Yes

“I can do everything with my language, but not with my body. What I hide by my language, my body utters. I can deliberately mold my message, not my voice. […] My body is a stubborn child, my language is a very civilized adult…”
—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (44)

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Oh the lover’s discourse. I know it well. One hardly requires an other for the discourse to sustain itself. But I suppose the euphoria and bitter ruefulness would not quite be the same without X. Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse, is by turns a complicit exploration into the sometimes amusing, sometimes helplessly humiliating neurosis of the hall of mirrors that is the lover’s internal discourse with the other, and which—consumes.

(What is stupid is to be surprised. The lover is constantly so; he has no time to transform, to reverse, to protect. Perhaps he knows his stupidity, but he does not censure it. Or again: his stupidity acts as a cleavage, a perversion: it’s stupid, he says, and yet…it’s true.). (177)

The book’s purpose is driven by Barthes’ assertion (found in a sort of prologue) that “the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude” and that it is “completely forsaken by the surrounding language: ignored, disparaged, or deride by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (science, techniques, arts).” The construction of the book too is a lovely thing. Fragments of discourse, organized by a word and the particular definition that word has to the lover, with running sidebars of the lover’s accomplices in forming the ideas within: Diderot, Lacan, Stendhal, Werther (oh lots of Werther!)Freud, Proust and many others…”So it is the lover who speaks and who says:”

To Be Ascetic
askesis
Whether he feels guilty with regard to the loved
being, or whether he seeks to impress that being
by representing his unhappiness, the amorous
subject outlines an ascetic behavior of
self-punishment (in life-style, dress, ect.).

1. Since I am guilty of this, of that, (I have—I assign myself—a thousand reasons for being so), I shall punish myself, I shall chasten my body: cut my hair very short, conceal my eyes behind dark glasses (a way of taking the veil), devote myself to the study of some serious and abstract branch of learning. (33)

It goes on, but…that one made me laugh. I can’t say I relate to the dark glasses (he has an entire entry on dark glasses) but that may just be because I’m near-sighted and need my regular glasses to see the world further than whatever book I have in my hand. But it could be possible to say my entire education is an offering at the alter of the lover’s discourse.

Barthes’ passage on Waiting is another quite funny rift on the harrowing heights and fathomless depths our discourse travels in the space of ten minutes.

The setting represents the interior of a café, we have a rendezvous, I am waiting. […] I discern and indicate the other’s delay; this delay is as yet only a mathematical, computable entity…[…] What is to be done (anxiety of behavior)? […] I am internally livid. That is the play; it can be shortened by the other’s arrival; if the other arrives in Act I, the greeting is calm; if the other arrives in Act II, there is a “scene” […] “Am I in love? —Yes, since I am waiting.” (38)

Am I in love? is a question fraught with anxiety, hope, excitement—but wait! it leads into another phrase, and moment of when—when does “I love you” come to sit on the lover’s lips dangerously threatening to be uttered at an unguarded moment?  And, well, first, what, actually, does it mean to say “I love you” ? Barthes approaches the phrase as a single word (as a Hungarian—he explains that it IS a single word in Hungarian) There is a correlation between the difficulty of defining what the word “word” means and the single utterance of “I love you.”

3. The word (the word-as-sentence) has a meaning only at the moment I utter it; there is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armory of meaning. Everything is in the speaking of it.” (149)

Barthes spends some time here. Diving into the waves of possible answers to I love you, after, of course, defining the dimensions of such an utterance: no real usage in the world, no nuance in its all-or-nothing clumsiness, no place to fasten itself to…but what do we know? We lover’s of the world? We know:

I-love-you is active. It affirms itself as a force—against other forces. Which ones? The thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.) Or again: against language. Just as the amen is at the limit of language, without collusion with its system, stripping it of its “reactive mantle,” so the proffering of love (I-love-you) stands at the limit of syntax, welcomes tautology (I-love-you means I-love-you), rejects servility of the Sentence (it is merely a holophrase). (154)

So yes, this self-inflicted discourse is of endless fascination. The wonder and beauty of the word I-love-you is that— all Barthes says about it is true, but its meaning is in its activity: not its letters, not in its internalization. I-love-you alone connects, and connects to all the parts: the sensual, the emotional, the intellectual: it is the scaffold by which the lovers’ hands caress each other, the lovers’ hearts sing with the other, and the lovers’ mind builds castles in the air together.

