“Not bad, not bad at all,” Diotallevi said. “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.”
……….Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
The Satyricon is a work I can only believe some benevolent deity – perhaps Swift’s Goddess Criticism – designed expressly for post-modern, post-structuralist, ex-post-facto allegoresis. Its original author and its audience remain conjectural, its intent hypothetical at best. Its subsequent transmitters or digesters or selectors are totally unknown. Their purposes or aims, the principles that guided their culling and/or preserving and/or pruning and/or purging so heteroclite a text, are not even imaginable. As for the work itself: it’s scarcely a text at all. More holes than substance, it resembles a spider web more closely than it does a tapestry. That amounts to what sounds remarkably like the paradigm post-modern artifact: a text that is almost no text, authorless, audienceless, pointless, nearly timeless, incorporating, indeed almost “composed” of, gaps and discontinuities – the text as its own irony, as aporia, language already betraying or defeating or nullifying whatever intent may have attempted to control and confine it. Criticism of such a text is a willfully perverse act, the imposition of the reader’s vision upon its recalcitrant materials. It amounts to connecting the dots, completing the gestalt: creating the pattern that isn’t there. In the case of the The Satyricon, Criticism (or Momus) has been most generous: the pattern that isn’t there is there. No absence has ever been more forcefully present than that of The Satyricon: its holes are its point.
It is clearly not accidental that The Satyricon has gotten more – and more perceptive – critical attention in the past forty years than at any time since the rediscovery of the “Banquet of Trimalchio” portion of the manuscript.1 A lot of that attention has been devoted to discerning traces of the original design, scope, and intent of The Satyricon, and even those critics who have most conscientiously devoted themselves to trying to read the text-as-we-have-it have done so largely in the context of the Neronian-text-that-might-have-been – for example, identifying the literary parody and satire that The Satyricon so obviously contains with court struggles for Nero’s favor, and with specific parodies of Seneca and Lucan.2 Such identifications may well be satisfying to classicists, but for most twentieth-and twenty-first century readers parodies of Seneca and Lucan are just so many more gaps in the text, holes of non-meaning or non-relevance. The porosity of The Satyricon is such that the more meaning scholarship attempts to pour into it, the more aporia it creates for meaning to escape by.
The challenge of a (non)text like The Satyricon is not to put meaning into it but to take meaning out of it: to deal with it on its own terms, to accept it as a composition of gaps: as jazz musicians used to say of Thelonius Monk’s piano style, to play the silences.
Only one reader of The Satyricon (that I am aware of) has done that successfully. Federico Fellini, in his screen adaptation of The Satyricon, has seen its wholeness precisely in its holes. From the darkly-lit opening shot of a huge, bare, screen-filling, and intimidating concrete wall, with a tiny human figure dwarfed and trapped at its foot, to the final sunlit shot of broken fragments of walls, richly painted with human faces and now opening onto green meadow and blue sea, Fellini’s Satyricon (he appropriates the (non)text as his own, as every authentic reader must) understands the aporia as the text: the holes are the point. The gaps are what it says. Holes – and both Fellini and Petronius (whoever he may have been) mean this obscenely as well as philosophically – are to be enjoyed, not deplored. Vacuitas vos liberabit.
Fellini’s vision is no distortion of Petronius’s hypothetical text, but an accurate rendition of it. All through The Satyricon, things are put into other things (to paraphrase Monty Python) in increasingly vain attempts to fill the holes that loom at the center of the whole – but the (w)hole remains. “What are men anyway but balloons on legs, a lot of blown-up bladders? Flies, that’s what we are. No, not even flies. Flies have something inside. But a man’s a bubble, all air, nothing else.”3
The Banquet of Trimalchio lies at the center of The Satyricon,4 offering course after course of things concealing other things and jokes that have no point: eggs stuffed with orioles, pigs that supposedly haven’t been gutted but which, when slashed open, pour out sausages and blood puddings. Even Trimalchio is stuffed: “I’ve been constipated for days and right now the doctors are stumped…. Right now my bowels are bumbling around like a bull…. There’s not a man yet been born with solid insides” (p 45).5 Trimalchio also reminds his guests of that other hole that awaits them and us, the grave. The irreduceable pragmatism of the ex-slave spurs him to transform his dinner party into his funeral – “Pretend I’m dead,” he said, “say something nice about me” (p 79)6 – turning even that lacuna to profit, as he has everything else in his life. But the point has been made: if the Banquet of Trimalchio is the center of The Satyricon, the hole that lies at the center of the Banquet of Trimalchio is the grave, the (w)hole that waits for anyone who lacks “solid insides.”
