Thursday, April 16, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Angelo Giavatto, Interlocutore di se stesso: la dialettica di Marco Aurelio. Europaea memoria. Reihe 1, Studien. 58. Hildesheim/New York: Olms, 2008. Pp. vi, 269. ISBN 9783487136417. €34.80 (pb).
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge

This polished Bologna thesis book executes a well-planned investigation into the discursive dynamics of the Meditations (aka Pensieri, Selbstbetrachtungen, Ethika, ...).1 A neat introduction takes 3.11 to bits, term by term, to prompt enquiry into cognition as engine of ethics in the practice of this performance of writing. G takes the twelve volumes of memos to be essentially 'unpublished', and embraces the perturbation to author function that their serial inscription as instrument of moral self-patrol must dictate: the sole candidate for unitary composition can only be the whole graphematic praxis. Sub-divisions of text are interpretative impositions, not excluding the booking and capitulation filled out and introduced by Gataker's edition (p.18 n.107); hence, as M[arcus] might put it, either thematic analysis across the web of loci similes extending between the thinking displayed across all these crammed pages and their cues in the Stoic universe, or else -- no damn themes at all. (This sort of thing, G will show, or at any rate argue, is bound to make any one feel better.)

Setting out a modus operandi which will treat patches of self-admonition as interactively clustering 'families' of thought within the ever-expanding corpus, rather than in terms of self-standing itemic loci similes, G will present an autodiegetic idiolect of intrasystemic glosses, where appropriate supplying 'proto-' or 'arche-types' from doctrine formulated in Stoic teachings such as Epictetus (the main hypotext: p.26 n.132). Start from 9.9, immerse yourself in M, and you'll hypertext to 9.23 with links to 2.16, 4.29, 8.34, 11.8; in the process, you'll be engrossed by an ever more cohesive meshing of doctrine to description to formal argument as the differentially weighted and angled formulations weld together as instances of morphing between reality and realization and re-registration, while each move reinculcates the necessity of subscription to the law that variations (plural) must vary on uni-versality (unicum). G is intent on exploring relations demonstrated or posited between epistemology and deontics (Part I, 'Theory') and their formulation in shifts of writing instrumental to moral progress (Part II: 'Structure'). That is, he means to orient his account to Marcus' solo adventure as if from within.2

Chapter 1 explores the epistemological hook-up between perception and thought, concentrating on phantasia as a double-sided process of reception-through-deliberate focussing in which assent can prescind sensory fallibility and intellectual derailment. However a thought comes to me, I can, if I'm minded, tell it to scram (p.45 on 7.17). Get the thinking straight and you have the baseline for philosophically enabled ethical realism; for M, perceptions are text messages from reality, propositions that evince demonstrative intent on the part of the cosmos, constantly broadcasting thoughts that reinforce the dogmata by keeping the thoughts going that lead to them (p.53). To keep right thoughts active, work to stay in the present (p.54). Patrolling your thoughts, you control what the world does to you. Chapter 2 squares a gazetteer of Stoic fragments on dialectic (FDS87-98 Hülser) with relatives from M's family. Understanding turns on self-referential exercise in and on the exercise of reason, which praxis takes the form of constant re-working of the terms for handling the thought-arguments, especially the terms for discussing this process (esp. pp.77-83). Chapter 3 passes on to espouse 'truth', across moral (persons), logical (propositions), ontological (what is/is real). Here G points out (p.94) that this word-universe opens to discourse between speaking selves, and so to 'rhetorico-expressive' formulations used in talking to and with others (cf. pp.20-5: but this writing approaches minuscule degree sociality). For now, however, emphasis is on secure conformity between faithful perception given correct expression and world-structure embodying the idea of the good: the [unconscionable] shunt from epistemology direct to nature, finessing deontology and reserving it for post-solution reinsertion.

'Part I' has expertly necklaced a wealth of nuggets from M; 'Part II' will explore no less crafted a mosaic of loci to map the main expressive/communicative forms favoured by M's writing -- beyond included gobbets of straight gnome, dogma and cited precept.

