BMCR 1994.04.04

1994.04.04, Hutchinson, Latin Lit. from Seneca to Juvenal

, Latin literature from Seneca to Juvenal : a critical study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xiv, 368 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198146902. $60.00.

Five years after Dr Hutchinson’s Hellenistic Poetry appeared to very mixed reviews, he has again attempted a critical survey of a literary age that until recently was depreciated or excused as epigonal; but there are significant differences between both the material of his two studies and his own approach to that material. From Seneca to Juvenal Latin literature occupies less than 75 years, at most three distinct generations: but it covers every significant genre of prose (the novel, philosophy, history, biography, literary or rhetorical criticism), as well as verse. The Hellenistic literature of H.’s previous study included no prose (what was there to include?) and virtually no drama, but the poetry of three centuries and two languages, crossing the Mediterranean to include the Roman “Callimacheans.”

Hutchinson has his own idea of what he wants to do as a literary critic, and has been punished in print for what is seen as the narrowness of his strictly aesthetic focus on “tonal complications” and his avoidance of debate with other critics or critical theories. My own reactions to the present as to the previous study are mixed but predominantly sympathetic, yet I have found it extraordinarily difficult to make a just critical assessment of his critical assessments or of their usefulness to the graduate students and teachers who will be his most likely readers.

Certainly H. has tempered his convictions with willingness to learn from criticism; he has responded to the major objections made by one of the most perceptive reviewers of the first book (Hunter in JHS 110 (1990) 232-3). There Hellenistic Poetry was blamed not only for its isolation from contemporary critical discussions but for offering “not readings but snatched comments on individual passages” without interest in “ideas, the significance of myth or the sociological aspects of poetry.” This time round H. has organized his chapters thematically, considering both aesthetic aspects of his texts and (two) major themes: Death, and The Gods. He has also regrouped critical discussion so that all the writers of the period are considered successively under each aspect or topic. Thus the awkwardly titled Ch.1, Conceptions of Genre: Criticism in Prose, “Lower” Poetry, and Ch.2, Genre: Philosophy, History, High Poetry, are complementary, sharing focus on the role of “notions of reality and greatness.” Ch.3, Wit, and Ch.4, Extravagance, both cover the whole generic spectrum, as does Ch.5, Structure and Cohesion. At this stage H. again divides his theme, The Gods, this time between (6) Mythological poetry—to which they are integral—and (7) Prose and Lucan, in which their role may be seen as incidental. The last two chapters move from (8) Death in Prose, to (9) Death in High Poetry, framing this climactic discussion between illuminating analyses of heroic political death scenes from Tacitus (Otho, Seneca in the Annals), and Seneca (Cato of Utica and anonymous heroes) and from Lucan (Pompey).

The fact is that H. thinks and writes in the tradition of [Longinus] or Hellenistic rhetoric, whether Dionysius or Hermogenes peri Ideon. I find this a thoroughly legitimate approach, but it has its hazards.

It is not fair to say that Peri Hupsous can only be written once, but it took a critical genius to explain the sources of the sublime (effectively H.’s greatness, grandeur) in simple terms of noble content and valid emotion, (as well as lesser rhetorical features) drawing his examples freely beyond rhetorical prose to encompass every genre and not two but three literatures: [Longinus] is effective through his economy of both descriptive language and example. In contrast Dionysius’ elaborate vocabulary is only able to help his readers appreciate the individuality and diversity of Demosthenes by supplementing their familiarity with the canonical texts with close reading and closer analysis of the language—and H. has largely denied himself reliance on Latin. If anything H.’s aesthetic is closer to Hermogenes’ aesthetic categorizations, in its concern with the flavor of different and often blended stylistic ideai, a mode even more dependent on access to the original language.

