- Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste: An Essay in Aesthetics
If someone were to ask me what I thought had changed in the way literary latinists ply their craft since I entered the field about twenty-five years ago, one of the first things I would mention is the importanceof reception studies. In the days of New Criticism, Structuralism, and 'high theory' in general, it was not only respectable but normal to study individual Latin poems as autonomous entities. To take much account of what anyone else had thought about them between the time when they were written and the time one sat down to explicate them was a bit eccentric – unless of course it was necessary to show how some earlier interpreter had gone astray. Today by contrast there is a lively interest in reception studies per se, and a general awareness that the historyof a poem's reception is an inescapable aspect of its meaning to the modern reader. The most visible imprint of this awareness is on the contemporary 'canon' of Latin poetry. Where once the Republicanand early Augustan poets ruled supreme, today poets who were until recently not highly regarded have experienced a real gain in popularity – most dramatically in Ovid's case, but Lucan, Seneca, Statius, Martial, even Silius and Valerius have benefited as well, to mention only these. Not the only reason for this trend, but an important one, is a greater interest among classicists in the esteem in which many of these authors were held at various times between Then and Now. And among classicists, perhaps the most dedicated exponent of reception studies has been Charles Martindale.
In view of Martindale's earlier work, though, Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste came as a surprise to me. Reception studies as I understand the term necessarily involves some scepticism about the degree to which all meaning is immanent in a work of art, and about the ability of an interpreter, standing at many centuries' remove from that work, to experience whatever immanent meaning there may be. It is also, inescapably, a historicizing discipline. A poem's meaning, then, is to some degree constructed over time, as are the criteria by which we judge it. For both these reasons, it would seem to encourage a degree [End Page 254] of relativism on the part of the interpreter. Whether Martindale would assent to these propositions is perhaps a moot point. What is clear, though, is that he has now written a book advocating a criticism based on idealist aesthetics: that is, on the notion that there is such a thing as beauty; that beauty is a universal category of judgement; and that itis instantiated in certain works of art – or, what is more relevant to Martindale's interests and my own, in poetry. In brief, Martindale urges latinists to practice a criticism based on aesthetics as a way of enlivening our field, and perhaps of returning the study of Latin poetry to the position of importance it once held at a time when aesthetic criticism was in the ascendant.
Before going any further, let me briefly trace the run of the argument. Martindale asserts that 'culturalism' or 'ideology critique' has impoverished and distorted literary studies by treating aesthetic categories as suspect or illusory. One important consequence of this trend, in Martindale's view, is that the substantial discourse on aesthetics that looms so large in the Western critical and philosophical traditions has come to be not only undervalued but practically unknown, especially to younger scholars and to students. He urges a redress of this balance – although just what a proper balance between aesthetics and ideology might look like in a work of contemporary criticism is left as something of an open question. In the first chapter Martindale takes his bearings from the Critique of Judgement, in which Kant discusses 'the judgement of taste', that essential category of aesthetic analysis that gives Martindale the title of his book. Martindale believes, along with Kant and against the ideology critics...