Chapter 4. Descriptive passages and demonstrative syllogisms (often elliptical, embryonic or partial) sporting their present tenses, where 'must's and gerunds and intensifying modifiers are brandished to 'realise' cognitive acts: think right now, don't let it fade, keep it real by [anythinging] 'constantly' (i.e. 'don't stop!) and (not remembering but) re-minding yourself that [whatever, it is]. From this core, G forages further for commands, esp. prohibitive ('don't be irrational'), and self-editing (diorthosis, or autocorrection), esp. in double-privative style ('don't make the mistake involved in being un-X'). As G incisively notes, M makes his 'Go right' come out less of a 'Don't go wrong' and more of a 'Put it right, stop going wrong' (p.124). The full texture of lambasting through denial comes with characteristic 'supernegative' formulations where M thinks up a Shibboleth term to negate in the form of the negation of correct ethos: the a-kibdelon ('non-adulterated') conjures up particularly arresting positive moral protreptic (p.125). And crucially, in these dichotomizing gymnastics on polarized vice-virtue apparatus, the privative has it over the negative because it specifies what it excludes (p.131: I would add that you can barely think of doing anything like this in Latin, so here's an unavowed language game with bicultural reality based in flight from, i.e. repression of, Rome). As Part I piloted, G's M means his array of para-literary, or sophistic, modalities to collapse into given equivalence, as whatever is verified is also necessary and necessarily opportune: since all description must convert to prescription for the moral subject, any lapse, weakening, or reneging serves ipso facto -- and you wouldn't want to go doing this, now would you? -- TO WRECK THE UNIVERSE (pp.132-40, the nub of the book).

Chapter 5 similarly moves beyond diatribe's legacy of demonstrative, non-ornamental, metaphorics, to chart improvisational impacting of imagery on doctrinal comprehension, in line with Fronto's pedagogy recovered from a string of letters to M (pp.151-60) and with Stoic theorizing of the utility of similitude (pp.160-1). The function of the metaphoric axis is to connect the thinking mind with the world; the discontinuity apparently ensconced in imagery evanesces as the favourite scenario of the universe in all its globality, structuredness, and regulated systematicity maps onto M as individual experiencing the oneness of self and cosmos: all comparison, in fact, follows, as it must, the defining and definitive coherence of the cosmos, sure as exx. (G provides a fittingly peremptory tabulation of the drift across his spreadsheet from 'naturalistic' ignorance and moral error through similitude to cognitive re-presentation and -- result! -- 'naturalistic' understanding and 'ethical' understanding relayed and realized as correct action, p.175). If the procedure would ultimately reduce all persuasive use of image or analogy to a divinely beauteous singular coding of the totality, nevertheless we are stuck in the middest, where separate 'steps' on the ladder of nature and sundry manifold versions of analogizing prevail, to the point where unexpected relations can shock us, para prosdokian, toward realization of the implosive 'transversality' that runs the world together along the seams of all 'whole-part' ratios. Our reason makes us more like, more part of, the cosmos than animals (p.182). Braced, we can face and face down any similitudes -- and the 'pessimistic' tradition supplying schetliastic catachresis for all aspects of humanity can be recuperated as prompt for defiance in in-difference, commandeered to save us from deviant and deflecting words come unstuck from the truth of reality: 'How long do you want to live, then?'.

After this heave, Chapter 6 tracks down further, superficially calmer, 'argumentative strategies'. Chief among them is the disjunctive formulation -- especially attaching to the live topic of mortality, and in its most succinct doctrinal formulation, the 'Either Atoms or Providence' routine. Here alternatives lead to the same clincher, seeing off weakness, fear, those voices in the cranium, rather than giving the benighted forces of Epicurean unreason house room. Straight thinking is bolstered by exhausting -- by sealing up -- the so-called possibilities, as the self sees that death can't matter to itself as itself, 'either way'. Similarly, and more soundly, trichotomizing dishes up a fortiori reinforcement for right reason, and when M operates with per absurdum or parades wrong-headed fictional disputants, he would sooner be pumping up the volume by jeering at aberration than entertaining a moment's or hairsbreadth quantum of pregnability for Armour-plated Reason. G vindicates the animated palette M paints from -- before toppling into hero worship in the last sentence: 'The sketch in this section demonstrates the honesty of Marcus Aurelius in confronting his own interlocutor, namely his self in his own progress in philosophy: not only an entity subject to error to communicate do's and don't's to and draw up the commandments of dogma for, but a mind for persuading and setting on the road towards right action over the terrain of reason' (p.234). Like, yea-uh!

G adds to 'General Conclusions' a full bibliography, and a set of useful indices, especially of Rerum (listing categories from aphorism to language, dialogue to death, plus a dozen or more Greek termini); but why five pages of Nominum bothering to list moderns cited from Alesse to Zuntz? In the course of the argument, G confronts and suggests ways to treat several cruces: chapter division for 8.30 (pp.99-101); the text of 4.27 (sumpephoremenos [men]: alla, with Theiler against Dalfen etc: pp.221-2) and of 7.75 (e alogista, with the paradosis, against e oligista, Zuntz: pp.223-4).