Trimalchio and his fellow freedmen, Encolpius and his fellow picaros can eat their fill – and they do, all through The Satyricon – but the void at their center will never be filled until they can consume their own humanity – thus the cannibalism that concludes our text – or go outside the closed world of Roman social order – thus the toga with its broad purple stripe, denoting senatorial rank, that Trimalchio so ostentatiously displays as his burial garment, but which he dare not wear in life. Indeed, those marvelous freedmen, with their splendid and revolting grossness and their all-too-solid humanity, are themselves voids in the compacted body of Roman society. They in effect don’t exist. Their social status is as dubious as their wealth is real.7 The skills by which they earn it have been thoroughly marginalized and ignored by the recognized classes of the Roman world. They exist in the loopholes of the law, and they exist for us in a loophole of literature: the whole Banquet of Trimalchio is the sole episode in all of Classical literature that employs the actual spoken language, vernacular Latin, as opposed to the rigidly codified Latin of the literary genres.
The Banquet of Trimalchio is in itself a lacuna, a gaping hole in the corpus of Latin literature. It excites and fascinates exactly because it throws open a window in the monumental wall of Classical literature, and through its aperture – a camera obscura if ever there was one – we can glimpse the steaming, fetid, vivid life of a whole world otherwise routinely veiled by the gelid Attic night of classicism, an insula unvisited by the minor (or major) Greek poets or the lesser Latin authors.
Classical literature itself constitutes the very first topic of The Satyricon. From its opening fragment, The Satyricon belabors an educational system and a literature that have been hollowed out by an overinflated rhetoric, language stuffed with sound and void of meaning.
“But look here,” I protested, “aren’t you professors hounded by just these same Furies of inflated language and pompous heroics?. . . A boy gorged on a diet like this can no more acquire real taste than a cook can stop stinking. . . . By reducing everything to sound, you concocted this bloated puffpaste of pretty drivel whose only real purpose is the pleasure of punning and the thrill of ambiguity. Result? Language lost it sinew, its nerve. Eloquence died. . . . great language is chaste language – if you’ll let me use a word like ‘chaste’ in this connection – not turgidity and worked-up purple patches. . . . All the literary arts . . . cloyed with this diet of bombast, have stunted or died.” (3-4)8
Language makes itself its own lacuna, and even the professors of literature, as Agamemnon and Eumolpus unhesitatingly demonstrate, only perpetuate its hollowness. The metaphors generated by this opening determine the course of The Satyricon: inflation of language reflects/is reflected in excessive eating, which in turn reflects/is reflected in sexual excesses. Verbal impotence and overinflation correspond to overeating and constipation, which correspond to sexual impotence and all sorts of infertile sexuality. Depraved and/or unnatural appetite dominates in life and the arts: the whole world has “lost its sinew.” Ventus, the wind that inflates Rome’s decadent art, and venter, the bloated stomach that marks Rome’s self-indulgence, provide the punning (quasi)etymological links by and through which Petronius vents his spleen against his cultural canon.
In such imagistic linkages, the basic equivalence of all unnourishing, all a- or anti-vital appetites is established. Established as well are the underlying metaphorics, the essential images that pervade The Satyricon and dictate the course of its “action” through comically unconsummated sexual skirmishes, through the gross and hugely enjoyable banquet of Trimalchio, through its transformation into his lachrymose and rowdy mock funeral, and on to a consummation devoutly to be avoided, the eating of Eumolpus’s body by the legacy hunters of Croton – an act that suitably ends the work by thoroughly literalizing its essential metaphor, thereby violating the order of signifier and signified and creating yet another opening in the flanks of canonical literature.
