Table of Contents
Send a Letter
Magazine Staff
Back Issues:
Editors's Notes
Course Work
Class News
Books by Alumni
For the Record
Center Stage
Alumni Gateway
UofC Homepage

Cosmopolitan tinkerer Shadi Bartsch gets her hands dirty reconstructing both motorcycles and masterpieces.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Shadi Bartsch planned to be a medievalist and “plastered” her dorm room walls with quotations from Dante’s Inferno, refusing entry to all who did not recognize the words. But it was Dante’s guide through the inferno, the great Roman poet Virgil, who ultimately captured Bartsch’s imagination and led her to the classics.

With a Ph.D. in classics from Berkeley, Bartsch, at 32, is one of Chicago’s youngest full professors. In July, she joined the classical languages and literatures faculty and the Committee on the History of Culture. She has written three books and has two others under way, in addition to numerous review articles. She’s also co-editing the Oxford Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, a comprehensive reference volume spanning a variety of cultures and disciplines, and editing The Cambridge Companion to Classical Rhetoric, aimed at making the classics accessible to students and a general audience.

It’s not surprising that a field requiring knowledge of Latin and Greek and demanding a near obsession with the nuances of ancient rhetorical devices would appeal to a cosmopolitan tinkerer like the London-born Bartsch. Most days, she tools with words. Surrounded by books on ancient Greece and Rome, she takes notes on index cards and later, John McPhee–like, orders them by the thousands into the bare bones of a narrative. At other times, she’s immersed in projects of a more physical kind. She’s gone bungee jumping in California and skydiving in Illinois, begun retiling her bathroom floor in a “zany” pattern, and used to ride a navy-blue Honda Nighthawk 650 until she decided, just for fun, to take it apart and put it back together again, ending up with a short-circuited electrical system and a seat six inches too high.

Now working on her fourth and fifth books, Bartsch has had more success with the mechanics of masterpieces.

“What’s nice about the manual projects is the illusion of mastering,” she says. “With texts, it’s different. There’s not a sense of mastery but of seeing what kind of meaningful narrative can be formed out of another narrative. Literary criticism is more about creation than about discovery.”

In one of her books in progress, The Mirror of Philosophy: Specularity, Sexuality, and Self-Knowledge in the Roman Empire, Bartsch plans to create a new interpretation of ancient philosophy, one that emphasizes the intersection of sight, sex, and self-reflection. The ancient philosophers, she argues, connected these concepts in much more deliberate ways than most scholars have recognized. “What we often don’t appreciate about ancient concepts of vision is that the act of seeing was understood in tactile terms,” she explains. “The ancients thought that when you were seeing, your eyes were either emitting or receiving waves of tangible particles.”

For Bartsch, what is strange about this interactive understanding of sight is that vision was understood in correspondingly sexual terms: The exchange of a gaze with a lover was even treated in some texts as tantamount to a sexual act. And believing that rays from your eyes were being reflected back on you, she continues, fostered the notion that when you looked at a love object, you were really seeing yourself. “This metaphor of vision and of mirroring as a sexual act,” she concludes, “is arguably at the root of ancient philosophy.”

Bartsch, who has lived in Iran, Switzerland, the Fiji Islands, and Indonesia, is used to taking fresh approaches to some of the classics’ seemingly tired topics. Her first book, Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius (Princeton, 1989), grew out of her undergraduate thesis and illuminates the narrative purpose of detailed descriptive passages once considered irrelevant to the main storylines of these two ancient romance novels.

Her Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Harvard, 1994) shows how language can be distorted under tyranny by taking a closer look at how Roman audiences in the first century A.D. listened for double meanings in the works of dramatists and poets. In the book’s epilogue, she takes digs at imitation cheese, Hallmark greeting cards, and the Reagan administration to make her point that simulation, insincerity, and staginess still thrive.

Most recently, in Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War (Harvard, 1998), Bartsch wrestles with Lucan’s epic poem, which describes the Roman republic’s civil war that ended in the tragic defeat of Pompey and the rise of Nero. Scholars have been unable to agree on whether Lucan ultimately praises political ideology or proclaims it as pointless. Bartsch believes that Lucan went from extreme political cynicism to the adoption of a distinct political choice, Pompey, drawing parallels between Lucan’s engaged approach and that of Holocaust historian Hannah Arendt.

Bartsch is already thinking about yet another book, tentatively titled The Cult of the Trope: Hermeneutics and the Classics in the Middle Ages. Looking in particular at the medieval use of figure, Bartsch plans to illuminate how medieval scholars departed from the literal meaning of classical texts and then theorized about their own deliberate misreading—“trope” means literally a turning, or deviation. By explaining the biases and conceptions that informed their interpretations, she hopes to show how modern scholarly interpretation, too, is mediated by a series of practices that could be self-conscious.

The issue echoes her belief that literary critics, whether medieval or modern, are themselves creators of ideas, not merely dispassionate observers. The challenge for critics, she says, becomes acknowledging how their own perspectives affect their interpretations—without undermining their credibility.

“In the humanities, so much of what we do is about creating or selecting patterns and meanings out of texts and fashioning them into a coherent narrative about those texts,” she says. “So little of what we do is about discovering or unveiling or telling the truth about a text, and once we make a claim about our desires—the context we’re writing in—the question arises that if we are creating, not discussing, how can we justify that creation? The question can be paralyzing because it’s hard to find definitive answers. There has to be a happy medium between honest attention to the text and saying something that will matter.”—C.S.

Table of Contents | Send a Letter | Staff | Editor's Notes | Letters | Investigations | Journal | Class News | Books | Deaths