I've been looking (for the hundredth time) at the TWL epigraph, and it
just gets "curiouser and curiouser". I'm hoping the TSE list can help clarify
it for me.
While the translation of the Petronius' Satyricon passage seems to make
perfect sense as an epigraph to TWL (. . ."Sibyl, what do you want" . .. "I
want to die"), the 'sense' quickly evaporates when the passage is read in
context in the Satyricon.
For those not familiar with the rather bawdy Satyricon, let me give my poor
man's synopsis: The narrator is a character named Encolpius, whose names
means (according to the translation I am reading) "to inject into the
vagina". Trimalchio, a millionaire and a freed slave, is holding a banquet.
One of his guests is a rhetoric professor named Agamemnon, who obviously has
the same name as the Greek King in the Iliad who led the expedition to Troy
to recover Helen. Trimalchio is depicted as a fool and pseudo-intellectual,
making statements that mix up works of literature ("what do you know of the
twelve labors of Hercules or the story of Ulysses and how the Cyclops got his
thumb pinched in the tongs? As a boy, I used to read these stories in
Homer."). Even the lines about the Sibyl that are written in Greek (namely,
the lines, "Sibyl, what do you want" and "I want to die") are the only
lines of Greek in the Satyricon and follow Trimalchio' bragging at the
banquet regarding his Latin and Greek learning: "Even if I don't plead in
court myself, I did learn to read and write for home use. I'm no
anti-intellectual. I own two libraries: one in Greek and one in Latin."
In discussion I have had with a friend studying the classics, he claimed
that the banquet scene in the Satyricon is meant as an attack on phony
intellectualism, and specifically lampoons those who use fragments of
literature out-of-context, without any real understanding as to their
underlying meaning. If this is correct, it would seem to have direct
relevance to TWL -- I can see TSE putting the epigraph there to "catch" those
lazy readers who THINK they know what all the TWL fragments add up to
(including the epigraph itself), but actually haven't a clue. Is my friend's
interpretation of the banquet scene correct?
I'm beginning to think that the epigraph serves many purposes, including
pointing the reader (via the Sibyl of Cumae reference) to the Aeneid. It is
in the Aenied, specifically at Cumae, that the Sibyl leads Aeneas into the
underworld to search for his dead father -- and THAT, I think, has very
interesting parallels to TWL.
Comments would be greatly appreciated, as I am certain the TWL epigraph
is much more than it appears to be, and I am trying to understand where this
-- Steve --
P.S. For anyone interested, I am including at the end of this email a scanned
in translation of part of the Satyricon banquet scene leading up the TWL
epigraph quote. The translation is by R. Bracht Branham and Danial Kinney
(48) Trimalchio then gave us a friendly look and said, 'If you don't like the
wine, I'll change it. It's up to you to do it justice. Thank god I don't buy
it. Whatever makes your mouth water here is grown on some estate, which I
haven't seen yet. It's supposed to be a spread in between Terracina and
Tarentum. What I want to do is to add Sicily to my little holdings; that way
if I want to go to Africa, I won't have to leave my own property!
'Now tell me, Agamemnon, what theme did you speak on today? Even if I
don't plead in court myself, I did learn to read and write for home use. I'm
no anti-intellectual. I own two libraries: one in Greek and one in Latin. So
tell me, please, what was the theme of your speech?'
When Agamemnon had begun, 'A poor and rich man were enemies-' Trimalchio
retorted, 'A poor man? What's that?' 'Clever!' replied Agamemnon, as he
proceeded to explain some hypothetical case. Again, Trimalchio shot back a
response, 'If this happened, it isn't hypothetical; if it didn't happen, it's
We accorded these and other responses the most extravagant praise.
'My dear Agamemnon,' said Trimalchio, 'what do you know of the twelve
labors of Hercules or the story of Ulysses and how the Cyclops got his thumb
pinched in the tongs? As a boy, I used to read these stories in Homer. Yes,
and at Cumae I saw the Sibyl with my own eyes hanging there in a bottle, and
when some little boys asked her in Greek, "Sibyl, what do you want?" she
replied, "1 want to die!" '
Trimalchio was still chattering on like this when our table was covered
by a tray with a huge pig on it. We were astonished by how speedily it had
been prepared and swore you couldn't cook a run-of-the-mill rooster that
fast, especially since the pig seemed much bigger than the boar that had been
served a bit earlier.
-- (end of scanned-in excerpt) --