That body of literature – a strikingly appropriate figure of speech, in this context – is, of course, the context in which The Satyricon transpires. However many more immediate or more specific contexts or referents it may have had for its original audience (whoever or whatever that was), for us it has only one very broad one: the corpus of Classical literature as a whole. Whatever others we may have lost, that paradoxical narrowing of our vision to the widest of Satyricon’s contexts makes clear the proleptically Swiftian nature of Petronius’s work: The Satyricon proceeds by means of an interlocked series of literalized metaphors – bodies of literature and of human beings and of animals, food for life and for ostentation and for thought, classes for literature and for genres, for figures of speech and for figures of thought, for kinds of language and for kinds of people.
The text-as-we-have-it even manages to literalize, to in fact embody, its underlying Epicurean version of the rock-bottom nature of reality: solid bodies, containing and contained by the void. Without the void, as Epicurus by way of Lucretius explains, there could be no motion, and no life.9 With solid insides, Trimalchio dies. Without gaps in the social order, nothing gets done at Rome. Without the lacunae in the text, our Satyricon does not exist. Without holes in the universe, everything is stasis. Vacuitas vos liberabit.
The Satyricon literalizes all sorts of metaphors. For example, one of its structural metaphors is a loose parody of epic in general and The Odyssey in particular – Encolpius driven on his wanderings by the wrath of Priapus and encountering various Sirens, Circes, and Cyclopes in a somewhat random fashion. Recent examinations of The Satyricon have revealed a careful ring structure underlying it, a pattern of composition that links the work even more closely to epic. At the center of that ring-structure in epic is the descensus ad inferos.10
At the center of The Satyricon is the Banquet of Trimalchio, which at once parodies the epic descensus11 and literalizes it. Inferos means “those below,” and “those below” are exactly who Encolpius and his companions visit: those people below, the freedmen who exist below all social ranking, quasi-shades who haunt the fringes of Roman society – and those things below – their language and their doings, which are below the notice of literature and of “intellectuals” like Encolpius and Agamemnon and even of their servant/minion Giton. The swarm of freedmen and slaves who throng Trimalchio’s dining rooms and down his wine literalize the unruly swarm of thirsty shades who press forward to drink the sacrificial blood Odysseus pours for them. Death is crowded in the Classical underworld, crowded as Trimalchio’s house, or the crammed reliefs on a Roman sarcophagus. Trimalchio’s wine oils the tongues of his guests as surely as a ram’s blood frees the voices of Odysseus’s. We hardly even need the host’s reminder that “wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it’s the stuff of life” (44).12 Even the fact of a banquet literalizes some Roman funerary metaphors: remember how many sarcophagi and funerary urns depict their contents at dinner, reclining on a triclinium or holding out a wine cup in a gesture of hospitality or sacrifice.
In The Aeneid and The Odyssey, the heroes go to hell to find out what they need to know to survive and to find their way home, and a good part of what they learn is – in solid Classical fashion – self-knowledge. They confront their pasts (shades of the heroes who fell at Troy) and their origins (Odysseus’s mother, Aeneas’s father) and their ends (Achilles’s bulldog refusal to be consoled for death, the swarm of person-less souls Aeneas sees awaiting bodies). Knowing now what they are, they know also what they can or must do, and are so enabled to retrace their steps (Odysseus) or redo the past (Aeneas faces a new Troy, a new Achilles, again for a foreign bride) and thus escape both from the underworld and from the limits of their previously narrowly conceived selves (Odysseus as sacker of cities, Aeneas as Trojan). In the corpulent Trimalchio and his gross appetites, his fondness for little boys, and his doggerel verse, Encolpius and Asclytus, Giton and Agamemnon encounter themselves writ large, their own doppelgänger – but like all mock-epic heroes they don’t recognize the truth about themselves when they see it.
