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SOCIETY AND POLITICS
ON ANCIENT GREEK LITERATURE, LITERATURE AND UNDERSTANDING OF LITERARY TEXTS
Bogdan Bogdanov

Teaching and investigating ancient Greek literary texts and their special connectedness, called ancient Greek literature, not without the support and influence of Plato’s dialogues, I found myself in a typical Socratic situation. I was constantly answering the three questions – what is literature as a set of texts and the ensuing from them hypertext, what is it as a cultural environment for producing, presenting and understanding literary texts and what is it as an institution.

Along the many readings of one and the same texts in ancient Greek and their translation into the Bulgarian language, I came to realize concerning the second question that just like any reading academic reading is not an easy task, that we read a lot and what not, but that we never achieve the same thing. I also realized why. Because the text itself is a structure of direct and inferred in it indirect messages and meanings, but also because the so-called understanding of the text being read is arriving at an unstable other text, which replaces it. I realized one more thing – that the speeches of our understanding are not смислово невинни, but drag and import into the text additional assertions of which, if we do not become aware, the text itself cannot be well comprehended. Hence the requirement, naturally first to myself, that he who is engaged with scientific understanding of literary texts should pose questions about the function of meaning of the speech he operates with.

      This speech seems specialized, it goes with a typical set of terms and concepts. There is a difference, however, between the more theoretical speech we use articulately using definitions, for instance about the meanings of the concepts text and discourse, and the less theoretical, which is the text of the specific literary text. Although unfolding at a higher cultural level of everyday speech, the latter differs from the former mainly in that the concepts used in it, even if they are academically defined before, are applied unsegmented as everyday ideas. This is precisely how in this latter speech concepts such as peace, democracy, freedom, justice, and love, of course, are used or more-specific terms such as text and context, literature and history. They are all perceived as denoting similar to themselves things.

Yes, but there is no reason why we cannot talk in a theoretical speech in this similar way, non-segmented or semi-segmented. A historian can conscientiously investigate certain historical facts and realia and to elaborate scientific theses about the history of a country without being aware of the polysemy of the word-concept history. Even for the reason that, that history is historiography on the one hand, and on the other what is investigated by it – history itself. One can be a scientist without questioning what is considered history in the everyday cultural plane of speaking – for instance, that tribes, communities, peoples and countries have history and that these histories have nothing in common with other possible histories: of individual people, then of all entities and beings in nature and finally of all things in the world that undergo change.

    A historian can easily be a scientist without knowing that human history, irrespective of if it is the history of an individual man or of a community, is divided into objective and conscious, at the same time it is not divided but is a mixture of the two. He can easily not be interested in the even more special topic that history is a series of events and changes which form the cause and effect order, but that there is another order in human histories – that of goal definition. Which seems to differentiate human from natural history, from the histories of one or another species in nature. This argument with an open character questions the labeled material understanding of history and leads to a similar understanding of literature as well.

    What would it be manifested in? In a kind of understanding of literature as a broad human activity, having a lot in common with the human activities, studied by anthropology, culture studies and general theory of text. The problem is that such a broad way of understanding disturbs the professional work of the person involved in literature, which seems to be better done if literature is considered as a closed area. Yes, but just like every human being the literary person forgets that this closed understanding is only adopted with a practical aim and is not the hard truth. Then we should apply a kind of alternating according to the needs openings and closings of the object. Yes, but this is not easy. It is not, but it would match the mobility of this object, which, in order to be named more precisely should be presented with several definitions, and also to be called with other words-concepts. 

Hence the view I follow in my teaching of ancient Greek literature – that there is a bad literary science which comports in an everyday, practical manner and objectifies the words-concepts it uses, but there is another, better one, which balances between the inevitable closing and opening and because of that does its job much more effectively. I will adduce an example of understanding of ancient Greek literature.

We label it literature provisionally, but it is something more and in general something else. Today we read the ancient Greek texts that have come down to us in the original or translated, we use them as printed texts and books. At the same time we know that they were not used in the same way in their time, that they were presented orally in a solemn situation and that even if read at home, which was an exception, they were read before  a big audience by a slave-reader, i.e. they were taken in orally. Which was not only an external contextual peculiarity, but left a definite content/meaning trace in these texts. Certainly anyone can read any ancient text without resorting to the unknown to him historical context and its traces in the text. This is completely legitimate – conceptualizations are always about conceptualizing differently. Especially of literary texts. 

