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  • Complex Inferiorities: The Poetics of the Weaker Voice in Latin Literature ed. by Sebastian Matzner and Stephen Harrison
  • James Uden
Sebastian Matzner and Stephen Harrison, eds. Complex Inferiorities: The Poetics of the Weaker Voice in Latin Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xiv + 320 pp. Cloth, $94.

Complex Inferiorities: the Poetics of the Weaker Voice in Latin Literature, an edited volume from a conference at Oxford in 2014, begins by quoting an interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Many people claim subaltern status, she says, in order to amplify their own voice. But merely affecting a marginalized status is a dangerous thing, since it obscures the struggles of those who are genuinely voiceless in contemporary society. Subalternity is not a mask to be put on and off by the social elite, and so those with power, she states, "should not call themselves subaltern." As Sebastian Matzner reminds us in his introduction to this volume, Latin literature has preserved almost entirely the thoughts and impressions of the socially elite. So when authors write about women, or the poor, or enslaved, do we really hear the voices of the disempowered? Or are these just the sort of impersonations that Spivak condemns? That is the problem confronted by this interesting and varied set of essays, which mostly affirm the "literary and cultural-political possibilities" of Latin authors speaking through "voices of weakness and inferiority" (3). I wonder how well the chosen terms "weakness" and "inferiority" really fit the phenomena examined in these chapters (and whether they are even the same). But the essays are consistently thoughtful and well argued, offering a kaleidoscopic examination of the hierarchies alternately reinforced and undermined by Latin authors from Plautus to late antiquity.

A number of chapters examine the volatility and changeability of relationships of power, at least as they are represented on the page. Victoria Rimell's inventive reading of the Ars Poetica aims to restore an awareness of Horace's daring provocations towards his elite addressees. Rimell argues that Horace usurps paternal and didactic authority over the younger Pisones, fostering a culture of exacting critique in order to subject these men to the poet's own wit and acumen. The idea that "poetic talent is a great social leveller" (112) is also the theme of [End Page 490] Jean-Claude Juhle's reading of Martial 5.13, although the Epigrams show that the axiom works better in theory than in practice: Juhle argues that Martial pictures himself as a pauper mostly when decrying the fact that untalented people have more money. A didactic relationship is also the subject of Shadi Bartsch's rich account of Fulgentius' Expositio continentiae Virgilianae, a text that enacts a drama of shifting subject positions. Berated by Virgil himself as he outlines the allegorical meaning of the Aeneid, Fulgentius' persona in the treatise gradually loses any awe for his teacher (240–1). The status of the epic poem is also changed, from an illicit text of dubious morality to an object worthy of Christian study and attention. Bartsch describes the process of allegorization as a simultaneous redemption and destruction of the original text (it "produces a safe, Christianized account of the pagan poem, at the cost perhaps of destroying the original and its author," 239). The process could equally be understood as a radical opening up of the reader's role in making meaning: Aaron Pelttari describes this expansion of the reader's power as one of the distinctive shifts in late antique literary cultures (The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity, 2014).

Equally useful are chapters that remain ambivalent about the category of "the weaker voice," testing ways in which the notion does and does not fit. Philip Hardie's sensitive essay on Paulinus of Nola's Carmen 18 concludes that the poet invests his character of the poor rusticus, reunited with his lost cattle, with both pathos and theological significance. Yet the poem's comic elements preserve traces of elite condescension. The classicizing text resists the complete inversion of hierarchies—poor to rich, weak to strong—promised by the Christian message. Tom Geue's chapter examines the absence of self-naming by...


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