“The Fragment and the Future” (Swansea lecture, 23rd Nov 2020) audio + text

Text and audio of an invited lecture given at Swansea Nov 23rd 2020 over zoom. Thank you to Ian Goh for organizing the seminar, and to all of the participants. Click here for the handout.

PART I: LIFE OF THE FRAGMENT

There are two ways that classical fragments are made: they are either (ironically) preserved through an act, or process, of destruction; or they are preserved by enclosure in a later text. The fragments of Sappho are a good and famous example of this process. In the 7th c. BCE, Sappho of Lesbos composed her lyrics; her poetry became so famous that it circulated as a text in nine books, as the ancients report (Suda Σ 107 = Campbell test. 2). But we can’t read Sappho’s poetry in its fullness, the way we read an ancient author whose text was transmitted with a robust manuscript tradition through the middle ages. Instead, what we have are numerous scraps of material, excavated from the sands of Egypt, onto which ancient readers of Sappho had inscribed her words. Sappho is most famous for existing in shards of papyri, but here’s an example of one of her poems which survives today because it was written onto an ostrakon, a broken piece of ceramic:

PSI XIII 1300 (c. 200 BCE) containing Sappho fr. 2. Image: Sailko via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

This bit of matter, whose text was first published in 1937 by Medea Norsa, is the reason why we can read what we call Sappho “fragment 2”, a poem which summons the goddess, Aphrodite, from the island of Crete into the presence of the poet. Significantly, this object was made in the 3rd or 2nd c. BCE — that is, several hundred years after the poem inscribed on its surface was originally composed. Here is another Sappho fragment, a scrap of papyrus whose text, published in 1951, contains parts of the famous poem known as “fragment 31.” This piece of papyrus was produced in the 2nd c. CE — even later than our Sappho ostrakon; indeed, this scrap of Sappho papyrus appeared almost a thousand years after the poem inscribed upon it was originally composed:

P. Oxy. 2288 (c. 200 CE) containing part of Sappho fr. 31. Image: Oxyrhynchus Online

You would be hard-pressed to find a piece of scholarship on fragmentation that does not make reference to the following etymology: the English word “fragment” comes from the Latin frangere, “to break”; therefore, the fragment is, in essence, “the broken thing.” When we contemplate these artefacts of Sappho, brokenness is certainly palpable — particularly in the case of our papyrus sliver, which preserves only a narrow column of Sappho 31. From this perspective, the fragment is not only broken, but broken off from its fuller text — symbolically representing its own partiality. Yet, as I mentioned a moment ago, fragmentation as a process takes place in two ways: the first is preservation through destruction; the second is enclosure, or textual embrace.

In fact, we can use Sappho to demonstrate this second dynamic as well. Returning to our ostrakon: this object gives us the fullest text of Sappho 2, but we actually already had parts of this poem before it was published in 1937, because two ancient authors had quoted her words and embedded them in their own works. Short literary quotations were made by Greek writers in the Roman era: Hermogenes of Tarsus (De Ideis 2.4) in the 2nd c. CE and Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, 11.463e) in the 3rd c. CE. We can present this information visually:

(By the way, this little timeline is obviously not “to scale” chronologically(!), but it will do.) While Sappho’s text was available, broadly speaking, in antiquity, the way in which it has reached us is historically complex — the text that we have now, partial as it is, is the product of several different ancient mediations: someone wrote out the poem on a piece of pottery in Hellenistic Egypt, but we didn’t find that until somewhat recently; in the meantime, Greek writers in the Roman period copied small excerpts of Sappho into their own works, and as a result, carried Sappho with them along their own path of textual survival. Even though the Sappho we imagine belongs to archaic Greece — the Sappho we’ve got was produced by generations of her readers, many centuries after her own era.

Indeed, the fragments of Sappho that are the most famous — such as fragment 31 (φαίνεταί μοι…; “he seems to me equal to the gods”)— survive more fully than most other Sappho poems because they were preserved by textual embrace; that is, because they were quoted by later writers (again: Greek writers in the Roman era): Sappho 31 was quoted by the author of On the Sublime (10.1) in the 1st c. CE. It is a papyrus fragment of Sappho 31 which I showed you a moment ago; we can present this fragment’s history in visual form as well:

As it turns out, then, examination of Sappho’s textual history demonstrates the extent to which our knowledge of her poetry is mediated by the afterlife (that is: the reception) of her work: it is the fact that later ancient intellectuals became interested in annotating, commenting, and excerpting her work that gives us access to her poetry, even though it is this very history of intellectual practice that is also responsible for certain limitations upon that access.

Crucially, this process which I have just traced in the transmission history of Sappho occurs basically everywhere in the classical tradition. Texts which do not have their own independent manuscript tradition survive for us to read because they have been consciously folded into surviving works by ancient authors. Let me give you a Latin example as well. The works of the 2nd c. BCE Latin poet, Q. Ennius, were deeply influential on the poetry and indeed, the thought, of Roman intellectuals during the Ciceronian period, but Ennius’ works only now survives in fragments. Since material scraps of Latin books don’t survive in the way that ancient Greek books live on in scraps of papyri excavated from Egypt, we rely on the fact that later Latin writers excerpted verses of Ennius, to carry along in their own textual corpus.

Among the most significant excerptors of Ennius is Cicero, who, in the 1st c. BCE, preserved many fragments of Ennius (as well as poetic fragments of several other Latin — and Greek — authors) in his own textual body via the mechanism of citational embrace. Here is a manuscript of Cicero’s De Senectute/“On Old Age” (this 15th c. Italian manuscript is not one of the principals used to establish the text, but it is one which is digitally available; and it’s very nice to look at):

Arundel 124 f89 (15th century Italy) containing Cicero’s De Senectute: British Library

The first words of Cicero’s De Senectute are actually a poetic quotation from Ennius, from his epic, the Annales (Skutsch 337-339; 335; 336); and you can see that a user of this manuscript marked the quotation, writing “Ennius” in the right hand margin. This kind of textual enclosure — voices from earlier times encased in amber by ancient writers — is a fundamental and ubiquitous dynamic of ancient textuality, and in many cases we find ourselves face-to-face with not only one layer of embedding, but a series; enclosure upon enclosure, as intellectuals of each period recursively return to valued texts of the past.

PART II: FRAGMENTARY THINKING/THINKING FRAGMENTARILY

At this point, I basically want to ask: what can we learn about the ancient world, and the way we study the ancient world, by thinking about the fragment — or, by “thinking fragmentarily”? Here are a number of propositions:

1) The fragment by its very nature demonstrates the partiality of our understanding of the ancient world. When we look at a fragment of Sappho, or Ennius, we know that there is something missing, that there is a lack. That lack might have been produced by the randomness of papyrus disintegration; but it is also produced by the selectivity of our excerpting ancient sources: that is, we depend on what Hermogenes of Tarsus wants to show us of Sappho, what Cicero wants to show us of Ennius.

2) As a subset of the first point: the fragment testifies to the partiality of our vision, but it also, inevitably, gestures towards the fact that there were parts of the ancient world — big parts — that were never picked up by texts (and by “text” here, I really mean the ancient artefact in the broadest sense, from text to object to archaeological site) in the first place: the living, breathing parts, the spirit of culture and life which are only accessible or even scrutable to those who experience and contribute to it — the living ancients. The fullness of texts is, in essence, illusory. In reference to this phenomenon, Page DuBois (1995: 53) stated that “all texts are fragments.” That is, texts which survive fully — even if they give the impression of cultural capaciousness, and the possibility of being pressed through to the world which produced them — even these texts present only a partial vision. (This, incidentally, is why our interpretations of antiquity should probably not rely solely on piecing together textual evidence, but ideally will also use a theoretical framework; or at least, not rely on positivism when our sources are demonstrably partial.) When we consider the fact that the ability to produce text in antiquity is dependent upon the writer’s holding of power and social authority, we can appreciate the extent to which so many ancient experiences were not committed to textual form (viz. the relative scarcity of women’s writing; the suppressed narratives of slaves).

