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Chaos(mos): A Posthuman Ecocritical Reading of Natura in Seneca’s Thyestes

Simona Martorana

Durham University

What is the role of the human species in relation to environmental changes and natural phenomena? Is the binary opposition of culture versus nature still suitable to describe the relationship between human and non-human aspects of the environment? Are we – as humans – really entitled to understand, judge and transform environmental dynamics? According to the posthuman feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti (2002; 2013; 2019), traditional dichotomies need to be challenged and dismantled in the light of the close advent of a post-human world, where the borders and differences between man and woman, nature and culture, subject and object, human and machine are blurred and indistinguishable. By building upon the idea of Nature as an independent, fluid force that goes beyond human comprehension, my paper engages with the latest applications of posthuman ecocriticism to the Classics (e.g., Bianchi 2019; Holmes 2019) to reconsider the role of Nature (with capital N-) in Seneca’s Thyestes.

Natural phenomena appear exceptional, incoherent and unexplainable in the Thyestes, at least from a human perspective. At Thy.789-884, the Chorus comments on the complete subversion of natural laws, which is marked by extraordinary events, such as eclipses or disruption of the constellation cycles. This cosmic disorder has been read as a reaction of Nature to Thyestes’ cannibalism and, therefore, interpreted as an articulation of the Stoic concept of Sympathy (e.g. Volk 2006; Boyle 2017). However, this supposedly consequential environmental response does not remain consistent throughout the play, as in the last act of the drama the natural forces appear not to be touched by Thyestes’ impiety anymore (1035-51; 1068-96; cf. Rosenmeyer 2000). Lack of consistency, exceptionality and unpredictability are simply expressions of a restricted and partial, that is, humanised perspective on Nature: natural phenomena appear unintelligible just because they are unintelligible to humans, not because they are incongruent tout court. Through the incorporation of natural responses in their personal experience, the characters of the Thyestes present their anthropocentric view as the only possible explanations of these responses. While according to this limited, and intrinsically biased, view natural laws are thought to have a meaning that is clear to humans, the (alleged) incongruity between Man and Nature demonstrates that the environment cannot be encompassed by a human perspective, nor can it respond to human demands.

The ambivalence of natural forces in the Thyestes therefore displaces the idea of man’s hegemony over Nature and challenges the anthropocentric notion of the human male as a representative of all species, as well as a proper interpreter of natural phenomena. This ambiguity also articulates the lack of a clear distinction between human subjective perception and ‘objective’ natural conditions, as well as pointing out Nature’s independent agency. Through the example of the Thyestes’ ‘inconsistent Nature’, this paper not only shows the profitability of Environmental Humanities to enrich our understanding of Latin poetry but also links the ancient text with the contemporary debate about the limits, the challenges, and the potential of (posthuman) ecocriticism.

Session/Panel Title

Latin Literature and the Environmental Humanities: Challenges and Perspectives

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