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Writing For Readers, Reading for Writers

by: Douglas Winspear

April 2007

Douglas Winspear is also a painter of Dreamscapes and photographer.

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And finally, I’d like to recommend a book which I am presently re-reading, The Satyricon, by Petronius. I’m reading the translation by William Wordsworth, “the brilliant classical scholar”, as the dust jacket blurb proclaims; and I am inclined to agree. He’s rendered this classic from the days of Nero’s Rome into American vernacular, and has captured the wit and humor of the great satirist, or satyrist, to complete the pun. I’ll give you this little description, from the introduction, by the historian Tacitus:

“The case of Gaius Petronius deserves further brief mention. He spent his day in sleeping, his nights in work and the enjoyment of life. That success which most men achieve by dint of hard work, he won by laziness. Yet unlike those prodigals who waste themselves and their substance alike, he was not regarded as either a spendthrift or a debauchee, but rather as a refined voluptuary. Indeed, his words and actions displayed such apparent casualness and unconventional freshness that people found them all the more charming. Nonetheless, as governor of Bithynia and soon afterwards as consul, he proved himself a capable and energetic administrator.    Upon later reverting to a life of vie (or of apparent vice), he was admitted as effective arbiter of taste into the select circle of Nero’s intimates. No imperial pastime or entertainment which lacked Petronius’ approval could be regarded as either elegant or luxurious. And so Tigellinus, jealous of a rival whose expertise in the science of pleasure far surpassed his own, appealed to the emperor’s cruelty (Nero’s dominant passion) and accused Petronius of friendship with the conspirator Scaevinus. A slave was bribed to incriminate Petronius; no defense was permitted and most of the prisoner’s household was placed under arrest.”
     “At the time the emperor was in Campania. Petronius had gone as far as Cumae when he was apprehended. The prospect of temporizing, with its attendant hopes and fears, seemed intolerable; equally he had no desire to dispatch himself hastily. So he severed his veins and then bound them up as the fancy took him, meanwhile conversing with his friends, not seriously or sadly or with ostentatious courage. And he listened while they talked and recited, not maxims on the immortality of the soul and philosophical reflections, but light and frivolous poetry. He then rewarded some of his slaves and assigned beatings to others. He dined and then dozed so that his death, even though compulsory, might still look natural. Nor did he adopt the conventional deathbed routine of flattering Nero, Tigellinus, and the other worthies. Instead, he wrote out a list of the emperor’s debaucheries, citing by name each of his sexual partners, male and female, with a catalogue of his sexual experiments, and sent it off to Nero under seal. He then destroyed his signet ring so that it could not be used later for the purpose of incriminating others.”

I admit that I found myself often laughing out loud as Petronius followed the misadventures of a couple of hustler/academics through the orgy circuit in Rome. It’s a pity that we’re only left with fragments of the original, and the book leaves the readers literally hanging. But, as far as lampooning the decadence and pretensions of Rome, Petronius is a master wordsmith. And, upon reading this book, one realizes that decadence isn’t only found within the banquet halls of the nouveau riche. One can see the parallels with the end of the Roman Empire and the present Anglo-American Empire. And for those readers who’ve already seen Fellini’s version, I would suggest that you read the book. Fellini’s Satyricon, like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, are only loosely based upon the originals, which in many ways are impossible to transform to the screen. Particularly in the case of Satyricon, for Petronius mixes a variety of styles brilliantly, while maintaining the thin thread of narrative. I’d like to end this little book review with quotes from the character of Eumolpus, who is introduced as a shabbily dressed poet, given to spouting verse and being stoned by an unappreciative mob. As it turns out, even the poet isn’t what he seems, but is another hustler and opportunist. At one point he launches into a poetic screed on the decline of Rome, in the epic style of Homer, the cherished poet of Greco-Roman antiquity. And as one reads this offering from the character Eumolpus, one can’t help but see the similarity with our contemporary empire, which like Rome, had once been a republic. I will end with a few snippets from the poet’s lament.