Even though fragments often live in the periphery of our discipline (it is only, really, quite recently in the history of the field that they have been studied and theorized as a historical phenomenon in their own right), it is important to remember that fragments, for the most part, represent something that was very famous in antiquity, but which is now difficult to access. Fragments made via enclosure — i.e. because they were quoted by ancient authors — are (generally) preserved precisely due to their authoritative status in antiquity: think of Hermogenes quoting Sappho, Cicero quoting Ennius. For the most part, then, what is contained within an ancient fragment was very famous at the time that the quotation (or enclosure) was made. Fragments interestingly exist as artefacts of inverse quality, depending on what historical point you are able to occupy: to the ancients, the material contained within what would later become a fragment was the most well known; to moderns, the least. Another nice example of this phenomenon is the commentary tradition to the comedies of Aristophanes, which contain a number of fragments of contemporary poets (e.g. the drinking songs of Praxilla of Sicyon; nos. 38 + 41 Balmer = schol. ad Thesm. 528; Wasps 1236); Aristophanes was parodying the most well known cultural touchstones of his day, demonstrating the vitality of the material towards which his plays gesture. If the fragment represents the transmission, via admittedly a complex mechanism, of mainstream information, we are left thinking — what kind of information wasn’t transmitted to us from antiquity?

3) Our understanding of antiquity is mediated, and it is entangled. When we consider the fact of enclosure as a dynamic of fragmentation — that is: when we consider the fact that our knowledge of some parts of antiquity depends on a textual frame — it is easy to be seduced into discarding that frame. In the history of the study of fragments, there have been many editors who wanted to throw away the text which surrounded the fragment: throw away Hermogenes, throw away Cicero, to get to the “pure” nugget within — the nugget of Sappho, the nugget of Ennius. However, in a significant number of cases, the fragment cannot be easily extricated from the framework which preserved it. Anne Carson (1992) has written about the deep entanglement of the fragment of Simonides (fr. 542) in Plato’s Protagoras (339a–346d); and there are many Latin verse fragments in the corpus of Cicero that are so deeply entangled with his prose that it is essentially impossible to separate them. The context of a fragment is, in fact, deeply valuable: not, necessarily, for the reconstitution, or reconstruction of the original, but as a demonstration of the development of ideas — the history of ideas. Again, the fragment forces us to see that our understanding of antiquity is remediated; and it entices us, as well, to value that remediation, rather than ignoring it entirely. As much as we may desire to access these texts in an unmediated fashion, removing fragments from the frames which hold them will not achieve that — and, in the meantime, risks discarding quite useful information about ancient intellectual history.

4) In theory, the fragment should, by its very nature, stand for alterity, heterodoxy, “otherness.” While the contents of fragments represent, to some extent, an ancient mainstream (see: (2)), they challenge modern reconstructions of antiquity which flatten out complex ancient landscapes with narrative oversimplification. Indeed, in important ways, fragmented material presents counternarrative to prevailing thought, especially the back projection of modern identity (straight, white, male) into antiquity: Sappho’s lyric, of course, resists heteronormative sexuality and presents the erotic as a legitimate metaphysic. The modern poet, Josephine Balmer, has explored the heterodox aspect of fragmentation in her recent poetry collection, The Paths of Survival (2017). In this set of poems, Balmer moves backwards in time, starting with the viewing of a papyrus fragment — this one:

P. Oxy. 2256, fr. 55 (c. 300 CE) containing part of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons. Image: Oxyrhynchus Online

— of Aeschylus’ Myrmidons in the Sackler Library, working through each successive moment of rediscovery and loss, back to Aeschylus himself. Aeschylus’ Myrmidons, in which Achilles and Patroclus were explicitly lovers (see: fragments 135-137; cf. Plato Symp. 180a), famously speaks of gay love with the voice of one of antiquity’s most severe authorities. In The Paths of Survival (2017: 22-23), Balmer dramatizes the rediscovery of a papyrus fragment of the Myrmidons, set against the criminalization of homosexuality under fascism in Italy:

“And then, like the first flicker of smoking fire, slow to take,
I found a tattered word: Antelexa:
My heart turned over. I knew it:
speak out. oppose. dissent.

Later there came confirmation
from the professors in Florence;
I had unearthed a precious sliver
of Aeschylus’ lost Myrmidons

a new sigh from a long silence:
A stifled cry shuddering back:
Enough is enough. No more slander,
no more slurs to crush the tongue.
Time now to protest, to dissent
.

A point of no return. The moment
all the lies might start to shatter”

In the face of fascist neoclassicism, Balmer figures the rediscovery of a scrap of papyrus as a riot; a shattered object which in turn shatters the contemporary construction of reality: in the face of fascist persecution, a fragment of antiquity speaks to the essential legitimacy of homosexuality. This, I think, is the power of the fragment: it presents a challenge. Narratives of the present can be disrupted by fragments of the past.

At the same time, while the ancient fragment disrupts modernity’s conceptions of itself, it does not do so in a manner of simple correspondence. In an Eidolon article from 2018, Sasha Barish reflects upon the extent to which Latin literature reflects the transgender experience. While Barish meditates upon Ovid (rather than a fragmentary text), his words, in my view, reflect “fragmentary thinking”:

“I realized that I loved reading ancient Roman literature around the time I realized I was transgender, and I don’t think the timing was coincidental. I was trans and in high school, and I appreciated Latin poetry not only for its philological beauty but also because it came to me, unabashedly and without explanation, from a different time and from an alien culture. I watched two sets of social rules unfold in parallel. Gender roles existed in the ancient texts, but they were different from what I saw in the world around me. Men fell in love with men, and to some that was nobler than loving girls. Women weren’t supposed to fight in battle, but sometimes they did. Opposite-sex couples had once been individuals existing outside of the gender binary.”

While Barish here demonstrates the power of ancient literature to activate alternatives to dominant narratives, he goes on to make it clear that Ovid’s depiction of gender dynamics is not a one-for-one correspondence to modern experiences. At the same time, Barish recognizes Ovid’s ability to describe a sense of dysphoria which he can relate to, even though Ovid did not intend his words to connote transgender experiences:

“What’s more, I have been able to find a psychological connection between the poem and my own transgender experience—just not in the places I’d expected. The Metamorphoses actually contains some of my favorite pre-modern descriptions of what I’d call dysphoria — psychological, body dysphoria — only it’s never applied to gender.”

That is, even though the fragment can reveal possibilities of human experience that are hidden, sometimes deliberately hidden, from us, it is not simply that the fragment, as a thing that has survived against the odds, testifies to such experiences directly; instead, the fragment may do the work of alterity simply by being a data point that is difficult to deal with, difficult to fit into the narrative of history as it currently stands. We have an option here of saying either: no, this piece of information does not belong with what we already have; or we can say: yes, this piece of information is valuable because it complexifies what we have — places our other texts and objects in higher relief. Part of what I think of as “fragmentary thinking” includes the possibility of expanding our field of vision to include the data point of the fragment alongside what we think we already know, in order to deliberately broaden and complexify the range and depth of our knowledge. The fragment places everything else in higher relief.

5) Fragmentary thinking helps us reconsider the effects of canonization on the wiring of our discipline’s mind. It is, of course, significant that the ancients created a series of canons — that they hierarchized their ideas and their texts; we do not need to erase the fact of those structures. But we can, I think, resist the focus which canonization of texts and ideas produces, to lift our eyes from this tightly defined field of vision. Fragmentary thinking moves us away from the acceptance of canons as natural or neutral by allowing small details to carry as much weight as large structures. Here, I would bring in the work of the 19th c. sociologist, Georg Simmel, whose theory of fragmentation attributed significance to every distinct aspect of human experience, no matter how small. In the Sociology of the Senses (1907: 1026; trans. Frisby 2013: 55), Simmel writes:

“On every day, at every hour, such threads are spun, are allowed to fall, are taken up again, replaced by others, intertwined with others. Here lie the interactions — only accessible through psychological microscopy — between the atoms of society which bear the whole tenacity and elasticity, the whole colourfulness and unity of this so evident and so puzzling life of society.”

While fragments are often conceptualized partitively — that is: as parts of wholes (w-h-o-l-e-s), wholes that are missing — Simmel considered the fragment in abstract as the gateway to the perception of totality. In Sociological Aesthetics (1896; trans. Frisby 2013: 57), Simmel writes:

“To the adequately trained eye, the total beauty, the total meaning of the world as a whole radiates from every single point.”

