The Beasts at Ephesus.

John Cowan sent me a link to Daniel Frayer-Griggs, “The Beasts at Ephesus and the Cult of Artemis,” Harvard Theological Review 106 (2013): 459-477, a detailed exegesis of 1 Cor 15:32, which begins “εἰ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ἐθηριοµάχησα ἐν Ἐϕέσῳ, τί µοι τὸ ὄϕελος;” The King James Bible renders the full sentence “If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?” I have always found this line mysterious and wonderful, and I have myself seen the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, so I was particularly interested in the article, which is full of good stuff. Frayer-Griggs discusses the difference between Greek and Asiatic Artemis, saying that by the first century “Ephesian Artemis had appropriated the attributes of Greek Artemis.” He refers to “Xenophon’s Ephesiaka, a magnificent novel from sometime in the second century C.E.,” which makes me want to check it out. He focuses on “the difficult phrase κατὰ ἄνθρωπον,” mentioning

suggestions including the following: “with merely human hopes,” that is, without hope for the resurrection; “man-wise,” whatever that might mean; “humanly speaking,” suggesting the figurative nature of Paul’s statement, or even “according to human folly,” indicating that the story of Paul’s beast fight was a false report.

He himself concludes:

In this instance, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον may thus be translated “in the image of humankind,” “in human form,” or “in human likeness.” The first clause of our verse may accordingly be rendered, “If at Ephesus I fought with beasts in human form.”

The final sentence: “If Paul’s claim to have fought with beasts in Ephesus is in fact an allusive instance of anti-Artemis rhetoric, it may be the earliest known example of a developing tradition of early Christian polemic against the goddess and her cult.” If any of this sounds intriguing, I recommend reading the whole thing.


  1. des von bladet says

    (Don’t tell anyone, but I was cheering for the animals.)

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    @des von bladet:

    And now it turns out there weren’t any. Bummer.

    If I hadn’t known this passage was supposed to be unclear, I wouldn’t have had any difficulty with it: I’d just have understood it along the lines “I fought in a wild beast show – on human level.” It was carnage out there, I tell you!

    I think it’s basically the placement of ‘kata anthropon’ before the verb which confuses. But it’s not a novel observation that Christianity’s first theologian is not always its most pellucid.

    DFG’s idea seems ingenious but unprovable.

  3. DFG’s idea seems ingenious but unprovable.

    Yes, but “ingenious but unprovable” is about the best you can hope for with passages that have puzzled interpreters for a couple of millennia.

  4. And of course even if Paul were revived and said “Here’s what I meant,” there would be plenty of people to point out that his was only one interpretation, by no means privileged by his status as author, or “author.”

  5. There is also a question of transcription. How do we know that those words are exactly what Paul wrote and not some mistake or correction.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    “O sir!” she exclaimed.

    “Quite,” Anthony said. “But Ephesus, you know–”

    “Ephesus, sir?” she asked, more doubtfully still, as he laid his hand on
    the door.

    “My dear,” he said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the reference, but your
    mistress will. It was where St. Paul had trouble with the wild beasts.
    Go and ask her. Goodnight.”

    From Charles Williams’ “The Place of the Lion.”

    In the novel the “wild beasts” are indeed people transformed into beasts. Charles Williams fans (if there are any left apart from me) will understand immediately that this is just exactly the sort of thing which happens in a Charles Williams novel.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    The article doesn’t mention manuscript variation in this passage, which may not be enough to conclude that there isn’t any, but still . . . In any event the standard theory (which may be too pat) is that scribal emendation tends to make obscure passages clearer not the other way around. It would, come to think of it, be an interesting study to see if NT passages with a hapax legomenon are more or less likely as a statistical to show manuscript variation. For all I know, scribes might have paid more attention than usual when there was a weird (perhaps famously so, in their professional circles) word in the verse being copied and were thus less likely to emend inadvertently.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua, as me old dad used to say.

  9. So you’re Bengelius’s kid, eh?

  10. Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues. Poetry is a disinterested use of words: it does not address a reader directly. […] It is not only tradition that impels a poet to invoke a Muse and protest that his utterance is involuntary. Nor is it strained wit that causes Mr. MacLeish, in his famous Ars Poetica, to apply the words “mute,” “dumb,” and “wordless” to a poem. The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard.

    The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with.

    The poet may of course have some critical ability of his own, and so be able to talk about his own work. But the Dante who writes a commentary on the first canto of the Paradiso is merely one more of Dante’s critics. What he says has a peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority. It is generally accepted that a critic is a better judge of the value of a poem than its creator, but there is still a lingering notion that it is somehow ridiculous to regard the critic as the final judge of its meaning, even though in practice it is clear that he must be. […]

    Part of the critic’s reason for feeling that poets can be properly assessed only after their death is that they are then unable to presume on their merits as poets to tease him with hints of inside knowledge. When Ibsen maintains that Emperor and Galilean is his greatest play and that certain episodes in Peer Gynt are not allegorical, one can only say that Ibsen is an indifferent critic of Ibsen. Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is a remarkable document, but as a piece of Wordsworthian, criticism nobody would give it more than about a B plus.

