21 November 2016
Shivering and Excess in Juvenal’s Satires
Juvenal confesses that he cannot help but write satire. He cites his indignation and intolerance of the “monstrous city” of Rome as the cause of his compulsion to tell the truth, through satire, about the contemporary state of affairs he sees everywhere around himself and maybe in himself, as well. He writes: “I cannot lie; if a book is bad, I cannot praise it and beg for a copy.” He claims he cannot make promises about things he knows nothing about, and this very characteristic compels him, forces him to express his judgements through satire. Through his figuration of the image of shivering, we find that seemingly hyperbolic juxtapositions, despite any apparent absurdity, describe the actual degenerated world around him. In this essay, I demonstrate how the figures of juxtaposition, personification, and the presentation of critique through rhetorical questions in Juvenal’s Satires turn some figurative utterances into literal utterances, which reveals to us something about the nature of satire itself. Through satire, extreme judgements and scrutiny of the degenerated can be presented palatably, therefore tasted and digested by his audience, which implicate the reader morally in a way they were not before. This is accomplished precisely because of satire’s involvement in the comparisons of the painful, sadly real conditions of people in the world.
In Satire I, Juvenal writes: “Is it a simple form of madness to lose a hundred thousand sesterces, and not have a shirt to give to a shivering slave?” (S1, 81) This rhetorical question offers a juxtaposition between the frivolous entertainment partaken in by the wealthy and the physical suffering of the poor. The rich recklessly gamble large sums of real money for the sake of the rush that is obtained, while the poor really suffer in the cold. They are left to shiver despite of or because of such grandiose displays of excess. The fantastical entertainment gained despite the loss of large sums of money contrasts, too, the real world of human life and the fantasy world of entertainment and fleeting amusement. The real and fantasy are thus distinguished through the juxtaposition of gambling and human suffering.
Because the utterance is a rhetorical question, readers are suggested to ask themselves if the status of such neglect is madness or something morally corrupt, that is, a crime, sinful, even evil. Instead of needing to make this moral claim explicitly, the very positing of the question allows Juvenal to display scenes of avarice and vice in a provocative but illustrative contrast. Ultimately, though, the reader is left to make their own judgement of the contrast of the two aspects of Roman life. The juxtaposition of the two scenes is effective (and affective) because Roman citizens might have been aware the two scenes individually, but had not -- up until that point, that moment of interaction with the text -- explicitly set them side by side before in this way. Therefore, whereas before they might not have been aware of the absurdity between the simultaneity of basic human needs not being met and excessive, extravagant, fantastical gluttony, they certainly were after, and thus become morally implicated in the state of affairs.
In the section immediately preceding the previous quotation, Juvenal writes, “honesty is praised and left to shiver” (S1, 69). Thus we find the image of coldness, shivering, and suffering describing the state of affairs for not only the slave class, but also for virtue itself in Rome. Just as human beings are left to shiver, honesty itself is figured as shivering, too. Virtue is, and the poor and enslaved are, without warmth, protection, and participation in Roman life. Shivering as an image serves as a figure for helplessness due to neglect, especially when the lack is not caused by an actual scarcity of material resources, but rather, because of the gross mismanagement of plentiful, though poorly utilized resources. Human suffering, then, is due to a lack of virtue rather than shirts, and if virtue was pursued with half of the zeal that the Roman elites pursued amusement, neither man nor virtue would be left to shiver.
The personification of honesty as being prone to shivering connotes that virtue is alive and an activity rather than as simply existing as a concept that remains in another realm and therefore invulnerable to human choices. Honesty, and presumably other virtues such as charity and moderation, are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of human goodness and human depravity. The virtues are figured as susceptible to harm because of human neglect in the same way that humans are when they too are neglected. As we ought to tend to and clothe our cold, neglected brother or sister, we ought to attend to the virtues in our activities so as to make sure the virtues are active within us, or us in them. At the same time that virtues may be shivering in the cold, so too are humans, and when humans are cold, the virtues necessarily shiver as well.
Juxtapositions, which at first seem extravagant, even hyperbolic, thus become simple, plain juxtapositions of actual states of affairs. The very nature of satire collapses the distinction between satire and non-fiction because of very real, but abhorrently evocative contrasts between situations not thought of as occurring nearby temporally or spatially. Modern examples of this include the rampant poverty and homelessness in major cities such as Las Vegas. One sees many homeless, shivering people along the Las Vegas Strip (in the winter, shivering, and in the summer, blistering), and one knows that people risk large sums of money in casinos on the very same sidewalks. Through the contrast of poker chips, at once real and not real, and the spare coins being shaken in a fast food cup, the separable collapse into one and confront the reader. The juxtaposition that may at first seem extreme and unconnected, becomes real through its integration and therefore no longer warrants the term “hyperbolic.” Thus, in satire, there is not hyperbole, but only juxtaposition of two usually separated facts. Satire, while it at first may appear as such, is not actually hyperbolic, but is precisely and evocatively comparative.
This returns us to Juvenal’s question, is gambling despite human suffering madness? Gambling is not necessarily madness and human suffering is not necessarily madness, but gambling despite human suffering may be madness. Juvenal’s satirical presentation forces the audience member, who has now connected these two conveniently, comfortably, previously separated facts through juxtaposition, to shake off mental shortcomings of non-integration, and because they are no longer under a spell of madness, now become morally responsible for the very same state of affairs that they were unaware of, and thus unaccountable for, before. Notice, juxtaposition confronts the reader with facts and they become implicated morally in the situation of others in a way they were not before encountering the text. The reader at first identifies with the imagery of shivering, realizes the “madness” of the world around them, and then becomes morally implicated because of their awareness of the current state of affairs.
So, the juxtaposition between gamblers and shivering slaves and the personification of honesty, through the image of the universal and affective figure of shivering, serve to evoke the extravagance and gluttony of wealthy Roman’s choice of entertainment and their empty, hypocritical praise of moderation, charity, and honesty. Juvenal’s satirical juxtaposition of “the real world” and Roman’s ideal, virtuous image of themselves disorients and displaces their understanding of themselves and the world around them. This is done precisely because we find those juxtapositions not to be hyperbolic at all. The image of shivering reveals the vulnerability, precariousness, and hypocrite in us all. We all are the gambler and we all are the slave. We all must tend to the virtues so that they, like us, may not suffer in the cold.