In his poetry and letters, Paulinus of Nola calls his audiences to imitate the saints, and the notion of witness is central both to his manner of persuasion and to the imitation that he enjoins: Paulinus uses ekphrasis and other witness-centered rhetorical maneuvers to persuade his audiences to see, hear, feel, and observe in witness to the saints—a witness which Paulinus hopes will culminate in imitation. And yet, when presenting the exemplary figures he wishes his audience to imitate, Paulinus includes narrative elements that undermine the reliability of witness: his patron saint Felix survives persecution through divinely-instigated unrecognizability; the holy bishop Maximus strives for a death hidden from the eyes of his contemporaries; Paulinus himself, suffering from spiritual blindness, does not recognize his contemporary Victricius as a “living martyr” until years after their initial meeting. In other words, Paulinus urges imitation of saintly exemplars while subverting the primary vehicle he offers his audience for effecting that imitation.
In this presentation I will investigate Paulinus’s seeming ambivalence about witness and how it relates to the saintly imitation he sought to cultivate in his readers and listeners. Is this ambivalence a product of Paulinus distrusting the legibility of witness? Is it a ‘productive paradox’ intended to transform the active listener? Is it a reflection of an underlying discourse of humility in sainthood? Ultimately, each of these dynamics seems to be in play, and each contributes to the larger case Paulinus makes for the necessity of authoritative ecclesiastical interpreters, such as himself.