The Senses on Edge. Overstrained and Fading Senses in Ancient Literature
Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in all things sensory in Classics, a trend which is largely influenced by research refocusing on the aesthetic qualities and potentials of texts and their materialities. Broadening a perspective that has for a long time been dominated by the visual, scholarship now encompasses work on all senses and their interactions, notably in the well-known Routledge series on the senses in Antiquity. This trend is accompanied by the application of concepts of experience and embodiment to the texts, which continue to bear rich fruit in analysing these texts and their contexts.
But what happens if the senses are brought to their limits, i.e. if sentient beings are overwhelmed by or deprived of sensory experience? Think a spectrum from Polyphemus being brutally and irreversibly blinded to an Odysseus tied down in order to experience dangerous sensuality at the cost of his shipmates’ temporary loss of hearing, and from Seneca’s Baiae bristling with sensory excess to the underworld’s umbrosa silentia. What about Tantalus denied touch or Prudentius’ charred Saint Lawrence exuding odours, gruesome for some but sweet for the faithful? Exploring scenarios like these, we want to discuss texts that either represent extreme sensory experience or reflect upon these phenomena on the level of metaliterary discourse.