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  • Pliny's Epistolary Directions
  • Michael Hanaghan

Epistolary authors envision a reader at the very beginning of the act of composition. Epistles are sent to somebody, addressed to an individual or series of individuals that constitute the public addressee (the pubic reader). When epistles are collected, arranged, and circulated, another act of reading is envisaged by the author and thus another reader (the implied reader). As long as the epistolary author exerts control over the act of composition, collection, arrangement, and circulation, then both the public and implied readers are constructed and can be directed by the author to disregard or prioritise information, infer or ignore the letter's context, and accept the author's self-fashioning or claims as to why the epistle was written, sent, or arranged for them to read.1 According to Janet Altman (1982.111): "The external reader's experience is partially governed by the presence of their internal counterpart [the addressee]; we read any given letter from at least three points of view—that of the intended or actual recipient as well as that of the writer and our own."

The implied reader's (or external reader's) multiple vantage points, including the assumed perspective of the addressee, renders him or her subject to multiple forms of authorial direction. In addition, the genre's mimesis of real speech enables a comparison between the dynamics of a conversation and an epistle. Implied readers are akin to bystanders who, as Erving Goffman argues, are placed under pressure to be quiet and not disrupt or eavesdrop on a nearby conversation that does not directly involve [End Page 137] them (1981.131–36).2 Nevertheless, bystanders may subsequently involve themselves, either by commenting to others on the conversation (i.e., reception) or engaging allusively with what was just heard. Their presence may even have been intended by the speaker, who has neither lowered his or her voice, nor found a more secluded and private setting for the conversation to take place. Ultimately, the analogy between speech and epistolary exchange is limited; the social pressure to avoid interrupting a real-life conversation can be far more intense than the experience of the implied reader, who is at liberty to disrupt his or her reception of the "conversation" by stopping, repeating, ignoring, and reordering what was said.

The pressure to play the part of the uninvolved epistolary bystander is an extension of the trope that epistles were not written to be circulated more widely than to the addressee, and that at the time of composition, only that reader existed. The artificiality of the trope is laid bare in Pliny's case by its ubiquitous self-presentation and manipulation of the (wider) reader and by the arrangement and circulation of his epistles, all of which prioritise the implied reader, whose reading of the text forms part of its possible world. Individual epistles were never meant for us, we are told (even if the collection was), and so we ought to read according to Pliny's instructions. This rhetoric is, of course, a conceit; Pliny's attempts to direct the reader one way also nod in the other direction. Repeated attempts to conceal or downplay his generosity to others, for example, involve their prevalent broadcast. These apparent contradictions are born out of Pliny's hyper-awareness of the tension between literary humility and the promotion of himself.

Pliny's endeavours to direct the implied reader run up against the limits of the epistolary author to control the meaning of his text by provoking readings against his instructions or the reader's perception of his expectations. Transcending a naïve or plain reading is a hermeneutic move that requires some level of scepticism from the reader. These "resisting readers" (Fetterley 1978) may think that they have uncovered some sort of forbidden interpretation, but authorial direction is more complex than that. Following or not following a direction is still a conscious reaction to the terms that the author has set and the possible readings that she may have envisaged. Authorial direction should not be conflated with authorial [End Page 138] expectation; for example, Pliny's repeated requests to disregard information, such as the epistles' order...


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pp. 137-162
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