Momentary Monsters

Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes

Volume: 47
Copyright Date: 1987
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 158
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  • Book Info
    Momentary Monsters
    Book Description:

    This book is a lively and provocative reading of the Roman poet Lucan (A.D. 39-65) that casts new light on the Pharsalia, his epic poem and only surviving work. The distinguished classicist W. R. Johnson demonstrates both the need to understand Lucan's epic on its own terms and the injustice of dismissing it as an inferior version of the Aeneid.

    Johnson looks closely at Lucan's treatment of the central figures of the epic, focusing on the poet's sardonic style and fascination with horror. He concentrates on four larger-than-life figures in the Pharsalia-Erichtho, Cato, Pompey, and Caesar-whom he regards as central to Lucan's vision of the fall of the Republic. Through them, he addresses the poem's themes and techniques. Placing special emphasis on the black farce characteristic of the poem, Johnson also deals with the grotesque aspects (for example, the snakes and the witch) that other critics have tended to ignore or to underplay as mere rhetoric. Delivered as a series of Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College and revised for book publication, Momentary Monsters will be welcomed by classicists, medievalists, and students of the Renaissance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6687-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Erictho and Her Universe
    (pp. 1-34)

    1. This outrageous, sour, impossible poem—why, except to still the rumblings of antiquarian appetites—why should we bother with it at all? The Pharsalia has no hero, or too many. Its narrative is obscure, irritating, botched. It flouts epic conventions, or ignores them, or bungles them. Its central themes are scrambled by radical ambivalence of thought and feeling into what often seems not distant from gibberish. Lucan’s was an interesting, small talent that, through a mixture of indolence, vanity, and hysteria, ended by squandering itself on hopeless ambitions and absurd materials.

    So it may have seemed in the century...

  5. 2 Cato: The Delusions of Virtue
    (pp. 35-66)

    1. One might think that the Pharsalia’s worst enemy was the critic who, having pronounced it extravagantly rhetorical or conventionally decadent, is content to regard it thereafter as mere grist for the mills of Realia. But, in fact, nothing so limits our appreciation of Lucan’s poem as the numerous efforts to accommodate it to the requirements of rational discourse. The motives that nourish these efforts to make Lucan acceptable to the (ever shifting) classical canon are understandable, but they are also misguided. Like other works (Through the Looking Glass, for example, or The Trial) that take as their object of...

  6. 3 Pompey: The Illusions of History
    (pp. 67-100)

    1. If, in Lucan’s imagination, the figure of Cato crystalizes fragments of the dreams of virtue and of theodicy which had failed both for Lucan personally and for the vanishing city that he loved (and the city and its culture were indeed changing in Lucan’s lifetime; in fact, they had already changed—from the old Rome to the world’s new cosmopolis), if Cato figures the corruption of goodness at a personal level, then the image of Pompey functions similarly for Lucan with respect to history, gathering into itself, compacting to a fierce clarity, the broken dreams of history and of...

  7. 4 Caesar: The Phantasmagoria of Power
    (pp. 101-134)

    1. At the close of the previous chapter, Caesar was left cavorting on his most spectacular battlefield. Let us return to where we left him but a little later in the action of the poem. The night after his victory, he and his entire army are visited by the ghosts of their slain opponents. Caesar is visited by all the ghosts at once (7. 776), an army of bloody corpses swarming through his sleep. Although his soldiers are terrified by these visions of the dead Pompeians, this horrendous nightmare seems to bother Caesar very little, if at all. At daybreak,...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 135-142)
  9. Index
    (pp. 143-145)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 146-148)