- The Space That Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity by Aaron Pelttari
“The space that remains,” according to Aaron Pelttari’s adventurous new book, is the openness that characterizes late antique Latin literature, its invitation for the audience to participate in the production of meaning. In direct contrast to the outmoded view of later Latin literature dominated by the slavish repetition of earlier tropes, Pelttari argues that the literature of the fourth century consistently celebrates presence–the presence of the reader, who is called upon to [End Page 581] play a vital, vibrant role in activating the meaning of the text. The Space That Remains shows us an era enamored not with the wit of individual poet geniuses, but rather with the power of readers to reinterpret and rearrange the building blocks of the Latin literary tradition. This is an exciting book.
The first three chapters examine three distinct aspects of fourth-century literary culture. The first discusses commentaries on Christian and pagan texts by Jerome, Augustine, Macrobius, and Servius. Pelttari argues that these commentators emphasize the multiple layers of meaning in their source texts in order to create “the need for vigorous interpretation” by fourth-century readers. The second chapter focuses on the ways in which prefaces to the poems of Claudian, Prudentius, and Ausonius explicitly present the text not as a timeless artifact, but as grounded within a particular context, constructed according to certain parameters, and awaiting (and requiring) interpretation. The third chapter examines a series of fourth-century poems that, Pelttari argues, remain “incomplete” without readers’ participation: the mind-bendingly complex figural poetry of Optatian, the allegorical Psychomachia of Prudentius, and the centos, stitched together out of “patchwork” quotations of Virgilian verse. For Pelttari, far from illustrating the degeneracy (vel sim.) of late antique taste, these texts epitomize the period’s central literary preoccupation: exploring the power of the reader to construct new meaning from preexisting textual components. This is not a long book, and Pelttari moves quickly. There is sometimes a sense that he is surveying rather than closely analyzing his texts, but the fact that he has synthesized such a broad array of evidence into a coherent argument is impressive indeed.
Far bolder is the book’s fourth and final chapter, which offers a distinctive late antique challenge to theories of allusion dominant in Latin literary studies since the 1990s. “Insofar as they resist the movement toward intertextuality,” Pelttari writes (160), late antique allusions “work in ways that are counter to received notions of the dynamics of appropriation in Latin poetry” (note the author’s own allusion to the subtitle of Stephen Hinds’s agenda-setting Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry [Cambridge 1998], an important interlocutor for this chapter’s discussion). Pelttari outlines different types of idiosyncratically postclassical forms of allusion: the “nonreferential allusion,” in which the words of the allusion have become separable from their source text and the reader is not challenged to remember its original context; “juxtaposed allusions,” in which disconnected fragments of classical texts are juxtaposed with one another; and the “apposed allusion,” which draws attention to its own lack of fit within its new poetic surroundings.
Late antique forms like the cento, constructed entirely out of “micro-allusions,” seem to have reached a sort of intertextual overload. They surely call for a different approach, and yet Pelttari’s category of “nonreferential allusion” sits uneasily with the strong emphasis elsewhere in the book on the reader’s power to make meaning. Even the small textual patches in the cento form were said in chapter 3 to open the potential of referring back to their source text if the reader chooses to “follow that path” and interpret them (101). In this chapter and scattered throughout the book, Pelttari also broaches big questions about “classicism” and “postclassicism,” aesthetic categories intriguingly unmoored from chronology. These ideas perhaps needed to be articulated in a clearer and more unified way. Nonetheless, if...