Monday, April 19, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Cláudia Teixeira, Delfim F. Leão, Paulo Sérgio Ferreira, The Satyricon of Petronius: Genre, Wandering and Style (translated from the Portuguese by Martin Earl). Colecção Autores Gregos e Latinos - Série Ensaios 3. Coimbra: Centro de Estudos Clássicos e Humanísticos da Universidade de Coimbra, 2008. Pp. 137. ISBN 9789899585867. (pb).
Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University

This attractive book contains three essays on a Neronian text that still inspires "hectic hariolatry," as P. T. Eden waspishly said of its distant cousin, the Apocolocyntosis. We might say of our whereabouts when submerged in the Satyricon precisely what Encolpius says of his small motley troupe (Sat. 116): nec quid esset sciebamus errantes. The three Portuguese authors dedicate this libellum to their teacher Walter de Medeiros. The hilltop University of Coimbra, one of Europe's oldest academic foundations dating back to 1308 at least, deserves thanks for publishing this volume for a wider audience.

Ferreira, "Contribution to the Definition of the Relationships between the Satyricon of Petronius and Menippean Satire," discusses again the relationship of Petronius' chunks to the shadowy shape and flavors of Menippean satire, something more than prosimetrum. The first term does not name a defined ancient genre, but the second, although medieval, at least describes what it denominates (cf. Relihan CPh 79 (1984) 226, Menippean Satire (1993) 12; Courtney Companion to Petronius (2001) 21; Christesen and Torlone MD 49 (2002) 135-172). Not all mixtures of prose and verse, incongruous or not, deserve the early modern (Lipsian) appellation "Menippean Satire." Frye, Bakhtin, and many other critics (23-4) figure in the discussion of romance, scandal, dialogism, and "pluristylism." It remains difficult to define relationships between a vanished ancient generic label and a certainly fragmentary, butchered torso of a "novel" (for lack of a better name). The Gadarene Cynic Menippus seems to have described episodic journeys to realms up and down--beyond the thin skin of the earth that mortals tread. Nero's tutor, Seneca Minor, earlier in Petronius' aborted epoch, had achieved dubious fame for his savage fantasy of the dead and godified/ gourdified Claudius' ascent/descent to the Otherworld (visus est quasi homo). When one reads Petronius' novel as another, later example of hellish "No Exits," he too may deserve enrollment in the Roman Menippean ranks that in Latin descend from, at least, the prolific Varro's chatty 150, so-named volumes. (Aulus Gellius (2.18.7) mentions that some call Varro's satires "Cynic," but that Varro himself called them "Menippean.") Lucian's cut-to-order Menippus later travelled beyond terrene limits for an Archimedean point of view. Ferreira begins with reflections on the nature of satire, including what Menippus shaped and wrote (including a Necromancy, according to Diogenes Laertius 6.99-101) via Bakhtin (14 characteristics), Frye, Relihan, Plaza, Weinbrot, and others, but the topic necessarily--and admittedly--remains obscure. Ferreira concludes that Petronius' fragmented and episodic text is a "novel with influences from Menippean satire." The Cynics, like other ossified schools, receive hard knocks from one of the Roman sybarite's unreliable narrators, Ascyltus (e.g., Sat. 14.2-4; cf. Mart. 4.53).

Like Petronius' Trimalchio (Sat. 71.2: ex parvo crevit;cf. 38.7, 43.1), we are told that Menippus and Bion the Borysthenite began life as slaves before they became philosophers (Diog. Laert. 4.46, 6.99). Menippus, allegedly either spoudogeloios or "never serious," made a fortune in bottomry loans, fell victim to a lending scheme, and lost his fortune before he committed suicide. Petronius' former slave who "never listened to a philosopher" may mock the artist's literary models as well as contemporary poseurs (Sat. 71.12). Ferreira addresses the vexed issue of the dismembered and censored novel's voice(s), the relationship of Petronius to Encolpius (via Collignon, Relihan, Slater, C. Panayotakis, Conte, and Connors, etc.). The "fragmented and lacunal state of the Satyricon" cripples ingenious efforts to determine how and when Encolpius remembers and relates, narratological occlusions that Roger Beck and Gian Biaggio Conte (inter alios) have tried to untangle. The number of interesting questions of this chapter overwhelms any attempt to resolve them in short compass.

