brutally hard.

Anyway, pick something longer than a few pages that you haven't read before. Start an "ironman" thread, no lexicon, no commentaries. I'll go through it with you, at least. Maybe others will join. You can tell me what you've discovered about the enjoyability or usefulness of the experience afterwards.
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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Thu Sep 12, 2019 10:12 am

jeidsath wrote:I think you might be referring to my Odyssey read-through, and my aside there that "language errors are self-correcting and commentary errors are self-perpetuating"? It was a true statement; though I wouldn't decry commentaries, if you mean 'decry' as in coinage. I've used them frequently enough.

Aides like commentaries and lexicons are very useful, and among other things they can allow someone without fluent Greek to approach any text. But if you want to level up and be able to read without such aides, you'll have to work brutally hard.
No I wasn't thinking of either you or your comment.

I would make a distinction between commentaries aimed at scholars or university students and concentrate on literary or historical issues ( such as the Green and Yellow Cambridge) and those which concentrate on linguistic help (those that were once school editions). The former seem to me indispensable to aid understanding the latter can be useful but have to be treated with care in terms of their scholarship.

As you have said before your aims are different from mine and I can respect your position. My training and inclination always sends me to secondary literature for clarification and help. How people have understood a text in the past is part of its meaning for me. However fluent one's Greek one can always learn from others.

I certainly agree with you that being able to read any text one looks at requires hard work.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Thu Sep 12, 2019 5:31 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Thu Sep 12, 2019 10:12 am
I would make a distinction between commentaries aimed at scholars or university students and concentrate on literary or historical issues ( such as the Green and Yellow Cambridge) and those which concentrate on linguistic help (those that were once school editions). The former seem to me indispensable to aid understanding the latter can be useful but have to be treated with care in terms of their scholarship.
My understanding is that Keller is saying something subtler. I don't necessarily detect hostility towards the (first kind of) commentaries you mention.

That is: "Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart" corresponds with "It is not necessary that one should be able to define every word and give it its principle parts and its grammatical position in the sentence in order to understand and appreciate a fine poem," and therefore "Would that the host of those who make the great works of the poets odious by their analysis, impositions and laborious comments might learn this simple truth!" She isn't talking about maximising one's literary appreciation but just getting by, understanding and thus getting a feel for the beauty of the text, which, she maintains, is accessible with less-than-perfect philological knowledge and in spite of leaving philological problems unheeded as you read (hence why there's really no need for linguistic commentaries and aides). Then she acknowledges that philological (let alone literary) knowledge is a boon to further understanding, as exemplified by her teachers: "I know my learned professors have found greater riches in the Iliad than I shall ever find; but I am not avaricious." She has no need for that level of philological knowledge to get ample pleasure from her reading.

I don't think she was disavowing literary studies.

Of course as someone who loves philology as much as (maybe more than) literature I'm the first to abjure.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Thu Sep 12, 2019 7:39 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Wed Sep 11, 2019 4:34 pm
I feel sorry for picking on the poor blind girl now.
Blind and deaf. Take a little time to think about that.
I think the personal story of great courage shown in the face of what to me would have been insuperable obstacles should not insulate the opinions offered as beyond criticism.

There are too many on these boards including some who should know better who decry the use of commentaries. We don’t need shroud waving, however respectable it’s origins in ancient rhetoric, to bolster that position.
Commentaries and other secondary literature can be invaluable (except when they're not). Reading the text for enjoyment with minimal attention to such resources is also invaluable. Keller's comments reminded me of the joie de vivre we should all have in our love of the languages and their literature. It's a both/and, et...et, και...και, cum...tum... (okay, I'll stop now).
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καὶ σὺ τὸ σὸν ποιήσεις κἀγὼ τὸ ἐμόν. ἆρον τὸ σὸν καὶ ὕπαγε.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Thu Sep 12, 2019 7:59 pm

