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Fw: BMCR 2005.06.08, Peter T. Struck, Birth of the Symbol

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  • Edward Moore
    ... From: To: ; Sent: Sunday, June 12, 2005 11:32 AM Subject: BMCR 2005.06.08, Peter
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 12, 2005
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      Sent: Sunday, June 12, 2005 11:32 AM
      Subject: BMCR 2005.06.08, Peter T. Struck, Birth of the Symbol

      > Peter T. Struck, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of
      > Their Texts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. 316.
      > ISBN 0-691-11697-0. $39.50.
      > Reviewed by Bruce Krajewski, Texas Woman's University
      > (bkrajewski@...)
      > Word count: 1480 words
      > -------------------------------
      > Peter Struck's superb book about the symbol, perhaps the best since
      > Tzvetan Todorov's 1977 Theories of the Symbol, attends to the question,
      > "What do we expect from poetry?" (1). Following consciously in the
      > footsteps of Robert Lamberton and perhaps unconsciously in the
      > footsteps of Walter Benjamin's "On Language as Such",[[1]] Struck
      > rescues several ancient writers from the dismissive gestures of some
      > philosophers and literary critics, while offering a compelling case for
      > his audience -- classicists, philosophers, and literary critics -- to
      > rethink the dominant Aristotelian paradigm that has reduced the symbol
      > to an inconspicuous place on a taxonomic chart for figuration.
      > The book contains an introduction, seven chapters, an epilogue on
      > "post-Proclean theories," and an appendix on Chrysippus's reading of a
      > mural. The chapters mainly follow a chronological sequence, starting
      > roughly with Homer and finishing in the epilogue with a reference to
      > Martin Heidegger. Struck's "study attempts to retrace the oldest
      > segments" of this history of the symbol (1-2). The early chapters
      > gather the data about the symbol's role in the beginnings of literary
      > criticism, and then show how classical philosophers like Plato and
      > Aristotle expressed various levels of discomfort with symbolic
      > discourse in poetry, despite Plato's own allegiances to esotericism
      > (see his Seventh Letter). Like allegory, the symbol is meaning-full and
      > sometimes seems to present inexhaustible interpretations, including
      > what might be described as hidden messages. This kind of language
      > capable of secrecy presented problems to some philosophers and ancient
      > rhetoricians (e.g., Quintilian), who insisted on the value of clarity
      > and on monological modes of discourse. Call this a preference for a
      > discourse of light over a discourse of darkness. Some see something
      > disreputable in the discourse of darkness, a way of communicating that
      > presents seemingly unnecessary problems to be solved or decoded during
      > reading and that sometimes divides audiences into those who understand
      > the secret discourse and those who are not in on the secret(s).
      > The first chapter on symbols and riddles begins the task of undoing the
      > Aristotelian paradigm mentioned above. "Precisely reversing the scale
      > of poetic virtues put forward by critics in the Aristotelian line, the
      > allegorists claim that unclear language, whose message is by definition
      > obscured, is the chief marker of great poetry" (4). The allegorists
      > were obviously a special variety of readers, not affronted by
      > figurative language that might seem, from another view, a stumbling
      > block to understanding. The allegorists, in opposition to some famous
      > ancient philosophers, were not the ones who foreclosed their capacities
      > for attention. Rather, the allegorists saw the most enigmatic poetry as
      > the most worthy of thought. Struck writes, "I will be suggesting that
      > Aristotle's notions of poetic language, which value clarity above all,
      > are actually part of a decidedly anti-allegorical project that sits at
      > the head of rhetorical criticism" (13). Riddles, puzzles, secrets, odd
      > phrasings, are not so much problems for many ancient readers (e.g.
      > Porphyry) as sources of thought, and that viewpoint is precisely at
      > odds with the Aristotelian tradition. "When Aristotle defines a sort of
      > elevated clarity as the mark of greatness in poetic language and, as we
      > will see, simultaneously redefines the enigma, the centerpiece of
      > allegorical poetics, as a flaw of style, we are right to take notice"
      > (24). In fact, Aristotle's view marks a departure from, say, the
      > Derveni Papyrus, discovered in 1962, and believed to illustrate a
      > different tradition of reading that predates Aristotle and that shows
      > that the enigma leads us to the symbol. The Derveni commentator
      > demonstrates a keen interest in enigmatic, dark language. "In this text
      > [the Derveni Papyrus]," according to Struck, "[the attention to
      > enigmas] is the most prominent marker of an overall stance toward the
      > poetic text as a repository of great (and even sacred) hidden truths,
      > which are conveyed in riddles through the whole poem, in a manner that
      > resembles the semantically dense language of oracular speech, esoteric
      > philosophy, and cultic practice, and so requires an expansive
      > interpretation to unpack the significance of each word" (38). Dark
      > sayings rivet our attention, partly because they tease us toward them
      > by not giving us everything we want all at once.
