Monday, September 18, 2017

Horace & Ashbery: From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops

“From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops” is a perfect example of why reading Horace and gleaning any sense of meaning or intention is virtually impossible. There is such a complexity of interwoven themes; references to literary tropes and inside jokes, that I’ve spent more time reading this five page satire than I have reading some six hundred page books. My research has led me to podcasts on the fall of the Roman Republic, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives for a closer examination of Brutus, and Machiavelli’s Prince. 

A couple of weeks ago the poet John Ashbery passed away, I decided to take a break from Horace and read through “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, which was published in 1975 and won Ashbery a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

And here, in his title poem, written two-thousand years after Horace penned the first book of his satires, I saw a glimmer of recognition. Ashbery is wrestling with finding meaning in a piece of art, a self-portrait by Parmigianino. But meaning is so complex. Narrative is misleading and ultimately Ashbery explores the extent to which understanding the intent of another is illusory. 

In an attempt to describe the self portrait of Parmigianino, Ashbery writes what is essentially a self-portrait about the complexity of communication and authenticity in a world of invading semiotics. 

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is, 
No words to say what it really is, that it is not,
Superficial but a visible core, then there is 
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. Experience. 
You will stay on, restive, serene in 
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything. 
(92-99)

Parmigianino paints his self-portrait from a mirror fixed to a globe. The image is distorted, his hand is so large it’s almost a shield wall. There are virtually no details we can glean from the background; muted colors, the corner of a window sill. One eye is almost glazed over, as if myopic. His expression is serene? Ambivalent? Or is that one eye, with it’s direct gaze, defying the observer to see beyond all that is distorted and look beyond the context into his soul? 


And what would Parmigianino have us see? What background could he have painted that would have clued us in to the Florentine climate of 1524? How do you describe the rumblings of a discontented populace suffering the collapse of the Florentine Republic? Or the increasing suspicion of the Medici hegemony? By 1524 the Medici’s were the most powerful family in Florence and with Pope Leo X (a Medici scion) the family had solidified rule in both church and state. 

Florentine artists respond to this hostile environment with visual satire. They distort perspectives and exaggerate features in unnatural ways. Their movement becomes known as Mannerism. 

So, “there are no words for the surface, that is/ no words to say what it really is.” (92) Parmigianino takes his place along his compatriots of the art world and they distort the surface as a clarion call for closer investigation into the complexity of the world around them. The unnaturalness of their work reflects the unnaturalness of oppression in a political climate that is increasingly tyrannical. 

“Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning/ But holds something of both in pure/ Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.” (96-99) Their gaze looks on, disillusioned with man’s propensity to relive history without learning from her lessons. 

Parmigianino hides behind a distorted hand and offers, with his one directly gazing eye, a dialogue about authenticity in an atmosphere of repression. Horace hides behind his writing and we are left guessing at the intention of his distortions. 

Fifteen hundred years prior, when Horace was a young, jaded 30 year old; having lived through the collapse of the Roman Republic; having thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and narrowly escaped; having somehow procured a good administrative post in the treasury department of Octavian; having been driven to writing by his poverty: Horace publishes his first book of Satires and they are as impenetrable and inaccessible as the work of the Mannerist. There are no words to say what it really is. 

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. 
(1-4)

The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface 
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases 
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
Than you look as it intercepts the picture.
(24-31)

This could be a perfect description of Horace, forever trapped behind an obfuscating hand that renders the contextual meaning indecipherable. All we have are his eyes, his witness to the history taking place around him, but like Francesco Parmigianino, rendering cloudy and myopic eyes, what Horace chooses to write is filled with the complexity and contradiction of satire. 

Satire V, “From Rome to Brindisi with Stops,” is presented as a travelogue where the journeymen are forever waylaid on their circuitous route to nowhere in particular, and that is abruptly ended when Horace runs out of paper. 

So many things are happening at once. Perhaps the most obvious is the thinly veiled chronology of the Odyssey. “The first lines parody Odysseus’ opening words to the Phaeacians, and the journey unfolds in the shadow of this original traveller: a lucky escape, a siege, a Cyclops pitted against a puny stranger, a fire, Diomedes, the city of the Laestrygonians (Formiae), epic periphrases for night, invocation of a muse, and hints of a final nostos. But a deceitful girl replaces faithful Penelope, a kitchen fire the fires of Troy, Formiae now belongs to Matura’s family, and siege is laid to H.’s own stomach after a bought of diarrhea.” 1

Rather than an illustrious hero, we have Horace. His journey makes a counterpoint to the heroic at every point. He is not the protagonist of this epic but merely a tired journeyman. He needs a patron to survive the hostile climate of Octavian and has found one in Maecenas, but as such risks becoming a censored captive,  taking his place in the entourage of the most powerful Emperor in the known world. He’s treated humanely, but kept in suspension: 

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
(29-30)

The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The siting of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, 
longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move 
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
(34-39) 

Maybe I’m reading into Horace an atmosphere of oppression and dissatisfaction that isn’t there…after all in three years Maecenas would give Horace a Sabine Farm and he would be free from the stress of poverty for the rest of his life. He would have recognition and support of an influential patron and the ability to hide in the country and devote himself to studious solitude. Sounds pretty good. 

But he left his studies in Athens and threw his lot into the campaign of Brutus. And according to Plutarch, Brutus was a mensch. The full package; ideals, virtue, heroism, the love of the populace, an adoring wife. I have a hard time believing that after the battle of Philippi, when Horace abandoned the republicans as a lost cause and returned “home” to an estate that had been confiscated by the victorious Caesarians, that it was as easy to walk away from his ideals. 

