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Sharing Letters, Sharing Friendship: Public Readings in Synesius

Mathilde Cambron-Goulet

Letters are generally perceived as personal communications, thus sharing a letter is typically understood as a very inclusive gesture towards the third reader, if not a violation of the author’s intimacy (Rosenmeyer 2001:1-2). Though, it seems that under certain circumstances, sharing letters and even performing public readings of letters is suitable, or at least was considered suitable, as we may see in Synesius’ letters. I would like, through an analysis of the scenes in which Synesius shares letters, invites his addressee to share letters, or refuses that his letters be shared, to address two related senses of the notion of “performativity”: the public reading of letters as performances, and their efficiency as performative gestures. 

            The choice of the epistolary genre gives the text an affective dimension which certainly has an impact on the addressee, because of the phatic statements contained in the text and because sending a letter is a performative gesture (Ebbeler 2007:322, Méthy 2006:178-179, Évrard 2002:288). The addressee then benefits from an enhanced experience of reading, since it does not only appeals to the intellect of the reader but also gives him emotions that are linked to the presence of the friend in the letter, as remarks Synesius (Letters 138.1-9, 139.1-5; Poster 2007:40). However, the way in which a third reader may benefit from this affective dimension that characterizes the epistolary genre is not so obvious, since the phatic statements and the gesture of sending the letter are only intended towards the original addressee. Nonetheless, when a letter is read aloud or in common, the audience is susceptible of feeling greater emotions, which add texture to his reading experience (Graverini 2007:151, Valette-Cagnac 2002, Hibberd 2010, Cambron-Goulet 2012). Sharing letters then creates a community of addressees within which the friendship is reaffirmed. This happens notably in Synesius who, on one hand, enthusiastically shares a letter he receives with his fellow citizens (Letters 101.1-24) and sometimes invites his correspondent to read his letter to other people (61-41-42), but, on the other hand, avoids some epistolary exchanges, being afraid that his letters might be read in public (101.70-74). 

            In this paper, I would like to study the passages where Synesius evoques the practice of reading letters in common and aloud, in order to understand how putting a letter in performance colors the relationship between the author, the addressee, and the audience, at the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th.  Who decides that a given letter should be the object of a performance, the author or the addressee? Which circumstances and what content bring a letter to be shared? Is the affective dimension of the letter transmitted from the author to the third reader when the letter is shared, or is it between the addressee and the audience? Synesius, sharing letters, invites his audience to share friendship.

Session/Panel Title

The Role of “Performance” in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


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