      > The Derveni Papyrus serves as the crossroad for Struck. From the
      > evidence in the Papyrus, Struck is able to fashion a Wittgensteinian
      > case that binds language to the world. Aristotle's mimetic view of the
      > world rolls out of his theory of language, which valorizes clear,
      > referential discourse, and establishes a place where words and their
      > meanings can find one another without difficulty. Struck points to the
      > value of the difficulties when words and their referents do not make
      > one another's acquaintance so easily. Struck focuses on what
      > Wittgenstein calls the bumps that the understanding has received by
      > running its head up against the limits of language. Let's say the bumps
      > mark an expansiveness that is required when dealing with dark texts.
      > This Wittgensteinian image of the bump on understanding is not alien to
      > Struck's project, for, in a section dealing with the prominent role
      > that interpretation plays in the later history of the symbolic, he
      > investigates some notions connected to the verbal form of the Greek
      > term for symbol. <greek>sumba/llein</greek> "carries with it a notion
      > of a meeting, as in bumping into someone or something" (90).
      > Apparently, the ancients might not have been uncomfortable with the
      > later Wittgenstein (e.g. the Stoic point that we fabricate concepts for
      > linguistic convenience is repeated in the Philosophical
      > Investigations), but Aristotle's views of language constitute a
      > departure, according to Struck, not only from the Derveni commentator,
      > but also from a number of ancient interpreters. "Aristotle's notion of
      > clear language, sensible as it seems, was actually a radical departure
      > from the intellectual currents of his day" (51). One boon of Struck's
      > book is his capacity for reestablishing the sense that many ancient
      > interpreters did not approach opaque texts as problems to be solved.
      > Struck does not want anyone to miss the point that the "Greeks ...
      > imbue the senseless with the highest order of significance" (201). One
      > would not know that from, say, Aristotle's Poetics, a work far more
      > influential than most of the ones that play prominent roles in Struck's
      > book. Partly, Aristotle succeeded not simply by being systematic but
      > also by sprinkling into his work ominous anecdotes, such as the one he
      > tells about Cratylus. The representational view of language absorbed
      > Aristotle to the point that he offered vivid examples of the
      > consequences of those who might think otherwise. "In book 4 of the
      > Metaphysics, where Aristotle begins his investigation proper, he tells
      > us that Cratylus became so crippled by the observation that our
      > language may not correspond to the world that, at the end of his life,
      > he no longer spoke but only moved his finger" (59). The Derveni
      > commentator would probably want to explore the significance that might
      > accrue from knowing which finger Cratylus moved.
      > Struck's aims in the later chapters are to undo the anti-symbolic and
      > anti-allegorical project (attributable in some measure to Aristotle),
      > and to provide a persuasive case to rethink the symbol in a larger
      > context that includes magic, philosophy, philology, religion, and
      > literary criticism. For instance, we learn that "symbols belong as a
      > matter of definition to the sphere of convention and social agreement"
      > (84). They also played a pertinent role in literary criticism and in
      > religion. The chapters on the Stoics and Neoplatonists merit close
      > attention on that front. Struck's command of the Stoic and Neoplatonic
      > material should convince many readers to broaden their thinking about
      > the symbolic/allegorical beyond the categories of rhetoric or literary
      > criticism, though it is easy to begin exploration with those
      > categories. "The allegorical interpretation of poetic texts occupied an
      > important place in Stoic thought" (111). However, poetry and religion
      > occasionally meld for the Stoics, especially Chrysippus. (By the time
      > of Proclus and Dionysius, poetry becomes theology (271)). "[Chrysippus]
      > tells us that a truly religious person 'retraces' or 'rereads'
      > everything that has to do with the gods and makes what sense he or she
      > can from it" (117). With a clear or plain text, one reading suffices,
      > but this Stoic injunction on the religious reader turns reading into a
      > pious, complicated activity, for "symbolic discourse consistently asks
      > more of its audience than first appears" (165). The injunction emerges
      > from Chrysippus's thinking together the ontological and the linguistic,
      > for Chrysippus thought that "words were ambiguous by nature" (131),
      > that the nature of the gods has something to do with the nature of
      > words. Again, in this example from antiquity, ambiguity is not taken to
      > be a problem or a failure of composition (133). The world is legible,
      > a\ la Hans Blumenberg's not-famous-enough book,[[2]] though reading the
      > world requires special hermeneutical talents on occasion, the kind that
      > Struck possesses, the kind that includes a recognition of both the
      > Orphic powers of language and of language's limits. As the Scottish
      > prayer tells us, language might not deliver us from things that go bump
      > in the night.
      > ------------------
      > Notes:
      > 1. Walter Benjamin, "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man"
      > in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, Ed. Marcus
      > Bullock and Michael Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
      > 1996).
      > 2. Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
      > 1986).
      > -------------------------------
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