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Narrative as Embodied Intensities: The Eloquence of Travel in Nineteenth-Century Rome

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 2, May 2013
pp. 125-139 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0012

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An ancient traveler once remarked to his Athenian audience, “As I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, ‘To the Unknown God.’” Here St. Paul tells of walking through the city and being impressed by the religiosity of its citizens. They were so religious that they not only had altars erected to the whole pantheon of local and national deities; they even erected an altar to some god they might have overlooked. But instead of using this city-walk discovery to chastise the Athenians for their idolatry, Paul strategically exploits it as an opportunity to tell his hearers the Good News: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I declare unto you.” He states that he knows the name of their unknown god: He is the “God that made the world and all things therein. . . . [I]n him we live, and move, and have our being.” And now this God, the God, “commandeth all men every where to repent” and follow his risen Son, the embodied Logos.1

In this essay I discuss another site of city walks, of moving bodies through space, in order to explore the relation of rhetoric to narrative. More specifically, I describe walking rhetorics and narratives of embodied intensities as I travel back and forth between hermeneutic theory and interpretive practice, between generalizing about narrative rhetoric and doing readings of particular examples of such. Once again I am trying to illustrate something I call rhetorical hermeneutics: the use of rhetoric to practice theory by doing history. In this case, I use some emplotted rhetoric to practice a bit of narrative theory (with Paul Ricoeur and Kenneth Burke) by doing mini-histories of embodied experiences of American travelers in Rome during the mid-nineteenth century.2

Following Ricoeur, I am thinking about narrative as the configuration of the temporal dimension of lived experience and experience as the temporality of living configured as narrative. Ricoeur writes, “Time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (52). Narrative enables humans to grasp the nature of temporality, while narrative’s inseparable connection to temporality is what makes narrative meaningful.3 I want to illustrate concretely these somewhat abstract claims by using the records of American tourists in Rome to think about narrative rhetoric as embodied movement in space over time. I talk about literal bodies wandering through material circumstances as well as figurative bodies used imaginatively to move thought and feeling into new locations. In so doing, I am not attempting to replace Ricoeur’s hermeneutic focus on temporality but merely adding to it an emphasis on the spatial dimension of narrative.

For many Americans visiting Rome in the nineteenth century, the city became an imaginative landscape for thoughtful feeling about art, religion, and politics. Often such rhetorical imaginings developed through the narrative placement of real and fictive bodies into Rome’s urban space and its historical time. For example, in his 1857 journal Herman Melville describes standing in the Coliseum and “repeopling” it with sculptures from the Vatican to bring stories of ancient gladiatorial spectacle to present life (111). He and other American visitors also repeopled the cityspace with specific historical persons (Caesar, Cicero, Paul) as a way of relating classical and Christian Rome to contemporary US culture.

On February 26, 1857, Melville writes of walking from the Roman Coliseum to the Capitoline gallery. There he gazes at the statue of the Dying Gladiator and notes that it “shows . . . humanity existed [then] amid the barberousness of the Roman time, as it [does] now among Christian barberousness” (Journal 106). Almost exactly one year later, Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne was also greatly moved by this famous statue, though his response seems more aesthetic than ethico-cultural: “I was not in a very fit state to see it, for that most miserable sense of satiety—the mind’s repletion when too much rich or delicate food has been forced upon it—had got possession of me. . . . Still, I had life enough left to admire this statue, and was more impressed by it than by anything of...

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