The Satyricon, written by the emperor Nero’s arbiter elegentiae (judge of style), Petronius, in the first century B.C.E., is one of the most interesting pieces of realistic fiction that has survived from antiquity. The work, estimated to be the size of a modest modern novel, is highly fragmentary so that the plot as a whole can only be loosely reconstructed. The narrator, an amoral yet educated man named Encolpius, has done something to offend the Roman god of sexuality and fertility, Priapus, and as a result has been stricken with a horrible case of impotence. He travels around Italy with his companion and young lover Giton looking for a cure, for the Roman equivalent of Viagra. The work has been described as a satire, as a mock epic, and a picaresque novel; it is lewd, it is bawdy and it is funny.
The Satyricon, however, also has an underlying moral message and a serious side for which William Arrowsmith argues in his seminal paper entitled, “Luxury and Death in the Satyricon.” The central episode of the novel, which is also the most extant part of the work that has survived, is the Cena Trimalchionis—The Dinner of Trimalchio; Encolpius and Giton, along with a third friend they picked up somewhere along the way named Ascyltus, are invited to an elaborate dinner at the home of a ridiculously wealthy freedman named Trimalchio. The themes of luxury and death are meticulously and deftly blended together in the dinner party scene during which Trimalchio’s ostentatious wealth is fully on display along side his obsession with his own mortality. He is rich enough, for instance, to hire a trumpeter that does nothing all day but sound his horn on the hour. He has a water clock in his dining room, a very expensive and rare item for a Roman, which also marks time for him. And the symbol, for me, that best displays the juxtaposition of the wealth and death themes is Trimalchio’s elaborate fresco that depicts the fates measuring and cutting the thread of his life—Trimalchio’s thread, of course, is painted in gold.
As I was reading Mrs. Dalloway, the famous first lines of Arrowsmith’s article kept coming to my mind: “The Satyricon is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Trimalchio, the central character of the central episode, is a man with wealth and death very much on his mind.” Arrowsmith’s words, I think, can be slightly amended to fit rather well with Virginia Woolf and her characters: Mrs. Dalloway is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of the central episode, is a woman with wealth and death very much on her mind.
Clarissa Dalloway, the fifty-two-year-old wife of a British politician, is busy planning one of her famous dinner parties for her usual group of upper class British friends and acquaintances. She spends the day buying and arranging flowers, ordering around her maids and cooks, and laying out expensive silverware. In the first few pages of the novel as she is bustling about her home and then about London, Big Ben lingers in the background, reminding her of every hour that has slipped by, thus reminding her of her mortality. In the midst of her wealthy home and the luxuries she is setting out for her party, the clock faithfully strikes the hour:
For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.
In the afternoon just before her party, an old flame visits Clarissa and he makes fun of her planning. This, combined with her husband’s comments about her elaborate parties, causes her to examine why she fusses over these displays of ostentation and wealth for her upper class friends. Thoughts of death and mortality are oftentimes mixed in her mind with thoughts of wealth and luxury which, to her, mean standing in society, social class, importance. Social status brings meaning to Clarissa’s life, it is what keeps her going. But the more she clings to these luxuries, the more she realizes their worthlessness and the more she thinks about life and death:
They thought, or Peter at any rate, thought, that she enjoyed imposing herself; like to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short. Well, Peter might think so. Richard merely thought it foolish of her to like excitement when she knew it was bad for her heart. It was childish, he thought. And both were quite wrong. What she liked was simply life.
“That’s what I do it for,” she said, speaking aloud, to life.
The other, seemingly disparate plot, that runs parallel to Clarissa’s story is that of Septimus, a traumatized veteran of The Great War who feels utterly lost and hopeless as he tries to integrate himself back into civilian life. His wife, Rezia, anguishes over trying to get him help before he harms himself as Septimus’ delusions become more frequent and more alarming to her. He is a man obsessed with death and wonders if there is any meaning or point to life: “It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.” Septimus’ thoughts and actions mimic the pattern of Clarissa’s own existential crisis. They are both consumed with thoughts of death.
Similar to Petronius, it is during Clarissa’s party that the themes of luxury and death culminate in the text. As she is greeting her guests, which include the Prime Minister, death intrudes on her upper class world. She is numb, going through the motions of greeting her guests, when she is shocked out of her wealthy surroundings by the rumor of a suicide: “She felt, somehow very like him—the young man who killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.” I will end with another quote from Arrowsmith that I think applies equally well to Trimalcho and to Clarissa Dalloway: “Like hybris, luxuria affects a man so that he eventually loses his sense of specific function, his virtus or arête.* He surpasses himself, luxuriating into other things and forms.” For just a moment, it is death that brings Clarissa out of her surroundings, but then she comfortably goes back to her party.
*Virtus in Latin means courage, virtue or strength. Arete in Ancient Greek means excellence.
I have yet to read Woolf’s letters or diaries. I was wondering if anyone has come across a reference to Petronius in any of her writings? I don’t think it is too far fetched that Woolf would have been familiar with Petronius. It interesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing about the same time as Woolf, was greatly influenced by the Satyricon in composing The Great Gatsby —another novel obsessed with luxury and death—and even considered the alternative title Trimalchio’s Dinner for his novel.