Encolpius fails to see in the hollowness of Trimalchio’s pretentions the emptiness of his own culture. He doesn’t recognize in the grossness of Trimalchio’s carnality the feebleness of his own, nor in the triteness of Trimalchio’s attempts at self-knowledge (trumpets blaring the passage of time, a skeleton paraded as a memento mori) does he discern any reflection of the shallowness of his own. Encolpius and Asclytus and Giton and Agamemnon – Eumolpus too, even though he isn’t present – have in fact descended to an inferos from which, for them and their world, there is no return. There is for them no exit – hic opus, hic labor est – because they and their class and their culture have created this underworld, and because they and their class and their culture are this underworld. All of The Satyricon transpires within its limits: No gate of false dreams nullifies its comic, bleak truths. The protagonists and the reader enter the underworld through the groves of academe, through the dead rhetoric that shapes language and thought and opens The Satyricon. And whatever favor Mercury, that herder of dead souls, may show Encolpius in restoring his vigor (140), The Satyricon itself never leaves the inferos. Rather, the work-as-we-have-it closes with the slam of a coffin lid, as the Crotonian legacy-hunters prepare to turn themselves into The Satyricon’s final literalized pun/metaphor: humanity will become its own tomb. Following the noblest examples, presented and reinforced by an absolutely correctly used rhetoric, the Crotonians will violate the most basic of taboos and make themselves cannibals, flesh-eaters: sarcophagi.
Readers of Roman satire quite understandably find the beginning of The Satyricon, the denunciation of contemporary rhetoric, very familiar. That topic in that position constitutes the essence of the satirist’s apologia, his explanation of why it is he says the mean things he does and why he isn’t pleased by what pleases everybody else. Persius and Juvenal use slightly different words for it, but the core statement remains the same: I write satire because literature and taste and the times are so corrupted that I must; satire alone of all the kinds speaks honestly and purely. Difficile est saturam non scribere (Satire I.30) – It is difficult not to write satire – is Juvenal’s famous and succinct statement of the case. Auriculas asini quis non habet? (Satire I.121) – Who doesn’t have ass’s ears? – is Persius’s less celebrated but equally total condemnation of his contemporary literature and taste. Both ground their indignation in the bombast they are forced to endure. Both open their respective books of satire – first poem, opening lines – by casting their whole satiric enterprise as a counterpoise to the emptiness of contemporary writing.
Looked at in this light, the first fragments of The Satyricon hint something about the principles of selection that moved the unknown compiler or compilers of the text-as-we-now-have-it. The majority of what survives of The Satyricon either belongs to or has clear affiliations with some of the most conventional topics and themes of Classical satire: corrupted literature and taste, and especially the empty pomposity of debased epic; legacy hunters; women’s sexual excesses and females in power; social climbing, especially on the parts of freedmen, slaves, Greeks, and Asiatics; inconsistency and self-delusion generally and all forms of obsessive behavior in particular, especially greed, gluttony, and lechery. Even major “actions” such as the banquet of Trimalchio can be seen to have at least a root in such satiric staples as Horace’s dinner of Nasidienus – and one could argue, albeit less convincingly, that the wanderings of Encolpius and company owe as much to Horace’s Journey to Brundisium as they do to parody of The Odyssey.
All that is not surprising, of course. The work, after all, is entitled Satyricon, and that is clearly meant to invoke satire just as much as it does satyrs. The later anthologizers or compilers or editors (however they saw themselves) certainly didn’t ignore the priapic aspects of the text, but they do seem to have chosen (presuming there was more to choose from) with an eye to whatever in the work showed a link to more recognizable forms of satire. And that was acute, because their selecting has highlighted and centralized what may well have been more dispersed and less apparent in a lengthier text (this is, of course, totally speculative). The Satyricon as-we-have-it builds itself around the idea of satire: Satura, the full dish (satura lanx) of sacrifice, the first fruits offered to the gods, satura, the medley, the hodge-podge, the indiscriminate mixture, the stuffing, the sausage becomes the literary farrago that tries to satisfy insatiable appetites and depraved tastes, to sugarcoat the pill to make the medicine go down. Trimalchio’s trick dishes whose homely exteriors hide exotic delicacies almost literalize this idea of satire.