    Critics of Shakespeare are often supposed to be ridiculed by the assertion that if Shakespeare were to come back from the dead he would not be able to appreciate or even understand their criticism. This in itself is likely enough: we have little evidence of Shakespeare’s interest in criticism, either of himself or of anyone else. Even if there were such evidence, his own account of what he was trying to do in Hamlet would no more be a definitive criticism of that play, clearing all its puzzles up for good, than a performance of it under his direction would be a definitive performance.

    —Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

  11. All perfectly sensible, except for the bit about how the critic must be the final judge of a poem’s meaning. (Emphasis added.)

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Nestle-Aland doesn’t record any variants at that point as far as I can see.

    The Vulgate just has “Si secundum hominem ad bestias pugnavi Ephesi” which is really just as literal version as may be of the Greek, so Jerome evidently didn’t have any particular bright ideas on the interpretation.

    The Peshitta has

    אן איך דבית בני נשא אשתדית לחיותא באפסוס

    “if as among men I was thrown to the animals at Ephesus” (Eh?)

    Neither version supports the idea that κατὰ ἄνθρωπον means anything much like “in human likeness”, though the obvious comeback is that neither Jerome nor the Peshitta translator understood Paul any more clearly than we do …

    If Jerome had understood it like that, he would presumably have said “ad bestias secundum hominem”, which even so would be an odd way of conveying that meaning; and the Syriac version can’t be understood that way as far as I can see. Again, the translators may have just misunderstood, of course; it’s not as if the translations themselves are particularly perspicuous, either.

    Come to think of it there is a purely linguistic point in this: if DFG is correct, the phrase κατὰ ἄνθρωπον is modifying *part* of a compound verb. This sort of thing (stranded modifier after incorporation) certainly happens in Eskimo; not so sure about Greek.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    “So you’re Bengelius’s kid, eh?”

    Ah. Busted. “Eddyshaw” is a pseudonym.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Dunno, though. I think I’m protesting too much.

    Basically the Greek is “I – à la human being – fought with wild beasts” and DFG’s interpretation of it isn’t such a stretch. In fact his interpretation isn’t really radically different from the naive one I would have made myself; either way the Ephesians get to be pretty beastly.

    What it surely *can’t* mean is that Paul literally fought with literal wild beasts, unless you assume that the whole κατὰ ἄνθρωπον thing is pious corrective footnote added by some early scribe shocked by the statement as it originally stood. Accidental incorporation of comments in texts is far from unknown of course, and it would account for the undoubted oddity of the text as it stands. On the other hand, there is exactly zero textual evidence of this …

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Simpler yet: it’s all in the punctuation. Like the Trotsky telegram joke. If Paul had had brackets, he’d have put them round κατὰ ἄνθρωπον. It’s a clarifying aside to show he means his wild beast show metaphorically.

    Reminds me of the comment that whole pages of Greek philosophy and numerous errors could have been avoided if they’d only invented quote marks.

  16. If Paul had literally fought with wild beasts, he surely would have been killed: in any case, as a Roman citizen he should have been exempt. Frayer-Griggs makes both these points.

  17. David Eddyshaw says


    Quite so; what I meant was that quite apart from the extralinguistic facts, you can’t even really interpret the text as we have it to mean that.

    I think Frayer-Griggs’ proposed translation of κατὰ ἄνθρωπον as “in human form” is not really feasible in this context; on the other hand, I don’t think that vitiates his main point (that Paul is obliquely referencing the cult of Artemis), though it doesn’t seem possible to confirm that without asking Paul …

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Incidentally my copy of the Syriac Bible has a minor pause mark after the “as among men” translation of κατὰ ἄνθρωπον; not much idea how venerable or reliable such things are in Syriac tradition, but it does at least show that someone who knew the Syriac understood that part as parenthetical rather than as modifying the “wild beasts.”

    Of course this means only that he agreed with most other commentators, and it could still be just a more or less ancient misunderstanding.

    On the other hand it’s pretty difficult to construe the Syriac any other way, and the Peshitta is (a) early and (b) usually regarded as a pretty good translation as far as the NT goes.

    As I say though, even if you deny that κατὰ ἄνθρωπον could mean “in human likeness” or could be modifying -θηριο- even if it did, it doesn’t mean that the overall interpretation (as opposed to the narrow translation) is necessarily wrong.

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    Paul as translated into English sometimes uses parentheses or other punctuation not present in the Greek MSS to make a complicated structure easier to follow, as e.g. the “whether in the body, I cannot tell” etc disclaimer in 2 Cor 12:2. But this first requires the translators to construe the Greek in a way that will make punctuating the English that way seem to follow.

  20. Amendment: 1 Corinthians 15:22 in the Peshitta seems to be:

    ܐܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܒܝܬ ܒܢܝܢܫܐ ܐܫܬܕܝܬ ܠܚܝܘܬܐ ܒܐܦܤܘܤ
    אן איך דבית בנינשא אשתדית לחיותא באפסוס

    The verse as David Eddyshaw posted it returns no Google hits. The text above, in Syriac script, gets 155 hits; it makes one word out of two in DE’s post: בנינשא , bnainash or possibly bnainasha (Modern Hebrew: bnai enosh בני אנוש, sons of man, i.e., humans). DE’s version fits with Modern Hebrew; I can’t judge the Aramaic and it took some pondering to tease out the meaning. The only other word (in English it’s a phrase) I can for sure make out is דבית de-bayt of the house of. The penultimate word (phrase) has something to do with life/living or wild animals (the words are related in both Biblical and Modern Hebrew). Had I for sure known the context, I might have hazarded a guess that the last word (phrase) meant “at Ephesus.”

