Kenneth Reckford, Recognizing Persius. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 240. ISBN 978-0-691-14141-1. UK£30.95.
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.
In his acknowledgements Reckford dedicates his book to Charlotte Orth who ‘has done [him] the honor of believing that [he] could transcend [his] academic persona and become, or try to become, more of a person’ (pp. ix f.). For me as a student of satire and especially of Persius over many years, what Reckford achieves in this book is to allow Persius to transcend his Stoic persona and finally become a person. ‘We see that he knows his, and our, limitations better than most, but that he is resolved, all the same, to become a real person, a genuine human being’ (p. 160).
The prologue to the book (pp. 1-15) is aptly named ‘In search of Persius’. Reckford explains that the title is deliberately ambiguous, since while he himself is ‘tracking this elusive, especially private author through and even beyond the text’ (p. 4) it seems that Persius ‘was no less in search of himself’ and refers the reader to Persius’ education under the Stoic philosopher Cornutus. Reckford’s discussion of Persius mastering ‘the tricky rule of reason under Cornutus’ tutelage’ (5.37-40) and the energy spent on assuming the artificial face of a persona instead of just to be oneself (p. 5) leads to his conclusion that although Persius’ poetry is ‘infused with Stoic concepts and values’, it is not didactic and it is misleading to call him a Stoic poet. ‘Persius conveys a powerful new sense of sincerity, joining the intense seriousness of Stoic intentionality with an equally powerful humor that strips away pretention, acknowledges limitation and failure, and tests the practical realization of integrity and spiritual freedom’ (p. 9).
In discussing (and defending) the notorious difficulty of Persius’ poetry (pp. 9-11), Reckford refers to ‘cycles’ (p. 12) in postmodernist theory and criticism, then focuses on reader-response, reader- reception, and especially performance theory (pp. 12f.) arguing that, despite all the ‘difficulties’, one should read Persius’ Satires aloud (as they were meant to be) in order to recover ‘the pleasure of the performance, the delight that balances out pain, the old-and-new jouissance that initiates us into the company of Persius’ listeners and admirers over the centuries’ (p. 13). Throughout the book Reckford develops aspects of performance theory in Persius’ poetry.
The prologue ends with the plan and ‘main directions and concerns’ (p. 14) of the book which is a revised version of the Martin Classical Lectures that Reckford presented at Oberlin College in 1999.
In Chapter 1, ‘Performing Privately’ (pp. 16-51), Reckford focuses on Satire 1 and the theme of performance. He points out that satire was usually performed for a sympathetic audience of friends and allies before circulation or publication. But Persius, facing a world that is increasingly hostile to free and honest speech, gives a private non-performance by speaking into the secret ‘hole’ of his book (p. 17).
Persius’ theme is human folly. With the aid of an interlocutor, he (in the typical tradition of a prologue satire) answers to the questions ‘who am I? In what genre am I writing, and why, and for whom?’ (p. 19). But since satire is offensive there is also a hint at a warning (also well established in the satiric tradition) when the interlocutor asks ‘Who will read this?’ The warning will be made more explicit later. Reckford interprets the opening lines of the satire in the traditional way of editors and commentators, but also offers a different reading: Persius brings himself (and the reader) into a passionate, intense inner dialogue, by shutting out the public; he cannot afford to be distracted by inane concerns, doubts and warnings and expectations, even if perhaps two or perhaps no-one, will read his book. But Recford argues that if we listen, Persius will explain himself; by the end of the satire ‘his no will turn to yes, and he will define his satiric aims . . . and even his wished-for audience’ (p. 21).
In the rest of the chapter Reckford introduces his reader to performing satire in Lucilius (pp. 25-31) and Horace (pp. 32- 39) before discussing (what Reckford calls) three bad performances in Satire 1 (pp. 39-46) of which (even though an interlocutor is involved) much is still Persius ‘holding converse with himself, confronting his own very natural poetic ambitions with harsh Stoic realism’ (p. 41). The passages chosen by Reckford are strong satire and devastating criticism of contemporary poetry but ‘justify Persius’ stubborn isolation, his refusal to look outside himself for evaluation or approval’ (p. 47).
But then he ‘returns to the colors’ (pp. 46-51) and by the end of his satire offers ‘a new account of satiric meaning, purpose and audience’ (p. 47) when (with reference to the story of Midas) he reveals his secret that everybody in Rome has the ears of an ass. He returns to the tradition of Athenian Old Comedy and his predecessors Lucilius and Horace, claiming for himself a reader with cleansed ears -- ‘nobody, or almost nobody, who is willing to hear the truth that the satirist must voice’ (p. 51). Reckford argues that to hear Persius, the reader should read him aloud, ‘re- performing his satires, if only in the private theater of your mind.’ He concludes that we should read him ‘with strong laughter, but also “in fear and trembling”. For Persius pursues truth and integrity with a passionate self-honesty that is hard to follow.’
Chapter 1 is followed by a brief appendix discussing the Choliambics (pp. 52- 55).