Teixera defines a more focused topic. She helpfully addresses "Two closed universes in the Satyricon of Petronius: the Cena Trimalchionis and the city of Croton." The errant "heroes'" erratic journeys intersect with unattractive but comparatively stable, coherent and structured social systems. Homer's polytropic and polyainetic Odysseus, at the Phaeacian court, produced the paradigm of unreliable narrator and philosophic discourse in the Urtext frequently invoked or parodied by Nero's drinking-companion. Then, Vergil's Aeneas enjoys or suffers another catabasis, one that Petronius' Encolpius fantasizes himself reenacting in a circumscribed land of souls lost to the world. The claustrophobic stasis of epic Achilles' unattractive afterlife reappears in the stasis of the comic, if para-Platonic, Petronian banquet. Trimalchio has pushed a nearly permanent pause-control. Life will not march on. One might regard Trimalchio as a parodic Pluto, ruler of all the over-stuffed dystopia and angry freedmen that he surveys in his micro-managed "microsystem." His internal parameters manage to exclude "normal" Roman rules and regulations governing the outside world (at least until the fire brigade crashes in). His spatial autonomy and control of lighting (dim) produces a temporal autonomy (64-5). In nearly all scenes, the host interrupts or impedes his guests (save the shy Niceros and the tombstone-carver Habinnas). Even these two find their presentations appropriated or topped. When excretory pressures interrupt Trimalchio's tyranny, Petronius' Encolpius remarks this proxemic, chronemic, and verbal oppression (Sat. 41.9: sine tyranno... coepimus invitare ...sermones). Increasing "dysphoric bewilderment" characterizes a mini-fantasy land where only Trimalchio, the novo-rico host and ringmaster, retains any mobility (to and from the latrine: Sat. 41.9 and 47.1). Flux and fluids flush through only the fatuous and fragile freedman host.

But in accord with the perduring picaresque principle of "out of the frying pan and into the fire," the bumblers escape storm, shipwreck, and imminent death to stumble up to and into dystopic, although once mightily flourishing, Croton (Sat. 116.2). Enthusiastic grifters that they are, the labile numskulls don the personae of heredipetae. Where anyone must aut captantur aut captant (Sat. 116.7, 124.4), their choice is pre-determined. And so they enter "another form of imprisonment" (84), and again, they discover that this mendacious one too has been self-imposed.

Leão examines "Petronius and the Making of Characters: Giton and Eumolpus." The puer delicatus performs opera muliebria for sundry partners without any obvious or lasting pleasure or commitment to any of them. His exceptional performance with the virguncula Pannychis seems a jeu d'esprit more than natural inclination. Is he another incompetent scholasticus, or merely a comic bonehead, parasite, and "groupie"? That he can be characterized as a modern Ariadne or Lucretia (Sat. 73, 79, cf. 138; 9.5) proves so much the worse for travestied Greek and Roman myth and legend. Cruel and unstable lover that he is, perhaps Roman readers found Aeneas to be a more recent analogy for handsome Giton or Encolpius, involuted men who trouble their lovers (tot miseriarum causa (Sat. 108.10-11; cf. 82, Aen. 2.671). Always in need of divine or human succor, their pseudo- or anti-heroic, anguished stances are theatrical; their interior inclinations are either ambiguous or non-existent.

