- Editors' Introduction
What does it mean to have a usable past? How does such a past make possible a new or desired future? Why produce a genealogy of the present? These are the questions posed by the papers in this special issue of Comparative Literature Studies on Classics and Contemporary Literature/Culture/Theory. All of them recognize that the classical is never simply the conjuring of an absent past, but is always an open conversation with the present. The classical represents not so much the past as revenant, a cold and ghostly hand upon the present, as that in which we find ourselves and out of which the yet-to-come (the à-venir) must be fashioned.
The articles gathered in this issue are, therefore, neither antiquarian nor dispassionate studies of a far removed past. They are rather critical engagements with the present as mediated through and made possible by the constitution of a past, be it that of the East, the West or their productive hybridization. The question these papers pose concerns not the true nature of antiquity, but rather how the various literary, artistic, and theoretical discourses of the present continue to address the kinds of concerns first raised by the ancient texts. Each of these papers approaches the foundational texts and concepts of their respective cultures less as monuments to be imitated than as grounds of interrogation. Classical Chinese poetry, Platonic dialectic, Aristotelian mimesis, Propertian erotics, and the novel, The Journey to the West, are taken less as products of uncontested traditions than as problematics: ensembles of related questions that define a set of discursive possibilities. To that extent, as we shall see in the following pages, the Odyssey neither authorizes nor offers itself as an unambiguous evidentiary proof of Freudian discourse, but rather it uncannily anticipates the latter's narrative of nostalgia and desire. Plato does not so much underwrite Kundera's dystopian Symposium [End Page 221] as constitute the interlocutor who must pose the aching question of love's lost relation to transcendence. Derrida does not find in antiquity the origin of his logos, but rather an original absence he can never escape.
This absence, as Miriam Leonard demonstrates, is always in fundamental tension with Derrida's own ambivalent relation to Jewish culture. In an extended reading of the early essay "Violence and the Sacred" in the context of Derrida's work as a whole and with special reference to his encounter with Levinas, Leonard shows how the pairing of the Hellene and the Jew functions simultaneously as a trope and a genealogy for the dialectic of same and other in postmodern philosophy. Through readings of the Odyssey, the Sophist, and the Oedipus at Colonus, Leonard demonstrates the truth of Derrida's claim that "the new is not so much that which occurs for the first time but that 'very ancient' dimension which recurs in the 'very modern.'"
In this sense, the new in Freud, according to Dany Nobus, is precisely one of the oldest stories in the Western canon. It is not simply that Freud knew the Odyssey well and had whole passages memorized, nor that he listed Homer as among "the ten most magnificent works" [sic] of world literature in a 1907 interview, nor even that the analysand's journey to recovery is as convoluted and many-sided as that of the man of many turns himself, although all of these things are true. Rather, on a more profound level, Nobus argues, the Odyssey delineates the very grammar of psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Unconscious desire is like the wily Odysseus in Polyphemus's cave, using ruse and indirection to find access to the light. It, like Odysseus, is Outis (Greek for "Noman"), an identity that affirms itself most fully in negation.
In the early twenty-first century, in the wake of the institutionalization of philosophy as an academic discipline with a pedigree of two and a half millennia, we are tempted to forget how unsettling and alien a figure the philosopher, in the Socratic and Platonic mold, cut in the ancient world. In her evocative essay, Claudia Baracchi argues for the fundamental strangeness of the philosopher...