Sunday, October 31, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Leah Kronenberg, Allegories of Farming from Greece and Rome: Philosophical Satire in Xenophon, Varro and Virgil. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 223. ISBN 9780521517263. $99.00.

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, University of Sydney


Rare must be the readers who would sit down to Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Varro's De Re Rustica, and Virgil's Georgics together -- sadly, all too rare the reader who would pick up the Oeconomicus at all except as a source for Athenian social history, or the De Re Rustica except as a repository of 'straight' comparanda for the agricultural lore of the Georgics. Rarer still are those who would consider them, individually or collectively, as satiric texts. Rarest of all is the scholar who possesses mastery of all three texts and the formidable body of scholarship on them (as well as on their hinterlands of Platonic philosophy, Republican history, and, for the Georgics, virtually all earlier poetry) and can deploy it to produce an eloquent, persuasive, and often innovative interpretation of the texts, their authors, and the wider Graeco-Roman tradition of discussing, allegorizing, and idealizing the agricultural life. In this monograph, Leah Kronenberg proves herself to be just such a scholar. It is likely, as she herself anticipates, that the less uncommon reader will approach the book from interest in only one of the three texts, and its three sections are carefully and successfully designed to be self-contained for precisely such readers. However, the richest rewards will be drawn by those who follow the cumulative argument through the methodological introduction and the three, chronologically-ordered sections. Only thus can one fully appreciate the related but distinct ways in which each text problematizes agriculture and its cultural construction as an ideal, both in itself and as a model for political structures. Whether or not one finally accepts the notion that the texts can be considered Menippean satire, however broadly defined, the implications which such a generic classification raises unquestionably throw new and significant light on all three.

The introduction has a large amount of ground to cover, and does so successfully, if a little disjointedly at times. Taking as her starting-point Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees and its satire both of human society and the cliché of allegorizing it as a beehive, Kronenberg argues for a similarly ironic and satiric approach to farming (including apiculture), its idealization and allegorization in Xenophon, Varro and Virgil. She has a careful and judicious discussion of the usefulness of the categories of satire and especially of Menippean satire in discussing texts which lack the explicit generic markers which would make such classifications uncontroversial. Her conclusion, that Menippean satire's 'core focus might be called the parody of didacticism' (33), manages to avoid squeezing any square texts into round holes while retaining enough specificity to remain a useful interpretative tool. The argument is further nuanced in her discussion of irony, which is partly a justification of finding any irony in writers like Xenophon and Varro, who have often been considered incapable of it, partly a sophisticated exploration of its nature, and most importantly a differentiation between the irony deployed by the three texts: Xenophon's Socrates remains a positive model of inquiry and ethical standards, even as he turns an ironic gaze upon the ideas of Critobulus and Ischomachus; Varro has no such positive figure but ironizes all the approaches to agriculture, scholarship, and politics which he presents; Virgil goes a step further still to create a kind of 'meta-Menippean satire', which satirizes not only actual systems of knowledge but even the human need to produce such means of coming to terms with the world. Sections on parody (including a nice use of Gary Morson's notion of 'metaparody'), allegory, ethics, and genre complete the picture. Occasionally Kronenberg gets a little bogged down in tangentially relevant scholarly controversy, as in her discussion not so much of Xenophon as of Strauss on Xenophon, but generally even these are justified by the need to rehabilitate authors who have been denied the sophistication with which she credits them.

Kronenberg's reinterpretation of the Oeconomicus is founded upon a reinterpretation of Xenophon and his writing as a whole, especially the Socratic works. Rather than the conservative, naïve journeyman presenting a positively valorized view of Athenian social and political values, as enshrined in Ischomachus' running of his oikos, she offers layers of irony on a par with any Platonic dialogue, as Xenophon and his Socrates subtly undermine both Critobulus' and Ischomachus' value systems and the system of inquiry and reflection upon which those systems are based. There is a chapter each on Critobulus' framing discussion with Socrates and on Ischomachus' disquisition on household management, and together these constitute a sort of running commentary on the dialogue as a whole, emphasizing the ways in which the interlocutors' emphasis on material possessions is ironically undercut by that value system's conflict with that of Socrates. Particularly interesting and persuasive, as well as important for the book's overarching argument, is the way in which it is not only Ischomachus' values which are satirized, but the system of inquiry by which he arrives at them, rendering him, in Kronenberg's own formulation, Socrates' '"evil twin"... in his system of teaching' (55). Much of Kronenberg's interpretation is built on the existing work of scholars such as Ambler and Danzig, who are suitably credited in the notes, but it remains an admirably lucid and persuasive exposition of what is still a heterodox stance. Only the concluding comparison with Plato's Republic, although adumbrated by earlier parallels between Ischomachus' oikos and Callipolis, feels a little underdeveloped.