    Yes but there is ambition if not every understanding, then at least the scientific one to get close to the historical context and the original meaning of the text. This, however, entails to understand the difference between the present comprehending reading of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” and the comprehending listening-watching of the play by a large festive audience at a place and time intended for this festive place and time. The subject of that so to say original understanding is not only this or that Athenian citizen, but also their sum total in a festive multitude, incomparably more по-споено and organic than the multitude of spectators in a contemporary theatre. 

Therefore it is somewhat incorrect what Aristotle says in Chapter Six of the „Poetics” – that every spectator individually feels fear and empathy from what is happening to the hero in the tragedy. The spectator then did not identify directly with the hero. The hero is a prominent personage of the past, while he is an ordinary citizen in the present. There is another identification which is more prominent than the one Aristotle mentions. Together with the other spectators with whom he is connected in an organic festive multitude, the spectator feels fear and empathy for the hero leader on stage, since in a symbolic way, what is happening to the hero, could also happen to the leader of the contemporary civil community, in which the spectator participates, and therefore would indirectly affect him. With this indirect identification of the spectator with the hero the  Attic tragedies and their full of pathos plots point to one of the content/meaning characteristics of classical ancient Greek literature, which is visible in Homer, and also in all high genres, and certainly in Pindar’s victory odes – it is not literature envisaging every man.

There are certainly small genres that develop this point of view, but the more completely they defend it, the more they drop out from high literature in whose terms and in whose understanding of reality man is not every man, but the hero – a socially prominent individual. He is man with capital letter because of three interconnected reasons – 1. because he represents an organic community of people governed by him, 2. because he has an autobiography and a history connecting him with famous ancestors, and 3. because through these ancestors he connects with and depends on gods. This is clearly and precisely manifested in Attic tragedy. It is about a famous hero, to whom something happens which undoubtedly affects people as well. What is happening is brought about by acts of the hero, by conflicts with the other powerful of the day, but also by an old family collision between ancestors and gods. Different from this hero, the ordinary spectator in the theatre of Dionysus does not have his own history and in this sense he is protected from what is happening to Oedipus. 

The difference with today’s environment seems significant – today every ordinary person has his own history, he is constantly constructing it and with it, his own identity. Naturally this was true of past time too. It was not, however, admitted in the so-called historical context and the rising from it literature. Priority and representation was accorded to the other so-called indirect identification. On the other hand, in today’s broader range of literature and texts in general, what is often modeled is precisely this – how ordinary human beings turn their backs on their own histories and become interested in the histories of this or that person who has risen to prominence, which they also use as a kind of an example for constructing their own histories. 

In other words, there is a difference but also a similarity. Even if these times and contexts are different and separated by centuries, the human beings in them are not completely different. Especially as regards the fact that exposed to change and having memory and speech, every human being, always and everywhere, constructs reality and that in the course of this construction, always and everywhere, he rises to higher degrees of empowerment. Naturally to the status of leader and hero, of man «enlarged» by collective intentions of one kind and another, and by the even more empowered being represented by God. More indicative of how the universal structure «change and elevation in degree» works, however, are the actual elevations – attaining beauty and physical strength on the model of actors with dazzling looks and sportsmen with enviable physical achievements.

The human being, always and everywhere, needs models, which ensure change in him for the better. The better is carried over to the body, changes the appearance, health, and prolongs life. It also carries hope for immortality. The change can be temporary, imaginary, to happen during festivities or to be modeled in literary texts. But one way or the other, in a dangerously variable way the human being is principally not identical to oneself. Hence the serious problems which man inflicts on himself and which are indiscernibly mixed with problems coming from outside independent of him, connected to changes in the climate and possible cosmic catastrophes.

But let me go back to the significantly smaller problem of understanding in the science of history – how to observe the differences between the various historical contexts and at the same time not to ignore the commented common human existence present in it, without the knowledge of which history becomes lame and icomplete.   
 
