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Ennodius’s Eucharisticon and the poetics of ascetic autobiography

David Ungvary

Dumbarton Oaks

This paper argues that Ennodius of Pavia’s (473-521) disavowal of secular poetry in his autobiographical prose work, the Eucharisticon (written c. 511), constitutes an act of ascetic renunciation in line with a Christian Latin literary tradition.

In this confessional text, Ennodius describes how physical illness catalyzed his spiritual transformation from arrogant pursuant of adulation through rhetorical and poetic composition to faithful and fully integrated deacon of the Catholic Church. The obvious parallels to the structure of Augustine’s ‘conversion’ moment, especially the turn from venditor verborum to consumer of scripture (cf. Confessions IX.5.13), have led some readers to criticize the Eucharisticon as derivative. Courcelle tracked Augustine’s influence on Ennodius’s text and determined it to be “a rather mediocre pastiche of the Confessions.” Fontaine, another Quellenforscher, went so far as to question the Christian character of the text. He suggested Horace as a potential model for Ennodius as poet-convert (citing Epist. I.1.10 where Horace swears off “versus et cetera ludicra”).

The prevailing critical chronology of Ennodius’s writings (Sundwall) has also negatively affected interpretations of the Eucharisticon. For it appears that Ennodius continued to write classicizing rhetorical and poetic works even after his apparent renunciation of such literature in the Eucharisticon (sections 4-7, 17). Accordingly, scholars like Kennell (1992) have labeled Ennodius’s autobiography a “fit of personal scrupulousness” after which “his basic rhetoricality prevailed”—a rhetoricality Auerbach once called “mannered to the point of absurdity.” For all this we are left with an image of Ennodius as an artificial, imitative self-fashioner and inconsistent thinker.

In this paper I attempt a reconsideration of Ennodius’s autobiographical technique through a twofold inquiry. First, I argue that the Eucharisticon’s literary-imitative character is in fundamental alignment with other spiritual autobiographies of Late Antiquity. If we consider Augustine’s famous conversion scene, for instance, we find his introspective moment in the garden to have been instigated by an introduction to ascetic literature—the Life of St. Anthony (cf. Confessions, 8.6.14). As Harpham has argued, this kind of reader-response is a pervasive feature of late ancient confessional writing and central to ascetic discipline in general, which he calls “a science of imitation made possible by the mimetic imitations of texts.” This interpretive framework allows for a reappraisal of the Eucharisticon. It is possible to see its imitative and rhetorical qualities as stemming from self-conscious and purposeful engagement with an ascetic literary tradition.

Accepting the influence of literary asceticism on the Eucharisticon enables a re-reading of Ennodius’s renunciation of secular literature. In the second part of the paper, I argue that the presentation of his literary turn away from “the fields of poetic composition” echoes rhetoric not found in Augustine’s Confessions, but that which belongs more properly to the Christian Latin poetic tradition. In particular, Ennodius’s concomitant disavowal of fiction, lies, and falsehood in the Eucharisticon (section 7) demonstrates a keen awareness of an ascetic poetics promulgated by Christian versifiers like Paulinus of Nola (cf. Carm. 20) and Sedulius (cf. Carmen Paschale, praef.).

In conclusion, to censure the Eucharisticon as a meager imitation of Augustine’s Confessions is to misunderstand the fundamentally imitative nature of late antique spiritual autobiography. It is also to miss the multidimensional nature of Ennodius’s imitative endeavor. Influenced by the ascetic “science of imitation,” Ennodius’s confessional text comprises an intentional and innovative repackaging of ascetic rhetoric culled from various strands of the Christian Latin literary tradition.

Session/Panel Title

Narrating the Self: Autobiography in Late Antiquity

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