Leão also suggests that Petronius' Eumolpus in his post-shipwreck scenes evokes a para-religious prophet or initiate of the Mysteries, or of several Mysteries. Perhaps Petronius mocks ritual and novelistic Mystery-text elements that other Greek or Latin novelistic narratives may have encoded seriously--as many, for instance, have read Apuleius' eleventh-hour conversion narrative. A mythical "Fair Singing" character named Eumolpus first celebrated Demeter's Mysteries (hence, according to official propaganda and sacristans' stories, the Eumolpid clan). Mythic Eumolpus was the child of Poseidon by Chione who received Demeter's dispensation (Hom. Hymns 2.470-76). Poseidon, furthermore, was the determined wanderer Odysseus' persecutor, and, as such, he is the validating paradigm for Priapus, the (pointlessly) wandering Encolpius' alleged persecutor. Ovid's Orpheus too employs an orgiastic follower named Eumolpus (Metam. 11.93). Eumolpus' previous posturing as manic poet and philosopher ludicrously positions him as an echo of the legendary sages Orpheus and Pythagoras. One of his prior, non-victim victims at Pergamum had flatteringly judged him unum ex philosophis (Sat. 85.2). The mythic homonym provides the antiphrastic "telltale name" for this satirist's high-flying poet. As Eumolpus says, and he knows as well as anyone, (Sat. 118): multos iuvenes carmen decepit.

Eumolpus succeeds better with his Milesian-style sex narratives (with their stings in the tale) than with his poems of Troiae Halosis and bellum civile (Sat. 89, 118: furentis animi vaticinatio). The parody of a vatic or epiphanic figure, dressed like his divine predecessor Demeter in a self-pitying disguise, arrives after losing a child in a new community, inconsolable but seeking refuge. In addition to the parallels of Demeter briefly mesmerizing Eleusis, one associates the Italian town of Croton, the unexpected and unsurprisingly unrecognized venue, with elements of the afterlife cults of Orphism and Pythagoreanism.

As the Satyricon is theatrical in metaphors and mimicking in situations (cf. C. Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri. Theatrical Elements in the Satyricon of Petronius 1995), so Leão reasonably also finds in this episode elements of Dionysiac cult. Dionysus is the patron of spectacula, and Eumolpus has his troupe, about to enter Croton, swear their bogus sacramentum ... religiosissime (Sat. 117). Petronius provides a pretty prologue of mendacity for a vagrant prophet or priest (recall Aristophanes' burlesques of the type in Birds) about to be afflicted with constipation, diarrhea, and flatulent followers (crepitus). Leão finds reminiscence of the chaotic thiasoi of Dionysus, accompanied by his mythical associates, satyrs and maenads, who follow him to the mountains. Petronius oddly situates seaside Croton on a lofty hilltop (Sat. 116). Located in the toe of Italy, the once famously sober town stands but eight meters above sea level. Mountaintops are, nevertheless, typical locales for magical situations, so there the author places it (cf. Apul. Met. 1.10). Thus, the critic happily discovers parody of a pompe, or orgia, whether of Eleusinian or Dionysiac mythical personages or initiates. After all, Petronius' burlesque scatological procession can burn both ends of the clichéd polarity of myth and ritual. With yet another inversion of active and passive participants, the greedy captatores captati end the once huge, now butchered and fragmentary novel. Leão (132) finds echoes of the ritual sacrifice of Dionysus Zagreus in the anthropophagous public (Sat. 141: astante populo) death-ritual arranged carefully for the aged Eumolpus' corpse. This climactic gourmet episode offers another whiff of Orpheus, his dismembering sparagmos orchestrated by his fellow Thracians.

Readers may demur when this third critic finds "a more serious reading" in Petronius' scene of anthropophagy. He unexpectedly discovers here "a rebirth of the novel's characters" and "certain hints of hope and regeneration" (133). Tacitus' account of his (and probably our) Petronius' final party suggests a more determined distrust of mankind's pompous hopes for human improvement, for decency to the dead, and for a jolly life in the hereafter. Encolpius and Giton's future would never resemble that of the domestic Daphnis and Chloe or Habrocomes and Anthia.

The English translation is readable for the most part, although infected with minor spelling and typographical errors too numerous to list here (e.g., "the Claudius," Hercules' thirteenth "work" for "labor," "bitterer," "antiheros"). Their software's syllabification program unsurprisingly does not accord with the practice of native typesetters or English computer-programs (e.g., thirteen-th). Each chapter has its own bibliography. This collection of essays may be hard to purchase in print form. Despite some anxiety for the future of the book and THE BOOK, however, I report that one can find and read the entire text online.

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