Classics and the Uses of Reception. Edited by CHARLES MARTINDALE AND 
RICHARD F. THOMAS. Classical Receptions. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell 
Publishing, 2006. Pp. xiii + 335. Paper, $42.95. ISBN 1–4051–3145–4.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at

CJ Online 2009.09.04

Contributors: William Batstone, Katie Fleming, Simon Goldhill, Lorna 
Hardwick, Kenneth Haynes, John Henderson, Ralph Hexter, Craig Kallendorf, 
Helen Kaufmann, Duncan Kennedy, Miriam Leonard, Alexandra Lianeri, 
Genevieve Liveley, Charles Martindale, Siobhán McElduff, Pantelis 
Michelakis, James Porter, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Timothy Saunders, Mathilde 
Skoie, Richard Thomas, Tim Whitmarsh, Vanda Zajko

As Charles Martindale points out in his introduction to this collection, 
Reception Studies has become, in the years since the publication of his 
Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (1993), 
a mainstream critical modality in Classics. One could add, invoking 
Classics’ reputation as the literary discipline most behind the curve of 
new critical thought, that Rezeptionsästetik and related Reader-Response 
criticisms have finally found their way into our musty, old discipline. The 
Konstanz School got under way in the 1960s, after all, and the work of its 
early participants, Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Juri Striedter, 
Manfred Fuhrmann and Jürgen Habermas, as well as the Reader-Response 
criticisms of Stanley Fish, Michael Riffaterre, Norman Holland and many 
others, were dominant forces in the critical constellation of English and 
Modern Language studies throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Reception’s 
arrival at the cusp of the 21st century in Classics might thus seem a 
belated theoretical colonization with—given that the theoretical tide has 
moved on elsewhere—limited prospects.

But I think that that impression would be incorrect. Classics has a 
particular stake in critical thought that addresses the problem of our (as 
classicists and readers) historical alienation from the texts we read. 
Their recession in time and circumstance from our own, together with their 
perdurance(?) or continuing relevance(?), is a paradox built right into any 
fair conception of what Classics is. Classicists set out to address that 
paradox somehow, either with traditional tools in an attempt to discover 
precisely what was written and meant then in order that we may know this 
increasingly distant pastness better now, or, with other kinds of tools to 
discover how these texts have made their way to us, their (changing) shapes 
and colors of meaning fitted out for the long journey forward. In either 
case, the very “classic” nature of these texts entails an understanding 
of them through time. As Miriam Leonard puts it in one of these chapters, 
paraphrasing Gadamer, “we are condemned to look upon [the Graeco-Roman 
tradition] with the eyes of strangers” (p. 117). The final gloss on that 
may be tragic: our alienation is irremediable, and however we work to 
repair our ignorance, we cannot reconstitute the world our texts were born 
into. Or it may be radically optimistic, if we conceive of our classics as 
in constant dialogue with human sensibility and literature and art through 
time—and this is the view of most of the contributors to this volume.

It is a heartening view on a number of counts, not least in that it blows 
apart linear conceptions of “the classics and their legacy”: the 
(legitimate) classical past, the (marginal) classical tradition, the 
present (state of “Classics in decline”). In place of this conceptual 
segmentation, Reception posits a more pliant and interactive relationship 
among texts and readers. Thus while the Classical Tradition has long 
represented the set of post-classical texts that can trace parentage or 
“influences” to classical works, Reception Studies consider a wider 
range of relational possibilities. Later texts are not only influenced by 
classical models, but always in some sense exert a countervailing 
influence. Postclassical authors recast their “Classics,” and they are 
themselves recast by subsequent writers and readers, so that at any point 
in time, reading a classical text amounts to reading (considering, knowing, 
assuming, more or less consciously) what post-classical reception has made 
of that text, reading through reception as we constitute our own 
receptions. The very breadth of what “Reception” entails (imitating, 
interpreting, re-writing, translating, assimilating, revising…) can be a 
problem, and explains the appeal of Jaussian Rezeptionsästhetik, which is 
of course primarily (simply) a theory of “reading.” At bottom is the 
truism formulated here by William Batstone, paraphrasing Martindale (1993), 
“All meaning is constituted or actualized at the point of reception” 
(p. 14). As with Reader-Response theories in general, emphasis shifts from 
(authoritative) text to reader under this construction, not (explicitly) in 
most of these essays to hijack the text’s intended meanings, but in 
service of the notion that whatever a text’s recoverable intended 
meanings are, they cannot be read in innocence, that is, apart from a 
reader’s dispositions, understandings of the world and (limited) 
knowledge. The reader’s mentality, her epistemological situation, has 
become known, through Jauss, as her Erwartungshorizont, her “horizon of 
expectations” against which she perceives the foregrounded work. One’s 
horizon is both personal (an Iserian stress) and shared with others of 
one’s time and situation, and this latter aspect, reception in history, 
is largely, though not exclusively, the focus of this book’s essays.

