Questions for John Miller, University of Virginia

Winner of the Goodwin Award, 2010

by Kathleen Coleman

Apollo, Augustus, and the Poets was a very large undertaking.  Did the project morph while you were working on it, or did it all work out as you envisaged at the beginning?

David Ross said at one point that we don't have a good book on Apollo and Latin literature.  So I rather insanely set out to write such a book.  I collected all this mass of information, not only on Apollo and the Augustan period, but also in the Neronian and then the Flavian period.  Well, it became clear to me that this project would never reach completion, if I were the one to do it, so I decided to focus on the Augustan period, which is the period that I knew the best anyway.  I wrote a version of that, but it turned out to be unsatisfactory to me, because of the way that I had structured it.  So I reconceived of the whole project a third time, with the thematic groupings that turned out in the final version of the book.  The other thing was, once I started focusing on the Augustan period, the project changed in yet another way.  You hear novelists talk about their characters taking over or coming alive and doing things they didn't really want them to do or plan for them to do.  The book was somewhat like that, in that I set out specifically not to focus on two things: I did not want to focus on politics and poetics, because, in my view, we over-privilege those topics in criticism about Latin literature these days, and I'm not always comfortable writing about politics in the ancient way.  (Peter White famously argued that we do not have politics in ancient literature in our way of thinking about politics.)  And yet, the more I worked on the project, I saw that in fact those were the things that the poets were most interested in, as regards the figure of Apollo.  So I found myself working on topics that I didn't set out to be addressing at the start, and they in fact became the core of what I was writing about. 

I suspect that you were asked to write the article on Apollo for the forthcoming Virgil Encyclopedia (and maybe other related entries).  What was the benefit to you of having to distill a large part of a major research project into the compass allowed in a handbook (whatever exactly the word limit was)?

I wrote an article on Apollo, one on the temple of Apollo, one on the Palatine hill, and one on Sol.  It was incredibly difficult, even though, through the editorial process, I was used to condensing (my original manuscript was even longer than the 400 pages that were eventually published).  The two things that were most valuable to me about that experience were, first, being forced to think differently about something that I had engaged with over a period of years, and, secondly, to focus in on the Virgilian perspective on Apollo in the Augustan age.  And, while I feel comfortable getting on to the Virgilian wavelength — unlike the Horatian wavelength, which I find more of a challenge — my normal wavelength in Augustan poetry is Ovidian, so that was invigorating too, to force myself to look at this strictly from the Virgilian point of view. 

Can you pin down what's so hard about Horace's wavelength?

There's something about the way that Horace distilled the Hellenic outlook that I find a challenge.  I'm particularly thinking of the odes.  It's partially just becoming more comfortable with the lyric manner of expression, but it's also, I think, the Horatian outlook on things, and for me it has something to do with the way he engages with Greece and with Hellenic culture more broadly.  There is an elusive quality about the odes that it's just hard to grab hold of.  It's one thing to struggle with what he wants to say, but then to fully experience the way he's saying it and what he's saying, simultaneously, is much more of a challenge than doing the same thing with Ovid and Virgil. 

Was Horace the hardest part of the book to write?

Yes, for that reason, but, on the other hand, it was one of the most satisfying parts of the experience, because of the struggle to come to terms with Horace, and also because I reached out to others to talk about Apollo and Horace, and had many productive conversations, among my colleagues both here and elsewhere. 

One of the many acute points you make in the book is the role of architecture in the poets' construction of Apollo.  Have you thought about this in relation to other deities?  Is there any other deity so closely associated in poetry (or prose) with structures erected to his godhead?