Regarding the specific beef Seneca has, I read her the way you do, Callisper, but let's also see this (no pun intended) in perspective. Setting aside her handicaps for the moment, she's writing this in her third year of college. She is no more excited about professional philology than I was as a junior or than any junior in college I know today. Her undergraduate experience is typical. She finds most of the professors dull, with the exception of her Shakespeare teacher, whom she lauds for making literature come alive (she doesn't describe how). She is often overwhelmed by the necessity of taking four, five, six courses simultaneously and of having to cram for exams, and she questions the value of what one can learn under those circumstances ("But college is not the universal Athens I thought it was."). Like many college students, she can be opinionated (ask my poor parents!), and her opinions, if dissected too severely, aren't always consistent.

But what I find really remarkable and not typical is HER. First externally. She made it her goal to go to college and to ask no special favors in doing so. And with years of extraordinarily hard work, and with the indispensable support of her parents and friends and companion Anne Sullivan (played by Anne Bancroft, if you've seen the movie), she passed the same entrance exams to Radcliffe College as all the other girls (the one subject she always struggled with was math, but she passed that one too). There, she sat in the classroom as just one of the other girls. Of course she couldn't see or hear the lecture; Anne sat alongside her and communicated (through finger spelling) what the professor was saying, and then Helen would rush home and write these out as notes. She took the typical Ivy League curriculum of the day, which included some Latin and Greek as well as other languages (in her case French and German, which she especially loved). She achieved her goal and became the first blind-deaf person in the US (and probably in the world) to earn a BA.

Internally. I was really interested in understanding how she experienced the world. In a word, I'd say with a zest and a vivacity, and particularly with a closeness to nature, that makes me feel, frankly, a little ashamed of myself. (She went on to become an outspoken, internationally known and traveled, supporter of unpopular causes. And I can assure Seneca that if he wants to debate her, she won't play the shroud card and he will have his hands full! His only advantage will be that she is dead.)

And in particular I found it interesting to learn about the role books played in her life, from which she got such pleasure and through which, as she writes, came the knowledge "which comes to others through their eyes and their ears". (My mother- and father-in-law were both deaf, both from poor immigrant Italian families, also remarkable people, and books played a similar role in my father-in-law's life.) As I said, in chapter XXI of the autobiography she describes her experience with and opinions about various books, including the excerpt I quoted. I particularly like her emotional directness, a quality I think she saw and appreciated herself in the poetry of the Iliad. Granted she wrote this when she was twenty-three, but how many of us, even if we feel like her that when we read "the finest passages of the Iliad, [we are] conscious of a soul-sense that lifts [us] above the narrow, cramping circumstances of [our] life. [Our] physical limitations are forgotten [not that most of us have them] - [our] world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are [ours]!", - how many of us would be free enough with our feelings to say so?

I was especially struck with the language she used to compare her experiences with the Aeneid: "[Virgil's] gods and men move through the scenes of passion and strife and pity and love like the graceful figures in an Elizabethan mask, whereas in the Iliad they give three leaps and go on singing." "They give three leaps and go on singing" - I really love that!

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Thu Sep 12, 2019 9:03 pm

"Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart" . Seneca and Callisper have their interpretations of this thought and on one level, I agree with Callisper. But I suspect this is a thought that I will always remember and Randy, I thank you again for posting it, because it brings home to me the message that the first requirement of poetry is to touch the listener's heart. I will confess that over the years I've always preferred prose to poetry, because I love a good story. Having now read substantial portions of the Iliad and the Aeneid (actually 2nd time through) as well as the Metamorpheses, I realise that I can have the good story, enhanced by poetic artistry. I've been moved by Dido's tragic tale, Daedalus losing his son, Hector's farewell to Andromache, the wrath of Achilles, the inescapability of Agamemnon's course of action, and although short, Sarpedon's speech to name but a few instances.
I'm afraid I may never warm to pastoral verse, but I'm definitely hooked on epic poetry!
As an aside, I'm engaged in a bit of an experiment myself: I've never read any of these works in English or any other language except the original. When I've finished, I'll look at translations.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Thu Sep 12, 2019 9:15 pm

Thanks, Aetos.

