Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.26

Francesco Citti, Camillo Neri, Seneca nel Novecento. Sondaggi sulla fortuna di un "classico".   Roma:  Carocci, 2001.  Pp. 271.  ISBN 88-430-1979-1.  EUR 15.49.  

Reviewed by Ildikó Csepregi, Central European University, Budapest (
Word count: 1577 words

"The style of Seneca, like that of Tacitus, is the dramatic style of a human soul at war with itself. If the prose of these two great and very different writers is baroque, it is because the human soul itself is baroque." (C. Marchesi)

This book functions rather like a kaleidoscope: the beads are the bits and pieces of the Senecan tradition. It is in the best sense all-encompassing, with the authors diligent enough to collect anything, if not everything preserved in connection with Seneca. They present an exciting and variegated range of authors, names, and works accumulated and put into tentative order. Great Senecan adaptations appear side by side with works of unheard-of writers, and it is exactly this somewhat omnivorous curiosity about any aspect of Seneca's impact that gives the book both its odd character and its particular value. The authors call their selection a public opinion poll, and this gives the book its main merits and shortcomings, like the benefit of acquainting the reader with oddities like a Cuban musicologist's fictitious biography of Columbus, a Hungarian novel about Nero, or Italian proverbs. The genre, however, not only allows but also demands that the authors not formulate their own opinion; they can thus comfortably abstain from value judgements. This is one reason why I would say that the book is by no means for beginners interested in the survival of classical authors, who might open it incautiously looking for a guide to the influence of Seneca on the twentieth century. All of this is, however, intended strictly as praise. Citti and Neri's book is a delicacy for connoisseurs of the mainstream Senecan tradition. The most suitable way to illustrate the many-sidedness of the book is to produce an inventory, like that provided by the book itself, highlighting some works among the many described, as the authors themselves selected a few pieces from the existing tradition.

Chapter One ("Seneca morale" pp. 19-79) displays the daily use of Senecan stoicism as a philosophy for hard times, presenting the reader with a many-faced Seneca used and abused in twentieth century writings when authors struggled to define the human condition under Franco, Hitler, Mussolini or Communism. Seneca appears as a Spaniard, (Maria Zambrano), a healer of the soul (Etty Hillesum), a personal model (Ernst Jünger), a Christian (Gustave Thibon), a poet of the human soul (C. Marchesi). The survey extends to revived interest in Nietzsche's Toreador of virtue in the 1930s and to wise sayings on frustration. As one might expect from a public opinion poll, the faces of the Senecan tradition range from the endangered ideals of humanism between the wars to the virtuosity of style. The mouthpiece of Senecan philosophy can be a resigned dentist (Günter Grass), and Citti and Neri include also one who dislikes Seneca (G. Pascoli). With the moralistic, philosophical re-readings of the dramas of José Bergamin, the chapter ends with an excellently written transition from the dramatic Seneca to the dramatist.

Chapter Two ("Seneca drammaturgo" pp. 81-148) treats the relationship between passion and madness. Unlike his moral philosophy, once rediscovered and then allowed to fade again into obscurity, Senecan theatre has exercised a continuous influence on drama from the Renaissance up to the grotesque and absurd theatre of today, with the most conspicuous traces in Artaud's theatre of cruelty. Italy started to appreciate the playwright Seneca in the 1950s, and the "age of enthusiasm" continued into the nineties. The turning point outside Italy was 1968 with the staging of the Oedipus in the version of Ted Hughes, with Peter Brook as director (London, National Theatre). The concept of theatre as ritual, darkened by the atmosphere of the lethal and the violent, found its way into Eliot, O'Neil, Camus and Albertino Mussato, while the tendency of Senecan heroes to be, as it were, their own caricatures is expressed in Michael Ayrton's work The Maze Maker. A great future awaited the two most popular plays, the Phaedra and the Medea. Having discussed some adaptations of the former, an inspiring subchapter is dedicated to the Medea of Anouilh, introduced with a list of many other Medea-s (C. Alvaro, Toni Morrison, Arturo Ripstein), with several line-by-line analyses before turning to Medea s of Jean Vauthier and Jorge Lavatelli.