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    I transcribed it into Hebrew (well, square Aramaic) letters because I can’t type Syriac on this machine; as the alphabets match one-for-one, it works OK.

    Bnainasha is indeed written as one word in the original. Just me typing carelessly (though it is of course etymologically a compound “sons of man” as you recognised.)

    d-bayt is etymologically “of the house” but actually used for “among.”

    The last but one word is indeed l-chaywa:tha: “to the animals”; and you rightly recognised the last word as b-Ephsos.

    Syriac is very similar in fact to the Babylonian Jewish Aramaic of the Gemara – and to Classical Mandaic; really the same language divided by religion, like some modern languages one might mention.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    d-beyth, not d-bayt, sorry. Actually I don’t think it is historically is the construct of “house”; it functions as a form of the word which surfaces in Hebrew as bayn “between” and is probably contracted from bayna:th.

    I wouldn’t want to mislead you on this point …

  23. surfaces in Hebrew as bayn “between”

    Got it! Also means “among.”

    Aramaic has a weird habit of adding a T letter (ת) to some words. Famously (to me, anyway) in logos (In the beginning was the Word, etc.) which is written as milta מילתא in Aramaic and as mila מילה in Hebrew. Or maybe somewhere along the line (pre-biblical) Hebrew dropped the T . . .

  24. Isn’t it cool to see Aramaic in parallel Syriac and square (modern Hebrew) scripts right here on LH in the text of a comment‽ Up Unicode!

  25. Isn’t it cool to see Aramaic in parallel Syriac and square (modern Hebrew) scripts right here on LH in the text of a comment‽ Up Unicode!

    Sure is!

    If you can read the Aramaic square (modern Hebrew) script, then with a Nimitz-class squint you can make out some, and maybe most, of the letters of the Syriac script.

  26. @Paul Ogden: I ‘m pretty sure that the Aramaic T is the feminine, corresponding to the Hebrew H. The alef on the Aramaic was originally a determiner that’s lost its force. (I don’t seem to be able to do the original letters without my browser acting up.)

  27. Trond Engen says

    David Eddyshaw: d-beyth, not d-bayt, sorry. Actually I don’t think it is historically is the construct of “house”; it functions as a form of the word which surfaces in Hebrew as bayn “between” and is probably contracted from bayna:th.

    Paul Ogden: Got it! Also means “among.”

    Although note the possible parallel with French chez, WScand. hjå, EScand. hos, all prepositions meaning “on the premises of, among”.

  28. Trond Engen says

    “in the home of” is better.

  29. except for the bit about how the critic must be the final judge

    Well, authors die eventually (and none too soon, some critics think), but more critics are always coming along, at least for cases like Shakespeare. From later in the same essay:

    In Shakespearean criticism we have a fine monument of Augustan taste in Johnson, of Romantic taste in Coleridge, of Victorian taste in Bradley. The ideal critic of Shakespeare, we feel, would avoid the Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian limitations and prejudices respectively of Johnson, Coleridge, and Bradley. But we have no clear notion of progress in the criticism of Shakespeare, or of how a critic who read all his predecessors could, as a result, become anything better than a monument of contemporary taste, with all its limitations and prejudices.

    Ah, the hell with it, I’ll quote what follows too, though it’s not immediately to the point:

    In other words, there is as yet no way of distinguishing what is genuine criticism, and therefore progresses toward making the whole of literature intelligible, from what belongs only to the history of taste, and therefore follows the vacillations of fashionable prejudice. I give an example of the difference between the two which amounts to a head-on collision. In one of his curious, brilliant, scatter-brained footnotes to Munera Pulveris, John Ruskin says:

    Of Shakespeare’s names I will afterwards speak at more length; they are curiously — often barbarously — mixed out of various traditions and languages. Three of the clearest in meaning have been already noticed. Desdemona — δυσδαιμονία, “miserable fortune” — is also plain enough. Othello is, I believe, “the careful”; all the calamity of the tragedy arising from the single flaw and error in his magnificently collected strength. Ophelia, “serviceableness,” the true, lost wife of Hamlet, is marked as having a Greek name by that of her brother Laertes; and its signification is once exquisitely alluded to in that brother’s last word of her, where her gentle preciousness is opposed to the uselessness of the churlish clergy: “A ministering angel shall my sister be, when thou liest howling.”

    On this passage Matthew Arnold comments as follows :

    Now, really, what a piece of extravagance all that is! I will not say that the meaning of Shakespeare’s names (I put aside the question as to the correctness of Mr. Ruskin’s etymologies) has no effect at all, may be entirely lost sight of; but to give it that degree of prominence is to throw the reins to one’s whim, to forget all moderation and proportion, to lose the balance of one’s mind altogether. It is to show in one’s criticism, to the highest excess, the note of provinciality.

