Can anyone help me understand Ephraim Radner?

While I’m on the twofold subject of (a) reading outside my speciality and (b) asking for help, I want to say something about the theologian Ephraim Radner. Several people I know and admire very much have encouraged me to read Radner, whom they in turn admire very much, and for a good many years now I have tried, repeatedly. But there’s a problem. The problem is that I simply cannot understand what he is saying. I do not know that I’ve ever come across a writer — not even Jacques Lacan — who has defeated me as thoroughly as Radner has. And this genuinely worries me, because while most of these people will acknowledge that Radner is not the most elegant writer, none of them seem to have any trouble making sense of his writing, and seem befuddled by my befuddlement.

Let me take some illustrative examples from Radner’s recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Here is what he describes as his “central argument”:

To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself — in all its biology of connection, memory, and hope — a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.

The first sentence there seems clear enough: we know our bodies only as dying bodies. That doesn’t seem like a controversial point, but assuming I have read it correctly, I move on to the next sentence — and immediately run aground. “Being born and dying” has, or is accompanied by, a “biology of connection,” but I have absolutely no idea what might be meant by “biology of connection.” I am not even able to hazard a serious guess: maybe something like, we are biologically wired to be connected to … each other? Or maybe to the rest of the created order, in that we eat other living things? And all this confusion comes before we get to the idea of a biology of memory and hope, which I find even more inscrutable.

But then it gets even tougher. Because this being born and dying, with its accompanying biologies, is a “mirror” of … it would be difficult enough if the rest of the sentence were “God’s life as our creator,” but the phrase “the truth of” comes first, so I am once more wholly at sea. Let’s try to unpack this. God has a life “as our creator,” which I assume must mean something like the life God experiences in relation to Creation, as opposed to the internal life of the Trinitarian godhead. The “truth of” this life is distinguished, I suppose, from false ideas about it? It is, then, the character of that life truly perceived? So that if we perceive the life of God-as-creator truly we will then see that it is a mirror of our lives? — but if so, is it a mirror in the sense of being its opposite, its reversal? And then the brevity of our lives is the “vehicle” by which we perceive the eternal life of our God as creator? Probably not, because God is eternal in himself, not just as our creator … but I’m out of guesses. I cannot make any sense out of this passage, or indeed out of Radner’s writing as a whole.

One might say that all this becomes clearer if you read the whole book. But I have read the whole book — my eyes have passed over every word, I have scribbled thoughts and queries in the margins — and I am no better off.

At the end of the book Radner comments that “the argument of this book has been that thinking about who we are as created human beings comes down to numbering our days,” and while the phrases “numbering our days” and “day-numbering” occur frequently in the book, I’m afraid I don’t know what they mean either. It sometimes seems to me that the whole book does not say anything more or other than what a priest whispers to me each Ash Wednesday, as he inscribes an ashy cross on my forehead: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. But there must be more to this book than that. Can anyone help me understand?

book fetishism

Here’s a passage from an essay in the Guardian about the decline of e-books and the revival of the book’s fortunes:

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback…. “The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” [James] Daunt [of Waterstone’s] says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

Got that? Now look at this:

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500.

Minujin created a similar Parthenon in Argentina in 1983 (see photo above).

As John Overholt commented on Twitter, “It’s very dramatic but I’m not sure that’s the most effective use of 100,000 books.”

What both stories illustrate is a curious recent movement to transform books into fetishes. They are to be touched, smelled, lovingly photographed, made into art, laden with immense and complex symbolic value. Is there anything that people don’t do with them? I can think of one thing.