This may be going out on a limb, but as someone who has had to spend many of your waking hours in a high state of visual and aural alertness (as a pilot), would it be fair or correct to say you may be particularly sympathetic to what the deprivation of these senses must be like?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Fri Sep 13, 2019 12:04 am

RandyGibbons wrote:
Thu Sep 12, 2019 9:15 pm
would it be fair or correct to say you may be particularly sympathetic to what the deprivation of these senses must be like
I'm not sure I'm more sympathetic than others, but I've had first hand experience with blind people who wanted desperately to experience flight and even knowing that they could not pass a physical, they still wanted to learn. My heart really went out to them. I feel especially blessed that I made to retirement age before my vision started to go. You can fly with prosthetic limbs, you can fly with any number of chronic ailments, but you cannot fly (safely) without near perfect vision (correctable to 20/20) and hearing (you must be able to hear a whisper from across the room). The standards are slightly lower (correctable to 20/40) for non-commercial operations (private pilots). This isn't really the place for it and it's too easy for me to go on, but perhaps through poetry, someday I might be able to properly describe the sunrises I've seen, the sunsets, the meteor showers, the thunderheads, the squall lines with their lightning displays, the beautiful blue waters of the southern islands, the auroral beauty of the Northern lights and perhaps best of all, those welcoming green runway threshold lights at the "bottom" of an instrument approach to minimums.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Fri Sep 13, 2019 12:42 am

Callisper wrote:My understanding is that Keller is saying something subtler. I don't necessarily detect hostility towards the (first kind of) commentaries you mention.
Thats a fair point. I really only used Keller's piece as a hook to hang my thoughts about those on this board who think (as Keller undoubtedly also seems to) that somehow it is possible to enjoy a privileged unmediated understanding of "the text-in-itself". The idea that all one needs is the "right spirit" in which to approach a text and then the "true meaning" will stand revealed is to me palpable nonsense. Keller brings her own prejudices to the texts she reads and like all of us is incapable of doing anything else. We who have had an extra 100 years of literary theory and philosophical thought can try to recognise where writers privilege their views but we are likewise stuck in our own literary nexus.

I distinguished between two sorts of "commentaries" not because of anything Keller said but more because "commentaries" in general get a bad press on these boards. Also I was directly replying to what Joel had written.
Aetos wrote:But I suspect this is a thought that I will always remember and Randy, I thank you again for posting it, because it brings home to me the message that the first requirement of poetry is to touch the listener's heart.
I don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment of reading either Keller or poetry. But I don't look at Latin and Greek poetry in this way. Perhaps all literature has "to touch the listener's heart" in the sense we have to find some sense of engagement. I think my engagement with classical literature is more intellectual than emotional although often it's not possible to disengage the two. We might sympathise with Dido abandoned but those sympathies shouldn't blind us to the opposite position that she was a foreign princess who entered into a sham marriage in a cave and who sought to divert the epic('s) hero from fulfilling his divine destiny. What makes the Aeneid a great (perhaps inexhaustible is a better word) poem are the contradictions, the irreconcilable differences. Our emotions have to be engaged but we need to keep our wits about us too. Ovid always surprises and subverts. He plays with our emotions and exhibits literary brilliance. He seems to me a fiercely intellectual poet best met with as many resources as we can muster. Much the same could be said of Catullus and Lucan. I have started looking at Horace and feel sure that there is something more complicated there than the usual characterisation of court sycophant. (I am grateful to scribo for starting the Horace thread as it spurred me to action).

