Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.26

Maria Plaza, Laughter and Derision in Petronius' Satyrica. A Literary Study.   Stockholm:  Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2000.  Pp. xii, 227.  ISBN 91-22-01891-3.  

Reviewed by Gottskalk T. Jensson, University of Iceland (
Word count: 2662 words

This is Plaza's second work on Petronius. A few years ago she published a new Swedish translation of the Satyrica.1 The present publication is "a dissertation for the Doctor's degree in Latin" from Stockholm University and it is published in a series which seems largely dedicated to publishing unrevised theses. While dissertations from many universities, certainly in English speaking countries, are not treated as books until they have been revised and published as such, in Swedish and some other European universities doctoral theses are printed before the defense. There is no question in the present reviewer's mind that a worthy dissertation such as this one would have benefited from revision before publication under the guidance of a good editor. Nevertheless, the book seems worth reviewing as an excellently researched thesis that tackles a well-defined topic methodically and with reasonable success.

Briefly stated, the aim of Plaza's study is to establish, in her own words, "the function of the laughter motif in the Satyrica" (3), and the method she uses is a "close reading of the passages that contain references to laughter and derision" (3). With considerable simplification, Plaza concludes that laughter in the Satyrica has a wide range of functions: it may be "satirical", "comic", "mocking", "lowering", "degrading" and "theatrical", but also "benevolent", "amorous" and "harmonious", to cite a few of the adjectives used by her to qualify it. In addition to establishing the functions of laughter in the Satyrica, Plaza believes that studying laughter and derision in this work is important for determining its genre, e.g. the genre of the best-preserved section of the extant text, usually referred to as the Cena Trimalchionis, or simply Cena. Indeed, she claims that laughter and derision "are an essential feature of both satire and the farcical theatre, i.e. mime and comedy, the genres that compete for superiority in this episode" (163-4). With regard to genre, Plaza clearly views the Satyrica as "synthetic",2 and in other episodes of the work laughter suggests to her the genres of comedy and erotic poetry. She also has much to say about the problem of the narrator in the Satyrica, but here she takes a less original view and for all practical purposes adopts the ideas of Niall W. Slater, as expressed in his Reading Petronius, who unfortunately, in my view, attempts to get rid of the problem by pretending that the story doesn't have a narrator.3 But more on the narrator below.

The dissertation is divided into two introductory sections and a main one. Following the Introduction proper (1-18), where the aim of the study is set forth and methods discussed, is "A critical survey of previous research on laughter and related topics in the Satyrica" (19-54). This obligatory discussion of previous scholarship is then referred to and much expanded throughout the text of the main section, which is surely one of the strengths of this dissertation, since Plaza's control of the by now vast secondary literature on Petronius is impressive. After the rather long introduction, the work moves to the main section, which bears a title almost synonymous with that of the thesis: "Analysis of the motif of laughter and derision in the Satyrica" (55-211), and is best described as an expanded commentary on all passages in the Satyrica "containing explicit references to laughter or derision, i.e. forms of rideo, derideo, risus, and the single instances of subrideo and arrideo" (10). Chapter headings in this section sport full quotations of laughter passages grouped together by scene or episode, which is why the author describes her method, somewhat inaccurately, as "a linear episode-by-episode analysis" (100). A further feature of this section is the "special status" (11) granted passages from the Cena, the treatment of which is framed with a separate introduction and a summary at the end. Finally, we get four pages of Conclusions, a Bibliography (of cited works only) and an incomplete general index (modern scholars are not listed if they appear in a footnote).

It may seem novel to devote a whole dissertation to laughter or humor in Petronius, but in fact there are very few relevant topics that have not already been explored by Petronian scholars. Plaza cites two previous dissertations, one in German and one in English, and a book in Italian dedicated to the topic, although she takes care to differentiate her own study of laughter and derision from the other studies that are strictly speaking more concerned with humor in Petronius.4 Plaza also positions herself with considerable precision within the by now extremely complex system of established scholarly readings of the Satyrica: "The work which, to my knowledge, comes closest to an analysis of the different aspects of laughter and derision in the Satyrica appears in Callebat's article 'Structures narratives et modes de représentation dans le Satyricon de Pétrone'" (52).5 Based on Plaza's representation of the article (which I have not read), Callebat considers Petronian laughter to be "ambivalent" and believes that the Satyrica may be characterized as a "polyphonic" novel in the Bakhtinian sense. Plaza's chosen task, then, is to take Callebat's work further and analyze more thoroughly each individual reference to laughter and derision in Petronius with a view to their ambivalence, which she moreover sees as being "irreducible" (53).

