(Will) – Response to Jessica Again

It is not my wish to clog up this blog with back-and-forth; and yet, I indulge myself this. Jessica rightly points out that I have been a bit sloppy with my meta-language about temporality. I will own that I have not put in the full work necessary to understand the philosophical or theoretical foundation upon which these terms rest. I am therefore not comfortable disputing them. Nor do I have Jessica’s admirable command of recent movements in the meta-discourses of literary criticism.

But I do think there’s a basic methodological difference in how we are conceptualizing literary criticism, a difference that must map in a certain way onto larger disciplinary divides. I still conceive of criticism as largely a conversation, a conceit which privileges an idea of “originary textuality” as an interlocutor possessing a kind of agency. This conceit allows me to recognize that this idea of an originary textuality, which again need not be understood as a crude authorial intentionality, always receeds from grasp, is always modified and mediated by the ages across which the message travels – rather like Jessica’s conveyor belt analogy, or, perhaps, a game of telephone. To a certain extent, it can embrace these modifications as welcome additions rather than perceiving them as loss, just as in conversation with each other we never perfectly grasp another’s consciousness, and can delight in the possibilities of unintended signification.

However, the model of reading I describe always has in mind at least the phantom of an original moment of communication as a lodestar, a standard against which later receptions are implicitly or explicitly measured. This conception of reading is, I sense, somewhat at odds with the project of post-modern theories which place great emphasis on the “ludic” possibilities of texts, the capacity of language for infinite signification. Here, there is a controlling outside-the-text. Philology as I see it is a project of controlling or limiting signification – Philologists are often invested in telling you what something can’t mean. As a group, this is perhaps our least appealing characteristic. However, there are different sizes of infinity – and I believe that an unlimited number of possibilities for meaning can play out in a field whose boundaries are distinctly demarcated by certain principles of positivistic inquiry.

On time and crumpled handkerchiefs, I’m reminded of Eliot:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Will: Philology – In Response to Jessica

On paper I’m a philologist. I’m enrolled in a degree program in Classical Literature and Philology. However, I’m not sure that I really know what philology means to me, and what it might seem to mean to people from other disciplines. Within Classics, philology is used sometimes to distinguish textual criticism, historical linguistics, grammatical commentary, etc. from literary criticism more broadly construed. Sometimes, however, Philology seems to include literary criticism and to stand as a major sub-field of Classics in opposition to, say, History, Archaeology, or Art History. At other times, I’m not sure how distinct “philology” really is from even those other aspects of the study of antiquity. The all-encompassing German term Altertumswissenschaft lurks somewhere in the background.

Perhaps this reveals a certain lack of theoretical sophistication on my part, or perhaps it is just a product of my institutional training, but at least on the level of language it it difficult for me to imagine what is meant by a truly a-temporal model of reading. The text of Vergil, written as it is in a dead language, would mean precisely nothing to me had I not spent many hundreds of hours benefiting from the positivistic toil of scholars who went before me and indulging in a certain amount of positivism myself. Sure, there’s no law that says I couldn’t just read the Latin words aloud and free associate some things they reminded me of – but at that point I would not, in any reasonable sense, still be reading “Vergil.” Insofar as texts are composed in language, and the ability of language to mean is fundamentally contingent on history, I don’t see how one can abandon the project of beginning any interpretation with a hard-won understanding of what the interpretive possibilities were for a given text at the moment of its creation. This, in a nutshell, is what I think I am doing when I do philology. I wish to be clear that this is not strictly a project of uncovering authorial intent – simply of establishing through debate the range of readings which will render lexical, grammatical, and narrative coherence to an ancient text without introducing linguistic or historical anachronicity.

Perhaps this will appear uncontrovertial. But dead langauges are a good test case, I think, for what the limitations to an a-temporal or poly-temporal reading strategy might look like. To read or translate a text written in a dead langauge is to engage in answering a series of fundamentally historical questions. I don’t think such historical question are the end of interpretation – but it seems to me that they must be the beginning. As someone who works on the reception of the classics, I’m very much invested in the ways that later accretions and moments of response and reuse can serve as allies rather than enemies to the project of exploring the various ways in which ancient texts can mean (here I think of C. Martindale’s Redeeming the Text – a book that I find extremey frustrating in some ways but also very thought-provoking). Inasmuch as the text of Virgil comes to me mediated through a long history of scholarly practice and literary receptions, and itself represents the culmination of centuries of reception of Greek and Roman literature, the process of fully appreciating this text is very much poly-temporal. But I think that, if we are to avoid chaos (though perhaps chaos will seem to some a consummation devoutly to be wished), this all needs to be anchored by the most precise positivistic understanding of the circumstances of the text’s creation as one can obtain.

