Bowersock’s Fiction as History

Summer reading continues. I am behind on summaries so I’m not even going to pretend to catch up with the backlog, but start with the most recent. I read Bowersock’s Fiction as History: Nero to Julian this afternoon, a series of lectures given in 1991.

I know why it was recommended to me – it offers a sort of alternative interpretation of the relationship between the gospels and Greek-Roman fiction of the period. Namely, Bowersock’s thesis, which is first only hinted at before being given in earnest in the last lecture, is that the gospels (or, rather, the narrative they contain) started a literary fad of sorts during the reign of Nero. Greek novels like Chaereas and Callirhoe and similar ilk are not merely contemporaries, but reflections of the influence of the singular Christian narrative, which represents something unique, coming out of a Jewish narrative tradition that is intellectual and has a scripture, rather than ritualistic like the pagan polytheism absent of scripture that marks Hellenistic and imperial religion. By the second century there has been enough cross-pollenation that Celsus recognizes the gospels for what they are – the same sort of fanciful tales he’s seen elsewhere.

I have some problems with this picture. Now there is little to argue with when it comes to his emphasis on context and time period, and complex rather than simple this-was-first-and-this-was-later literary relationships. That’s all good. However, the timeline is really fuzzy, and the extent of Christian influence seems overstated.

Let me explain that, in reverse order.

It is important to realize that there weren’t that many Christians in the first century. By Nero’s reign (54 to 68 CE) I see little reason to think there are more than five to six thousand Christians in the entire West, if that, including larger populations in Jersusalem, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and if Revelation and Paul’s letters are any indication, a mess of cities in Asia Minor and Syria. By 100 CE, there /might/ be twice that. They were certainly growing quickly – if Stark’s estimates are right, 40% or 50% a decade – but in 54 they were still a minor cult of the larger Jewish religion, not really even a blip on the imperial radar. Pliny the Younger, early in the second century, a young, well educated administrator, doesn’t seem to have even heard of them before the occasion of his letter, and he was ruling over a fair number of them.

Far more important, though, is that the gospels hadn’t been written yet. The consensus dating for Mark these days is 65-70. I vote 70 or 71 myself, but let’s say it’s 65 for argument’s sake. Is that enough time for a gospel intended for a Christian audience to start a sweeping literary trend, three years until 68 and Nero’s end – not to mention a gospel that got an aggressive edit and expansion with the intent of replacing it, within 10-15 years in the form of Matthew, not to also mention the next two gospels? One thing Bowersock doesn’t mention is the cult of personality surrounding Nero’s death, which is a more likely culprit for resurrection/divinity tales. Nero was the Elvis of the 1st century - there was a widespread belief for a time that he was going to return to the building/empire and ruthlessly take care of business, thank you very much.

In any case the Christian ‘gospel’ before Mark, let’s say around Nero’s rise to power in 54,  is a sketchy affair. There’s a resurrection but no empty tomb, some liturgy but only the roughest sort of theology (Paul seems to invent his on the fly from letter to letter) though it is unusually scripture-based, and some sort of passion narrative, but it’s quite short, not nearly as developed as Philoctetes’ tale, and doesn’t have all of the wonderful ironies that Mark will introduce to it later and which offer the real parallels to contemporary Greek fiction. So it surprises me that Bowersock doesn’t center his theory on Mark – perhaps because much of that territory has already been covered by Frank Kermode? Maybe he feels out of place in source criticism? Both? Don’ t know.

This leads to the dreaded SO WHAT question. What comes out of this thesis? Most of us, I think, know that Celsus had the better argument on the gospels in the second century, linking them to fiction and mythology, but Origen in the third century, regardless of the tank-sized holes in his apology, won hands down and along with the general robustness of his religion, set the stage for the domination of his basic system of interpretation for the next, oh, 1600-1700 years. For my part, I am more interested in how Origen ‘won’ and Celsus ‘lost’ in the big historical p[icture than on who was right about the nature of the gospels – I want to know why and how they were persuasive. But then again, I’m a rhetorican and we don’t care about truth, even abstractly, as a general rule (though there are notable and stubborn exceptions). Lucian and Celsus, Bowersock’s initial examples, are in good company in my relative-truth-welcome discipline. So I have to ask – if Bowersock is right, and the gospels started a literary trend, how did the gospels come to be scripture? Why aren’t churches offering readings from Chaereas and Callirhoe instead of Matthew? The answer, unfortunately, involves genre (a word Bowersock doesn’t seem to like at all), audience, and by extension, the nature of the imbedded claims. C&C offers entertainment. Matthew offers a way to rethink your grubby earthly existence and rationalize your upcoming grisly death. If you’re like Celsus, of course, they’re BOTH entertainment, but how many humans are like Celsus? Even today, there aren’t many, but there are always plenty of Origens.

What is Rhetorical Criticism, Anyway?

I get asked this question a lot, and as it pertains to some manuscript revisions I’m making, I thought I’d take a informal stab here first.

I need to revise the question a little, though, and change it to “What makes a good rhetorical critic?” or even, “What do I think, personally, makes a good rhetorical critic?” Just talking about the criticism itself as some objective, free-floating entity seems a bit of a cop-out to me – reasons forthcoming shortly.

A good rhetorical critic starts with several bedrock epistemological assumptions.  Ignore or sidestep them at your peril.

