BMCR 1994.01.13

1994.01.13, Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire

, Ancient Menippean satire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. xv, 306 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801845246.

Depending on your perspective, the title of this book may seem either an anachronistic projection backward of a modern term to ancient works (like the term “ancient novel”); or the title may seem merely redundant, since Saturae Menippeae is the title of a work of the Roman Varro, whose work is ipso facto ancient. In fact, Menippean Satire is used as a generic term only since the 16th Century, but it has become more widely known by the prominence given the term in Bakhtin’s theory of the novel. Since Relihan is interested precisely in the group of ancient texts that makes up a genre which Varro’s Menippean Satires exemplify, the title is actually programmatic of the author’s desire to articulate the precise character of an ancient and medieval genre that is better known for its more modern examples.

This is a book that deserves to be read carefully. Although it focuses on about a dozen texts (the fragments of Menippus and Varro, Petronius, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, Lucian, Julian’s Caesars, Ennodius’s “Educational Address,” Fulgentius, Martianus Capella and Boethius), many other works come into purview along the way and there is much surprising and interesting information in the text, notes and appendices. After some introductory material on the definition of Menippean satire derived from the set of texts that are to be defined so—a circularity about which the author is quite up front—there are concise and informative chapters about each of the representative works. Some of these works are just names to most classicists, but Relihan does a good job of advancing his argument about the genre as a whole while simultaneously giving a good idea of the specific character of each work. In general he is most interested in the narrative frame and thus focuses on prologues and key programmatic statements. The book will thus be a valuable introduction to these peculiar works as well as an interesting consideration of a number of problems in literary history.

Starting from the rather broad use of the term “Menippean” in Bakhtin and Frye, Relihan seeks to narrow in on a small number of texts that share a core of traits derived from an aesthetic of indecorous mixing of incongruous elements: verse and prose, high and low styles, serious and comic, the moral and the erotic, etc. Of greatest importance for the definition of the genre, according to Relihan, is that these strange brews are offered to the reader by an incompetent narrator who is himself parodied, along with his quest for philosophical knowledge. This kind of mise-en-abime is perhaps most familiar from the Satyricon, where the reader is often in doubt how something is to be taken, but Relihan argues that this is a central characteristic of each of the texts he studies.

Menippus’s signature work and the key fons for many other examples of the genre is his nekuia, and indeed the fantastic voyage to the other world for Truth, derived not from the Odyssey so much as from Plato’s Republic, becomes a stock framework for debunking philosophy in Varro, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Lucian. Varro’s satires add the parody of Roman verse satire as well as parody of encyclopedic knowledge that characterizes Menippean satire in late antiquity. Relihan makes the important point that Varro, Seneca and Petronius stand outside the tradition of Roman verse satire stretching from Lucilius to Juvenal, as well as the cynic diatribe with which Varro and Menippus are often associated. These genres retain, in general, an organizing point of view and a specific decorum—however vulgar—that differentiates them from the mise-en-abime of Menippean satire, where the reader’s attempts to make sense of the discourse as a whole is frustrated by the incompetence of the self-parodying narrator.

In this vein, Relihan argues that Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis is not primarily a critique of the dead Claudius—although it is that too—but an account “of an occasionally sympathetic wanderer who is caught in a comic afterworld whose right to judge and condemn him is at least as questionable as his own right to become a god” (77). The Apocolocyntosis thus stakes out “very little political ground” (89) and this turns out to be consistent with Relihan’s take on Varro, whom he sees attacking philosophical dogmatism and theorizing in the name of “common sense” and traditional Roman virtues. It is not so far from this place to the Christian Menippean satirists of late antiquity who debunk the search for the highest worldly wisdom in the name of Christian truth. In fact, this is not so far from the present in which literary theory is often debunked as frivolous nonsense in the name of “just reading and enjoying the text.” But the radical uncertainty surrounding Menippean satires due to the self-parodying frame, the lack of coherent presentation, and the mixture of incongruous elements, means that they will provoke interpretations and effects that escape the control of the author and his intentions. This is the aspect that Bakhtin foregrounds and the choice of such a framework by an author means yielding up any hope of being “properly” read; so, conservative as these works may be, they are also mischievous and imbued with the knowledge that language and meaning are slippery and unreliable.

