Theses Doctoral

In search of a corpus: book and body in the Satires of Persius

Brassel, Kate Meng

This dissertation treats Persius’ book of satires as a physical object, as a text to be read aloud, as a literary artefact that has a fundamental total structure, and as a text that is interested in its genre and in how satire can position itself against tired philosophical and literary traditions and tropes. It seeks to diversify the intellectual contexts in which the satirist may be situated—both literary and philosophical, ranging from Hipponax to Ovid, Plato to Cornutus. In the first chapter, we struggle to track down a poet who compulsively avoids identification in his Prologue. It turns out that he is best identified by a reactionary Hipponactean meter and very misleading birdsounds. Without addressee or self-identification or occasion, the poem is labeled a carmen at the same time that we are told that carmina are to be distrusted. In the second chapter, the poet introduces his libellus to us—or, rather, it turns out that he is not interested in us at all—he talks to his book or to some fiction that he has invented for the occasion of Satire I. The book itself may be read or not, he doesn’t mind. The poet focuses his attention on the poetry-reading practices of others in performance, alighting upon their every intimate body part, but denies us a view of him—he is merely the concealed spleen. In Chapter Three, the poet continues his exploration of performative speech (prayer, this time) in Satire II, while maintaining his self-concealment. We see only his inner, highly unappealing raw heart on a platter. A body part further to the spleen is added to our plate: the heart, uncooked. His last words hint at what he has to offer; but we’ll be sorry that he does soon enough. Chapter Four shows that in the central poem, Satire III, the poet swings vastly in the other direction. Rather than a disembodied critique of others, the poem’s opening lines are highly focalized through the poet’s experience. He exposes more of his body than we would ever wish to see—splitting and gaping open, it becomes a giant pore. At the same moment, his book comes physically into our view, but it is as split as he is. The hardened critic turns out to be a leaky vessel, a failing proficiens who cannot catch up to his Stoic lessons. In the fifth chapter, the poet picks up another book, Plato’s Alcibiades, which shares his interest in the morally underdeveloped youth and the hazards of ethical progress. In Satire IV, his rendition of that dialogue, Persius offers a theory of dialogue as fiction that frames his engagement with philosophy. The result is that the Stoics may find that they have a very bad student on their hands, one who raises the specter of Socrates’ misbehavior and failures. The sixth chapter expands the discussion of Persius’ relation to the Platonic corpus in Satire V, which sustains and develops Platonic questions of desire, slavery, and praise, and confuses its own genres. Finally, Chapter Seven addresses Persius’ retreat, projected death, and reincarnation in Satire VI. He reflects upon the fate of his body. He is unconcerned about what happens to bodies and poets—and, implicitly, their texts—after death. The poet’s book and the body are merged in their insignificance.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Williams, Gareth David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 13, 2018