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.

The same anarchic qualities eventually endeared him to literary revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century. The decadents loved the decadent content, the Modernists, his movement and earthy style. Petronius is a favourite of des Esseintes, and a model for Dorian Gray. Nietzsche compared him to a ‘liberating scorn of a wind that makes everything healthy by making everything run’. T.S. Eliot thought highly of him and D.H. Lawrence found in him ‘a gentleman’, ‘a pure mind’ less degrading than Dostoevsky’s. Nor have academics lagged in appreciating his virtues. There have been many studies of the Satyricon in the 20th century. Most of them end up celebrating an elegant, sharply observed satire, commendations that have helped to clear Petronius’ path into the canon (students of Latin literature in 1996 are far more likely to have read the Cena Trimalchionis than Caesar’s Gallic Wars). Others, like Froma Zeitlin, have gone further, putting Petronius beyond appreciation in the zone of the anti-aesthetic, ‘a radically anti-classical work, which, by its subversion and rejection of classical aesthetic theory ... sets out to project a radically anti-classical world-view’. This is the version that was crystallised most effectively by Fellini in 1969, in a film that made sure that people who hadn’t read the Satyricon at all thought they knew one thing about it for certain: it was strange.

Fellini Satyricon in fact was two kinds of strange. First, there was the Surrealist view of a primitive Ancient World already well explored by Max Ernst, Martha Graham and Pasolini: bizarre buildings, tribal costumes, blank walls, labyrinths, minotaurs (‘Who are you? Who are you? Tell me who you are’) – all the discontinuity of a dream. Then this lily of symbolism was gilded with a thick layer of Fellini’s own decadent grotesquerie: fat ladies, perversity, dwarves, hermaphrodites, purple skies, men who walk funny, men with glass eyes. Fellini made a wonderful film, but he built his monumental Satyricon on the ruins of Petronius’, joining up separate fragments, making gaps where there were none. Some of the most memorable scenes had in fact been kidnapped from Juvenal and Apuleius.

Those who wanted to read it for themselves have never been short of translations. This year for some reason, with no anniversary I can think of, we have two more. A new rendering into contemporary American English by Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney allows all the bright images to get through the murk of another language, providing a decent imitation of Petronius’ blend of classical clarity and colloquial reality in a web of fast-moving poetry and prose. More or better editorial attention would have weeded out some occasional solecisms and infelicities of style. P.G. Walsh, a great Petronian scholar, has produced a rather more careful version in English English that hugs the Latin more closely. The translation is less engaging than the Americans’, the book itself more attractively produced. Neither includes Seneca’s vicious parody of Claudius’ posthumous deification which gives J.P. Sullivan’s Penguin Classic an edge. Both, on the other hand, have extensive notes.

Thanks to its half-eroded condition and exaggerated style, the Satyricon is always going to seem disjunctive and slightly strange, but we can make better sense of it than Fellini did. Most important, it is a satire (in the modern sense of the term) and seems more coherent if we bear in mind what it is satirising. One episode in Fellini’s version, for instance, shows Eumolpus’ body being eaten as a ship arrives from Africa. It is one of the most absurd scenes in a very weird film. In Petronius it is merely sarcastic. Eumolpus has been living a life of luxury at the expense of legacy-hunters, who are tempted by the prospect of the endlessly postponed arrival of a richly laden ship from his phantom estates in Tunisia. When they start to get impatient he tries to see how low they will sink and so proclaims they must eat his corpse to get a share of the inheritance, a practice he justifies with reference to historical examples of cannibalism during the sieges of Saguntum and Numantia. This is a straightforward satire of greed, unscrupulously backed up with ludicrous and amoral sophistry. Petronius pushes the point to its savage extreme, but he is still more Hogarth than Grosz, more Dickens than Dada.

The form of the Satyricon is also best explained with reference to its target, for there is now a broad consensus that it attempts to subvert not all genres in general, but one genre in particular, the novel. Petronius converges on the picaresque because he is parodying the Greek romances, the erotikoi logoi, set in exotic locations from which they drew their titles, Babylonica, Phoenicica, Ethiopica. Petronius, too, has an exotic people in mind, as his original title reveals: Satyrica, The Satyrs’ Tale. The familiar -icon ending, it seems, is a Greek genitive left over from Latin transliteration on the title page (Petronius Arbiter, Twenty (?) Books Of Satyrica). It is interesting to contrast his approach with that other Latin response to the Greek novel, the Golden Ass. Apuleius takes a desultory little tale of magic and bestiality and puffs it up into an ironic Bildungsroman that pretends to the sublime. Petronius does exactly the opposite. He takes an exalted theme – true love – and drags it through the gutter of realism. Apuleius draws a beast with human sensibilities, Petronius shows the animal side of man.

The relationship between Encolpius and the 16-year-old boy Giton, which runs all the way through, is played out as a parody of the great romances: Daphnis and Chloe, Cleitophon and Leucippe etc, but whereas these adamantine loves survive the trials of seduction and the tribulations of rape, finishing triumphant in a happily-ever-after of marriage, family and property, the relationship of Encolpius and Giton is made of clay. After squabbling over him with Ascyltos, the narrator asks the boy to choose: ‘I thought our long-standing intimacy as good as a tie of blood,’ and the boy goes off with his best friend ‘without even pretending to deliberate’. It is Encolpius’ tragedy that he doesn’t realise what kind of novel he is in (a romantic like no other pícaro, more like Don Quixote in this respect). While the straight novels balance a solid centre against peripheral instability, Petronius allows the disorder of the outside world to disrupt the very heart of his novel. The Satyricon is chaotic to the core.