I wonder if we could be headed for a division — or an intensification of a division that already exists — between people who love books and people who love reading. I imagine a house filled with beautiful books, books lining walls, books displayed with apparently careless elegance on tables, in which the only actual reading is being done by a child with a beat-up discarded Kindle who has learned how to download from Project Gutenberg.

a word of exhortation

This morning, for the first time in a few weeks, I checked Twitter. I thought I should see if anyone had sent me a direct message, or if there was some reply I should be aware of. No and no, thanks be to God. But I took a look around while I was there, and saw that a friend of mine had written a post that was getting a good deal of comment, almost all of it hostile. What struck me about the commentary was how plainly and evidently off-base it was: almost every critic had accused the writer of saying things that he didn’t say, didn’t even hint.

Some of the commenters were stupid people, of course, but a number of them weren’t. However, they were trying to be. That is, they couldn’t possibly have been dumb enough, or sufficiently incompetent at reading, to believe that the post’s author had said the things they were claiming he said. But making those ridiculous and insupportable claims gave them the opportunity to score political points. Or, at least, they believed, and rightly, that people who shared their politics would think points had been scored.

I left Twitter and picked up a book — P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders, which I had read (and loved) when it first appeared but which has receded far enough in the rear-view mirror of memory that I can now enjoy it a second time. And what struck me about the book, as I immersed myself in it, was simply this: that it was written by a very intelligent person who valued intelligence, not least in her readers. Imagine that, I thought; believing that intelligence matters, that the exercise of it is good, that it is good for us all if we pursue it together.

I think I have been away from Twitter long enough now to see what it has become: a venue for people who don’t just preen themselves on their righteous anger, but who also work diligently to suppress their intelligence so that that that righteous anger may be put before the world in a condition of laboratory purity. Let not mind thwart spleen — that is the unofficial motto, now, of Twitter.

Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.


A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici’s The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as “the book of God,” and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It’s almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there’s something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn’t actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn’t some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon’s building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.

books on The Good Book

The Wall Street Journal commissioned this review but in the end didn’t find space for it. Which is cool, because they paid me for it anyway. I offer it here gratis, for your reading pleasure. 

One of the first attempts to account for literature in terms of evolutionary psychology was provided by Stephen Pinker, in his 1998 book How the Mind Works. There he suggested that “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.” Take Hamlet for example: “What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

This was perhaps a rather wooden and literal-minded example, and Pinker has received some hearty ribbing for perpetrating it, so one might expect that more recent entries in the genre have grown more sophisticated. But not so much.

The difficulties start with what ev-psych critics think a story is. They think a book is a kind of machine for solving problems of survival or flourishing, sort of like a wheel or a hammer except made with words rather than wood or rock. Thus Carel von Schaik and Kai Michel (hereafter S&M) in The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible: “We know how humans evolved over the last 2 million years and how and to what degree the prehistoric environment shaped the human psyche…. We can therefore reconstruct the problems the Bible was trying to solve.” Leaving aside the rather significant question of how much “we” actually do know about human prehistory and its role in forming our brains, one might still ask whether the Bible is a problem-solving device. But this is one of the governing assumptions of S&M’s book and no alternatives to this assumption are ever considered.

The Good Book of Human Nature is governed by a few other assumptions too. One is that the turning point in human development was what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”: trading in a hunter-gatherer life for a sedentary agricultural life. Another is that humans possess three “natures” that are related to this transition: first, “innate feelings, reactions, and preferences” that predate the transition; second, a cultural nature, based on strategies for dealing with the problems that arose from assuming a sedentary life; and third, “our rational side,” which is based on consciously held beliefs.

These assumptions in turn generate a theory of religion, which is basically that religion is a complex strategy for keeping the three natures in some degree of non-disabling relation to one another. And when, equipped with these assumptions and this theory, S&M turn their attention to the Bible — again, conceived as a problem-solving device — it turns out that the Bible confirms their theory at every point. Previous interpreters of the Bible, S&M note, have never come to any agreement about what it means, but they have discovered what it’s “really about,” what its “actual subject really is”: “the adoption of a sedentary way of life.” They do not say whether they expect to put an end to interpretative disagreement. Perhaps modesty forbade.