This was another of the challenges of writing the book, because the Palatine temple of Apollo is so imperfectly understood.  I found myself piecing together what we know from old excavation reports, and it's of course an ongoing process.  Moments before the award was presented, Peter Wiseman, who chaired the award committee, said to me, "Oh, you know, your book has inspired me to write an article disproving one of your central points." He is now picking up Amanda Claridge's idea that, in fact, it doesn't face towards the Circus Maximus, but in the other direction, towards the Forum.  So it continues to be a part of the study of Apollo in the Augustan age that is an ongoing discussion, much as the triumphal monument at Actium is now being re-excavated and they've come up with some things there on that altar and the frieze and so forth, none of which has been properly published yet.  Also it, of course, taught me a lot, because I've never worked seriously on the physical remains of anything in Antiquity and had to come to terms with that, obviously not as an expert, but so that I would know what I was talking about.  Anyway, to go to your question, I would like to say Janus, because, of course, he is coded in an arch.  But, if you think of classical literature, the place of the Janus arch doesn't really loom too large, so I guess overall the most striking deity is probably Jupiter, in terms of appearances in literature.  One can think of a whole array of places in literature where the Capitoline temple and the Capitol loom large.  A beginning was made in Catharine Edwards' book, Writing Rome, and there's an interesting chapter in a book by Christoff Neumeister called Das antike Rom: ein literarischer Stadtführer, and that might repay broader study.  I've never met Neumeister, but apparently the whole book grew out of a series of trips he took from Frankfurt.  He would take groups of students down to Rome, and they would every year select a new place: "Well, this year we're going to read everything about the Esquiline in Latin poetry or Latin literature," and so forth.  It's a book that, unfortunately, a lot of people who write about architexts, or architecture and texts, don't know. 

I was very struck by your phrase "destabilizing aesthetic" to describe what Ovid is up to in the Metamorphoses (p.  334).  You have spent a great deal of your career with his poetry, and I wonder whether you would like to meditate on this facet of his poem (or other parts of his oeuvre), beyond the specific treatment of Apollo.  What exactly do you think motivated Ovid in adopting this approach?  Do you see a reaction to this in any of his successors — or an endorsement?

I don't think that term applies aptly to any poet before Ovid.  I think he was doing something fundamentally different.  Gordon Williams, years ago, in his Change and Decline, tried to characterize what was distinctive in terms of the rhetorical dimension, Ovid's particular new type of panegyric.  Even years before that, the great Norden somewhere in one of his minor works says what's fundamentally different about Ovid is that he engages more directly with Latin literature, rather than Greek literature.  I don't think that's entirely correct, although there is a germ of truth in it, but I think that this idea of the "destabilizing aesthetic" is something that is fundamentally new about Ovid.  Ovid is one of the few poets of Antiquity whose work can be profitably studied from the point of view of deconstruction — not the sort where the critic is deconstructing, but because Ovid is a deconstructing poet.  He intends always to call into question the preconceptions of what he just said, or of what you think he just said.  I don't actually have an answer for the question, "Why does he take this up?" other than to say, "Well, it was something new, this is how he wants to approach the world." E.  J.  Kenney somewhere wrote, "Ovid reflects more literature, more prior literature, in his poetry than anyone else." So it might have been his strategy for doing that, to have this prismatic approach to things.  There could also have been a political reason in some of the works that are more infused with political comment of one sort or another.  How is it picked up by his successors? — That's a more difficult question.   Martial has something of the flavor of this destabilizing aesthetic, which I think suggests not only a reason why Ovid was so congenial to Martial, but at root it has something to do with the elegiac couplet.  In a sense, I think Ovid is an epigrammatist.  This remains one of the challenges for research, not only on Ovid, but on elegiac poetry in general, at least extended elegiac poetry.  One thing I don't think people have figured out is elegiac narrative.  There's been a lot written on it in a global sense, but there are few people who are willing to get their hands dirty in the mechanics of an elegiac narrative, which is something that I'd love to get a graduate student working on. 

Now for a hard one: having spent years with Apollo, do you think that "religious belief" means anything at all when it comes to the Romans?

