Thursday, November 14, 2013


Shane Butler, The Matter of the Page: Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. Pp. x, 158. ISBN 9780299248246. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Stephanie Ann Frampton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, American Academy in Rome (

Version at BMCR home site


Butler's text joins the still young series from the University of Wisconsin Press particularly strong in art history, but with a growing list in Latin literary scholarship at the intersections of cultural studies and critical theory, with titles including Patricia Johnson's Ovid Before Exile (2010), Erik Gunderson's Nox Philologiae (2009), and Timothy Johnson's A Symposium of Praise (2007). Unlike those work- and author-based studies that dominate the offerings of the Wisconsin list—and publications in classical literary scholarship overall—Matter of the Page is a senior scholar's collection of essays, including six chapters individually treating a distinct but always interrelated theme, image, author, and/or text. The motif around which all of the individual pieces turn is the image of the page, or writing surface, in the work of literature.

Fans of Butler's previous work, especially The Hand of Cicero (Routledge, 2002), will be happy to see Butler return to Cicero in Chapters 3 and 4 of the present book, "Latin Decomposition" and "The Erasable Cicero," where the author moves the arguments about the role of inscription in Cicero's rhetorical work forward into readings from the oratorical treatises and the correspondence of 59 BCE, focusing in the first case on Cicero as a reader and writer of poetry and in the second case on his conceptual use of erasure in a pair of the letters to Atticus (2.19, 20 = SB 39, 40) and elsewhere. Chapter 5, "The Surface of the Page," focuses on the analogy between the surfaces of a pool and of a wax tablet in Ovid's account of the story of Narcissus (Met 339-510), the tale that gave Caravaggio his inspiration for the eloquent double portrait that in turn provides Matter of the Page its cover art. (As Butler writes, "[Narcissus'] encounter with his own imago haunts this entire book," 11.1) It is these three studies that are the strongest in the collection, clearly demonstrating the significance of the figure of literary materiality in the work of these authors and showing Butler's unique sensibility as a reader of Latin prose and poetry.

Similarly, in Chapter 2, "Myself Sick," Butler argues for an analogy between the overworked surface of a papyrus page and the disrupted skin of a plague victim in Thucydides' second book, though historically-minded readers may find this chronological leap to be too much of a conceptual stretch in one small volume. Literary journeys through woods—Lat. silva and Grk. ὕλη, each of which is a gloss for the "matter" of Butler's title (17-8)—are the focus of Chapter 1, "The Backward Glance," where these woods are the site of love lost for Orpheus (Ver. G 4.485-502 and Ov. Met 10.53-63) as well as Nisus (Aen. 9.314-437) and Aeneas (Aen. 2.789-94). "Enter the woods," Butler writes, "and we are in the poet's workshop" (18). The last chapter, "The Folded Page," like the second, is a chronological outlier, addressing the thematization of the author's presence and absence in Dhuoda's ninth century Liber manualis. A table of contents is linked above, and the reader is advised to take his time with the short summaries provided by Butler in pp. 11-12 of the introduction.

In sum, Matter of the Page seeks to carve out a space for the exploration of the trope of authorial self- presentation qua textual material by pulling together several insightful and often tricky close-readings of authors from the classical tradition, broadly conceived. As we have already begun to see, these authors range from Vergil, Lucretius, Cicero, and Seneca, to Thucydides and that single surviving Carolingian woman writer, Duchess Dhuoda. In every case, the physicality of writing intersects with the bodily reality of the author as witness to war and conflict in his or her own time. The page takes the place of the body as a site at which the limits of personal freedom are contested. As Butler shows us, for Thucydides and Lucretius, the page is a surface, like the skin, where plague boils up and tears apart human integrity. For Ovid and Cicero, the book that survives its author poses real and present dangers to the singularity of personal subjectivity. For Seneca, the book is a collection of parts—limbs and other things —cribbed from other sources, and for Dhuoda, a limb of her own sent off to her son as a "hand"-book (liber manualis).

Butler's book is itself a twisting figure like those that are the focus of Chapter 3: an opus vermiculatum, "wormy work." It too turns back on itself and revisits similar themes again and again: water as a metaphor for writing surface, a Roman paranoia about the physical instability of organisms, twisted bodies as a metaphor for rhetorical work, reading signs as reading text. The attentive reader is gratified to realize the whole is more complex than at first the author makes apparent, and the lover of the oddities of Latin literature will find much of value in Butler's clever and illuminating connections. The comparatist, too, will find serious "matter" for further study.

But contrary to Butler's own words: "[T]he present book proposes to search [for] the author as writer. And to be clear from the outset, I mean this word primarily in its most literal sense, for we shall go looking for the writer first and foremost in those moments in which literature seeks to preserve […] the scene of its own material creation" (4), Matter of the Page is concerned less with the writer at work than with the use of materials—wax tablets, papyrus sheets, the codex manual—as metonyms calling on the presence of the author within the work of art. This is a book as much about human bodies as about textual materiality. The image of the hybrid monster with which Horace opens the Ars Poetica (Butler 48-9) itself is an emblem (6, 10-1, 39) for the kinds of mysterious rhetorical play on which Butler focuses here: where the body—that of an organism, like a snake or a human or God, or of the physical page itself—is the object of poetic self-study. Put simply, and seen through Butler's keen eyes: ancient authors were obsessed with the physicality of their own bodies and with the materiality of their written products. This is a book about how the intersections of these bodily and textual materialities are revealed in the authors' own words.

Some general comments: It is cumbersome that citations of classical texts are usually not given in-line, but in endnotes. It would have been helpful for the publisher to have included images of vermiculate mosaic, such as the Nile of Palestrina, discussed by Butler on p. 39 ff., and of the illustration of the manus dei in the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, discussed on pp. 87-8.2 Greek and Latin quotations are given in the original and translated throughout, though translations of passages are missing on pp. 14-5. The Index and Index locorum are both thorough, and will be very helpful in giving the casual reader a point of entry.

Before closing, let me make a particular response to one of Butler's many rhetorical addresses to his own readers. Though the idea is suggestive, Butler may indeed be wrong (as he says he might, 82) to take the folia of the Narcissus flower (Ov Met 3.509-10) as a representation of a papyrus scroll's "yellowish-white assemblage of leaves;" folia does not come into common parlance for "pages" until Macrobius and later.3 Still, in recognizing this Ovidian use of folia, Butler calls to mind the equally suggestive scene of aborted inscription at the cave of the Sibyl at Aeneid 6.74 (foliis tantum ne carmina manda, | ne turbata uolent rapidis ludibria uentis, cf. 3.444); as Don Fowler is reported to have said of that passage, this too is "a metaphor waiting to happen."

Indeed, as in this case, one occasionally suspects that Butler is making too much of things, which he himself allows on more than one occasion (e.g. 11, 82). And, yes, the careful reader will wish once or twice that Butler would pin himself down more firmly. Still, this is a both a playful and a serious book that opens many doors onto the texts it studies. Students of classical literature and of the history of the book should be glad for the openings.


1.   Narcissus is also the topic of Butler's essay in a new book co-edited with Alex Purves, Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (Durham: Acumen, 2013) non vidi.
2.   At time of writing, one may find images of these online here and here.
3.   TLL s.v. II.2. The fragment Reifferscheid 104 (135 line 6) mentioned here is found at Isidore VI 14 and its connection to Suetonius is dubious.

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