BMCR 1991.02.14

Reading Petronius

, Reading Petronius. London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. xii, 268 pages. ISBN 9780801839849

Recent work on the ancient novel has demonstrated that concerns of contemporary literary studies can frame extremely fruitful readings of ancient prose fiction (e.g. J.J. Winkler, Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’s Golden Ass [Berkeley 1985], S. Bartsch, Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius [Princeton 1989], and a number of studies presented at the 1989 Dartmouth International Conference on the Ancient Novel). Similarly fruitful is S.’s Reading Petronius, which applies principles of reader-response criticism to the Satyricon, a text that has elicited a wide range of responses from its readers over the years. Throughout this study theoretical and thematic concerns are closely connected: S. argues that acts of interpretation performed by characters within the text can serve as a model for interpretive procedures which the Satyricon apparently prompts its readers to undertake.

In his introductory remarks (Ch. 1), S. outlines the assumptions and procedures of reader-response criticism, in which interpretations are based “on what happens within the reader during the reading process” (p. 3). The “reader” whose responses are scrutinized can be defined in a number of ways; S. chooses to draw upon Iser’s notion that a text itself can imply that its reader possesses certain basic literary and cultural information and skills, termed the “repertoire”. This notion of the repertoire lends some stability to the interpretive process, allowing the critic to “construct a model reader whose responses can be shown to be general and not idiosyncratic, historically aware and not bound by contemporary standards or patterns of response” (pp. 5-6). The rest of the chapter is taken up with an outline of the basic information possessed by the implied reader of the Satyricon.

In Part One (Ch. 2-6), S. constructs a reader’s “first reading” of the Satyricon, which is in effect a running commentary on instances of role-playing or representation and the resulting interpretive acts performed by the characters in the text. S.’s remarks on the dynamics of role-playing in the Agamemnon episode (Ch. 2), in the Quartilla episode (Ch. 3), at the Cena (Ch. 4), on the way to Croton (Ch. 5) and at Croton (Ch. 6) will all stimulate further discussion, and his argument that the views of literature and art which emerge from the Satyricon are not to be taken as a transparent representation of Petronius’ own views (esp. pp. 117-18) is certainly valuable. I am less convinced by S.’s argument that the Troiae halosis is to be read simply as a failure of interpretation because it does not seem to describe an actual painting (pp. 95-101); is this standard really the most appropriate criterion in a reader’s repertoire for evaluating literary descriptions of works of art? In a similar fashion, S.’s account of a reader’s perplexed response to the Bellum Civile (pp. 117-22) seems to me to minimize the importance of Sat. 118 for our understanding of the repertoire of a reader of the Satyricon. S. argues that the BC is clearly not a parodic critique of Lucan, and here I am in agreement with him. But when he maintains that the BC therefore has no significant relation to Lucan’s poem on the Civil War, I disagree. Lucan’s decision not to represent the actions of the gods in his poem seems to have been perceived as a distinct innovation (cf. E. M. Sanford, “Lucan and his Roman Critics,”CP 26 [1931] 233-57; and now D. C. Feeney, The Gods in Epic [Oxford 1991], Ch. 6). Therefore, Sat. 118, with Eumolpus’s remarks about the appropriate representation of the gods in epic, seems to invite a reader to read and think about the subsequent poem on the civil war as a literary response to Lucan’s treatment of the same theme. Furthermore, when Latin literature had seen the development of so many different ways of reacting to literary predecessors, must such a response be seen exclusively in terms of parody or negative criticism? These queries aside, I find S.’s engaging and comprehensive survey of instances of role-playing within the Satyricon and the resulting acts of interpretation performed by internal audiences a fine introduction to some of Petronius’s most brilliant literary maneuvers.

In Part Two (Ch 7-9), S. reconsiders the Satyricon‘s interpretive challenges. This “rereading” is an attempt to counteract the sense of “fragmentation” which S. argues has emerged from the first reading (pp. 137-38). Where others may attempt to transcend the fragmentation of the text by viewing the text as primarily an epic parody, or by mapping it on to what we know of the genre of Menippean satire, S. argues quite rightly that simply to label the Satyricon an epic parody or a prosimetric Menippean satire does not produce a literary interpretation of the text. Instead, S. terms the Satyricon an instance of what Bakhtin calls heteroglossia, which may be defined as the capacity of the novel as a literary form to incorporate various types of discourse, ranging from the serious and classical to the comic and carnivalesque. It might be noted here that Bakhtin himself, in articulating the notion of heteroglossia in novelistic discourse, categorizes the Satyricon as a development of Menippean satire: “The Satyricon of Petronius is good proof that Menippean satire can expand into a huge picture, offering a realistic reflection of the socially varied and heteroglot world of contemporary life” ( The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist [Austin 1981], 27). This concept of heteroglossia structures S.’s survey of various systems of representing experience in the Satyricon : the language of the freedmen; instances of literary “voices”; and the visual artifacts represented in the text. From S.’s study of interpretive crises in these various systems, a number of interesting points emerge: the discussion of exclamat at 108.14 (pp. 171-73), the suggestion that Petronius’s representation of Eumolpus responds in some way to Horace’s vision of the bad poet at the end of the Ars poetica (pp. 192-94), and the re-contextualization of visual artifacts against ancient theories of aesthetic perception (Ch. 9) are particularly insightful; and the general point that the presence of epic parody in the Satyricon should not blind readers to other literary aspects of the work is well taken.

In concluding (Part Three, Ch. 10), S. argues that ultimately the Satyricon‘s preoccupation with interpretive failures supports his notion that this text itself is impossible to interpret: “A reader’s expectation of decoding meaning through ordinary procedures of reading can be aroused only to be frustrated. Indeed, this pattern can be repeated and constitutes one of the primary sources of comedy in a text—which is precisely what I contend happens in the Satyricon” (237). Perhaps not all will share completely the “frustration” which S. ascribes to the Satyricon‘s reader. Nevertheless, this attractively produced book, containing translations of all Latin, thorough indices and a useful bibliography, will complement existing treatments of the Satyricon and will help scholars and students in Classics and in other areas bring new energy and appreciation to future studies of the abundant interpretive challenges posed by Petronius’s literary genius.