In such a conceptualization, each individual fragment of antiquity in its own way opens up a portal to totality: from such a perspective, a fragment of Sappho is as important as a Platonic dialogue; a fragment of Ennius as important as Virgil’s Aeneid, principally because it signifies its own position, and because it signifies the relationality of its position. In the meantime, such a distributive theoretical maneuvre allows us to stand back at a distance to observe the contours and the greater shape that each individual piece together presents; to observe the space between things, as well as the space between ourselves and the ancient: in sum, to appreciate a sense of relationality as well as distance.

6) Our understanding of antiquity is not direct; there is a critical distance between us and the ancient world. And that distance is, in fact, data. By virtue of our desire for antiquity, and by virtue of some of our scholarly practices, we often create a false image of antiquity’s unmediated persistence. Take, for example, this image depicting the conservation of a black figure lekythos, recently tweeted by the Boston MFA:

White ground, black figure lekythos (c. 500 BCE) in the Boston MFA (99.526). Images detailing modern repairs tweeted by the Boston MFA.

Such an image, unintentionally, presents a narrative that broken things can be fixed; damage can be healed; wholeness can be restored: antiquity is still here. It makes me think of the end of a poem by Adrienne Rich (“Meditations for a Savage Child II”; 1973: 58):

“these scars bear witness
but whether to repair
or to destruction
I no longer know”

Just as I want to insist upon the value of seeing fragments nested within the texts which transmit them, I also want to insist upon the value of presenting the image of broken things as broken — the image on the far left in this triptych. While these may seem to be maneuvres which pull in different directions, each gesture illuminates the journey that ancient materials have taken — whether that means that they have been damaged and have fallen apart, or that they have been swallowed by a subsequent moment in history. These kinds of meditations allow the distance between ourselves and our objects of study to remain present. Despite the fact that the romanticism of loss is a rhetorical component of Classicism, the fact of that loss, or distance, must remain an essential element of our theoretical toolkit, so that self-reflexivity, and awareness of relationality, inform scholarly analysis.

We sometimes act as though we somehow have a direct line to antiquity, that we have our noses pressed right up against the glass. That we can see the ancient world clearly, without interpretative or cultural bias. Other times, we make universalizing claims about ancient material: telling our students (and ourselves) that Greek tragedy, for example, contains the essence of humanity. Classics as a field has, of course, contributed significantly to the definition of “humanity” as a concept (which is distinct from “humanity” as an entity); the BA that I received from Oxford is not called “Classics” but literae humaniores, “more human studies” — implying, apparently, that by virtue of that education my knowledge of humanity is complete. In the US, the situation is much the same: take, for example, the definition of “humanity” made by the famed Commission of the Humanities (sponsored in part by the ACLS) in 1964:

“The humanities may be regarded as a body of knowledge and insight, as modes of expression, as a program for education, as an underlying attitude toward life. The body of knowledge is usually taken to include the study of history, literature, the arts, religion, and philosophy. The fine and the performing arts are modes of expressing thoughts and feelings visually, verbally, and aurally. The method of education is one based on the liberal tradition we inherit from classical antiquity. The attitude toward life centers on concern for the human individual: for his emotional development, for his moral, religious, and aesthetic ideas, and for his goals — including in particular his growth as a rational being and a responsible member of his community.”‘

The definition of humanities as ultimately deriving from Classics (or at least, Classicism), reveals itself to be woefully inadequate in this very description, centred as it is, firstly, on the needs of the individual (rather than the community); secondly, on the male individual. Humanity as an entity has obviously always been more multi-faceted than the way that “humanity” as a concept is here defined. What we reckon with here is a two-fold problem defined: firstly, by the insistence that the Greco-Roman tradition should be the measure of humanism, and as result, a measure of humanity; secondly, the retrojection of our own values back into antiquity, presenting the relationship between the classical world and the modern world (in specifically this case, the US) as a direct line. The dynamism of the fragment, testifying, as it does, to the complexities, the partialities, and the gaps in the transmission of ancient knowledge, is itself again a challenge: this time to the very possibility of revivifying of ancient values, of bringing them back to life. At the same time, we can also appreciate the fact that the selectivity required to define the concept of humanity so narrowly represents a further stage of fragmentation; testifying, crucially, to the fact that fragmentation is an ongoing process in which we are all still taking part.

PART III: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

And, of course, it must be directly acknowledged that this definition of humanity, dependent upon classical invocation, has had indisputably violent consequences. For example, as Phiroze Vasunia (2013: 240) has discussed, the British colonial presence in India in the 19th century imagined itself as a “civilizing” force by invoking Classics as the precedent for rule: Robert Needham Cust, a British administrator and judge, wrote in his autobiography (1899: 17) that when he “found [him]self” (as though it were some kind of accident!) “helping to rule Millions in their hundreds of towns and thousands of villages” he could not help but think of Aeneid 6.851-8, which, of course, ends with: parcere subiectis (“spare the conquered”) and debellare superbos (“strike down the haughty”). Edith Hall (2013) described the infamous “Rivers of Blood” (1968) speech by the Conservative MP, Enoch Powell — which quoted Aeneid Book 6 (again; 6.86-7) to incite racial hatred against immigrants — as the moment when “classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory.”

Examples of such invocations of antiquity for modern hatred — where elitism meets racism, sexism, homophobia etc.; that is to say, denials of humanity — are plentiful. The consequences of these historical examples are still with us, and fresh examples are made every day. As modern America roils in the face of violence against Black people, typified, but not limited to, the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, we cannot forget the notorious anecdote, discussed by Emily Greenwood (2011: 163), which was attributed to John C. Calhoun, who served as Vice President of the United States (1825-1832); Calhoun reportedly measured the humanity of Black people by their knowledge of Classics, saying:

“if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.”

There are some in the field of Classics who might say: these were utterances made by politicians, not by us; this isn’t us. This is where I want to insist upon the lessons that we learn from the fragment. The fragment says: I am made by reception, I am made by recursive return, I am made by invocation. The fragment says: my life is very long and I mutate as I age; my lifespan represents the intellectual history of ancient ideas; my afterlife is threaded through, entangled with, cannot be separated from, the very history which informs your intellectual and social life. The fragment says: more things are connected than you are currently willing to see.

When Ian Goh asked me to speak as a part of this series — which is called “relevant Classics” — I couldn’t help but think: I have heard anxiety surrounding the extent of Classics’ “relevance” since I myself was a beginning Latin student. The question of “relevance” is deeply interconnected with the perception, and the fact, of Classics’ inherent elitism. For a long time, in both the UK and the US, the study of Latin and Greek was deliberately designed as a programme of elite self-signification; put another way: the elitism in Classics was, quite frankly, the point. Even though the circularity of elitism (study Latin to be elite; elites study Latin) is (maybe) slowly coming apart, the structures erected by the history of this kind of thinking, this curricular design, this hierarchy of access, nonetheless remain. This summer, Dani Bostick published an article in AJP — “Not For All: Nostalgic Distortions as a Weapon of Segregation in Secondary Classics” — which stressed the fact of the Latin classroom as a racialized environment in modern America. Bostick writes (2020: 284):

“While racialized barriers to Classics persist, segregation is euphemistically described as low enrollment; systemic cultural failures are blamed on poor marketing, external trends in education, and regressive pedagogy; and proposed solutions to deeper problems often ignore race, as if all students encountered the same barriers.”

Bostick goes on (correctly, in my view) to pinpoint a nostalgia — or desire — for antiquity as a vital mechanism of the segregated classroom. Bostick (2020: 290) notes the consequence of the nostalgia-driven mentality to classical education as a kind of self-mythologizing which facilitates the acceptance of racially segregated environments: Classics is “for” some people, and not for others. If Classics’ relevance has been defined in relation to its usefulness for such self-mythologizing, then it certainly makes sense that its “relevance” would now feel like it is waning. Amongst all of the claims that we could make about why any student should study the ancient world, we have repeatedly chosen to assert the primacy of our own hierarchical relationships — both to each other, and to the ancient material. In the meantime, even though we market Classics as a way to develop historical consciousness, we habitually turn a blind eye to how we arrived here. The field of Classics is ever mindful of its own relationship to the past (or “a past”, or “some pasts”): the ancient past which we study, and the more recent past which established the frameworks of such study. We keep the past and the present in steady dialogue, but what we also need is a futurist mentality. Futurism requires a sober apprehension of our intellectual history, its consequences. Turning away from material circumstances that we don’t think we’ve caused, while still upholding the systems that created such circumstances, is a mistake.

