Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Guest post: Leona Dobrescu

This is a guest post by a student I'm lucky enough to have taught this year - Leona Dobrescu. Leona is from Bucharest, in Romania, and I do not know what they teach them in schools there, but it is clearly working. This is an abbreviated version of the essay she wrote for my Martial class. I've never read anything better on Martial by an undergraduate student, or by many postgrads either. Actually, if I'd written this myself, I'd be pretty happy.

SHE IS A FIRST-YEAR STUDENT. Clearly great things can be expected of Leona Dobrescu.

Why do Martial’s books talk about Martial’s books so much?

If on a winter’s night a traveller, a seasoned reader of Borges and Eco, happens upon one of Martial’s little books of epigrams, the greatest surprise awaiting them there is not the smutty language, but the self-referentiality. There is certainly enough material in his fifteen books for an anthologist to devote two solely to poems on poetry, poets, the art of writing epigrams and, most prominently, on Martial himself. This opens some fascinating avenues of interpretation for the postmodern reader, and the key to some interesting recent scholarship on Martial; whether or not such readings are true to the author’s intentions is impossible to say, but also irrelevant.[1] It is the act of reading that ascribes intentionality to a work of literature, and the reader’s choice that decides what the meaning is.[2] We cannot say why ‘Martial’ (either the man, the author, or any of a multitude of first-person voices in his books) chose to write so much on this topic, but we can choose to analyse the effects of this constant metatextual barrage in particular, individual, ways. One reading, which this essay will explore and hopefully prove valid, is that the self-referential epigrams define (and often subvert) the limits of a ‘new’ genre, while also creating an image of an ideal reader and of an always elusive author.
Martial, of course, did not invent the epigram. His audience would have been familiar with Greek predecessors, such as Callimachus and, more recently, Loukillios and Nikarkhos, whose style is much closer to Martial’s own than that of their lofty predecessor. They would be even more likely to associate epigram with Roman authors, and in particular Catullus and the group of Neoteric poets. This last connection is the one Martial himself draws attention to the most, through his repeated claims to be, or to aspire to be, a second Catullus.[3] However, no previous author seems to have dedicated their entire career to this smallest of genres, nor, interestingly, does any book of epigrams survive with the same structural variety (even the Milan papyrus is arranged thematically, like the anthologies).[4] Martial’s books, on the other hand, allow new meanings to emerge through the juxtaposition of themes and characters; the reader is invited to create associations between consecutive epigrams, and to interpret, for instance, the invective against the censorious Cornelius at 1.35 as a counterpart to the moralising voice of the previous poem, condemning Lesbia for her openly whorish behaviour.[5] This interpretation is not, however, obligatory, and it is in this polyphony of meanings that Martial’s originality lies, and therefore this strategy of variatio, across large books made up of small poems, that the self-referential poems are first and foremost attempting to define – and defend – as art.
This can be seen throughout the twelve numbered books, in a series of epigrams either explicitly or allegorically discussing the heterogeneous design of Martial’s books. Several epigrams comment on the inevitability of quality variation in a lengthy book.[6] These have been associated with the poems about mixing wine, and in particular 1.18, where the admonition against defiling Falernian with Vatican (with poisonous results) appears so soon after the sententious couplet declaring that a book necessarily blends the good, the mediocre and the bad in 1.16.[7] However, Martial adamantly refuses to provide consistent answers to any question: drinking straight wine is also bad, as is mixing it with water.[8] The books are sometimes presented as a feast, and, once again, too fine a gourmand is no better than an excessively frugal diner. Even though the distinction here is between a reader unwilling to appreciate lengthy epigrams and one too keen on biting satire – evidently incommensurable categories – they are still contrasted as opposites through the culinary allegory.[9] Where moderation is recommended, however, there is plenty of room to suspect insincerity: 1.57 declares a preference for women who are not too coy, nor too easy. Interestingly, Martial also calls himself out when he fails to follow his own rule and delivers too many epigrams on one theme, through the voice of Stella; the childish reply (‘Well, if this seems too much to you, Stella, why not on your side give me hare twice over for dinner?’) only brings Stella’s objection into sharper relief.[10]
The effect of all of these contradictory voices is much the same as that of the structural principle they are discussing: they draw the reader into a chaotic environment of epigram, into the tumultuous ‘Rome’ that emerges from these books, while also forcing him to reflect on what he is reading, and on the act of reading itself. He is at the same time frequently told to read the whole book and encouraged to mix and match,[11] or even, if he so chooses, to make a ‘Book I’ of a ‘Book II’ by erasing an iota.[12] The book of epigrams itself is defined as quintessentially eclectic; its variations in quality, length and metre transcend the classical aesthetic principle of unity and harmony, rather than, as it would appear at first sight, simply infringing upon it. ‘The man who tries to vary a single subject in monstrous fashion, is like a painter adding a dolphin to the woods, a boar to the waves,’ says Horace, and Martial presents himself as just such a painter.[13]
The self-referential epigrams, then, are an integral part of Martial’s poetic universe. They structure it and define it; they contradict each other and thereby draw attention to the playful inconsistency of their world. They call into question its reality by forcing the reader to acknowledge the part he plays in this literary spectacle, and the choices he makes as part of the process. Finally, they set up the shadowy figure of ‘Martial’ – ostensibly the eminently accessible author, made famous all over the world by his loving fans, but whose actual voice is lost in the cacophony of competing voices declaiming his poems.                                                                                                                                                

[1] For instance, Fowler 1995 and Holzberg 2004 discuss the entire corpus of Martial’s poetry as a planned whole.
[2] Fowler 2000: 11.
[3] Swann 1998: 48-49.
[4] Fitzgerald 2007: 26.
[5] Rimell 2008: 25-26.
[6] Martial 1.16, 7.81, 7.90.
[7] Fitzgerald 2007: 90; Rimell 2008: 32-34.
[8] For instance, Martial 1.11 and 1.106, respectively.
[9] Martial 10.59, 10.45.
[10] Martial 1.44.
[11] Martial 11.107 and 10.1, 11.16 etc., respectively.
[12] Martial 2.93.
[13] Horace Ars poetica 29-31. Trans. R. Fairclough 1929.

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