Aetos in your impressive list of reading you don't mention Tragedy. I found reading Aeschylus' Agamemnon a very rewarding (and difficult) experience. Likewise I recommend Seneca's Thyestes.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Fri Sep 13, 2019 1:17 am

seneca2008 wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 12:42 am
We might sympathise with Dido abandoned but those sympathies shouldn't blind us to the opposite position that she was a foreign princess who entered into a sham marriage in a cave and who sought to divert the epic('s) hero from fulfilling his divine destiny.
What I find tragic in the Dido episode is not so much that she's been jilted, but that she has been manipulated by Juno (the cave) and Venus (Cupid's arrow). Obviously for the sake of the story, this is the way events must unfold, thus I don't think Dido had much choice. From the moment Aeneas showed up on her shore, she was doomed.
seneca2008 wrote:
Fri Sep 13, 2019 12:42 am
Aetos in your impressive list of reading you don't mention Tragedy. I found reading Aeschylus' Agamemnon a very rewarding (and difficult) experience. Likewise I recommend Seneca's Thyestes.
That's only because I'm just not there yet! I feel I need a lot more work in Attic prose before I'll be ready for tragedy. Right now, my goals are to finish Herodotus (I'm on Book 6), finish the Iliad (presently at Book 13) then move on to the Odyssey and Xenophon more or less contemporaneously. Following that, I'll attempt Thucycides and Plato. Then perhaps I'll be ready for Aeschylus and Euripides. Meanwhile, Denniston & Page's Agamemnon is sitting on my bookshelf and every now and then I look at it wistfully, and think someday...
P.S. I use commentaries (as many as I can find!)for everything I read, but following mwh's "rule", I read them after I've worked out the meaning (via context or lexicon). Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, sometimes not.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Fri Sep 13, 2019 8:35 am

That's only because I'm just not there yet! I feel I need a lot more work in Attic prose before I'll be ready for tragedy.
I am sure with your experience you would not find tragedy particularly hard. Medea would be a good introduction and there is an excellent commentary by Mastronarde. Reading at least one Tragedy will enhance your understanding and appreciation of both Vergil and Ovid who often "infect" their epic with tragic strategies.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Fri Sep 13, 2019 11:37 am

Thanks for the encouragement! I do have Barrett's Hippolyta and Hanna Roisman's Electra on the shelf as well. I had a taste of the Electra as I was going through Cynthia Claxton's Attica. She includes a very short selection (lines 300-338), hardly enough to "whet your teeth on", but enough to arouse interest. Medea does sound like it would complement nicely what I'm doing right now with Virgil. Just reading the Iliad and the Aeneid concurrently has been a revelation. Regarding Thyestes, so far I see there are editions by Boyle (very expensive), Tarrant and Guth (German). Any suggestions?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Bart » Fri Sep 13, 2019 1:34 pm

Hi seneca, my thoughts.
Whilst a love for the subject is perhaps something that we can all endorse, it is no substitute for rigorous argument and analysis. Keller's preference for the Iliad over the Aeneid reflects more a 19th century prejudice than “a responsive heart”. In fact a sensitive reader will find that Homer and Virgil are complementary in their rivalry. Keller rushes to judge and rank rather than understand. A common 19th century approach shared by many today.
Your dislike of judgement instead of understanding doesn’t seem to stop you from making judgements yourself. For example that Keller’s preference of the Iliad over the Aeneid reflects 19th prejudice century. Well, why should it? Maybe she just likes the Iliad better and that’s all there is to it. In fact your statement that the two are complementary in their rivalry seems to me a matter of judgement too instead of just the product of argument and analysis. How could it be otherwise, since there is obviously an element of value judgement about it. Further, You don’t like ranking you say, but it’s clear that you prefer, in other words rank higher, a (post)-modern 20th or 21th century approach above the ‘prejudices’ of the 19th century. I think this is perfectly okay, by the way, you making all sorts of judgements. In literature as in life we cannot do without them. But I do think you are much too harsh on Keller.
I really only used Keller's piece as a hook to hang my thoughts about those on this board who think (as Keller undoubtedly also seems to) that somehow it is possible to enjoy a privileged unmediated understanding of "the text-in-itself". The idea that all one needs is the "right spirit" in which to approach a text and then the "true meaning" will stand revealed is to me palpable nonsense. Keller brings her own prejudices to the texts she reads and like all of us is incapable of doing anything else. We who have had an extra 100 years of literary theory and philosophical thought can try to recognise where writers privilege their views but we are likewise stuck in our own literary nexus
I don’t know. I can’t imagine anyone on this forum, nor Keller, to entertain this particular view that they have “a privileged unmediated understanding of "the text-in-itself". No gnostics here, I guess. Quite a few however might just enjoy reading the Iliad, as does Keller, with or without secondary literature at hand. Your very use of the term 'text-in-itself' signals an epistemological position that, when applied to extremes, risks making any meaningful discussion and thus any secondary literature of the Iliad impossible. For of a noumenon nothing can be said.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sat Sep 14, 2019 10:08 am

