Saturday, 27 September 2014

In Praise of Damnation - Satire VI

Salve Indignates!

Juvenal devotes an entire book (Book II) to the follies and crimes of women...or to be more accurate starts off with a harangue at the ills of marriage having heard that Postumus a friend of his is contemplating marriage. The guns are soon lowered on anything female in sight and we follow the satirists line of fire as he piles barrage upon barrage never failing to miss a target.

l. 63-4
'Tuccia vesicae non imperat'
Its a 661-line sustained attack on the ills of matrimony and by extension women in general and has often been written off as an extreme misogynist rant but there is more than meets the eye here.  Juvenal sends everything up and nothing seems sacred ;even the sacred rite of Bona Dea, an all women rite re-imagined as a license for orgy and the occasional man in drag as sexual invader, even to the classic stereotypical Roman images of the chaste pre-lapsarian Hesiodic country lass, all hairy boobs and munching acorns like the best of them, or the haughty moralistic matron mother of the Republican freedom fighters and latter Empire builders as well, figures which you would think his chauvinism would spare by way of contrasted models of feminine virtue.

But no, all fall under his merciless high epic cleaver and in the process undermining the vantage point of the misogynist itself and it is this that makes me sense that earlier readers (Dryden for one – who wondered what had happened to Juvenal that had turned him so much against all womanhood) and some moderns are mistaken if they take Juvenal or indeed his constructed persona of the outraged equestrian jade at face value branding him in the process as a class ‘A’ Gender-war-criminal. Perhaps this less enlightened, black and white view has tended to diminish as modern scholarship focusses more on the concept of the Juvenalian satiric persona and its role in the presentation and development of the satires.

Its worth reproducing a part of Dryden's Argument to the Sixth Satyr by way of illustration of the extent and limit of his understanding. Its very perceptive as far as it goes but Dryden still appears to miss the possibility that it could be a conscious effort rather than an accidental result on Juvenals/his constructed persona's part which results in the reverse of its ostensible aim, that of the denigration and damnation of womankind and all her works. The underlinings are my own.

l.481 'verberat atque obiter faciem linit'
' This Satyr, of almost double length to any of the rest, is a bitter invective against the fair Sex. 'Tis, indeed, a Common-place, from whence all the Moderns have notoriously stoln their Sharpest Raileries. In his other Satyrs, the Poet has only glanc'd on some particular women, and generally scourged the men. But this he reserved wholly for the Ladies. How they offended him I know not. But upon the whole matter he is not to be excus'd for imputing to all, the Vices of Some few amongst them. Neither was it generously done of him, to attack the weakest as well as the fairest part of the Creation: Neither do I know what Moral he could reasonably draw from it. It could not be to avoid the whole Sex, if all had been true which he alledges against them: for that had been to put an end to human Kind. And to bid us beware of their Artifices, is a kind of silent acknowledgement that they have more Wit than Men: which turns the Satyr upon us, and particularly upon the Poet, who thereby makes a Compliment, where he meant a libel. If he intended only to exercise his Wit, he has forefeited his judgement, by making one half of his Readers his Mortal Enemies: and amongst the Men, all the happy Lovers by their own Experience, will disprove his Accusations.'

So much for Dryden. I can wholeheartedly recommend you to read the whole of the Argument as well as his Englishing of the Satyr itself. It flows well and sparkles as it fills the glass, ageing into an extremely fine vintage.

 Satire VI starts off innocently enough with Juvenals credo of a time where chastity and simplicity existed on the earth before the silver age (Hesiods Arguron Genos the second of five ages of man), the time he tells us when the first adulteries took place, once the gods and the female divinities of chastity and modesty had fled the human world. The fact that it is a credo indicates that even this stock Alexandrian epyllonic mythic framing is already pretty suspect in Juvenals eyes and worth a quick sneer a la Johnny Rotten. Things go downhill pretty fast from there. Juvenal considers that his friend Postumus has gone mad and suggests some easier methods of self- destruction but Postumus counters that even the well-known gigolo Ursidius is getting hitched.

This is the blue touch paper for Juvenal and what ensues is a coruscating display of outrages in high epic style. Readers must have recognised many of the allusions, some of them pretty obvious such as Messalina, the wanton and debauched wife of Claudius with her clandestine part-time job at the brothels and stews of Rome by night, but others, although they must have raised a laugh amongst the in-crowd of the time, are somewhat lost to us. Actors, gladiators, dancers, lyre players, teachers of all things (god forbid!) Greek and other names and allusions to figures now obscured by the clouds of time add a touch of obscurity, no doubt compounded by the often corrupted text. The sections referring to gladiators (The 'O' Passage and l.370/373A-350) are particularly difficult to unpack and interpret.

 The translation I am reading (The Loeb translation of Susanna Morton Braund 2003 HUP), although quite often innovatively accurate fails in my opinion to catch of the double or even other layers of meaning hinted at throughout the text (I am thinking for example of the senators wife Eppia l.82 ff.  who prances about on deck copping a feel of the sailor boys hard ropes! L.101 haec inter nautas et prandet et errat per puppem et duros gaudet tractare rudentis).  Braund puts it more tamely as handling the rough ropes but for me this doesnt convey the full implication of duros.rudentis. But then again perhaps I am getting carried away again on an over inspired cloud of translucent chiffon! Juvenal can tend to do this to medont get me started on the many references to swords, practice posts and grunting of female wannabe Murmillones!

 Throughout VI, the satirist displays a mastery of rhetorical technical devices, literary allusions and socio-historical references which his educated audience must have revelled in and found levels of amusement which are regrettably lost to us. That notwithstanding, a lot of the force and majesty of the satire can still shine through and Juvenal uses a wide range of poetical and linguistic devices, alliteration, assonance, chiasmus and other clever arrangements which add colour and spice to this crushing bravura performance. The satire is so relentless and forceful that he takes things right to the possible limit of satireup to the ramparts where his indignation and disgust can find no more space in which to flail and the roadrunner he has run out of tarmac at the end of the satire and it squeals to an end with the terrible and debased image of the botched poisoning of a husband aided by a swift stab of steel ferrum est quod amant. It is no surprise then that he has to start off on a different tack with the next Satire having mined this vein to its roots.

l.76-7 'accipis uxorem de qua citharoedus Echion aut Glaphyrus fiat pater..'
There are interrogations to be made of this tour-de-force of savage indignation. Juvenal doesnt leave us with a definitive answer to the issue or a final judgement or any moral direction. It is effectively a catalogue of crimes with the cataloguer becoming the figure of satire himself by his over-excessive zeal, shooting himself in the foot where a potential model of feminine virtue presents itself.  Is it misogyny? Or perhaps Misogamy? Is there a difference? Can we usefully apply such a term with all of our modern baggage associated with the term? In other words what did misogyny mean to the ancients, (e.g. Semonides of Amorgos Poem VII)? Its interesting to contrast Semonides and his earlier iambic work, a more straightforward lambast of the types of women sent by Zeus to plague us blokes with Satire VI since it further underlines the level of sophistication of the latter work with all its crazy hyperbole and sustained rhetorical power riffing.

 By pushing the Satire to its limits and beyond and, as its perverse internal logic dictates, undermining its own theoretical foundations, has Juvenal escaped such accusations of mere misogyny? If this is plausible then can we in any way sympathise with him in his subtle praise by vitriolic yet ironic damnation? If his subtle conceit is successful, what in turn does that imply for the role and purpose of his particular form of satire? If there is no clear moral instruction on offer what can we expect to take away from a deeper reading of Satire VI?


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