Friday, October 16, 2009

The Problematic Turbot.

Like many folks, I really like Juvenal. Disavowing all scholarship for a moment, I think he's just plain funny. Sometimes that's overlooked in favour of this or that kind of analysis, but I think it's essential to never let slip from one's mind the great humour involved in his satires.

I'd be stretched to pick a favourite satire, but I have read satire IV recently (we have no titles, so satire IV is the proper name, and it's been given many titles, but essentially it's about the problem posed by a rather big fish), and I think it's wonderful. (an English version of the satire is available here).

The story goes that an enormous fish has been caught, and by nature of it's size,it must be presented to the Emperor as a gift. However, once it's been delivered it poses a unique problem: how to cook a darn fish so big! In the hope of finding a solution a council is called among the members of Domitian's court. They debate about what do do (they can't cook it whole - it's too big!) and so the final decision is to at once manufacture a new and unusually large vessel so that it may be cooked whole.

The essential thrust of the tale is a satire of the Imperial court and the sycophants that reside within it (not to mention those who wish to be in it). Juvenal tells how that when such an enormous fish was caught even the "shores were crowded with informers" and so who could do anything with the monster fish other than present it to the Emperor.

Once the fish has been rushed to the Emperor with all haste, a council is formed in order to decide how to cook it. Courtiers of Domitian then discuss it at length, even considering it an omen of victory, before deciding to create a special vessel for it to be cooked in.

TThe central absurdity of a council being called in order to decide how best to cook a fish and the clamouring of the members of that council to honour their Emperor is what makes the satire so funny. A fish? A giant fish? Is that really the stuff of a state council? Under the Emperors, it is, says Juvenal.

One of my favourite elements of the satire is a play on words. In the opening section Juvenal says:

"No bad man can be happy: least of all the incestuous seducer with whom lately lay a filleted priestess".

The world "fillet" in Latin is "vitta", which is the term for a particular piece of head wear worn by the Vestal Virgins (priestesses) and the cut of fish (linked meanings, I'm guessing). The dual meaning of "fillet" in both the religious apparel and applied to the priestess who lay with the seducer makes for a devilish joke. A reminder that Juvenal, and satire more generally, is at first funny, and we should not become lost in scholarship.

A familiar theme is at work in this satire, as in many of Juvenal's satires. Rome has become clogged with sycophants - she is losing the qualities that made her great to begin with.

Many modern scholars believe satire was often written under the guise of a dramatis personæ (see Kernan, Anderson and Braund), that is to say that the satirists put on different "masks" and that the viewpoint that underlies each satire is not necessarily the one held by the writer (there is a bit of debate of course, but it's an interesting notion). What mask, then, is Juvenal wearing in this satire? Generally speaking the satires could be considered very funny but grumpy and conservative, and so this character may be the one adopted by Juvenal.

Is Juvenal adopting this "mask" in satire IV? I'm not sure to be honest. I have a thought though - we have so little evidence on the life of Juvenal, but there is some agreement among the information that we do have that he was exiled for a period perhaps for insulting an actor who had a high standing in the Imperial court. To ponder that for a moment - is it possible (real) Juvenal had a grudge against sycophantic courtiers, and that this satire is not performed entirely by a dramatis personæ but by a rather pissed off Juvenal himself, mask free (or at least letting it slip)? Maybe.

The thought that this dramatis personæ may have been quite transparent to ancient readers but a kind of mystery to us makes me laugh. Could it be possible that in 2000 years people will watch Ali G, Borat or Bruno and be wonder if they are "masks" worn by a hidden performer or if they are genuine? I'd like to think so.

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