4. The truth: what is oblique. a monk once asked Kao Tsu: “What is the unique and final word of truth?”…The master replied: “Yes.” (231)

*Monoprint— “Book XX, Homer” (unfinished) by J. Ryan 2015

Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)

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As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

The Unseen

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Gypsy & Other Poems

In Johanna Drucker’s 2005 article published in The Bonefolder, “Exemplary Work,” she laments that the “field of artist books suffers from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied, and under-discussed” (3). The article is a sharp critique, and yet it would be difficult to argue that she is wrong about some of what the artist book suffers from. Drucker has been writing about and making artists books for decades now, and is very much an insider: part of the history, theorizing, and discussing-class of the field. As an outsider, new to the world of artist books, I feel as though I come to this issue from a different perspective.  Drucker and I share a love of the genre, and a concern as well, but as I have not been steeped in the culture but recently (and am perhaps late to the party), I wonder if her emphasis on “specific descriptive vocabulary,” a perceived lack of a canon of artists, or “critical terminology for book arts with historical perspective” (3) is quite the fundamental problem.

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If one looks at a book published by Gehenna Press, such as Gypsy & Other Poems, a clear historical perspective is indeed evident. Leonard Baskin, the late artist, sculptor and proprietor of Gehenna Press, worked with one foot, at least, well within the Fine Press tradition of book publishing. In Gypsy & Other Poems, using the poetry of revered writer James Baldwin, Baskin created a sumptuous finished product which tactilely, aesthetically and emotionally adds to Baldwin’s work. Rather than illustrate Baldwin’s poetry, Baskin found inspiration in the man himself by reserving his artistic prowess for various portraits of Baldwin which follow the poems in the back of the book.

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The poems are put forth with a fierce and pointed commitment to traditional Fine Press practices: the margins are of generous proportions, the letter face is beautifully composed in black and red ink alone, the quality of materials are in evidence. Baskin offers Baldwin, a man who suffered from an exclusionary racist society, to the reader with the dignity which he deserves as expressed in the reverence, quality, and gravitas of a 20th century Livre d’Artiste. Baskin’s influence in the history and canon of artist books can hardly be ignored. While taking from the conservative art form of letterpress, he advanced the craft by adding his intense, and often disquieting, etchings. William Morris may very well serve as the looming figurehead of the Fine Press tradition, but it is the Livre d’Artiste that brought the genre of book arts into a new century, and artists such as Baskin that moved it yet further forward.

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Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire

 

Paul Eluard’s books such as Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire, (which to answer Janet Zweig’s litmus test: could certainly sustain me on a desert island) or the even more seminal, A Toute Epreuve, perfectly testify to a certain history and canon, of which Baskin was obviously influenced. The conversation within A Toute Epreuve between poet (Eluard) and artist (Joan Miro) is of the sort that initiated an entire genre of collaborative work: writer, artist and publisher, not necessarily three different people, but three distinct roles whose attention to the artist’s contribution altered and shaped modern artist books.

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A Toute Epreuve

 

Whereas text was once the dominating distinguishing feature of books, the era of the Livre d’Artiste expanded the ground that a book could cover. The enthusiasm with which the Livre d’Artiste was received, testifies to the public’s appetite for the complexity of text and art converging in the intimacy of the book form. That complexity has exponentially increased as the artist book’s structure, materials, and dimensions are experimented with in earnest.

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I don’t believe Drucker would argue with any of the above, she, more than I, understands the nuanced history of the artist book. Perhaps her complaint is really more along the lines of that particular history taking its proper place in the academic world. Where is the chapter on artist books in Jansen’s History of Art? Or E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art? There isn’t one.  Clearly, the artist book is seen as something outside of the regular history of art. I don’t disagree with Drucker there, where I do quibble is over the question of the proper nomenclature or descriptive words.  I approach artists books in the same way that I would approach any art. All of the questions Drucker wants to ask concerning one’s experience as a viewer applies as well to a painting as it does to a piece of literature, or an artists’ book.

