Loving Vergil: Reading, Writing, and History's Queer Touch

I Willis

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference Contribution (Conference Proceeding)


‘To read’, wrote Roland Barthes, ‘is to make one’s body work’. In this paper, I will argue that reading classical texts indeed involves a bodily encounter with the past – what Carolyn Dinshaw calls ‘history’s queer touch’. In his later work, Barthes began to elaborate a number of productive and creative practices of writing and reading. In order to do so, he frequently drew upon metaphors of performance, as well as notions of identification and embodied (affective and erotic) encounter. Barthes’ work is thus particularly useful to theorists of classical reception because he persistently refuses to distinguish between reading (as rational, cerebral, virtual, or disembodied) and performance (as emotional, physical, material, or bodily), or between text and body. For Barthes, written works and bodies are alike texts, and both are made and unmade in the embodied encounter with language which is reading. This central deconstructive insight has sometimes been used to virtualize or ‘textualize’ the body; here I want to turn it the other way round, and think about the bodiliness of texts and the performance of reading. I will do so by drawing on Barthes’ and Dinshaw’s work, together with my own practice as a fan (re)writer, in order to read a number of moments where an intertextual relationship is expressed through, or related to, desire for the inaccessible body of the author: in this case, Vergil. These moments will range historically from Donatus’ Life of Vergil (where Julius Montanus is said to have said that the written Aeneid is but a poor substitute for its true form, a performance by the incomparable voice of Vergil), through Dante’s Inferno to Ingres’ painting Vergil Reading the Aeneid Before Augustus and Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia. Through these readings, in which desire for the lost, performing, body of the author itself engenders a new, readerly, performance of the text, I hope to begin to elaborate an erotics of reception.
Translated title of the contributionLoving Vergil: Reading, Writing, and History's Queer Touch
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrom Sappho to X, Monash University, Melbourne
Publication statusPublished - 21 Aug 2010

Bibliographical note

Conference Organiser: Melbourne University/ Australian Research Council
Other: MP3 of presentation archived online

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