16.02.13, Pelttari, The Space that Remains

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Marc Mastrangelo

The Medieval Review 16.02.13

Pelttari, Aaron. The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. pp. xiv, 190. ISBN: 9780801452765 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marc Mastrangelo
Dickinson College

In recent criticism of Late Antique poetry, Aaron Pelttari's book stands out because it has a theoretical focus on fourth-century literature. It is not a study of a particular poet, nor of a particular genre. Pelttari seeks to understand the special character of writing and reading poetry during this time period--what he describes as a "shift." Although originating in first century literature, this change reaches its full development in the fourth century. The book's first page begins with a clear formulation: "poets came to describe their material as needing interpretation, recovery, and activation. The figure of the reader structures the poetry of late antiquity and so it reveals how the formal aspects" of poetry of the period worked (1). Thus Late Antique poets themselves depend on the reader to render meaning from their poems. Not that their Golden and Silver Age predecessors did not do a similar thing, but because fourth-century poets had to deal with the long tradition of Greco-Roman literature, a reciprocal relationship between poet and reader grew up, a relationship that shaped the poets' claims to originality while simultaneously anticipating medieval poetics.

In chapter 1, Pelttari surveys both the biblical and pagan traditions of interpretation and commentary on the Bible and Vergil, in order to reach the following conclusions: on the one hand, poetics in the fourth century becomes a function of scriptural interpretation in which multiple interpretations are possible; on the other hand, and in a parallel fashion, Vergil attains the status of universal poet, who acts as a storehouse of knowledge and a treasury of allegorical readings. Here too, Pelttari concludes, multiple readerly uses of Vergil are possible. With regard to allegory, the relationship between surface and hidden meanings is complicated due to the heritage of the pagan classics and the Bible. This inheritance appears to have made Late Antique readers more "subjective" but also more authoritative interpreters than ancient readers. Fourth-century readers, the exemplars of which are the readers represented in Macrobius' Saturnalia, read the texts of Vergil (as well as other pagan authors) and the Bible in order to discover principles to live by and clues to the make-up of the universe. According to Pelttari, this represents "a shift from authorial to readerly habits of interpretation..." (33). Reader reception theory is inchoate in Late Antiquity.

Pelttari's treatment of paratexts in chapter 2, based on Genette's work, raises some important questions about the relationship between poet and reader. The very fact that there is a preface that encourages the reader to read the poem that follows in a certain way implies, according to Pelttari, that the poet realizes that there are multiple ways to read his poem. Thus the prefaces of Claudian, Prudentius, and Ausonius, "enact a particular reading of the text and invite readers to construct their own meanings for the text" (72). The complicated relationship between promoting a "particular reading" and eliciting multiple interpretations, seems to work best for Pelttari in his analysis of Ausonius. Pelttari shows that Ausonius assumes the reader will share in interpretation, and further, that Ausonius recognized a breakdown between author and text that is implicit in the privileging of reader reception (71). But the prefaces of Claudian and Prudentius raise nuanced questions about the relationship between poet as master of the reception of his text and the reader as creative interpreter. As Pelttari says himself, Claudian's prefaces direct the reader "to accept the liberties" that he takes with the epic genre (57), and Prudentius' program of allegory as typology guides the reading of the Psychomachia. In a theoretical sense, there is always space for the reader to go his or her own way. However, what is striking about these paratexts is that poets are attempting to influence how readers read their poems, while at the same time ceding interpretative authority. It appears to be an attempt to align authorial intentions and reader reception.

The third chapter argues that diverse forms of Late Antique poetry, such as Optatian's versus intexti, Prudentius' Psychomachia, and Ausonius' Cento poems, exhibit openness and layers of meaning that create room for active reading and interpretation. Pelttari's analysis of Optatian highlights the postmodern qualities of late antique poetry in which levels of the text, formed from reading horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, create a myriad of connections for the reader to make. For the Psychomachia, layers of meaning, derived from both surface and allegorical levels, invite readers to participate and personalize their readings. However, where Pelttari sees this as a trend towards "open poetry," Prudentius, as mentioned before, has intended the Psychomachia to be read on two levels that produce specific reader responses; in this case, a surface response that recognizes pagan epic conventions and an allegorical reading that compels a moral choice between virtue and vice.

