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Responsive Reading

Irene Peirano Garrison

Yale University

Classical philology has traditionally operated under a positivistic and historicist model of reading as a process of recovery of the original, be that configured as an original source, original thought or wording. Such an approach has been buttressed by philology’s long-standing claim to being an emic mode of reading, originating in Greco-Roman antiquity and therefore holding the greatest promise of intimacy with the classical world.

However, even assuming continuity between ancient and modern versions of philology, which is in itself an increasingly contested narrative (Zetzel, 2015), readers in antiquity practiced a broad array of reading practices far beyond the philological ones, the impact of which are just beginning to be understood (e.g. Johnson, 2010; Frampton, 2019). Reception theory and reader-response criticism in Classics have stressed in different ways the polysemous nature of texts, highlighting the crucial role of readers and reading communities across time and space in the production of meaning (e.g. Martindale, 1993; Greenwood, 2016). The discussion, however, has been largely aimed at pinpointing the controlling source of the moral and interpretative issues raised by texts (is Aeneas’ killing of Turnus justified? Does the decision rest with the readers — whether the original reader or every subsequent reader— or the author?). While ethical and evaluative readings of literature certainly are abound both in ancient and in modern criticism, a very important aspect of reception in Greco-Roman culture of the Imperial period is the textuality of its reading practices. By this I mean not only that literary works are more often encountered as text—read, that is, but also that the activity of reading is explicitly framed as encompassing writing, as seen in a wide variety of creative and largely textually mediated responses to canonical authors in which texts are treated by readers as amenable to ethical and evaluative response in the context of education (Cribiore, 2005), elite circulation (Gurd, 2011), book and and literary production (Starr, 1987). This response could be framed as “readerly”, through performative practices that encourage readers to become one with the author, but it could also be framed as “writerly”: reading in this culture, that is, was a process intimately connected with the rewriting of texts, an activity framed as response.

Ovid, an author often mined as a source for reading practices (Farrell, 1998; Martelli, 2013), discusses this issue, for example, in Ars Amatoria book 1, in the context of instructing his male readers in erotic letter writing. Here Ovid presents replying (respondere) as a condition of reading: as long as your lover reads the letter, she will at least desire to respond (AA1.481 Quae voluit legisse, volet rescribere lectis). To give just one other example, in the rhetorical tradition, response (rescribere) indicates texts that take the form of a retort to the author, a form of in utramque partem disputare which sets the reader rhetorically at odds with the author (e.g. Seneca the Elder, Contr. 3 praef. 15; 10.5.20). 

This paper will engage with responsive reading practices from antiquity which imagine the author as either writing for an audience who is assumed to “talk back” or alternatively mine the model text for moments that can be construed or recreated through the lenses of epistolography, as is the case for the Heroides. I argue that this responsive model of reading can prove generative for re-imagining the relational aspect of reading in the 21stcentury. For the emphasis on response emphasizes not only the openness of traditions and their inherently dialogic structure, but also the element of “forthcomingness” —a timely engagement with authors —that texts generate and rely on in readers. 

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Readers and Reading: Current Debates

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