The twentieth century did more than proclaim the death of the author: it appointed the reader as his upstart successor. What kind of readers of texts have we become since 1967, when Barthes first published his fateful essay? Conceited ones for a start. Without the overseeing presence of the author, it seems the text lies open and yielding, ours to treat as we will. How then do we begin to exercise our new-found licence in Classics, a discipline where, in order to begin to become a reader, we must engage in linguistic training, and what follows, with history, philology, that is, with Context, that dreaded rival to our self appointed rule over the text? These, and similar questions were unwelcome guests at last year’s Triennial conference in Cambridge. The Triennial is, as the name suggests, a ritual repeated every three years, where classicists young and old gather from all around the globe in a flourishing of activity and enthusiasm in the middle of the English summer. This time, however, the mood was sombre. A recent proposal to close down the Classics faculty at Royal Holloway College in London had dampened collective spirits, and the brutal manner in which classicists were forced to choose sides, either in the History or English departments, had hit the Classics community hard. Stephen Oakley’s opening address alluded to the funereal connotation of the conference title: ‘A celebration of Classics’, with its euphemistic ring, may well be its dying song. Edith Hall paused during her plenary lecture to ‘savour each line of Sophocles’ Greek’. A few months later she would announce her resignation from Royal Holloway. Amidst the knowing sighs and defiant nods, however, there was Anthony Grafton’s address, a shining light from the Renaissance sent for the gladdening of our hearts. Professor Grafton began by declaring his subject entirely unfashionable. ‘Classical reception is hot’ – but only for its tantalizing catchwords – Love, Sex, and Death. His lecture was to shine the spotlight on their plain-looking, bespectacled cousins: Discipline, Skill, and Scholarship, exemplified in the lives of two Renaissance men of letters, Joseph Scaliger and Isaac Casaubon. The portrait of Casaubon in particular (a figure not to be confused with his namesake Edward in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), his painstaking auto-didacticism in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, his unwavering devotion to his private library (he was permanently in debt due to his book-buying habit) made my thoughts inevitably wander to the generation of facebook and twitter, and the striking contrast therein. Did Casaubon subject himself to an academic martyrdom, by modern standards? Perhaps. I think of it more as a monastic vow of poverty and obedience to the laws of language, and in two canons, the Judaeo-Christian, and the classical one, no less. Casaubon’s was a vow of continence too – he is reported to have eventually died from a calcified bladder, so loathe was he to abandon his book room to answer the call of nature. The image of the lonely Casaubon, leaning over his book-wheel, could easily be dismissed a shadow of a long outdated past. Yet the parallels with task of the modern classicist abound: the awareness of tradition, transmission, and accuracy was not only the domain of the nineteenth century philologists, but practiced in Europe’s Renaissance academies. As were the parallels between Casaubon and Grafton himself, whom Malcolm Scholfield introduced as ‘quite simply, the most learned man in the world’. Grafton ended his lecture with a call to arms: many more tomes remain, neglected, awaiting a latter day saint to exercise the same devotion to the text that the Renaissance scholars had in their short and remarkable lifetimes. On the whitewashed walls of this lecture hall in 2011, a blown up image of Casaubon’s delicate handwriting adorned a copy of Strabo’s Geographica. The world of the ancients, seen again through six hundred year old eyes, could exist for us, in this moment, as it did for them, to delight and to instruct the living.
Professor Grafton’s lecture “How classical was the classical revival?” can be downloaded here: http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/faculty/seminars_conferences/triennial_conference_plenary/
Update: Last week I received an email with the announcement that eight and a half months after the first announcement of the dissolution of the department, there would be no redundancies in Classics at Royal Holloway at the University of London.