In her new book, Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural (Chicago University Press, 2015), Shadi Bartsch illuminates a poetic corpus notoriously dark in both senses: obscure of expression and pessimistic about human potential. In characteristically clear and captivating prose, she zeroes in on Persius’ transgressive metaphors in his first five Satires and identifies a consistent strategy on the part of this slippery author. Persius, in Bartsch’s account, deftly unites his literary technique with his philosophical aims to put his unsuspecting reader in a bind. Bartsch demonstrates in closely argued detail how Persius’ “contribution to the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” (8) works doubly through metaphor. A repertory of semantic fields – “the alimentary, the bodily, digestion, medicine, poison, male-male sexuality, philosophy” (10) – enacts Persius’ Stoic message by subjecting his reader to a jarring test: the vehicle causes disgust at the same time as the tenor demands dispassion.
The first part of her book analyzes the workings of individual metaphor-types through a series of subtle close readings based on detailed exposition of technical medical and philosophical parallels. Persius dwells notoriously on the grotesque: cannibalism, an ejaculating eye, sodomy, and a bizarrely harsh beet that scrapes the throat as it goes down raw. Like Persius himself, Bartsch lures her reader into reacting with frisson at the satirist’s “morbid fascination with perversity,” even while she tracks his philosophical goals with sustained argumentation and her analytic cool maintains a consistent position of critical distance. In the book’s second part, Bartsch turns to the status and dynamics of metaphor itself in the Satires. Persius, she suggests, has turned inside out a figure traditionally associated with pleasure in the ancient rhetorical tradition. Through his use of conspicuously harsh and disgusting metaphors, he challenges the poetics of pleasure and champions instead a salutary – and resolutely austere – philosophical mode. His metaphors perform his philosophy, but by doing so end up critiquing their own processes of signification: their manifest self-contradiction makes it difficult to “‘save’ [them] for philosophy” (192). To the extent that the metaphors fascinate through disgust, they bind the reader futilely to the poetry; to the extent that they enable the reader to achieve tranquility through a kind of aversion-therapy, they make themselves superfluous. No protreptic to virtue, they are apotreptic not only from vice, but also from their own repulsive selves. Unlike Persius, Bartsch offers pure enjoyment. She takes us step by step through a tight argument that arouses in her reader an acute sense of intellectual pleasure spiced with amused detachment.
The rigor and subtlety of Bartsch’s argument, the fine-grained texture and detail of her individual readings, the impressive assemblage of medical and alimentary comparanda she brings to bear, and the sheer wit and sparkle of her writing, all distinguish her study, richly deserving of the Goodwin Award of Merit, as a vital contribution to the understanding of one of Rome’s most puzzling and elusive poets.