Winkler Prize Winner Takes On Classics’ Unseemly Side

Cat Lambert discusses Lucian's "Ignorant Book Collector" in audacious essay.

April 11, 2023

Tyler Applegate

Cat Lambert Headshot
Photo credit: courtesy of Cat Lambert

If Cat Lambert didn’t exactly write the book on exploring risky topics in the classics, she did at least write the essay: Lambert won the 2022 Winkler Memorial Prize for the best essay that takes on a marginalized or disreputable subject across classical literature. In her essay, titled “Lucian’s Queer Book User in the Adversus Indoctum,” she explored the ways in which an “ignorant book collector” in an ancient satire by Lucian is maligned through the use of queer stereotypes. She was in Oberlin to talk about her award-winning work on Thursday, April 13. We caught up with Lambert to learn a bit more about what was in store.

Could you give us a brief overview of your  presentation at Oberlin? What are the main topics or themes you addressed?

I talked about a Greek text by Lucian (a Syrian writer who was active in the 2nd century CE) called the Adversus Indoctum, or “Against the Ignorant Book Collector.” In this text, a well-educated speaker roasts a man who is passionate about collecting books but lacks the ability to read them the right way. As part of this attack, the speaker calls the book collector a kinaidos, a term that often marks a man as sexually deviant, feminized through his desire to be penetrated by other men, a ‘polluting’ threat to the status quo. My main question is: What does a kinaidos have to do with books? What, in short, is the relationship between books and bodies, particularly bodies that deviate from or disrupt normative conventions of gender, sexuality, class, etc.?

Given the sensitive nature of some topics you covered in your paper and will cover in this talk, how did you approach these issues during your presentation? What did the audience take away from your discussion of these topics?

The invective of Lucian’s speaker is underpinned by rhetoric that is persistently degrading towards bodies marked by difference, from gender variance to disability. One of the challenges in reading this text is to resist reproducing this harmful rhetoric. This challenge is compounded by the fact that we do not have access to the “ignorant book collector’s” own perspective. Everything is filtered through his attacker. We cannot simply take the speaker’s words on their own terms; we must challenge these terms. This is where queer theory becomes an immensely useful lens, not for excavating a queer individual from the ancient Greek past, but rather for reading the speaker’s pejorative rhetoric against the grain and speculating about moments where the kinaidic collector might subvert the speaker’s authority and power.

How can the study of works like Lucian's Adversus Indoctum help modern readers and scholars better understand and appreciate the complexities of ancient societies, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality?

Lucian’s highly imaginative corpus has much to offer readers who are interested in gender and sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean. For example, in his True History, he describes an all-male society that lives on the moon and gives birth through their calves after having sex in the knee area. Historically, “Against the ignorant book collector” has been left out of the gender/sexuality spotlight. What brought me to this text originally was my background in book history, or the study of texts as objects and their social, cultural, historical significance. And this text has been of great interest to book historians precisely because it contains vivid descriptions of books as objects. But when I read this text, I was surprised to find that it was kind of sexy, too: It’s about what we do to books with our bodies and what books do to our bodies and how we understand books as bodies. When Lucian’s speaker calls the book collector a kinaidos, he is staking a claim about what kind of body should handle the textual ‘body’ of the prestigious, classical Greek past and how. The way we talk about books is often linked to broader cultural discourses around gender, sexuality, and embodiment.

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