What is the point of Reception Studies? This is the kind of question Receptionists get a little too frequently, and more often from classicists than from those on the other side of the divide. English folk (and their theatre studies, art history, film and philosophy brethren) do not seem to have much difficulty with the idea of studying the Classics’ influence on more modern spheres of intellectual activity. There might be the occasional comment that ‘it’s boring’ or that ‘Latin’s too hard’, but generally there is a more accepting atmosphere, which accommodates people with an interest in anything, even really, really old stuff. So many things are accepted as academic topics—science fiction, chick lit, children’s stories—that there is relatively little difficulty with the idea an English student who focuses on the ancients. Classicists, on the other hand, often do little more than allow that Reception is something which might be interesting to think about in one’s spare time. A reasonable chunk of the classical academics out there quite clearly feel that, whilst possibly interesting, this ‘reception stuff’ has nothing to do with Classics proper. (All of which involves shocking generalisations, but this is a blog, not an academic paper, and I’m allowed a few).
There are two stock answers to the ‘Why Reception’ question. Firstly, it is argued that reception opens up a further (and very large) area of study for scholars, in what is a somewhat limited discipline. People who talk about ‘saving’ the Classics argue that, as there are only so many Classical texts, one day, if not already, everything possible will have been said about them, and so we need to find more texts to talk about. Reception opens up a wealth of extra texts. Another argument states that if Classics is to survive as a discipline, it needs to become more accessible to a new, and younger, audience. Billed as being all about survival, Reception is a lifeboat for when all the classical ships sink, or pass by, unnoticed, into obscurity.
Both of these reasons are deeply unsatisfying to me, and I think they are in part the reason why many classicists resent the discipline of Reception Studies. If these are the reasons on which it is founded (and to the die-hard classicist, they are fairly insulting ones), then the discipline itself can seem rather offensive, detracting from the inherent value and projected future of Classics. This is without even mentioning the general implication that Reception is an easier field of study than ‘proper’ Classics, and therefore weak. Again, any self respecting classicist, who has undergone years of rigorous language training, tends to have a fair amount of disdain for the ‘easy’ disciplines.
The biggest problem for me in any of these definitions, objections and justifications, is that they all reinforce the idea of a divide. We have named our conference ‘Straddling the Divide’ for a reason, as we believe there is a very real gulf between the study of the ancient world and of its presence in our modern one (some might call it ‘The Middle Ages’, but I’m sure most medievalists would disagree with that, and perhaps for the reasons I’m about to discuss). It is a divide which we feel in our study of classical reception, especially because of the seeming necessity to stretch ourselves across different academic departments. The divide for reception scholars is not just academic: it is also administrative, and often exists in the minds of other PhD students and even academic staff, as they attempt to categorize reception students into a single field of future employment. We always seem to be doing and dealing with two different things at once. The ‘divide’ is a real presence in our approach to our study.
What I wish to argue is that the divide should not be there at all. It is the divide itself which is the problem, which makes it so difficult to explain our work, and to convince sceptics that this kind of work is not just important to classical scholarship, but constitutes classical scholarship in its own right. As I see it, there is no difference between the work I do on Latin poetry and the work I do on English poetry. It is all just poetry. It happens to be in two different languages and from two different periods, but that difference is no different than in comparing Dickens’ novels with Eliot’s poetry, or Theocritus’ bucolics with Virgil’s eclogues. The process is the same. The analysis brought to bear on the texts is the same. The only difference is that imposed by classification systems.
When universities first began, there were no different subjects. Everything fell under the heading of what we would today call Theology and Classics. For hundreds of years the pursuit of the Classics was the cornerstone of a proper education. This isn’t to say our predecessors had a limited knowledge, but that ‘the Classics’ was not seen as a discrete field of knowledge. If you knew the Classics, you could be said to know everything – everything deemed worth knowing, that is. This idea harks back to the Greeks and Romans, for whom all the areas of knowledge were contained within, and began with their canonical sources. Western literature begins with Homer, Philosophy with Plato, Science with Aristotle, History with Herodotus, Theology with Homer, Hesiod, and later, the Greek New Testament, Drama with Sophocles and Euripides, Rhetoric with Cicero. And it is the same today. The ‘Classics’ has become a term used to separate the literature and knowledge of the ancient world out from other sources, but it is not actually a concrete discipline in itself. Instead, it is the first source for almost every other discipline (modern science and medicine being the notable exception – I’m perfectly happy with doctors never learning some of the funky theories their ancient counterparts held).
I do not study Classics and English, I study literature, and Western literature begins with Homer and encompasses the Greek and Latin poets, philosophers and playwrights. There is no discontinuum, there is no divide. And this is certainly how the poets of the Renaissance, in whom I am most interested, approached the world. Shakespeare did not use Ovid because he was an ancient, but because he wrote the poetry that fitted most with his own interests.
So the point of Classical Reception, as I see it, is to try to soften the artificial divide which tries to remove the study of the Classics from other disciplines. Reception is not about ‘saving’ the Classics from neglect and misunderstanding, but about reintegrating knowledge of the ancients into all areas of the Humanities – to where it rightly belongs.