Friday, August 17, 2012
This summer has been my longest hiatus from blogging since I fired this thing up in April 2008. I didn't mean for it to be that way. I've been a productive writer even in hard times these past six years (four in the blogosphere), these great, purpose-filled years since I found my way back to school. Sometimes I wrote running on fumes, sometimes on garbage, but always already writing. But here I am after three months of nothing. This summer knocked me flat. (Boom. Down. Like cement.)
Yet this past week there have occurred the following things: Two visits with friends I hadn't seen in months; an email from another friend who I hadn't heard from in months; a conversation with a friend and fellow English grad about what to do for doctoral work (when I get there); a friend and fellow mother finished chemotherapy. This rapid succession of some little things (a conversation, a look, a best-friends trip to a thrift store for a $1 bag of clothes that will outfit my kids all winter) and some very big things (watching a strong lady kick cancer to the curb) is starting to pull me out of the mire. I hope this post, too, will help lift me out of this place I'm in.
"John Milton's Office, Byrd speaking."
In that conversation with the other grad student we expressed our sympathies and hopes for the PhD students who are doing field exams this week. So the topic of what our own eventual exams might cover came up. It dawned on me that I had never thought about trying to decide what to study, dissertate on, think about for the next four years, simply by imagining what the exam would have to look like. It has to be on something examinable! Not that anyone should use that as their method for determining their area of study -- but it is something to consider, and I'd never considered it.
I have never been able to settle on a period, and that is my main trouble. I follow themes. I follow styles. I follow philosophy. Whatever centuries those things wander through, I follow them. I tried to explain this to a fellow NIU grad at a Milton seminar at the Newberry a year ago. Then she asked if I was into "adaptation history." Nope, not that. So what the hell is it I'm following?
I got the answer this spring, in the "Receptions of Classical Literature" class I took. Egad! It has been reception I've been following all along. I always called it something like "legacies." (See my profile at left, even!) I did not know that particular term until this spring. I had heard about the "received text" and about "reception" in a historicist sort of thinking, i.e. what did the 18th century folk think of their 18th century lit. I had somehow never learned to use that word this way. That is, reception is the receiving of those legacies, the reusing of them, the reinterpreting of them, the unconscious imitation of them, sometimes even just the translating of them, if the translation is trying to do something.
Milton receives Virgil, Virgil receives all of the Greeks, Milton receives the Greeks with and without Virgilian interference, Wordsworth receives Virgil with and without Miltonic interference (and never really receives the Greeks), Eliot tries to receive everything at once, Pound receives Propertius and gets him wrong. There seems to be no limit to classical literature's generosity, and there has always been (except in the Middle Ages, except now!) someone to receive it, always graciously, sometimes beautifully.
I could draw you a reception spectrum. But I don't have a pen here. I'll explain it: it runs from translation on the one end, to a completely new work merely influenced by some Greek or somebody on the other end. In the middle, you have your license-taking translations, your replies, adaptations, reinterpretations, etc. etc. Each time we read a work in that class we'd place it on the spectrum. Lattimore's Odyssey is a modern translation, Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a reply, Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius is a license-taking translation with reinterpretations. Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is something else. But it has a place somewhere on the spectrum.
"You're such a historicist!" says the friend as we talk about these things. Well not really. I need all the historical contexts and critical biographies and in fact get so into them I'm told to move on when I present things, but this cat has enough of a modern bent that she don't think the center holds, man. Anyway, I'm resisting history in a way by refusing to periodize what I'm interested in. (When folks hear I study Milton they say "Oh you study Renaissance lit!" Um, no. 1667 ain't "Renaissance." English f'n Civil War ain't "Renaissance.") It's the reception, man! The reception! I tell the friend. (And I throw the word around now just to feel the weight and balance of it, and see how it lands because I am so proud of what it is and that I like it.) "Does that make you a receptionist?" asks the friend. Yes, yes it does. We have a lit student laugh. Literature jokes are the best.