Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural

Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural

by Shadi Bartsch


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Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural by Shadi Bartsch

The Roman poet and satirist Persius (34–62 CE) was unique among his peers for lampooning literary and social conventions from a distinctly Stoic point of view. A curious amalgam of mocking wit and philosophy, his Satires are rife with violent metaphors and unpleasant imagery and show little concern for the reader’s enjoyment or understanding.

In Persius, Shadi Bartsch explores this Stoic framework and argues that Persius sets his own bizarre metaphors of food, digestion, and sexuality against more appealing imagery to show that the latter—and the poetry containing  it—harms rather than helps its audience. Ultimately, he encourages us to abandon metaphor altogether in favor of the non-emotive abstract truths of Stoic philosophy, to live in a world where neither alluring poetry, nor rich food, nor sexual charm play a role in philosophical teaching.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226241845
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Shadi Bartsch is the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago. She is the author, most recently, of The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire and coeditor of the Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca series, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural

By Shadi Bartsch

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24198-2


The Cannibal Poets

One of Persius' most striking conceits is that of the poem made flesh. This idea does not merely recycle the synesthetic metaphor (common in antiquity, as in the present) of poetic taste, but links fleshiness to particular kinds of poetry—the styles and genres that Persius despises and that he sets in opposition to his own satiric verse. Nor is he content to let the metaphor stop here, but pushes it to an extreme by suggesting that consuming such "bad" poetry, like stuffing ourselves with too much heavy meat, will render us dyspeptic to the point of possible death. The starting point for this conceit is not an unfamiliar one, since it relies upon a cluster of prior literary traditions: the treatment of literary texts as bodies, the idea that good literature could be "nourishing," and even the famous Horatian image of poetic words taken out of context as the "limbs of a dismembered poet" (Sat. 1.4.62). What Persius adds to the mix is the grotesque suggestion that reading bad poetry is akin to the worst and most savage kind of flesh-eating that can exist, cannibalism. If the path to this conclusion already lay open at the crossroads of the poem-as-food and the text-as-body, the idea of cannibalism remained up to his time all but untapped as the next step on the metaphorical road.

Persius develops his motif from an innocuous starting point in Horace's Ars poetica, whose injunctions on what is not decorous in poetry—precisely tales of human dismembering and consumption—he reworked to introduce a sharp contrast between his own "vegetarian" verse and his rivals' disgusting and inappropriate fare. Like Horace, Persius is concerned to distinguish between low and high genres of poetry and their content; unlike Horace, he systematically uses meat eating and cannibalism to demarcate the difference between humble satire and the loftier genres. The metaphor is evocative on many levels: cannibalism was not only the most degraded form of meat eating (and a possibility that lurked behind all consumption of animals, according to the reincarnation-preaching philosopher Pythagoras): the desire to engage in it was also Greek epic's ultimate expression of murderous hate, while the fact of having engaged in it provided the tragic denouement of several Greek dramas. The metaphor thus provided Persius with a genre-appropriate way of criticizing these literary forms in his own day while relying on cannibalism's native shock value to disgust his readers and reinforce his point: that only his own satires, and not the highfalutin' production of his peers, provided healthy foodstuff for consumption. And if poetry is food for men—whether they be vegetarian or carnivorous—then poetry can take on much of the metaphorical weight assigned to foodstuffs as a cultural element as well: it can work in a symbolic field that engages with the ethically charged ideas of greed, desire, sickness, self-control, health, and wisdom, all to make philosophical points about the value of poetry and its "consumption."

The analogy also provides Persius with a way to talk about poetic reception and poetic imitatio: do poets suffer from the anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom would have it, or can they simply consume the prior tradition and eliminate parts of it as waste while producing an entirely new concoction? Can they (as Seneca and others would so nicely put it) flit from work to work, drawing sustenance from each one but blending them together in their poetic bellies to create something both derivative and new, like honey from nectar? If so, of course, poets had better be careful of what they take in, in the search for good raw materials: pollen is one thing, and pork is another—and now we have come full circle back to meat and its various gastric effects. Meanwhile, what Persius himself consumed above all seems to have been the work of his satiric predecessor, Horace, turning his well-known texts into a startlingly new body of satires with a very different message. And so, to trace Persius' development of the elaborate sustaining metaphor of flesh-loving poets, we must return to his own sources for the figure, especially Horace's famous Ars poetica. If this poem begins by evoking the comparison of bad poetry to paintings of badly formed bodies, its eventual foray into questions of propriety, pleasure, and poetic inspiration allow Persius to borrow from it widely while formulating his own content for an "art of poetry." And while the Ars has little to say about cannibalism, it says just enough that Persius can regurgitate his predecessor in an entirely new form.