Yes.  The person I think who nailed where belief fits into the constellation of approaches to religion by the Romans is Denis Feeney, who in his book Literature and Religion at Rome adapted a French scholar's idea, called "brain-balkanization," in his approach to the meaning of Greek mythology to the Greeks, and he applied this to the Romans and the Roman approach to religion in a very profitable way by suggesting, "Yes, there was religious belief, but it depends on what the context was."  Coexisting in the same person's brain there was skepticism.  It depends on what you are doing.  Are you talking about religion, or are you engaged in a state function?  Is this something that is personally engaging you, or are you going along with the demands of the genre that you're writing in?  Cicero is the classic example of brain-balkanization.  He was an augur, but look at what he says about divination.  And, if you read his letters, you get a very different view from what you find in some of the philosophical works. 

A glance through your index turns up a number of modern poets in various languages — Byron, de Vian, Heine, Pound, Shelley, to name a few.  I know that before your PhD you did an MA in Comparative Literature.  Were there instances in this project where you came to a new insight via the interpretation of a vernacular poet?

Yes.  Since I was engaged in this project over many years, it was always with me, so if I was reading a poem by Pound and the word "Apollo" came up, I would start thinking backwards and forwards.  But I would say the most profound experience of this was in coming across, in Byron, the lines that he wrote about the Colosseum.  It was in particular where he casts the arches of the Colosseum, the tiered arches, as triumphal arches.  It's a kind of willful misreading of the Colosseum that has a germ of truth in it, but yet it's obviously a rereading, an interpretation.  And, in particular, when I was looking at the manifold ways that all of the poets dealt with the Palatine Temple of Apollo — Propertius, Ovid, Virgil, Tibullus — there was the sense that they were doing something similar.  That to me would be a lesson in how the poets approach monuments. 

Your book is beautifully written.  What, in your view, is the relation between form and content?  Do you consciously craft your sentences, or does it come like this automatically?

In the citation it also says, after quoting two sentences, that this could have been written in the eighteenth century, which has caused many of my friends to tease me about being an old-fashioned writer.  I spend a lot of time on the first draft and then subsequent rewriting ends up being mostly a process of subtraction, of cutting, so it ends up being a distillation of something that I was thrashing around with in the first draft.  But this is an impossible question to answer. 

Can one write to match the flavor of what one is writing about?

Yes.  There are certain parts of this book where I consciously try to do that.  In the last chapter, for example, on the Metamorphoses, there are probably more stupid puns and slang to attempt to capture the flavor of Ovid's approach — the destabilizing aesthetic — whereas that really wouldn't be a proper approach to discussing the Carmen Saeculare.  We all, no doubt, have individual styles that we're stuck with by the time we're at the age that we are, but yet I think it is salutary, first of all, to be as clear as possible, to use as little jargon as possible, because one of the wonderful things about being a Classicist is that we should always be writing for the field at large.  In my own department, when we have somebody who's up for a promotion, we all read something from their work, whether it's somebody writing on the history of Greek or somebody writing on Statius.  So: clarity, minimum of jargon.  Then, also, one should be attentive to the style of the author in looking for places where you can somehow reflect it in what you're saying.  One could go overboard, of course.  Think of Syme on TacitusOne could do that sort of thing with every author, but then can you imagine what a discussion of Silius Italicus would turn out to be? We would need 10,000 pages, first of all. 

In the Acknowledgements, you mention your students at UVA.  In what specific ways did your interaction with students contribute to the gestation of this book?

In the normal course of teaching, I will teach Augustan poets at least some of the time, so it was useful to test out my ideas as they were developing and get feedback from students.  The second way was through individual student projects, where the work somewhat intersected with mine, whether papers — we have students do a Masters paper here — or, in a couple of cases, dissertations.  I've been working for some years with a student who's doing a dissertation on Cupid in Ovid, and for various reasons Cupid in Ovid intersects with Apollo.  It forced me to look at what I was doing from a different point of view, being around people who are working on kindred subjects and inviting their feedback, as well. 