aetos wrote:Regarding Thyestes, so far I see there are editions by Boyle (very expensive), Tarrant and Guth (German). Any suggestions?
I used Tarrant as Boyle had not appeared when I read it. If you can't get it from a University library I agree it is very expensive. Boyle is an ardent champion for Senecan Tragedy I will look at it next time I am in the library. I don't know Guth and can't see it in the catalogue.

Tarrant would be fine especially if supplemented with Alessandro Schiesaro The passions in play : Thyestes and the dynamics of Senecan drama Cambridge University Press, c2003. This is well worth reading.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Sat Sep 14, 2019 10:52 am

seneca2008 wrote:
Sat Sep 14, 2019 10:08 am
I don't know Guth and can't see it in the catalogue
It turns about to be a German translation by Wenzel Alois Swoboda. Karl-Maria Guth is the editor of the series. As best as I can tell, the Latin text is included, but I doubt there's a commentary, so I'll pick up Tarrant and Schiesaro at some point. Thank you for the guidance!

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sat Sep 14, 2019 11:19 am

bart wrote:Your dislike of judgement instead of understanding doesn’t seem to stop you from making judgements yourself.
I am sure you make a fair point. Just like Keller my enthusiasm leads me to make more forceful statements than are perhaps warranted. My intention is to be polemical and provide an alternative position to the warm bath of Keller's sentimental approach.

I don't dislike people making judgements, in fact the more the merrier as far as I am concerned. I don't have to agree with any of them and don't expect people to agree with me. I criticised Keller for the judgements she made and for her reading strategy not for having an opinion. I am not censuring Keller or think she should have written or thought otherwise. As I said "Keller brings her own prejudices to the texts she reads and like all of us is incapable of doing anything else. "
Further, You don’t like ranking you say, but it’s clear that you prefer, in other words rank higher, a (post)-modern 20th or 21th century approach above the ‘prejudices’ of the 19th century. I think this is perfectly okay, by the way, you making all sorts of judgements. In literature as in life we cannot do without them. But I do think you are much too harsh on Keller.
Of course we all have personal preferences and interests and I have no problem with that. But when those preferences are represented as absolute judgements I think they need challenging. Things may have moved on now but I have waded though acres of criticism of Senecan Tragedy which endlessly and erroneously bewails its inferiority to Greek tragedy. Often that criticism was not of a strictly literary nature but overtly moral and political. In retrospect it is a fascinating part of the history of Seneca's reception. It has taught me that one describes works as "great" at one's own peril. As Martindale says (sort of) canons are for firing.