1. The Ars poetica and the Body of Verse

In their reception of Horace's Ars poetica, Persius' first and fifth satires re-evaluate one of the best-known texts of classical antiquity, a poem as well known as Persius' own are obscure. Horace's programmatic work functions as the main backdrop against which our satirist chooses to carve out his own programmatic path, and Persius' statements about poetry—both his own verse and that of his peers—borrow deeply from this treatise, echoing its language and its concerns even while transforming and reversing several key Horatian themes. While Horace's instructions for propriety in poetic composition purported to offer guidance to composers of the high genres of epic and tragedy, Persius reworks the Ars not to instruct other poets, but to condemn them, and to set himself up—like a new and irascible Horace—as the avatar of good taste. Accordingly, Persius does not offer us abstract rules in a witty guidebook, but counts on us to understand that his own verse constitutes the rebuttal to the deplorable poetry of his peers. In so doing, he selects and develops a set of analogies between poetry and bodies that he takes from Horace's work, where they play a limited role. In Persius' hands, however, they provide a jumping-off point for a new conceptualization of what a Roman satirist does and what his product represents. This transformation of Horace's imagery and purpose demands, first of all, that we turn back to Horace himself and the literary motifs of the Ars poetica.

The Ars poetica opens with a famous analogy between painting and poetry, a comparison already with long roots in Horace's day (AP 1–4):

Humano capiti ceruicem pictor equinam iungere si uelit et uarias inducere plumas undique collatis membris, ut turpiter atrum desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne, spectatum admissi, risum teneatis, amici?

If a painter wanted to join a horse's neck to a human head, and to draw multicolored plumage over a random collection of limbs, so that what was a gorgeous woman on top ended grossly in a black fish, could you stifle your laughter, friends, when let in to see?

These lines invite our mirthful reaction to an image that is most indecorous, one to be avoided at all costs: a hypothetical painting of a nonsensical and disunified body, a grotesquely chimeric creature that is bound to provoke ridicule in its viewers. But for all its ridiculousness, the image is in the service of an important point of doctrine, the linking of "art" and "unity"—which as Brink (1971, 78) notes, can be traced to Aristotle's Poetics. The point that Horace will draw is that as in painting, so too in poetry we must consider unity and its relation to propriety. For the painting's representation of a human head separated from its natural home and attached to a strange body serves as an analogy for the tasteless poem, a text whose parts (like those of the painting) are equally distanced from their correct and appropriate place (AP 5–8):

Credite, Pisones, isti tabulae fore librum persimilem, cuius, uelut aegri somnia, uanae fingentur species, ut nec pes nec caput uni reddatur formae.

Believe me, Pisos, that very similar to such a painting would be a book in which meaningless images are fashioned, like the dreams of a sick man, so that neither the foot nor the head could be restored to a single body.

Horace thus characterizes the bad writer's output as a badly jointed body whose form is so lacking poetic unity that its feet and heads cannot be attributed to a single shape. His focus on the abstract concept of the unity appropriate for composition and subject matter not only takes pride of place at the very opening to his poem, but finds expression in the concrete and negatively charged image of grossly repositioned human and animal body parts, whether in a painting or in a fever-ridden dream.