My favourite part of the book ("Medea e i conquistadores: Bergamin e Carpentier") best illustrates how Citti and Neri worked in tracing the transformation, and even the independent life of some Senecan passages. The interpretation evolves from the poetic prophecy of the Medea (375-9): "venient annis / saecula seris quibus Oceanus / vincula rerum laxet et ingens / pateat tellus Tethysque novos / detegat orbes nec sit terris / ultima Thule." In the fifties José Bergamin interpreted the prophecy as a vision of the discovery of America; in 1971 his Medea is staged in Madrid with Medea as an Inca princess and Jason a conquistador. The novel of the Cuban Alejo Carpentier (The Harp and the Shadow) offers an elaboration of the theme in a parodic rewriting of Columbus' life and journeys. The expansion of Oceanus seen in a vision turns into a description of the newly opened worlds, characterising not only a Columbus half-fictional, half-real, but at the same time becoming an emblem for an entire world view. Columbus was in fact captured by the Senecan image of the Argonauts' voyage: he translated theses lines in his Book of Prophecies (1501-2), changing Tethysque into Tiphique, which -- besides being a possible reading in the edition he used -- hints at his self-definition as Tiphis, the legendary pilot of the Argo. His son Ferdinand left a marginal note on the same lines in his own copy of Seneca's Tragedies: "Haec prophetia expleta est per patrem meum Christoforum Colon admirantem anno 1492." In Carpenter's fiction, Seneca becomes an important reference point for Columbus: he paraphrases the Roman author on various occasions, and these Senecan allusions allow the reader to interpret the two principal characters, Columbus and Queen Isabel, as they develop from their first encounter through a passionate love-affair into the roles of Jason and Medea.

This section of the book also summarises Artaud's treatment of the Thyestes (his lost The Punishment of Tantalus and the Les Cenci) and his personal attraction to Senecan characters. As often elsewhere in the book, Citti and Neri take the opportunity of starting from a single drama, here the Thyestes and the Oedipus of José Maria Pemán, to give a picture of the Oedipus theme in twentieth-century theatre, commenting on the themes of politics, cruelty and pessimism, just as the concluding sub-chapters tackle heroism (Hercules Furens) or noble death (Troades).

Chapter Three ("Seneca personaggio" pp. 149-193) gives an inventory of works dealing with an issue that understandably claims the attention of twentieth century writers: the split image of Seneca, shaped on one hand by his writings, on the other by his personality. This incoherence centres on two facts of his life: his philosophical creed versus his riches and his death. He is depicted in historical novels (Bailly, Kosztolányi, Hubertus zu Lövenstein, Hersey, Sampoli) with endless variation as cynical, opportunistic, blinded by power, self-controlled, and the forerunner of Christian virtues. The list is continued with fictitious biographies and religious novels (Graves, Waltari), until we arrive at works where Seneca himself is the protagonist (Bacchelli and Papini), followed by his grotesque representations (Hiebel, Hubay, Hacks). The common thematic core of all these versions seems to be the intellectual's relationship to power and the artist's vocation interpreted in the political-cultural context of his time (Gala and Walser). What Citti and Neri did with this bulky material was to juxtapose quotations from Seneca's writings for each issue, drawing primarily on the Apocolocyntosis, the De Vita Beata and the two Consolations, and appeal here and there to Tacitus' portrayal as well. Historical novels feed cinema and television. In accordance with the chapter's title, the pieces discussed here are rather historical or pseudo-historical tableaux, and only the ironic wording allows the reader to suspect their artistic value.

The last chapter (Chapter Four: "Seneca in Internet" pp. 195-224) is the most provocative and illustrates most aptly the experimental character of the book. Here I felt that the authors' judgement was most needed to distinguish between the rubbish and the useful material. The reader, however, can find well-collected material on 1, general classics sites 2, Senecan texts and bibliographies 3, articles and other references 4, regarded by the authors as the most interesting of Seneca's electronic career, teaching materials and finally 5, maxims and proverbs. More comforting is the bibliography at the end (pp. 225-248), although some references appearing in the notes do not reappear in the bibliography. The only real criticism must be addressed to the deplorable quality of the book's pictures, and to a lesser extent, its ugly cover.

To sum up, the book successfully comes to grips with the rich and at certain points alarming variety of Senecan influence. Unspokenly it raises the question how far tradition extends, what tradition means and what it indeed contains. The book is by no means designed to be a monograph; in its survey genre it handles the presented material admirably, but at certain moments the reader might feel the lack of a more sober guidance, which, however, is not to be expected from a public opinion poll. Non-Italian readers will find the book especially amusing since it is the Italian cultural background that is treated in the most detailed and appealing way.

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