Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Amy Richlin, Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. x, 414. ISBN 9780472035922. $40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (cconybea@brynmawr.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

"A little dint sharpened between his brows. He frowned as he read. He read; and made a note; then he read again. All sounds were blotted out. He saw nothing but the Greek in front of him. But as he read, his brain gradually warmed; he was conscious of something quickening and tightening in his forehead. He caught phrase after phrase exactly, firmly… Little negligible words now revealed shades of meaning which altered the meaning. He made another note; that was the meaning." (Virginia Woolf, The Years)

The dramatic date here is 1880; but I still remember how, before going up to Oxford more than a century later, I thrilled to this description of reading Greek. The reader is oblivious to all externals, only conscious of his own brain and the words on the page; the words present a perfect puzzle of interdependent meanings; through one pattern of words, the reader learns to apprehend another. Never mind that it was a "he" doing the reading. That was how I wanted to read. That was what I was going to Oxford to do.

And this gives a sense of what Amy Richlin and her pioneering cohort of women classicists, mostly in North America, set out to change from the 1970s onward. The starting point was the same; the desired end, very different:

"As we read Latin and Greek, we distance ourselves, muffling the meaning with layers of grammar, commentary, previous scholarship. We skip things. I think that is not a responsible or honest way to read, and that reading should be socially responsible; this is one reason classicists need feminist theory — our old way of reading keeps us cut off." (Arguments with Silence, p. 293; my emphasis)

How refreshing it is (I now think) to read the work of a scholar who wears her heart on her sleeve: for whom what we read, and how we read it, really matters; who never loses sight of the ethics of the everyday in the texts that engage her. Although this is a collection of essays published over two decades, from 1980 to 2000, the vision is absolutely clear and consistent throughout. "Content is not erased by quotation marks" (p. 9). "Scholars' choices have consequences" (p. 290). "We [women] have a lot to say to each other, and to the world" (p. 16).

Those who are already fans of Richlin's work will undoubtedly have read some of these essays already; but they should not pass over this book. Richlin has updated the bibliography of each essay — often, inevitably, with works inspired by Richlin herself; she has expanded and elaborated parts of the essays; there is copious cross-referencing between essays; and, most importantly, each is newly supplied with its own few pages of context: why, when, in conversation with whom the essay was written. When I taught my "feminism in classics" course at Bryn Mawr last spring, the students loved the gathering sense, as they read individual articles, of a conversation among feminist scholars, passionate, engaged, both critical and self-critical, and we tried to build such a conversation between ourselves in the course of the semester; here, Richlin explicitly narrates some of these conversations, and I already look forward to sharing some of them with a new class of students.

For this is very much a teaching text, as well as a work of serious scholarship. (Indeed, it is evident from Richlin's remarks that she would find it absurd to draw a distinction between the two.) Richlin frequently decodes underlying assumptions and discusses issues of audience and scholarly focus. The introduction observes that "finding Roman women is a challenge", and, a few pages later on, gives a nine-point list of techniques with which to look for them. "Look for women writers; when they are fragmentary, read fragmentation" (my emphasis: the constructive addendum to an apparently obvious statement is a hallmark of the collection). The list closes: "Don't take no for an answer. Argue with silence."