In their brief scope, these few lines already offer us a twist on two separate Platonic ideas in the Republic's critique of poetry: the philosophical injunction against poikilia, or excessive variety, in verse, and the use of the visual arts as analogous to poetry (i.e., "ut pictura poesis," which Horace brings in at AP 361). In Republic 10.605a, of course, the comparison of poetry to painting served to condemn both arts as illusory and at multiple removes from reality. But Horace is not concerned to develop the analogy, as Plato does, into a critique of the mimetic nature of the creative arts and of their capacity to deceive; instead, his injunction against inappropriate variety looks to the Platonic praise of the integral and well-assembled whole. Horace's analogy, in short, brings together painting, poetry, and the human body to suggest that there is a correct and natural form for all three, one in which their internal elements follow a natural order and fall into the appropriate place.

Horace's target is not just any librum, for already here the missing head and feet of the sick man's dream include a sly metapoetic reference that brings poetry and poetic meter into his critical purview. With the distorted limbs of the painting still in our mind's eye, Horace's comment on pes simultaneously calls up human feet and poetic "feet," and we can read the misplaced pes of the bad poem, the foot without a home, as a metric foot missing or put in the wrong place: the poetic, pictorial, and living body continue to reference each other in these prescriptions. In fact the metric-foot / human-foot pun was not an obscure one in Roman poetry; Ovid, for example, later used the same figure to describe his transition from writing epic hexameters to amatory elegiac couplets. According to his claim in Amores 1.1, Cupid stole a foot from every other line of his would-be martial poem, thus forcing a change of genre to elegy—in effect, hobbling his martial hexameter march—and making short work of his grand ambitions (Amores 1.1.1–4). In Horace, however, the missing foot of the poetic text leads to nothing so cleanly transitional as epic's metamorphosis into the body of elegy. Instead, an aesthetics of inappropriate segmentation and misguided jointings sets the terms in which Horace describes the poetic counterpart to the tasteful composition. Strikingly, his opening gambit has twice rung the changes on dismemberment, both in the opening idea of membra put together (cf. iungere in AP 2) badly and in the subsequent image of a headless and footless body.

Persius will pick up this Horatian metaphor, so closely identified with propriety and the Ars poetica, and develop it into the major programmatic theme of his own aesthetic program. Of course, in so doing, he is not only modifying the Horatian intertext but looking to earlier usages of the notion of the "body" of the text. This metaphor belonged to a well-worn classical tradition of comparing the integrity of a literary work with that of the bounded and organic human form. In what is possibly the earliest example of this comparison, Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus compares the body of an oration to the organic whole of the human body, which needs to have all its parts in the right place (264c). The conceit endured down to Persius' era and beyond; it was popular in Roman rhetorical handbooks, which used corpus, membra, articuli, and even sanguis to refer to the sections of an oration (cf. Rhet. Her. 4.58). By the late Roman republic and early empire, the figure had become pervasive in both rhetoric and poetic theory, recurring in Cicero, Ovid, Quintilian, and others. Features of the body could even be used as metaphors for style: Tacitus, for example, remarked that a beautiful oration, like a body, should not be marked by protruding veins and bones that can be counted (Dial. 21.8), and Persius himself repeatedly depicts the body of poetry as the blemished body of a human. In satire 1, for example, we meet in short succession both "the veiny book of Accius" (1.76) and "Pacuvius and his warty Antiope" (1.77–79). Perhaps most famously, Horace himself in satire 1.4 remarks of his own and Lucilius' linguistic register that if the meter and composition were taken away from their satires, there would be no sign that the text was in fact poetry; in the subsequent mass of verbiage, one would not find even the limbs of a dismembered poet, the disiecti membra poetae (Sat. 1.4.160–63). As Kirk Freudenburg (1993, 148) has pointed out, the metaphor buried in the phrase is a deliberately violent one: "To dissolve the contexture of verse is to 'butcher' the poet" (perhaps itself not an unfamiliar notion, given the story of Orpheus' dismemberment at the hands of angry maenads.) Already in Horace, then, the metaphor has been put to a new use. To do metaphorical violence to the human body within a tradition that analogizes text and body functions is to make a metapoetic claim about decorum, unity, and intertextuality in a way that leaves lingering, in the background, unsavory afterimages of metaphorically segmented human—even poets'—bodies.