The hypothetical anthologist who has bequeathed us The Satyricon we have (incidentally making us legacy hunters too) knew along with Petronius that language is food and that we are what we eat. Consume dead flesh, a hack poet’s will, rather than living language – even that of gross speakers like Trimalchio and his cronies – and you create the night of the living dead, a culture of zombies. To survive, you must clear away the clutter, purge yourself of the corruption, empty yourself of the dead voices. Vacuitas vos liberabit.
The implications of that, in the context of Roman literature, are fair-to-middling revolutionary. There is as little place for Trimalchio’s dinner conversation among the Classical genres as there is for his class in Roman society. In very restricted and stereotyped roles – as panders and petty thieves, as wily servants and minor-league picaros – Greeks and Asiatics, slave and free alike, might find a role in comedy or farce, though never in any of the “serious” genres. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing is true of Greek literature and Classical literature in general. For all of its human range and esthetic accomplishments, Classical literature simply fails to include or find room for a great deal of ordinary reality. In The Satyricon, that reality erupts into literature: Trimalchio’s bowel movements yield not an iota in importance to anything Cicero or Virgil might have to say. (If that doesn’t strike you as revolutionary, remind yourself how long Trimalchio had to wait before anyone occupied the next stall: Leopold Bloom was next in line.)
The most obvious, and in some ways the most important, aporia in The Satyricon are the holes it creates in the walls of genre. Even its chosen “form” – the mixture of prose and verse that has been only half-canonized under the nom de plume of Menippean satire – breaks form and violates category. Its content, ranging from toilet humor to epic parody, travesty of romance to realistic comedy, does even worse: it deals with things that, canonically speaking, do not even belong in literature, and it juxtaposes them with echoes of and allusions to some of the most revered names and works of Classical antiquity, from Homer through Virgil and right up to Petronius’ contemporaries, Lucan and Seneca. The Satyricon – verse, prose, and lacunae – eviscerates the whole concept of classicism, the whole notion of genre. It is a full-scale assault on the essential actions that underly the process of canon formation, discrimination and exclusion. It turns the Classical ideal of what constitutes literature inside-out to expose its hollowness, and it accomplishes that trick by showing the paradoxical solidity of what isn’t there, the gross reality of what canonical literature leaves out:
[W]ith all these sham heroics and this stilted bombast you stuff their heads with, by the time your students set foot in court, they talk as though they were living in another world. No, I tell you, we don’t educate our children at school; we stultify them and then send them out into the world half-baked. And why? Because we keep them utterly ignorant of real life. The common experience is something they never see or hear. (3)13
Petronius was not the first or only Classical author to say these things, but he is in the top two. His only model and predecessor in the work of canonical subversion is that great darling of classicists, Horace. The full, revolutionary nature of Horace’s work, especially his Satires and Epistles, hasn’t yet been adequately appreciated – certainly not by non-specialist readers, and hardly by the professionals. In fact, it is really only possible in the light of Petronius’s continuation of the core of Horace’s satire that we can begin to see just how revolutionary Horace really was.
In the Satires and Epistles, Horace creates a self-as-writer in opposition to the norms and canons of his day. He defines himself by what he is not: not politician, not panegyrist, not epicist, “not bound to swear as any master dictates.”14 Horace works from this actively negative stance to deconstruct Rome’s ideal public persona, thereby liberating an anarchic private self, a personality divorced from all the conventional patterns and supports of the political, social, and literary cursus honorum, a personality consequently and necessarily self-creating and self-validating, generative of its own forms rather than imitative of the forms of others.
That persona quite rightly creates its own voice and the “form” to convey that voice. The warm human being who speaks to us through the Satires and Epistles, the urbane Horatian tone, the unique and convincing Horatian voice – those are Horace’s radical invention to embody his totally new subject (how right that word is!) matter.15 Whatever Horace’s claims about Lucilius’s example, the fact remains that for us – and probably for his own age – Horace is unique: his individuality has no predecessors and almost no followers. Nowhere in Classical literature before Horace do we hear the first-personal voice of an “ordinary” individual conceived and presented outside of rigid social and literary categories. And nowhere in classical literature after Horace do we hear it again: it is precisely the personal aspect of Horatian satire that Persius and Juvenal abandon, to withdraw behind the screen of simplistic personae – that of a Stoic prig in the case of Persius and that of an aristocratic mugwump in the case of Juvenal.