I note that you make copious use of sub-headings to divide up your chapters.  Some scholars don't like to do this.  Were these there from the beginning, or did the editor or a reader recommend them?  What do you see as the pros and cons of this strategy?

I think it depends on the sort of work that you're writing.  My book does not have a strong argument from beginning to end, but revolves around a set of close readings in each chapter.  Each chapter does build upon previous chapters, but to some extent one begins anew with each theme of the seven chapters.  There have to be seven: seven is Apollo's number.  Sub-headings were a way of sign-posting the whole modus operandi of the book in action.  So, for this book, it worked well, but I can see that if one is writing with a detailed argument it might get in the way (or, in some people's view, it might).  It's one of these "it depends."

I see on the web that your book took ten years to write.  Many of us struggle to balance research, teaching, and administrative tasks, and I know that you are a very good citizen in the wider profession as well — for five years you were APA Vice-President for Program, and you are currently Director of the APA's Classics Advisory Service.  Do you have any tips for the rest of us about keeping all these balls in the air at once?

My own recipes are to exercise every day and to write every day.  Those two things are very important.  As to how to deal with other sorts of things that you've mentioned, whether it's chairing a department or editing a journal or being active in professional organizations, I think that one just needs to try to get the knack for dealing with — how should we put it — with dealing with what can be dealt with quickly, quickly.  Years ago, when I was a graduate student at UNC, I heard George Kennedy say a couple of times when he was chairman of the department that he didn't like to handle the same piece of paper twice.  He was a tremendously efficient person in all phases of his career.  He was one of these people who just moved things.  And I remembered that.  For a few years, in the early nineties, I was editor of Classical Journal, and we got close to a hundred submissions a year.  So it's something I learned in editing a journal.  But I would say for me — it sounds too personal — daily exercise is my key to staying sane. 

I wonder, did sales of your book spike after you won the Goodwin Prize?

I don't know the arc of sales, but the editor has told me a couple of times that, for an expensive monograph of this sort, it's been selling pretty well.  It's going to come out in paperback soon. 

What are your current research projects, now that Apollo has been restored to heaven?  How will your long sojourn with him contribute to what comes next?

This experience cemented for me what was already an interest, which is literature and religion in Rome.  And yet it's also kindled an interest in a certain type of reception study as well.  Primarily it has convinced me that I now want to spend a lot more time working on literature and religion in Rome.  So, to that end, I've gone back to a work that I thought about a lot previously, Ovid's Fasti, and I'm now writing a commentary on Book 5, the month of May.  It's a very exciting type of research; I've never written a full-blown commentary of this sort before.  But it's also a formidable challenge, because of all the different types of knowledge that one has to acquire.  I have some other projects further in the distance, actually, involving the other gods.  I've been collecting material on the reception of Ovid's Janus, and then for years I've been collecting material on Isis in Latin literature, which is something I would love to do some day.  For now, I'm working on the Fasti and co-editing — with Carole Newlands — a collaborative volume on the reception of Ovid's Fasti from Antiquity until today.  Those are my current projects, as well as dribs and drabs about Virgil, Ovid, and the like. 

Is there anything I haven't asked you that you would like to have talked about?

One of the things that I have enjoyed most about publishing this book has been the many follow-up discussions.  One of my emeritus colleagues recently published an article on the fourth Eclogue which engages with what I had to say about that.  And then I mentioned earlier the ongoing discussions about the new finds at the site of Actium and the continuing rethinking of the Augustan Palatine.  There is a book forthcoming by an architectural historian on the Augustan Palatine, so it has been interesting talking to her as well.  To me, one of the satisfying things is that, once the work was done, it opened up a series of conversations with others that I didn't know or didn't know about. 

If you could interview Augustus for the APA web site, what would you ask him?

I would ask him a very simple question.  What was Ovid's error? I have no idea; that's why I would ask. We know what the carmen was, but not the error. It's one of the unknowables.


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