    Now whether Ruskin is right or wrong, he is attempting genuine criticism. He is trying to interpret Shakespeare in terms of a conceptual framework which belongs to the critic alone, and yet relates itself to the plays alone. Arnold is perfectly right in feeling that this is not the sort of material that the public critic can directly use. But he does not seem even to suspect the existence of a systematic criticism as distinct from the history of taste.

    Here it is Arnold who is the provincial. Ruskin has learned his trade from the great iconological tradition which comes down through Classical and Biblical scholarship into Dante and Spenser, both of whom he had studied carefully, and which is incorporated in the medieval cathedrals he had pored over in such detail. Arnold is assuming, as a universal law of nature, certain “plain sense” critical axioms which were hardly heard of before Dryden’s time and which can assuredly not survive the age of Freud and Jung and Frazer and Cassirer.

  30. But we have no clear notion of progress in the criticism of Shakespeare, or of how a critic who read all his predecessors could, as a result, become anything better than a monument of contemporary taste, with all its limitations and prejudices.

    I see I’ve been more affected by postmodernism than I would have guessed, because my immediate reaction to that is “How could anyone think that there could be such a thing as progress in the criticism of Shakespeare, or that a critic could be anything other than a monument of contemporary taste?”

  31. Well, of course a critic can be many things other than a monument of contemporary taste, but they can’t help being that, any more than an image of ancient Rome or the far future can help being visibly of its time once that time has passed. The idea of supratemporal objectivity is an illusion.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    @Paul Ogden:

    “Or maybe somewhere along the line (pre-biblical) Hebrew dropped the T . . .”

    Yes. Even Phoenician, which was very close to Hebrew, nevertheless still had the -t in the feminine singular absolute.

    Aramaic in the feminine sg absolute state has also lost the t, though it’s preserved in the construct (as in Hebrew) and in the “emphatic” state which by the era of Syriac had become the usual unmarked form; it seems to have begun as a form with a suffixed definite marker. מילתא is the emphatic state.

    [ In Syriac the only place the old absolute really regularly turns up is with adjectives used predicatively, though there are quite a lot of other (often more or less set) expressions where it survives, for example with adverbial uses of nouns. I’ve seen it suggested that Middle Aramaic has repurposed the older Aramaic absolute vs emphatic contrast so that the absolute forms are basically filling the role of the Akkadian predicative forms, but it seems to me it wouldn’t be a very unnatural development in any case from a previous indefinite vs definite contrast. ]

    Muhammad’s own dialect of Arabic (via -h) along with all the modern forms of Arabic have also lost the t in absolute forms, either as a purely coincidental development or maybe via some obscure process of diffusion.

    But the Semitic comparative evidence is unequivocally for -(a)t- as the original feminine singular marker; and well beyond that in the rest of Afroasiatic, come to that.

  33. @David Eddyshaw:

    Wonderful elucidation. Thanks. (I do recall reading somewhere about -(a)t- as the feminine singular marker in Ancient Egyptian, and that it is one of the bits of evidence that links the African-Asian (Semitic) languages.)

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    @Paul Ogden:

    Yup. Egyptian had -t for the feminine singular (even more consistently than Semitic.)

    sn “brother” snt “sister” (no vowels in hieroglyphic)

    In an accidental echo of the situation in Semitic, the -t was lost very early in actual speech (as opposed to hieroglyphic spelling.)

    Ultimately in Coptic: son “brother” so:ne “sister.” (Typing Coptic is well beyond me.)

    I say “accidental” because in Egyptian this didn’t just happen to the t of feminine nouns but affected pretty much all word-final t d r sounds, which probably became glottal stops to begin with. They may still be that even in Coptic but the interpretation of the orthography is difficult.

  35. fisheyed says

    “How could anyone think that there could be such a thing as progress in the criticism of Shakespeare”

    Is it that impossible? Discovery of new manuscripts, discovery of manuscripts of other plays that have overlapping lines, computational linguistics estimating authorship for the co-authored plays, additional philological knowledge… ?

    Isn’t there an empirical component to criticism?

  36. Well, sure, but I don’t think that’s what Frye was talking about.

  37. Isn’t there an empirical component to criticism?

    Precisely, and Hat’s postmodernism up there is really pre-modernism. Frye again:

    If criticism exists, it must be an examination of literature in terms of a conceptual framework derivable from an inductive survey of the literary field. The word “inductive” suggests some sort of scientific procedure. What if criticism is a science as well as an art? Not a “pure” or “exact” science, of course, but these phrases belong to a nineteenth-century cosmology which is no longer with us. The writing of history is an art, but no one doubts that scientific principles are involved in the historian’s treatment of evidence, and that the presence of this scientific element is what distinguishes history from legend.

    It may also be a scientific element in criticism which distinguishes it from literary parasitism on the one hand, and the superimposed critical attitude on the other. The presence of science in any subject changes its character from the casual to the causal, from the random and intuitive to the systematic, as well as safeguarding the integrity of that subject from external invasions. However, if there are any readers for whom the word “scientific” conveys emotional overtones of unimaginative barbarism, they may substitute “systematic” or “progressive” instead. [Obviously this will not include the Hat!]