How many people came and stayed a certain time, 
Uttered light or dark speech that became a part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on 
In the form of memories deposited in irregular 
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(108-123)

One of the complexities of reading Horace is that there are no outside sources that can give us a glimpse into his life. He is an amalgam of his context, embodying the “light or dark” speech of those around him. He espouses Epicureanism, but is that part of his satirical persona?  He only gives us shards of a broken mirror, distributed throughout his writings and when we have reassembled the mirror we’re not sure he’s been a reliable narrator. There are contradictions between the little he says about himself and the little historical facts we know. For example, how could the now impoverished son of a freeman procure a “good administrative post in the treasury department”? 

All we have are his words, and his words are complex and misleading, but simultaneously saturated with inferences that leave a breadcrumb trail for the diligent reader. For example, his verbs throughout Satire V are slow and dense: lazy, worming, crawling. He spends more time discussing preparations to leave than the actual travel. While Caesar has quickly and decisively made war on the known world and has solidified for the next five hundred years the supremacy of Rome, his scribe drags his feet, taking note of everything except missions of state. 

Horace refuses to acknowledge the campaign of his patron, our best guess is that Octavian was making his way to Tarentum for the signing of a treaty with Anthony and Lepidus in 37 BC, which would cede control of the western world to Octavian.  Despite this omission his language drips with militaristic references, he declares “war” on his stomach, and watches the heavens prepare a siege on the day.

Now the night was preparing to spread 
Her darkness on earth, to station her stars in the heavens.
[SI. V. 9]

Whatever Horace’s intention was, it was not to talk about Octavian. Perhaps this satire is less about describing an actual journey and more of a commentary about travelogues, and the limitations of satire.

Never take a night boat, reader. You spend the first hour
Paying fares and hitching up the mule. Then fearless mosquitos 
And resonant swamp frogs keep sleep safely at bay. 
A sailor and passenger, soused with cheap wine, compete
In songs to their absent girl friends. The mule driver finally 
Drops off to sleep: the lazy drive lets the mule browse, 
Fasten the rope to a rock, stretches out and snores. 
Dawn was already at hand before we observed 
That the boat hadn’t budged an inch. 
[SI. V. 13-19]

At this point, all the travelers are so frustrated and burnt out by not actually traveling that a fellow passenger jumps out of the boat, grabs a switch from a nearby willow and starts beating the mule and the driver “Drumming their domes and their bones” [SI. V. 20] Is this passenger’s inability to wait patiently, and his outburst of hot headed frustration a reference to anti-epicureanism? The beating also has a thinly veiled sexual component. Some translators interpret “loins” for bones, and this is a sharp contrast to the action the drunken sailor and passenger are singing about in the proceeding lines.

Even so, it was ten when we finally got through the canal 
And washed our faces and hands in your sacred spring,
Feronia, goddess of groves.
[SI. V. 23-24]

They proceed with their journey and wash themselves in the sacred spring of Feronia, the Italian Juno, patron goddess of freedmen and a shadowy reference to the enslaved. Next they “worm” their way to the limestone cliffs of Anxur, where they would have been met with the formidable temple of Jupiter, the god of War. But Jupiter is not mentioned. Horace has given precedence to the goddess of the enslaved. Instead the god of war that is mentioned is only obliquely referenced, for this is the rendezvous point where he meets up with Maecenas and Nerva on a “mission of state”.

Here was the rendezvous 
With noble Maecenas and Nerva, on a mission of state,
Men deft at settling the quarrels of sensitive allies.
[S1. 5.26-28]

At this moment Horace chooses to cover his eyes with black salve. Emily Gowers, in her incredible annotated study of book one of the satires says: “Horace ignores his patron’s arrival and concentrates on smearing black ointment onto his sore eyes (30-1): ‘History’s witness has sealed his eyes shut.’” 2

It seems like the most honest bread crumb trail is the one left by omission. The shapes in the background left unpainted, the illustrious campaigns left un-described. 

Next they make their way to Formiae, in the Odyssey, this is where the cannibalistic giants, the Laestrygones dwell, and where Odysseus suffers his greatest disaster and loses a horrific amount of casualties. Tens of thousands of flesh eating giants destroy eleven of his ships, and it is here that Odysseus’ prudence as a leader is questioned. 

But rather than disaster, Horace meets up with his friends Vergil, Plotius and Varius:

These men are surely the finest the world has to offer, 
And no one is more indebted to them than am I. 
[S1. 5.41]

We know that Horace was introduced into the privileged circle of Maecenas by Varius and Vergil. But is the world in which he finds himself his metaphorical Formiae? He was a republican that now finds himself in the courts of Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus. Beneath the veneer of a carefree joyride has he found himself in the land of ten thousand flesh eating giants, caught in a kafkaesque struggle to get to the next backwater village, with bad food, undrinkable water and frustrated dreams?

The narrative is interspersed with Epicurean non sequiturs; slogans on friendship and patience, that almost seem like propaganda. The adoration for his friends seems like a distorted hand in the foreground, and leaves the suspicion that there is context somewhere, waiting imperceptibly in the background that I’m missing. 

Our cyclops battle is between a slave and a Oscan suffering from venereal scars across his forehead. The slave, Sarmentus, tell the Oscan, Messius, that he could play the part of the cyclops without additional accouterments, and Messius replies by referencing the cyclops:

“You’re a white-collar worker, 
Of course, but your owner has property rights, you know. 
And why run away in the first place? A thin little thing
Like you could live nicely on one pound of flour.”
[S1. 5.66-69]

One pound of flour was the daily minimum for imprisoned debtors. Messius makes fun of both the social status of a slave and his poverty and indebtedness to his master, while ultimately casting the slave in the role of Odysseus. Horace’s father was a freedman, his paternity is far from glorious and his writing is the one thing that keeps him from his own bag of flour. 

