Critics are legion. Good readers, i.e. those with a complete philological mastery of a major text and the ability to bring this text home to us in its own terms, are rare. Rarer, perhaps, says Borges, than good writers. Because the gifts required are infrequent: technical scruple, historical tact, a just sense for what is both untranslatable, resistant to paraphrase in a classical text, and, at the same time, a vivid enough commitment to the belief that even this ‘untranslatability’, or, indeed, it especially, will, if carefully circumscribed, have a vital presentness to the current reader. Professor Donald Carne-Ross, now of Boston University, is a reader in the best sense.
He is a Classical scholar by training. There was a Vienna witticism to the effect that one could always distinguish for acutcness of diagnosis between those physicians who had learned Greek and Latin and those who had merely studied Latin. In modern literary studies a gap separates those who can, at first hand, experience and transmit the active being of the Classics in Western letters from those who cannot. A quite different at-homeness is implicit, for the fact is, of course, that the Greek and Latin poets, dramatists, moralists, historians are the pulse of continuity in European literatures from Caxton and Boccaccio to Rilke, Valéry and Robert Lowell. For Carne-Ross, the continuities and echo-densities which relate Pindar to Ezra Pound, which make Leopardi stylise a scene in the exact light of Horace, which provide Ariosto and Gongora with stylistically diverse but equally dynamic relations to Virgil, relations which modulate, in their turn, into the idiom of Lorca – these continuities are felt in their immediacy and presented to us with philological authority. Carne-Ross’s enviable multilingualism (Spanish, Italian, French and, with perhaps a little less confidence, German) derives its logic directly from the Greek-Latin background. He is, consequently, an heir to the master comparatists such as Auerbach and Curtius, and it is hardly astonishing that he chose to leave Cambridge many years ago for more catholic and lively climes.
The two inspirers or familiar spirits of Carne-Ross’s way of reading are Pound and Heidegger. He sees in Pound both the custodian of antique radiance and the poet-didact who ‘made it new’. This paradoxical function of renovative piety is founded on Pound’s concept of literature as ‘the tale of the tribe’, as the indispensable record and celebration of the adventures, triumphs and tragic falls of one’s ancestors and begetters. This celebration gives to the ‘city’ its legitimate roots in history and in language. ‘It tells us about the place where we live, and the terms under which we live.’ Even in their fragmentary and uneven state, Pound’s Cantos constitute the single greatest attempt made in our age to find a pivot, a responsible centre, for the threatened edifice of Western culture, this attempt being the more honest and generous precisely because it seeks to enlist a parallel valuation of ancientness, a parallel sense of the civic genius of great art, as Pound finds it in Confucius. The intimations of ‘rootedness’, the analysis of the unhousedness of modern sensibility, lie at the heart of Heidegger’s doctrine of being. The festive ‘self-opening’ of man’s spirit to the radiant pressures of existence, to the neighbourhood of agencies more ancient and powerful than himself, a neighbourhood peculiarly graphic in high art and literature, is implicit in the Heideggerian term which Carne-Ross recasts as ‘instauration’. As in every true reader, there is in Carne-Ross an instinctive assent to the famous Heideggerian proposition that it is not so much man who speaks, who is master of the word, but man ‘who is spoken’, through whom the life of language relates the hidden wellsprings of existence to the phenomenal world. In serious literature, we can learn to experience immediately this autonomous presence of language and the degree to which this presence masters and exceeds the conscious intentions or the critical programme of an author. ‘When I stand in the small graveyard at Monterchi before Piero’s ‘Madonna del Parto’, I know that I am present at a sacred (not simply a Christian) event. It is quite misleading to say that I am having an aesthetic experience. It would be more accurate to say that is is having me; I seem to do little more than provide an occasion for this august event to come into being.’ This is essential Heidegger and it commands Carne-Ross’s tensed, almost ‘gestural’ stance before a text.
The actual readings are often masterly. Pindar’s Sixth Olympian is enacted for us. The movements of the closing lines towards ‘a Shakespearean comedy’ are inherent in the dramatic, dance-like energy of the ode. Though rigorously focused on the Sophoclean original, Carne-Ross’s commentary on the Trakhiniai has in it the subtle challenge of Pound’s ‘translation’ or metamorphic ‘reliving’ of the play. The long essay on Gongora, with its inherent consideration of the nature of the hermetic in poetry, is almost undoubtedly the finest now available to an English-speaking reader. From close interpretation of Gongora’s art and grammar of allegory springs an essential tenet: ‘Poetry cannot save us and yet the poets could do a great deal to redirect our minds and senses back to the proper object of their love.’ Leopardi is seen in terms of ‘the poet in a time of need’ – a celebrated phrase from Hölderlin elucidated, often and far-reachingly, by Heidegger. ‘Touchstones’ in the Cantos are brought to life in the guise of a dialogue between readers.
Framing these incisive exercises are two didactic-programmatic papers on the present debilities and illusions of the academic cultivation of literature. Carne-Ross is a dour and ironic observer of the twofold threat to sane reading, and the humane values which such reading embodies and fosters. On the one hand, there is the routine of mandarin philology, the reduction of great literature to an archival and specialised status. On the other hand, there is the mounting illiteracy of the new populism, the cheery creed whereby the classics must be made available even to the least qualified, be it at the price of utter simplification and vulgarisation. Carne-Ross knows that these two seemingly contrary dangers are, in fact, subtly conjoined, that high academicism and the mass media are greedy brethren under the skin. One would want to quarrel with his extreme pessimism, with his conviction that the hour for rescue is already past. It will, however, be even more difficult to do so if this remarkable book falls either on trivial notice or silence.