Petronius’ Satyricon

Since I finished my Whispering Leaves I had not written an in-depth article on psycho-historical issues. Now I’ve done it with “Gitone’s magic” and here I’d like to introduce the reader to the Satyricon by Petronius, mentioned in the article. Below, my translation of the prologue by Jacinto Leon Ignacio to one of the Spanish translations of Petronius’ novel (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):

Rome, centuries ago

In the vast and important Greek and Roman literature from which we still live, there are just a few novelists. Maybe for an overwhelming majority of illiterates it would had been much more affordable the theater, which is enough to listen, that the written narrative which must be read. The same was true of poetry and the rhapsodies recited in public.

The fact is that in Greece there are only a few examples of novels, apart of Longus, and from the Romans only Apuleius and Petronius, whose work we offer here.

It appears that, at the time, the Satyricon enjoyed considerable popular success, for both Tacitus and Quintilian commented it in their manuscripts, although it is apparent that neither knew it directly, only from hearsay. It is likely that they did not grant it much literary value because its style and form collided with all the concepts in vogue.

However, the Satyricon was not lost and copies were kept in the Middle Ages, while jealously concealed because of its subject matter [pederasty] and for being the work of a pagan. The work continued to be ignored by the public to the point that only scholars knew its title, but believed it was lost.

Therefore, a scandal broke when, in 1664, appeared the first edition of Pierre Petit.

Soon after, the Satyricon was translated into several languages, including ours, with such success that has made it one of the great bestsellers in history. There were those who sought to take advantage that the work is incomplete, rewriting it to their liking. It was easy nevertheless to expose them.

Presumably, however, the author would not work at top speed like if we should go to a literary prize. He seems to have devoted years to this task. Do not forget that what is now known are only fragments of the original, estimated in twenty books. The author might have started writing when Caligula reigned and Nero followed, to see the publication during the reign of the next emperor. It can be no coincidence that the book mentions contemporary events known to all, or that the author considered worth mentioning many names.

This is a job too conscientious not to be the work of a professional. Moreover, the action does not take place in Rome, but in the provinces and almost none of the men are Latins. It seems as if the author had had an interest in showing the reality of the empire, a reality ignored in the capital.

The novel consists merely of the travel story of [Encolpius] and his servant Gitone through different locations. The incidents, sometimes unrelated, their adventures and the people they encounter are the text of the Satyricon, which lacks a plot as was the style of the epoch. We could actually say that it consists of countless short stories of the two protagonists. This technique influenced many centuries later the books of chivalry, the picaresque and even Don Quixote. Throughout many incidents the author reveals us an extraordinary real view of the life in the Roman provinces, although tinged with irony.

Petronius simply tells us what he saw. In a way, his novel was an approach to realism, leaving aside the epic tone of the tragedies to focus on current issues, as Aristophanes did in Greece. And that was the pattern followed by Petronius. There is a huge difference between his style and that of other contemporary writers.

Poets, despite their undoubted genius, are pompous and in the tragedies the dialogues are extremely emphatic. Petronius by contrast, remains accessible to everyone. He expressed himself in a conversational tone, which justifies the use of a first person that conveys the feeling that someone is telling us a live tale. That’s why today we can read his Satyricon with the same interest of his times and nothing of its freshness is lost.

Writing is, in a sense, a childbirth with the same joys and suffering. Both things must have accompanied Petronius in this trip with [Encolpius] and Gitone through the decline of Rome.


On Oscar Wilde

Who never ate his bread in sorrow
Who never spent the midnight hours
Weeping and waiting for the morrow.
He knows you not, ye heavenly powers!

I am so surprised. Fifteen years ago I read Oscar Wilde’s most profound, confessional book. But like the rest of mankind I was blind and did not see the obvious.

Today I reread my notes of a 1943 Spanish translation of De Profundis and couldn’t believe how much I have changed since 1995.

I discovered Alice Miller, the inspiration of this blog, in 2002. Her books changed my life. These days that I reread a newer, albeit identical copy of De Profundis that was at my family’s library, a whole new Wildean universe emerged. How could I have read Wilde in the dark before the transforming experience that represented Miller?

The real title that Wilde chose for this letter-book was Epistola in Carcere et Vinculis. It is a shame that, although Wilde constantly mentions in this epistle addressed to his former boyfriend Alfred Douglas, “Bosie”, that he would soon make it reach Bosie’s very hands, Wilde never dared to deliver it to him.