In this context, “fragmentary thinking”/“thinking fragmentarily” is, I argue, a helpful practice, in that it is inherently self-reflexive and inherently deconstructive. It is a mindset which simultaneously apprehends the complexity of the intellectual tradition while minimizing the kind of romanticism which imagines the ancient to be here with us still in a form that is somehow: perfectly present, perfectly whole, and perfectly understood. The fragment testifies the partiality of our understanding of the ancient world; it points to losses on the micro level as well as on the macro level, allowing us to question to what extent our textual picture of antiquity could ever present a totality such as the one that modern self-mythologizing would need as a foundation. The fragment demonstrates the mediated and entangled nature of our ancient understanding: ancient knowledge is transmitted through a number of filters, which testifies both to the ancient tradition’s tendency to loop back upon itself, as well as to the indirectness of our cultural understanding. The fragment stands for alterity and otherness: not only because fragmentary material often contains challenges to what is found in the mainstream, but in the fact of its potential to represent data which cannot be easily reconciled with what we already know. While the fragment itself is, to a significant extent, representative of canonization, fragmentary thinking can help to loose the hold of canonical thinking, within which texts gain greatest weight by virtue of the doctrine of “survival of the fittest.” Finally, and crucially, I think: the fragment, in all these ways, illuminates distance; it communicates the journey which ancient knowledge has taken to reach us, and, as a result, it plants us historically in our own position, here in modernity. THANK YOU.

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New York visit; “Countryside, The Future”; Will Allen on farming; tempora cum causis (18)

Ancient. This week I was in New York visiting the Classics department at NYU. On Thursday (5th March 2020), I talked about my primary research interest at the moment, Cicero and the Latin poets. Big shoutout to the NYU Classics grad students who invited me and are doing very important work right now to make the field more inclusive. Handout to the talk below:

While in New York, as well as stopping in at ISAW, I headed over to the Guggenheim, which is currently showing a very interesting exhibit, “Countryside, The Future” by AMO/Rem Koolhaas. This is an installation which looks at the earth from a global perspective and underlines the necessity that human beings living right now closely examine our relationship with the ecosystems into which we have inserted ourselves. It’s an ambitious and important project which turns the interior of a major art museum in one of the most monumental and complex cities on the planet into a microcosm of what’s happening outside of cities right now around the world.

A careful observer will find a number of classical referents throughout this exhibit. The invocation of the Roman concept of otium (i.e. time off from duty) in the countryside, paired with the contemporary ancient Chinese idea of xiaoyao (“blissful repose”), represents, for the creators of this exhibit, moments of human history where reverence for the creative and contemplative spaces of the countryside facilitated respect for its rhythms and boundaries. In the modern era, they suggest, these ideas of restful contemplation have developed into intensely rapacious spatial practices, where the natural world is cannibalized under a commodified idea of “wellness.” The inclusion of ancient testimonia in this exhibit does something that Classicists often fail to do — namely, to situate our understanding of antiquity in broader movements of not only textual transmission, but environmental processes. Naturally, there’s a sense of urgency to this exhibit. (And I experienced it through a further layer of complexity — walking around with hundreds of other people while holding within me anxiety surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.)

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Modern. So here’s a question which I find myself struggling to answer. Are academics allowed to “be themselves”? An unspoken aspect of scholarly training is that, in addition to developing the various skills and deepening your research interests, you are also expected to internalize certain social practices and academic ways of being. I have already written about how much I despise the “professor” trope in pop culture — one that, sadly, is consciously reenacted by some flesh and blood professors, who present themselves to the world with horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches despite the fact that they are 35 years old. Listen. It’s not actually the aesthetic that I have a problem with. It’s the fact that this is a costume which we feel that we have to put on to do our jobs properly, to be taken seriously as scholars, even to be identified as scholars.

The trouble, of course, is that if you don’t look and sound a very particular way, it’s impossible to bridge that gap. I’m a younger woman and even if I put on some elbow patched tweed, it would still never be enough for some people to ascribe intellectual power to me. This happens to women, of course, and it happens if you’re not white, if you deviate in any way from perceived gender norms, etc. etc. (Actually, this brings up an old New York memory. I was walking in Central Park when an English woman, who turned out to be an academic, asked me directions which I, of course, couldn’t give. When she realized I was visiting too, she asked if I was a student. “No,” I said, “I’m a Classics professor. I gave a lecture at Columbia last night.”)

And obviously the academic “costume” goes far beyond dress — it includes what your interests are, how you talk, and, basically, everything about how you interface with the world. Okay, so. Given that there is no physical way that I can present myself in the form which is considered authoritative, my question is this: will people want to hear from me in the way that it is natural for me to communicate? I have come from my own particular circumstances, had my own particular experiences, and all of these things, of course, have an impact on my intellectual powers. So to some extent denying what comes natural to me in order to constrict myself into a very confined space, one which I could never fully occupy anyway, is not just a moral problem but also an intellectual one. Scholarship wants — or it should want — intellectual plurality. This makes the work more interesting, and, frankly, it makes it better. But it’s going to be hard to achieve this if we keep constricting ourselves into these artificial shapes in order to be identified as a scholar in the first place. It’s going to be hard, but we — all of us — have to do some work to widen our field of vision, and put effort into consciously ascribing authority to those whose faces, bodies, and voices do not look or sound like the models of the past.

Internet. 

Excerpt. Will Allen, The Good Food Revolution (p18): “Farming had taught me to have trust in the unseen. You plant for a harvest that you hope will arrive but that is never guaranteed. The opening of Will’s Roadside Farm Market required a similar kind of faith. I hoped it would be rewarded. Yet farming had also taught me to expect the unexpected. Two days of heavy rains could wash away a crop that you had worked on for weeks. A cruel drought could choke your plants, and they would come up stunted or withered. I didn’t know yet what would become of my dream.”

Daily life. A different writing perspective than usual.

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Notes on “perfectionism”; tempora cum causis (16)

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Garden fresco in the Villa of Livia. Image: Wikimedia.

In the Brutus (71), Cicero, tracing the trajectory of Latin literature, writes: nihil est enim simul et inuentum et perfectum,Nothing is fully developed at the moment of its invention.” The Latin verb perficio, from which the English word “perfect” derives, means “to bring to completion” or “to finish.” In a different work, On the Nature of the Gods (2.35), Cicero, speaking from a Stoic perspective, describes this process of completion or finishing in terms of a natural growth which irresistibly strives beyond its current state. Here comes the Latin and the Loeb translation: 

neque enim dici potest in ulla rerum institutione non esse aliquid extremum atque perfectum. ut enim in uite ut in pecude nisi quae uis obstitit uidemus naturam suo quodam itinere ad ultimum peruenire, atque ut pictura et fabrica ceteraeque artes habent quendam absoluti operis effectum, sic in omni natura ac multo etiam magis necesse est absolui aliquid ac perfici. etenim ceteris naturis multa externa quo minus perficiantur possunt obsistere, uniuersam autem naturam nulla res potest impedire, propterea quod omnis naturas ipsa cohibet et continet.

Again, it is undeniable that every organic whole must have an ultimate ideal of perfection. As in vines or in cattle we see that, unless obstructed by some force, nature progresses on a certain path of her own to her goal of full development, and as in painting, architecture and the other arts and crafts there is an ideal of perfect workmanship, even so and far more in the world of nature as a whole there must be a process towards completeness and perfection. The various limited modes of being may encounter many external obstacles to hinder their perfect realization, but there can be nothing that can frustrate nature as a whole, since she embraces and contains within herself all modes of being.

Each of these discussions of “perfection” in Cicero suggests that the thing which is “perfect” is one which has been worked beyond an initial beginning of some kind — the event horizon of “invention” (inuentum), or the young tendril of vine — and imagines the possibility that such a start could be brought forward to its logical conclusion, its completion. Essentially, “perfection”, in these terms, requires a distance between the beginning and the end; an end cannot coexist with its beginning. It requires growth. Yet the fine line between the simplicity of completion, and the politics of “perfection” is blurred by Cicero too. The natural world may follow its own script, leading to the growth of plants and animals, but Cicero includes human artefacts in the same category: painting, architecture, “technology” (ceterae artes…). The idea that the perfect thing is the completed thing is a problem. Because, well. When is anything finished? There is a difference between completion (the point of fullness beyond which further growth is impossible), and a stop (a breaking off point). But what is it?

