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'LUCAN RE
CLAIMED

review of: Esposito (P.), Nicastri (L.) (edd.) Interpretare Lucano. Miscellanea di Studi. UniversitÓ degli studi di Salerno. Quaderni del Dipartimento di Scienze dell'AntichitÓ 22. Pp. 504. Naples, 1999. L 70,000 pbk. (no ISBN).


text published in: Classical Review   52, 2002, 68-70


What to expect from a voluminous collection of nineteen studies (mostly in Italian) under the noncommittal title 'Interpretare Lucano'? Recent years certainly showed no lack of scholars devoting themselves to the interpretation of the Bellum Civile. On the contrary, apart from translations and commentaries, the yearly stream of articles and monographs on the hotblooded, talented young poet from Cordoba is still waxing.

In the preface to this collection of essays, readers are given no real clue as to the scope of the book, other than that it aims at taking stock of the past two decades of Lucanean studies. Among the contributors are some famous names such as Renato Badalý and Elaine Fantham, but also many young, yet unknown scholars. The volume is not presented as the result of a conference; scholars seem to have been invited to submit their articles, without further thematic guidelines or other focuses that explicitly unify the volume. The editors claim they have done not more than providing the occasion and preparing the material for the printer.

This modesty may be a little misleading. After a useful survey by one of the editors (Esposito) of recent scholarship on Lucan, there follow a number of contributions on Lucan, that on closer scrutiny do seem to share some basic principles. As a whole, the volume is more than an aimless mÚlange of scholarly exercises, and can even be seen as the embodiment of a programmatic statement: 'Lucanean studies must get back to normal.'

So are these studies currently in a state of abnormality? Yes, they are, is the clear answer given by Emanuele Narducci. In his  prominently placed and provocative essay 'Deconstructing Lucan, ovvero le nozze (coi fichi secchi) di Ermete Trismegisto e di Filologia', Narducci polemizes against recent trends in (Anglo-American) studies of Lucan, notably those by Johnson (1987), Henderson (1987), Masters (1992) and Bartsch (1998). Narducci's views on these studies may be summarized as follows: postmodern scholars increasingly seem to bring their own interests and personal associations as readers into the texts, which are, consequently, connected with ever more bizarre ideas, often distant from or at odds with what they actually say. Notably, postmodern studies tend to get caught in what N. aptly calls the 'fallacia metaletteraria' (p.57): every line of poetry is estimated to be about writing poetry. These studies do not only make difficult reading (hence the reference to Hermetism in N.'s title), but 'if anything goes', nothing really counts. The academic credibility of literary criticism is threatened, particularly compared with present-day archeology or history.

Such judgements are likely be shared by many scholars who, until now, have not raised their voice against scholars such as Henderson and Masters (or, as N. sharply observes, who could not dare to criticize what has rapidly become the mainstream in Lucanean studies, without the risk of getting marginalized). It is therefore good to hear another voice here and the way N. sticks out his neck with such explicit polemics may be called courageous.

On the other hand, it must be added that N. repeatedly overstates his case, resorting to cynical remarks and emotional outbursts, and suggesting a total rejection of almost a whole generation of Lucanean scholarship. The only recent study that is found favour with is Matthew Leigh's Spectacle and engagement (1997). But surely, not everything in the rest of these books on Lucan is sheer nonsense.

One would expect to find a response from one of the attacked scholars elsewhere in the volume. Given the unusually strong tones in N.'s essay, this would have been no more than fair, but no such reply has been included. Instead we find a great number of other contributions, divided in three more groups: first there are eight larger analyses in the compartment 'Tra linga, storia e letteratura' (p.87-252). These include essays by Elaine Fantham on Lucan's view of the Republican Senate, and by N. Gagliardi on nominal composites in Lucan. The other contributors here are E. Peluzzi, C. Salemme, M. Leigh, C. Santini, S. Casali, and G. Moretti.

A second group (p.253-301) is called 'Note critico-esegetiche', and mainly comprises shorter notices. The first one by R. Badalý hardly less sharply attacks the Teubner edition of Shackleton-Bailey than Narducci had charged against postmodern studies. The last group (303-484) is concerned with 'Aspetti del Nachleben Lucaneo', and presents material both on Statius and Silius, and on the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Most of these essays are characterised by elements Narducci would seem to approve of: they are logically sound, accurate, methodologically clear, and well-versed in the enormous bibliography on Lucan, as is shown in abundant notes. But for the most part they are also, if I may say so, rather unexciting, and in some cases rather inaccessible. One may question, for instance, the relevance for this book of an enormous article about Lucan in Medieval epic (64 pages, including 214 notes and seven pages of separate bibliography), or the practical use of what appears to be a long prepublication (26 pages) of a part of a commentary on book 9, no matter how welcome such a commentary would be.

This brings me to some concluding remarks. Interpretare Lucano obviously wishes to oppose postmodern interpretations of Lucan and show how Lucan should be interpreted: according to the established norms of classical ('continental'?) philology. But is this really a convincing and fruitful opposition? Somehow one cannot help feeling uneasy about the whole project. Certainly, some excesses of postmodernism in recent Lucanean studies qualify for correction (I could not agree more). But for one thing, these studies have unquestionably rekindled interest in Lucan and brought new life to Lucanean scholarship. Whether the more traditional approaches exemplified in this collection of essays will produce similar inspiring effects, remains to be seen.

A new civil war of 'postmodernists' against 'traditionalists' does not serve any use. It would be a pity if parties took positions opposite one another without seriously entering into dialogue. Gradually advancing knowledge through syntheses of apparent contrasts -- is this not what scientific interpretation of texts is all about? Such forms of synthesis are, in fact, quite possible. To give just one example: the seemingly antique scholarly genre of a scientific commentary, not very popular among postmodernists, in fact offers a suitable model for approaches that combine sound philological tradition and present-day interests. (So let us not make civil war, but commentaries!) 

Interpretare Lucano is, like all collections of essays, of uneven quality, but it will be useful to all Lucanean scholars. Particularly, the comprehensive essays by Esposito and Narducci may be called indispensable, the former for its broad survey of recent scholarship, the latter for its polemic discussion of what interpretating Lucan should be. We may be sure that the discussion will not end here.


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