Saturday, March 01, 2008

TLS February 15 2008

from Commentary "Generation gap" by Matthew Cobb:

Working at the very dawn of internal antomy, [Jan] Swammerdam lacked the words to explain what he saw, so his descriptions were full of imagery. When dissecting a beetle, he described how the optic nerve left the compound eye: "In that part these nerves are enclosed and surrounded by the interior of the eye, and when greatly maginified resemble the head of a Dutch sailor covered with a shaggy cap such as sea-faring persons use to wear".

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Swammerdam's description of mating behavior in the hermaphrodite snail is detailed in the extreme, before concluding with a powerful and effective piece of anthropomorphism: "After all is finished, the little creature, having wantonly consumed the strength of life, becomes dull and heavu; and thence calmly retiring into its shell, rests quietly without much creeping, until the furious lust of generation gathers new strength, and effaces the memory of the uneasiness suffered after the former coition".

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. . . Swammerdam had developed a party trick in which he would cut open a ilkworm caterpillar, shortly before it pupated, and would reveal the silk moth's wings and antennae within the body of the caterpillar. This amazing piece of dissection proved that the butterfly was the same organism as the caterpillar, and had not been generated from the decay of the dead larva, as had been previously thought.

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The ludicrously reductionist explanations of complex structures and behaviors in terms of "the gene for", which have flourished in both the popular and the scientific press, are beginning to be superseded by an understanding of how environment and genes interact throughout the lifetime of the organism to produce structures and networks that are both plastic and determining.

***
from Denis Feeney's review of Gian Biagio Conte's The Poetry of Pathos: Studies in Virgilian epic, tranlated by Elaine Fantham and Glenn Most and edited by Stephen Harrison:

Conte acknowledges with open eyes that we can no longer accept the Romantic construction of Hommer as "pure nature", "spontaneity without art". He argues, however, that "we can still make use of the historical dialectic between the 'naive' and objective poet Homer, on one side, and 'sentimental' and reflective, artfully conditioned poetry, on the other". He does so on the grounds that Virgil was himself working with some such vision of Homer, in order to motivate his own differing style of complexity and disturbance. Turning the prism in this way does indeed shed new light on Virgil's innovations, particularly in Conte's wonderful example of how Virgil modifies Homer's description of Priam's palace: here Virgil reduplicates the first half of Homer's line ("fifty bridalchambers"), but in the second half of the line he replaces Homer's physicality ("of polished stone") with sentimental pathos ("such great hope of grandchildren").

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Conte's philological commitment pays off most dramatically in his extended discussion of the rhetorical figure of "enallage" (or "hypallage") . . . . Virgril regularly produces similar effects, describing the site of a massacre as being "a place recent with warm slaughter and rivers foaming with full blood" instead of "a place warm with recent slaughter and rivers full with foaming blood". Building from such apparently unpromising starting point, Conte splendidly demonstrates that this deceptively obvious figure animates Virgil's style throughout the Aeneid and is chiefly responsible for giving it its distinctive sublimity.

He brings out the special power of enallage in the Aeneid by comparing its use in Greek tragedy and in Virgil's own earlier works, the Eclogues and Georgics. Enallage is common in tragedy, yet it works by transferring among elements which are already marked as elevated in register; in Virgil, on the other hand, the wors mobilized are regularly not from an elevated inherited store of poetic diction, but rather from the realm of common vocabulary. . . . Further, Conte shows how extremely rare the figure of enallage is in Virgil's work before the Aeneid, and he is therefore on firm ground when he shows how the new epic is pressing enallage into service in order to produce a style that is intense, taut, defamiliarized and impressionistic.

The chapter on enallage ends with a characteristic shift in gear, as Conte puts the search for this newly constructed sublime style into the context of Virgil's ambition to be "the poet of an entire community" in a period of national crisis and redefinition. Here one is brought again to apprehend Conte's most distinctive contribution to Latin studies, namely, the intuition that formal choices are never neutral, but are always "a response to an ideological need" in a particular historical frame.

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