I find this all the more regrettable as H. has selected for our special admiration authors and episodes which I deeply admire, and advances assessments of these passages which generally helped me to understand my response. He nails his colors to the mast early, justifying his concentration on Seneca and Tacitus as “the two main representatives of philosophy and history and the two greatest writers of Latin prose in our (or perhaps any) period” (40). In fact the book might better have been defined as “Latin Literature from Seneca to Tacitus” for the two authors, often back to back, dominate almost every chapter (2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8). It is indeed rewarding to have these authors juxtaposed (as it is to have Senecan prose and tragedy brought together and to have proper attention paid at last to the Naturales Quaestiones). H has clearly thought hard about the nature of the contrast between the philosopher and the historian, and yet even for those of us quite familiar with the passages analysed by H., his critical vocabulary is not always helpful and his conclusions can be baffling. This paragraph from p.60 may serve as a sample of other passages which I have found difficult as a reader:

For all Tacitus’ complexities in the handling of greatness and for all Seneca’s actual selectivity, an important part of the historian’s impact lies in the impression of exclusiveness, of the philosopher’s in the impression of the reverse. Tacitus clearly brings before us a more limited range of reality … although the contrast between inner and outer is clearly important in him we are offered little depiction of the mental world so vividly portrayed by Seneca.

We can get by, perhaps, without a clearer concept of greatness—if we feel its impact, then it is present—but as a critical opposite “reality” seems ill focused. Reality is not, of course realism, but it seems to hover between the literal and accurate (rightly observed in the physical awkwardness of Seneca’s attempts to hasten death) and the low. Is Tacitus’ “exclusiveness” or Seneca’s reverse social? Is the Tacitean emphasis on the “outer” anything more than the generic code or etiquette of History, as opposed to moral philosophy or inspirational protreptic whose focus has to be “inner” if it is to serve its purpose?

Because of H.’s special concern with tone and with paradoxical blending of generically determined and generically transgressive elements this book has already been criticized as a mere repetition of its predecessor, for applying the same vocabulary of appraisal to e.g. Statius’Silvae as H. applied to Callimachus. But we can learn from this repetition. Statius was trained by his father on a diet of Callimachus and other Hellenistic poetry and the affinity is real. H. is attracted by the “playful” (I suppose it would be more fashionable to call it ludic) as he is by “wit” and finds both elements where others may deny or fail to recognize them. But he strives to make readers aware of the aesthetic idiom of each author and each text. Certainly he does not simply attribute the same titillation of sweet and sour (gastronomic parallels leap to the mind) to the darkly vehement Juvenal or the angry and sarcastic Lucan. The vindication of his attempt surely lies in the justness of his assessment of such varied and idiosyncratic writers.

But H.’s attention is largely determined by the elevation or “seriousness” (my word) of the genre. Thus besides Tacitean history and Senecan prose and verse, the epics of Lucan and Statius receive detailed and stimulating discussions, whereas Juvenal (though clearly respected) and Persius earn only some twenty pages, and Petronius is barely mentioned after the early three page discussion of his (or rather Eumolpus’) criticism of Lucan. If H. has less of interest to say on Valerius or Silius this may be because these poets lack strong personal style or psychological complexity: the failure to do justice to Persius may spring from personal distaste or reluctance either to repeat what Bramble had said so strikingly, or to substitute a duller treatment.

Critics have raised the question of audience: for whom is the book intended and how far will it satisfy their needs or the author’s express aim “to give the reader a feeling for this brilliant, extraordinary, writing”? If my doctoral students working on Silver Latin authors were unhappy with the book, why is this? An initial answer may be the frustration experienced (despite a full and explicit index) in searching for the separate discussions of, say, Lucan, scattered across nine chapters and embedded in continuous comparative treatments of other writers. To which H. can justifiably reply that that is not how his book should be used. A more significant problem is the very limited number of readers with sufficiently wide experience of the original texts. With this in mind H. has tried to correct the lack of discursive analysis criticized in his first book: his successful treatment of the elevated death scenes mentioned confirms that he would have enlightened more readers by systematically providing close analyses of pages or episodes. For the majority of students of Latin purely aesthetic criticism in this concentration is both indigestible (one cannot live on a diet of epithets) and frustrating: it needs to be combined, even at the cost of treating fewer texts, with detailed analysis of content, context or ideological implications.

At the end one should also ask what readers will miss if they are discouraged from tackling this book. They will miss asking themselves how and whether one should perform aesthetic criticism of past authors in the terms of their own age—is it really no longer right or possible to judge a classical text without the tools of Bakhtin (whose concept of dialog between genres would surely have been welcome and useful to H.) or Foucault or Derrida? They will miss making acquaintance and fruitful comparison of some magnificent texts, and lastly they will miss the panoramic view that can be derived from a broad brave sweep across the sublime heights and picturesque valleys of an immensely varied terrain. For this experience H. surely deserves a more sympathetic reading that will recognize both the difficulty and the value of his work.