Richlin argues with silence here across a wide range of texts and topics. Chapter 1 discusses the Roman obsession with adultery — meaning, of course, the sexual infidelity of women, not men; chapter 2 investigates, with unblinking gaze, the horrendous invective against women in Roman satire. (In keeping with her dictum that "content is not erased by quotation marks", Richlin will have nothing to do with the notion that such invective is somehow de-fanged by the self-evidently absurd persona of the satirist.) Chapter 3 does its best to find female agency in the jokes attributed by Macrobius to Julia, daughter of Augustus, and relates them to imperial women of Macrobius' own time, Galla Placidia and her daughter. ("Julia died in exile. So much for the oppositional voice", p. 100.) Chapter 4 follows Richlin's own advice about reading fragmentation in building an interpretation and a context for the two surviving lines from Sulpicia the satirist. Chapter 5 reads some of the appalling rapes in Ovid; chapter 6 discusses women's make-up, and the rhetoric around it ("beauty seems to lie, not only in the eye of the beholder, but in the labor of the beheld", p. 169; compare Helena Rubinstein's dictum, "there are no ugly women, only lazy ones". Plus ├ža change — which is, of course, part of the point here.) Chapter 7 discusses religious participation among Roman women, with emphatic attention to the ways in which religion divided women along class lines; it includes a useful list of festivals in which (some) women participated, and an appendix of data on religious titles gleaned from CIL. Chapter 8 reprints the essay with the unforgettable title of "Pliny's brassiere" — which treats, not of Pliny's fetishism, but of the traces of women and their medical practices to be found in the medical texts of antiquity. Chapter 9 discusses the "emotional work" of mourning and public lament: the melding of Richlin's insistence that neniae (whether construed as dirges or as any insignificant sounds) may be culturally telling with her faith that "women's everyday experience is knowable" (p. 268) and her account of her own experience of mourning makes this an exceptionally moving piece of writing. Finally, chapter 10 gives an account of the battle-lines in feminist theory in the early 1990s. The details of the debates constitute the only moment at which — as Richlin is clearly well aware — this collection shows its age: rightly or wrongly, the theoretical centre of gravity has shifted. But the conviction here that classics should not be a discipline hermetically sealed off from "the world", and the cry for commitment to social justice and to socially committed readings, irrespective of the ostensible scholarly focus, remain as important as ever.

Richlin's excoriating sense of social justice is, for my taste, most gratefully on display in her chapter on Ovid's rapes. Ovid is so apparently pliant, so receptive to the readings of different ages and interests that we are inclined to overlook how coercive he in fact is as an author — by which I mean, what are the horrors of content which his polish, poise, and wit somehow manage to conceal in plain sight. Richlin is having none of this. "The pleasure of the style and the pleasure in the content are congruent. Moreover, the universe described horrifies and attracts us precisely because it is out of kilter, as is the style with the content" (p. 160). This follows a hair-raising reading of the equally hair-raising rape of Philomela in the Metamorphoses; Richlin also reads the rape of the Sabines in the Ars Amatoria which is, as she shows, played for humor. She shows how Ovid portrays women's terror as just one of their attractions; how the rapes in the Fasti, irrespective of narrative purpose, are given a "comic structure" (p. 152). This builds to a welcome plea to resist the "distancing devices" (p. 163) of high art.

The plea reminds me irresistibly of the remarkable film by Lisa Cholodenko, High Art (1998), and not only because of the title. Since Richlin's introduction to her next chapter references Jennie Livingston's sad, admirable documentary Paris is Burning (1990) — which dealt with "voguing" among the gay and transgendered, and ultimately with the hazards of the performance of femininity — I trust the anachronistic note is justified. High Art dramatizes the question of what counts as art and what it is worth doing for art's sake — but here, all the dynamics of sex and power are played out among women: the ethics of the question are even more starkly exposed when there are no obviously gendered sides to take. The effect of the film is to destabilize the heuristics of gender. In current critical conversations, the fluidities of gender performance are more and more on display and subject to analysis; and so coercion under the name of a given gender is — should be — more transparent. To me, this makes Ovid's rapes more shocking, not less. One need not lose the political outrage with a more inclusive view of gender.

On this, our students are ahead of us. I mentioned earlier my class on "feminism in classics". In its most recent iteration, there were no men in the class; but there was at least one student who did not identify as a woman either. This added a salutary edge to discussions: nothing could be taken for granted, no simple "them and us" lines could be drawn up. By the same token, it made us more alert to the variegated nuances of gender in the texts we were reading. This is where the field is going. It is no less urgent to read with attention to contemporary social dynamics and issues of social justice — but our view of their concerns is expanding.

Richlin writes, in her final chapter, "Our only special claim [as classicists] was that Greece and Rome themselves were somehow important, either because of their intrinsic worth or because of their putative status as the origin of Western culture. When such claims are abandoned or rejected, what does Classics have to offer?" (p. 297). This collection provides many vivid answers, and opens the way for many more.

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