Thus armed, S&M get to work. The patriarchal narratives illustrate and teach responses to “the problems created by patriarchal families,” and formulate an “expansion strategy” in relation to said problems. The portions of Scripture known in Judaism as the Writings — Ketuvim, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job and so on — collectively embody an IAR (immunization against refutation) strategy. The prophets, including the New Testament’s accounts of the life of Jesus? All about CREDs (credibility-enhancing displays).

If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. To me, a little of it goes a very long way — and this Good Book offers 450 pages of it, which is like a two-finger piano exercise that lasts seven hours. My complaint is the opposite of that put forth by the Emperor in Amadeus: Too few notes, I say. Played too many times.

Is it really likely that this enormously divergent collection of writings we call the Bible has a single “subject”? That the heartfelt outpourings of the Psalms and the lamentations of Job amount to a “strategy”? Moreover, given that the conditions of production that S&M think relevant — the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists — happened all over the world, the account they give here should be the same were they working on any surviving writings from the same era. Which means that their book on Homer and Hesiod and Sappho would say mostly the same things this book says.

This is what happens when you confine your reading to a few highly general principles of “human history” and “human social development”: all the particularity, and therefore all the interest, drains from the world. S&M may have encountered some interesting residual phenomena from the sedentarization of homo sapiens. What they have not encountered is the Bible.

After all this, I turned with some relief to A. N. Wilson’s The Book of the People, not because I expected to agree with it, but because I expected it to involve something clearly recognizable to me as reading. But I did not get quite what I thought I would.

The material of Wilson’s book arises largely from conversations with a person known only by the single initial “L.” Wilson unaccountably extends this peculiar naming convention to everyone else in the book, including his wife and daughters and an English journalist (“H.”) living in Washington who once wrote for a number of London periodicals, smoked and drank a lot, and ultimately died of throat cancer. (Couldn’t we at least call him Hitch?) But in the case of L. there seems to be good reason for this limited form of identification.

Wilson met L. when he was an undergraduate and she a graduate student at Oxford. Wilson very gradually discloses details about her over the course of the book: that she was very tall and wore thick glasses; that she was a Presbyterian; that she was a disciple of the great Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye; that she had a lifelong history of mental illness, which may have contributed to an irregular work history and a preference for moving frequently; and, above all, that she planned to write a book about the Bible.

Wilson studied theology at one point, and considered enterting the priesthood, but later became thoroughly disillusioned by Christianity and by religion in general, going so far as to write a pamphlet called Against Religion (1991). But almost as soon as he had written it he began to have reservations — “I am in fact one of life’s wishy-washies,” he confesses at one point — and eventually returned to belief, as L. had prophesied he would. L. told him that he could only come to the truth about God and the Bible after rejecting falsehoods about it, chief among those falsehoods being the two varieties of fundamentalism: theistic and atheistic.

As Wilson travels through life — and travels around the world: much of this book involves descriptions of apparently delightful journeys to romantic or historic places — he keeps thinking about the Bible, and when he does he also thinks of L. They correspond; they meet from time to time. Typically she has moved to another place and has added to her notes on her Bible book, though she never gets around to writing it. Eventually we learn that she has died. Wilson manages to get to her funeral, at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Wiltshire, and receives from the nuns there a packet containing her jottings. “It is from these notes that the present book is constructed. This is L.’s book as much as mine.”

So what does Wilson learn from L. about the Bible? It is hard to say. To give one example of his method: at one point he muses that L. must have in some sense patterned herself on Simone Weil, the great French mystic who died in 1943, which reminds him that Weil had been brought to Christian faith largely by her encounter with the poetry of the 17th-century Anglican George Herbert. This leads him to quote some of Herbert’s poems, and to note their debt to the Psalms, which in turn leads him to think about how the Psalms are used in the Gospels, which, in the last link of this particular literary chain, leads him to wonder whether the story of the Crucifixion is but poetry, a “literary construct.” A question which he does not answer: instead he turns to an account of L.’s funeral.