 Plato’s dialogue „Thaeaetetus” is concerned mainly with that, with knowledge. Naturally, it is not someone else but the philosopher who achieves knowledge. This knowledge is about the common. Socrates gives a good example with the answer to the question what is the king. The king, he says, is like the shepherd of a flock, only the flock that he is looking after, is more difficult to govern. The analogy is rhetorical; it offends the king’s dignity, but it is a true statement about one indicative common thing – that the shepherd and the king fall into the common class of governors. Obviously our contemporary knowledge of the king does not rely only on this most general predicate, but is a difficult to name constellation of him and of specific predicates. In contemporary science we have no problems with the latter. It is always visible. The problem is that thinking about him in an objectified way we separate him from the constellation with the more general, which is his essence. We believe that it has no share in it. 

Hence the usefulness of Plato’s dialogic hermeneutics, which reminds also of this more general and so-called constellation of predicates, and helps the thinker on a certain topic or object not to objectify it and separate it from other adjacent and more general topics and objects. Тhus Plato’s dialogues and more generally ancient Greek literature, with the special anthropology which organizes them, reveal one kind of features of contemporary life which we would probably ignore had we followed the historical model of our other education – the idea of past, completely different one from another ages, ending with the totally different from the past, especially from the ancient times, modernity in which we live. This model of understanding by means of objectifying the difference is supported by the everyday idea, that we live in a still untrendy Bulgaria and not in other much more perfect places. Yes, but the eye, schooled in ancient texts, clearly discerns that there is enough similarity in the difference, however different it is.

I will give an example of Aristotle’s two definitions of man. Certainly they are many more. One is the well know definition that „man is a polis being”, and the other, less well known from “Nicomachean Ethics”, is that „man is a couple being”. The former is difficult to translate. If we say social and not polis, we would be wrong, if we say community, we would be less wrong. Precisely with the “community” (koinonikon) the Stoics correct Atistotle’s “polis” and give it a more lasting meaning. Man lives in a community then and now. Well, today in a number of indirect communities. But one way or the other even if he lives completely isolated, some ideals and values put him to a certain extent in community dependence. Therefore in this sense there is no difference between antiquity and modern times. 

There is even a smaller difference in the other predicate formulated by Aristotle of the so-called couple nature of man. Many people live alone. Most of them feel lonely. It is clear why. Because of the violated model of couple existence. Connected in smaller or bigger communities in reality or virtually, human beings spend most of the time with another person as a couple – a family couple, a love couple, a couple made of friends, but all the same in a couple. Mankind lives in couples in ancient times and in modern times. And it is not only man. But also individuals from different animal species. Which also holds true for the so-called community. There is significant difference between the human community and the animal herd, which is not a community. Yes, but it is a community on the way to a society. Which is evidenced by the rudiments of institutions in animal herds and colonies of insects. Aristotle discerns this common feature between the human and the animal world and on many occasions he emphasizes it. 

Thanks to ancient Greek literature for many years I was engaged with the issue what it means to exist traditionally. Hence my two critiques – one of the Marxist understanding of antiquity, second to the radical and otherwise very useful idea put forth by Karl Popper of the opposition of a closed-open society. Both ideas somehow do not differentiate between the plane of ideas and the plane of reality. The Marxist historical belief that antiquity is a wonderful, completely gone time, is a typical case of mixing the idea of history as an unrelenting, irreversible sequence of epochs with reality itself. Reality is something complex, in which along with what historically dies out lasting structures develop which although engendered in the past are still relevant today. The democratic secular construction of society during Pericles’s time, however changed it is today, still goes on, just as the life of the explanatory pragmatic paradigm of history developed by Thucydides in his „History” goes on.

Similar is my critical approach to the conception of society in Karl Popper’s opposition scheme, which I extensively applied in my research. My present stand does not have and cannot have neither totally closed, nor completely open society. Open-closed is a cognitive pattern, whose opposing terms are necessarily connected in public reality. It is evidenced by a closer look at the state of society in classical Athens. It has the open characteristics and manifestations that Pericles mentions in his eulogy in the Second Book of Thucydides’ „History”, but it also has features of the traditionally closed society, which do not distinguish it from the society in Sparta as much as is shown in Pericles’ speech and in other speeches in Thucydides’ „History”.