Another primary inspiration is Gerlinde Huber's reading of the Widow of Ephesus story as a text that "simultaneously suggests different, even mutually exclusive, interpretations [...] leading up to a relativisation of all given interpretations" (53).6 One may wonder why Plaza has omitted from this attempt to position herself in the scholarship mention of the work of John J. Winkler, who was surely the most influential scholar in the field to problematize the notion that one can derive a simple meaning from ancient fiction.7 She does, however, acknowledge her affinity to Niall W. Slater and his book Reading Petronius (Baltimore 1990), whose discovery of "interpretive collapses" and "extreme interpretive instabilities" in the Petronian text has clearly been an inspiration.

While reading the dissertation I sometimes felt that Plaza's insistence on the interpretive indeterminacy of the Satyrica became too emphatic. I have collected a few such phrases in a footnote.8 Such reiterations began to strike me not so much as a reluctance to interpret the text as a somewhat desperate response to the difficult situation of having to develop an original interpretation of a text that has already been interpreted, reinterpreted and re-reinterpreted by generations of scholars. Another problem I had with this approach was the claim that the text itself somehow determines its own interpretation(s). To my mind there is something irrational in stressing that "the signals which point to different readings coexist in the text" (53). I have nothing against the idea that a text can have more than one valid reading, but surely readings, i.e. interpretations, are the work of scholars who read and interpret the text, not simply "pointed to" by the text itself. The text is not an animate being. Strictly speaking it is only a dead letter. All the brainwork goes on in the head of the scholar, who should therefore take responsibility for his or her interpretation. But it is, of course, unfair of me to criticize Plaza for something that is common practice among scholars.

In surveying the problem of the narrator, Plaza tries to take a stand on the old question of who controls the narrative, the author, the narrator or the protagonist. The question is academic, since all that we have is Encolpius's narrative, from which the author is absent and of which the protagonist is merely a subject. Were it not for the name of the author on the title page, we would be forced to consider Encolpius himself as the author. Taking the protagonist as the real Encolpius is tantamount to confusing representation with real presence--and comparable to insisting that the image of a pipe in Magritte's painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" is in fact a pipe. Just as the text does not control its interpretation, neither do the characters control the story. By all but deleting the narrator from the story (who in the Satyrica necessarily stands in for the author, since the work is autobiographical fiction),9 the characters become their own narrators, as it were, and so Plaza occasionally seems to speak of the characters' "interpretive control" (191) over the story and sees their various responses to events in the story as "interpretations" suggested by the text.

Let me illustrate the problem with an example: In Sat. 47.7-8, Trimalchio has for health reasons expressed himself in favor of freely breaking wind in the triclinium and has given his guests permission to do so at his own table. The narrator Encolpius describes the characters' responses: gratias agimus liberalitati indulgentiaeque eius, et subinde castigamus crebris potiunculis risum. But then the narrator immediately adds: nec adhuc sciebamus nos in medio lautitiarum, quod aiunt, clivo laborare. The text describes two attitudes towards Trimalchio's behavior. The scholastici, including the character Encolpius, feign gratitude and respect for Trimalchio, while secretly laughing at him. This attitude of the characters is reported by the narrator, who then immediately undercuts their sneering by pointing out what he already knows but they do not yet know (nec adhuc sciebamus), that the dinner party is only half way through. Helplessly, the scholastici will be exposed to much more tasteless and rude behavior from their host and his other guests, until the party becomes completely nauseating (cf. 78.5, ibat res ad summam nauseam). So the narrator does not laugh. Although we have here two different attitudes towards Trimalchio's behavior in this scene, there is no question that one, the narrator's, carries more authority than the other. Plaza is aware of this aspect of the passage (125), but makes little of the fact that it contradicts her general preference not to rely on the narrator as interpreter. As Gian Biagio Conte has shown in The Hidden Author, the Cynic humor of the Satyrica is not directed just at Trimalchio and his freedmen friends but mocks the scholastici no less and holds up for ridicule a "mania for grandeur of a declamatory, scholastic culture".10 The only source for such a view is the narrator Encolpius (or the "hidden author", if one accepts Conte's thesis), who should be carefully distinguished from his former self, the character Encolpius.

