Classical Quarterly 41 (02):403- (1991)

Much of the fascination that Petronius' Satyricon holds for its readers originates in the work's gleeful violation of traditional categories of classical genres. Critical terminology makes explicit the issue of unconventionality, as it is reduced to the neutral word ‘work’ in describing the Satyricon, which, as far as we can tell, belongs to no single category , but appropriates elements from many sources in both poetry and prose. Perhaps if we had more evidence with which to compare the work, such as a greater selection of Menippean satire or proto-novels from antiquity, we might be able to identify it more accurately. But the suspicion remains that the intense variety of its evocations, allusions, and parodic passages differentiates it clearly from its component genres without allowing it to settle firmly in any one established genre. A certain amount of ‘Kreuzung der Gattungen’ is, of course, typical of both Alexandrian and consequently Roman texts. But the Satyricon seems to revel in its generic instability; it plays with the notion of ‘literariness’ by revealing impulses from non-literary forms such as mime and subliterary prose fiction, raising this material to an unfamiliar level of literary sophistication even as it debases other traditional genres through parodic techniques. One of the results of this open experimentation with style and decorum is an extremely dense fabric of literary allusion which some would label ‘literary opportunism’. The reader quickly learns to expect intertextual pyrotechnics, swift changes from the sublime to the ridiculous, and humorous incongruities in plot and form, as the stylistic disorder of the text reflects the topsyturvy Petronian world. The modern reader's response to this profusion of referents is to explore the recognizable categories and sources embedded in the work, to tease out the familiar elements in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the whole. Since a great deal of the allusion in the Satyricon functions parodically, there is yet another step necessary in the interpretation, namely taking into account the effect of the decontextualization of language and events from the source material and their recombination and transformation into the new text
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DOI 10.1017/S0009838800004560
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