Thinking Trifling Thoughts

In my last post I mentioned the conference that one of my good colleagues, Paul Martin, and I are organising for the 2nd and 3rd of May. As I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about that conference, especially what I’m going to be saying at it, I thought it’d be nice to put some of those initial thoughts to paper.

The conference itself is titled Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics & Comic Seriousness. In a nutshell, the conference aims to examine a variety of literature from across antiquity and into its reception that brazenly broadcasts its pointlessness to the reader/audience. These texts, which Paul and I have termed “nugatory” from the Latin term nugae (trifles/rubbish), are particularly interesting because, while they profess their lack of quality, they often hint at a level of self-importance or realism that trumps those texts that frequently win the title of the Best-Genre-Of-All-Time (e.g. history, tragedy, epic poetry, oratory). So what do these texts have to gain from defining themselves as trifling matters while also claiming that, to some extent, trifling matters?

Rather unsurprisingly, I’ve come towards nugae from Martial, whose first preface is an exercise in literary pointlessness. After warding off malign readers who would write the wrong kind of meaning into the poet’s work, Martial explains how he can get away with writing nasty, rude, and crude little epigrams:

I would excuse the playful truth of my words (i.e. epigram’s tongue) if the paradigm was mine: but thus wrote Catullus, thus Marsus, thus Pedo, thus Gaetulicus, thus whomever is read through. Yet if anyone is so ostentatiously severe that it is not sanctioned to speak Latin on any column in his presence, he can be content with the letter or rather the title. Epigrams [or “The Epigrams“] are written for those who usually watch Flora’s games… (1.praef.9-15)

So Martial pretends to be writing silly little poems that shouldn’t have people reading too much into them, but in these lines he specifies that he belongs to a long pedigree of other nugatory writers. For Martial, Catullus et al. represent a chain of succession to be joined, a canon to be written into. The epigrammatist emphasises that these poets are read all the way though as a mark of the readers’ respect for them, a respect that he desires for his own poetry elsewhere in the Epigrams (such as in book 2’s preface and opening poem). To Martial there is a long list of pointless paradigms who exemplify all that is good about epigram. On the one hand this offers him the chance to pass the buck for writing rude poems (“don’t blame me, blame that famous love poet, Catullus!”), but on the other it also lets him suggest that he too can be deemed part of this canon. Martial is pointing out his own (self-)importance even as he deprecates his own literary worth.

It’s probably not for nothing that in the first numbered poem of the collection that he then proceeds to announce his worldwide renown. Elsewhere he puffs that while readers claim to prefer lofty epic its his little epigrams that they always love. It’s a cheap shot, but when you write something that the nobles of literature sneer at it’s the cheap shots that count. Despite writing poems of a low genre, Martial claims an astonishing level of self-worth.

I could ramble on about Martial for quite some time, but for the conference I thought I’d move into pastures new (not least because two other people want to discuss my favourite poet at the conference…). While Martial might focus on flipping genres in his own poetry for his own work’s benefit, I decided to turn towards prose authors for my own paper. In particular, I want to look at Pliny the Younger, the well-known letter writer and orator, and see what he has to say about trifling poets. Pliny is interestingly situated in this mess of genre-interplay, as he writes little hendecasyllabic poems on the side (which no longer survive), but he also has a very important day job as a lawyer.

What I’m interested in exploring further, once I’ve found the time to look into it more deeply, is how Pliny characterises his own poetry given its complicated relationship with dialogues of literary worth in contemporaneous Latin prose. It’s one thing for a nugatory poet to make claims about nugatory worth, but how does a self-respecting senatorial orator get away with it? Both Quintilian and Tacitus (in his Dialogue of the orators) stress that oratory is the most important thing for a senator to involve themselves with at Rome. Poetry is for boys and people with too much time on their hands, while manly orators serve the state by doing something useful for a living. (It all sounds a bit like the sciences versus humanities debates we hear so often…).

So how does Pliny reconcile these generic differences? My initial thoughts are that he writes himself into both canons, while emphasising his own (self-)importance as an orator; his poetry is written in times of leisure, which lets him relax enough to be an effective statesman. By pondering on Pliny’s pointless poetry, I hope to pry apart these generic games a bit further and demonstrate how self-serving the discourse is on the higher and lower ends of the generic ladder. I’m also keen to talk to other disciples of the nugatory, and see how Pliny, Quintilian, and Tacitus slot into the broader discourse of nugatory poetics across antiquity (and beyond).

Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica: Conference Report

Happy 2016 everyone! I always find the Christmas break a bit disorienting – time seems to stop still and then suddenly accelerate just in time for term to start again. That certainly just happened to me when I came to writing this piece and realised that it’s only been 2 weeks since I attended a conference hosted at UCL on Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. For those interested, a programme of the whole conference is currently available to download here (it’s a safe link I promise). The conference itself was very stimulating, with scholars attending from both sides of the Atlantic and from across Europe to share their thoughts, and has given me a lot to chew over (especially with regards to my own research on Martial).

Although there was no paper specifically focused on the question of what we mean by intertextuality (in general the term refers to any event where one text alludes to another) it was very apparent that scholars have been getting far more sophisticated in recent years. Papers generally moved closer to a “window allusion” model than a standard open quotation model – matching up words that occur in both texts seems less academically interesting these days (still relevant, but sometimes a quercus is just a quercus), and there is a tendency to prefer a model of intertextual analysis that explores how texts evoke a general feeling of the hypertext. In this way I was particularly persuaded by Jessica Blum’s discussion of how Flaccus depicts Hercules in a manner akin to Sophocles’ Ajax (in his eponymous play), of a hero out of place in a more technologically advance world where brains are more powerful than brawn.

