- Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept by William Fitzgerald
The student or scholar toiling at the coalface of Latin literary studies, including one mining the far-reaching veins of the classical tradition, need only to be reassured that Fitzgerald’s Variety really is about varietas to know that it is a crucial addition to the classics bookshelf. The more difficult task is to explain this book to a potential reader who does not already know that “variety” is a “Roman concept” (as Fitzgerald’s subtitle labels it, though inside he carefully compares Greek poikilia)—or even that it rises to the level of a “concept” at all. Indeed, at first glance the very meaning of “variety” would seem to be so various as to undermine any effort to wrestle the term to its Latin etymological ground and confine both its semantic range and its persistent importance between the covers of a single book.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald does just that, to thrilling (if sometimes dizzying) effect, convincingly demonstrating that to track variety is to unfold a Roman roadmap of classical thought itself. From its apparent original meaning of “multi-colored,” varius grew into a complex complement and foil to better-remembered ancient celebrations of artistic unity, such as Horace’s simplex et unum. Yes, the motivation to vary could sometimes be as simple as a desire to avoid monotony, but even this could give way to what Fitzgerald calls “anti-synoptic aesthetics” (70): a fully fledged alternative to Aristotle’s imperative to make art that can be absorbed by a single view. Horace himself confounds the principle of unity, creating what Nietzsche famously characterized as a “mosaic of words,” as Fitzgerald explains. Varied art, in turn, invoked varied nature, endlessly playing with the question of which variety of variety, the natural or the artistic, really came first. Variety, in other words, leads Fitzgerald to aesthetic [End Page 595] questions that are almost always both high (that is, about art) and low (about the basic principles of human perception and of the world that assails its sense organs). But variety does not stop there, and neither does Fitzgerald. On the one hand, variety could rise to the level of a virtue, or at least of a principle by which to plot a life well lived. Thus, Fitzgerald argues, a charitable reading of the letters of Pliny the Younger extracts the lesson that “we cannot, and should not, focus our lives about one center” (99). On the other, varietas for the Romans could name a political force that was not so much opposed to “order” (ordo) as it was its necessary complement. Turning to a modern political example, Fitzgerald notes that the American motto e pluribus unum is borrowed from a recipe in the pseudo-Vergilian Moretum that goes on to observe that the amalgamated ingredients will still continue to exert their various effects (79). As Fitzgerald repeatedly observes, our world is far more inclined to hear a moral value in “diversity” than “variety,” but the two terms travel through the classical tradition arm in arm.
One could perhaps object that reading Fitzgerald is a bit like working one’s way through a few long and engaging entries in Egidio Forcellini’s Lexicon Totius Latinitatis. But one does so in the pleasant company of a witty and well-read friend who interrupts the loci with a range of comparanda in other languages and literatures and, more importantly, a clear sense of broader stakes. In this last regard, I missed any discussion of an admittedly broad frame for variety: namely, the way in which it relates to language itself as difference (Saussure, Derrida). At a narrower, deeper level, I also found myself wanting to hear more about the Indo-European roots of varius, while on the surface, I wondered whether the “shimmering” effect of variety could be followed to the aesthetic thought of Roland Barthes, writing of the “shimmering of signifiers.” Such desiderata, however, reveal how extraordinarily far Fitzgerald’s seemingly...