The Horace of the Satires and Epistles is at once Trimalchio’s grandfather and his child. As the son of a freedman, Horace was essentially a non-person in Roman social and political terms: technically a citizen, but lacking utterly in status, wealth, significant attachment to a great house – a penniless parvenu. In those terms, his movement from a (naive) youthful allegiance to Brutus and the aristocratic party to a personal attachment to Maecaenas and Augustus is sensible and right: the Caesarean powerbase had been the disenfranchised, that portion of the plebs that the senators usually described as sordida, in opposition to the privileged class. This continued to remain true even into Neronian times,16 and it accounts at least in part for Nero’s bad press: he was a great persecutor of senators and knights and “optimates” (all of whom liked to think of themselves as the totality of “the people”), and the members and adherents of those classes wrote the histories.
If the simple fact of Horace’s closeness to Augustus was a violation of social hierarchies (in Roman eyes perhaps an even greater one than the fact that Horace had commanded a legion: there at least he had had the grace to choose the losing side), his constant references in his Satires and Epistles to the worth of his freedman father is a blatant flouting of them. It amounts to a parody by exaggeration of the pervasive Roman adulation of the sacredness of the paterfamilias. Certainly, it was no small-town auctioneer and ex-slave that Roman piety intended its sons to honor and emulate, and it’s merely an accurate observation to point out that, by means of his very declassé father, Horace’s Satires and Epistles constantly and maliciously rub Rome’s nose in its own mess – smiling all the while, of course.
Such subjects as the lessons his father taught him and the kind of schooling the good man sacrificed himself to provide for his son stand totally outside the categories of Classical literature. There is simply no place in the Classical canon, as Rome received it from Greece, for the kind of homely personal material, recounted from an utterly subjective point of view, which forms the heart of Horace’s Satires and Epistles. The same kind of travesty is the point of even a seemingly innocuous satire like the “Journey to Brundisium” (Satires I.v), where Horace’s accounts of Virgil’s eye troubles and his own wet dreams counterpoint the careful omission of the importance of the diplomatic mission: Horace never mentions what was probably common knowledge in Rome, that this particular journey was undertaken in the first place only because Augustus has dispatched Maecaenas to patch up things with Antony. Even for Horace, vacuitas vos liberabit.
Horace’s self-conscious creation of a “voice,” his sermo pedestris, as he insistently calls it, involves a radical dismissal of the for-his-age canonical kinds of literature and their concomitant forms, levels of style, and contents. His appropriation of the hexameter, the meter of epic and philosophy, of Lucretius and of Virgil, amounts to a total transformation of it, as if the Milton of Paradise Lost should suddenly start speaking in the voice and accents of Robert Frost or Robert Service.
To reduce the hexameter to “chats” (sermones), to describe it as little more than everyday speech, more like prose (sermoni propriora: Sat. I.iv.42) than real poetry – that demands the radical declassifying of the form and language, an artifice denying artifice far more paradoxical and far more fundamental than Virgil’s artful use of the hexameter for his theoretically artless Pastorals. In terms of the Greco-Latin notions of forms and style and diction, it is the first step away from the canonized forms in the direction of “the real language of real men.”
That, in itself, deconstructs and implicitly rejects the classical order. Horace’s Satires and Epistles make that rejection explicit. Horace simply steps outside the canon. He rejects the classes both literary and social. The son of a freedman declares his independence of classicism to create himself as a man freed of the communal and literary frames that bind his world. Horace, by virtue of his many and sustained rejections, redefines himself as outsider, the one who opposes. He recreates himself in the language of what he is not, a paradoxically life-giving language of negation. That language brings into being for the first time a non-contextual or multi-contextual sensibility, isolated and free, independent and alienated.