The English term “perfectionism” — i.e. the refusal to accept any standard short of “perfection” — did not arise until the 1930s (according to the OED), yet there is a shadow of this idea even in Cicero. In certain circumstances, Cicero writes, obstacles may arise which stand in the way of even nature’s “perfect” course. The anxiety of not meeting completion is there. Such anxiety enters at the moment when the concept of an “end” is complexified by judgement. A critical eye complicates the notion of completion, questioning the possibility of wholeness. The social phenomenon of perfectionism inserts a difficulty into the concept of the “perfect” as the completed thing, because perfectionism refuses to see completion.

As an antidote to a social disease which invalidates moments of closure (i.e. what even an “end” might mean for us), we might reconsider what it means to “begin” something. In How Societies Remember (1989), Paul Connerton figures the “beginning” as something more complex than a single moment of inception (p6):

“All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of complete arbitrariness in the very nature of any such attempted beginning. The beginning has nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as if it came out of nowhere…But the absolutely new is inconceivable. It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and habits inhibit the substitution of a novel enterprise for a new and established one.”

The beginning does not come out of nowhere. To some extent, a “fresh start” is impossible. All beginnings grow from old soil (to extend the horticultural metaphor). If the beginning is a blurred line, so too can the end be — that horizon line of “perfection.” If completion is not a full stop but a lingering note, then perfectionism may lose some of its power. There are, too, lots of moments of fullness along the way towards that blurry wholeness. The full embrace of perfectionism also means accepting the argument of teleology — that what comes next is inherently superior to what preceded it, that human culture is marching towards a pin point of perfection. Teleological thinking blinds us to points of significance outside a narrative of progress. Rejecting such thinking allows us to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re progressing towards.

Visit to Bates; digital humanities and the human body; Elizabeth Marlowe; tempora cum causis (14)

Ancient. This week I was up in Maine visiting the Classical and Medieval Studies department at Bates College. On Thursday (30th Jan. 2020), I talked about my primary research interest right now, Cicero and the Latin poets (I’m finishing up a book on this); on Friday (31st Jan. 2021), I talked about digital approaches to teaching. Handouts below: 

Modern. I can understand why “the digital” as category sometimes seems so distinct from the world of humanism or humanistic inquiry. But investigating the digital within the framework of the extensibility of human embodiment immediately complicates this view. Digital humanists (this term, to some, is tautological; to others, self-negating) often emphasize the essential continuity between established forms of intellectual work and the capacities of contemporary digital techniques; as Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto (The Digital Humanities; 2015: 2) write:

…everything from the scholar’s desk and shelves, study, studio, rehearsal and performance space, lecture halls, campuses, research institutes and convention halls can also legitimately be considered environments. Yet in many ways these new digital tools carry on, in analogous ways, the same functions of traditional humanities. Is the very computer upon which humanists rely so heavily still a tool, something akin to their medieval writing tablets?

Digital techniques build upon traditional humanistic practices but also develop them; Sarah E. Bond, Hoyt Long, Ted Underwood (“‘Digital’ Is Not the Opposite of ‘Humanities‘”; 2017):

Much of what is now happening under the aegis of digital humanities continues and expands those projects. Scholars are still grappling with familiar human questions; it is just that technology helps them address the questions more effectively and often on a larger scale.

“Digital humanists”, who spend so much time theorizing their own relationship to classical traditions and contemporary technology, are often met with knee-jerk reactions by those who have not taken the time to situate their own intellectual complaint. It all brings to mind Ursula K. Le Guin (I keep coming back to her), who regularly drew attention to the fact that her critics could not get past the genre of her writing to grasp the meaning of its content. At face value digital projects can have an alienating effect on traditional sensibilities, but when we dig deeper we quickly see that the intellectual processes required for such work are just as complex and interesting as the standard products of scholarship. I have written elsewhere about how teaching with digital techniques encourages students to sharpen analytic skills and deepen their intellectual commitment to research.

Anyway, returning to the embodiment part in all this. Technology is absolutely bound to the human body; formed for human use, imagined as an extension of human manipulation (in a literal sense of manus, i.e. ‘hand’) of reality. While contemporary technology sometimes feels so seamless as to be invisible to our own theorization, looking at older artefacts in digital history makes this incredibly clear. Take, e.g., the Philippe Henri’s (1984) “Cadavres Exquis / Exquisite Corpses.” This is a program for a computer generated poem: i.e. Henri wrote the code, but the actual poem was “written” when the program was run on a computer; and indeed rewritten anew each time the program was run. The code was circulated on paper (see the slide below: from Nick Montfort’s [@nickmofo] lecture at BU last year, “Translating Computational Poetry” — watch a video recording of the lecture here); and in order to run the program, a human being had to type it by hand into a specific computer, the TRS 80.

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“Cadavres Exquis”, which is only one e.g. of a whole genre of computational poetry, very clearly demonstrates the entanglement of technology with the essences of humanity, not just the body, but indeed the “soul” (if such a dichotomy is even truly real). The human spark which invents the poetry; the human body which materializes it; the technological body (i.e. the computer) which extends that invention and materialization.

When I found out about this example of entangled text and technology from Nick Manafort’s talk at BU, it immediately made me think of the contemporary emulators used to play old video games on modern computers; i.e. programs which simulate the hardware of the N64 so that you can play Ocarina of Time without having to use the physical tools required in 1998. Such digital reconstructions (if that’s even the right word) have a preservative effect, but they also make me think about the relationship between my own body and the console at the time when the game was originally released. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the attic, holding a controller (that was physically attached to the console – lol!), blowing the dust out of a Goldeneye cartridge. There are so many structural similarities between our relationship with these modern artefacts, and the historical processes which we study; the reception and reconstruction of ideas from antiquity to modernity. The relationship between text and context. The social and embodied nature of textual production.

Internet.

Excerpt. Elizabeth Marlowe (@ElizMarlowe) Shaky Ground (2013: 9): “Many archaeologists follow the thinking of Paul Kristeller, who suggested that ‘art’ as we know it wasn’t invented until the eighteenth century. According to this view, notions of pure, historically transcendent form slide perilously close to deeply suspect ones of ahistorical universal beauty. Ancient objects should instead be understood as manifestations of ‘visual culture’ or ‘material culture’ — the understanding of which depends heavily on context. In this and in much of the recent literature, the binaries are conspicuous: archaeology vs. art history, academia vs. museums, context vs. form, artifact vs. art, history vs. beauty, resonance vs. wonder.” 

Daily Life. Morning light in Maine. 

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Jenny Odell on Cicero, Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (9)

Ancient and Modern. In the De Fato (10-11), Cicero discusses whether it is possible for the individual to overcome their nature. Here comes the Loeb:

Stilponem, Megaricum philosophum, acutum sane hominem et probatum temporibus illis accepimus. Hunc scribunt ipsius familiares et ebriosum et mulierosum fuisse, neque haec scribunt vituperantes sed potius ad laudem, vitiosam enim naturam ab eo sic edomitam et compressam esse doctrina ut nemo umquam vinolentum illum, nemo in eo libidinis vestigium viderit. Quid? Socratem nonne legimus quemadmodum notarit Zopyrus physiognomon, qui se profitebatur hominum mores naturasque ex corpore oculis vultu fronte pernoscere? stupidum esse Socratem dixit et bardum quod iugula concava non haberet—obstructas eas partes et obturatas esse dicebat; addidit etiam mulierosum, in quo Alcibiades cachinnum dicitur sustulisse. [11] Sed haec ex naturalibus causis vitia nasci possunt, exstirpari autem et funditus tolli, ut is ipse qui ad ea propensus fuerit a tantis vitiis avocetur, non est positum in naturalibus causis, sed in voluntate studio disciplina; quae tollentur omnia si vis et natura fati…firmabitur.

“The Megarian philosopher Stilpo, we are informed, was undoubtedly a clever person and highly esteemed in his day. Stilpo is described in the writings of his own associates as having been fond of liquor and of women, and they do not record this as a reproach but rather to add to his reputation, for they say that he had so completely mastered and suppressed his vicious nature by study that no one ever saw him the worse for liquor or observed in him a single trace of licentiousness. Again, do we not read how Socrates was stigmatized by the ‘physiognomist’ Zopyrus, who professed to discover men’s entire characters and natures from their body, eyes, face and brow? He said that Socrates was stupid and thick-witted because he had not got hollows in the neck above the collarbone—he used to say that these portions of his anatomy were blocked and stopped up. He also added that he was addicted to women—at which Alcibiades is said to have given a loud guffaw! [11] But it is possible that these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training; and if the potency and the existence of fate is proved…all of these will be done away with.”