The satire ends with this indecipherable little gem: 

They want you to think that the incense flares on the alters
Without any flame. Let Apella the Jew believe it- 
I won’t. I’ve been taught that the gods live a carefree life;
That is nature produces a miracle, it is not the gods
In their anger who send it on down from high heaven.

Marked the long journey’s end, and at this point I ran out of paper.
[S1. 5.99-104}

Whatever the reason Horace has made a preemptive escape and allowed the reader to suffer for one last time the frustrations of unfulfilled expectations. As he recites his Epicurean credo, the satire has followed the trajectory of his maturation. He has pupated from a hopeful, naive, and sexually gullible young man to a skeptic. He exists in a world filled with cyclops and “eunuch horns”, where the spoils belong to the rich and powerful, and the god of war controls the destiny and fate of the masses. He offers science or nature as a rejection to the gods, but the science he offers is rudimentary, and all that is left is chaos. 

And this brings us back to Ashbery:

I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(120-123)

The only thing that we can with certainty take from Satire V is chaos. A five-hundred year old republic has collapsed, and as the minutia of everyday life continues, the future is opaque.




1.   Gowers, E. 2012. Horace Satires: Book 1. Cambridge University Press. pp.184
2.   Ibid. pp.187 (Oliensis, E. 1998. Horace and the rhetoric of authority. Cambridge)

Machiavelli's Virtue
Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue
Interpreting InterpretationTextual Hermeneutics as an Ascetic Discipline

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Satires of Horace: Part 1

In Smith Palmer Bovie’s translation of the Satires and Epistles of Horace there is this wonderful gem in the introduction: 

“Horace’s first satire dwells on the folly of excess, on the spectacle, played over day after day, of men carried beyond themselves by the acquisition instinct. It leads into the main doctrine with some crisp words on the “Concept of Interchangeability” (as Thomas Mann ironically labels it in his comic novel on a similar theme, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man). How is it, Horace asks Maecenas, that no one can see his way through the delusion but keeps hankering to be otherwise? Because, he explains, everyone who illustrates this delusion passes beyond the point of no return in the use of his moral energies and beyond the boundary lines of his material needs. Men can drive themselves, or be driven, beyond their limits and Horace makes the point with his cases of inconsistency and greed.” (1)

Fifteen pages into Horace’s satires, I put the book down and went and found The Confessions of Thomas Krull, Confidence Man, welcoming any delay in the actual reading of Horace, which seemed like an insurmountable task. 

Reading Thomas Mann may or may not have helped. Then I found the Cambridge Greek and Latin Companion to the First Book of Satires edited by Emily Gowers and I found this:

“Christopher Wieland (1804: 14) once wrote that reading Horace’s satires was like going for a walk with him: always stopping for little detours and arriving exactly where you want to be or else right back where you started. My own extended stroll has been as zigzagging and stop-start as any Horatian ramble, spanning two continents, three departments and fifteen years, while the card index gave way to the memory stick and the son who was an infant when the books as commissioned reached adulthood. I find it as hard to know where Horace is going now as when I first encountered him (which is nothing but a compliment.)” (2)

I find the above to be extremely comforting. If Emily Gowers can devote fifteen years of her life to the study and still find him bewildering, I think it’s reasonable to set the bar very low for myself. So with that disclaimer in place let’s proceed. 

Like Horace, Felix Krull was nothing short of loquacious. His words tumbled out of him, tripping over themselves to escape the recesses of his mind. When he learns he will be forced to conscript into military service he stops at a bookshop and picks up a book about nervous disorders; slowly and carefully constructing his escape. 

The next chapter begins and Felix is a different character. As he waits in line for his physical exam at the hospital he has calculated observations about his peers. When his time finally comes to stand before the panel of health commissioners it is his cue to begin. The curtains seem to raise and he steps into the circle of light, Felix playing the part of a young man with a nervous disorder and stress induced epileptic seizures. He is aching to join the military as a chance to explore the world, learn better posture and hopefully have a curative effect on the weakness of his mind. For effect he throws in a seizure and a smattering of situational dementia. 

His plan is flawless. He is met with looks of shock and disgust and shooed out the door into a life of freedom and irresponsibility. 

Reading Horace is like being on the board of health commissioners, trying to determine whether or not the recruit in front of us is insane or brilliant without the backstory. He is chatty and familiar but to the point of mania. In Satire I:1 although he is talking to Maecenas, not once does he pause long enough for a response. It is not a discussion but rather a monologue on the benefits of Epicurean moderation. Or at least that’s what it seems at first glance. 

Horace provides anecdotes of miserable men driven to madness because of their unfettered desire. He argues that through careful study and moderation one can learn to train oneself to desire only those things that are necessary. The result of this training would be a life of ‘pure joy of being’ having fully comprehended how pleasurable it is just to exist. (3)

 As a study in contrast, in Satire II:5 he offers Ulysses reimagined as an avaricious miser:

Ulysses: Tell me one thing more, Tiresias, in addition to all you’ve told me about: what tricks and what means should I use to recoup my losses? Why laugh? 

Tiresias: Isn’t it enough for the man of many wiles to be borne back safe to Ithaca and see his house and his home and his household gods? 

Ulysses: Oh, you, who have never lied to a soul, don’t you see me returning home nude as a number, resourceless, as you foretold? And at home, my cellar and herd raided and stripped by the suitors? Upper-class birth and good character are worth even less than seaweed if there’s no real money to draw on. 

Tiresias ponders what his friend should do and comes up with a solution: why not befriend an old man without an heir? The older and sicker the better- then firmly established as the old man’s friend and benefactor, Ulysses will be the sole proprietor? Granted, he may have to go through this process a few times before he is the proud owner of substantial wealth, and he may have to fend off the occasional relative, but it’s essentially a foolproof scheme. 

