Monument to the End of an Era

The Cambridge History of Classical Literature Vol 1: Greek Literature

edited by P.E. Easterling, edited by B.M.W. Knox
Cambridge University Press, 936 pp., $85.00

“The History of Literature as Provocation” or “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” or “…to Literary Scholarship”—these are some of the titles that have been prefixed to Hans Robert Jauss’s provocative and now notorious inaugural lecture at the University of Konstanz in 1967.1 His mission was to rescue literature from various methods of study that were blind to the passage of time and to give it a sense of history. This does not mean he wanted to return to antiquarianism and to the notion that we should cast off the pollution of our present in order to go back in purity to the past. On the contrary Jauss wanted literary history to provoke (as he put it in another essay in 1969)

the ability to wrest works of art from the past by means of new interpretations, to translate them into a new present, to make the experiences preserved in past art accessible again; or, in other words, to ask the questions that are posed anew by every generation and to which the art of the past is able to speak, and again to give its answers.

The great virtue of this position is that it reinstates us in the present. In doing so it raises our preoccupations from being merely matters of prejudice and distortion to being the prerequisite for keeping the literature of the past alive. So the history of literature comes to include, even to concentrate on, the history of those who are exposed to it, from the time of creation up till now—and not only readers, but listeners, viewers, performers, adaptors, translators, editors, literary historians. For myself I find this view of the scope of the history of literature exciting and liberating, though I do not believe that it by any means excludes the study of the author’s original communication.

The authors of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature show no signs of direct influence from this approach through “reception.” Implicitly their objective is to get back to the Greek writers in order to uncover the timeless “facts” about them, not in order to “wrest their works from the past.” Nonetheless they are—fortunately—better attuned to our insecure times than they admit, and they often succeed in making “the experiences preserved in past art accessible again.”

Within its own aims and definitions The Cambridge History is a mighty achievement, bringing together the work of nineteen of the finest scholars in the field to produce a single volume (weighing three and a half pounds). It will surely not be superseded in this century, and probably never will—granted those aims and definitions. Pat Easterling and Bernard Knox must have had a long obstacle race getting the volume together (there is evidence between the lines that some contributions were completed more than ten years before publication). They may well be the only two Hellenists with the patience and amiability to have completed the course. (Readers of The New York Review will…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.