The Paideia Institute’s on-line magazine (In Medias Res) has published the introduction for our new volume on ambiguity in Latin literature, Quasi Labor Intus. Head over to Medium to read the entire essay.
(Or even better, order a paper copy of the whole volume for yourself.)
Here’s a snippet from the introduction on the various contributions in the whole volume–something like an expanded table of contents:
As a reflection of the various ways one might define ambiguity and its place in Latin literature, the essays in this volume span genres, periods, and even disciplines. Several examine lexical and syntactic ambiguities in literary texts, principally as they allow Latin authors to leverage the uncertainty of interpretation they introduce for humor or manifold meaning. For instance, Michael Fontaine draws out a trove of “unnoticed jokes in the play about disease, disability, deformity, diagnosis, and treatment” in Plautus’ Gorgylio. Peter Barrios-Lech probes the several grammatical formulas for requests in comedic texts to reveal how Roman dramatists use the ambiguities arising from these formulas to separate the meaning of what characters say from what they intend. Driving a wedge between speech and meaning reappears in Rachel Philbrick’s study of Ciceronian praeteritio, which she argues is a rhetorical strategy that “hinges upon an audience that is cooperative and willing to read ambiguity into a statement that is unambiguous.”
Other contributions underscore the productive evasiveness of ambiguity in Latin by focusing on questions of how the reader or audience finds meaning in a text. Jessica Seidman revisits a topic that will be very familiar to Foster’s students — Dido’s tears in the Aeneid. In showing how various scholars have interpreted and reinterpreted the ambiguous language of one of the Aeneid’s dramatic heights, she suggests the episode is “a testament to the continued relevance of these words, these characters, and this poem to very different people at very different times.” Looking to another Augustan poet, Jennifer Ferriss-Hill applies an ambiguous frame to the whole of Horace’s Ars Poetica, a work that one “may read as a cipher for how to live masquerading as a guidebook on how to write.” Taking the opposite approach, Stuart McManus points to a long-settled ambiguity in Cicero’s Brutus and casts doubt on one prevailing interpretation of a passage in which the Roman statesman allegedly advocates, though cryptically, tyrannicide.
The possibility that ambiguity can lead to various interpretations of texts is not limited to modern studies of ancient literature, however. As several essays in this collection show, authors in the intervening centuries were also aware of the pitfalls and possibilities of ambiguity. In her study of Peter Damian and his eleventh-century meditations on caritas, Kathryn Jasper argues for “the inadequacy of modern concepts like ‘charity’ and ‘love’ to accommodate the semantic complexity” of this virtue. Patrick Owens, by surveying Renaissance additions to the Aeneid, shows how “epics often do not resolve to a conclusion but rather to a dynamic end filled with uncertainty.” And Michael Sloan shows how Erasmus — one of Foster’s favorite humanist authors — repurposes Echo and her Ovidian habit of ambiguous, conversational wordplay to serve ethical lessons.
Finally, several essays examine the generic and conceptual questions that define ambiguitas and the circumstances in which it arises. In a discussion of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, Curtis Dozier explores how the techniques of rhetorical persuasion might figure in an educational manual itself, blurring the distinction between didactic text and educational advertisement. Charles McNamara also includes Quintilian among rhetorical and grammatical texts in a study of the difference between the ambiguities of composition, which grammatical texts urge their readers to avoid, and those of interpretation, which an expert orator must learn to navigate. Even more fundamentally, William Short looks to the metaphors underpinning meaning and ambiguity in Latin, drawing attention to Latin’s “regular conceptualization of ‘meaning’ itself in terms of a linear spatial metaphor.” And Katherine van Schaik looks to Celsus as an author concerned not with the vagueness of texts but with the vagueness of bodies, where one might understand “medicine as the art of contending with ambiguity.”