Posted by Dennis » 5 Comments »
I’m reading J.P Postgate’s classic essay ‘Flaws in Classical Research’ (Proceedings of the British Academy, 1908, 161-211), which, by the way, should be tempered with Paul Shorey’s review (Classical Philology 5.2 225-228) which attempts to ‘guard against the impression which it will make upon the student or the hostile layman.’ Shorey notes Postgate’s ‘impatience of human frailty,’ which puts one in mind of A.E. Housman. Incidentally, Housman (cited approvingly in the essay) beat out Postgate for the Latin chair at Cambridge.
Currently what’s interesting me is Postgate’s criticsm of modern ‘lineal’ thinking which is prone to misunderstand the ‘circular’ thought behind utterances in classical languages.
I was reminded of a recent article in the Guardian (linked by ALDaily) that dealt with the difficulties caused by syntax in the translation of humor from English to German. This difficulty has led some Brits to the conclusion that Germans are humorless, and in the same way the divide betwee ‘lineal’ and ‘circular’ habits of mind has led modern readers of the Classics to mistranslation, misleading commentary, and the attribution to the ancients of convoluted metaphorical expression alien to their native sensibility:
One main principle which it takes some trouble to grasp, and still more to apply with precision, is that, within certain wide limits, order in modern sentences is syntactically essential and in ancient sentences syntactically indifferent. The modern sentence, to put it roughly, is an arrangement in line, the ancient one within a circle. Now the lineal habit of mind, if I may call it so, is often at a loss when it has to understand the circular; it is devoid of the sense of grouping; it has not been trained to the necessary attention. If the groups are small, the trouble thus caused is small; but it is not absent altogether.
Now comes a great but simple example, the kind I’ve seen belabored by would-be critical theorists in their first semesters seeking out the foul stench of patriarchy and cultural imperialism at every turn:
In the second half of the pentameter Tibullus writes vir mulierque (ii. 2. 2), Ovid femina virque. The difference of order is absolutely without significance. But the lineal mind is apt to imagine that some subtle distinction between the places of man and woman is intended, as though Ovid were a sort of pro- and Tibullus an anti-suffragette.
Come to think of it, I’ve probably seen that in some of our leading journals.
From here he recalls the views of T.E. Page (note: Page’s commentary on the Eclogues and Georgics of Vergil is still a classic — go get it!) who ‘called attention to the irrationality of current views of the figure called hysteron proteron‘:
To the lineal mind these ‘inversions’ are nonsense; to the circular but legitmate variations. … The real character of such arrangements is seen in passages like Ter. Ad. 917 ‘tu illas abi et traduce; and Lucan, viii. 342 sq. ‘quem captos ducere reges | vidit ab Hyrcanis Indoque a litore siluis‘, which almost shriek at us the warning respice finem.
There’s more, and I recommend that you seek it out (taking Shorey’s reservations into consideration). This kind of criticism, taken properly, keeps critics alert.