In this passage, Cicero describes some of the quote-unquote defects which naturally arise in humans. Stilpo (4th c. BCE) reportedly had a natural proclivity for alcohol and sex with women; he was, according to friends, ebriosus (“addicted to drink”) and mulierosus* (“addicted to women”). But, Cicero says, Stilpo was able to master his nature with philosophical training (doctrina), and was never seen drunk again, and showed no outward sign of lust. Zopyrus (5th c. BCE), applied physiognomy, i.e. the theory that human character can be read in the condition of the body, to Socrates and concluded from the philosopher’s body that he could only be an idiot. Oh, and that he must also be “addicted to women” (mulierosus again). Cicero writes that nature may be responsible for giving us certain tendencies. But, he says, it is human agency that can overcome them: “will” (voluntas), “effort” (studium), and “training” (disciplina). This passage, of course, contains an oversimplistic attitude to addiction as well as an ablest assumption that bodily imperfection is a mirror of morality or intellect. It’s also quite clear that these anecdotes are designed to reflect male power in the context of elite competition: the detail that the notorious party animal, Alcibiades, laughed at Zopyrus calling Socrates names suggests a symposiastic setting (Phaedo’s dialogue, Zopyrus, dramatized a debate between the physiognomist and Socrates). Putting those things aside, what do we make of Cicero’s claim that we can overcome our nature?

In the recent (and superb), How to Do Nothing (2019)Jenny Odell cites this passage of Cicero’s De Fato (pp71-72) in the context of arguing for the creation of a “third space” of attention — one which reframes human interaction with reality as a kind of rejection of market forces and commercially-run social media. The book as a whole is a meditation on and a protreptic towards a modern kind of recusatio, i.e. the technique of saying “I would prefer not to.” Odell asks her reader to refuse to internalize the contemporary narrative of productivity, and to reclaim time and space to “do nothing.” (There are a lot of classical references throughout — Seneca, Epicurus, Diogenes. And Cicero’s cum dignitate otium is clearly a spiritual forebear.) Here’s what Odell says about this passage of Cicero (p72):

“If we believed that everything were merely a product of fate, or disposition, Cicero reasons, no one would be accountable for anything and therefore there could be no justice. In today’s terms, we’d all just be algorithms. Furthermore, we’d have no reason to try to make ourselves better or different from our natural inclinations. VOLUNTATE, STUDIO, DISCIPLINA — it is through these things that we find and inhabit the third space, and more important, how we stay there. In a situation that would have us answer yes or no (on its terms), it takes work, and will, to keep answering something else.”

The possibility of escaping (or mitigating) the frailties of human psychology and embodiment which Cicero suggests relies on the intentional application of the mind (or soul). Odell would have us apply ourselves in this way as an act of resistance against cynical structures of social influence. The concept of “will” (voluntas) invokes the notion of presence — or attention — the ability to be here in the moment, to have an appreciation for the moment in all its granularities. To “focus” (studium). As for the “training” (disciplina), this obviously could take a number of forms. But evidently self-awareness, and awareness of the churning forces around you, is at the core of this idea.

*Mulierosus is quite an unusual Latin word! It only appears in extant classical Latin three times. According to Aulus Gellius (4.9.2), quoting “mulierosus” as discussed by the Pythagorean magician, Nigidius Figulus, the Latin suffix –osus indicates an excess of the characteristic in question.

Internet.

Excerpt. Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 2019: 134-135: “By its nature, literary fiction ‘teaches’: it shows how people feel, think, respond, vary; how circumstances affect them; how their brains, personalities, surroundings and culture make them tick. How an experiences strikes a particular person a certain way, and another differently. How a person feels inside as opposed to how they act or are perceived. And so on. All writing teaches — communicates something about something. [p135] Even bad writing. So if you’re writing, you’re teaching. You can’t help it. But then there’s intentional teaching through writing.”*

*Austin came into the room to point to a passage written by Vonnegut (on teachers and teaching) which was quoted on this page. So I thank him for the excerpt this week.

Daily Life. Max helped me grade. 

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Cicero, “Disenchantment”, Anthony Grafton; tempora cum causis (1)

Ancient. De Senectute 24-25 is one of my favourite passages of Cicero (here’s the Loeb): 

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse uiuere; sed idem in eis elaborant, quae sciunt nihil ad se omnino pertinere: serit arbores, quae alteri saeclo prosint, [25] ut ait Statius noster in Synephebis. nec uero dubitat agricola, quamuis sit senex, quaerenti cui serat respondere: dis immortalibus, qui me non accipere modo haec a maioribus uoluerunt, sed etiam posteris prodere.

“No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year—yet these same men labour at things which they know will not profit them in the least. ‘He plants the trees to serve another age,’ as our Caecilius Statius says in his Young Comrades. And if you ask a farmer, however old, for whom he is planting, he will unhesitatingly reply: for the immortal gods, who have willed not only that I should receive these blessings from my ancestors, but also that I should hand them on to posterity.”

Not just because the passage contains a lovely and proverbial fragment of the 2nd century BCE comic playwright, Caecilius Statius. I want to hold on to this idea that what we do here during our lifetime will not only be for ourselves. And I like the idea that preserving and building resources for people yet to come can be something we value and take pride in. 

Modern. For the last year or so I’ve been listening to the Talking Simpsons podcast network with Bob Mackey and Henry Gilbert. This week they discussed the new episodes of Disenchantment that dropped on Netflix. I’ve been enjoying this show a lot. Futurama is one of my all time favourites, and it’s exciting to me to feel like I’m observing another potential Futurama happen right before my eyes. Bob and Henry discuss an interesting problem, though, which is this: if you watched the Simpsons as it aired in the 90s, you probably saw some episodes a number of times in reruns (or by choice). I had a box set with seasons 1-4 of Futurama that I rewatched a lot when I was young, way before streaming media. But now the same creators of the Simpsons are making a show which most people will watch in more or less one sitting (or, say, over a weekend). And you might not rewatch it, given that there is such an overabundance of content right now. It’s interesting to think about: you’re a seasoned tv writer for one of the most famous and long lasting franchises of the modern era, and you have a certain way of doing things. But tv is now consumed in a profoundly different way. Trained by this institution, this creative machine, you now face an audience with different expectations. There is enormous competition for the attention space, and there is no guarantee of securing a captive audience via the power of syndication or otherwise. Watching and rewatching, reading and rereading — this is something that is built in to our experience of culture, especially the things we really love. Our favourite book. Our favourite film. I have basically been listening to the same music since about 2007. Recursiveness is part of cultural work. But we might not return to Disenchantment much. (Btw I do enjoy this new role for Abbi Jacobson, and all The Mighty Boosh alumni are *chef’s kiss*) 

Internet. 

Excerpt. Anthony Grafton 1997: 124: “In the modern world, fragments and revolutions have gone together. From 1789 to 1989, the politics of the street have always involved iconoclasm. Symbols of previous authorities have been smashed, the colossal heads of dictators separated from their even more outsized torsos, stately lines of busts and statues transformed into politically charged rubble. Tsar and Stalin in turn become Ozymandias.” 

Daily life. Speaking of trees, Max found one which is without a doubt a portal to another dimension.  

Looking at Ciceronian papyri in the John Rylands

When most people think of Cicero, they picture him speaking – standing in the open air forum of Rome, or within the closed temple of a senate meeting. When I think of Cicero, I think of him in the library with his books – both reading and writing. In other areas of the humanities, you can read the very words which were written by a certain historical figure in his or her own hand. I recently noticed that my home institution, the University of Southern California, has digitized some of the correspondence of Voltaire, including letters to and from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740-1786. The Bodleian library has digitized Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, written in her own hand with edits and revisions in notebooks from 1816.

Although we are lucky to have an incredibly large body of extant works for Cicero, our earliest texts come from manuscripts of a much later period, and we have no equivalent of – for example – the autograph letters of Voltaire. And so, unable to see our sources in their original materiality, for a long time Classicists have approached texts in a disembodied form. Recently there has been a real push towards considering ancient literature in the context of the cultures of book-making and reading, with the rise of papyrology as a discipline contributing substantially to this research.

