Conference Proposal

The reading of literature engages us in a process of imagining. Humans, it seems, are wired for this sort of activity, and literature makes good use of our capacity for entertaining other realities, whether they are merely alternate depictions of our own world or constructions of pure fantasy. Some literary realities are surprisingly easy to accept, such as speculative fiction or children’s stories, yet others provoke strong negative reactions in the reader, not so much as a response to the imagined facts, but rather as a rejection of the moral framework within which those facts are presented. This is the phenomenon of ‘imaginative resistance’, by now a well-established problem in aesthetics and philosophy. Yet imaginative resistance extends beyond the problem of conflicting morals: it is also an effect of unsuccessful characterizations. While we might easily accept certain characterizations (and term them ‘realistic’, ‘natural’, ‘true-to-life’, ‘vivid’, and so forth), we will find others unsatisfactory, even unacceptable – particularly those that depict characters who violate our own understanding of human nature.

Both types of imaginative resistance, the one produced by a work’s alternate moral framework, the other by its unsatisfactory characters, operate precisely at the intersection between literary representation and reality; they are expressions of the long-standing tension between literature and the world. A careful consideration of ‘self-contradictory characters’ may help us to focus these issues and arrive at a more acute understanding of imaginative resistance and the text/world intersection. Self-contradictory characters are figures who are represented as combining traits that are admirable and heroic with transgressive and dangerous qualities. Their very nature pushes the bounds of what is familiar and expected, and thus they have the potential to elicit negative responses: we can reject such characters as unfaithful to human nature, or we can condemn their complex and confusing morality as unacceptable.

Yet for some reason these particular characters are quite successful at resonating with audiences. This was especially true for the ancient Romans, who not only accepted these characters, but even found them fascinating and attractive. And Roman authors, as Viktor Pöschl recognized, enjoyed using keen psychological observation to “reveal contradictions in people” (Horazische Lyrik [Heidelberg: Winter, 1970], 110). Indeed, from Horace’s Cleopatra, whose early madness and lack of self control are arrayed in startling opposition to her bravery and nobility in death, to Cicero’s Catiline, whom the orator calls a heretofore unknown prodigy and a conflation of the most various and contradictory abilities and desires, the complex self-contradictory characters that the Romans create often stand at the center of their literary worlds. This strange interplay of ethics and characterization, along with its apparent appeal to authors and readers, both contemporary and beyond, makes Roman literature an especially fertile area for gaining a deeper understanding of the two types of imaginative resistance at hand and their corresponding relation to the question of text/world interaction.

We propose exploring these issues in a weekend conference on the representation of self-contradictory characters in the poetry, oratory, and historiography of Roman literature of the first centuries BCE and CE. Given the tensions at play in the act of imagination, an examination of how these characters are constructed within their literary worlds and how they relate to Roman views on ethics has the potential to advance our understanding not only of imaginative resistance and text/world tension, but also of the complex relationship between ethics, literary representation, and reception.

There are numerous specific questions involved with this investigation of self-contradictory characters. Some center on how readers experience these characters. What sort of pleasure do readers find in imagining contradictory characters, and where does it come from? We seem to require characterizations that are ‘true to human nature’ – is this what the depiction of self-contradictory characters offers? What then can these depictions tell us about the Romans’ understanding of human nature (as well as our own)? Does fictionality matter here? History, for example, makes a stronger claim than other genres at representing reality. But what difference does it make whether a representation (for that is what it boils down to) is purely fictional or somehow connected to the world?

Other questions present the challenge of forming a strategy for understanding a different culture’s literature. How can we best approach the Romans’ models for character evaluation and the Classical and Hellenistic models that may have influenced them? Can we evaluate whether these models conceived of a person’s contradictory qualities as ultimately coming from some natural potential, which could develop in both positive and negative directions? How do the self-contradictory characters in Roman literature differ from those in Greek literature and other literature in the Classical tradition?

It is our hope that the wide-ranging interests and expertise of the eight outside speakers in conjunction with the orientation of the panels and round-tables will together foster a discussion across a broad range of viewpoints and approaches. For example, many of our speakers share an interest in reception (Joy Connolly, Paul Allen Miller, Michael Putnam), some are primarily philologists (Lowell Edmunds, James J. O’Hara, Ralph Rosen), and others look at the intersection between literature and other disciplines (Cynthia Damon focuses on literature and history; Christopher Gill on literature and philosophy). Our conference program is designed to spark dialogue across disciplinary boundaries; the panels and round-tables – chaired by University faculty, including W. Ralph Johnson (Classics and Comparative Literature), and David Wray (Classics and Comparative Literature) – will frame the conference in terms of the issues of characterization and ethics and will also look at issues of reception.

Further Readings

On “imaginative resistance”:

  • Moran, Richard. 1994. “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination”, Philosophical Review 103 (1): 75–106.
  • Gendler, Tamar Szabó. 2000. “The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance”, The Journal of Philosophy 97 (2): 55–81.

On Horace:

  • Pöschl, Viktor. 1970. Horazische Lyrik. Heidelberg: Winter.