That’s how this book goes: it consists of a series of looping anecdotal flights that occasionally touch down and look at the Bible for a moment, before being spooked by something and lifting off again. There is at least as much about traveling to Ghent to see Van Eyck’s great altarpiece, and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Istanbul with Hagia Sophia looming portentously in the background, and meeting L. in coffeeshops, as about the Bible itself.

If there is any definitive lesson Wilson wishes us to learn from all this, it is the aforementioned folly of fundamentalism. At several points he recalls his own forays into the “historical Jesus” quests and dismisses them as pointless: none of the rock-hard evidence believers seek will ever be found, nor will unbelievers be able to find conclusive reason to dismiss the accounts the Gospels give of this peculiar and extraordinary figure.

At this point we should reflect on that literary device of using initials rather than names. More than once Wilson calls to our attention the view widely held among biblical scholars that the texts we have are composites of earlier and unknown texts: thus the “Documentary Hypothesis” about the Pentateuch, with its four authors (J, E, D, and P), and the posited source (in German Quelle) for the synoptic Gospels, Q. In light of all this we cannot be surprised when, late in the book, Wilson confesses that L. is herself a “composite figure,” one he “felt free to mythologize.”

Is he simply saying that we’re all just storytellers, that it’s mythologizing all the way down, no firm floor of fact to be discovered? If so, then while The Book of the People may in some sense live up to its subtitle — How to Read the Bible — it certainly does not tell us, any more than S&M did, why we should bother with this strange and often infuriating book.

I find it hard not to see both The Good Book of Human Nature and The Book of the People as complicated attempts to avoid encountering the Bible on its own terms, in light of its own claims for itself and for its God. I keep thinking that what Kierkegaard said about “Christian scholarship” is relevant to these contemporary versions of reading: “We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose.”

this reader’s update

It’s been widely reported that in the past couple of years e-book sales have leveled off. Barring some currently unforeseen innovations — and those could certainly happen at any time — we have a situation in which a relatively few people read books on dedicated e-readers like the Kindle, considerably more people read on the smartphones, and the great majority read paper codexes.

My own reading habits have not leveled off: I have become more and more of a Kindle reader. This surprises me somewhat, because at the same time I have learned to do more and more of my writing by hand, in notebooks, and have limited my participation in the digital realm. So why am I reading so much on my Kindle? Several reasons:

  • It would be disingenuous of me to deny that the ability to buy books instantly and to be reading them within a few seconds of purchase doesn’t play a role. I am as vulnerable to the temptations of immediate gratification as anyone else.
  • When I’m reading anything that demands intense or extended attention I don’t want to do anything except read, so reading on a smartphone, with all its distractions, is not an option. (Plus, the Kindle’s screen is far easier on my eyes.)
  • I own thousands of books and it’s not easy to find room for new ones. My office at Baylor is quite large, and I could fit another bookcase in it, but I read at home far more often than at the office, and I already have books stacked on the floor in my study because the bookshelves are filled. So saving room is a factor — plus, anything I have on the Kindle is accessible wherever I am, since the Kindle is always in my backpack. I therefore avoid those Oh crap, I left that book at the office moments. (And as everyone knows who keeps books in two places, the book you need is always in the place where you aren’t.)
  • I highlight and annotate a good bit when I read, and the Kindle stores those highlighted passages and notes in a text file, which I can easily copy to my computer. I do that copying once a week or so. So I have a file called MyClippings.txt that contains around 600,000 words of quotations and notes, and will own that file even if Amazon kills the Kindle tomorrow. My text editor, BBEdit, can easily handle documents far larger than that, so searching is instantaneous. It’s a very useful research tool.
  • Right now I’m re-reading my hardcover copy of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head — more on that in another post — and it’s an attractive, well-designed book (with one of the best covers ever), a pleasure to hold and read. But as a frequent Kindle user I can’t help being aware how many restrictions reading this way places upon me: I have to have an adequate light source, and if I’m going to annotate it only a small range of postures is available to me. (You know that feeling where you’re trying to make a note while lying on your back and holding the book in the air, or on your upraised knee, and your handwriting gets shaky and occasionally unreadable because you can’t hold the book steady enough? — that’s no way to live.) Especially as I get older and require more light to read by than I used to, the ability to adjust the Kindle’s screen to my needs grows more appealing; and I like being able to sit anywhere, or lie down, or even walk around, while reading without compromising my ability to see or annotate the text.