The first assumption  is that all meaning worth talking about is an artifact of human perception, and thus limited by the boundaries of our particular physiology, evolutionary processes, personal experiences, sociocultural forces, etc, etc. Meaning outside of human perception is not worth talking about because, quite  honestly – and quite ironically – we can’t talk about it in any meaningful way. We can, however, analyze our perceptions and the perceptions of others to our heart’s content.

The second assumption builds directly upon the first. If all we have is human perception to play with, and our perception is limited, flawed, and problematic as Hume astutely put it,  then the grand bulk of human communication will necessarily have to be a series of arguments about the nature of the world. We will constantly be trying to communicate our perceptions – or at least what we want others to think are our perceptions – to others, who, limited by their own perceptional filters, will try to communicate back to us, and will be forced to deal with exactly the same problem in reverse. Imagine the human race as a giant room filled with brains in vats, who can do little more than send each other a constant barrage of garbled text messages  and then argue over the contents of these messages using precisely the same medium. The simplified medium in this metaphor stands for the whole human sensory suite – sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vesticular system, etc. In other words, all communication, all our efforts to communicate in this perpetually confused state, is rhetorical and epistemic by nature. As such, rhetoric is a kind of applied philosophy and vice versa.

The third assumption builds on the second. The observation that all communication is rhetorical and epistemic is not terribly useful by itself.  Our order-seeking, category-hungry brains prefer simpler fare in order to avoid overload, confusion, and general insanity. And so we are drawn inexorably to classify the communication that we use and encounter by genre, by tone, by purpose, by anything, really – the taxonomic urge, the pleasure of stereotyping, is quite powerful. With this comes the realization that while all communication might be rhetorical, some of it seems really, really rhetorical, whereas other texts are far less so. This is a byproduct of our preference for simpler fare; effective rhetoric is almost always hidden in some way, for if it is noticeable, then it becomes suspicious and challenges our worldview. Remember, we don’t want to fully acknowledge the extent of how all communication is rhetorical and epistemic – it’s just not possible to live with such a fundamentally bleak assumption second-by-second. So we simplify. Naked persuasion becomes undesirable as it exposes the constantly refreshed epistemological white lie that allows us to get through a simple conversation without going nutters. The good rhetorical critic, therefore, knows that much of what seems at first to be bereft of persuasion will turn out, with close attention,  to be rhetorical, though there is no telling in many cases until some careful reading of the text in question is performed. But there is a necessary limit to this where insanity lurks and we start theorizing about the rhetoric of bowling. Good rhetorical critics lurk near the edge, but they don’t go over.

The fourth assumption might be the most important: rhetorical critics cannot escape from this strange communication system with anything like objectivity. The good rhetorical critic knows he or she is embedded and complicit in whatever medium and text that he or she chooses to study. There is no magical  scholarly impartiality; those who pursue it like the Holy Grail, interestingly enough, tend to end up the most compromised, trapped within their own methodology. This corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows about it; a good rhetorical critic, however, embraces it like an old friend, shines a light on it, and reminds everyone about it, all the while noting and admitting their own complicity. This is why talking about ‘rhetorical criticism’ absent of its agent feels a little dishonest to me; there are as many flavors of this activity as there are practitioners. The term is useful shorthand, but it has limits.

The fifth assumption is a bit more mundane than the rest; this is where “methodology” finally creeps in (you might have been wondering when it was going to make an appearance). Holding the previous assumptions, the good rhetorical critic realizes that genre and its ilk, playing off of the brain’s propensity for order in an inherently chaotic world, are the key to understanding how texts persuade. The reason for this is that it is impossible to do good rhetorical criticism without knowing what kind of text you are examining. If the initial classification is poor, then the resulting analysis is near useless. This means, fortunately or fortunately, that rhetorical criticism is an art, not a science; that initial classification is made more by gut instinct and experience than by evidence, especially if evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, that initial classification cannot be fixed in stone. It has to have some serious give. If you kick it, it should shift an appreciative amount.  Otherwise, all your analysis can ever do is prove your initial assumption and you are reduced to pronouncements, not arguments, when you choose to tell others about texts. The sciences know this, generally, but not always the arts.

The sixth and last assumption is more obviously a special topic or a value than the others:  namely, a good rhetorical critic thinks rhetorical criticism is worth doing, much like Ebert thinks talking about films does wonders for humanity. Calling attention to how the previous assumptions apply to certain texts – namely, that persuasion is going on – is a good idea. And it’s a good idea because rhetoric tends to be hidden, misunderstood, and used for nefarious purposes as much as for good ones; understanding how it is used, how it works, and what the ethical dimensions are contributes to the general human enterprise. It also makes it far easier to teach speaking and writing  if the teacher knows how to deal with rhetoric on an abstract level that is not wedded to any specific genre or context. And it’s certainly a good idea to promote more effective communication between human beings.

So that’s it, really: all meaning is limited by human perception,  all communication is rhetorical and epistemic, some texts are more rhetorical than others and rhetoric tends to be hidden for effectiveness as well as general sanity, subjectivity needs interrogation, genre identification is key, and examinations of rhetorical texts promote better understanding of human communication. That’s rhetorical criticism in a nutshell. I suppose I could go on to talk about specific things to look for in texts, reading strategies, terminology, etc, but these assumptions, at least to me, are far, far more important.