Ancient Documents and Magic Words Syndrome

Tony SigI was reading a journal article for my Latin class and was again reminded of something that I’ve been ruminating on for a while.  Historiography continues to fascinate me and is something I hope to dedicate plenty of energy to.  One of the most questionable activities that many historians and exegetes like to play around with is what I like to call “Magic Words Syndrome.”  If you’ve ever been reading a commentary and the exegete postulates an entire literary history for a document (in time, a critical edition of the text might be produced) we don’t have, belonging to a theoretical community we don’t know about, coming from an original oral source we’re unaware of, all based on a tiny handful or even a couple of words, then you know what I mean when I say Magic Words Syndrome.

This shows up in postulating “dependence” and “allusion” as well.

What is it about the fact that a document is in Greek or Latin that makes people believe that authors didn’t actually use language in some comparable way to the way we learn and use a language?  Nobody looks at three words in Joyce’s Ulysses and does this.  That’s because he wrote in English, and English is familiar to us, we use it with very little thought or in general, attention to detail.  Could you ever imagine someone arguing like this? –

“You see how Joyce uses “in the yard” here?  Clearly he is alluding to passage X in work Y who too uses “in the yard” in similar circumstances, that is, the protagonist is in fact coming into a yard.  Furthermore we know, based on person Z who is a contemporary of Joyce, that the use of work Y was “in the air” and broadly known of by crazed Irish intellectuals despite the fact that it is far from clear whether Joyce himself knew about work Y.  Either way, my argument does not depend on this. My own footnoted person T wrongly asserts that here Joyce is relying on work W because W uses “into the yard,” the preposition clearly shows that her reading is foolish nonsense.  Academic person H has argued, unconvincingly in my opinion, that the original form of the phrase in work W was “in the yard,” but the best sources all say “into,” thus this need not change our rendering. Furthermore it is my contention that “in the yard” needs to be understood according the neo-platonic use of the yard to signify the Elysian Fields, popular at the time in France, which surely Joyce knew about, himself being very familiar with random French neo-platonists.”

Now of course academics can often legitimately pick up an allusion.  The other day I successfully recognized one to Wesley on Facebook hidden in a stack of comments.  But that doesn’t change the fact that very often I think these kinds of papers and books are operating with a kind of reasoning that doesn’t take into consideration the way people actually use language.  It certainly doesn’t strike me as convincingly historical.  Partly this springs from the readings I did a few years back on hermeneutics.  It escapes me that entire worlds can be extracted from so little.  It seems like irresponsible reading to me.

All this to say, I need to read more on the writing of history.  de Certeau here I come!



  1. While I agree with you wholeheartedly on the issue of philological myopia (i just made that phrase up, feel free to use it), I think your assertion that such studies fail to recognize “the way people actually use language” may be unhelpful…especially among the literary elite in classical and late ancient contexts.

    While it may be true that the lay person uses “in the yard” rather unconsciously, and while it may also be true that any reference to it only connects to previous usages of the same phrase unintentionally, the literary elite of antiquity were not so willy-nilly with their deployment of language.

    Indeed, phraseology, symbolic imagery, tropes,quotations and other linguistic tools represented a form of capital which the historian, rhetor, philosopher, and theologian could trade on in order to make their particular piece of literature more persuasive. By the time we get to Ambrose or Nazianzus (or even Augustine, really) one is hard pressed to find a single page of their work that isn’t engaging in some kind of literary convention. Obviously the Christian community provides a very different dimension to this, with its requisite and ubiquitous engagement in scriptural language/images/phrases…but while the content of this engagement may be different, the form is very much the same as any other literary figure who was trained through Paideia.

    One theorist that I have found helpful on this point is Pierre Bourdieu and his notion of the “discursive field” upon which we are all participants. Language, in this sense, is never neutral…never simply as it seems (even among those less literarily inclined). The point, which I think you and I agree on here, is not that we engage in some absurd search for the genealogy of certain phrases within the field, but rather that we assess their diverse deployments to better understand how particular expressions of language are inmbued with persuasive currency.

    to be sure, such studies can be taken ad absurdem. And, although i may be overly defensive of this point because my own dissertation may turn out to be a study of a particular literary symbol, I do think that its important to recognize that with authors steeped in the “canonic” literature of their own period there is rarely a persuasive moment which isn’t building upon or trading in the rhetorical capital of other literary works. This seems no less true to me in english than in classical greek or latin. it’s just camouflaged better.


    1. Hey John, I wondered if you’d reply. Let me admit off the bat I know I overstated the case. Let me also say that really it was more the Bible, and the narratives in particular that I had in mind here. When I read Augustine’s Confessions, there’s barely a page goes by without a Psalm quote or two. So where the case is obvious, really I’m totally there. For instance the paper I read argued that Boethius was using Virgil at a certain point and it seemed a solid case to me. Though less so because of sheer vocabulary and more so the narrative circumstances. But even in that paper I noticed less a consistent argument as a persistant use of assertions whose truth apparently should seem “obvious.” Among my points is that, whether or not the primary thesis is true, I’m not seeing how some of these are actually done through argumentation. For instance here’s a sentence from the paper:

      “That Boethius, imbued as he was with Neoplatonic thought, would have interpreted Aeneid…in an allegorical Platonic and Neoplatonic vein, as Macrobius did, can hardly be doubted.”

      Now, it seems well argued by most that Boethius indeed was very familiar with platonism, neo or otherwise, but phrases like this represent, for me anyway, a blurry middle between simple assertion based on accepted wisdom and actual historical work. Especially when we argue about “worldview” and “ideas that were in the air.”

      Am I making myself clearer or do I still sound reactionary? I want to emphasize that I overemphasized and agree with what you’re saying. It’s more extreme cases I have in mind.


    1. Yeah, I have no idea why Ulysses was the first book that just popped in my head. I thought as I was writing this, “Surely if someone would do this they would do it for Ulysses!” But I was too damned lazy to go back and change it.


  2. hahaha! I was thinking the exact same thing about Ulysses – such an incredibly allusive work.

    But I think your point has merit, especially in Biblical work.


  3. Tony, I think we probably fundamentally agree on this point. I would certainly concede the point that the “argument by perceived implicit connection” (i.e. ‘this language was just in-the-air and therefore I don’t need to explain the connections concretely) is less helpful than those who actually attempt a detailed study of how phrases, linguistic symbols, etc morph and are deployed over time.

    So the root issue (which I think we agree on)is not *whether* linguistic connections are present but *how* those connections are demonstrated. Is that fair?

    My sensitivity to this issue stems, i think, from the day-to-day headache caused by the fact that ancient literature is simply saturated with allusive language that I inevitably fail to situate and interpret adequately. (Someone should have been feeding me Homer with my Fruit Loops as a child!)


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