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Bad Readers: Anecdote, Affect and Audience in Ancient Virgilian Literary Criticism

Talitha E. Z. Kearey

University of Oxford

Ancient literary critics are, for many modern scholars, fundamentally ‘bad’ readers. It is often observed that ancient literary scholarship – ranging from commentaries or scholia to technical treatises, from author-biographies to encyclopaedias – seems to lag far behind the theoretical sophistication perceivable in ancient literature itself. Ancient scholarship is generally characterised as ‘bad reading’ in one (or both) of two ways: on the one hand, it is drily typologising, intent on cataloguing minute details, splitting hairs and resolutely not seeing the wood for the trees; on the other, it is wildly speculative, reliant on baseless allegory and given to digressions and counterintuitive interpretative moves. Modern Classical scholarship has an uncomfortable relationship with such critical modes (cf. Too 1999). It tends either to hail them as distant, partial ancestors of current reading practices – especially in the cases of allegory, a clear form of ‘symptomatic’ reading (Best & Marcus 2009:4), and of rhetorical classifications, which remain basic building-blocks of Classical literary scholarship today – or to discard them as fanciful or wholly uncritical (Felski 2012: ‘critique does not tolerate rivals’; Sedgwick 2003:150), substituting rupture and antithesis for the sense of a continued critical tradition.

This paper will not attempt to unify this ancient critical tradition or redeem it for present practice. My investigation here is more diagnostic than therapeutic. Mindful of the heterogenous nature of ancient criticism itself, I examine points where ancient literary scholarship seems to chafe at its own formal and methodological constraints, incorporating other modes of reading that differ markedly from its usual rhetorical, allegorical or historicising approaches. I argue that ancient criticism distances itself from these modes even as it includes them, marking them as forms of ‘bad reading’ while simultaneously exploiting the access they provide to otherwise proscribed forms of literary experience and readerly relation to the text. That is, the presence of these alternative ways of reading in ancient criticism both manifests the ‘desire to read differently’ that this panel explores, and (at least in part) fulfils it. This paper identifies a productive tension within ancient scholarship: do these alternative modes of reading directly challenge the hegemonic mode(s) of literary criticism dominant in antiquity, or are they finally co-opted by their contexts and redeployed within familiar forms of critique? 

My investigation revolves around commentaries on Virgil’s poems and the biographies prepended to them. I argue that these pieces of criticism make room for expressly affective and embodied modes of reading, in contrast to their usual practices, but that they confine them almost entirely to anecdotes of Virgil’s own poetic recitations: Virgil interrupted mid-sentence (Servius adG.1.299, Vita Suetonii-Donati 43), Virgil and Maecenas reading the Georgics to Augustus at Atella (VSD 27), Virgil reciting the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (Serv. ad Aen. 4.323, 6.861, VSD 32). These imagined scenes of (vocal, embodied, collective, historical) performance move away from (solitary, placeless, timeless) reading to enable encounters with the text to be refigured as emotional, unruly, disruptive, affective: emperors weep, mothers faint, hecklers insert their own creative responses, and the emotions within the text spill over via ‘mimetic contagion’ to the audience (Whitmarsh 2002, Germany 2016, Ziogas 2018). Virgil’s presence and (particularly) his voice emerge as a key mediator of this affective turn (note ingenti adfectu… pronuntiasseuoce optima, Serv. ad Aen. 4.323; tanta pronuntiationead Aen. 6.861), and as such a central source of discomfort for the critics who transmit these anecdotes. Descriptions of Virgil’s voice supplement conventional poetic ‘sweetness’ (VSD 28-9, Vit. Foc. 54) with the extraordinary term lenocinium (‘pimp-business’, VSD 28) – a word more familiar from vitriol against failed oratorical masculinity (e.g. Quint. 4.2.118, 5.12.2, 12.1.30; cf. Gunderson 2000, Connolly 2007), but which here refocuses attention on Virgil’s manipulation of affect and emotion. By inviting their readers to imagine Virgil in an explicitly eroticised performance context, I argue, these anecdotes open up space within literary criticism for a different approach to literary pleasure and readerly attachment.

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Readers and Reading: Current Debates

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