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  • The Bodily Grotesque in Roman Satire: Images of Sterility 1
  • Paul Allen Miller

The joyful, open, festive laugh. The closed, purely negative satirical laugh. This is not a laughing laugh. The Gogolian laugh is joyful. 2

It is virtually impossible today to write about the body, the grotesque, or the comic without encountering the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. Since the publication of Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin’s concepts of “carnival” and “grotesque realism” have become major players in all such discussions. 3 One of the unfortunate side effects of this phenomenon has been that more often than not the historical and generic specificity of Bakhtin’s argument has been lost in the rush to hail the triumph of the lower bodily stratum, the celebration of fertility, and the subversion of authority wherever images of the grotesque are to be seen. 4 This cavalier appropriation of his concept of carnival has, in turn, made it easy to discredit Bakhtin’s [End Page 257] analyses by simply pointing out examples of the grotesque to which carnival exuberance seems foreign, if not antithetical. 5 One such case is Roman satire. 6 This paper, however, will demonstrate the essential correctness of the Bakhtinian position in regard to Latin satire by returning from the vague, widely disseminated image of carnival gaiety that has been attributed to Bakhtin to the specificity of his text in which he argues that satire, though often rich in grotesque imagery, is essentially bereft of the idea of its regenerative force. Consequently, the festive laughter of carnival and the negative laughter of satire are always, as in our epigraph, strictly distinguished.

More importantly, Bakhtin, in the chapter entitled “Rabelais in the History of Laughter,” makes a sharp distinction between satire and the carnivalesque, and between the classical body and the grotesque. For him, satire, far from representing the revivifying gaiety of carnival festivity, exemplifies a one-sided negativity whose predominant thematic structure is one of stasis rather than growth. 7 Any form of grotesque degradation that does not include a strong restorative element within it represents not the fulfilment of carnival but its loss. Writing about the grotesque ritual of crowning the king of fools and the consequent uncrowning of normative authority that he saw at the heart of carnival gaiety, Bakhtin notes: [End Page 258]

This ritual determined a special decrowning type of structure for artistic images and whole works, one in which the decrowning was essentially ambivalent and two-leveled. If carnivalistic ambivalence should happen to be extinguished in these images of decrowning, they degenerated into a purely negative exposé of a moral or socio-political sort, they became single-leveled, lost their artistic character, and were transformed into naked journalism. 8

This genre of the “purely negative exposé” represents for Bakhtin the world of satire. And while we may find the artistic evaluation of such works as “naked journalism” 9 less than satisfying, this statement clearly demonstrates the impossibility of directly assimilating Bakhtin’s concept of satire to the carnivalesque. The presence of the grotesque is not a sufficient ground on which to determine that a given work belongs to the tradition of carnival.

In addition, the classical body, i.e., the ideal body of high classical sculpture and art, is for Bakhtin sealed and finished. It does not leak. The grotesque body, however, is one whose orifices are open to the world. It spills over well-defined bounds. It is budding and feculent. 10 If Bakhtin’s basic distinction between carnival and satire is accurate, then we would not expect the grotesque bodies of Roman satire to produce images of carnival fecundity. Instead they would be negative creations—icons of sterility, degradation, and ultimately death.

This paper will argue that such a characterization of Roman satire is essentially correct and will examine six representative passages in this light, two from each of the major surviving Roman satirists: Juvenal 9.43–46, where the bisexual gigolo 11 Naevolus negatively compares servicing his master’s cinaedic desires to the labor of a common slave ploughing his [End Page 259] master’s field; Juvenal 6.116–35, in which the empress Messalina is shown moonlighting at a whorehouse; Persius...

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