PERSIUS: A STUDY IN FOOD, PHILOSOPHY AND THE FIGURAL

by Shadi Bartsch

Chicago (2015) h/b 260pp £35.00 (ISBN 9780226241845)

This highly readable study gives us a fresh view of the Roman satirist Persius, a writer whose work, composed during the reign of Nero, offers some of the most interesting (and difficult) Latin to have survived. His satires are dense, colloquial and pungent: full of striking imagery and wordplay and, above all, they come with a stark Stoic message: they are a mile away from the eclectic ‘committed to no school of thought’ of a Horace (Epistles 1.1.14) and closer to the fundamentalism of a poet like Lucretius.

Satire often plays with philosophy as part of the persona of ‘wise man’ looking benignly at the fools around him, with a nod towards Horace’s aim to ‘tell the truth with a smile’; but Persius interestingly does not take the route of presenting us with glowing imagery of the templa serena of wisdom, but seems more preoccupied with the vile bodies, the dirt and disgust, as the divine element in us is swallowed up by being attached to scelerata pulpa (2.64) – which B. nicely calls the ‘too too sullied flesh’ (p. 211).

There is controversy lurking behind all this which we also find in studies of Lucretius: is he a philosopher using verse or a poet using philosophy? If Stoics were so averse to emotional language and poetic decorative poikilia, why choose to write in verse at all? B.’s conclusion is that Persius has an ‘apotreptic’ aim to make us leave behind our feelings about the ghastly world of bodies, along with poetic cosmetic charm, and get into the real world of philosophy. In other words, Persius uses satire to put itself out of a job. If the reader is convinced by the venom and passion of his verse, then (s)he will throw away books of poetry like this and be a full-time Stoic.

Chapter one goes straight for the literary jugular—’cannibal poets’ who ‘eat’ their predecessors. Texts can be seen in this light as ‘a body of poetry’ to be consumed by others. Bad poets feed on each other and on the dismembered corpses of other poets’ work. You are what you eat—and Persius is keen to improve our poetic diet away from forcemeat and processed poetry/food towards his own vegetarian poetic, riper decoctius diet. B. discusses the term satura itself and sees it as a ‘mixed smorgasbord of foodstuffs’ (61), asking why Persius composed this sort of literary dogs’ dinner when he jibes at dogs’ dinners. B. answers that he could not use loftier genres to write what he wanted to describe (using Horace’s Ars Poetica as evidence of generic propriety): and what better form to embody this disgust of his than this alimentary art-form? Furthermore, his satura will be cooked properly and cure the stomach-ailments caused by (other poets’) bad poetry.

Chapter Two (‘Alternative Diets’) starts off with the famous passage in Plato’s Gorgias (465c) where cookery is equated with rhetoric as opposed to the ‘medicine’ of philosophy. Cooks aim to please, while doctors do not: the sweet is fake, while the truth hurts. B. gives us an exhaustive list (in an appendix) of medical prescriptions drawn from Pliny’s Natural History (including tasty remedies like children’s urine, hyena’s eyeballs, goat’s dung) which makes one thank the gods for the NHS. Persius’ work is good medicine: it is rough vegetables to keep us regular, rather than the grotesque literary sausages we generally consume.

Chapter 3 deals with sex, and here B. examines Satire 4: a curious poem largely based on the ps-Platonic Alcibiades and looking at the links between the pederast and the pedagogue: here we finally have something of a positive picture of the Stoic teacher Cornutus who apparently ‘straightened Persius out’. Chapter 4 returns to the ‘poet vs. philosopher’ argument with an examination of the famous imagery used by Lucretius to describe his verse as the ‘honey on the cup’ of philosophy and the way didactic verse seeks to be both utile and dulce. Persius is different: he tells us not to expect honey from him but acris iunctura. The journey is rough and so is the food.

Stoics, of course, mistrusted poetic metaphor and argued for what B. calls ‘language degree zero’ where there is a one-to-one correspondence of words and things (cf. Manilius 3.38-9). Poetry (such as Homer) could be salvaged as allegorical wisdom, but the audience of a Greek tragedy would need a Stoic guide to explain why and how the wise man deals with suffering, and even Plato presents the world as one of beauty and richness wrapped up in an elegant prose style: whereas Persius offers us the grim truth, devoid of charm.

The final chapter shows again how Persius does not lure us into Stoicism with attractive idylls of the wise man enjoying an enviable Zen-like state of ego-loss. The poet still keeps his focus on the scelerata pulpa, and lots of his material is deliberately shocking. B. looks again at cannibalism, seen as the ne plus ultra of excess (cf. Plato Republic 571c-d, quoted p. 202), and argues that for a Stoic sage to ‘eat some human flesh without gagging’ shows that you have ‘mastered a view of the world which is supremely rational’ (p. 206) and anyway (reason dictates) it is better than starving to death. Stoics can look at: ‘reeking breath, obese corpses, semen, ulcers, saliva, guts, mud, jaundice, gout and dropping hairy genitalia’ (207-8), rather as the good Epicurean can read the end of Lucretius 6 without losing his ataraxia. For Stoics such as Persius, as for Nietzsche (in Nietzsche contra Wagner Epilogue 2), tout comprendre, c’est tout mépriser and the poet neatly elides the need to be callidus with the Stoic growing of a callum (‘hide’) and becoming dispassionately ‘callous’. Appearances mislead, and value-laden statements built on them are shifting and unreliable. Seen thus, the poet gives us a world-view which debunks itself, and the ‘medicine’ which the poet offers is both something to be eaten and something to be ultimately discarded.

B. has given us a truly inspiring guide to a difficult poet, and her book is both astonishingly free of errors and remarkably hard to put down. Persius is not an easy bedtime read, but B. makes one see how rewarding he can be. B., like her subject, pulls no punches, and you might not give it to one’s maiden aunt or ten-year-old pupils: but then you would not give them Persius either. This fine book deserves to be widely read and to be put in all serious libraries where Latin is studied.

Dr John Godwin—Moreton Hall School, Oswestry

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