Not sure if this is very helpful with respect to reading Shakespeare – just my thoughts on the issue at the moment.

Falstaff Swears – Will


I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company. The rascal hath removed my horse, and tied him I know not where. If I travel but four foot by the square further afoot, I shall break my wind. Well, I doubt not but to die a fair death for all this, if I scape hanging for killing that rogue. I have forsworn his company hourly any time this two-and-twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the rogue’s company. If the rascal have not given me medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged. It could not be else – I have drunk medicines. Poins! Hal! A plague upon you both! Bardolph! Peto! I’ll starve ere I’ll rob a foot further. An ’twere not as good a deed as drink to turn true man and leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth. Eight yards uneven ground is threescore-and-ten miles afoot with me, and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough. A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another. Whew! A plague upon you all! Give me my horse, you rogues, give me my horse, and be hanged!



Hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters! If I be ta’en, I’ll peach for this. An I have not ballads made on you all and sung to filthy tunes, let a cup of sack be my poison. When a jest is so forward, and afoot too! I hate it.


I noticed in reading this play that Falstaff has a particular fondness for the conditional. I’m especially interest in cases in which Falstaff’s conditionals take the form of an oath, with the protasis (“if clause”) setting forth something obviously true or untrue, and the apodosis (“then” clause) setting forth a clearly undesirable or drastic consequence which will not be realized. The drastic nature of the apodosis serves, in fact, to highlight Falstaff’s certainty in the protasis. The modern equivalent might be “if… then I’ll eat my hat.” In this construction Falstaff seems to incline more toward asserting that something isn’t true than that it is. Of course, not all of his conditional sentences function this way – in some cases, they express a real sense of uncertainty about the future or a counterfactual discussion of what would be the case but isn’t. What I’m talking about here could be called an ironic usage, which grammatically discusses something in uncertain terms but which serves in practice to assert certainty. I’ve bolded some examples in my passage above. This type of construction might receive and entry in a constructicon.


It might be worth discussing how this construction relates to other forms of strong statement that Falstaff employs, such as when a temporal clause depends on a main clause expressing an undesired or unattainable result: “I’ll stave e’re I’ll rob a foot further,” i.e. “I won’t rob any more.” This seems to be related to constructions like the modern “when pigs fly” i.e. “never,” or “that’ll be the day.” Whether expressed through an unlikely temporal sequence, or an unlikely causal (i.e. conditional) sequence, these types of oaths, if I may lump them under that heading, seem to be a common feature of colloquial speech, or at least the literary representation thereof, across cultures and times. I think Falstaff provides an interesting case study for why that is and how they might be understood to function.


Is this a substantial observation about Falstaff’s character? Does this hold true in other scenes in which he is less upset? Really, all that I’ve pointed out is that Falstaff is quite prone to swearing, and that he uses particular formulas of swearing. The verbal mood of swearing is, in any case, essentially subjunctive or imperative, not indicative – it discusses what might or should be, not what is. Is this simply part of the demotic and comedic coloring of Falstaff’s speech, or does this texture of unreality tell us something more fundamental about his character?

Thoughts from Cicero

I try not to play the token Classicist in the room too often  (along with Elizabeth, that is). However, I felt I had to mention that it was with a real sense of dread that, coming off of a seminar spent puzzling over what Jakobson and Burke might think that terms “metaphor” and “metonym” mean, I turned to my assignment for my survey of Latin literature for this week: Cicero’s De Oratore, Book III. The tortured syntax of this last sentence might give some idea of why the task of trying to figure out what Cicero meant to say about metaphor and metonym was not immediately appealing to me.