Persius' specific use of the Ars poetica as his main referent relies on this Horatian innovation. In fact, the Ars poetica goes further than we have yet seen in developing the conceit, for Horace gestures toward a new direction for the metaphor by eventually turning to literal examples of human dismemberment, borrowed from the gruesome case histories of mythology. When later in the Ars he addresses the nature of subjects inappropriate to the comic stage, he returns to the idea of the dismembered body by citing its most famous mythological manifestation (AP 89–92).

Versibus exponi tragicis res comica non uult; indignatur item priuatis ac prope socco dignis carminibus narrari cena Thyestae.

Comedy doesn't want to be presented in tragic verses. Likewise, the feast of Thyestes is indignant at being told in domestic language nearly worthy of the comic slipper.

Thyestes' feast involves not only the dismemberment of human bodies, but also their use as food. And the injunction against showing Thyestes' "feast"—the consumption of his children, served up to him in a stew by his brother Atreus—is stressed when Horace returns to the story of the house of Pelops a hundred lines later. This tale, he says, is not only unsuited to the comic stage, it is unsuited to any stage, because, like other stories that involve human slaughter or human metamorphosis, it is inappropriate as public spectacle (AP 185–87).

Ne pueros coram populo Medea trucidet, aut humana palam coquat exta nefarius Atreus, aut in auem Procne uertatur, Cadmus in anguem.

Medea should not slaughter her boys with people present, nor abominable Atreus cook human guts publicly, nor Procne be turned into a bird, Cadmus into a snake.

Medea, Atreus, Procne, and Cadmus together exemplify transitions from life to death, from human flesh to dinner meat, from person to animal. Horace has returned to the opening image of bodies undergoing strange metamorphoses—the human horse-bird-fish, the forms without heads and feet—but here the hybrid creature has changed from a metaphor for impropriety to the improper subject matter itself, and literal cannibalism has been introduced as that which the stage should not show. In AP 40 we find yet another version of this ban on anthropophagy when Horace reminds us that a play "should not extract a living child from the stomach of the ogress, Lamia, after she has dined" ("neu pransae Lamiae uiuum puerum extrahat aluo"). Since Lamia is a half-woman half-serpent who eats other people's children, she provides a particularly handy shorthand for all that is taboo in good poetry: human metamorphosis, hybridity, and cannibalism.

The Ars poetica's teachings on propriety, then, touch on several interrelated themes that span the literal and the metaphorical. Figuratively, Horace opens with misplaced and missing limbs in order to populate a repeated metaphor for what epic and tragic poetry should avoid: lack of unity, purple passages, the grotesque. On the literal level, he informs us that certain kinds of subject matter have no place in tragedy, especially those related to the mutilation or consumption of the human body. Finally, when he mentions characters such as Thyestes or Lamia, their consumption of human body parts sets up a suggestive but underplayed parallel with the mutilation and rearrangement of the poetic text. This parallel is strengthened via the Horatian intertext from satire 1.4, where Horace ties the body of poetry to the body of a (previously whole) human, so that it is hard to read of compositions lacking feet and heads (in the AP) or torn-apart poets (in Sat. 1.4) and not think, in turn, of Thyestes' children themselves, mistakenly consumed by their father because Atreus cut off their feet and their heads to render them unrecognizable.


Excerpted from Persius by Shadi Bartsch. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part I: Cannibals and Philosophers

Chapter 1: The Cannibal Poets
1. The Ars poetica and the Body of Verse
2. Consuming the Poets
3. A Discourse on Digestion
4. The Echoing Belly

Chapter 2: Alternative Diets
1. Satire’s Decoction
2. The Philosopher’s Plate
3. Madness, Bile, and Hellebore
4. The Mad Poet

Chapter 3: The Philosopher’s Love
1. The Seduction of Alcibiades
2. The Philosopher-Sodomite
3. Cornutus and the Stoic Way

Part II: The Metaphorics of Disgust

Chapter 4: The Scrape of Metaphor
1. The Pleasures of Figure
2. The acris iunctura
3. The Maculate Metaphor
4. A Stoic Poetics

Chapter 5: The Self-Consuming Satire
1. Satire’s Shifting Figures
2. Shins and Arrows
3. The Return of the Cannibal
4. Mind over Matter

Appendix: Medical Prescriptions of Decocta for Stomach Ailments or Other Problems
Reference List

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