Chaotic to the Core

James Davidson

In all of ancient literature there’s nothing quite like the Satyricon, a fragmentary autobiography of one Encolpius, who appears and disappears according to the hazards of textual survival. On our first sighting he’s making a speech about the decadence of modern education, then he’s somewhere else and a cloak has been stolen; more interference, another error, a randy priestess intent on revenge: ‘Both of us swore by all the religion in us that so dreadful a secret would die with us.’ We’ve lost it again, then light at the end of the tunnel: a game of catch, a long, late afternoon in a town near Naples, the dinner-party of Trimalchio, rich and technicoloured, darkness descends, a dreadful night, boyfriend goes off with best friend, a lecture in a gallery of paintings, boyfriend’s back, now they’re on a ship, so is a sworn enemy, a storm, a wreck, a city in Southern Italy, legacy-hunters, imposture, impotence, a priestess of Priapus, a cannibalistic will, an ending: ‘And when Numantia fell to Scipio, mothers were found cradling in their arms the half-eaten bodies of their own children.’

It seems to have been a very long novel (400,000 words?) of which we have only a tiny fraction. The surviving remnants and references in later authors give hints as to what was lost: a period in Marseilles, a murder, a tryst in a pleasant garden, an act of sacrilege, any number of infidelities, an offence in a portico of Hercules. The narrator moves easily from prose to poetry and shows himself a master of many metres. He writes in Latin, but all the main characters have Greek names. There are disquisitions on art and life and epic poetry, brawls and threatened suicides, coincidences, surprises and luck, lots of sex. It seems to defy classification and that for a long time seemed its most distinctive characteristic. Earlier scholars played with the title: Satyricon, Satiricon, from satura, a ‘satire’, a ‘sausage’, with elements of satyrus, a ‘satyr’. The work was a salami, a satyriastic Menippean satire, deliberately diverse in form and content. The only consistent motif was the anger of Priapus, which led some to see it as a spoof Odyssey, the ithyphallic fertility god standing in for a wrathful Poseidon, pursuing vengeance and Encolpius all over the Mediterranean.

In fact, the genre with which the Satyricon had most obvious affinity was a distinctly modern one, the picaresque. Encolpius became a posthumous precursor in a genealogy of rogues ranging from Lazarillo de Tormes to Felix Krull. Exactly how he fitted into this family-tree was never quite clear. Classicists have always found it easier to demonstrate Petronius’ precedence than to illustrate his influence. In contrast to that other great Latin novelist, Apuleius, who managed to create in the Golden Ass a blend of burlesque and piety that was exactly to the taste of the Early Modern European, Petronius was either neglected or rejected by the comic tradition. Fielding claimed to find more wit in St Paul. Petronius, perhaps, was too subversive. His genre-chaos and his moral chaos make the other pícaros look quite proper.

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