Tiresias: …But what prevails first and foremost is to storm the fortress itself Will the poor fool insist on writing bad verse? Praise them! Will he go in for women? Don’t let him even have to ask you: hand over your wife, give Penelope to lover number one. Be obliging! 

Rather than shock and horror at the mere suggestion of offering the classic example of heroine fidelity, Ulysses ponders this. He wonders if he could really convince her to be led astray after all she put up with at the hands of the suitors. Tiresias is not dissuaded. Sure she was virtuous, but once she “tastes the gain that is to be made from an oldster” in partnership with Ulysses, she’ll be “no more kept from it than a dog can be frightened away from a piece of skin that has pieces of fat still on it.”

Horace doesn’t just praise the benefits of moderation though, rather he offers a philosophical medley from all different perspectives. It’s not Epicureanism vs Stoicism but rather ‘all for one and one for all’.

I came across a description of Horace as the Jerry Seinfeld of the classic satirists. I think that helps. To use the “going for a walk” analogy once more: Reading Horace is like going for a walk when all of a sudden you are accosted by a man wearing a sweater vest, who immediately begins a discussion with you mid sentence. He is a self-deprecating, everyman’s man who offers tidbits of wisdom, unprompted and seemingly without end. The first book of Satires begins with the following: 

“Why is it, Maecenas, that no one is ever quite happy
With the life he has chosen or stumbled upon, and never
Abides by it happily, but loves to praise instead 
All who do something else?”

[Satire I: 1-4]

But beneath the everyman’s sweater vest is a different story. Horace is strolling alongside Maecenas, the millionaire patron of the arts and the ad hoc deputy of Octavian. It is 35 B.C. and just ten years ago life was very different for our hero. Horace had thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and had backed the conspiracy of Brutus. Horace, along with many other young angry Romans enthusiastically threw in their lot with the assassin and made their way to Philippi where they “shared in the final rout of the republican army by the forces of Antony and Octavian at the second battle. (4)

After Philippi, Horace abandons the cause of the republicans and makes his way back to Rome, where he is granted a pardon for his indiscretions. He has shape shifted from student to soldier, rebel to patriot and managed to survive unscathed (a fate Cicero’s son did not share). His father’s estate was confiscated by the Caesarians, but somehow he still has enough money to purchase a good administrative post where he quietly bides his time and begins to write. By age twenty-six he as survived the wiles of youthful passion and has secured himself the position of an official scribe. 

In a letter to Julius Florus, Horace sums up the trajectory of his life by saying that “poverty drove him to literature.” Whether or not we can clearly ascertain what he meant by this, poverty and literature both drove him into the arms of Maecenas. Maecenas already had a reputation as the father of the arts, and after an introduction from Virgil, Horace was assured for the rest of his life “of the recognition and support of an influential patron.” (5) 

After his fist book of satires was published Maecenas gave Horace a Sabine farm as a gift and he was able to make the full circle back to the countryside where he could sit quietly and write in peace. The political climate was settling after years of turmoil, and backed by the right patron, Horace seamlessly maneuvered from one emperor to the next and took his place as the poet laureate of the Augustinian Age. 

So reading between the lines, in the first Satire we can see a loose trajectory of the artists life. 

“Suppose some god were to say:
“I shall grant whatever you wish. You, now a soldier-
Be a businessman. You, now a lawyer, are free to become
The rural type. You’ve changed your roles: you can go now,
And you two, too. Well! What are you waiting for?”
Naturally, 
When they could be happy, they wouldn’t take the chance.”
[Satire I:1]

While it seems like Horace is preaching moderation, the real evil is not in being unsatisfied with what you have, but in being too afraid to change.

This is where we circle back to Felix Krull and the concept of interchangeability, which loosely states that people behave differently according to the different social context in which they find themselves. Whether you find yourself a neurotic attempting to dodge military service or a rabid military enthusiast that has backed the wrong rebellion, you play your part to the fullest and don’t waste time wondering if you’re disingenuous one minute to the next. As Horace claims, the gods won’t offer a second chance. 

Further on Horace brings up the Aesopian ant, “who works like a giant, drags up whatever he can in his mouth to add to the heap he is busily building, by no means unconscious of or out of touch with the future.” At first it seems like this is the creature we should all aspire to, but later on the ant will be the gateway drug into a discussion on miserliness. The ant rather than being industrious is a hoarder, stopping at nothing to creep out and bring back one unnecessary supply after another. 

“But nothing will stand in your way, 
Not blistering summer, not winter, not fire, flood, or sword, 
So long as someone remains even richer than you.”


“Mankind for the most part, fooled by it’s own false desires,
Says, “There’s no such thing as enough. You are worth 
Only as much as you have.”
[Satire I:1]

So mankind is trapped in a whirlpool of desire to conspicuously consume, engendered by the fear of poverty. Or perhaps the fear of being powerless, the social equivalent of flotsam riding the inexorable tidal waves of fate. 

“Wealth has become the deciding factor determining one’s identity, but this factor is based on ‘pure chance’  and can easily change.” (6) If wealth and identity become interchangeable what follows is a superficial notion of identity. Felix Krull looks around him at the hotel and observes a culture that esteems wealth above all else, willing to take a costume at face value. When he dons the attire of a bellhop, he becomes one with little questioning and no resistance. When the bellhop costume is exchanged for that of the leisure classes again he is embraced with little opposition. With the right costume a person’s identity can become chimerical, in flux based on the social constructs it finds itself a part of. 