Chapter 2, ‘Seeking Integrity’ (pp. 56-95), starts with a short and straightforward discussion of Satire 2, which is much ‘easier of access, more lucid in presentation, and more focused in theme’ (p. 57). This satire is the opening of the inner group of satires (2-5) in Persius’ book of six satires. The subject is foolish and vicious prayers, a familiar satiric theme, which Reckford discusses under the sub-heading ‘Hypocrisy and Self-Deception’. He quotes from Horace’s Satires, Odes and Epistles, and illustrates that the literary subtext of the satire is Persius’ relation to Horace, although Persius ‘probes beneath the surface of men’s foolish or vicious behavior to their half-intentional, half- willful confusion of the gods’ (p. 57). Reckford also points out the Socratic and Pythogorean-Platonic apart from Stoic principles underlying Persius’ criticism in this satire which, after a long list of pseudo-religious idiocies and abuses, ends in a prayer for true piety (p. 62). This prayer, Reckford argues, will ‘help define the goal of mental, moral, and spiritual integrity toward which Persius will represent humankind, himself not least . . . throughout the following Satires’ (p. 63).
This logically leads to a discussion of Satire 3 under the sub-heading ‘Called to Virtue’. Satire 3 (a wake-up call to study philosophy), like Satires 2 and 5, is deeply rooted in Stoic beliefs, which as Reckford points out, all reproduce many features of the Cynic-Stoic diatribe. Persius, however, ‘turns old commonplaces of the moralizing diatribe into powerful and disturbing new poetry of lived experience’ (p. 63). In this satire Persius is speaking about the urgency of achieving moral and spiritual integrity -- but he is speaking to himself in the first instance. Typical of his style so far, Reckford invites his reader to listen in to what Persius is saying -- or perhaps join the conversation.
He discusses several passages from the satire, convincingly pointing out the diatribal and philosophical tenets which he substantiates with discussions of selections from Horace and Seneca. Quite a substantial section (pp. 68-77) is spent on Horace as a diatribe satirist. This is followed by Reckford’s illustration of how to interpret the performance of Satire 3, ‘a dramatic monologue with internal dialogue’ (p. 77). He identifies the ‘multiplication of voices’ firstly as that of the narrator/presenter/satirist who sets the scene, secondly as that of the reluctant student who may embody something of Persius’ own tendencies, and thirdly that of the friend/attendant/adviser who scolds the youth into taking himself and his studies more seriously (p. 78). Once again there is a comparison with Horace.
Reckford then identifies and discusses two autobiographical fragments from the satire (lines 24-30 and 44-52) that reveal, or appear to reveal, something about Persius’ personal life (pp. 82-87). There is also a discussion of Persius’ grotesque images of decay, suffering and death as metaphors for the moral faults and passions that disturb the lives of people. The chapter ends with a re-appraisal of the satire as a wake-up call to virtue. Reckford remarks on the ‘passionate intensity of Persius’ response, his self-awareness as one deeply implicated in the struggle (moral, and physical, too?) against decay and death, and his vision of the living hell to which non- or regressive Stoics surrender their lives -- the deadly fall into moral and spiritual oblivion, personal disintegration’ (p. 92). But then comes the twist with a surprisingly mild ending with allusions to Horace -- the question arises whether Persius is inviting us, ‘not just to enjoy some relief after all the emotional intensity, but also to relax into an easier state of mind, a more superficially Horatian mode, in which we might laugh off our symptoms and ignore the philosopher’s healing advice’ (p. 95). Reckford warns that we may have that choice -- though we may not have it for long. He points out that Persius’ satire offers no saving reassurances and that things will only get worse for Persius. In Satire 4 he will hit the bottom before things get better (if indeed they do) in Satire 5.
Chapter 2 is followed by an Appendix on ‘Epictetus, Diatribe, and Persius’ (pp. 96- 101) in which Reckford (as promised on page 77) proves that ‘the Greek diatribe was still very much alive in Persius’ time and may well have influenced his satires directly’.
Chapter 3, ‘Exploring Freedom’ (pp. 102- 29), follows much the same structure as that of Chapter 2, also starting with a short and straightforward discussion of Satire 4 which leads to a discussion of Satire 5. Under the sub-heading ‘Shadows of Falsehood’ Reckford points out that Satire 4, which is the shortest of Persius’ poems, is a curtain-raiser to Satire 5, which is the longest. It discusses the bankruptcy of politics and of social intercourse, and by implication also of satire itself. From the harsh depiction of moral and social failure emerges a plea for self-knowledge; but even satire, ‘which might bring healing or at least salutary correction, seems to be caught up in the same situation and is marked with a sign of impotence’ (p. 103).
Following on his question of how we might re-ascend into a world of sanity and creative strength with Persius, Reckford (pp. 104-8) leads us through Satire 4 discussing the need for self-knowledge as the unifying theme, and points out that the secondary theme is impotence: ‘not just moral and physical impotence in the Age of Nero, but a failure of nerve at the core of people’s lives’ (p. 108). Healing can be found -- Reckford argues that satire regularly proclaims its intention to improve society by identifying its faults, but the satirist, an individual, or implicated author behind the persona of the satirist ‘cannot be absolved of the vices of pride, envy, and especially malice that make themselves heard through satire’ (p. 108).