The relation between a closed and open society is the same in modern times. It is undoubtedly much more open in a societal way than antiquity. While mobile, traveling, open-minded people in the V and ІV centuries BC are only the sophists, the traveling poets and scholars and politicians, today an unprecedented number of people travel and almost everybody has this right. Mobility, however, is only one manifestation of openness, which is not and should not be understood unambiguously. Because one can be constantly traveling without moving in essence. One can stay in the same hotels and not notice life outside them. Open and closed are points of view, which model entities, and not something material. Precisely as points of view both in reality and in the way in which it is разбира, they always complement one another and combine with one another.
Which does not entail that one society is not more traditional and more closed than another. Classical Athens is more open than classical Sparta and more closed than contemporary Sofia respectively, which is more open than Karnobat and more closed and traditionally устроена constructed than modern Paris. Yes, but in another respect Paris is more closed than contemporary incomparably more chaotic and in this sense badly OPEN Sofia. In other words, open and closed are not values in themselves as Karl Popper sees them, but degrees of value attribution, which intersect with other value attributions. 

Researching ancient Greek literature on the one hand helped me elucidate aspects of modernity, and on the other, unlike the tradition of classical philology, made me look for arguments from other fields. For the latter I will give an example with a prominent world famous researcher and a classical philologist – Walter Burkert, author of the magnificent study “Homo Necans”, dedicated to the relation ritual-myth on the topic of offering sacrifice. Burkert has found and attained the balance between the tradition of classical philology and contemporary science, something I did not really manage to do. He works, weighing many facts, data and arguments on the model of the great classical philology of the ХІХ century, but daringly relies in his thesis on a modern theory – that of Freud in his book “Totem and taboo”.

Twenty years after the first edition of “Homo Necans” (1982), in the fifteenth reprint of 1997 Burkert adds an afterword: in order to function well, classical philology should open to anthropology and ethnography; such opening he achieved in “Homo Necans”, but overdid it and it now seemed incorrect and he questioned it. I also acted more or less the same way. I dragged in approaches foreign to classical philology, then I questioned them and changed them with others. I did it, of course, much more liberally in the bad sense of the word, undeterred by a true guiding correcting institution. 

In this dragging in I also did the opposite – I imported in the present times this or that feature of antiquity. This is what I did with Plato’s dialogic hermeneutics; I turned it into a kind of method for a more efficient humanitarian thinking. Its dialogical nature by the way helped me not to deceive myself that a universal method is possible. Because one way or the other, however disciplined and well ordered a scientific community is, scholars in the humanities cannot reach a unified scientific speech. The only thing which is more certain is that any area of speeches can be studied and analyzed critically. 

In fact such an area of speeches is also literature. Which is the second definition of literature according to the hermeneutic understanding presented by me – literature is a set of literary ways of speaking, of discourses, of literary speeches. My research on literature convinced me that literary people work with a small number of discourses. It is clear why. Because they are captivated by everyday talk, and it does not bear many differentiations. The typical literary analyses are engaged with genre discussions, narration, plot, dialogue and monologue, direct and reported speech at best. While literary discourses are more numerous and also they merge into one another. To determine their number and for them to enter the practice of literary analyses, arduous work is required on the part of many researchers and scientific teams, and also a general change in understanding. Literary discourses are not meaningfully irrelative external forms, but are in a way carriers of minimal framework meaning in the literary text. Contributory to this complex meaning formation are also the discourses, the topics that are developed in the text, and the contexts that we mentioned. 

A complex construction of texts, the literary text can be interpreted diversely, but it is also a single whole. On the plane of content this wholeness is guaranteed by the world and reality modeled in it. Modeled means: 1. depicting the outside world and reality (Aristotelian mimesis), 2. following the conception of a cultural environment about them (so-called context), and 3. constructing a particular world and reality in the literary text, which are different from both the presumed external and the contextual world and reality. This is not easy to comprehend especially after the habits of understanding that are remnants from the age of structuralism and formalist thinking, which rightfully rejected a number of other ideas about the content of literary texts, and also the fuzzy concepts of world and reality. However, I return to them, and make a distinction between world and reality and try to distinguish their external manifestation from the literary contextual one and from their realization in the literary text. But one way or the other, there is no extensively elaborated or approved methodology.

