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Virtual Sensations and Inner Visions: Words and the Senses in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Abstract : The wor d, w h eth er spok en or w r i t t en, h a s a pa rt icu l a r r el at ion-ship to the senses and to the sensations that we feel. The spoken word appeals most obviously to the sense of hearing while the written word is perceived through sight, sometimes aided by touch in the case of inscriptions, for example. But the reception of both individual words and verbal messages (whether in the form of speeches, poems, or simple conversations) sets in motion processes that are both intellectual and sensual. Beyond its immediate sensory appeal, the word can convey information both about perceptible entities (people, objects, architecture) and about the experience of perceiving them, both for members of the same community and, later, for historians such as ourselves in search of information about perceptions and the senses. However, talk about perceptions is not merely informative for, in addition to telling the reader or listener about the impact made on both body and mind through the senses, words can themselves evoke responses. They can create the impression in readers or listeners that they are perceiving the entity that is described or, what is more, feeling as they would if they were in the physical presence of that entity or if they were performing the actions described. This dimension of language, although often overlooked in modern critical studies which, understandably , prefer to focus on more objectively observable features of texts, was widely acknowledged in ancient and Byzantine rhetoric and discussed under the headings of enargeia, ekphrasis, and hupotyposis. It has also been brought to light by several recent studies of the ways in which the brain reacts to language , suggesting that hearing about objects and actions stimulates parts of the brain involved in the physical interaction with those objects or in accomplishing the actions.1 I will approach the twin topics of how words create an illusion of sensation and of the nature and quality of the resulting experiences through a selection of different texts from the fourth to the ninth century, not in order to construct a history of linear development, though I think that there are important changes that take place in the use and conception of appeals to the senses, but primarily in order to explore some different uses of such appeals and the differing relationships between the word, the virtual sensation that it creates, and reality, whether that reality is understood as sensible, intelligible, or both. 1 Action words especially have this effect. See O. Hauk et al.
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Contributor : Ruth Webb <>
Submitted on : Saturday, September 19, 2020 - 8:42:36 PM
Last modification on : Tuesday, November 3, 2020 - 9:54:04 AM


  • HAL Id : halshs-02922196, version 1



Ruth Webb. Virtual Sensations and Inner Visions: Words and the Senses in Late Antiquity and Byzantium. Knowing Bodies, Passionate Souls: Sense Perceptions in Byzantium, ed. S. Ashbrook Harvey and M. Mullett, Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2017. ⟨halshs-02922196⟩



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