One of the issues that we face when we want to look at manuscripts and papyri containing ancient texts is the fact that the originals are kept in all sorts of institutions all over the world, each with different policies concerning access and digitization. In order to even know where these things are takes a bit of effort, honestly. Papyrologists are usually excellent about cataloguing and sharing information, and have many online databases that help you find things. For literary papyri, you can use the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (although this also includes parchment) and Cedopal. There are Cicero papyri in at least Durham (North Carolina), Vienna, Florence, Cologne, London, Manchester, and Giessen. With such a state of affairs, digitization becomes increasingly important, although, as we shall shortly see, it comes with its own complications. Consulting a transcription of the papyrus without seeing an image is not really enough – this became clear to me when I looked at the marginalia of one of the Rylands papyri, which are hard to transcribe in a way which shows where exactly the text appears on the page. Looking at transcriptions, such as the following from Cavenaile’s Corpus Papyrorum Latinarum (CPL), gives you a very disembodied sense of what the papyri look like:

P Ryl 1.61 Cavenaile PRL p74
Transcription of Ciceronian papyrus P. Ryl. 1.61 in Cavenaile CPL p74. The full pdf of Cavenaile can be accessed online here.

Almost all of the Ciceronian papyri come from significantly later than his own lifetime (106-43 BCE). We’re dealing with Ciceronian texts which were used in contexts and formats subsequent to late Republican usage. The majority come from the 4th and 5th c. CE, with one (in Giessen) coming from the 1st c. CE. The two papyri which I saw are dated to the 5th c. CE – P. Ryl. 1.61, a Latin to Greek vocabulary list which corresponds to In Catilinam 2.14-15, and P. Ryl. 3.477, containing Divinatio in Caecilium 34-37, 44-46 with both Greek and Latin marginal comments on the text. Both of these papyri came from Egypt, and both were codices rather than book rolls. All of the extant Cicero papyri are oratorical, with many containing the Catilinarians and the Verrines; all of the Ciceronian papyri contain works which are more fully represented in medieval manuscripts. P. Ryl. 1.61 was used by a Greek speaker who was learning Latin with Cicero’s Catilinarians; P. Ryl. 3.477 was used by someone interested in the legal issues underlying Cicero’s case against Verres. P. Ryl. 3.477 contains the longest extant marginal note on papyrus (McNamee). The Cicero papyri are also of interest to us since they demonstrate bilingualism by inhabitants of the Empire during Late Antiquity; we get the sense that even in 5th c. CE Egypt, there was something of value in Latin for non-Romans (Sánchez-Ostiz).

 

The John Rylands Library in Manchester contains a number of important ancient materials, including a Greek papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John (pictured above). The library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. My guide at the library told me that on International Women’s Day, all of the male statues in the historic reading room (also pictured) were covered over with the statue of Enriqueta remaining visible in order to highlight her agency in creating an imposing intellectual space.

 

Greek papyrus 61 John Rylands Cicero In Catilinam vocab list papyrus codex verso
P. Ryl. 1.61 containing a Greek-Latin vocab list to Cicero’s Catilinarians, digitized by the John Rylands.

Greek papyrus 477 John Rylands Divinatio in Caecilium recto
P. Ryl. 3.477 containing Cicero’s Divination in Caecilium, digitized by the John Rylands.

It was raining heavily on the day in late June when I visited the John Rylands Library. Special Collections – a series of desks with book cradles and power outlets – was mostly empty, but there was a lively buzz of activity. Pairs of researchers and scholars spoke rapidly to their partners in low tones, and the staff whispered to one another. My inspection of materials was punctuated by a man behind me muttering “five pounds five shillings” – “June 22nd 1916” – “London”. I had to document myself – present a passport, proof of address – and then the papyri I had summoned were signed out to me. The John Rylands allows photography for personal use but forbids their promulgation. I took many personal photos, but the ones you see in this blog post are those which are officially released by the John Rylands. The two papyri which I looked at had already been digitized by the library, and can be accessed online for free. Most of the other patrons in the Special Collections were using materials which they could handle directly, but the Ciceronian papyri are mounted to glass. Each papyrus, encased in glass, is given to the reader on a foam tray, so that you can flip it and observe both sides.When the librarian handed me the first fragment, I asked about the conditions in which the glazed papyri were kept; one, the smaller of the two, was kept in a flight case (P. Ryl. 1.61); the other was kept in a paper box. Both were stored in a secure room which could have the oxygen removed from it in case of a fire. As I took close-up pictures of the different elements of the papyri, I appreciated one reason why the library would forbid private photographs to be disseminated – the surface of the glass means that details were obscured by the glare of the overhead lights, and by my reflection. As I looked at the papyri, I had the transcription from Cavenaile (CPL) open on my laptop so that I could orient myself in the text, and I also looked at the digitized images from the John Rylands website. Since the photo image of P. Ryl. 3.477, containing the Divinatio in Caecilium, was produced, the papyrus has been rearranged in its glass frame; and you can also see by comparing the original with its digital copy that parts of the papyrus which were once one piece have started to come apart. I noticed that the colour of the papyrus itself was darker in the photograph; as it turns out, the papyri at the Rylands have recently been through certain processes of conservation, which have left them a lighter colour. The papyrus itself, then, looks different from its image, and it is only this image that most people will ever be able to see. This is one of the interesting issues when dealing with ancient materials – they continue to have a life even after they have been made static by reproduction.

Further reading: “Cicero” in Texts and Transmission, ed. Reynolds (1983); McNamee, Annotations in Greek and Latin texts from Egypt (2007); Sánchez-Ostiz, Cicero Graecus: Notes on Ciceronian Papyri from Egypt, ZPE 187, 2013 pp144-153; many chapters of interest in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Bagnall (2009).

 

 

 

Notes from the classroom: Cicero and the genre of biography

I have mixed feelings about the genre of biography. I read recently that as a boy Napoleon used to hide away in the library of the Royal Military school of Brienne-le-Château and read the ancient biographers (Roberts 2015:12). His favourites were Plutarch’s Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This is not exactly a surprising thing to read about Napoleon – his early obssession with Caesar never left him. In March of 1790, for example, as Napoleon was writing his own history of Corsica, he spent his evenings rereading passages of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, and committing pages of it to memory (ibid: 31).

It is precisely the image of Napoleon obsessing over Caesar that makes me uncomfortable about biography. Biography seems to me to generate a feeling of either veneration or voyeurism in its readers, and I find it hard to reconcile this with a scholarly mindset. In certain places and times, the lives of famous men were written precisely to be emulated. But I want to believe that we’ve made it past the need to study “great men” precisely because of their “greatness”, which usually has more than something to do with imperialism, colonialism, or cultural chauvinism. But the fact is that these texts which we use were made by people with personalities and lives – and there’s something to be said for trying to find a satisfying way of discussing that fact without falling into fanaticism.

So when a colleague of mine asked if I would come and speak to her Ancient Lives class about Cicero, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to think through these ideas with her students. This particular class had been asked to read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, specifically Rex Warner’s 1958 translation with Penguin, given notes and introduction by Robin Seager in 1972. As it happened, the students in this class had never really encountered Cicero before, and their first exposure to him was through Plutarch’s biography. The idea of encountering a figure like Cicero for the first time through an intermediary was interesting to me. We have so much extant Cicero that Cicero usually speaks for himself. When Shackleton-Bailey wrote his biography of Cicero in 1970, he chose essentially to allow Cicero to speak for himself by quoting huge swathes of text from Cicero’s letters, interspersing these translated passages with the biographical narrative. Since at least John Dugan’s Making a New Man (2005), Ciceronians and classicists generally have been pretty comfortable with the idea of rhetorical “self-fashioning” – that is to say, we know that Cicero was always reworking his image in his literary publications, and as a result we know that we have to be careful at taking certain things which Cicero says about himself at face value.

