The reader as squirrel

Fighting for Rome
September 17, 1999

So many demands are made on John Henderson's readers that a reviewer has to resist the temptation to exact a pre-emptive price on their behalf. I should quickly point out, therefore, that this is a collection of rare brilliance. The author has assimilated the tropes of literary theory, the most up-to-date scholarship and the ancient texts themselves, letter by letter, page by page. His subject is how Romans dealt (with/out) Roman history under the Caesars, in particular the period of the civil wars. His method is unreconstructed deconstructionism deployed on the fields of power - Derrida does history, arms and de Man - but with more jokes. His texts are Livy, Lucan and Statius, Horace, Tacitus and Appian, Caesar himself(s). His claims are unlikely to convince everybody and occasionally sound like the mystic crit. of "The Bible code", but it would be a reckless scholar who embarked on the study of these authors or the reigns they wrote under without reading Henderson's contributions. Yet it is not unknown for his work to be completely ignored, thanks to the less than civil wars that still smoulder in classics departments. This collection will make such errors of omission more conspicuous. His style is certainly heavy going, allusive, full of punning wordplay ("Three men in a vote"), cryptograms (XPDNC: "the letters of Caesar") and lexical oscillations ("omphallibility", "deathstiny", "the wor(l)d"), but it does at least sensitise one to syllables. The reader emerges at the other end of the tunnel with a heightened sense of the fact of Latin and the languageness of language in general.

It might be thought unremarkable that essays that combine close reading of Latin texts with postmodern theory should be difficult, but this is only half the problem. Henderson goes out of his way to provide texts and translations and is at his most lucid when explaining, say, the built-in "thump" of the Alcaic stanza. If he does use phrases like "operational supplementarity" or "rhizomatic authorship", he usually makes it clear what he is trying to say. Such occasional lucidity, however, only reinforces the impression that when he is difficult and obscure, he is doing it deliberately, imposing an oppressive discourse on readers to cure them of logocentricity whether they like it or not. It is Henderson's wilfulness, his will to power over readers, not his freedom of expression that readers resist. Reading his essays, one begins to feel as anxious as a rat in a maze or a squirrel forced to jump through hoops and swing down slides in search of exotic kernels. It is hardly surprising if some academics choose not to be trained and prefer the less nutritious nuts that others scholars scatter freely.

The essays present such pure examples of deconstructive critique that the arguments against them have already been well rehearsed. There is plenty of evidence here for a romanticised view of authority, writers so in tune with the figures and rhythms of words, with the materiality of language, that they deconstruct themselves and obligingly undermine the place from which they speak, enjoying thereby a much more honest relationship with their own inauthenticity than those who claim (so naive) to speak an objective truth. Since the place from which they speak is one of cringing loyalty, deconstruction transforms authors from sycophants into crypto-protest-singers, Horace, Lucan, Statius, Bob Dylans all, a much more acceptable image of the artist for the late 20th-century to assume. The deconstructionist critic, by assimilating the pulses of poetic language, re-establishes empathy with these lost voices in the present, allowing him to understand what they have been trying for 2,000 years to say. Henderson's reluctance to argue for probability or plausibility only confirms the impression of a transcendental conversation carried on between inspired geniuses over the reader's head. There are times when he sounds like Harold Bloom, his poets engaged in heroic struggle with Oedipal fathers, in particular Virgil, the Mother of all fathers.

Such a view of literature is essentially anti-historical and threatens to undermine any historical project. A constantly oscillating text is amenable to all suggestions and often ends up ventriloquising the most familiar and banal. Irony, in particular, needs thick description to gauge historically. Henderson makes much of names, but are all names always so transparent? Derrida's Ponge? Spanish Miracles, Perfects and Pains? Henderson's own insalubrious john(s)? Caesar's "left-hand" man, "Unlucky", "s(c)avage" S(c)aeva, who becomes a mere cipher, the man himself erased, through the games played by Henderson with his moniker? Henderson seems trapped in a discursive loop that makes the world seem nothing more than a function of writing, fiddling while Rome burns, refusing to produce a list of those killed by the Triumvirs, for instance, lest it would "re-enact the ritual of proscription", an argument we must emphatically refute. The references to Romania, Hitler and Northern Ireland seem a provocation in this context, an inexcusable vanity, "history" without historicity.

Henderson is one of the most brilliant Latinists of his generation, but his moral superiority raises questions he cannot answer. Ultimately he remains trapped in the false polarities - text versus reality, theory versus commonsense - of the academic civil war.

James Davidson is the author of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens .

Fighting for Rome: Poets and Caesars, History and Civil War

Author - John Henderson
ISBN - 0 521 58026 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 349

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