This reader assents to this valuable moneidograph's dovetailing of doctrinal and rhetorical armature, and yet can't help feeling that G's held himself on too taut a rein to see the license that M's project grants his thinking good thoughts self -- to play bad writer. All the cancelled wrongnesses, absurdities, bogies, and harum scarums in the book lend their liveliness to the wholly unmissable proliferating pluralities of this veritable kukeon of stop-start non sequiturs in collage drag; or if this is a simulacrum of Providence, she has us beat, since no one has a clue where M's aleatory next entry is going to head, or land, us; not even in hindsight. Anything goes, if it throws this nothing-to-lose emperor off his stroke, both momentarily and, irrepressibly, through the eternal return of the repressed, for good. Everything that makes this unruly All Greek To Me a one-off stream of conscienceness. The naughtiness of writing a nasty word down then jabbing through another and to heck with syntax I am the Walrus; the fun of making up new 'words', especially the sous rature noncer that names some unlikely unquality just to exorcise it from Planet Ban It. Sticking in sticker slogans, sermons in sound-bites, now for something completely similar topic hopping. Rupture of polite norming, rapture of p'licing your self. Was it the sage or the rascal who told us something about the insistence of the letter? What it is, what it would be, to know the answers await on cue, the game seriousness itself, all there is, but played well (one I has to keep telling the other I) because played at all, some more. Making a mess with the pieces instead of doing the jigsaw, again, but knowing all along that all goes to show that nothing can go wrong (as wrong as this here now I and I), period, whatever. Because. Everything follows, writing or written. Because it does, and is ... feelbad feelgood écriture. Ocean-oasis of solecipsedixitism. Only One Can Play.


1.   P. Hadot The Inner Citadel, 1992; English translation, 1998) still dominates the scholarship; Jim Hankinson, Stoic epistemology, in B. Inwood (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, 2002, 59-84 is important for Part I here; R. B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 1989, deals at length with the style/thought tandem of G's Part II, besides effectively foregrounding the challenge of Book 1 as gatekeeper to the rest. G draws attention to D. Karadimas, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and its rhetoric, in J. Akujärvi etc. For Particular Reasons. Studies in Honour of Jerker Blomqvist, 2003, 165-89. Close reading of passages and globs depends fair and square on the vastness of A. S. L. Farquharson, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus, 1944.
2.   The Sitz im Leben for these globs of Ethika will be, not the emperor's historicality, but his self-enrolment as one more practitioner among the keepers of the faith, doing his spiritual keep-fit exercises in moral vigilance in the stripped-down writing booth of the inner citadel: we're to buy the proposition that understanding Marcus (sc. in these terms) is good -- and dutiful. As in any feat of analysis that supplies structure to handle a phenomenon of structuration, the enterprise circumscribed by fidelity writes what doesn't suit out of the picture and so putatively out of the equation. Thus 3.11 provided the starting-point as a 'representative' passage (pp.3-15); and yet M's 'closing' entry, 12.36.3-4, appears -- fittingly -- at head of G's last, post-liminary section (on p.229, of 234 of main text). M's own 'Book I' notoriously attracts a dedicated scholarship of/on its own because it provides M's own 'introduction', or self-reflexively self-contained pre-liminary, and as such will receive special treatment from M, for its peculiar formula 'para X toY' (pp.41-2: viz. 'from some luminary in the prince's past he came into contact lasting through the present with the problematic summed up in the category term and objective correlate here/hereby/herewith specified'), for its explicit recommendation of dialectical rigour (pp.76-7 on 1.7), and -- paratextually as 'Appendix' to its chapter -- as paradigmatic model for the graphic intensification of moral application through concrete envisioning (pp140-7: to use G's term, 'supplemento macrostrutturale', p.142). Linearity will not be taken out of the reckoning by whoever's will-power: on it is founded, for a start, any invocation of 'progress'. Again, either it matters whether 'families of chapters' have or had, for real or for the sake of argument, 'prototypes', or archetypes, or else priorities aren't an issue, for the reader faced with the dilemma whether to become, or to behold, the writing 'I' in the written 'I'. In autodiegesis, G knows perfectly well, there is the ineliminable jeu by which the text extends rather than expands, so that, besides morphing within ever more explicit matrices and ever more complex textual economies, its returns stake (out) a trajectory: in the fiction of the writing we shadow in reading, what occurs 'next' risks the lot -- the whole lot, if any such thing has survived the previous 'Pensiero'. One more case of getting it right must be another reminder that 'I' have it wrong -- again -- because for a start 'I' must need to tell myself -- again -- what's what; and so remind myself why 'I' am making myself write it down. Until I drop and (as if that matters) 'I' stops. G has hands too full with explication for contestation: and yet an essential set, or step, or stride, within Stoic [souci de soi] is startling, scaring, scarring. And satirical self-awakening with a jab of the cross-nibb'd pen can improve by being rude, too: the expressive strategies that catch G's eye will include several varieties of importunate impromptus from M once he has pegged out the dogma.

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