    It seems absurd to say that there may be a scientific element in criticism when there are dozens of learned journals based on the assumption that there is, and hundreds of scholars engaged in a scientific procedure related to literary criticism. Evidence is examined scientifically; previous authorities are used scientifically; fields are investigated scientifically; texts are edited scientifically. Prosody is scientific in structure; so is phonetics; so is philology. Either literary criticism is scientific, or all these highly trained and intelligent scholars are wasting their time on some kind of pseudo-science like phrenology.

    Yet one is forced to wonder whether scholars realize the implications of the fact that their work is scientific. In the growing complication of secondary sources one misses that sense of consolidating progress which belongs to a science. Research begins in what is known as “background,” and one would expect it, as it goes on, to start organizing the foreground as well. Telling us what we should know about literature ought to fulfil itself in telling us something about what it is. As soon as it comes to this point, scholarship seems to be dammed by some kind of barrier, and washes back into further research projects.

    The development of a science of literature, in short, is what Frye is after, in the same sense that linguistics is a science of language, and as such quite independent of just-so stories about etymology, or prescriptivism in writing, or guff about “primitive” languages, or all the other things Hat regularly denounces here.

  38. Yes, I was going to say that Frye wants to treat criticism is a science; in this he is very much a man of his positivist time. Linguistics is a science; criticism is not, and the attempt to make it one can only end in (very dry) tears.

  39. Yes, I was going to say that Frye wants to treat criticism is a science; in this he is very much a man of his positivist time.

    Long moons ago I almost literally bumped into Frye, just after moving into an apartment near the University of Toronto. It was in a smallish downtown mall, I was seeking the liquor store I had been told was in there, and he provided excellent directions immediately after I congratulated him on the publication of The Great Code. I’m sure he would have provided the directions even had I not proffered the kudos.

  40. fisheyed says

    Linguistics is a science; criticism is not, and the attempt to make it one can only end in (very dry) tears.

    I read people claiming to “translate” from languages they don’t actuallly know (including Sean O’Brien who I otherwise think is the GOOT), people writing criticism of poems they can’t even scan (there is a notorious example with Marjorie Perloff), people who think criticism is just a matter of poltically-tinged pontificating that I am inclined to take the “science” side of the argument because someone needs to.

  41. David Marjanović says

    Hm. Now that I think of it…

    Warning: I don’t know Greek. Before this post I didn’t even know it nounincorporated.

    Couldn’t “I beastfought” mean “I fought like a beast”, so that adding κατὰ ἄνθρωπον would produce “if I, being human, fought like a wild beast”?

    The word “inductive” suggests some sort of scientific procedure.

    Those were the times…

    The development of a science of literature, in short, is what Frye is after

    Of course such a science exists. My sister has a degree in vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, aka Komparatistik. I’ve read her thesis; yep, plenty of hypothesis testing in there.

    That’s just not the same as criticism, despite a large overlap. Ultimately, criticism asks “is it good?”, “do I like it?” – and that’s not a scientific question.

  42. That’s just not the same as criticism, despite a large overlap. Ultimately, criticism asks “is it good?”, “do I like it?” – and that’s not a scientific question.


  43. Trond Engen says

    I want to read it as If it was for the sake of humans that I fought the beasts of Ephesos, what could I gain from that? But I don’t know any Greek either.

  44. Now you’re just fussing over names. You don’t want to call what Frye was doing “criticism” because it’s fact-based and not value-based, fine, find a different label. But as David says, there is a Literaturwissenschaft as well as a Literaturkritik, and the fact that (as says) we have only one name for both in the anglophone lands is like the problem that we have only one word for libre and gratuit to talk about free software.

  45. Somewhere in Anatomy of Criticism (I’m never on the computer in the same building as the book I want to quote is), Frye quotes another critic saying that “there are positions to be taken” etc., and says this is what we have to get past because “there are no positions to be taken in chemistry.” Well, I’d changed my major to English from chemistry, and I knew damn well that there were positions to be taken in theoretical chemistry. Frye’s 1950s idea of criticism as a science was based on an idealistic misunderstanding of science.

    That said, when I met Frye at a reception in my first week of grad school in 1968, I confess I was like, “Aaahh, I’ve got Northrop Frye rays going through me.”

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Science is not so much a body of doctrine as an attitude: being prepared systematically to admit that what you thought you knew was wrong, and actively seeking evidence bearing on the issue.

    Pretty much anything at all can be investigated scientifically, given that there are at least some data that all parties can agree on. Not all intellectual activity by scientists is “science”; nothing precludes supposedly nonscientific areas of culture being approached scientifically.

    What *will* vary is how fruitful this can be expected to be. In physics it has been amazingly so; but no sane person would try to investigate his friendships scientifically (in science it is the sin against the Holy Ghost to persist in believing something in the teeth of the evidence; in friendship, it may be a considerable virtue.)

    Criticism can certainly be scientific; the only question is whether criticism of that kind might not at the end of the day turn out to be the duller and less fruitful part.

  47. fisheyed says

    Ultimately, criticism asks “is it good?”, “do I like it?” – and that’s not a scientific question.

