- Seneca’s Nausea: “Existential” Experiences and Julio-Claudian Literature
A proper commentary, however, never understands the text better than its author understood it, though it certainly understands it differently. Only this difference in understanding must be such that it encounters the same thing which the explicated text is meditating.—Martin Heidegger, “Nietzsche’s Word: God Is Dead”
Persius’s third satire begins with the question, “Oh, this still?” (nempe haec adsidue, 3.1), and proceeds to show us a poet reluctant to wake up, then yelling at his slave and complaining about the recalcitrance of his ink and reed, much like (the narrator observes) a “tender dove” or “the royal brats,” refusing to let himself be lullabied away from his crankiness (lallare recusas, 3.18). Horace, in his Epistles, dictates a notice to Celsus that “I am living neither rightly nor pleasantly . . . because I am less healthy in mind than in the rest of my body, and don’t want to hear or learn anything to relieve my illness” (1.8.1–8). After giving further details about this lethargy (veternus), but saying nothing about how it could be cured, he simply moves on to asking Celsus how he is. Seneca, finally, ends his twenty-fourth letter to Lucilius with the warning that “at the impulsion of philosophy itself” (ipsa inpellente philosophia) we may despairingly ask, “How much longer [must we endure] the same things?” (Quo usque eadem?). Speaking in the persona of such a questioner, “I do nothing new,” he perorates, “I see nothing new. Eventually there’s a nausea even of this [fit aliquando et huius rei nausea]” (24.26).
We are tempted to ask ourselves, What is wrong with these people?1 In Persius’s satire, at least, an answer is given (though the exposition is far from pellucid). As Cynthia Dessen (1968, 53–7), following a long tradition, has outlined, the poem offers a Stoic criticism of the protagonist as being of “unhealthy” mind, but either unaware of his “illness” or [End Page 67] unwilling to seek a cure.2 For Stoics, the cure for this ill health is the wisdom gained through philosophy (see Persius 3.66–72). Of course, modern theorists have taught us that we can enter this text from infinitely many angles: if a reader finds here a meditation on the use and abuse of alcohol, or asserts that the angry Stoic really just needs to be loved, we shall not invalidate those readings. However, if, by asking “What is wrong?,” we choose to imply that there is some experience being expressed in the text (at least for some group of presumed, even if not explicitly posited, likeminded readers), then we may want to restrict this “polysemy.” Since we are aiming at an initial consensus, we might begin from the broadly—though certainly not universally—accepted methodology of investigating, against the appropriate historical and generic backgrounds, the conceptual and narrative frameworks in which that experience is situated. Thus, we would acknowledge the structure outlined by Dessen, for example, before beginning to speak of “depressive melancholia, of an essentially existentialist sort” (Toohey 2004, 54) in Persius’s satire.
Now that “existentialism” has made its way into this paper, perhaps I had better add that a certain consensus will be helpful here as well. Although the general interest of the topic may be well indicated by Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, for ease of handling I shall turn to somewhat less humorous sources. In this article, when speaking of “existentialist” theories or “existential” ennui (nausea, angst, boredom, etc.), I denote those representations that make ennui an inescapable concomitant of the human condition. This need not entail that our actions cannot mitigate the problem. I have in mind, for example, the theories put forward by Sartre and Camus,3 for whom differing susceptibilities to “nausea” or the feeling of “absurdity” are certainly conceivable (see further below). If we weigh the narrative framework of Persius’s third satire against these stipulations, then we should not use the term “existential( ist)” to express what his protagonist experiences: the narrative appears to describe a problem and a solution, we would say, not...