BMCR 1999.01.07

Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War

, Ideology in cold blood : a reading of Lucan's Civil War. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. 1 online resource (x, 224 pages). ISBN 0674020553. $45.00.

“This book is meant to unfold as a moment in time.” Bartsch’s bold new reading of Lucan aggressively foregrounds her highly individual synthesis of theory, and dares us to take issue; this is only the first sentence. What follows is a self-consciously “little book” with ambitions to punch beyond its weight. Talking to other Latinists since its release, I’ve found few who would venture to comment on it beyond a telling shrug or raised eyebrow; but there are big ideas here that won’t magically go away for being ignored. Libellus or not, this could be that elusive creature, an Important Book. I’m not, however, convinced that much of it works.

The crux: Bartsch sees two stories being played out in Lucan’s Civil War. There’s the plot: the sequence of events that make up its notional story. And there’s the ‘story’ of the narrating presence, the apostrophising voice(s) whose interventions in the text are so much remarked upon in scholarship. (Throughout Cold Blood, the reader is spared the jargon of narratology: a wise choice on the author’s part.) Bartsch reads these interventions within a very specific frame: for her, they enact a movement from apathetic cynicism to political choice, from spectatorship to engagement. It is with this particular movement that Bartsch primarily concerns herself. The result is a strongly felt book which makes no concessions to scholarly tact or reserve. Bartsch appears to accept that any reading is always already a political positioning:

“My reading of Lucan … , like his reading of Caesar and Pompey’s civil war, is a self-avowedly engaged one. It advocates a model of reading that I argue Lucan himself endorsed and that I enact by my necessarily tendentious interpretation of the poem.”

This is strong and personal stuff, calculated to infuriate suave middle-aged postmodernists in tweed.

Bartsch’s own perspectives and choices are generously signalled. So too is the path by which she comes to consider the big Lucanic questions, and it starts with a classic problem: Pompey. For Bartsch, the fudging on Pompey has gone on long enough. Calling his a confused characterisation is dodging any number of issues: ” something is happening to the figure of Pompey in this epic” (86).

This is process, not jumble. But it’s hard to read the something that is happening as moral evolution. Right from the start, the reader — and the narrator, and Cato — know that he is an utterly compromised figure, a hollow man. Quite late in the day, Pompey is keen to enlist the unutterably horrid Parthians to carry on the war he has already lost: not only is he no Stoic proficiens, for much of the time he’s not much of a human being. The more the narrator tells us to look up to Pompey, suggests Bartsch, the harder the poet makes it for us to do just that. He tells us one thing as he shows us another.

“That the narrator has taken up Pompey’s banner seems beyond doubt. The question we ask ourselves is why, and especially why in this fashion. Lucan has proved himself perfectly capable of historical distortion; why not produce a Pompey whose banner we too could take up? Why invent the Parthian episode, why not alter the slant of Ilerda, why make Pompey so unadmirable and yet resolutely refuse to acknowledge the character’s weaknesses?” (85)

The problem of Pompey for Bartsch is that the more insistently he is apostrophised as hero, as moral centre, the more clearly he is revealed by narrated events as moral vacuum. The paradox increases in intensity as his career approaches its end, until we have a Pompey who defies belief. Boldly, Bartsch valorises this paradox and builds strong claims upon it. She seeks to navigate between the two Lucans of modern scholarship — angry young man, playfully deconstructive arch- (and arch) ironist — to reach a radical centrist reading that addresses and redeems both sides of this schizophrenic received persona. Lucan the toe-dipping narrator moves from alienated impartiality to consciously-chosen partisanship, an act of self-fashioning in “the enactment of a political ‘will to believe'” (105).

It’s here, I think, that Ideology in Cold Blood runs into serious difficulties. There’s already a potential snag in that so much is predicated on a particular, arguably quite idiosyncratic reading of Pompey: personally, I feel it’s a perceptive reading that we can learn from, but clearly there’s room for disagreement. If you don’t think Pompey is the Problem, with a capital P, much of this won’t work as well as it might. But beyond that, it’s around this point that Bartsch’s mix of methodologies starts to creak under the strain. Too much has been hedged around: this is a book with Ideology in its title but not in the index. ‘Ideology’ is a useful term which can carry important meanings, but it’s also a fiercely contested one; and it’s not at all clear what Bartsch thinks it means. I suspect she’s working with a restricted and de-fanged model (no Marx, Engels or even Althusser in her bibliography) but she would have done well to lay her cards on the table at an early stage. This is snack theory, and ‘will to believe’ is Nietsche-on-a-bap.

These grouches aside, there’s much there that is good. Bartsch’s introduction provides a marvellously lucid and readable overview of Lucanic scholarship. Her first major chapter, ‘The Subject under Siege’, is terrific fun on the violation of the body in Lucan’s epic, although the psychologising on Book Nine’s snakes is glib (“Snakes, then, are a universal symbol of anxiety about boundaries”: 34) And in amongst the Wills to Believe is thought-provoking comment (123ff) on Lucan’s apparent sloppiness over et and nec. For Bartsch, Lucan’s uneasy substitutions aren’t a metrical convenience or a glitch, they parallel his x-for-y readjustments of the historical record:

“The poet forces us to make the necessary adjustments in meaning … Can we read without intervening? We cannot. … reading and choosing, for Lucan, is … necessary; and it is ironic in its knowledge of its own violence to the ‘facts’, such as they are.” (128-9)

Is Cold Blood worth your time? Probably; even if you don’t have the Will to Believe it (and I personally find it hard to do so), it’s an entertaining and often perceptive book. It suffers from insufficient proofreading, but the price is reasonable. Ultimately, I think Bartsch’s project fails, and in consequence her punchy conclusion comes across as arrogant, even laughable:

“This is the nature of action and ideology as Lucan endorses it, and as he enacts it in his poem and his life, and as he urges us to enact it also. ‘Recognize,’ he seems to be saying, ‘that the world as it is is not built for belief, for reason or ideology. But recognize, too, that withdrawal based on this knowledge is not the answer. Make your own beliefs, create your own truths, and take a stance. … Choose to make sense out of the world, and it will be yourself you save.'” (129-30)

But Bartsch’s insistence that we can have our cake and eat it on “political Lucan” and “ironised Lucan” (141), that we can — and should — read for spectacle and engagement, is a welcome step forward in reassessing the Bellum Civile as a ground-breaking and sophisticated piece of story-telling. It’s a refreshing change to encounter a non-schizophrenic Lucan, and Bartsch’s approach to reading his epic from a radical centre could signal a ‘third way’ for Lucanic scholarship. We can have both Lucans at once; whether or not we believe Bartsch’s reasons, it may be important that we should.