As to my ranking "higher, a (post)-modern 20th or 21th century approach above the ‘prejudices’ of the 19th century" as I said in the second paragraph above we are all, just as Keller was, trapped in our own time and context and there is nothing we can do about that. It's not that I rank my views higher but I can see Keller as a product of her time just as I am of ours. I am sceptical about ascribing "innate" or "eternal" values to ancient literature.
Your very use of the term 'text-in-itself' signals an epistemological position that, when applied to extremes, risks making any meaningful discussion and thus any secondary literature of the Iliad impossible. For of a noumenon nothing can be said
Well I agree with this. Where we may disagree is that this position is often the one that "traditional" criticism conceals. To quote from the blurb on Martindale's redeeming the text
Martindale argues, against the positivistic and historicist approaches still dominant within Latin studies, that we neither can nor should attempt to return to an 'original' meaning for ancient poems free from later accretions and the processes of appropriation; more traditional approaches to literary enquiry conceal a metaphysics (of the text-in-itself) which has been put in question by various anti-foundationalist accounts of the nature of meaning and the relationship between language and what it describes
I am grateful Bart that you took the time to respond to what I had written. I find it difficult to be concise and clear about what are difficult issues. I hope I have made a small step forward in explaining my position.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Sat Sep 14, 2019 1:27 pm

acres of criticism of Senecan Tragedy which endlessly and erroneously bewails its inferiority to Greek tragedy
You have clarified one thing for me that I've always wondered about: Why you chose the name Seneca2008!

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by mwh » Sat Sep 14, 2019 8:23 pm

Seneca, Is there nothing in Martindale that you will not parrot? All your posts are now so very predictable I have to admit I no longer bother reading them. Martindale’s message was quite simple, and can be summed up in a single paragraph (as you illustrate by quoting from the blurb). I’m not denying it was salutary and is still pertinent, and I’m largely in sympathy with it, but it was rather dated even at the time. Need your devotion to it be so exclusive?

No need to answer. My questions are rhetorical, and I know that (and how) you can defend yourself.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by mwh » Sat Sep 14, 2019 8:30 pm

For Seneca’s Thyestes I too would recommend Tarrant’s commentary, for experienced readers at any rate. Like Boyle (but less immoderately), he refines T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Senecan tragedy that the characters have no emotional depth, and that they all speak “in the same voice and at the top of it.” Which seems to me essentially true, but Tarrant finds some subtle differences in the main characters’ use of language, something I had never noticed in the overall monotony.

Of course Seneca had much cruder sensibilities than Sophocles. One of my favorite scenes is the final act of his Oedipus, which has the self-blinded Oedipus haplessly stumbling about and in an exquisite piece of symbolism has Jocasta using his sword to kill herself by plunging it into the scabbard of her vagina.

We live in a sick and violent age. Seneca’s time has come again.

Are we off topic yet?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Aetos » Sat Sep 14, 2019 9:40 pm

mwh wrote:
Sat Sep 14, 2019 8:30 pm
For Seneca’s Thyestes I too would recommend Tarrant’s commentary
Thanks, Michael. I was thinking perhaps it's time for something new (at least in Latin) and this sounds like an excellent project.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Bart » Sun Sep 15, 2019 7:12 am

Seneca, your skepticism about the quest for the “original meaning” of a text is no doubt warranted. In my view however you risk going off the rails in the other direction. That we’re limited by our point of view is obvious. However, you sometimes come across (when writing things like ‘trapped in our prejudices’) as implying we are determined by it. If that’s the case, if our judgements and our prejudices completely coincide, if we cannot look over the wall so to say, discussion boils down to shouting what’s on our side and real argument becomes meaningless. Or so it seems to me.
Last edited by Bart on Sun Sep 15, 2019 12:26 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sun Sep 15, 2019 12:04 pm

Bart I can see your point of view. I think the answer is that we proceed by trying to be transparent about what we are saying, accepting that this often (always) is going to involve contradictions. We need to question our "judgements" to see in what way they are a product of a particular way of thinking ("prejudices"). My point about being "trapped" is that all we can do is swap one set of "prejudices" for another, and that is what we do when we refine our thinking. There is no stepping out of time and place. If this seems obvious to everyone I can only say that my engagement with literature began with the kind of "golden age" views found in for example Rose's two handbooks on Greek and Roman literature. This seems perfectly ridiculous to me now, but was a product of my way of looking at the world at the time. One still encounters these kinds of views and perhaps I attack them with the vehemence of an apostate.

