Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire

Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire

Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire

Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire


Making Mockeryexplores the dynamics of comic mockery and satire in Greek and Roman poetry, and argues that poets working with such material composed in accordance with shared generic principles and literary protocols. It encourages a synoptic, synchronic view of such poetry, from archaic iambus through Roman satire, and argues that if we can appreciate the abstract poetics of mockery that governs individual poets in such genres, we can we better understand how such poetry functioned in its own historical moment.

Rosen examines in particular the various strategies deployed by ancient satirical poets to enlist the sympathies of a putative audience, convince them of the justice of their indignation and the legitimacy of their personal attacks. The mocking satirist at the height of his power remains elusive and paradoxical--a figure of self-constructed abjection, yet arrogant and sarcastic at the same time; a figure whose speech can be self-righteous one moment, but scandalous the next; who will insist on the "reality" of his poetry, but make it clear that this reality is always mediated by an inescapable movement towards fictionality. While scholars have often, in principle, acknowledged the force of irony, persona-construction and other such devices by which satirists destabilize their claims, very often in practice--especially when considering individual satirists in isolation from others--they too succumb to the satirist's invitation to take what he says at face value. Despite the sophisticated critical tools they may bring to bear on satirical texts, therefore, classicists still tend to treat such poets ultimately as monochromatically indignant, vindictive individuals on a genuine self-righteous mission. This study, however, argues that that a far subtler analysis of the aggressive, poeticized subject in Classical antiquity--its target, and its audience--is called for.


One wonders whether, after painting pictures on the walls of their caves, our primeval ancestors then had to explain them. This might well have marked the birth of aesthetic criticism, a history of negotiation between artist and audience, producers and consumers entangled in a messy web of fictions, truths, and everything in between. As the Greeks figured out early on, poiêsis—artistic creation in all its varieties—traffics in the representation of things and ideas, but its representations can never actually be what they purport to represent. As long as our hypothetical cave dwellers painted scenes of woolly mammoths and domestic life, or, in the verbal realm, as long as they told imaginative stories that did not cleave too closely to the lived experiences of their audiences, no one needed to worry much about ontology. Fictions can be entertaining, after all, even if not true.

But things get far more complicated when artists do things that unsettle audiences and force them to pay closer attention to that perennially blurred line between fiction and reality than they might under less troubling circumstances. Such poiêsis has taken many forms in the verbal and visual arts, and each plays out differently within its own historical moment, but they all end up forcing a confrontation of sorts with an audience over meaning and intention. Our cave-dwelling audience may smile placidly at depictions of an exciting hunt or a successful battle with hostile neighbors, but what about the painting that caricatures their leader, or the song that uses taboo language or violates other norms of cultural decorum? Why do some people find such representation amusing, others offensive? and for which of these two groups is such art actually intended in the first place? Such questions are notoriously difficult to answer, especially since it is never entirely clear whether we can or should trust the answers given by the artists themselves, or whether these are even meaningful questions to pose. and yet these, and other questions of this sort, always seem to arise when art aggressively and overtly transgresses norms or appears to scandalize at least some portion of a putative audience.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the relationship between artist and audience more fraught than in the case of satirical poetry, where a peculiar mixture of comedy and didactic posturing—what the Greeks came to refer to as spoudaiogeloion— . . .

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