Superb insights and follow-up Qs, Bryan!
Re: possibility of understanding any ancient text in “real time”
There certainly are texts that, for reasons such as those you suggest, will not be understood without steadfast, repeated engagement and conscious attention to the issues the texts raise. A problem I see in classics education is the apparent assumption of many teachers and learners that all Latin and Greek texts are of this kind, simply by being Latin and Greek, i.e., that there is no such thing as getting the basic idea of even a simple descriptive sentence without conscious analysis.
The kinds of difficulty posed by Aeschylus, Statius, or Persius are all the more reason to approach these authors armed with as solid a mental representation of Greek or Latin as can be attained. This is part of the reason for my clarification in the section you cite: “
“[Ability to read a language in real time] does not preclude analysis — on the contrary, it forms the foundation, along with cultural and other background knowledge, for doing more with a text: relishing its artistry, arguing about it, translating it, or relating it to other texts.”
So, I view a solid mental representation of a language as part of the baseline for approaching a difficult text. If I had to get someone who had never learned English to the point of reading Shakespeare in as short a time as possible, and I actually cared about that person’s experience with the text, I wouldn’t say, “Shakespeare is so far removed from my student in time and mind that I won’t even bother letting my student hear any English from me; I’ll just give her the rules of English morphology and syntax so that we can get to Hamlet quicker.” (I know this is not an approach you advocate for; I’m just emphasizing the value of using the tools we have at our disposal to get students as close to the text as possible.)
It’s worth noting that there are other things besides a culture gap that get in the way of understanding, such as gaps in content knowledge. I can’t make much sense of an English journal article in astrophysics. But there is a big difference between my attempts to read such an article and those of a person who neither is an astrophysicist nor has heard more than a few words of English, no matter how cold that person has learned the grammar and even memorized the topical vocabulary.
In your example, Aeschylus might be Shakespeare or the astrophysics journal — something that requires (and rewards) slow, careful reading, but that I wouldn’t dream of attempting to read responsibly without a really solid mental representation of the language and a lot of experience with slightly less tricky texts. (That last comment reminds that, for some languages, eras, and genres, there are too few total texts for one to make a truly gradual ascent.)
Re: Nietzsche quote
I’ve enjoyed discussing this beautiful passage in the same basic context before! (A conversation about Extensive vs Intensive Reading.) It’s a really powerful statement.
Yes, what Nietzsche describes probably qualifies as Intensive Reading, though it may go beyond what is generally meant by Intensive Reading, to wit, reading any fairly short passage with a purpose other than enjoyment and/or “face value” understanding, which does not necessarily require philological training or inclination. For instance reading a short, easy passage for the purpose of identifying the three main points qualifies as Intensive Reading.
More than get at the concept of Intensive Reading, Nietzsche’s words get at the difference between a “lay” approach to reading and the academic discipline that is philology. Both are legitimate pursuits: I can read Dickens for kicks or (if I had the relevant expertise) I could “do philology” on Dickens. As a non-specialist, but educated and reasonably experienced reader of Victorian fiction, I can also do something in between. My ability or desire to do the for-kicks option or the in-between option should not, I think, be summarily dismissed as signs of “indecent and perspiring haste.” Nor should Nietzsche’s desire that his book be read in the specialist’s way be dismissed, especially since, in the sentences preceding those you quote, he indicates the reason for which he wants the book to be read slowly, as by a philologist: because he has written it slowly, as a philologist. While we don’t need to bow to an author’s wishes, there is something to be said for reading something in the way its author wishes (or claims to wish) it should.
I do think it’s a good idea to strike a balance between Extensive and Intensive Reading, with the balance determined by what one’s goals and interests are. I would say, though, that philology is “beyond reading,” in the sense that it should presuppose and build on reading, and that “reading” should not include philology in its very definition.
Hope this makes sense and is of use. I’ll see in the morning if it even makes sense to me! Thanks again for your thoughtful engagement, Bryan.