Precisely that sort of consciousness, however, is supposed to be the centuries-later creation of the novel, which, in theory at least, came into being primarily to embody it. That is to say: Horace invents a new genre or quasi-genre or meta-genre – I mean satire – for his non-classical materials, but it is in fact an anti-genre, a literary kind that exists by the act of deconstruction, by shattering the norms and forms and assumptions of classicism. Classical genres depend upon stasis. They demand a steady state. Satire, on the other hand, is a protean creature, not unlike allegory. It is not truly a genre. It actually has no fixed form. It is firmly definable neither as mode nor as device nor as figure nor even as rhetorical strategy. It exists in and as flux, as the breakdown of canons or the deconstruction of forms. Satire, like The Satyricon, lives in the interstices, and the novel – in classical Latin as in the later languages – is its child, its attempt to generate the form of formlessness. The Satyricon is the progeny of Horace’s Satires and Epistles as surely as Tristram Shandy is the offspring of The Dunciad and A Tale of a Tub.
In his Satires and Epistles, Horace wears the guise of an insider (and is even perceived as such by some of the characters of his own poems), but he defines his own consciousness by means of a consistent refusal of all the “inside” values. Similarly, Encolpius, through whom all of Petronius’s own version of canon-destruction is conveyed, is perceived by Trimalchio’s freedmen-guests as an “insider”: freeborn, educated, “superior,” automatically assumed to be a defender of the cultural and social status quo.
In choosing a third-personal narrative format, Petronius obviously sacrifices the first-personal immediacy of Horace’s poems, but he sustains and extends their program of anti-classicism into an explicit attack, continuous and trenchant, on the whole Classical educational system and the values and world it creates and sustains. Like Plato’s banning the poets from his Republic, Petronius’ central depiction of the vigorous “speech acts” of Trimalchio and his cronies amounts to an attempt to seize control of the curriculum, to transform it and to show exactly what “the common experience” sounds and looks and smells and tastes like.17 Rigid classicists, then and now, find that idea distasteful, but Petronius – or the text, if you disbelieve in authors – will not let us evade it.
The final fragment of The Satyricon uses the wonderfully unreal rhetoric of the schools, with its irrelevant dilemmas of “edicts compelling sons to chop off their fathers’ heads or oracles condemning three virgins . . . to be slaughtered to stop some plague,”18 to move the legacy hunters of Croton – good Roman citizens all, and heirs of Greek culture, to boot – to the most distasteful act of all: cannibalism. And not for survival, but for what is even more important: money.
Just close your eyes and imagine that, instead of human flesh, you’re munching a million. . . . And if it’s precedents you want, there are hundreds of them. The people of Saguntum, for instance, when Hannibal besieged them, took to eating human flesh, and did so, moreover, without the slightest hope of getting an inheritance out of it. And when a terrible famine struck Petelia, the people all became cannibals, and the only thing they gained from their diet was that they weren’t hungry anymore. And when Scipio captured Numantia, the Romans found a number of mothers cuddling the half-eaten bodies of their children in their laps.19
What role the politics of the court or of Neronian Rome might play in this is to me unknowable – but there can be no mistaking the subversive, not to say revolutionary, implications of such a depiction of a society – one whose education, training, and rhetoric cooperate to enable its members to feed on the dead for cash.
The Horace who abandoned his shield and his commission in the army of Brutus to become the apolitical, non-office-holding friend of Maecaenas and Augustus enacted politically and socially a passage across a bridge of time and temperament from a world closed and categorized to a world open – perhaps anarchic – and alive. Literarily, Horace enacted the very same transition in his deconstruction of the aristocratic Lucilius and the heroic hexameter. Petronius performs the same act ritualistically, almost liturgically, in his celebration of the splendid comedy that is the banquet of Trimalchio. Trimalchio and his pals may be surrounded by death, but they are life in the midst of death just as surely as the widow of Ephesus discovers life and love in the tomb of her husband. Unruly, irregular, Petronius’s freedmen – and they are just that, freed men – are as little confined by the Thanatoids (the word is Thomas Pynchon’s) who rule them as their speech is by the rigidities of Latin grammar and Latin literature, whose only hope – alas, unrealized – for a future imperfect they were.