Frontiers

Reading for Symbolism: An Ancient Tradition

April 2005

What do contemporary readers look for in a novel or poem, and just where can we trace the roots of those expectations?

Those who look to the culture we consume for big ideas, philosophical or mystical, likely claim our oldest intellectual ancestry in the Romantic period, if anywhere. But Peter Struck, an assistant professor of classical studies, holds a different view. ìTo the extent that we look at fiction or poetry as a source of knowledge about the basic structures of the world and the place of humans in it, knowledge which is otherwise inaccessible, we are borrowing from the ancient allegorists, he says.

Struck's recent book, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts, re-envisions the ancient writers known as the allegorists. Struckís view isnít just new to general audiences, who may never have heard of a figure such as the late-Roman writer Proclus, an interpreter of Homer's works. The book also represents a radical change for classicists, who generally havenít granted these writers a place within the tradition of literary criticism. Indeed, Struck says that to tie these ancient writers to later, better-known proponents of the poetic symbol, such as the Romantics, we must first redefine the term "allegorists" to mean deep interpreters ‚ critics who plumbed texts for all they were worth, not blunderers who misconstrued them. "Classicists used to define allegory as misreading, as foisting your own views onto the text," he points out. "In the most current edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996), thatís the definition."

Tracing these misunderstood figures, Struck examines a millennium's worth of texts ‚ from early Greek literature to the Neoplatonists of Late Antiquity. He says itís no great mystery why these writers have been unappreciated: "Among classicists, the old-fashioned idea of literary criticism was as a quasi-scientific discipline ‚ a critic sits down and works very carefully with the nuts and bolts of the text, unraveling the author's different tropes and style, questioning the accuracy of the manuscript. So when those classicists went hunting for literary criticism in the ancient world, that is what they were looking for." They found what they sought: Aristotle and other critics like him.

"Among classicists, the old-fashioned idea of literary criticism was as a quasi-scientific discipline ‚ a critic sits down and works very carefully with the nuts and bolts of the text, unraveling the author's different tropes and style, questioning the accuracy of the manuscript." - Peter Struck

But to place the allegorists within the tradition of literary criticism sheds a new light on how we read ‚ and how much weíre permitted to read into ‚ a writer's work. The allegorists, Struck says, "really do push and push, to see what they can find inside of Homer. They want to see everything they can within those limits." Whether they stand at the edge of their texts or beyond it, he adds, is open to case-by-case judgment‚ and isnít the most important question. More interesting to examine, Struck concludes, is why they thought their ideas were legitimate and within allowable bounds. "A case study of these very enthusiastic interpreters gives us a way of raising very broad questions about interpretation in general."