Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reasoning: Phrasikleia

I finished Phrasikleia by Jasper Svenboro [1], Sunday morning. As I mentioned in my last blogpost, Ovid II recommended the book to me. The book was fabulous and I highly recommend it. No knowledge of Greek is required-- Svenboro translates all of the Greek into English.

There is a lot of scholarship on Greek writing, and there has been for almost a century. However, according to Svenbro, there is little scholarship on the practice of reading in Ancient Greece. Phrasikleia sets out to form an anthropological understanding of reading in Greece, starting with inscriptions on Archaic burial monuments. The beginning of his analysis focuses on the relationship between the inscription and the reading of that inscription. Silent reading was not something practiced in the Ancient world (or not at least until much later) and so reading involves literally giving voice to the implied speaker of the inscription or text.

Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because of some artistic convention, many of the Archaic monuments address their audience-- and implied reader-- in the first person. Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, in her book "Reading" Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Period, explains that the epitaphs on these monuments preserve part of the mourning of the funerary ritual in their inscriptions and often call for the passer-by (and reader) to continue that lamentation [2]. Svenbro takes this notion farther, by explaining that the reader actually immortalizes the dead by speaking for him/her when reading the inscription. There is a kinship relation between the person and the writing (s)he produces which immortalizes the subject of the writing (which may or may not be the writer him/herself). This metaphorical kinship is like fathers giving their daughters names which preserve the κλέος of the father in his lineage.

Svenbro traces a number of other Greek moments in reading. I do not have the time to trace all of them here and I highly recommend reading the book for yourself. The last one, which greatly interested me, was the conception of reading as pederastic. Lending one's voice to the words of another creates the potentiality for teaching, but also the vulnerability of being tricked or cheated (Svenbro, and the ancient sources he works from, framed this a "buggered").

The book was great. I highly recommend it. I will probably use parts of it when I rewrite the second chapter of my thesis.

As a note, my internet service has been patchy, so posting may be slightly irregular over the next few days.


  1. Phrasikleia was originally written in French. The version that I read was translated from the French by Janet Lloyd.

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