    I thought criticism asked “what does it mean?”…

    One of my favorite examples of the emprical smackdown, from Terry Castle’s review of Joan Acocella’s book on Willa Cather:

    Acocella’s most magnificent potshot is reserved for Eve Sedgwick, reigning doyenne of ‘queer’ literary studies in the United States and occasional commentator on the new crypto-homo Cather. In a 1989 essay on The Professor’s House, Sedgwick argued that while the novel might seem painfully ‘heterosexist’ on the surface, a queer-friendly reader could nonetheless discern in it its author’s powerful covert rebellion against hegemonic ‘heteronormativity’. Sedgwick’s signal piece of evidence (alas) was the multi-syllabic name that Cather bestowed – in the last sentence of the novel – on the ship on which the professor’s wife and daughter sail home from Europe: the Berengaria. Deconstructing this odd nautical monicker, Sedgwick finds it burgeoning with erotic puns and Gertrude Steinian word play:

    Berengaria: ship of women: the {green} {aria}, the {eager} {brain}, the {bearing} and the {bairn}, the {raring} {engine}, the {bargain} {binge}, the {ban} and {bar}, the {garbage}, the {barrage} of {anger}, the {bare} {grin}, the {rage} to {err}, the {rare} {grab} for {being}, the {begin} and {rebegin} {again}.

    Such readerly jouissance proves costly, however. Zeroing in on this ballast-heavy, deliciously listing target, Acocella does not hesitate to blow Sedgwick out of the water:

    This list of anagrams, which must have taken a while to work out, supposedly reveals the maelstrom of lesbian energies churning beneath the surface of The Professor’s House, energies that Cather was venting when she gave the ship that strange name. Yes, Sedgwick says, the name has a historical meaning – Berengaria was the wife of Richard the Lion-Hearted – but otherwise it is a ‘nonsense word’. She apparently does not know that it was the name of a real ship, a famous Cunard ocean liner, on which Cather had returned from Europe immediately before starting work on The Professor’s House.

  48. fisheyed says

    no sane person would try to investigate his friendships scientifically (in science it is the sin against the Holy Ghost to persist in believing something in the teeth of the evidence; in friendship, it may be a considerable virtue.)

    I profoundly disagree that it is ever a virtue to believe something in the teeth of evidence. Oh my god, that is what makes people look away from chlid molesters. Some of Vivian Gornick’s essays, which I very much like, are empirical examinations of friendship, not scientific experiments of course but maybe something like natural history?

    Truth is beauty.

  49. David Eddyshaw says


    “that is what makes people look away from chlid molesters”

    Abusus non tollit usum.

    I am not maintaining that believing well of a friend, despite what seems to be evidence that one’s trust is misplaced, is necessarily sensible or invariably virtuous; but it certainly may be the right thing on occasion.

    If one only ever believed in a friend under the same circumstances as one would believe in a stranger, it would argue for a very defective notion of friendship.

    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”; neither proposition is invariably true, unless one decides a priori to make that a definition of beauty. As a declaration of purpose in finding a terrible beauty in the way things are, it may be noble; as a statement of how things are, it is false (though beautiful.)

  50. I thought criticism asked “what does it mean?”…

    Yes, good point, but that’s not a scientific question either. The idea that one could come up with a new analysis of, say, Homer that would blow out of the water all previous analyses the way Einstein blew away previous understandings of the universe seems to me profoundly wrongheaded.

  51. Yes, good point, but that’s not a scientific question either. The idea that one could come up with a new analysis of, say, Homer that would blow out of the water all previous analyses the way Einstein blew away previous understandings of the universe seems to me profoundly wrongheaded.

    Not to the same degree maybe but there are examples of critical assertions being invalidated. The Acocella example I posted is an example of the critic proving another critic’s interpretation was based on false empirical premises, and so was invalid.

    Marjorie Perloff dismissed Georgia Douglas’ Heart of a Woman as chugging ip, when it is neither iambic nor pentameter. That is easily blown out of the water, and weakens her argument.

    Can’t there be new epigraphic evidence that changes the meanings of certain words and invalidates previous analysis of Homer?

  52. The Acocella example I posted is an example of the critic proving another critic’s interpretation was based on false empirical premises, and so was invalid.

    Yes, but that was akin to writing F on a child’s paper. When I talk about critics, I mean ones who are to be taken seriously, not people who can’t understand obvious references.

  53. Rodger C: We discussed this in 2011 along with bread heels. The book’s online at

    Hat: No, indeed, but “What does it mean?” can and should be recast as “What is something that it means?”. Frye addresses this in his discussion of polysemous meaning (see below). For that matter, relativity doesn’t so much blow away classical mechanics as it encapsulates it. Newton’s work remains perfectly sound and usable for things neither too small, too big, nor going too fast.

    The principle of manifold or “polysemous” meaning, as Dante calls it, is not a theory any more, still less an exploded superstition, but an established fact. The thing that has established it is the simultaneous development of several different schools of modern criticism, each making a distinctive choice of symbols in its analysis. The modern student of critical theory is faced with a body of rhetoricians who speak of texture and frontal assaults, with students of history who deal with traditions and sources, with critics using material from psychology and anthropology, with Aristotelians, Coleridgians, Thomists, Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, with students of myths, rituals, archetypes, metaphors, ambiguities, and significant forms.