I think real argument is possible because we live at the same time and I can understand and have sympathy with your point of view. Because judgments are a product of prejudices it doesn't invalidate them. I am not trying to establish a "correct" reading of anything. So Keller's views have their place even if I disagree with them. I am sorry if my tone is too strident at times, it's a product of enthusiasm for the subject.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Bart » Mon Sep 16, 2019 8:50 am

seneca2008 wrote:
Sun Sep 15, 2019 12:04 pm
I think real argument is possible because we live at the same time and I can understand and have sympathy with your point of view.
Do I infer correctly from this that real argument with someone from a different era wouldn't be possible? Your writing (not only here) does seem to suggest that you think the epistemic wall with for example Homers' point of view insurmountable. If that’s the case, you do turn the Iliad (or any text from the past) into a kind of noumenon, of which nothing can be said except how we perceive it, while how we perceive it doesn’t tell us anything about the Iliad but only about us and our prejudices. So all discussion and secondary literature boils down in the end to reception history. The problem I have with that is that I’m not interested in your or my prejudices, but I am interested in the Iliad.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Mon Sep 16, 2019 4:18 pm

What exactly are these "prejudices" you speak of? To me the whole concept you are referring to sounds nebulous thus far: can you provide some actual examples of, say, my "prejudices" when it comes to interpreting a text, or, failing that, your own or those of somebody else? What do these actually look like, that you should think the colour they bring to interpretation inevitable?

That objectivity is impossible (or, let's say, that the quest for objectivity is futile and thus unworthy of our effort & time) seems far from obvious to me.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Thu Sep 19, 2019 4:36 pm

I'll clarify briefly that I feel the concept under discussion arises from English and European criticism, where it was perhaps partly warranted, due to the abundance of high-quality critical attention texts of great interest in these (modern) languages have received - as a result of which "the obvious" has long since been stated and firmly known.

Not so for the classical languages, for which literary analysis of genuine quality is a relatively new thing, and in that time has (1) not received comparable attention, (2) been held back by the difficulties of the languages. So it turns out that a lot objective remains to be said by the next generation(s) of scholars, on, say, the Aeneid or the Iliad.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sat Sep 21, 2019 11:26 am

bart wrote:Do I infer correctly from this that real argument with someone from a different era wouldn't be possible? Your writing (not only here) does seem to suggest that you think the epistemic wall with for example Homers' point of view insurmountable. If that’s the case, you do turn the Iliad (or any text from the past) into a kind of noumenon, of which nothing can be said except how we perceive it, while how we perceive it doesn’t tell us anything about the Iliad but only about us and our prejudices. So all discussion and secondary literature boils down in the end to reception history. The problem I have with that is that I’m not interested in your or my prejudices, but I am interested in the Iliad.
I am at a loss to know how to reply to what you and Callisper have written.

If there is something called " Homers' point of view" then I have no idea how we would discover it. All we have is a text, the history of how that text has been interpreted and our interpretation. If you look at the history of the reception of any text you can see that people have thought often radically different things about the same text at various times. Any attempt to find " Homers' point of view" will depend on a set of assumptions or methodology which you bring to the text. I don't think it's possible to have a methodology which delivers the kind of "objective truth" you are looking for. Please feel free to put me right on this account if you think you have one. It may be that all readers in a particular period come to the same conclusions but I don't think that's the same as discovering " Homers' point of view" as being something which you believe is inherent in the text.

I don't regard this as a handicap or something to be dismayed about. Texts are rather like old buildings that have been altered and added to and at times partially knocked down. One is left with a composite. With care one can distinguish the layers and enjoy all the accretions and attempts at cleansing and celebrate the rich object we have.

Nor of course do I think we have to treat all interpretations as being of equal value. Some will be of more interest than others.

