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Theology's Shadow

Erik Gunderson

University of Toronto

Perhaps when reading Macrobius we should ask ourselves questions about our own reading and writing practices. Perhaps when piously praising the Victorian greats of philology we fail to appreciate their own deep theological concerns. And what will they say of us in two hundred years? Who were our gods, and what did we mean by to theion? Perhaps our own tenebrous commitments make it hard to appreciate with much clarity the shadowy contours of others’ lives. Any suggestion that we might be strangers to ourselves will naturally be a painful one. The discussion I wish to provoke circulates around the question of where scholarly debates do not even exist for us in as much as our institutional catechism has mooted them in advance.

Though working under the banner of an atheistic scientism, classics as a discipline is invested in a monotheistic hermeneutic. A scientism that links knowing and meaning emerges and takes root. Supercharged-suprasensible versions of authorship, meaning, and hermeneutics ensue. The will to power folded into the genealogy of knowing-and-meaning itself gives birth to various new monsters.

We may provisionally summarize this monotheistic mono-culture as follows: the intending author, the plenitude of meaning within the text, and an intertextuality that supports the meaning-and-being dyad via a network of signifiers awaiting interpretation by the faithful (who can be counted upon to interpret said signifiers in the light of a monotheistic faith in the theodicity of the network itself, a network of meaning that, in every sense, gives these readers meaning specifically as their own meaning).

And yet there were abundant alternatives to such a situation available throughout antiquity even as most of them are continuously either killed off or rendered quaintly peripheral by the ever-active and ever-jealous forces of socio-political centralization. Bakhtin famously emphasized the ludic heteroglossia that persists throughout and beyond the classical era. The classical world is always also filled with improvisation, play, and comedy. These activities can be found at multiple levels as well: both popular culture and high culture embrace them. And, accordingly, even at the site where monologism might reign supreme, we can detect centrifugal forces. Deprecated genres and déclassé activities open onto vistas where authorial authority and culturally over-determined meaning are neither the be-all nor the end-all.

For example, Plautus is the Homer of heteroglossia: he is himself a fiction, and this fictional creature sires from mere translation new texts that are literally polyphonous in their musical expansion and sociological perversion of the original master-texts. And even within the elite domain there are productive possibilities that, while ideally suited for and targeted at normative and hegemonic ends, do not necessarily serve the same. The vanity of oratory as the most masterful discourse enables it to imagine a self-satisfied distance from the world of verse even as it both reads and trains poets. The ludic world of declamation indulges these trends to the fullest. An intertextuality of linear descent from an authoritative antecedent gives way to a polyphonous agonistic community that explores situations and characters and problems amidst the give-and-take of the immanent performative context. More productively still the novel in its newness is ready to make breaks from monologism. The inset scholastici and their erudition appear hopelessly inadequate in both Petronius and Apuleius. Any investment in centralized normativity is woefully inadequate to living through the worlds of these novels let alone reading them.

An alternative, non-Alexandrian reading agenda has always been available, but it has always also been deprecated within the high genres as, at a mimimum, a sin against good taste.

Philologists have been slow to feel the wounds that have afflicted humanistic vanity so grievously: names like Darwin, Marx, and Freud are not allowed to supplant ones like Plato, Callimachus, or Vergil. Nevertheless, what if god were dead? Mightn’t that itself be a bit of good news, news capable of quickening a number of otherwise lifeless texts?

Session/Panel Title

Philology's Shadow: Theology and the Classics

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