Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 4.
Gian Biagio Conte (tr. Elaine Fantham), The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius' Satyricon. Sather Classical Lectures, Volume 60. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. x + 226. ISBN 0-520-20715-7. US$28.00/UKú35.00.
National University of Ireland, Maynooth
The principal aim of this rich and intelligent, if at times frustrating, book is to correct the tendency to view the whole of Petronius' Satyricon (to retain Conte's form of the title) in the distorting light of the only episode to survive complete. Conte maintains, with reason, that we have been seduced by the character of the Cena Trimalchionis and the privileged position accorded to it by the decisions and vagaries of history into over-emphasising the 'realistic' features of the work; its contemporary readers will have seen it quite differently. Conte's conviction is that Petronius seeks above all to criticise, indeed pillory, the scholastic culture of the Early Empire, embodied in the characters Encolpius, Agamemnon, and Eumolpus. Any interpretation of this kind must obviously be subject to the caveat that far more of Petronius' novel may be lost than remains, but on the basis of what we have Conte's claim is entirely reasonable and his case persuasive.
The strategy which Petronius adopts in pursuit of his quarry involves the use of a first-person narrator who repeatedly and incorrigibly casts the banale and sordid events of his life in a mould created by the great literary models of the past. Encolpius is a 'mythomaniac narrator', for whom situations present themselves in terms of famous scenes from epic or tragedy: thus he 'becomes' Achilles or Aeneas, but in wholly inappropriate circumstances, so that the effect is bathos and irony. The associations with the sublime models (oratory also features) are often subtly formed, in ways requiring the reader to be familiar with different styles and registers and texts; but as the models chosen belong to the limited repertoire of the declamatory schools the educated readers for whom Petronius was writing will have had no difficulties. Encolpius' mythomania -- his inability to see things as they are -- sets him up for ridicule; or rather, he is treated like Pavlov's dog by the 'hidden author', Petronius, who presents him with situations which lend themselves to being read -- by a person like Encolpius -- in the terms he cannot resist. Each time he falls straight back into the heffalump trap.
A further level of ironisation turns on a distinction between Encolpius as participant in the events he describes (the 'agent "I"') and Encolpius as narrator, looking back at those events (the 'narrating "I"'). This distinction is noted by Conte in discussion of a number of passages (pp. 10, 14, 55, 78-9, 92-3), but it can be elusive: I am not convinced, for instance, that there is a real tension between these two aspects at 82.4 (see p. 14: it seems far from clear that Encolpius' reinterpretation of the soldier's intervention belongs to the time of the narration rather than the time of the narrated events), and it would probably have been helpful to many readers if Conte had provided more guidance on how the distinction works in specific cases. Also basic to the author's strategy is his co-option to his point of view (in contrast to the narrator's) of his reader, the two being 'bound in a close complicity' (p. 22); Conte's imperative, 'Let us too learn to smile with the author if we want a true reading of the Satyricon' (p. 36) is a happy blow against postmodernist claims that the text means whatever the reader thinks it means.
The accumulation of passages where Conte demonstrates the use of these authorial techniques -- his procedure is, as usual, largely empirical -- makes his central argument almost irresistible: the Satyricon ought certainly to be regarded as (inter alia) an attack on the derivative, blinkered, rigidified, almost tyrannical culture of the declamatory schools. At the same time Conte is at pains to emphasise that the author is not attacking the great literary models themselves, and indeed Petronius and Encolpius can be held to have in common at least one thing, an enthusiasm -- however differently expressed -- for sublime literature (see pp. 42-3, 84). According to Conte (pp. 72, 169 n. 36), however, Petronius' enthusiasm is a nostalgia -- he realises that the great literature of the past is irrecoverable. But this position is one Conte states rather than argues for, and it is far from firmly established. The problem of 'coming after' in literary endeavour is certainly prominent in the period (one thinks especially of Statius' relationship with Virgil; cf. Theb. 12.810-19, etc.), but Conte points to no explicit indications of this difficulty in Petronius; and if Encolpius, whose inadequate interpretation of the great models 'shows the extent to which his own contemporary culture has fallen away from that of the classical authors' is made by Petronius 'ridiculous and unreliable' (p. 170 n. 36), there is still reason to hope that others less absurd than he might be capable of recovering that greatness.
