BMCR 2004.09.40

The Taste for Nothingness. A Study of Virtus and Related Themes in Lucan’s Bellum Civile

, The taste for nothingness : a study of Virtus and related themes in Lucan's Bellum civile. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. viii, 158 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472113100 $60.00.

Radical traditionalism most concisely describes both Sklenár’s (S.) methodological approach to the Bellum Civile and the poetics that he ascribes to its author. He agrees with the modern communis opinio that the poem’s universe is ‘chaotic, fragmentary, and ultimately meaningless’ (p.1) but differentiates his approach — as any book justifying its existence must — by rejecting the idea that Lucan produces a mimesis of this chaotic universe in a chaotic poem. Rather, he argues, Lucan’s nihilism is depicted clearly, precisely and logically; that is, the medium has nothing in common with the matter it describes. The other principal plank of S.’s approach — presumably related, though the link is not explicitly made — is close-reading, which he claims has been neglected in recent as well as older scholarship. The more precise focus of the study is on ‘the chaos of moral terminology, especially of virtus‘ (p.12), and this is structured around three chapters on, respectively, minor characters (the Massilia episode, Vulteius, Curio and Scaeva), Cato, and Pompey and Caesar, in which the characters’ interface with ‘epic’ or ‘Roman’ — the distinction between the terms is not always clear — and ‘Stoic’ virtus. On one level, the close reading approach works well and numerous interesting insights are generated. The book is less successful in its more ambitious aims of providing a new insight into Lucanian poetics or his depiction of virtus.

Close reading is without question a major feature of the book. Virtually the whole monograph consists of discussions of passages, which are quoted, often at length, and which constitute a considerable proportion of the total text. As has been said, and as will be shown below in discussion of individual chapters, many interesting insights arise from this analysis. However, it is difficult not to feel that too many are of the kind which an intelligent reader might, without too much research, generate for herself while reading Lucan’s text. Moreover, understandable though it is for an author to insist on the uniqueness of his own approach, it seems unjust to accuse recent Lucan scholars, Masters, Leigh, and even the Urvater of the Anglophone Lucan revival himself, Ahl, of neglecting close reading.1 Indeed there are places where S. seems guilty of reading less closely than these forebears. For example, the discussion of Caesar’s clementia to the Pompeians at Ilerda (pp. 140-4), though it does partially confront Masters’ provocative stance that the text is here ‘pro-Caesarean’, lacks the detail, the insight and the allusive, almost Oedipal playfulness with which Masters challenges Ahl on the subject and Leigh Masters.2

In terms of the overarching themes, S.’s ideas are good. That Lucan depicts chaos without imitating it, though perhaps less exciting than the Hendersonian model which S. rejects,3 is nevertheless credible and interesting. However, it was a little disappointing that the case for it was not made more clearly, strongly or consistently throughout the body of the argument. Perhaps it is sufficient to demonstrate the poet’s careful and methodical approach by carefully and methodically discussing his depiction of virtus throughout the epic. However, against what has become the new, and a compelling, orthodoxy, one would hope for a more explicit and forceful case to be made for what is, after all, one of the principal theses of the book. The emphasis on nihilism, that the poem explicitly and consistently denies the existence of order and specifically Stoic order in the universe, is more successful. This is most notably so in the sections on Cato (ch. 3 passim) and Pompey (pp. 106-27), where the one’s attainment of Stoic virtus and the other’s partial and intermittent progress towards it are both shown to be meaningless in a non-Stoic cosmos. Again, however, this interesting idea that, to paraphrase the title of chapter three, goodness is futile in an evil universe does not always cohere with the generally more conventional depictions of distortions of epic and Stoic virtus.

Chapter 1, ‘Lucan the Nihilist’, sets out S.’s agenda and provides neat readings of a number of cosmological passages to prove the aptness of the title, before adding the issue of linguistic instability. Ch. 2, ‘The Paladins of Decadence’, reclaims decadence as a desirable and self-consciously pursued ideal, with a nod to that devoted Lucanian and decadent, Huysman’s des Esseintes. There follows a detailed discussion of passages relating to virtus at the battle of Massilia and the aristeiai of Vulteius, Curio and Scaeva. This discussion contains many fine readings, notably the paralleling of Curio’s relationship to Aeneas with Lucan’s to Virgil (p. 44) and the idea that Scaeva fighting an army represents the epic quality of the poem fighting the historical (p. 51). However, it often seems rather too vague about terminology for an argument specifically about the usage of language. The epic tradition is presented as a rather monolithic entity, despite an excellent paralleling of the debunking of the heroic code by Lucan and by Homer’s Achilles. (pp. 33-4 on Luc. 4.575-81 and Hom. Il. 9.318-20). While it might be convincingly argued that Lucan constructs a monolithic idea of epic (which never existed) in order to react against it, this is not the same as using ‘epic’ and ‘Iliadic’ freely and loosely. This looseness is even more disturbing when Roman qualities are described unproblematically by Homeric epithets, as in ‘the two usages of virtus are … Stoic and Iliadic’ (p. 33) and ‘(Iliadic) love of death in battle’ (p. 56).

