Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Karin Schlapbach: Augustine on dance

Augustine’s interest in theatrical spectacles is well known. In Confessions 3 he evokes his adolescent passion for spectacula theatrica and proceeds to criticise them on the grounds that they provoke only vacuous feelings. In a later passage he deplores the power of gladiatorial shows to overwhelm the spectator with their displays of cruelty (6.13).
Less well known is Augustine’s impartial examination of pantomime dance in On Christian teaching and On the teacher. This paper traces Augustine’s sparse but highly interesting remarks on the subject and argues that Augustine uses dance as a powerful tool to think about the conditions of secure knowledge, knowledge not hampered by the process of interpretation and the need to resolve ambiguities.
Augustine acknowledges that pantomime generally uses gestures as signs that are based on human conventions. However, in On the teacher he claims that “in all the theatres” countless things or actions are shown through themselves without the use of signs. The paper will demonstrate that this claim makes best sense if we assume that the reference is specifically to pantomime dance, which after all relies only partly on sign language. Evidence comes from the tradition of comparing the universe with a heavenly dance, to which Augustine’s point is indebted. But in Augustine’s version of this traditional argument the theatre is more than just an illustration. It is a place where the interplay between the mere appearance of things and a setting which provides implicit guidance for their correct understanding can be experienced.

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