The process did, however, reward me with some interesting comparative material. Cicero, or rather Cicero in the persona of L. Lucinius Crassus (not the triumvir), devotes considerable space in this dialogue to ornatus orationis, the decoration or elaboration of speech. In his discussion of tropes, he insists on a distinction between those elements of ornatus that arise from single words (singulis verbis) and those which arise on larger syntactical levels (oratione id est continuatione verborum). To the former belong trans-latio (i.e. meta-phor) and immutatio (metonym, I think), in their various forms. To the latter belongs a trope that Cicero seems not to name explicitly, though his formulation aliud dicatur, aliud intellegandum est (“one thing is said, another is to be understood”) might gloss the Greek ἀλληγορία. For Cicero, these all seem to be special cases, or applications of, the larger category of translatio.

At risk of being anachronistic, one could say that Cicero approximately anticipates Jakobson’s axis of selection (verbis singulis) and his axis of continuity (continuatione verborum), and implies that allegory – or, what we might call extended metaphor, conceit, irony (?), is a sustained transfer of contingent selections projected across an axis of continuity – if that makes sense.

These are not complete thoughts, just some off-the-cuff reflections. I’m not sure how what Cicero says here in his de Oratore stacks up against what he says in his other rhetorical treatises, how all of that compares to other ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric and style, and what other intervening texts would have mediated the early modern reception of these classical terms. Cicero must be in the mix somewhere so I thought I’d share – though it’s worth noting that he frames this text as more of a practical than a theoretical enterprise. When you see how many different people have in different contexts tried to fix the slippery terms of metaphor and metonym over the years, you begin to understand why it is so hard to employ them consistently. Which brings me back, again, to what I hope is not too harsh a question: how well are these terms working for us as units of analysis?

Will Dingee

Passage for Emphasis: The Princess on Heresy and Hunting

My chosen passage for emphasis in tomorrow’s class:



Nay, never paint me now.

Where fair is not, praise cannot mend the brow.

Here, good my glass, take this for telling true;

Fair payment for foul words is more than due.



Nothing but fair is that which you inherit.



See, see, my beauty will be saved by merit!

O heresy in fair, fit for these days!

A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise.

But come, the bow. Now mercy goes to kill,

And shooting well is then accounted ill.

Thus will I save my credit in the shoot:

Not wounding, pity would not let me do’t;

If wounding, then it was to show my skill,

That more for praise than purpose meant to kill.

And, out of question, so it is sometimes,

Glory grows guilty of detested crimes,

When, for fame’s sake, for praise, an outward part,

We bend to that the working of the heart;

As I for praise alone now seek to spill

The poor deer’s blood, that my heart means no ill.


What I like most about this passage is the density of thought in the Princess’s language. At first she ensnares the forester in a rhetorical trap by making him seem to deny that she is fair, then catching him out as if he were a flatterer. She posits a “heresy” in the word fair – the heresy being that “beauty,” like beatitude, can be apparently purchased through action and even direct payment. From this paradox of fair and foul, she proceeds to another in which mercy goes forth to kill. This paradox engenders yet another, expressed in economic terms of “account” and “credit”: if she shoots well, it might count against her. We return next to praise, the theme with which she began. She now notes that praise can motivate men and women to do evil. Having questioned first the ability of praise to render the foul fair, and now she seems to posit the ability of praise, or love thereof, to render the fair foul.

But this all smacks of interpretation on a higher level. To get back to our main task, I’m interested in how Shakespeare gets inside of language here. Last week I talked in class about his tendency to pull apart figures of speech, but perhaps another way Shakespeare creates the impression of thinking through language is when his characters create logical paradoxes through the manipulation of words, even stringing several of them together, as above. I am struck by how often in Shakespeare language is not just the medium of expression of thought, but very explicitly is the medium of thought itself. In other words, the Princess’s thoughts seem to proceed from language as much as her language seems to proceed from thought. I hope that makes some sense.

More prosaically, I’m a bit confused about how exactly to understand “for praise, an outward part, / we bend to that the working of the heart.” Is the “outward part” an appositive to “praise,” or is it the object of “bend”? She states a few lines later that her “heart means no ill” in the hunting – but if we bend to the working of the heart, does this not mean that we yield to it? Is it that the heart, while meaning no ill, desires praise, and that it is this positive desire, rather than a negative feeling of ill, that we respond to? What is the heart really doing here?


See you all soon.

Will Dingee