Thirdly, literature is both the making and using of literary texts. It is a medium for a special kind of communications. Which I presented in the broad outline of the use of literary texts in antiquity and modernity. In tune with what has already been said, in both environments literary texts are used in order to achieve something which cannot be accomplished in another way. In this similarity between the two environments there is a significant difference – the individual person is the one using the text in contemporary culture, even when he is at the theatre and is watching together with others, while in antiquity the individual has as an intermediary an organic group of people with whom he is connected. 

But who are the communicators who by exchanging messages achieve something? One is the individual person, also in antique literary communication, independent of the important mediation of the festive community. The other is neither the author nor the text. The assertion that the reader communicates with the text is a false metaphor. Who this other is is understood by what is achieved in the act of literary communication – with the help of the literary text the individual enters into relations with an ideal other, with whom he exchanges meanings and content. It is clear what happens to the person interpreting the text.

But what happens to the ideal other? From just outlined in the text, he acquires density, or so to say, comes to life. Such coming to life of the possible other happens on the stage of the theatre of Dionysus. There is also a mental, notional coming alive. This is when the text is read and разбира by a reader. Reading resembles what happens to a chess player who is playing against himself and inevitably divides into two, one of which is so to say more himself. This communicating relation can also be expressed in the following terms – through understanding of the literary text man communicates with himself as with another person. 

Concerning ancient man, who listens to the text together with others, the mediation of the collective body of the others and the heroic character of the personage whose story under interpretation, point well to the direction of this communication – it is elevation of the person communicating with himself as with another, which is facilitated by the group and the hero in the text. It is clear that this elevation is also a kind of socializing, transcends itself to cosmic dimensions. It is the same in the contemporary case of understanding of the text by the individual reader, although the social environment and the cosmos in the present times are different. Through the ideality formed in this process of understanding the individual enters the virtual community of others such as him, who just like him are also elevated in this way.

Among all these lasting положения, common for the contemporary and ancient literary situation, are the definitions of literature: 1. literature – set of texts and the hypertext formed by them, 2. literature – set of discourses and an inevitable representative discourse, and 3. literature – set of communicative situations, one of which usually represents the rest. These definitions can certainly be more. The only thing I insist on is that in order to think about literature more effectively, it is proper that we make use of more definitions.

I also presented ancient Greek literature with more general rather than specific claims. In order to recompense this, I will formulate two claims that seem to concern only ancient Greek literature. Insofar as it is something connected and can be reduced to a hypertext, it seems to me that defining for this hypertext is the following model of reality, which can easily be considered the “Sancta Sanctorum” of the ancient Greek literary and cultural environment. We can represent it with the following “we”- statement – we live in a concrete human world; in order to understand it we have to get out of it (not completely but to a certain extent!) and to step on a platform, from which both our world and the other, non-our world is visible; our life is a pulsating hesitation between the difficult to coordinate values of the temporary here and now with the whole and lasting beyond. A special literature in which the ideal and the powerful is both marked by the beyond and achieved in a secular way. A special expanded secular- non-secular world. 

Ancient Greek literature is presented in another historical hypertext as a transition from one to another – from oral to written literature, from listened to read literature, from collectively perceived to individually used, from presented at festivals high speech, different from the quotidian, to speech little different from it. A slow approaching to the uninteresting everyday routine. Which, however, does not happen. Due to two reasons - because antique everyday life does not manage to become an independent world with a significant meaning and because the presupposed initial festive transcendentalism, by binding the compensatory literary speech to the model of the whole, the lasting and the ideal, staunchly safeguards its non-literariness. Or put in another way, in its many centuries of development ancient Greek literature tries to become literature in the narrow sense of the word, but after a temporary relative success along the middle of this path, it rather fails. 

Success in this direction is in store in the future European literary development and seems to materialize in the New Age – literature becomes literature in the narrow sense of the word, it becomes possible for every person to use literary texts, without the mediation of this or that human multitude. This is only a possibility, of course, which in fact remains нереализирана completely and which inevitably gives rise to genres of literature and art resembling the presented ancient literary situation.


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 AN ATTEMPT ON THE IDEA OF THE “SELF” - OR A REMARK ON DERRIDA’S TEXTS
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