    The student must either admit the principle of polysemous meaning, or choose one of these groups and then try to prove that all the others are less legitimate. The former is the way of scholarship, and leads to the advancement of learning; the latter is the way of pedantry, and gives us a wide choice of goals, the most conspicuous today being fantastical learning, or myth criticism, contentious learning, or historical criticism, and delicate learning, or “new” criticism. [Since 1958 a great many more have dogpiled on top of these without changing the principle.]

    Once we have admitted the principle of polysemous meaning, we can either stop with a purely relative and pluralistic position, or we can go on to consider the possibility that there is a finite number of valid critical methods, and that they can all be contained in a single theory. It does not follow that all meanings can be arranged, as the medieval four-level scheme implies, in a hierarchical sequence, in which the first steps are comparatively elementary and apprehension gets more subtle and rarefied as one goes on. The term “level” is used here only for convenience, and should not be taken as indicating any belief on my part in a series of degrees of critical initiation.

    Again, there is a general reservation to be made about the conception of polysemous meaning: the meaning of a literary work forms a part of a larger whole. In the previous essay we saw that meaning or dianoia was one of three elements, the other two being mythos or narrative and ethos or characterization. It is better to think, therefore, not simply of a sequence of meanings, but of a sequence of contexts or relationships in which the whole work of literary art can be placed, each context having its characteristic mythos and ethos as well as its dianoia or meaning.

  54. Yes, but that was akin to writing F on a child’s paper. When I talk about critics, I mean ones who are to be taken seriously, not people who can’t understand obvious references.

    The “child” was Eve Sedgewick, a big-name influential academic and critic. Marjorie Perloff is also a big name and probably the biggest name next to Helen Vendler. So empirical methods help distinguish those big names who are to be taken seriously, from those who are blown away.

    (I don’t think knowing the ship’s name was obvious but the fact that Acocella checked for the ship names is a different approach to criticism than Sedgewick’s fantasias.)

    There is a big debate in the Tamil studies world over the interpretation of a few poems that comes down to philological analysis of a handful of key words. If we found a set of inscriptions or a few manuscript that clarified the words’ meanings, it would definitely mean that one side of this debate supercedes the other.

  55. turn away from chlid molesters

    In the African Great Lakes there are a great many cichlid molesters, chiefly other cichlids. On the shores too, come to think of it.

  56. I remembered another example of critical theories being blown out of the water by stubborn philological facts. While studying Shakespeare in high school, I was introduced to the wonderful Sonnet 73 (though my heart is given to 130 above all the rest). 73 begins:

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

    It was explained to us at the time that the semantic contour of the second line, which moves from “some yellow leaves” down to “no yellow leaves” and then up to “few yellow leaves”, was significant, because it represented an opposition: the speaker is declining, it says, but not as much as all that. This view is also displayed in this 2000 article by Peter Barry, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Aberystwyth and a Big Noise in literary theory (paragraph breaks added):

    Turning now to literature and language brings us back to that peculiar second line. What is odd about it, of course, is the peculiar order in which the words occur. In the memory the line is nearly always misremembered as ‘yellow leaves, or few, or none’ but Shakespeare actually says ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’. This seems to violate the natural word order, which would follow the logic of a phrase like ‘going, going, gone’ where a process of gradual diminishing is followed through until there is nothing left at all.

    This [is] one example of the way English words occur in a pre-determined order; we put the knives and forks on the table, not the forks and knives. A phrase like ‘going, going, gone’ has the logic of a count-down – three, two, one, zero’. That is the ways the words collocate, as a linguist would say; so the phrase ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ violates an expected and logical pattern. And of course, it isn’t done to accommodate rhyme or metre, since neither is a rhyme word and both have a single syllable, so swapping them round doesn’t make any difference to the metrical structure of the line.

    So it seems that what is happening is that underneath the main current of the language another current is running in the opposite direction. The speaker is saying that he is past it, but then hints, with a nudge and a wink, that he isn’t, quite, and this is indicated by the unexpected order of the words.

    But. (Arm torpedoes!)

    Barry gives his tenth and last principle of close reading as “[W]e read in linguistic period, aware (among other things) of semantic change (that is, changes in the meanings of words).” He exemplifies it with Falstaff talking of his womb, not because he is unmanned or Shakespeare is covertly making him double-gendered, but because womb still meant ‘stomach’ as well as the modern sense ‘uterus’, as wame still does in Scots.

    But, he fails to do so for Shakespeare’s syntax. (Fire!)

    Modern English has lost, or mostly lost, the Indo-European habit (also found in Hebrew) of doubling the word for ‘or’ in alternative constructions. Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” has the line “A man mot been a fool, or yong or old”, meaning ‘either young or old’ (mot is the lost present tense of the preterite-present verb must, and probably an ablaut variant of mete). And that’s exactly what Shakespeare is saying here: ‘yellow leaves, either none or few’. No semantic contour, no countercurrent of meaning. (Or at least the argument is no longer obviously true; it may still be true, but the argument needs to be more subtle.) The original punctuation from the 1609 edition is preserved in the modernized version that Barry quotes, but it is profoundly misleading: it indicates rhetorical breaks, not structural alternatives.