As Plaza herself argues the narrator of the Satyrica differs from the narrators of Roman satire. It is therefore surprising that she should measure Encolpius against this (in fact doubtful) ideal of Roman satire and expect him to be judgmental and straightforward with his opinions. When Encolpius does not measure up to this standard, or does not exercise "the interpretive authority that a narrator of a first person narrative would traditionally have" (137), whatever the legitimacy of such an artificial standard, she assumes that he no longer counts, that he has "suspended" his authority. Lucius, the ambivalent narrator of Apuleius's Metamorphoses, obviously provides better comparative material here than Roman hexameter satire. His attitudes are sometimes confusing, but no one would argue that the narrator of the Metamorphoses did not count for the interpretation of the story. The use of the term "impotent" for the narrator of the exceptionally well narrated Satyrica also strikes me as inapt. That Encolpius is "impotent" because he is "unable to prevent alternative interpretations from entering his narrative" (215) is, to my mind, nonsensical. Why would a novelistic narrator want to block out "alternative interpretations" (in the sense given to the phrase by Plaza of alternative opinions and judgments expressed by characters in the story)? Who of the great novelists, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Balzac, to name only three, would escape being branded "impotent" for this same reason?

Besides, Plaza is not reading a whole text, but fragments of a novel, the bulk of which is lost. It is pointless to talk about the Satyrica "as a whole" when one refuses even to speculate about what was in the missing sections. Fragments demand a different and more cautious approach than whole texts. Even though we do not have a prologue and have very few passages that provide any information about the narrator, we must assume that such passages did exist in the original text. Plaza's discussion of the narrator is predicated upon the assumption that the extant fragments provide us with a miniature model of the whole, which cannot be true since an ancient narrative obviously has distinct parts. As is well known, the surviving portions of the text are likely to be only from books XIV-XVI, which means that missing parts include both the opening, where the narrator introduced himself and delivered an exposition of the rationale of the story, and the end, where he wrapped up the loose ends and explained what became of himself. Statements about the whole of the Satyrica must necessarily be based on some hypothesis regarding the lost portions of the text. Plaza, however, advances no such hypothesis. The three blindfolded wise men in the fable could not identify the elephant by touching its parts, because they assumed there was nothing beyond what they were touching. Symptomatic of Plaza's, and indeed many other scholars', denial of the real state of the text, is a statement such as this one, that the Croton episode comes "at the end of the novel" (30), when it actually comes at the end of the extant fragments.

At times Plaza'a dissertation is a little difficult to read because it tends to jump from passage to passage, apart from the introductory chapters, which clearly show Plaza as a competent and organized writer. What continuum there is in the main section of the work is provided by the order of the passages that follows the text of the Satyrica itself, by the grouping of passages according to scene or episode, and by the resumption throughout of similar themes and problems, such as the problems of narrator and genre. It seems to me that Plaza has done the reader, and herself, a disservice by trying to structure her book like a commentary when it is really something more. Had she omitted the quotations at the top of individual chapters and organized the chapters more as a true "episode-by-episode analysis" the text would have been easier to read and take in.

That said, I enjoyed reading Plaza's book on laughter and derision in Petronius. I found her mastery of the secondary literature impressive and her readings of individual passages nuanced and often persuasive. All in all this is a dissertation that Petronian scholars should derive both pleasure and profit from reading.

