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Barnard College

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Greek tragic embodiment often exposes existential edges between self and other, living and dead, animate and inanimate. At the same time, Greek tragedy pulls up close to human bodies, examining them whole and in parts (head, hands, eyes, wounds, skin), covered and uncovered, upright or in collapse. As such it engages a range of aesthetic and affective dynamics, including emotional response and sensory reaction, as well as hands-on maneuvering, embrace, or attack. Within this alienating scheme skin operates as an elusive but compelling entity, the ever-vulnerable fence or border between bodies that proximity and touching aim to cross, whether erotically, violently, or both. In the plays that I am interested in (e.g., dramatists' treatments of Oedipus and Electra) it is not so much that skin alone is highlighted, but rather that it serves as a central metonymy for the boundary crossing that confrontations with sex and death precipitate. Touching the body's skin and its prohibition offer the audience, onstage and off, an intimate analogy for the group experience, which often borders on the perverse. Skin thus serves as a crucial component in coming to terms with affective experience and the body as object in tragedy. Skin is literally the body's edge, and as such it draws attention to its limitations, its visible surface offering evidence of decay and corruption or the possibility of wounding and death. But tragedy also highlights skin as a conduit, hence its attractions and the erotics that often attend even the most violent or pathetic of gestures.

Nancy Worman is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Barnard College and Columbia University. She is the author of articles and books on style, the body, and literary theory in Greek literature and culture, including Abusive Mouths in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 2008) and Landscape and the Spaces of Metaphor in Ancient Literary Theory and Criticism (Cambridge, 2015). She is currently working on a book entitled Virginia Woolf and Gendering Greek Aesthetics (Bloomsbury, forthcoming), as well as a series of teaching and research projects centered around "tragic bodies," which explore the aesthetics and politics of embodiment in Greek tragedy and beyond.

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