    (All souls feared lost.)

    Comic conclusion: In the finale to Act I of The Mikado, the girls and Pooh-Bah sing in stichomythia: “A day, a week, a month, a year— / Or far or near, or far or near / Life’s eventime comes much too soon / You’ll live at least a honeymoon!” So in the late 19C the old construction was still supposed to be intelligible to the middle-class audience at the Savoy.

  57. @John Cowan: The common origin of either and or was previously discussed here, in connection with a different kind of rhetorical figure.

    Rereading this whole thread, I had a lot of meandering thoughts about the relative roles of subjectivity in literary analysis, inorganic chemistry, and theoretical physics, but I am not sure that they make any sense taken all together.

  58. Tangentially beast-related material:

    A literary revelation came to me yesterday, because I cut myself shaving while wearing a particular shirt with a quote from Hunter S. Thompson on the back: “He who makes a beast of himself relieves himself of the pain of becoming a man.”* The shirt was created by my brother when he was hall chair for our Second East,** East Campus: known as ᛒEAΣT, or The Beast from the East. On the obverse, the shirt features Ralf Steadman’s famous cover cartoon from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Second East hall motto was, in fact, “Fear and Loathing,” and a copy of the Steadman cartoon was painted on one of the hallway walls—along with other ᛒEAΣT murals with titles like, “Let’s call it a night, before we call it a NIGHTMARE!” However, ᛒEAΣT was actually known as a pretty sedate floor. It was not exactly a hotbed of hacking (producing only one hack famous enough for the Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT).*** In my brother’s day, the floor did have a pretty good Mystery Hunt team though.

    As I was saying, I had just put in a new razor blade, and I nicked my Adam’s apple on the first stroke with the razor. Because I had pulled out my 2E shirts for the first time in years, I had had the quote on my mind all day. Nicking my Adam’s apple while shaving reminded me simultaneously of Flowers for Algernon; there is a scene (in the novel version) in which Charlie Gordon, having advanced to superhuman intelligence, visits his father’s barbershop, wanting to reintroduce himself. However, while he has his father shaving him, Charlie spooks his father by telling his father that he should recognize him. The razor blade slips and nicks Charlie’s Adam’s apple; his father doesn’t recognize Charlie and gets suspicious; and Charlie tells him to forget about the whole thing.

    I realized that I had somehow overlooked the heavy symbolism of this whole scene. The scene is part of Charlie’s attempt to acclimate to suddenly being a normal adult, after previously living like and being treated like a child. He goes to have himself shaved and to show his father that he has become someone to be proud of, yet the whole thing fails, and he is instead injured on the characteristically male Adam’s apple. He is not yet ready to be a man.

    * However, Thompson, wherever he wrote or said that, was merely paraphrasing and improving Samuel Johnson’s: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I don’t know whether my brother knew of the older quote when he made the shirt, although I suppose I could ask him.

    The T-shirts we produced during the time my wife and I lived there used the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Compendium image for the werewolf. We thought about upgrading to the black-and-white silhouette to the color image inspired thereby that appeared on the contemporary cover of Dungeon magazine number 58, but we never did.

    ** East Campus (technically the East Campus Memorial Alumni Houses—note the plural) is two buildings, with five floors each, so floors are labeled by whether they are in the west or east parallel and what story they are. The alumni names designate sections along the third perpendicular axis (roughly north-south). There are three to each building: in the west parallel, starting from the south, where the front desk and offices are, the building is divided into thirds, named Monroe, Hayden, and Wood; in the east parallel, Walcott, Bemis, and Goodale. About half the floors have long-running names (or, in once case, a mascot) associated with them, such as “πτζ” (Second West), “41 West,” or “Tetazoo” (supposedly short for “Third East Traveling Animal Zoo”). Tetazoo has long been a major hacking floor; they were particularly into messy and noisy things (including dropping things off the roof and setting fire to things in the stairwells), which we, situated directly underneath them, did not appreciate. One year, a friend was elected Second East hall chair on a platform of “reenacting the firebombing of Dresden on Third East.”

    *** The name and camelCase**** are chosen to include the capitalized “IHTFP,” which (as the book itself says) has been said to stand for, “Institute Has The Finest Professors,” “I Have Taken Freshman Physics,” “I Have Truly Found Paradise,” or “It’s Hard To Fondle Penguins,” but which actually stands for, “I Hate This Fucking Place.”

    **** So named for the single hump in the middle of “camelCase,” like the hump of a dromedary.

  59. John Cowan says

    East Campus (technically the East Campus Memorial Alumni Houses—note the plural) is two buildings, with five floors each, so floors are labeled by whether they are in the west or east parallel and what story they are.

    This and what follows are such a clearcut example of what LH is like — Hattics telling each other the things they know, and other Hattics actually paying attention to them. How different, how very different from the way of the rest of the world!

  60. Indeed. It’s a rare collocation of good listeners.


  1. […] David Eddyshaw mentioned Charles Williams in a comment at LanguageHat’s, I have read two novels by Charles Williams: The Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell. They […]

Speak Your Mind