The Tongueless Nightingale: Loss of Voice in the Literature of the Roman Empire
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Koenig, Amy Angelie
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CitationKoenig, Amy Angelie. 2017. The Tongueless Nightingale: Loss of Voice in the Literature of the Roman Empire. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation explores the concept of muteness—the physical loss of voice and speech—in the literary imagination of imperial Rome. It appears to me that the idea of loss of voice in this period is bound up with a number of cultural considerations that give voicelessness a particularly complex significance, beyond a simple metonymy for loss of agency or political powerlessness in the face of oppression. Through a series of case studies drawn from texts of the Roman Empire, I identify a number of cultural factors that are crucial to our understanding of muteness and loss of voice as literary phenomena, exploring the ways in which increased focus on the body and visual display as a means of communication, along with a keen awareness of the limitations of the physical voice, lead these authors to explore the question of what power might be possessed by those who lack the ability to speak. The first chapter examines discussions of the physical voice in philosophical and medical texts, focusing on Galen of Pergamon’s famous demonstrations of the laryngeal nerves. I argue that Galen presents a distinctive conception of the voice as the product of a struggle between forces, one seeking to restrain the other, and of loss of voice as a loss of control rather than an impediment. Next, I turn to the topic of Roman religion through an examination of Ovid’s Fasti, focusing on the figure of the Dea Muta—the “mute goddess”—whose mysterious and multivalent identity emphasizes the important role of restriction of speech and protective anonymity in the religious sphere. My third chapter interprets myths of the voice in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greek prose fiction through the lens of the imperial Roman art of pantomime, a form of danced storytelling centering on the mute, transgressively communicative body. In the fourth chapter, I consider the other side of the coin: the miraculous (re)gaining of a human voice as exemplified by the “ass novel” tradition, in which the narrator is turned into a donkey, then resumes his human form. Just as loss of voice in these texts is not simply synonymous with disempowerment, I suggest, so a restored voice cannot be equated with true agency: stories of the restoration of voice call into question the identity of the will that governs that voice. Finally, I gesture toward a further investigation of loss of voice in early Christian literature, using Prudentius’ Peristephanon to illuminate the continuity and change in Christian perspectives on muteness and the miraculous restoration of speech.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140227
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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