Novel Fragment * Petronius * Roman Decay and Corruption * 1st century
This is the third in a series of articles I’m writing about T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” If you’re curious as to how nuts the project is and why I’m a dummy for trying, you can see the first entry here.
If you’re going to write a poem rooted in the existential decay of contemporary society and the accompanying corruption of the modern soul, you are pretty much obligated to consider ancient Rome as your template. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is the blueprint, the perfect model of expansion and decay that all civilizations follow. This is not to say that Rome was the first – Mesopotamian and Greek civilizations flourished and fell, of course – but boy did the Romans perfect the form. I do not have the time or the education to get real deep about Rome in general. I’m not a Classicist, after all. However, generalities will probably suffice. As this project moves along I think I’ll get better at this stuff, considering that heavyweights like Homer and Virgil are on the docket. In the meantime, I think it would be best to talk about the work itself for a little bit, and then try and figure out why Eliot would use a line from this strange, fragmented, borderline profane document as the epigraph of his masterpiece.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Satyricon. As I said, I’m no Classicist, the Greek and Roman being so obscure and dense and dull to my snappy modern sensibilities. My biases were born in classes poorly taught, I suppose, somewhere along the line. I’ve read stuff, who says I haven’t! But then it’s all just togas and columns and pontificating and I have just never been all that interested. I watched the first season of Rome, though, and that was pretty good. This is to say that all of my expectations going into reading this have been borne from being a reasonably educated lit student, and the cultural osmosis attendant to that. In other words, what I know about the Roman Empire is pretty much the same as anyone else. They built their empire through technological innovation, vast, disciplined armies, and the reasoned rule of the Republic. Then things went sideways and the Republic fell and the emperors started going crazy and the barbarians started razing and eventually the whole thing fell down. Also vomitoriums.
Therefore, when it turns out that The Satyricon is some kind of delirious, fucked up Roman Naked Lunch, I was only marginally surprised. The work itself is comprised of fragments, so there’s no smooth narrative. Much survived, but there are significant gaps and sometimes all that remains is a single sentence which scholars have tried to put in the right place. So things tend to skip around. The subject matter is the fully decadent, crazytown-Rome of Nero. It’s like one big story of a culture falling apart in its own revelry and debauchery. This is to say there’s lots of drinking and boning and things like that. It’s difficult to follow the thread, and of course since I’m not all that well-versed about the culture itself, many of the references are lost on me. It’s all very strange.
This strangeness is compounded by my particular translation, which is from the 1950’s. Now, The Satyricon is a work told in various modes of language. Unlike Virgil or elevated writers of his kind, Petronius is satirizing the whole of society here, which means he uses both the elevated speech of the elites as well as the lower speech of the rank and file Romans. The translator, in an effort to emulate this, has rendered a good deal of the text into American 50’s slang, and boy is that weird. Understand, Romans got up to some shit. Boy-love and heavy drinking and orgies and ridiculous eating parties and more boy-love and more heavy drinking and the occasional fight or philosophical argument. All of this was rendered in good-old-boy, down-home 1950’s American English. Maybe read a more contemporary translation, is what I’m saying, because I would read these lewd things going down and then add “golly, Beav, these Romans sure were swell” in my mind.
As for the “plot,” there’s not much to hold on to. The protagonist is a dude named Encolpius, who is the Roman version of an English tutor. He travels the countryside with his 16 year old boyfriend named Giton and they have sexy adventures. These adventures consist of visiting dudes like Trimalchio, a disgustingly wealthy freedman who is basically the epitome of the disintegration of Roman culture. He’s an idiot, he’s incontinent, and he’s an egotistical blowhard who spends all his time and money trying to think of new ways to show off how rich and awesome he is. Let’s be clear though, nobody else here is much better. It’s not like Encolpius is out here as a paragon of virtue. He’s just as compromised and corrupt as everyone else.
When I describe The Satyricon like that, and I do think it’s a fair description, then it seems pretty clear why Eliot chose a line from it to preface his poem about cultural disintegration and individual disaffection in the early 20th century. As I’ve said, Rome is the template when it comes to the cycle of civilization. Eliot was an educated fella, so I don’t think it’s too much of a leap for him to make these connections. He’s looking at London, the “Unreal City” of the poem, and what he’s seeing is the postwar revelry of his peers acting a lot like some of the debauched characters in The Satyricon while Europe is still smoldering from the after-effects of World War I. Eliot has a reputation for being conservative, and while that may or may not be earned (I’m currently reading a new biography which casts him differently, although it’s still early days and Eliot was famously private and anti-biography, so we’ll see where that goes), it’s clear from his work that he suffers the worries and anxieties of an older man. Like, you’ve read “Prufrock,” right? This is to say that while Eliot was a young man when he wrote “The Waste Land,” the themes and overall vibe of the poem is that of a person dismayed at the hollowness of modern civilization and is afraid of the desolation to come.
I think it’s high time to take a look at the actual epigraph used. I’m going to use the translation found in the explanatory notes of my edition of “The Waste Land,” because Eliot is a show-off and I don’t read Latin.
“For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sybil, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”
The point of translation contention seems to be what Sybil is actually hanging in. My 50’s translation says “bottle,” which makes sense in context. Real quick-like, for this to make much sense it helps to know what the hell a “Sybil” is. My rough understanding is that she is a priestess and that there is a Sybil for every Apollonian oracle. Also she’s immortal. However, she still ages normally. This is a huge bummer, obviously, so as she continues to age for hundreds of years she continues to get older and older and smaller and smaller until she can fit inside a small jug or bottle, which is where this dipshit Trimalchio claims to have seen her and asked her what she truly wants. Since she’s hundreds of years old and withered with age and lives in a fucking jug, of course she would like to die.
Sybil’s curse is clear, which is that immortality is not all fun and games. We are meant to be mortal, meant to die. If you’re the spiritual type you might even argue that you are meant to die and be reborn, continuing the cycle of life. Civilizations follow this rough pattern. Rome was born, rose to great power, declined, and fell. It was then reborn into something else entirely. Should you visit Rome now, you’ll find yourself in a modern European nation-state which is markedly different than even the Roman Republic. Same place, same ruins, completely different society. Of course, if “The Waste Land” is any indication, Eliot is pretty sure that Western Civilization has run its course and everything that follows in the 20th century and beyond is the same kind of hollow, debauched downslope that we see illustrated in The Satyricon.
The Sybil, who has lived too long, wishes for death. As we see throughout “The Waste Land,” modern civilization is in the same throes of having outlived itself. The machinations of living are all there, and citizens go through the motions living out their lives in a played out, unbearable autumn of the soul. The city itself is degraded and decrepit, Sybil in a bottle spread out against the horizon of a modern city. The Satyricon is a book full of decadent hedonism which leads to corruption and decay, which inevitably leads to the final fall of Rome. Eliot looks around cities like Paris and London and sees the same kind of excess and the inherent decline attached to that behavior, and laments the time in which he finds himself. Western Civilization has lost its moorings, eschewed its own past, and as such has lived too long and yearns for death.
Oh what, did you think a poem called “The Waste Land” was going to be an upper?