Theses Doctoral

Where is Meaning Construed?: A Schema for Literary Reception and Comparatism in Three Case Studies

Pérez Díaz, Cristina

This dissertation claims contributions on two fronts. First, it aims to contribute to the theory of reception with a practical model of reading postclassical texts that substantially engage ancient ones. In the second place, it contributes three individual readings of three important works of literature on which nothing has been written by anglophone classicists working on classical reception: José Watanabe’s Antígona, Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon, and Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost.

This dissertation’s contribution to the theory of reception is the proposition of a practical schema of reading, which is a figure upon which the imagination can operate. Simply put, it posits a schema as the place where meaning is construed. The schema calls attention to the constructedness of meaning and to the act of construction and organizes different moments of “reception”: that of the postclassical text receiving the ancient one (which the schema imagines as a vertical line) and that of the scholar receiving that particular instance of reception, the “I” of interpretation, which is theorized as one of two axes of transcendence of the schema (the other one being the world of/to which the schema speaks and means). Furthermore, the schema puts the “where” of meaning in the relation of (at least) two texts, but the “of” of meaning belongs to the postclassical texts.

The postclassical text receiving ancient text(s) is proposed as a complex work, simultaneously in relationship with texts from the past as well as other texts from other periods. The relations of the postclassical text with each of these texts are different and need to be differently traced or theorized. The relation with the ancient texts is properly textual and thus the primary way of tracing it in the schema is a vertical line that first and foremost pays attention to form, with the tools of structural analysis and philology. Then, the theorization of the vertical line is made thicker with the operation of concepts upon it.

As each of these texts (the classical and the postclassical) mean in relation to webs of texts that are relevant to the vertical relation, the schema imagines an additional dimension to the vertical one: the horizontal. Each of the horizontal lines traced for both the classical and the postclassical texts are in one way or another “historicist” readings, they trace contexts for the texts, but the way that context is understood in the theorization of the horizontal dimension of the schema is plural and never saturated. While this horizontal aspect of meaning is understood as textual, the schema also imagines for it an axis of transcendence, the world on which writers write and in which the reader is situated.

The first chapter’s primary goal is to provide a reading of José Watanabe’s Antígona using the schema to illuminate the ways in which this text makes meaning in relation to Sophocles’ Antigone and part of the body of texts that have come to form part of that name. This reading counters the predominant approach to this work (and to many a work in classical reception), which reads it allegorically, as a commentary on a particular moment in the history of Peru. That predominant way of reading not only ignores the vertical orientation of the text in relation to its avowed ancient source, it also limits itself to one way of tracing the horizontality of the postclassical text, construing “context” in the most immediate and literal sense. The chapter contributes a reading that opens up Antígona to much more than allegory, highlighting its powerful affective and aesthetic dimension, as well as its intersection with recent feminist readings of the Greek tragedy that turn towards the figure of Ismene and the politics of sisterhood.

The second chapter sets itself to the analysis of the complex role that ancient texts play in Christine Brooke-Rose’s radically experimental novel Amalgamemnon. This novel has not been the focus of attention of any work by a classical scholar, and those scholars who have written about it in other fields have failed to analyze the importance that Herodotus’ Histories and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon play at both the structural and the thematic levels. Tracing the vertical line, the chapter shows how these two texts are essential to the novel’s writing and themes. In the horizontal dimension, the schema situates the novel’s engagement with those ancient sources in the context of contemporary feminist discourse, especially as it concerns the question of the possibility of a feminine discourse and an outside of the phallocentric system of signs. That intersection illuminates both how Brooke-Rose is reading the ancient sources as well as what are arguably some of the limitations of her writing in contrast to the ethical commitments of feminisms.

Finally, the third chapter is a reading of Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost, a text that is perhaps better known than the texts treated in the previous two chapters, at least in the Anglophone world, but which has nonetheless been fairly disregarded in the scholarship. The chapter provides a rigorous analysis of the “work” of this text, of what it does and how it does it, as the scholarship on Carson’s work has failed to posit or satisfactorily respond to the important questions regarding what constitutes the undeniable originality of her writing. In this particular book, which combines academic and poetic discourses into a new form that partakes of both, Carson proposes a comparative mode of making meaning that cannot be captured with a structural analysis of inter- or -trans- textuality, as the previous two chapters construed the vertical dimension of the schema. Instead, the theory of metaphor developed by Paul Ricoeur provides the appropriate tool to imagine the vertical dimension of the schema and analyze Carson’s exercise in bringing an ancient and a modern author together. This particular construction of the schema brings into the terrain of classical reception the possibility of interpretating comparative works that do not fit nicely within the theoretical margins of this subfield of classical studies. Finally, the chapter provides the occasion to trace another aspect of the schema, its other axis of transcendence, which is the “I” of interpretation.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foley, Helene Peet
Worman, Nancy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 8, 2023