Loving Vergil: reading, writing, and history's queer touch



Publication Details

I Willis (2010). Loving Vergil: reading, writing, and history’s queer touch. From Sappho to... X: Classics, Performance, Reception Monash University, August.

Additional Publication Information

To coincide with Malthouse Theatre’s staging of the play Sappho...in 9 fragments, Monash University, Malthouse threate and the Australasian Classical Reception Studies Network are hosting a three day interdisciplinary conference on the relationship between performance and the Classics. The conference will bring together Classical scholarship, theatre studies, translation studies and cultural studies to investigate how performance manipulates and embodies our understanding of the classical world. Using the figure of Sappho as a metaphor for the many gaps we have to fill as we grapple with the otherness of the ancient world, the conference will explore how readers, translators, performers and spectators endlessly recreate the Classics in our imaginations and our embodiments


‘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.

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