A good example of this fact is Martianus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. All I really ever knew about this text is that it was an important compendium for later generations in the middle ages. What a surprise to discover that it has a self-parodic framework that undermines the whole encyclopedic effort! Relihan reads this work not as part of late antiquity’s salvage operation on classical culture, but as a critique of the very effort to synthesize learning. He reads Fulgentius’Mythologies, Ennodius’s “Educational Address,” and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in a similar vein: not as syntheses of Christian and pagan learning, but as failed syntheses that use Menippean devices to undermine in the name of Christian faith the very project that they seem to propose. With Ennodius in particular Relihan makes a convincing case from the use of prose and verse for his view of this text as Menippean.

One peculiarity of Relihan’s presentation has to do with his insistence that these works constitute a “genre.” Like Bakhtin, he accepts the “antigeneric” character of Menippean satire, so it seems somewhat awkward to argue for the “integrity and logical cohesion of the genre” (21) or for its “organic unity” (184). All these works seem to “strain the limits” (187) of the genre in some unique way, or be unusual combinations: The Satyricon is judged to be a “picaresque novel [another anachronism from the 16th Century] on which the Menippean genre was been imposed” (95). Relihan makes reasonable arguments for the position that these works are directly related to and inspired by each other, so it seems enough to argue that they make up a “tradition” of themes and postures without calling them a genre. I raise this issue not to bicker about terminology, but because it is important for considering the prosimetric character of Menippean satire.

When the ancients themselves talked about literary types, they focused not so much on themes and plot types, but on formal qualities of decorum and the nature of the presentation. Epic, drama and lyric all deal with a multitude of themes and story types, but have a claim to being genres insofar as they were performed (or imagined to be performed) in a particular place and time and in a specific social context (festivals, symposia, etc.). Not coincidentally these are all verse genres, whose character as verse is tied closely to their performative context. The rise of prose literature represents a process of abstraction of discourse from particular contexts and audiences so that prose (with the important exception of rhetoric, which is more aligned with verse in this and other respects) is not imagined to be performed or circulated in any particular context. As such, prose is free to make reference to various verse genres for serious or humorous effects, for prose can “contain” verse without becoming verse (which is not reciprocally true). 1 Relihan points out that whenever verse is used in Menippean satire, the speaker is being parodied; and indeed, verse comes to signify in general those discourses grounded in some specific protocol upon which its pretensions to truth are based—and the claim to have some sort of special relation to Truth is what is most consistently undermined in these Menippean satires. The alternation of prose and verse is thus an integral part of Menippean satire’s engagement with verse genres (including Roman satire) not as one genre among others, but as a discourse that takes for granted that genres are pretentious bunk and makes fun of them just by juxtaposing them with each other. And Relihan is quite correct to separate these kinds of prosimetra from works like Macrobius’s Saturnalia, where verse is accorded a high status. Nevertheless, this antigeneric character is a paradoxical basis for calling a group of texts a genre. What comes through most strongly for me in Relihan’s presentation is how specific texts can become models for later authors who redeploy certain themes and devices to advance very different preoccupations. Thus, for example, the tunc and nunc theme about the good old days in Varro reappears in almost all of Relihan’s examples. But how different it will be in a Christian text where tunc and nunc inevitably conjure up the New Testament opposition of before and after Christ: under the law and under grace. “Menippean satire” seems to be a term better suited for adumbrating change than for defining some fixed type.

There is a hint of a sequel that will deal with the 12th Century revival of Menippean satire at the hands of Bernardus Silvestris and Allan of Lille. I hope that it is forthcoming and that Relihan will be able to work the same alchemy on those texts as he has on some of these ancient ones, making them seem more interesting and worthy of our attention.

  • [1] See W. Godzich and J. Kittay, The Emergence of Prose: an Essay on Prosaics (Mpls., 1987).