Meanwhile, Horace is strolling through the palatial gardens arm in arm with a renowned millionaire lamenting conspicuous consumption. Instead of Juvenal misanthropically shouting a tirade against all that is evil, Horace has worked his way inside and delicately balances between a myriad of inconsistencies. At the end what we are left with is “an individual view of one man’s formation and emergence on the cusp between republic and empire,” (7) and I am left with the sinking realization that I must do a lot more research. 


1: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 15
2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. vii
4: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 4
5: Ibid. pg.5 
7: 2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. 1

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man - Thomas Mann


“Every great philosophy so far has been..the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” - Nietzsche 

Felix Krull is the type of protagonist with enough will power and fortitude to train his pupils to dilate on command.

This is our protagonist. Possessing the “will to power” that will make his optic nerves comply to his whim and desire; he is also an Adonis, endowed with unprecedented good looks. The combination of self control and GQ model looks is the perfect cocktail; the world is his oyster. 

“There you lie,” I thought to myself (though of course at the time I could not give such apt expression to my thoughts), “there you lie in the subterranean twilight, and within you the bubbling golden sap is clearing and maturing, the sap that will enliven so many hearts and awaken a brighter gleam in so many eyes! Now you look plain and unpromising, but one day you will rise to the upper world magnificently adorned, to take your place at feasts, at weddings, to send your corks popping to the ceiling of private dining-rooms and evoke intoxication, irresponsibility and the desire in the hearts of men.”

Not quite as succinct as Copperfield’s “I was born,” but a similar sentiment. 

Despite a modest upbringing Krull had a prescient feeling that he was destined for something great. His father owned a champagne firm that produced the counterpoint to good champagne. His father willfully chose to produce a mediocre product, a fault his son would never be guilty of. 

Krull embodies Nietzsche’s archetypal hero. Nietzsche defined will to power as “the main driving force in humans - achievement, ambition, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life.”(1)  This is Krull in a nutshell. 

As we hear of his formative years there is one memory that stands out. After watching a play with his father, completely enraptured and brought to an otherworldly state of joy, Felix has the opportunity to meet the famous actor. After the make-up has been partially removed, the actor is nothing more than a mere mortal. The sweat runs down the man in rivulets and the actor’s naked body is covered in a mosaic of suppurating pustules.

“Our capacity for disgust, let me observe, is in proportion to our desires; that is, in proportion to the intensity of our attachment to the things of this world…this grease-smeared and pimply individual is the charmer at whom the twilight crowd was just now gazing so soulfully! This repulsive worm is the reality of the glorious butterfly in whom those deluded spectators believed they were beholding the realization of all their own secret dreams of beauty, grace, and perfection.”

This insight is integral into our protagonist’s sense of order. Life is a farce, riches and wealth are merely a facade hiding one pimply back from another. As Shakespeare wrote:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Felix morphs from one character into the next with such fluidity the transformation is flawless. When he’s afraid of getting drafted, he purchases a book on nervous disorders and during his physical exam has a psychotic breakdown that leads to a nervous epileptic seizure. He is a true method actor, pouring himself heart and soul into each role, with the pleasure of knowing that only he knows his own reality. 

And after a healthy stage of maturation, complete with an episode of both prostitution and pimping, he makes his way to Paris to begin his career as a hotel elevator operator. 

I think the similarities of Felix Krull and Maupassant’s George Duroy, the antihero of Bel Ami are quite striking. 

Both enter Paris practically insolvent, with only a few livres to their names. Neither are afraid of a little prostitution to balance the books. But Duroy has a sinister air about him, he knows he is good looking and wields his charms like a predatory weapon. He circles and stalks the unattractive wealthy women around the gardens knowing he can make a little extra cash; and the reader has the impression that the enterprise he is taking is morally reprehensible. While Felix believes he has been bestowed with an overabundance of beauty and it is therefore his gift to humanity, whether to be platonically viewed and appreciated or otherwise. 

There is an underlying discussion on morality here. Maupassant, along with his contemporaries like Emile Zola, believed that Paris was in crisis. They viewed the endemic prostitution to be the pustules of a society festering with moral decay. They looked at the crumbling aristocracy being chipped away by the upward mobility of the middle class, or being extravagantly thrown away at the feet of the Parisian Grand Dames and they wrote literary clarion calls to a society turning it’s back on morality.

I described Duroy as the Jason Bourne of literary social climbing. He’s always one step ahead of his next conquest. Duroy breaks one heart after another, often intentionally and with perceptible malice. He is cruel and oppressive; using and abusing the women around him; stopping at nothing until he has filled his coffers and momentarily suppressed his avaricious need for wealth and power. 

But For Felix Krull, the morality has almost entirely been taken out of the equation. He is kind and generous, he is honest even when it’s in his best interest to be otherwise. For all intents and purposes he is a “good” guy. And yet thrown into the mix are liaisons with both men and women and with each blush and glance, he covers the embarrassment of his acolytes with gentleness and discretion. After all, it’s not their fault that they fall in love…is it? 

Krull steals, but even this is almost gallant, after all the gem case practically wills itself into his suitcase. So theft seems ok in the right setting. 

“This was an occurrence rather than an action, and it happened quite secretly; the case simply smuggled itself in, so to speak, as a by-product of the good humor that my friendly relations with the authorities of this country had produced in me.”

He ends up operating the elevator car for the woman whose jewels have made him a small fortune. They exchange glances and before long it is after hours and he is knocking on her door, answering a booty call that was expressed in words and glances. 

This possessor of gems and loose morals turns out to be a famous writer married to an old and unfaithful toilet manufacturer. It is the era of indoor plumbing and he is making a vast fortune out of quietly and subtly removing people’s excrement. Given the facts, does two plus two still equal four? If your husband is gross and unfaithful doesn’t that negate black and white morality? And so we do not judge Krull for answering the booty call. 