“Say merchant; you’re talking of money,
Say soldier, and valor is sold
Good money’s the gigolo’s meaning
The toady’s lies are gilded with gold”,
“Lord and master of the world, our Roman stood supreme,
On land, on sea, and where the daystar dawned and
But unappeased. Everywhere his cargo keels
Swirled the marble water white; but if beyond, unknown,
some landfall lay, some shore touched to amber by the
blaze of gold,
Rome called it foe, Rome dealt it fate, Through war to
We hacked our way,
                                        Boredom and greed
                                                                             Old pleasures palled,
Decayed. Attrition of dirty hands, pawing soiling,
And the savors eroded, the bloom of goodness rubbed away.
Vulgarity by plenty spawned.
Plunder of boredom born…
                              At Corinth, soldiers of Rome,
Gaping connoisseurs of bronze, collectors of antiques,
And the gashed earth bleeding:
                                                            The red rocks ripped away
The marbles, the rare, the rose, the porphyries pried up;
Peers of ocean’s purple.
                                        And the plunder:
                                                                        Numibia a waste;
Desert through Cashmere, the splendid fleeces shorn away
Arabia ravished, the spices scattered.
                                                                            Rome rampant
On a victim world.
                                        New shapes of slaughter everywhere,
Peace a pool of blood…..”
“Hunters, hawkers of death. And the market for murder at
Fangs in demand. At sea sheer hunger prowls the ships;
On silken feet the sullen tiger pads his gilded cage,
Crouches at Rome, and leaps! And the man, gored and
While the crowd goes wild.
                                        I see the shame, unspeakable
The shame of Rome, the shape of doom to come….”
“…Or find the story in a table told:
a plank of citronwood, this limed and blonded board
chopped from Africa, this whorled and gold-knotted
whose every lovely blemish makes its gold comparisons
seem vile, snaring the senses, reflecting in its sheen
that slick, expensive glow, a society of slaves,
parvenus in purple and the raffish rabble guests,
drowned in drink: a barren and ignoble board,
for which the Roman sack the world with steel,
caterers of greed.”
                              “….At Rome
rottenness, power garbled with gold.
                                                            Quirites of cash,
Romans bought by the sellers of sops, and the golden rain,
Staining the ballots yellow.
                                        The people, the Senate corrupt,
Senatus Romanus,
                                        Turned auctioneer, bidder for a fee,
Consulta for cash. And freedom lies withered in nerveless
While the elders grabble for gold….”

In closing, I would like to reassure any potential readers of Petronius, that most of his book is light and breezy, much like Tacitus’description of his death. The book jacket called him “Rome’s most cultured cynic.” I didn’t find his tone cynical in the sense that we often employ the term. Petronius had a healthy tolerance for human foibles which one doesn’t associate with the label of “cynic.” When reading Satyricon, we get a better understanding of decadence than is dished out in textbook Roman histories. For most of us, Roman decadence conjures up images of endless orgies, vomitoriums, and blood sports in the Circus Maximus- gladiatorial combats, Christian being thrown to the lions, etc. Bread and circuses has been the cornerstone of empire throughout history. We tend to overlook, particularly in our own desperately escapist culture of celebrity worship and consumerist nihilism, the corruption of the intellectuals, who’ve become the fawning sycophants to power, the obfuscators, and defenders of the indefensible. Much of that can be attributed to the coarsening effect that militarism has on an empire that spreads destruction and chaos in the name of democracy and security. In Satyricon, Petronius cleverly conveys how ideas and philosophies can become coin of the realm. I’d like to wrap up this little foray into decadence and its discontents by returning to the original topic of this paper, which is books. And, in the interest of fairness and balance, as our contemporary media hacks would say, I’ll leave you with a quote from the Sung Dynasty poet, Yang Yang Wan-li:

Don't Read Books

Don't read books!
Don't chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,
leaving the bare sockets.

When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.

People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
but if your lips constantly make a sound like an insect
chirping in autumn,

you will turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don't turn into a haggard old man,
it's annoying for others to have to hear you.

It's so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.

It's beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,

take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you're tired go to sleep.”

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