For me, reading on the Kindle has just one significant practical drawback: it’s too easy to abandon books. And I don’t mean books that I’m just not interested in — I’m generally in favor of abandoning those — but books that for any number of reasons I need to stick with and finish. I can just tap my way over to something else, and that’s easier than I’d like it to be. (That I’m not the only one who does this can be seen by anyone who activates the Popular Highlights feature on a Kindle: almost all of them are in the first few pages of books.)

By contrast, when I’m reading a codex, not only am I unable to look at a different book while holding the same object, I have a different perception of my investment in the text. I might read fifty pages of a book on Kindle and annotate it thoroughly, and then set it aside without another thought. But when I’ve annotated fifty pages of a codex, I am somehow bothered by all those remaining unread and unmarked pages. A book whose opening pages are marked up but the rest left untouched just feels like, looks like, an unfinished job. I get an itch to complete the reading so that I can see and take satisfaction from annotations all the way through. I never feel that way when I read an e-book.

That’s the status report from this reader’s world.

UPDATE: Via Jennifer Howard on Twitter, this report on book sales in the first half of 2016 suggests that the “revival of print books” is driven to a possibly troubling extent by the enormous popularity of adult coloring books. Maybe in the end e-books will be the last refuge for actual readers.

synopsis of Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture

  • Augustus, by uniting virtue and fortune in himself (viii, 174), established “the final triumph of creative politics,” solving “the problem of the classical commonwealth” (32).
  • For a Christian with Tertullian’s view of things, the “deification of imperial virtue” that accompanied this “triumph” was sheer idolatry: Therefore Regnum Caesaris, Regnum Diaboli (124, 234). 
  • “The crisis of the third century … marked … an eclipse of the strictly classical ideal of virtue or excellence” (166), and left people wondering what to do if the Augustan solution were not a solution after all. What if there is “no intelligible relationship” between virtue and fortune (171)?
  • Christians had remained largely detached during the crisis of the third century, neither wanting Rome to collapse nor prone to being surprised if it did, since its eventual fall was inevitable anyway (195).
  • Then Constantine came along and “both professed and practiced a religion of success” (235), according to which Christianity was a “talisman” that ensured the renewal of Romanitas (236).
  • After some time and several reversals (most notably in the reign of Julian the Apostate) and occasional recoveries (for instance in the reign of Theodosius) it became clear that both the Constantinian project and the larger, encompassing project of Romanitas had failed (391).
  • Obviously this was in many ways a disaster, but there was some compensation: the profound impetus these vast cultural crises gave to Christian thought, whose best representatives (above all Augustine) understood that neither the simple denunciations of the social world of Tertullian nor Constantine’s easy blending of divergent projects were politically, philosophically, or theologically adequate.
  • Thus the great edifice of the City of God, Cochrane’s treatment of which concludes with a detailed analysis of the philosophy of history that emerges from Augustine’s new account of human personality: see 502, 502, 536, 542, 567-69.
Just in case it’s useful to someone. Those page numbers are from the Liberty Fund edition, which I ended up using for reasons I’ll discuss in another post. 

Virgil and adversarial subtlety

So, back to Virgil … (Sorry about the spelling, Professor Roberts.)