Satire 4 ends with a call to wakefulness -- to the satirist, and Persius, and the reader. Reckford argues that especially for a Stoic satirist like Persius the road to salvation goes through the valley of humiliation -- the realization of ignorance about things that matter -- for it is only in the conviction of ignorance that one can start again (p. 108).
The section ‘Modes of Disclosure’ (pp. 108- 24) deals with Satire 5. Persius, in grateful memory to his Stoic training under Cornutus, returns from where Satire 4 left off, but it starts with a re- direction. Before arriving at the theme of freedom (liberate opus est, line 73), the dialogue during which Persius pays tribute to Cornutus not only describes and re-authorizes his poetry: Reckford adds the important observation that Persius is redefining the satirist’s ‘personal voice’ and places himself in the confessional tradition of Lucilius and Horace. ‘This also means acknowledging the shadows of falsehood and hypocrisy in which, as Satire 4 showed, all satirists are implicated’ (p. 109). This enables Persius, in a quasi-Platonic fashion, to first move inwards to memories of personal experience, and then outward to the universal theme of true freedom.
In his discussion of lines 1-52 Reckford points out important parallels with the relationship between Horace and his patron, Maecenas. Then we arrive at what Reckford (p. 118) calls a three-part philosophical diatribe: lines 52-72 deal with the diversity of human pursuits and passions, and again the urgency of studying philosophy, leading to a lively discussion of what true freedom is -- Stoic freedom differs from legal emancipation (lines 73- 131), and then finally the climactic review of all the passions ruling ‘every fool’ (p. 118). Again Reckford illustrates Persius’ use of parallels in Plautus, Terence, with Persius even going back to Menander, and Horace.
The satire ends with a Roman centurion, representing the philistine public, who coarsely laughs at all these foolish Greeks, with Persius joining heartily. Whether this laughter is a release of ‘long-suppressed feelings of inhibition and constraint, and even dislike, after all that physical and psychological self- denial’ or whether it is ‘a reaction to overwhelming feelings of futility in the face of so much ignorance, confusion, and folly’, Reckford (p. 124) points out that Persius’ laughter is not the detached, ironic laughter of Horace, nor the scornful and cynical laughter of Juvenal: ‘Persius laughter is explosive and childlike, but never simple . . . It is wild, passionate, caring, and involved.’ Chapter 3 ends with a speculative construction of what Reckford reads between the lines of Persius’ experience as ‘another dissident under Nero’ (pp. 124-29).
Chapter 4, ‘Life, Death, and Art’ (pp. 130- 60), starts with a more extensive discussion of Persius’ life and work, largely based on the Vita, and then proceeds to a discussion of Satire 6, directed at the avaricious heir. The Horatian inheritance of the theme -- ‘the ethical and psychological contrast between moderation and success, satisfaction with what we have and self-exacerbating greed for more’ (p. 144) -- is clearly illustrated. Reckford gives the satire a literary subtext -- ‘the great inside joke’ (p. 137) -- that Persius is Horace’s prodigal heir. In the final instance, Satire 6 is a tribute to Horace, ‘an acknowledgement by his prodigal heir of the rich inheritance that he has used so passionately and well, and even increased in a way that must have left him, on the aesthetic level at least, greatly content’ (p. 144).
Reckford’s question (pp. 144-50) of how we should read Persius’ libellus -- ‘as a call to maturity in the face of a misguided and misdirecting world (Satires 2–5), or a Quixotic protest against the grown-up silliness everywhere to be seen (Satires 1 and 6)’ (p. 150) -- leads to the summary (pp. 151-60) of what the reader has by now discovered in Reckford’s delightful and informal way of presenting Persius to the reader in the process of recognizing our poet: ‘for Persius, his business is to write honestly and well, for himself primarily, and then for whatever readers can and will appreciate honest satire -- people who can listen, and understand, and maybe in some measure be healed by the further catharsis that this satire, like the Old Comedy long before it, has to offer’ (p. 159).
The Epilogue, ‘From Persius to Juvenal’ (pp. 161-80), deals with Persius’ ‘seminal though inobtrusive presence’ in some of the satires of Juvenal, to whom Reckford, in comparison to Horace and Persius, refers as ‘the supreme runaway Roman satirist’ (p. 161). Especially Juvenal’s Satires 1, 2, 7 and 10 receive attention. By comparing the closing lines of Juvenal’s Satire 10 with those or Persius’ Satire 2 Reckford gives his reader the final clue in the quest of recognizing Persius: ‘Like Horace and Juvenal, he lists (2.71-75) what he himself will provide, in terms that suggest the hard-won effects of moral training and practice. Holiness lies not in outward rituals but in a deep-set integrity of mind and soul, deserving of true reverence’ (p. 179).
According to his prologue Reckford (p. 14) aimed this book primarily at students, teachers, and others interested in Persius, and only secondarily at specialists in Horace and Persius. He succeeds brilliantly on both counts.