The text is mostly free of errors and infelicities. I did, however, find some "ghost" references, e.g. on page 33, where Plaza claims that Révay and Highet (who argued that the Satyrica was a moral satire directed against Trimalchio and the freedmen) did not mention "the laughter in which the freedmen themselves participate," and then refers in parentheses to four places in the text: 36.4, 44.18, 56.10 and 64.12. Only the first place, 36.4, is relevant. At 44.18, even if the reading "ridebant" is kept (cf. Plaza's discussion of the text on pp. 113-115), those who laugh are the pious women of Ganymede's story, and possibly their contemporaries in a long passed golden period, but certainly not the freedmen of the Cena. And neither is 56.10 a good example, where it is obvious that the scholastici alone are meant to be laughing, since Hermeros, "one of Trimalchio's fellow freedmen" (57.1), subsequently attacks Ascyltos for his derisive attitude and unbridled laughing and afterwards turns his anger against Giton (58.1-2) for the same reason. Likewise, at 64.12, it seems that Croesus, Trimalchio's hysterical puer, is meant to be laughing alone, which is indeed how Plaza reads the phrase "interque risum exclamavit" (cf. 148 n.413). The only other errors that I found were on page 33, where the reference to Sat. 64.4 should be to Sat. 61.4, and on page 39, where Eilimar Klebs should be Elimar Klebs.


1.   Satyricon. Petronius. Översättning av Maria Plaza, inledning av Tore Janson (Stockholm 1996).
2.   This approach to the problem of genre in the Satyrica originated with Albert Collignon and his Étude sur Pétron. La Critique littéraire, l'imitation et la parodie dans le Satiricon (Paris 1892), but was given its still current and more dogmatic form, by Martin Rosenblüth in his doctoral disseration, Beiträge zur Quellenkunde von Petrons Satiren (Berlin 1909). Rosenblüth treats the Satyrica only in pieces (Stücken) which he compares with various genres to support the claim that the work is a "synthetic" composition with respect to genre.
3.   Niall W. Slater, Reading Petronius (Baltimore 1990).
4.   Cristoph Stöcker wrote a dissertation entitled Humor bei Petron (Erlangen 1969), and Sarah Ruden another one entitled Toward a typology of humour in the Satyricon of Petronius (Cambridge, Mass. 1993). There is also a book by Donato Gagliardi, Il comico in Petronio (Palermo 1980).
5.   Louis Callebat, "Structures narratives et modes de représentation dans le Satyricon de Pétrone", REL 52 (1974): 281-303.
6.   Gerlinde Huber,Das Motiv der "Witwe von Ephesus" in lateinischen Texten der Antike und des Mittelalters (Tübingen 1990). Plaza also refers to an article by Gareth Schmeling, "'Quid attinet veritatem per interpretem quaerere?' Interpretes and the Satyricon", Ramus 23 (1994) 144-168, as an inspiration for her "relativising" approach to interpreting laughter in Petronius.
7.   I am thinking particularly of such studies as "The mendacity of Kalasiris and the narrative strategy of Heliodoros' Aithiopika", YCS 27 (1982) 93-158, and of course Auctor & Actor. A Narratological Reading of Apuleius's The Golden Ass (Berkeley 1985).
8.   Phrases such as these abound in the thesis: "interpretive ambiguity which, in my view, is the core of this text" (91), "irreducible ambiguity" (100), "the interpretative relativisation which I believe to be typical of the Satyrica" (119), "the interpretative openness of the text is never reduced" (128), "central ambivalence"(147), "The unresolved question whose reading of reality is the right one" (147), "humourous ambivalence of the Cena" (155), "ultimately implying the relativisation of truth" (163), "the ambivalence which in my view is the main characteristic of the Satyrica" (167), "Petronius' text remains open, and yet it carries a meaning, or rather performs a function: that of relativising the competing values suggested in the narrative" (185), "at a higher level, the lascivious charm of the Satyrica's lucid text ... mocks all attempts at interpreting the world as it is--by its function of relativisation" (202), "there is an ambivalent, ultimately irreducible, message in the laughter" (208), "This instance of laughter in Petronius is ambivalent" (211).
9.   As Philippe Lejeune has argued in his essay "The Autobiographical Pact" (in P. Lejeune, On Autobiography, ed. P. J. Eakin, tr. K. Leary [Minneapolis 1983] 3-30), 25, "all narrative in the first person implies that the protagonist, even if some distant adventures about him are being told, is at the same time the real person who produces the narration."
10.   Gian Biagio Conte, The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius's Satyricon, translated by Elaine Fantham (Berkeley 1996), viii.

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