What do we know about Virgil’s reputation in his own time and soon thereafter? We know that Augustus Caesar brought the poet into his circle and understood the Aeneid to articulate his own vision for his regime. We know that the same educational system that celebrated the reign of Augustus as the perfection of the ideal of Romanitas also celebrated Virgil as the king of Roman poets, even in his own lifetime. Nicholas Horsfall shows how, soon after Virgil’s death, students throughout the Roman world worked doggedly through the Aeneid line by line, which helps to explain why there are Virgilian graffiti at Pompeii but almost all of them from Books I and II. We know that Quintilian established study of Virgil as the foundational practice of literary study and that that establishment remained in place as long as Rome did, thus, centuries later, shaping the education of little African boys like Augustine of Hippo.

But, as my friend Edward Mendelson has pointed out to me in an email, when people talk about what “the average Roman reader” would have thought about Virgil, they have absolutely no evidence to support their claims. It may well be, as these critics usually say, that such a reader approved of the Empire and therefore approved of anything in the Aeneid that was conducive to the establishment of Empire … but no one knows that. It’s just guesswork.

R. J. Tarrant has shown just how hard it is to pin down the details of Virgil’s social/political reputation. But it’s worth noting that, while the gods in the Aeneid insist that Dido must die for Rome to be founded, Augustine tells us in the Confessions that his primary emotional reaction when reading the poem was grief for the death of Dido. And Quintilian doesn’t place Virgil at the center of his literary curriculum because he is the great advocate of Romanitas, but because he is the only Roman poet worthy to be compared with Homer. The poem exceeds whatever political place we might give it, and the readers of no culture are unanimous in their interests and priorities.

In a work that I’ve seen in draft form, so about which I won’t say too much, Mendelson offers several reasons why we might think that Virgil is more critical of the imperial project, and perhaps even of Rome’s more general self-mythology, than Augustus thought, and than critics such as Cochrane think.

First, there is the point that Adam Roberts drew attention to in the comments on my previous post: the fact that Anchises tells Aeneas in Book VI that the vocation of Rome is not just to conquer the world but to “spare the defeated” (parcere subiectis) — yet this is precisely what Aeneas does not do when the defeated Turnus pleads for his life. I tried to say, in my own response to Adam, why I don’t think that necessarily undoes the idea that Virgil snd his poem are fundamentally supportive not just of Rome generally but of the necessity of Turnus’s death. But the contrast between Anchises’ claim about the Roman vocation and what Aeneas actually does is certainly troubling.

More troubling still is another passage Mendelson points to, perhaps the most notorious crux in all of classical literature and therefore something I should already have mentioned: the end of Book VI. After Anchises shows to Aeneas the great pageant of Rome’s future glories, Virgil writes (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):

There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said
to be of horn, through it an easy exit
is given to true Shades; the other is made
of polished ivory, perfect, glittering,
but through that way the Spirits send false dreams
into the world above. And here Anchises,
when he is done with words, accompanies
the Sibyl and his son together; and
he sends them through the gate of ivory.

(Emphasis mine.) The gate of ivory? Was that whole vision for the future then untrue? But it couldn’t be: Anchises reveals people who really were to exist and events that really were to occur. Was the untruth then not the people and events themselves but the lovely imperial gloss, the shiny coating that Anchises paints on events that are in fact far uglier? Very possibly. But the passage is profoundly confusing.

I continue to believe that Virgil is fundamentally supportive of the imperial enterprise, for reasons I won’t spell out in further detail here. (If I had time I would write at length about Aeneas’s shield.) But he was too great a poet and too wise a man not to know, and reveal, the costliness of that enterprise, and not just in the lives of people like Dido and Turnus. Perhaps he was even more concerned with the price the Roman character paid for Roman greatness: the gross damage Romanitas did to the consciences of its advocates and enforcers.