The chapters on Cato (‘The Futility of Goodness’) and on Pompey and Caesar (‘ Aemula Virtus‘) are more consistently successful, albeit with the reservations which I have already set out. The depiction of Cato falters slightly during the episode of the snakes, but the reading of him as a good man in a bad world and therefore absurd is a strong one. Likewise, the synkrisis of Pompey and Caesar works very well. The discussion of the notoriously difficult katasterism of Pompey (pp. 126-7) does not quite succeed, but it is not alone in the history of readings of that passage. Caesar’s impiety in tree-felling at Massilia would have benefited from comparisons with Callimachus’ and Ovid’s Erysichthon. Indeed, for a book which so often refers to perversions of the epic tradition, there is surprisingly little on intertextuality, but perhaps I am committing the reviewer’s cardinal sin of criticising a book for not being what it is not intended to be.

No scholar can read everything, but it does seem a particular shame that S. has not come across Elaine Fantham’s article in the (apparently no longer publishing but still online) web journal Arachnion, specifically on the subject of virtus in Lucan and Statius.4 More generally, the argument seems sometimes to fall between the two stools of lacking engagement with the critical tradition but then being over-dependent for a stretch on one forebear, as on Ahl for the section on Curio (pp. 34-45). On the other hand, the preface does explicitly state that other works have come independently to the same conclusions as S.’s thesis, since its submission in 1996, and that they will more often be cited on points of disagreement than of common ground which has gained currency. Moreover, the emphasis on close reading, with its ‘back to the text’ implications, might justify an approach less bound up in existing scholarly debates. For all that, there are places when a little more texture, for want of a better word, and engagement with its forebears would have strengthened the argument.

The book is very well-presented and the use of the line fading into ‘nothingness’ in both the title page and as a divider between text and notes is a nice touch. Only two small oddities stand out, which would doubtless not perturb a less quibbling reader. The shunning of ‘ibid.’ might be a press policy but leads to the occasional unsightly pair of identical footnotes (e.g. 110, nn.8 and 9). The presentation of quotations in footnotes as if they were in the text, indented, prefaced with the unnecessarily verbose ‘Luc. 6.100-103 ( vel sim.) reads,’ with line-breaks and a line-space before and after, seems a waste of space and prompts the question whether a passage which merits extended quotation also merits a place in the text. The provision of an index locorum is welcome, if almost mandatory in a book so founded on close reading. However, to quibble with the press for the final time, when space forbids separate columns for line and page references, the printing of one or other in bold would be an immense aid to the bleary-eyed reader.

Proofing is excellent and I only noticed two small typos in the Latin: on p.37 eriere has lost its initial p, and onme is printed for omne in line 2 of the quote on p.43. I was uncertain about the phrasing of ‘Lucan’s aversion from the traditional divine machinery of epic’ (p.46) and ‘stipulating to the terms of that debate’ (p.141), where respectively ‘abandonment of’ and ‘subscribing to’ might have been clearer, but language is an evolving entity and I quibble again. Finally, though the preface promises translations for all Latin outside the footnotes, ‘save where the discussion contains so close a paraphrase as to make translation redundant’ (p. vii) — an excellent policy when dealing with a very difficult poet — there were a number of passages lacking both translation and close paraphrase, where the Latinless (or Lucanless, which is not necessarily the same thing) reader might struggle.

The Taste for Nothingness is full of fascinating readings of many passages of the Bellum Civile and it is on these grounds that it can most thoroughly be recommended. In particular, the reader who is new to Lucan will find the application of the critical tools which have developed over the last thirty years to large portions of the text very useful. The larger ideas which it sets out are also of considerable interest, even if the arguments which set out to back them up are not always entirely successful. This is a good book but one which unfortunately can only suffer in comparison with some of the outstanding work which has been done on Lucan in those same last thirty years.


1. Masters, Jamie (1992) Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (Cambridge); Leigh, Matthew (1997) Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement (Oxford); Ahl, Frederick M. (1976) Lucan. An Introduction (Cornell). The charge might more justly be levelled against Johnson, W.R. (1987) Momentary Monsters. Lucan and his heroes (Cornell), as Masters also notes in his preface (p. xiii), and Bartsch, Shadi (1997) Ideology in Cold Blood. A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War (Harvard).

2. Ahl (1976) 192-7; Masters (1992) 78-90; Leigh (1997) 53-67.

3. Henderson, J.G.W. (1988) ‘Lucan/The word at war’ in Boyle, A.J. ed. The Imperial Muse. Ramus essays on Roman Literature of the Empire, to Juvenal through Ovid (Berwick) 122-64.

4. Fantham, Elaine (1995) ‘The ambiguity of Virtus in Lucan’s Civil War and Statius’ Thebaid‘, Arachnion. A Journal of Ancient Literature and History on the Web, nr. 3.