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Joyce und Menippos: “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Dog” (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 369-372 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0066

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Since the days of Northrop Frye, the concept of Menippean satire has played a relatively minor role in critical discourse, despite the term’s relevance in the context of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work.1 In this interesting book, Dieter Fuchs attempts to demonstrate the importance of the genre to an understanding of Joyce’s work and its role in what he calls “classical modernism” (back cover).

In the first chapter, Fuchs places the genre in its historical context, that of Marcus Terentius Varro’s Roman satire, the Hellenistic spoudogelion, and the late encyclopedism of the Menippean summa, and by the end of the book, all of these different strands will turn out to be equally relevant to the argument. But there is more: the symposial mindset chooses the symposium as a ritual for a way of thinking that is based on personal autonomy and democratic equality (with the Greek city state as its original utopia), and thus since the end of the classical period, it has functioned in the culture and history of the West as a submerged but nevertheless strong alternative to the dominant Christian mindset.

A clear definition of Menippean satire as a genre in Latin and Greek literature is difficult to achieve because only fragments (in the case of Menippus of Gadara) or nothing at all (in the case of his Syrian compatriot Meleager) remain of the work of the two first practitioners. Originally these writers mixed the serious and the comic, inscribing serious philosophical questions in a comic manner. When the Roman author Varro wrote a series of what he himself termed saturae menippeae based on the works of Menippus, the term acquired generic significance, despite the introduction of the term “satire,” which is an exclusively Roman concept describing a pedantic philosopher speaker (the philosophus gloriosus) who spouts erudition but completely misses the significance of what is happening in the world around him. No wonder that the Roman theorist Quintillian describes satire as “tota nostra” (“completely ours”):2 the most important examples of the genre are Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Petronius’s Satyricon. Yet there was also a Hellenistic tradition that remained much closer to the original work of Menippus: the spoudogelion is a mixture of the serious and the comic (as in the works of Lucian and Apuleius), but, much more than Roman satire, it preserves the cynic philosophical stance. Whereas Varro makes fun of the pedantic philosopher, in a playful manner, Lucian questions the very possibility of human understanding.

The third and final form of Menippean satire is the late-classical summa, the encyclopedic attempt by the pagan Roman writers, under attack from Christianity, to collect as much of their culture as possible. Despite the fact that these works seem to advocate a reconciliation between pagan philosophy and Christianity, they subtly manage to undermine the new ideology. From there, the genre resurfaces again in a combination of linguistic play and encyclopedic breadth in authors such as François Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Herman Melville, and Thomas Mann, but more importantly for Fuchs and more crucially from the point of view of Joyce’s reference to it, the genre tends to be an implicit critique of Christianity. Fuchs argues that the genre itself is the result of the coexistence, in Gadara, of tensions between Hellenism and Judeo-Christianity, which even made their way into the Christian revelation by means of the intertextual use of Plato’s Symposium in the Fourth Gospel.

This genealogy of Menippean satire is argued in detail, but the real focus of the book is that Joyce himself was aware of this context, a fact that has been missed by such Joyce scholars as R. J. Schork who documents Joyce’s debt to Greek and Latin sources but misses the significance of the genre in the development of Joyce as a writer.3 Given that the Menippean tradition has not been defined in quite this way until the present study, Fuchs follows in the footsteps of Max Nänny who has stressed the relevance of the Menippean for Joyce in an unpublished paper delivered at the Frankfurt Symposium, but he has set himself a task that is too ambitious. This book might have...



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