Searching for the Readers

One of the most pressing problems in the sociology of ancient literature is the almost total absence of testimonies to readers and readers’ reactions—excepting some famous anecdotes, e.g., Cicero’s response to Varro, and Augustus as Vergil’s audience.[1] Likewise, the few extant cases of dense sequences of manuscript copies, which at least allow a glimpse into the reactions of copyists through their modifications of the original wording (and layout), are restricted to texts later classified as Christian.[2] Thus, analysis is more usually limited to the texts themselves and to what information about the reader can be elicited from them. Reader response criticism has suggested different approaches to this task, particularly in the last third of the twentieth century.[3]

The act of reading is a complex process. It confronts a reader’s preconceptions and expectations with a text that confirms or frustrates such expectations, and that offers a sequence of representations and metarepresentations (that is, representations of others’ representations), information, and judgments; it is only in extreme cases, such as magical papyri or Dadaism, that the text offers little more than sounds or images. Reading perpetually forces readers—and for antiquity we must imagine hearers more often than readers—to recalibrate their appraisal of the text.[4] In addition to the perhaps various voices of explicit (i.e., narrated) or implicit narrators, the text might also offer perspectives that serve as models or alternatives of reception, so-called narrated readers (or, as I stress, hearers). The text might also construe an intended audience as a person of a certain age, gender, social identity, or intellectual interest. Often, this might even be an ideal reader with all the competences necessary to fully grasp the text. The text as a whole, that is, as a sum of its challenges to connect its disparate parts and to combine its different perspectives, would, according to Wolfgang Iser, produce an “implicit” or “implied reader.”[5]

For this brief exposition, I am not interested in dissecting the merits or the subtleties of the various accounts of such a reader’s ontological status.[6] Obviously, the more implicit the reader, the more her character depends on the literary critic’s interpretation of the text as a whole, to the point that she may become little more than the undeterminable intersection of all the loose ends of a text.[7] For the purpose of my analysis it suffices (and eases my burden) to say that literary communication in antiquity, religious communication included,[8] is much more tightly bound to established social relationships than the literary texts of the late early modern and modern period.[9] This is due both to the limited extent of literacy and to its concentration in the upper echelons of society.[10] This tie is also reinforced by the necessity of manual copying; distribution usually depended on friends (and friends of friends) rather than on the very limited commercial book market.[11] For the most part, reading took place in a network made up of strong and weak ties.[12] Again, we typically have no external evidence on the specific religious appropriations of the members, the nodes, that is, of such a network. To avoid the circularity in argumentation that comes with the presumption of desired implications, my analysis will concentrate on explicitly narrated figures. However, I will of course also collect other clues that point to an intended audience. This is what I will call “connected reader” in the following discussion.

  • [1] Cic. Acad. Post. 8—9; Donat. Vita Vergilii 31.
  • [2] See, e.g., Haines-Eitzen 2012.
  • [3] E.g., W. C. Booth 1983 (1961); Jauss 1977a, 1977b, 1982, 1987; Iser 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978;overview: G. Prince 2009.
  • [4] Iser 1994.
  • [5] Ibid., 62-66.
  • [6] For criticism, see Genette 1994, 291—92.
  • [7] Nunning 1993; radicalized by Willand 2014, in particular 265—97.
  • [8] For the latter, see Rupke and Spickermann 2009; Rupke 2001.
  • [9] Habinek 1998, in particular 103—21.
  • [10] For discussion, see Harris 1989; Corbier 1991; Bowman and Woolf 1994; Curchin 1995;Hezser 2001; Derks and Roymans 2002; Lardinois 2011.
  • [11] In general W. A. Johnson 2012. For circulation, see Starr 1987; Mratschek 2010; andHaines-Eitzen 2012, 24.
  • [12] For a fruitful application of network theory to ancient religion, see Collar 2007, 2014;Eidinow 2011.
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