The writer has a strange fascination with young(ish) men and uses debasing language to set the mood. Krull, ever the nonjudgemental type suggests a different game. Like for example…what if instead of verbally debasing her etc. he mentioned that he was the thief that stole her gems? And of course, the writer finds this delectable. She demands that they turn out the lights and then he rob the rest of her possessions. I find this situation a little far fetched. But the take away is that when it comes to stealing and thievery, the wealthy and elite of their own volition will cast their jewels before the feet of the beautiful elevator operator. 

Thomas Mann is opening up a dialogue on morality. Morality is not comprised of black and white “thou shall nots” but rather more grey area and situational spontaneity derived from a doctrine of “types.” If you’re the type that like to commit infidelities with elevator boys and then allow them to steal all your valuable possessions then that is your moral view. How can one judge the moral type of another? 

Nietzsche argues that: “Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality, in other words…merely one type of human morality beside which, before which, and after which many other types, above all higher moralities, are, or ought to be possible.” (2) 

Of course Zola and Maupassant would consider this anathema. As would Plato. But this debate between moral relativism and moral absolutism is perhaps as old as time itself. The Greek philosopher Protagoras believed that “man was the measure of all things,’ which was picked up by Spinoza and developed into the belief that nothing was inherently good or evil. By the time Nietzsche grabs the baton it’s more than a two thousand year old debate. 

But let’s get back to Felix Krull. By now he has a small fortune, enough to comfortably live on for a decade. He has a small apartment in a quiet Parisian neighborhood, not far from the hotel, but he still lives in the garret among all the other elevator boys. He still works for pittance, eats food slightly better than that served in prison (of which he tells us he can attest to) and lives a covert double life. On his days off, he strolls to his apartment and with a quick costume change he transforms himself from the working class bell hop to the luxuriating upper crust. He then makes his way to a cafe and sits leisurely sipping coffee and observing the ebb and flow of the social milieu around him. 

His transformation is simple. Almost too simple. He steps from one social ladder to the next like a trapeze artist, confidently putting his foot rung by rung up the ladder of social mobility. He is an actor and is it his fault if the general public are so quick to accept him? 

In Bel Ami when Duroy is offered a post as a journalist he is asked if he is up to snuff on his Cicero or Tiberius, when Duroy says he knows them “pretty well” he is met with this advice:

“Good; no one knows any more, the exception of a score of idiots who have taken the trouble. It is not difficult to pass as being well-informed; the great thing is not to be caught in some blunder. You can maneuver, avoid the difficulty, turn the tables and floor others by means of a dictionary. Men are all as stupid as geese and ignorant as donkeys.”  

When we come to Felix Krull’s reiteration, after observing the theater goers being swept up in the farce that is the pimply actor he says: 

“What unanimity in agreeing to let oneself be deceived! Here quite clearly there is in operation a general human need, implanted by God himself in human nature, which Miller-Rose’s (the actor) abilities are created to satisfy. This beyond doubt is an indispensable device in life’s economy, which this man is kept and paid to serve…Restrain your disgust and consider that, in full knowledge and realization of his frightful pustules, he was yet able- with the help of greasepaint, lighting, music and distance- to move before his audience with such assurance as to make them see in their hearts’ ideal and thereby to enliven and edify them infinitely.”

And that is Mann’s thesis statement: We all with a little greasepaint and the correct lighting are forced into the spotlight of our destiny. We all play act for the benefit of another. And if we play our part with the diligence and integrity true to our character and type, that is the true and relative morality we can live by. 

This is evidenced in Krull when he puts on his bell hop costume and then diligently does his work well and with a positive spirit for sixteen hour shifts. Despite having a small fortune, he chooses to serve both the wealthy patrons and his fellow employees, well and to the best of his ability, a contrast to his bell hop foil Eustache. Eustache has the elevator drop off the patrons level with the floor, but for his fellow workers he pulls the elevator either too high or too low resulting in his compatriots awkwardly having to climb out. Krull reprimands him thus: “Those who are weak ought not to show their contempt for one another. That does nothing to improve their position in the eyes of the strong.” 

Nietzsche believes that morality is suspect because the rich and powerful operate on another level. He isn’t creating moral relativity, he is observing it. The rich can use the lower classes as consumable goods. They can behave amorally to those beneath them without consequence.

Maupassant describes the masses as almost stupid herds ready and willing to believe anything. Perhaps Shakespeare’s line is more fitting here: “Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” It is up to the protagonist to take what he will and survive as he may. It’s an aggressive worldview. Duroy becomes a sad shadow of a human wearing fine livery; with his last grasp dominating and demanding as his due the obsequious worship of those around him. The result is awful and heartbreaking. A farce that sits in the pit of your stomach. 

Mann’s hero never has to pry loose anything. Oysters are lining up to spit out their pearls before Krull’s feet. Not once does he meet a villain or scenario he can’t charm his way out of. Men and women alike line up to offer their love and proffer their unfettered wealth. He is picky and choosy and when he finally gets around to play acting “falling in love” it isn’t sinister but merely an accouterment to his character. 

And here we have the final similarity. Both Krull and Duroy find themselves the triad of a mother daughter affection. In Duroy’s case he is carefully working his way up, and the mother, jaded and wrinkled is a rung bellow her daughter. It is carefully choreographed for the most emotional wreckage and largest monetary gain. When Duroy elopes with the daughter, the mother is trapped- she can not admit to her husband that Duroy is a rake without exposing herself. 