The realism which is such a distinctive feature of the work, then, is realism on the rebound, not up from grubby Nature, but down from high-flown Art. It is a wonderfully vivid novel, low-life articulated in the cadences of low Latin, perhaps the sharpest impression we can ever get of what Italy looked and sounded like in the first century of our era.

Instead of steering by the lodestar of faithful love, Petronius’ human satyrs are blown about by animal lust and carnal appetite. Sexual realism rips off the mask of romantic idealism on every other page, its cynical perspective reinforced by the comic tales that are interwoven with the main story. In the tale of the widow of Ephesus, a soldier guarding the crucified bodies of thieves notices a light from a tomb nearby. Inside he finds a virtuous widow wasting away by her husband’s dead body. He offers her comfort and food. At first she refuses, but gradually, with the help of her hungry maid, the husband she is mourning is transformed into a memento mori, an injunction to enjoy what life there is. She eats what the soldier brings her and then succumbs to ‘what appetite remains when our stomachs are full’. They become lovers until one night, while they are making love, a body the soldier is supposed to be guarding is stolen. He is in trouble and about to fall on his sword, but she has an idea and quickly gives orders to have her husband’s body crucified in the criminal’s shameful place.

In the tale of the boy of Pergamum, Eumolpus relates how, thanks to protestations of virtue, he once became tutor to a handsome boy, whose sexual favours he painstakingly won with the promise of gifts: doves, a pair of fighting cocks, a horse. When the last is not forthcoming the boy threatens to tell his father. He doesn’t, and in fact makes little resistance to Eumolpus’ continued advances. Afterwards, he asks, in a spirit of generosity, if Eumolpus wants another go. Eumolpus happily complies. A little later he wants sex again. Eumolpus again complies. Less than an hour later he wants still more. Eumolpus is furious at being woken so many times: ‘“Go to sleep,” I warned, “or I’ll tell your father.” ’

Sex is the key to the Satyricon and gives it whatever structure it can lay claim to. Men are ruled by their sexual organs: ‘he looked like an appendage to them’. In very few novels do penises have such parts to play, governing the fate of their possessors, moving the plot along. Ascyltos has a big one. When he emerges from the baths without his clothes it gets a round of applause from passers-by and attracts the attention of a nobleman, ‘a notorious one, I hear’, who wraps him up in his cloak and carries him off home. This same prodigious organ, it seems, accounts for Giton’s unaccountable decision in Ascyltos’ favour. Encolpius’ penis, on the other hand, gives him nothing but trouble. It betrays him when he is trying to disguise himself from Lichas – ‘He studied neither my hands nor my face, but looked down and placed his officious hand right on my groin saying “Greetings Encolpius!”’ – and embarrasses him in front of beautiful Circe by refusing to perform. Propping himself up on his elbow he berates it in poetry and prose: ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ It says nothing: ‘Its eye fixed on the ground it turned away, as little roused by what I had to say as willows limp or poppies drooping sway [Branham and Kinney].’ Curing this impotence is the main theme of the later fragments.

It is no accident, I think, that this anti-romance is also the only one that has a love between men as its subject. In the Greek novels, the homosexual is placed in explicit opposition to the heterosexual. Cleitophon has a cousin Cleinias, who is hopelessly devoted to his boyfriend until his boyfriend is forced into a lucrative marriage and the whole thing ends in tragedy, a common fate for gay relationships in straight novels. Daphnis, on the other hand, attracts the attentions of Gnathon, a sensualist, ‘nothing but a mouth, a belly and the bits below the belly’ and ‘by nature a lover of boys’. His attempt to force himself on Daphnis ends in knockabout farce. Gay relationships threaten or are threatened by the heterosexual destiny. They defy the teleology that drives the classic love story; they are not supposed to last for ever. While Cleitophon disappears with Leucippe over the horizon, his cousin walks into a dead-end. We don’t know how the Satyricon itself finishes, but we can be pretty sure that Encolpius and Giton do not end up in a cottage by the se-side, looking forward to years of domestic bliss. For this reason it deserves the rubric, tentatively suggested by Branham and Kinney, of ‘gay classic’. The gay relationship at its core is what gives the novel its individuality. The impossibility of marriage and children is what guarantees its characteristic openness, ensuring that Encolpius’ wanderings have no ultimate destination in view. The Satyricon could not be the Satyricon if Giton were a girl.

The author is confidently identified with one Gaius Petronius Arbiter, a courtier at the court of Nero, although the same features that make him a probable author also make him a plausible nom de plume. He was known to Tacitus, who says he achieved prominence by doing nothing, passing his days in sleep and his nights in pleasure. He was an expert in luxury, Nero’s arbiter elegantiae or style consultant. The victim of court intrigue, he decided to as charmingly as he had lived. He first prepared for the Emperor a This Is Your Life-style record of his vices, with the names of all his sexual partners and a catalogue of what he got up to with each of them. Then he arranged his death. He slit his wrists and bound them up again, controlling the flow of blood and dying more or dying less as the mood took him. Meanwhile he conversed with his friends, who read out to him light poetry and playful verses, nothing too philosophical, nothing about the immortality of the soul, a stop-go taking leave of life that strangely fore-shadows the current stop-go condition of his text.

We should perhaps worry about that, but not too much. To be sure, the Satyricon that was then written is very different from the Satyricon that is now read, and cultural historians must make great efforts to see past the lacunae if they want to capture its original mood. Modern readers, however, don’t have that obligation. We can be confident we have missed some wonderful moments, but the gaps also add something, utterly changing the story’s tone. Pícaros are often tamed by their endings; it suits an episodic novel to end up in pieces. If ever a novel was meant to be half-eaten, Satyricon is it.