The chapters on Varro's De Re Rustica are probably the most successful and striking in the book, and not solely because of the three texts it has suffered the greatest scholarly neglect. Again Kronenberg has to defend her author, this time against those who have taken at face value his captatio benevolentiae about the haste of the work's composition in his old age. Rather than using this to account for inconsistencies in the work, she notes that such contradictions are evidence of irony, as each of the participants in the dialogue are depicted as pedants and their discourses as parodies of contemporary scholarly approaches. As with Xenophon, Kronenberg extends this interpretation to others of Varro's works, detecting irony and parody in the extant books of De Lingua Latina too and suggesting that the spirit of his Menippeans might have pervaded much of the rest of his oeuvre. Another particularly significant strand in Kronenberg's argument is Varro's engagement with Cicero, parodying his philosophical dialogues in form and content, and opposing Varro's own glorification of the contemplative life to Cicero's of the active. The three chapters focus on Varro's satirizing of, respectively, academic debates, farming as a Roman ideal, and agriculture as an allegory for politics. They combine telling individual insights with an utterly convincing cumulative argument, not to mention a central panel in the overall discussion. For here there is no Socrates to act as a foil to the follies paraded before the reader, and the closest this reading of De Re Rustica comes to a positive exemplar is Varro's own (metatextual) aviary, the embodiment of the contemplative life devoted to the pleasures of the mind in contrast to that of Merula, which is focused on profit.

The Georgics certainly cannot be said to have suffered from scholarly neglect, and Kronenberg frankly acknowledges the quantity of work which has been done, in particular on the poem's poetic intertexts. Her stated aim is to add to this the consideration of Virgil's engagement with the tradition of philosophical dialogue and more particularly the satiric strand within it, as exemplified by her readings of Xenophon and Varro. This is certainly part of her contribution, but the more significant one is that adumbrated in the introduction, to see the Georgics as examining, not the competing worldviews which can be found in the poem, but rather the way in which humans (and Kronenberg neatly uses the passionate debates between optimistic and pessimistic critics themselves to exemplify this) need to generate such systems of interpretation and how such systems are ultimately either limited or useless. She shows how G. 1 is dominated by the use of religio as a means of understanding the universe, and G. 2, in contrast, by ratio, but that each is shown ultimately to fail as a comprehensive solution. The label of gloria is less satisfactory as a unifying principle for book 3, but the discussion itself, especially of the Norican plague, is excellent. Perhaps best of all is the discussion of the Aristaeus section, which sets up a polar opposition between, not Aristaeus and Orpheus, but Proteus, whose tragic and futile narrative of Eurydice presents one way of comprehending the universe, and Cyrene, whose limited but practical explanation and advice to her son offer another. This is not simply a further contribution to the endless debate between optimistic and pessimistic readers of the Georgics, but rather a reading which moves onto a higher level and refocuses the debate as being about that very debate and readers' need to engage in it.

The bibliography is impressive in its breadth, especially considering the diversity of areas covered. One article which probably would have appeared just a little too late for Kronenberg to take account of it, but which offers an interesting counterpoint to her approach to Varro and Virgil (and which also takes Mandeville as its starting point), is Neville Morley's 'Civil War and Succession Crisis in Roman Beekeeping', Historia 56 (2007), 462-70.

There are very few quibbles to be made over such a comprehensively enjoyable, sophisticated, and persuasive book, but one or two may be raised about small aspects of the presentation. Cross-references are sometimes made in the footnotes to discussions in other parts of the book using formulations such as 'See chapter 6, "The amorality of farming"' (158 n2), where the second element is not, as one might think, the chapter title in apposition, but the subsection within the numbered chapter. The momentary confusion and slight effort of finding the page numbers of the subsection on the contents page are no great crosses to bear, but numbering of the subsections might have made the book more user-friendly. Equally trivial, but perhaps worth mentioning, is the omission of initials when referring in the notes to a scholar whose namesake is also in the bibliography: for instance it would be useful to have an indication that the Thomas cited in 166 n10 is Geraldine T. of that ilk rather than the Richard F. who is inevitably ubiquitous elsewhere in the footnotes of the Georgics chapter (though in this case, the eventual reference to 'she' gives a clue). Occasionally, footnotes are somewhat overloaded with quotations, but these can be taken or left by normal readers and are thus less irksome than to the reviewer who feels obliged to read them all. Kronenberg does also not infrequently develop points related to her argument in the notes but, while some of these do occasionally feel as though they might have been more helpfully integrated into the main text, for the most part they are just the sort of incidental roses which are best smelt at the roadside of the bottom of the page. The book is remarkably free of typos. The only one I noticed might be considered a 'Freudian typo' and, though I cannot imagine it was deliberate, fits Kronenberg's view of Varro's satirizing of Cicero rather well: the title of Part II is correctly given as 'Varro's De Re Rustica' on its first page (73), but the headers of every even page in it read 'II Varro's De Re Publica'.

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