I shall end what could be a very long post before I open myself to further attacks for stating the obvious or repetitious parroting. But I do fear that what I have written won't satisfy you. If you are interested in Philosophy then I recommend Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1975) Truth and Method, trans. G. Barden and J. Cumming. London

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Barry Hofstetter » Sat Sep 21, 2019 2:16 pm

I find it fascinating that people are bringing up precisely the same sort of hermeneutical issues with regard to Homer as are often brought up with biblical interpretation. That says something about the value we place on Homer, I should think. As for authorial intent and perspective, well we can say that authors had them. How recoverable are they? We can read the text and attempt to recreate the context in which the original author wrote, but we end up filtering that through a lot of lenses, and the farther back we go, the more we don't know. Remember Menander's Dyskolos? I recall that there were various suggestions offered regarding the ending based on the fragments preserved, but few if any of them matched up to the actual ending once a nearly complete manuscript was recovered in 1952. That's a good analogy to our knowledge of the ancient world in general, and any conclusions we draw have to be tentative at best.
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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by mwh » Sat Sep 21, 2019 5:07 pm

Well of course Seneca is right, but he seems to be only confirming Bart’s point.
(And I’d say not only that some interpretations are more interesting than others but that some are better than others. But that would take us back to square one, which is where we always seem to end up.)

I think Barry’s post may incidentally make a worthwhile point. Many of our texts—not Homer, fortunately—are fragmentary, and scholars work with the remains in an attempt to recover the original text, whether small parts of it (missing words and so on) or the overall gist of the whole thing (as with reconstructing the action of a tragedy from a few isolated quotations from it). These attempts are often confirmed or disproved by subsequent discoveries. Could we say that the degree of success correlates with the degree to which the author’s point of view has been understood? What if we didn’t have Iliad 24, say, but only bks.1-23? Someone who could correctly guess what happens (and could even reconstruct the text!) would be someone capable of discerning Homer’s point of view, capable of looking over the wall as Bart put it?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Sat Sep 21, 2019 8:06 pm

I find it fascinating that people are bringing up precisely the same sort of hermeneutical issues with regard to Homer as are often brought up with biblical interpretation.
In fact, immediately following the passage I quoted, Helen recounts her experience with the Bible:
I began to read the bible long before I could understand it. Now it seems strange to me ...
No, on second thought, I don't think I'll bother with that.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sat Sep 21, 2019 9:02 pm

mwh wrote:Of course Seneca had much cruder sensibilities than Sophocles. One of my favorite scenes is the final act of his Oedipus, which has the self-blinded Oedipus haplessly stumbling about and in an exquisite piece of symbolism has Jocasta using his sword to kill herself by plunging it into the scabbard of her vagina.
I think it is more womb than vagina but that isn't the point I wanted to make and vagina certainly makes a more striking (sic) image especially with the idea of a scabbard.

Seneca has in Oedipus 1034-7 :

socer est. utrumne pectori infigam meo.
telum an patenti conditum iugulo imprimam?
eligere nescis vulnus: hunc, dextra, hunc pete
uterum capacem
, qui virum et natos tulit.

Tacitus (12.VIII) has Agrippina ventriloquise (parrot?) Seneca's Jocasta:

Iam in mortem centurioni ferrum destringenti protendens uterum “Ventrem feri” exclamavit multisque vulneribus confecta est.

I think this is a striking parallel and illustrates what I have been saying about intertextuality and "authorial intentions". Whether Tacitus "consciously Intended" a reminiscence here is to me irrelevant. The parallel between the incestuous Jocasta and Agrippina is to me too powerful to ignore. To underline the complex way in which texts relate to each other I read the Tacitus first and when I read Seneca year or so later I was very forcibly reminded of the "later" text.

On a separate point Barry and and mwh make good points about the state of survival of texts. In my analogy of an altered building I was thinking more metaphorically of the different interpretations of a text although I can see it suggests the state of preservation perhaps more forcibly.

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