We have the words and critical discourse in place. It is simply that artist books aren’t in the discussion. Why? The fact that artist books draw on multiple genres (literature, art, sculpture, the ubiquity of the utilitarian book!) should in no way discourage viewers or critics—one would think rather that it makes for a more interesting set of questions and challenges for artist and viewer alike. I believe the problem lies in the issue of access. A few years ago I did not even know what an artist book was.  My complaint, or worry, is that no one ever sees these things. They are locked away in rare book rooms, a place many eschew or are ignorant of, and it seems to me, many books are now being produced with the sole aim of selling them to the institutions that lock them away. I rarely, outside of special shows or Medieval Manuscript museums, have seen books displayed in museums. And books, by their nature, resist the ease of display that paintings or sculptures enjoy. They must be handled, and yet, they cannot be handled. They demand time: to read, peruse, and turn the pages, and that poses problems in this ‘drive-by’ society. What to do? I’m sure I don’t know, but I can’t see a solution that does not involve a greater visible presence in the world: in museums, galleries, library displays, art history books…if people do not know they exist, they aren’t going to look for them, much less discuss their artistic merit, which, like all art, varies wildly, and is at the mercy of subjectivity.

*previously published in fall of 2014 in Smith College’s “The Artist Book in the 20th Century” blog.

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
—E.E. Cummings
*”darling buds what may” —monoprint with torn paper, J. Ryan 2015

Vita Activa

If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth 
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (234)

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I took my twelve-year-old son to a college lecture last week called Creatures Who Create: Should We Bring Back Lost Species? given by Bruce Jennings the Director of Bioethics For Humans and Nature. He began the talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt. As it turns out it was from her book The Human Condition—a book that has been on what I call my “bbq” (beckoning books queue) for over a year. So it seemed time to read it.

To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself (58).

Divided into five major parts: The Public and Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action, and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age, Arendt gives a deeply thoughtful and historical account of the permeating modern angst of alienation. I could hardly do it justice to it in this format—even pulling quotes seems a bit violent to the content. Overwhelmingly, though, I feel that quickening— my perspective, my ability to contemplate the nature of our “condition” has been cracked open that much more. An intellectual expansion brought about by respect for her method of inquiry, as well her sensitivity to her subject.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity (121).

This false expectation of ever being free of labor which is a necessary child of necessity is key to Arendt’s thesis and a fascinating entré into how work differs from labor and ultimately how labor has been subsumed in our culture into a cult of productivity instead of a healthier recognition of  labor’s true status as a cycle, an unceasing necessity, as well as an appreciation of product-less work which has a permanence and immortality which humans need to feel connected to life.

Works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things[…] they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed […] can only destroy them. […] It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read” (167-8).

There is so much in the book my head is still in a stupor of reader’s gluttony. When my son and I left the lecture I asked him what he thought of it. Being a little contrarian, he said he had understood nothing. But as we discussed the topic I pointed out to him that his opinion of the matter aligned very nicely with what the speaker had presented. Yes, he was forced to admit, he had understood and thought about plenty. I told him even if 40 minutes of the 60 minute lecture was impenetrable to him I was not concerned, boredom is a good and profitable condition as far as intellectual and creative stimulation are concerned, and the 20 minutes that sunk in gave us an evening’s worth of contemplation together, and lifetime’s worth individually.

As Arendt points out, all action stems from contemplation and the lack of contemplation when considering actions which inevitably, indeed— ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences  is a vastly underused skill in our culture. We are all thrown into this world and we must, and can, forgive the others thrown-in before us for their actions which led to what looks like an environmental catastrophe in the making. That does not mean that we should withdraw into isolation, or give up on the only thing that gives our lives meaning—each other. We must profoundly, prudently, and compassionately contemplate the decisions that we make which impact our selves (which is always a plurality), our planetary cohabitants, and our world. And then we must act.

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”