The chapters here, framed by a bracing introduction by Martindale, a jaunty 
“provocation” by Will Batstone, and a briefly resuming “afterword” 
by Duncan Kennedy, are broken into two major sections, “Reception in 
Theory” and “Studies in Reception.” The “theory” contributions 
are not meant to be comprehensive; rather, they offer (not equally 
persuasive) theoretical takes on specific problems: Ralph Hexter unpacks 
the complexities of the reception-history of even a single author, in this 
case Ovid; Timothy Saunders points out difficulties with reception 
criticism’s “practice of exemplarity” (p. 32) and (limited) sense of 
dialogue between text and reception; Kenneth Haynes wades deep into the 
hermeneutic debates between Gadamer and Habermas on the factors determining 
a text’s meaning, then into another, related dispute, between Peter Winch 
and others, on the evidence for transcultural human rationality; Genevieve 
Lively examines third wave or “post-”feminism in the context of factors 
that also influence Reception studies (“a postfeminist hermeneutics … 
willing and able to reflect upon the historicality of its position” [p. 
66]); Craig Kallendorf comments on allusion as reception in Milton and 
Vergil; Vanda Zajko considers how the Freudian psychoanalytic conception of 
“identification” maps out certain kind of reception, both within texts 
and between text and reader; Mathilde Skoie takes her cue from Iser’s 
comment that “pastoral poetry unfolds itself as a process of reception 
which gains its own history from its continual reworking of the pastoral 
world,” and develops the notion in respect to Boileau and post-classical 
pastoral; Tim Whitmarsh invokes Bakhtin in calling for a reinvigorated 
consciousness of history, a “pragmatic historicism” in reception 
studies; Miriam Leonard rereads Derrida (after Martindale), to show how 
deeply the Derridean reading of Hegel’s take on Antigone is imbedded in 
real history and politics; finally, Katie Fleming considers our own 
problematic receptions of 20th-century fascist reception of the classics.

The book’s second section offers a selection of focused “Studies in 
Reception,” and readers will find a wide range of work, though a few 
pieces, like Alexandra Lianeri’s intriguing meditation, via Homer, on 
translation and “the classic’s” historical isolation, might have been 
better suited to the first section of the volume. Richard Thomas is more 
topical as he traces the fascinating gender and “morality” negotiations 
of 19th-century English reception of Horace’s Odes. James Porter’s 
discussion of the (modern) historicity of Foucault’s “technologies of 
the self” and the very different focus of Siobhán McElduff’s survey of 
non-elite classical reception in Ireland share an interest in the ways 
current conditions situate classical works. Helen Kaufmann turns to Derek 
Walcott’s Omeros to illustrate how various “colonizing” (and 
therefore failed) readings of the character Helen might modulate to a more 
successful “decolonizing” perception. Colonization gets another look in 
Lorna Hardwick’s treatment of a number of “disaporic” adaptations of 
Greek drama. Considering drama again, Pantelis Michelakis looks at 
performance as a mode of reception. The final chapters treat art: Elizabeth 
Prettejohn covers a number of later versions of the Venus de Milo; Simon 
Goldhill reads Victorian readings of Alma-Tadema’s Sappho and Alcaeus and 
other paintings enfiguring “desire” and sexual tension; while John 
Henderson in a characteristically zesty account returns to familiar ground, 
Plato’s Symposium, via Anselm Feuerbach’s Das Gastmahl des 
Platon—just the sort of out of the way reception to trigger remarkable 
insights. The best of this superb collection of essays do just this, 
showing us how reception re-casts imaginative light, illuminating all 

University of Missouri, Columbia

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