Krull’s case is the opposite. He patiently woos the daughter, with propriety and at the last moment when all his efforts have culminated in a single kiss from the previously self proclaimed misandrous young girl, he looks up to see the flushed angry face of the mother! With literally no effort on his part the jealous mother sweeps hims away. And: 

“Hole! Heho! Ahe!” She exclaimed in majestic jubilation. A whirlwind of primordial forces seized and bore me into the realm of ecstasy. And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom.” 

The end. 

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. The Early Years is unfinished. Despite the fact that Mann worked and reworked his novel over the course of thirty years, when he unexpectedly died in 1955, there was no closure or sequel to smooth out the rough edges and tie up loose ends. (Like for example the constant references to his stint in prison.) The whole thing feels very messy and disorganized, lacking a cohesive plot line. Yes, Felix is described as a conman…but really to no one’s disadvantage. So if you are circumspectly conning someone i.e.. they think you’re a bell hop…but actually you’re really rich…and a bell hop…does that count as being conned? 

Even his interactions with the rich Iberians isn’t predatory. They believe he’s rich. He loves visiting the museum and talking ad nauseum about primordial man and the three spontaneous generations. Who, besides the reader is being conned here? There was one moment when he sort of did a “Parent Trap” swap scenario (I’ll pretend to be you, you pretend to be me.) I held my breath and anticipated the “con man” being conned. I anticipated this random stranger in the coffee shop, taking his wealth in exchange for a bankcard that was to an empty account etc. But no such thing ever happened! Not only does Felix Krull basically never con anyone- he is never conned! I contend that this world Thomas Mann has invented does not exist. 


The only con that Felix Krull perpetrates is that of his chimeric identity. He cons people into believing he is what he tells them; and they are complicit in his deception by their willingness to believe. 


1. http://plato.standford.edu/entries/nietzche-moral-political/

2. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1966.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Satire VII - Juvenal

In 86 AD Domitian founded the Capitoline Games. The festivities came with a dress code (white togas) and a prelude of hero worship. Twenty-four priests would prostrate themselves before Domitian and worship him as their "Lord and Master." 

The crowd would obligatorily wave palm branches and at the appropriate time shout “ Our Lord and our God!”

Before the games could begin there would be an “informal reporting session” (in front of the tens of thousands of spectators) where the leaders of each Province of the Empire would have their “report card” read. Based on the emperor’s approval the province would be guaranteed prosperity; his disapproval would signal an era of harsh treatment, the loss of self-governing status and higher taxation. 

After that business was over the games could begin! 

Part of the reasoning behind an oppressive personality cult was the control of the expansive and heterogenous empire that Rome had become, stretching from literally one end of the known earth to the other.

“[Rome] had in it many tongues, races and traditions. The problem was how to weld this varied mass into a self-conscious unity. There is no unifying force like that of a common religion but none of the national religions could have conceivably become universal. Caesar worship could. It was the one common act and belief which turned the Empire into a unity. To refuse to burn a pinch of incense and to say: Caesar is Lord,” was not an act of irreligion; it was an act of political disloyalty.” (Barclay,William. The Revelation of John, Volume 1. 1976):

The Book of Revelations is an interesting guide through the world of Domitian. Seven churches are described struggling with the cultural environment of a totalitarian dictatorship, each church pointing to a different complexity that threatened their lives as they attempted to live within a campaign of persecution and control. 

Ephesus was set up as a “Neokoros” or worshipping center. Domitian’s effigy was deified throughout the architecture of the city, but it was the temple of Ephesus that was the crowning achievement. 

The temple stood on a supporting platform, upheld by columns representing the pantheon of Roman gods. Standing above the columns, taking his place as “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” was an immense statue of Domitian. 

“Next to the temple was the “agora”, a marketplace where people in various trades—seamstresses, stone masons, metalworkers, traders of silks, spices, and produce—made their living and depended on for their survival. Domitian understood their dependence on the agora, and so exploited that dependence to set up yet another display of power. Domitian declared that any person wanting to do any kind of business in the agora first had to acknowledge Domitian as god and then make an incense offering to him.

Once you had made an acceptable display of worship, you would receive a mark—probably some kind of ink stain—and only then could you sell your goods in the agora.” (McNeal, Chris. "The Bible that Borrows Part 6: The Roman Bible". 2017

If we look at Thyatira, a commercial center known specifically for it’s dye and wool industry, we see another piece of the puzzle. Thyatira had a vast number of trade guilds, a separate guild for every artisanal craft. It would be virtually impossible to practice a trade without being a member of the trade guild, and yet part of membership required communal meals together in the specific temple of the patron god of their craft and obligatory worship of Domitian. 

So the setting for Juvenal would be similar to that of North Korea. In his earlier books we see a more vicious mode of attack, but by his seventh satire his attacks have become more subtle.  The persona theory argues that as Juvenal ages he becomes less furious at his poverty and forced toadying. 

Another argument could be that the climate was far too dangerous to really say anything of value. 

In the world of Domitian, the working class were at the disposal of the emperor. Their lives were perilous and fraught with the uncertainty of the ever changing whims of a tyrant. But Juvenal can’t really talk about that. Instead what he talks about is the plight of the creative man and the general lack of appreciation for the artistic personality.

Juvenal singles out poets, historians, lawyers, rhetoricians and schoolteachers. All exist within the mercenary culture of an avaricious upper class that has managed to avoid the majority of Domitian’s oppression.  

The opening of Satire VII praises Domitian as the only active patron of the arts, but the compliment is tongue and cheek. In the same way that Kim Il Sung was the patron of the arts, Domitian controlled the arts with an iron fist. 

The bad guy in Satire VII is not the Emperor but rather the wealthy and the elite. Juvenal flatters Caesar, by winking and nodding and suggesting that the supreme leader is the only patron of the arts that truly understands and breaths life into the empty souls of the starving artist. 

