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How is it that female figures—though whether they are properly female is debatable—come to voice in Christian texts of late antiquity? How, in particular, do their voices enter into debates about desire, traditionally the province of masculine speech? And what do these virginal voices sound like? Are they distinct and recognizable to our reading ears? There is a story to be told, and it starts with Thecla. We might say that every Christian virgin who arrogates voice in some sense follows Thecla, speaking her desire in speech that both is and is not her own. Thecla, in other words, both inaugurates and serves as a figure for virginal voice in its startling, in-breaking forcefulness. But Thecla, however definitively novel, follows others as well. This chapter first backtracks to consider Thecla’s precursors, Diotima (Plato, Symposium) and Leucippe (Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon). It then follows the reworking of those figures in the Acts of Thecla and Methodius’ Symposium respectively. Finally, it explores the legacy of Thecla in two little-known late ancient Latin dialogues that feature notably voluble virgins—the Lives of Saints Helia and Constantina, respectively.
Some three decades ago Michel Foucault sought to reestablish communication between “madness” and “non-madness” by going back to what he called the “zero point” in history at which the distance between reason and madness was first established. In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Foucault suggested that returning to this point of initial differentiation requires renouncing all that we as modern persons know to be true about madness and reason. If we are to locate “that realm in which the man of madness and the man of reason, moving apart, are not yet disjunct,” he wrote,
we must speak of that initial dispute without assuming a victory, or the right to a victory; we must speak of those actions re-examined in history, leaving in abeyance all that may figure as a conclusion, as a refuge in truth. … Then, and then only, can we… begin the dialogue of their breach, testifying in a fugitive way that they still speak to each other.
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