Chapter 4 on allusion in Late Antiquity is perhaps Pelttari's most interesting and is germane to his argument that the fourth century is an age of the active reader. On the one hand, "classical allusion is on the whole integrative, systematic, and penetrating" (126). Whereas Late Antique poets "juxtapose independent fragments of classical poetry, they set these in apposition to their own words, and they avoid emulation" (115). In general, Late Antique allusions do not integrate the hypertext into an established classical tradition in order to emulate or exceed that tradition. Rather the result is a more open text that allows the reader to interpret more actively. These poets tend not to send their reader back to the sources of allusions in order create a new context. There is significantly less referentiality, which leaves the reader to step in and create multiple interpretations. The upshot is that we should not be as concerned with "strong authors" and aemulatio when it comes to allusion in Late Antiquity (126).

However, according to Pelttari, scholars of Late Antique poetry have predominately focused on forms of aemulatio such as Konstrastimitation. Pelttari focuses on non-referential allusions in which "the link between the context of their text and its hypotext is undetermined" (131). Pelttari argues, for instance, that Paulinus of Nola's allusion to Vergil Ecl. 5.65 at Carm. 13.31-34 is not an act of Christianization as much as it portrays Paulinus's reading (134); or that Prudentius' allusion at Apoth. 741-42 to Aen. 2.101 is a creative use of Vergil rather than an allusion to the context of Aen. 2.101. Pelttari ends up with the idea of an allusion as an open exploration of "the use and meaning of language" (137). And such critically abstract and generalizing conclusions reflect what Pelttari sees as the innovation of Late Antique allusion: a robust presence of the reader as interpreter. Pelttari also gives examples of juxtaposed fragments of classical poetry, including Claudian's De Raptu Proserpina 1.32-.34, which alludes to Thebaid 8.22 and Aen. 7.445 and 6.407. Pelttari admits that these allusions are programmatic for Claudian who is attempting "to reshape Latin poetry through his reading of it" (142). In these examples, Pelttari prioritizes the poet as reader rather than simply the reader (also 149).

Often the poets themselves seem to be the readers, though early on Pelttari defines his imagined reader as an "abstraction drawn from individual texts of late antiquity" (8). While not affecting the force of the overall argument, there does seem to be a conflation of the poet as reader and the constructed, imagined reader of the fourth century. In Pelttari's explication, the reader is imagined by the poet himself and in fact, could be the very poet himself. Also, curious is the exclusion of biblical poetry from the study because it is "not technically different from the translations and secondary poetry...[which is] part and parcel of Latin literature" (10). First, Latin biblical poetry foregrounds the reader in interpreting biblical allusions or quotations through placement and context. Secondly, Pelttari limits himself to a particular notion of allusion as approximate quotations, a method which would appear to fit the study of biblical poetry. However, by succeeding in including Prudentius as a major figure in his study (along with, for example, Claudian and Ausonius), Pelttari establishes a body of Christian and secular poetry of the fourth century about which he is able to generalize effectively and find compelling patterns. This is a significant achievement because differences between biblical and secular poets have always posed a challenge to critics seeking to develop a fourth-century literary aesthetics.

In general, Pelttari pushes back effectively against author-oriented approaches to allusion. Nevertheless, in arguing forcefully for a more reader-oriented, pluralistic model, he may be leaving out a third way, namely that the aesthetic and ideological context, so well described by Pelttari, reflects authors and readers whose expectations are closely aligned. That is, these poets' intentions exist hand in hand with reader expectations. On the Christian side, for instance, Prudentius, allegorizes with intent to an audience who reads with parallel expectations or who will even have a predictable field of responses. Prudentius expects readers to choose virtue instead of vice, and readers expect a text that leads them to such a choice. On the secular side, Claudian directly appeals to his readers for the freedom to innovate while he embeds his epic ambitions in the act of interpretation (e.g. Jason's transgressions as an allegory for the poet's). Pelttari's argument compels us to parse the terms "expectations," "responses," and "interpretations."

Pelttari is right that the burden of the past weighs hard on both Christian and secular poets. Ausonius Ep. 8.21-24 expresses the burden of the classical literary past. And despite its tongue and cheek tone, the passage expresses a desire to be free from the burden, to write from a slate clean of tradition. So, according to Pelttari, Ausonius and other secular poets engage in a program of distancing in order to reuse classical poets. If Christian poets are distancing their work from the classical canon, they are doing it in part by importing a whole new canon, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Pelttari concludes that Late Antique approaches to allusion produce a strong reader and Late Antique poetry as a category of literature. The evidence he offers of paratexts, prefaces, non-referential allusions, and the poetry itself points toward a different understanding of the relationship between reader and poet. Pelttari is successful in making the case that Late Antique poetry requires a formulation of a more open relationship that differs from that in Classical poetry. How and to what degree the space created for the reader escapes the pull of authorial intentions and the weight of the Classical and Biblical traditions remains contested.

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