And so, given the size and complexity of the Ciceronian corpus, it’s interesting to have an ancient account that makes Cicero a singularity using the sources which we still have, as well as the ones which we will never even know we’ve lost. But although Plutarch puts Cicero in the state of being an object, objectivity is not really the aim of biography, nor is it the outcome. With Plutarch, we get an ancient opportunity to reflect on Cicero’s self-representation and how that representation was received by an audience which is already historically removed. We have something in common with Plutarch, in that he also only had Cicero in a textual form. I asked the students to consider Petrarch’s shock at uncovering Cicero’s letters in 1345 and his inability to reconcile the spirit of philosophy with the grimy reality of his being a human person. “It is true, Cicero,…that you did live as a man, you did speak as an orator, you did write as a philosopher. It was your life with which I found fault,” (De rebus familiaribus 24.4). This is a nice example of the disjuncture which biographical knowledge (if you can call it knowledge) introduces; that faith can be rescinded from an author whose text is venerated due to his biography begs for an assessment of what one should be doing with the text in the first place. I asked the students also to consider Theodor Mommsen’s 19th c. criticism of Cicero as cowardly and constitutionally indifferent for his execution of the Catilinarians. Both Petrarch and Mommsen were reacting against Cicero in worlds where the lives of the ancients were to be venerated and taught as examples – their disappointments and disgust in Cicero were still essentially rooted in a biographical view of this figure, even if that view was still developing.

Further reading: Ironically, my readings on Napoleon come from an (excellent) biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. This irony accounts for my initial comment about having mixed feelings regarding biography. As for responses to Cicero in the Renaissance and the 19th c., there are good chapters by David Marsh and Nicholas Cole in the 2013 Cambridge Companion to Cicero.

On eclipses and human terror

Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse was first published in 1982 in the journal, Anteaus. It was reprinted in the same year in a collection of Dillard’s essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is where I read it.

One passage of Dillard’s essay in particular caught my attention:

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

crab nebula
The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (ASU)

One of the messages of Dillard’s essay is the disjunction between intellectual knowledge of an event and its phenomenological effect on the perceiver. Knowledge that the sun is occulted by the moon is itself eclipsed by the experience of the event. “If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.” Dillard notes that her reaction could have been like the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, who “simply died of fright on the spot.” Famous passages from the ancient world attest to a similar epistemological horror at the sight of solar eclipses. From Herodotus (7.37-38), we have the eclipse of 480 BCE which is immediately interpreted by mediterranean earth-dwellers to foreshadow a successful Persian incursion into Greece.

total solar
Total solar eclipse, 11th July 2010. Image credit: Williams College Eclipse Expedition

total lunar
Total lunar eclipse, 15th April 2014. Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

In Cicero’s hexameter poem, On the Consulship (of which only 78 lines are extant, due to their embedding in his philosophical work, On Divination, 44 BCE), we hear of a lunar eclipse that took place on 3rd May 63 BCE (Div. 1.18, Ewbank p75), as well as a possible reference to a solar eclipse of 18th May 63. Of the 78 lines, these correspond to lines 19-22:

cum claram speciem concreto lumine luna
abdidit et subito stellanti nocte perempta est.
quid vero Phoebi fax, tristis nuntia belli,
quae magnum ad columen flammato ardore volabat,
praecipitis caeli partis obitusque petessens?

“…when the moon hid its clear shape with dulled light
and was suddenly removed from the starry sky.
What means the torch of Phoebus, the herald of bitter war,
which was climbing towards its zenith with blazing heat,
while longing for the western parts of heaven and its setting?” (trans. Wardle)

The “torch of Phoebus” (Phoebi fax) here can be interpreted to refer to a partial solar eclipse, a comet, or a meteor (cf. Wardle p149). Both phenomena form part of a long list of horrific astronomical and cosmological events which are pressed into service as portents of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE. Alongside these terrors are listed the fact that a “citizen” was struck by lightning (lines 23-24), and ghostly shades were seen at night (lines 26-27).

Another of the focuses of Dillard’s essay is the effect of a solar eclipse on an observer; it so subverts the normal experience of human life, is so overwhelming, that it comes to lack significance. Seeing a solar eclipse is like seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon:

The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is its significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.

Dillard’s essay on the power of an insensate solar eclipse to instill in an observer a sense of mortal catastrophe circles around several issues that face a modern commentator on the ancient world. For one thing, we find that Dillard is careful to describe her horror at the instant of observation, and simultaneously careful to trace the impact of cosmological events on the human record: e.g. the fact that the explosion of the Crab Nebula was visible on earth in 1054, the fact that an eclipse of 840 terrified a monarch to death. We are invited to meditate upon the notion that human terror is just as iterative as the events which precipitate them, and that, despite our intellectual or technological advancement, the synchronisation of the human record of time with the cosmos, serves as a reminder of our own internal disjunction in the face of rational events which we are still not fully capable of rationalizing.

Further reading: Annie Dillard’s essay, Total Eclipse, can be read online. For Cicero’s On the Consulship, see Ewbank (1933 repr. 1997) The Poems of Cicero, for the Latin and a commentary (no translation). We owe the survival of this 78 line fragment to its embedding in Cicero’s On Divination; see the commentaries of Pease (1955) and Wardle (2006).

Writing Cicero’s “Aratea” in the 17th c.

 

When I was doing research for a chapter on the extensive (“self”-)quotation of Cicero’s Aratea in his philosophical work On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), I found myself reckoning with Hugo Grotius’ Syntagma Arateorum published in 1600. The Aratea is Cicero’s Latin translation of a Greek astronomical poem by Aratus of Soli, the Phaenomena (c. 275 BCE), which is sometimes translated as “Appearances” in English. Aratus’ poem reads like a map of the night sky in the form of a poem; the idea is that if you read, or memorize, the Phaenomena, then you will be able to “read” the constellations in the sky. Knowledge of the stars allows you to recognize changes of season, to anticipate weather changes, and to navigate through space. If we can believe what is said in On the Nature of the Gods, then Cicero translated this Greek poem into Latin as a young man, which would place its date of composition in the mid 80s BCE. Several other Latin translations subsequently appear within a century, including one by Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the future Emperor Tiberius.

Harley 647 f2v
Harley 647 f.2v depicting Aries ©British Library

At the very beginning of the 17th century the Dutch Hugo Grotius (Hugo, Huigh or Hugeianus de Groot), who had been a student of Scaliger at Leiden, produced an edition of Aratus, Cicero, and Germanicus. This, the Syntagma Arateorum (“A collection of Arateas”), can be viewed online through google books.

One of the interesting things about this work is that Grotius had to deal with the fact that Cicero’s Aratea only survived in pieces. We have Aratus’ Phaenomena in full, but Cicero’s Aratea is in a fragmentary condition. There is an incredible independent manuscript transmission of Cicero’s Aratea which comes with illustrations of the described constellations, such as Harley 647 (see above), which can also be viewed online, but the text isn’t complete. We also get about 90 verses of Cicero’s Aratea from his On the Nature of the Gods. Because Cicero’s Aratea is a translation of the Phaenomena, Grotius had a basis for the missing material, so he decided to provide the missing parts from Cicero’s Aratea by translating the equivalent Greek himself. Consider the following page:

Grotius p4

 

The actual verses of Cicero here are lines 96-101 (Arctophylax…Virgo), and 116 (Malebant tenui contenti vivere cultu). Everything else, in italics, is Grotius’ own Latin translation of Aratus. To my mind, this is an incredible response to a fragmentary text – to supply what you don’t have by doing the translation yourself. Grotius was giving himself a lesson in how to write Ciceronian verse. Another remarkable aspect of this is that Grotius, born in 1583, was 17 years old when he published the Syntagma. I wonder whether Grotius was inspired by Cicero’s note that he himself was just a young man when he translated the Aratea (admodum adulescentulus, On the Nature of the Gods 2.104). There may be some shared idea between them that dealing with the Greek hexameters of Aratus’ Phaenomena is a kind of intellectual rite of passage. Grotius is a fascinating figure – one anecdote that you hear about him is that he escaped prison by hiding in a trunk that was supposed to be filled with books…

Further reading: More on Hugo Grotius. English text of Aratus’ Phaenomena, based on the 1921 Loeb. Emma Gee has an excellent book – Ovid, Aratus and Augustus (2000, Cambridge) – which deals especially well with the idea of astronomical writing and the control of time. The Oxford World’s Classics series very recently brought out an English translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena accompanied by the astronomical commentaries of Eratosthenes and Hyginus (Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths, with Aratus’ Phaenomenatranslated by Robin Hard, 2015).