Wilde’s De Profundis is actually two books inside one cover: an accusative and self-accusative epistle and a soul-searching incursion unrelated to Bosie, where Wilde writes page after page about “Christ”. All of this idealization of Jesus only reflects Wilde’s literary and artistic mind, who always strove to look for beauty. But there’s something real in his spiritual quest. Unlike the Greek gods the new religion includes pain, the key to open the door to know oneself. It’s pain what made Wilde’s soul to flourish at prison.

Wilde met deep pain doing hard labour: it was there where he had to go through the agonies of losing the right to see his children forever. Wilde also lost his personal library; and felt like a zoo animal when exposed, with his prison uniform, at a train station before a laughing crowd. When I hit Wilde’s phrase “And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing” I couldn’t help but remember how, when I was still a minor and lost everything—my family, my career and even my mind—, a high school pseudo-friend mocked me.

What struck me the most in this second, mature reading of De Profundis is that through his turbulent conflict with Bosie Wilde behaved like Bosie’s doggie. While Wilde fully acknowledges his infinite stupidity, he fails to confess that the reason for his extreme dumbness was Eros, or rather, a sort of pathological Eros. Sex is the giant piece missing in the puzzle of De Profundis.

More serious is that Wilde never developed a good amount of hatred. He lived under the sky of regarding as highly sinful the legitimate feelings of hatred. Hence he could never really break away from Bosie, not even after he was released from prison.

Thanks to Miller I realized that hate, not acting-out hatred but legit hate, is the way out of unhealthy relationships and entanglements. Susan Forward has also written books about the legit hatred we must feel toward our abusive parents before being capable of breaking away from a hellish relationship with our partner.

Of course, Wilde lived before Miller was born. Miller readers will readily understand why Wilde’s very repetitive phrase in De Profundis “your noble father” only reflects that Wilde was immersed in poisonous pedagogy. Following Miller I surmise that Wilde must have endured an abusive childhood. It’s the only way to explain why he allowed to be treated so grotesquely by a destructive pseudo-ephebe (Bosie was no longer an adolescent when he met Wilde).

But Bosie himself never had what Miller calls an “enlightened witness”, somene who in our later life really understands parental-filial relations; although he seems to have looked very hard for it in the fatherly figure of Wilde. I cannot blame Wilde because very few souls, if any, had an enlightened witness in 19th century England. Had Wilde been Bosie’s witness, he would have recommended him to write a long, vindictive letter to his abusive father, just what Kafka would do in 1919 (what Sue Forward recommends to her clients in group therapy). But throughout De Profundis it is clear that both Wilde and Bosie were absolutely clueless about the nature of the problem. Wilde even reproaches Bosie for trying to expose publicly the abusive behavior of Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry.

Wilde himself never had an enlightened witness. In fact, his death was virtually a suicide. Once released from prison he drank a lot, including absinthe, and died prematurely at forty-six. Likewise, Bosie never found an enlightened witness. After Wilde died Bosie married and abused his only child, Raymond, so badly that he schizophrenized him.

How remarkable Wilde’s and Bosie’s stories are. It’s incredible to what extent has deep psychology advanced since Wilde’s De Profundis written in 1897 and Miller’s most comprehensive book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, published exactly a hundred years later.

I am no lover of literature. However, I loved those splendid passages in De Profundis that reminded me Solzhenitsyn’s chapter “The Soul and the Barbed Wire” in his immortal Gulag. Wilde’s De Profundis was probably the best in-depth, soul-surfing text that could be written by the end of the 19th century. However, at the end of the unabridged De Profundis (the available texts I’ve seen in the net are censored) Wilde blew up everything by writing to the very one who ruined his life in conciliatory terms, and even suggesting he would meet Bosie after leaving prison!

My first reading of De Profundis

Yesterday I read my 1995 handwritten notes within my old copy. I wrote those notes seven years before my inner transformation took place.

It does not cease to strike me my former blindness in psychologicis. During my first reading of De Profundis I didn’t see anything of what is crystal-clear to me now. According to my notes, fifteen years ago I almost blamed myself, following Wilde’s own advice, for my former hatred toward those who destroyed my life during my teens. Following Wilde, I also blamed myself for the many soliloquies I had had in my vain efforts to process the pain.

Now I know that due processing of the pain can only come with the advent of a true enlightened witness, or, alternatively, when we find that witness after doing emotional contact with our inner child. This happened to me after reading Miller: a witness that neither poor Wilde nor poor Bosie had.