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From: Helios
Volume 34, Number 2, Fall 2007
pp. 121-123 | 10.1353/hel.2008.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


The papers assembled here represent the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Reading in June 2004 and titled "Classical Subjects and Modern Subjectivities." The impetus behind the conference was to explore not the public dimension of classical reception, as in the discourses of architecture or politics, but the pressure of classical antiquity on more intimate dimensions of the modern (posteighteenth century) subject. Generations of Western subjects, not exclusively identified with an elite, have been conditioned by exposure to a classical education, which has ensured, among other things, that philosophical accounts of the correct trajectory for both individual and community have often been couched in terms of nostalgia for a classical past, and that modernity's most influential theorizing of desire is articulated in images drawn from classical antiquity. While it is neither possible nor persuasive to draw strict lines of demarcation between the "public" and the "private," as many of these papers demonstrate, it is hoped that the focus here on subjectivity will contribute to the developing range of ways in which scholars and students are currently thinking about reception of classics.1

Because it functions as a master trope for temporality, classics has had a privileged place in many accounts of subjectivity, and Edith Hall's keynote paper discusses how frequently and variously the discourse of classics feeds into the contemporary return of the subject. Although the subject was consigned to nonexistence by the critical developments of the 1960s, chiefly structuralism and deconstruction, there is now room for the reemergence, Hall concludes, of a subject that was earlier marginalized as belonging to the female, the slave, the working-class person, or other denigrated category. These marginalized subjects, as Hall shows, have often engaged in a self-fashioning that is classically informed. Relations to classical antiquity, however, are also unavoidably mediated by the subjectivities of others—writers, readers, and increasingly translators—who constitute much of the process of reception that Hall examines. Her essay concludes with discussion of the fragment, in classics and [End Page 121] elsewhere, and of the various resonances of "displacement" and "survival" as they refer both to subjects and to texts.

Dirk Held's paper considers the role of ancient Greece at what is arguably the inception of the modern subject, in the late eighteenth century. It transpires that the subject was not transcendent in its early days, later to be destabilized by contemporary critical theory, because the subject of the late eighteenth century is characterized by a radical disjunction between interior and exterior that renders it estranged from nature and from itself. Drawing on the writings of Kant, Nietzsche, and especially Schelling and Hölderlin, Held shows that ancient Greece offered an idealized version of wholeness, equilibrium, and oneness with nature, which might not be apprehended on a rational level but was present to the creative imagination. After Winkelmann, and especially in the poetics of Hölderlin, art was the sphere in which the idealized past might be re-created and might provide a blueprint for a bearable future.

Held's account resonates with that of Hall in that antiquity is avowedly an object of desire, but the values of temporality, and of unity or fragmentation, are differently rendered. Isabelle Torrance's paper also deals with the late eighteenth century, but much more specifically, foregrounding Goethe's version of Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris. The simplicity and directness of ancient Greece, as modeled by Iphigenia, provide a refuge from revolutionary upheaval, but since the subjectivity invoked in this play is that of a female, the situation is complicated. Since Goethe's play also represents an attempt to mediate between Christian and pagan notions of personal morality, moreover, the figure of Iphigenia and her gender identity are not themselves simple or direct at all. However, it appears that Goethe's relative familiarity with the ancient Greek languages means that his access to antiquity can be represented as less mediated than some.

The relationship between Horace and certain members of a nineteenth-century British male elite can definitely be represented as untroubled. Familiar through a traditional classical education, Horace's poems, in a series of translations, adaptations, and parodies, form, as...