Synecdoche and hyperbole are devices dear to Juvenal’s heart. Moderating Horace’s moderation and spicing up Persius’s desiccated decoction, this satirist of extremes sets out to outdo his predecessors from the outset; and he does this through, among other things, a balance between the minutely specific and the overwhelmingly general. Both close-up and long-shot are delicately connected in Juvenal: each is a reflection of the other, and the result is that Juvenal’s satire hangs together by a strange kind of cosmic sympathy. Juvenal, more than any other satirist, exploits the process of exemplary extrapolation: the reader is given a specific example and extrapolates to the general case. The macrocosm of humanity is concretised and understood through the microcosm – the only way it can be done in a world of innumerable vices and crimes. So Sat.13.160-1: humani generis mores tibi nosse volenti / sufficit una domus (on Juvenalian synecdoche, cf. Larmour 2007, 193).
In this paper, I re-read Juvenal Satire 15 as the satirist’s climactic experiment with synecdoche – and test how far we can read it as a synecdoche representative of the poet’s bulging corpus. The poem narrates a self-consciously gigantic example of recent crime in a case of cannibalism, sparked off by a religious feud between two remote Egyptian towns (recent readings, see Anderson 1988, Keane 2007, McKim 1986, Plaza 2006, 338ff., Singleton 1983, Tennant 1995). This highly specific and geographically marginal event looks as if it will be a classic exercise in Roman self-definition vis-à-vis a barbarian Other; but it ends up swallowed within a cosmopolitan voice that pronounces on the general decline of modern mankind, shrinking noticeably in Homer’s time, now even ranked below fierce members of the animal kingdom. Juvenal presses the limits of how ‘universalising’ and ‘philosophical’ satiric discourse can really become, dealing as it does in the currency of the particular.
I shall also consider the poem’s obsession with partitioning the human body and the human race. Throughout the mock-epic narrative of the brawl and the feast, humans are reduced to mere body parts, or expanded into depersonalised mass movements. The sole ‘whole body’ in the satire is that of the wholly consumed man (15.91, absumpto iam toto corpore). But the denial of bodily integrity and rampant (an)atomisation are features common to both narrator and narrated. Juvenal’s schematising eye reads body parts as food in exactly the same way as the Egyptian townspeople do. The splayed bits and pieces of humanity are a way to figure Juvenal’s poetic practice (cf. Most 1992 on the dismemberment aesthetic in Neronian literature), which eschews organic wholes and a recognisable satiric self.
The reading aims to move away from persona-dominated discussions of Juvenal that reduce his work to the long story of a changing relationship with anger, of which Satire 15 is the final definitive instalment (Braund 1988). Instead, go for the jugular and expose the satirist as a self-imploding entity who absorbs the lessons of cannibalism to his ‘succulent hearts’ (mollissima corda) (cf. Gowers 1993, 200); a body which inflates the synecdochic impulse to such a level that it ends up consuming itself (building on Plaza 2006, and the readings of Anderson 1988 and McKim 1986). The satire is not just about anger; it also enacts the confusion between self and other arising through consumption, and the sympathetic logic that always threatens to draw the satirist closer – all too close – to the foodstuffs spread out on his satiric table. Hyperbolically, it is about the challenge of speaking for and representing humanity; it is impossible to talk about parts of it without being part of it yourself.
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