All hopes and incentives of learned 
men lie in Caesar alone. 
For in our time only he has regarded 
the Muses who moan
And grieve while famous poets must
manage small baths in a place
Like Gabii, or bakeshops in Rome, and 
others have shown no trace 
Of shame to become town criers; while
starving Clio forsook 
The valleys of Aganippe and came to
town to look
For work…[1-7]

Unable to sustain themselves by their professions alone the artists and intellectuals are forced to turn to menial labor to support themselves. 

The real point of interest lies in what these men all have in common and what they exchange their professions for. Poets, historians, lawyers, rhetoricians and schoolteachers all have the distinction in formally parsing out the contextual reality of a particular moment. We see this in Winston Churchill’s claim that “History is written by the victors.” Historians have the unique ability to white wash the past and recreate the present and future.

“[Domitian] was a devil. He was the worst of all things- a cold blooded persecutor. With the exception of Caligula, he was the first Emperor to take his divinity seriously and to demand Caesar worship. The difference was that Caligula was an insane devil; Domitian was a sane devil, which is much more terrifying.” (Barclay. 1976)

Ephesus had won “free city” status by its services to the Empire. That meant it was self governing, exempted from having Roman troops garrisoned there and hosted some of the most popularized games drawing people from all over the empire as a source of revenue. With such status came tremendous risk. 

As a historian, describing the glorious triumph of Augustus and the subsequent decline of moral values found in his predecessors would not go over well. No wealthy patron that valued their life would fund the writing of such a history. So in turn the historians become glorified lifeguards at the city bath. 

Juvenal’s claim is that no patron values these lost arts except the Caesar, making the elite and privileged the bad guys. Juvenal creates a scenario where the criticism is pointing away from Domitian in form. Yet, to any cogent person alive in the first century- it would be obvious that patronage that comes with a dagger is less of a magnanimous beneficence and more a hooded executioner waiting to drop the ever present axe.

Take Ovid for example, one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature, his Metamorphoses is thought to be a thinly veiled critique of contemporary Roman politics. The final book discusses the deification of the Caesar, expressly praising Augustus, and ends with Ovid waxing poetic about the immortality he has earned because of his poetic genius. Instead of praise and adoration, Augustus banishes Ovid to a life of exile in a remote province on the Black Sea. 

Ovid attributed his banishment to “a poem and a mistake.” 

But still we poets keep working and
scratch our furrows now
In shallow dust and turn the sands
with a profitless plow. 
For if you’d stop, the incurable itch
for writing holds
You in ambition’s snare and in your
sick heart grows old. 

But a genuine poet, who has a personal
lyric streak, 
Who writes no hackneyed lines, whose
verse is not, so to speak,
Coined in a common mint-this man, 
whom I cannot show
And only sense, is produced by a mind
free of care, bearing no
Rancor, devoted to the forests, and 
worthy to drink
At the Muses’ spring. For gloomy
Poverty cannot think
Of singing in the Pierian cave, a
thyrsus held tight
In hand while having no money, which
both day and night
The body needs…[48-61]

Domitian’s father, Vespasian, was one of the few breaths of fresh air the young Empire had enjoyed in its chaotic infancy. Vespasian was a military genius and had won notoriety by suppressing the Jewish rebellion of 66 AD. 

When Vespasian became Emperor in 69 AD he hired a rhetorician, Quintilian as consul. Quintilian had opened a public school of rhetoric during the chaotic “Year of the Four Emperors” and had an illustrious career teaching such students as Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. 

“The emperor in general was not especially interested in the arts, but…was interested in education as a means of creating an intelligent and responsible ruling class.” (Kennedy, George. Quintilian. 1969)

When Domitian takes his place as Caesar, the environment is pregnant with hostility and paranoia. Quintilian has survived the assassinations of multiple Emperors, but even he is wary of this egomaniacal despot. 

Despite the fact that Domitian had created his own secret police and that senators were encouraged to inform on each other; despite the fact even suspicion of disrespect for the emperor was a capital crime; despite the fact that Domitian had appointed himself the “censor perpetuus, making himself responsible for public morals: within this impossible climate, Quintilian publishes his Institio Oratoria on the art and practice of rhetoric. 

For all intents and purposes political oratory was dead. Not since Cicero had an orator felt the climate safe enough to denunciate the political enemies of the state. Oratory had become too dangerous to practice. 

Juvenal focuses the ineffectual ability of the artists to practice their arts on a society that has grown gluttonous and lazy, unwilling to pay for the opportunity to learn and willfully blind to anything that refuses to dazzle. 

Do we trust in eloquence? No one
today would ever allow
Cicero himself the smallest fee unless
he could show
A big blazing ring. The first thing a 
litigant has to know
Is: Have you eight slaves, ten 
flunkies, a litter; have you friends
In togas to walk before you? That’s
why Paulus used to rent 
A sardonyx ring for his pleas in 
court, and why he earned
Higher fees than Gallus or Basilus.

Seldom do people discern
Eloquence under a threadbare cloak. [139-146]

In Juvenalian double speak, the real perpetrators of a crime here are not the rich or the elite, but those unwilling to stand up and speak out. The poets, historians, lawyers, rhetoricians and schoolteachers have been cowed by fear. They have been guilty of omission. While Juvenal says “seldom do people discern eloquence under a threadbare cloak,” his criticism isn’t of the wealthy choosing to ignore the impoverished, but rather the impoverished vanguard choosing wealth and safety over integrity. 

In Satire VI [347-348] Juvenal writes: Who will guard the guards themselves?” 


When the poets, historians, lawyers, rhetoricians and schoolteachers have given up their post as the civic conscience then society has truly nothing left to defend it from the tyranny 67of a despot. 

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