For Conte, the Satyricon is fundamentally about literature, but at the same time remains a novel, and a novel in its own right, not just a parody of Greek romance (see p. 33 n. 40), though it is certainly that (Heinze's thesis is rightly supported). There is plenty on this too, some of it of great interest. Encolpius' mythomania is an important point in favour of the view that the presence of an angry Priapus behind the action is to be regarded as an Encolpian fantasy (see pp. 93-6) -- though to my mind Lichas' dream at c. 104 offers more resistance to this position than Conte allows. But in any event the attribution to Mercury of Encolpius' restoration to sexual health is presented simply as Encolpius' own opinion -- or, seen in the context of the mythomania, as occurring in his 'heroicizing imagination' (p. 100). Still, as Conte is well aware, the work refuses a simple generic classification, or even a more complex one: what is perhaps the best chapter of the book, 'The Quest for a Genre (or Chasing Will o' the Wisps?): Some Skeptical Thoughts on Menippean Satire' (pp. 140-70), deals with its prosimetric form, Conte systematically dismantling the view that it should be regarded (in one aspect) as a Menippean satire -- in many respects the Satyricon is quite unlike Menippean as we know it, and a pat identification of Menippean and prosimetrum is wholly unsatisfactory. (In contrast to this careful dissociation of text and label Conte follows common practice in talking of 'Milesian tales', as if there were definite criteria for such categorisation; here is an area where we need more rigour, less fudge.) A more disciplined approach would have benefited the discussion on realism in the final chapter, 'Realism and Irony' (pp. 171-94). There is an excellent critique of the poem at 132.15, which Conte properly insists should not be regarded as a programmatic statement by the author, and valuable observations ('realistic description depends less on imitation of objects than on the reader's familiarity with the objects described' [p. 174]: crisp formulations like this are a striking feature of the book); but the thought meanders and what we end up with is an interesting ramble.
This contrast between the last two chapters points to an unevenness which mars the work. Alongside the sentences of impact and clarity are some horrid obscurities, passages where the author seems carried away by his own rhetoric to produce contortions which we have to try to untangle for ourselves; this reviewer got tired of having to rewrite mentally phrases such as 'the materializing energy of the satiric narrative' (p. 114). (It is possible that in places the fault lies rather with the translator than with the author, though apart from the unclarities the English reads well.) There is also much inconsistency: the same passage from 'Longinus' is translated entirely differently at p. 8 n. 6 and p. 71, and there seems to be no principle as to whether quoted Greek and Latin texts should be accompanied by an English translation or not -- given that a readership beyond the confines of professional Classics is explicitly envisaged (see p. vii), such assistance should have been provided throughout, and certainly not as erratically as we have it.[] In short, though the text of the book is thoroughly footnoted, much more work, of both an authorial and an editorial nature, should have been done on converting the original lectures into printed form.
But whatever its weaknesses, there is far more of substance and true worth in this book than there are grounds for complaint. Conte's discussion in chapter 4, 'Sex, Food, and Money: Low Themes versus High Scenarios' (pp. 104-39), of the relationship between the 'low themes' of sequences such as the Cena and the Quartilla episode and the 'high scenarios' of scholastic mythomania is highly stimulating: reality in its most basic forms brings the fantastical reaching for the sublime down to earth with a bump. The narrative pattern of the Widow of Ephesus story, which can be regarded as 'demonstrating how powerfully bodily needs . . . challenge the ennobling pretenses of the sublime' (p. 107), is seen as paradigmatic for the novel as a whole: this is an important insight, though the example Conte puts forward to establish the parallel -- the episode of Encolpius, Oenothea, and the goose -- is not in my view especially well chosen. Much else that is positive could be said; to list more negatives would be to gripe.[]
It must be pointed out, however, that the book does not fully succeed in its stated aim of shunning overspecialisation (p. vii): it is hard to see how a reader without a good knowledge of early-imperial literature and culture, and some expertise in contemporary techniques of literary criticism, could derive much satisfaction from it. The first four of the six chapters at least also need to be read continuously, as the argument is built up incrementally, with much referring back; not a book, then, that is easy to dip into. But for anyone with a serious interest in Petronius, it is de rigueur -- maddening and messy in places, but acute, learned, and challenging.
[] Where translations are supplied, words are sometimes overlooked: cases in point at pp. 1 (81.2 frequenter), 46 (Ov. Pont. 2.5.72 sacra; the translation of this line is a complete botch -- it attempts to render commiliti, which has slipped into the Latin quotation in place of commilitii, even though it is metrically impossible), 71 (Virg. Aen. 6.77 immanis), 78 (Virg. Aen. 9.445 confossus). Conversely, the translation of 132.12 at pp. 188f. continues far beyond the Latin quoted.
[] Nevertheless, a few gripes on details, mostly to do with editing. The text of Petronius is incorrectly quoted at pp. 58 (115.1 audimus murmur), 66 n. 47 (96.6 o poetarum ... disertissime, tu eras? ), 80 n. 10 (80.3 sanguine mutuo pollueremus), 92 (127.9 iunxit), 127 n. 28 (39.5 expudoratam), 138 n. 51 (140.15 sicut muta animalia), 138 n. 52 (88.8 aut bonam valetudinem); other texts at pp. 80 n. 10 (ne se sanguine nefando ... volnerum ac caedium), 92 n. 20 (FU/EN), 111 n. 7 (tractosque altius gemitus), 145 n. 6 (plurimos hic libros), 172 n. 2 (detulisse linteum pictum). There are errors in Greek accentuation. The note at p. 55 n. 27 is confused: it is Eumolpus, not Encolpius, who speaks at 101.7. At p. 63 n. 42 'Sen. 6.10.6' should read 'Sen. Dial. 6.10.6' (and not Contr. 6.10.6, as indicated on p. 225!). Encolpius' killing of the sacred goose at 136.5 is hardly an 'accident' (p. 107).