Another way to put this is to say that Virgil was a very shrewd reader of Homer, who was likewise clear-sighted about matters that most of us would prefer not to see clearly. One must also here think of Shakespeare. Take, for instance, Twelfth Night: the viewers’ delight in the unfolding of the comedy is subtly undermined by the treatment of Malvolio by some of the “good guys.” It seems that the joy that is in laughter can all too easily turn to cruelty. Yes, Malvolio is a pompous inflated prig, but still….

The best account I have ever read of the way great literature accepts and represents these “minority moods” — moods that account for elements of human reality that any given genre tends to downplay — was written by Northrop Frye, in his small masterpiece A Natural Perspective. That’s his book about comedy, and the Aeneid is, structurally anyway, a kind of comedy, a story of human fellowship emerging from great suffering. Frye’s excursus on genre and mood is one of the most eloquent (and important) passages in his whole ouevre, and  I’ll end by quoting from it:

If comedy concentrates on a uniformly cheerful mood, it tends to become farcical, depending on automatic stimulus and reflex of laughter. Structure, then, commands participation but not assent: it unites its audience as an audience, but allows for variety in response. If no variety of response is permitted, as in extreme forms of melodrama and farce, something is wrong: something is inhibiting the proper function of drama…. Hence both criticism and performance may spend a good deal of time on emphasizing the importance of minority moods. The notion that there is one right response which apprehends the whole play rightly is an illusion: correct response is always stock response, and is possible only when some kind of mental or physical reflex is appealed to.

The sense of festivity, which corresponds to pity in tragedy, is always present at the end of a romantic comedy. This takes the part of a party, usually a wedding, in which we feel, to some degree, participants. We are invited to the festivity and we put the best face we can on whatever feelings we may still have about the recent behavior of some of the characters, often including the bridegroom. In Shakespeare the new society is remarkably catholic in its tolerance; but there is always a part of us that remains a spectator, detached and observant, aware of other nuances and values. This sense of alienation, which in tragedy is terror, is almost bound to be represented by somebody or something in the play, and even if, like Shylock, he disappears in the fourth act, we never quite forget him. We seldom consciously feel identified with him, for he himself wants no such identification: we may even hate or despise him, but he is there, the eternal questioning Satan who is still not quite silenced by the vindication of Job…. Participation and detachment, sympathy and ridicule, sociability and isolation, are inseparable in the complex we call comedy, a complex that is begotten by the paradox of life itself, in which merely to exist is both to be part of something else and yet never to be a part of it, and in which all freedom and joy are inseparably a belonging and an escape.

a small crisis in my life as a reader

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been re-reading Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, but I’m doing so in some perplexity. Here’s my copy of the beautiful Liberty Fund reissue of the book, with its perfectly sewn binding and creamy thick paper (available, you should know, at a ridiculously low price: any other publisher would charge three times as much).

It is a pleasure to hold and to read, a wonderful exercise in the art of book-making (with some nice apparatus as well, especially the appendix with translations of some phrases Cochrane left untranslated).

By contrast, here is the old Oxford University Press copy I’ve had for many years:

It’s worn, and the glue of the binding is drying out — some of the pages might start to come free at any moment. The cheap paper is yellowing. On the other hand, it contains evidence of my previous readings:

You can see in those photos the condition of the paper and binding, but also the evidence of the three previous readings: the first time marked in pencil, the second in pen, the third in green highlighting. (I almost never use highlighters, but wanted to distinguish that third reading from the other two.)

I keep going back and forth between the two copies. Part of me wants to have a new — or newish — experience with Cochrane’s great book, and to do so in a format that is maximally enjoyable. I’m also aware that the Liberty Fund edition is so well-made that it can be used for future readings, whereas the OUP edition is on its last legs. If I don’t abandon it now I’ll have to do so soon enough. And yet I really enjoy interacting with my previous reading selves, and seeing what I thought important earlier versus what I think important now. (I’m trying to remember when I bought and first read this book — I think it was around 1990.)

I am having a great deal of difficulty making this decision. I read and annotated 150 pages in the new edition, and then went back to the old one, and am now wavering again. What a curious dilemma.