Similarly, Antony Augoustakis delivered an exceedingly comprehensive overview of a selection of similar burial scenes in Flaccus’s Argonautica and Silius Italicus’ Punica. Augoustakis’ paper examined episodes where Flaccus and Silius both depict non-Romans burying the dead in decidedly Roman (and not Homeric Greek) fashion. Augoustakis suggested that the similarity probably reflects contemporary ritual and religious practice, offering a promising “why” for this intertext after listing all of the “how.”

Helen Lovatt gave a paper on how faithfully Flaccus adhered to his Alexandrian predecessor, and how and why he departs from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Greek version of the text. Her analysis itself focused on the scenes towards the fragmentary end of Flaccus version (an argument about fides between Jason and Medea), and suggested that Flaccus wrote a “creative misreading” of Apollonius by using what Andrew Zissos terms “negative allusion” (highlighting what the poet is not actually saying). Also of interest was her consideration of how important ancient artwork could have been on poetry, and how much is lost to our understanding through our loss of material evidence.

This argument between Jason and Medea was also discussed by Emma Buckley in a paper on the supplement to the text written in 1519 by Giovanni Battista Pio in order to “finish off” the work once and for all. Buckley showed that Pio actually relied rather heavily on Apollonius’ version to finish off the text, even when it contradicts earlier events in Flaccus’ epic. Some of the deeper questions raised by Buckley’s paper (which unfortunately I couldn’t quite put into words at the time) were how we can understand intertextuality working – once we read Valerius Flaccus, for instance, can we read a temporally previous text like Vergil’s Aeneid or Apollonius’ Argonautica in the same way? With intertextuality there always seems to be a certain amount of writing back to previous times, and changing our own modern understanding of the hypertext with a different interpretation (a projection of the text that exists somewhere between hyper- and hypotext). Naturally we’ll read a series of texts in chronological order, but some texts seem to do their best to disrupt this sequence.

Indeed, this seems somewhat to be the case with Mark Heerink who explored allusions to events and the language of Lucan’s Bellum Civile to suggest that Flaccus’ poem has a far more depressing outlook than is usually associated with it. Heerink did qualify this by stating that he himself may be to blame for this reading, but this is another example of how intertextuality breaks down the borders between texts and seems to twist and change our viewpoints with alarming ease.

Darcy Krasne’s contribution explored how a series of intertexts surrounding the Aeolian Islands serves to underpin the whole text with strong Lucretian undertones. Again, her paper exhibited the rich tapestry of intertexts at play in ancient literature.

Finally, Leo Landrey’s paper on Triptolemus in Flaccus and Ovid’s Tristia offered a much needed cross-examination of the Flavian usage of the Augustan elegist. In particular, he presented the elegiac desire of Ovid, particularly a mournful desire from exile to return, that depicts helplessness in the Argonautica whenever it appears there.

From this brief overview it is readily apparent that for a conference lasting one day there was a huge amount of subject matter packed into the event, but never at a loss to the overall aims of the conference. I sincerely hope that this meeting develops into a book, not only for its treatment of a leading Flavian epicist, but also for the thoughts it provokes about the field of intertextuality in Latin literature and in general. The conference organisers (Gesine Manuwald and Bridget England) should both be congratulated on such a successful and well organised event. I certainly came away thinking a lot more about the wide-ranging intertextuality present in Valerius Flaccus, and I hope this is the start of a series of interesting written pieces on the matter.

Updates: Thesis, Conferences, and the Blog

Hi everyone,

So it’s been nearly a year since I updated the blog – I think we can safely say that things are likely to remain sporadic (but hopefully not quite so spread out!), but I’d like to relaunch the blog on a semi-regular basis. My posts will continue to explore some of the ideas I’m having as I research Martial’s book structure & book culture, but I’ll also try to give more of an idea about life as a postgrad as I go on.

Anyway, a few updates people might be interested in:

  1. I’m now in the third year of my thesis. People keep asking “how is the PhD going” and, to be honest, I still have no idea how to begin answering that question. Nevertheless, things seem to be going well, and I have a timeline that looks more or less feasible to adhere to. Can I finish by next September? We’ll just have to see…
  2. I’ve since presented at my first ‘grown up’ (i.e. not solely postgraduate) conference! The Cambridge Triangulationships conference took place in July. The general theme was exploring the relationship between the triangle (hence triangulationships) of author-reader-text. You can check out the website here, which includes a list of the papers presented. I’m hoping to turn my paper (on general readers in Martial and Pliny the Younger) into a published piece within the future. Updates to follow…
  3. I’m booked to talk at two more conferences! The first is the annual Classical Association conference at Edinburgh (6-9th April). I’m taking part in a panel discussing “Audience Interactions” – how audiences are programmed into the text or how authors prepare for their audiences. My paper will consider how the recitatio is programmed into the structure of the Epigrams.
  4. The second conference is June 9-11 in Zurich, and is entitled “The Materiality of Texts between the Lebenswelt and Lesewelt.” I’m very much looking forward to this interdisciplinary event, and I’ll be considering how the shift from ancient form to modern text (i.e. papyrus scroll towards codex and the modern book) radically changes how we interact with the Epigrams. You can find the conference CFP here. Hopefully more updates to follow nearer the time.

So far the upcoming year looks quite busy – I’m teaching in the Spring term on a course on Roman Laughter (which includes Martial – huzzah!), and generally headed towards writing up the thesis. At the moment it looks like it’ll be split into two or three sections, but maybe I can go further into that another time…

At any rate – thanks for dropping by! I hope to upload some more Martial Musings in the near future.