Thanks to jamessal’s prodding, I’ve been working to free myself of my compulsion to read every single piece in the periodicals I subscribe to, and with judicious skimming and skipping (a ten-page essay on the privatization of the NHS? No thanks!) I’ve managed to get the backlog of TLSs and NYRBs down to a reasonable two each (one being read, one on deck). This frees me to devote my full attention to those articles that remind me why I subscribe, like Denis Feeney’s LRB review of Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic by Peter White. Feeney starts off with Petrarch’s discovery in 1345 of a manuscript of Cicero’s letters, which “enraptured” him, “providing him with a moment of first contact not unlike that of Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamun’s tomb and murmuring that he could see ‘wonderful things’.” He then corrects that naive impression:
As Peter White demonstrates, however, in his characteristically incisive and learned book, Cicero’s letters do not provide a window into his soul, any more than the numerous letters from his many correspondents provide a window into theirs (some of them seem to have lacked souls altogether). The letters are more unfamiliar than they appear at first, and less like the unguardedly candid outpourings that Petrarch thought they were. We don’t ‘hear’ Cicero speaking as we read; the letters require patient interpretation before we can understand the kind of artefact they are and the kind of environment from which they arose…
The letters as we have them may well have been arranged in order to shape our sense of Cicero’s persona and significance, but we also have to allow systematically for what White calls ‘the letter-writing habits of a particular Roman milieu’. Those represented in the collection are almost exclusively the great beasts of the Roman political jungle, men for whom every aspect of every interaction had potential political resonance. These people lived in a goldfish bowl, always on view, always being assessed, and our partitions between the public and the private worlds are not ones that mean very much in this environment. White deploys his encyclopedic knowledge of the collection and its personnel to re-create a world in which letters had a crucial role to play in keeping the gears of political interaction oiled and smoothly connecting. What look like confiding moments regularly turn out to be quasi-formulaic techniques for mutual status grooming; the references to contemporary literature, for example, are not the random leavings of a well-stocked literary mind but part of a system of relationship management.
I still had that eye-opening last sentence in my mind when I turned to another chunk of reading material, Late Soviet Culture from Perestroika to Novostroika, edited by Thomas Lahusen and Gene Kuperman, a heterogeneous collection of essays, mainly written for a 1990 colloquium; I was in the middle of Evgeny Dobrenko’s “The Literature of the Zhdanov Era: Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon,” in which the author manfully grapples with the dreadful pseudoliterature of the late ’40s and early ’50s, which he freely admits that no normal person would choose to read but which he thinks it the duty of literary historians to analyze. After pointing out that any real criticism had been ruled out of bounds by the demands of politics, he writes that “It must always be remembered that in the criticism of these years there was nothing accidental — ‘private’ opinions were practically absent here.” I thought that was a remarkable confluence of ideas concerning two very different eras and situations.
Incidentally, the essay (translated from Russian) has the worst equivalent of the (admittedly difficult) word конъюнктура—something like ‘state of affairs, juncture,’ with overtones of the political requirements of the moment—I’ve ever seen. For reasons best known to the translator, it’s rendered “marketability.”