CJ Online Review | Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome

Posted with permission:

The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero’s Ad Familiares and Seneca’s Moral Epistles. By Amanda Wilcox. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 223. Hardcover, $34.95. ISBN 978-0-2992-8834-1.

Reviewed by Yasuko Taoka, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Dear Amanda (if I may),

Convention has long dictated how one reviews a book. But much as you have shown Seneca to be antithetical to conventions of social practice in his letters, so too will I depart from expectations.

Your brisk book efficiently demonstrates how Cicero and Seneca utilize their letters as gifts which enmesh them in a nexus of social relations: friendship, community, obligation, debt. Cicero you view as the model par excellence for the sociopolitical use of letters to build and exploit relationships. Seneca then modifies the genre to question those very relationships, proposing instead the life of philosophy.

I applaud the book’s accessibility. While you garner your inspiration and theoretical underpinnings from Bourdieu and Mauss, your analyses focus squarely on primary texts; at the close of chapters you draw connections to theories of gift-exchange. Non-classicists will find plentiful translations and introductions.

To wit, your Introduction presents such background material as the practice of letter-writing, biographies of Cicero and Seneca, and the basics of gift-theory. Your account of the correlation between the exchange of letters and the economy of gifts may, however, be somewhat brief at two pages. A more substantial unpacking of the concepts may pay off for us throughout the remainder of the book. Nonetheless I recognize that you resist overburdening readers unfamiliar with these theorists; for the curious, the relevant works are cited.

The body of the book proper divides neatly in two: the first half (Chapters 1–4) explicates Cicero’s use of letters as social technology, while the second (Chapters 5–8) focuses on Seneca’s dismantling and repurposing of the mechanisms.

In the first half (“Cicero: The Social Life of Letters”) you describe the tactics with which Cicero builds his social network. Chapters 2 and 4 focus on subtypes of epistles, letters of consolation and recommendation, respectively. In these types, either the letter itself or the recommendee is the gift that binds Cicero and his addressee. Chapters 1 and 3 discuss topoi of letters. Chapter 1 treats euphemism, which allows interlocutors to elide the threatening or obligatory nature of letters; your attention to this Bourdieuian euphemism strikes me as an important contribution. In Chapter 3 you highlight the thematization of absence for the purpose of friendship, building upon Janet Gurkin Altman’s work (Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus, Ohio, 1982)) on intimacy in the epistolary genre. As Altman has noted, letters simultaneously recognize, bemoan, and perpetuate the distance between correspondents. And distance, so we are told, makes the heart grow fonder.

The second half (“Commercium Epistularum: The Gift Refigured”) demonstrates how Seneca appropriates for philosophy the very genre Cicero had used for sociopolitical purposes. Seneca, you argue, uses the technologies against themselves to critique the networks and friendships Cicero modeled. Euphemism doesn’t work as its effectiveness makes debtors and slaves of us interlocutors (Ch. 5). True friendship, unlike the political do ut des, is not to be found in social exchange (Ch. 6) or the generic tropes of consolationes (Ch. 8). Even the fixity of identity (“I,” “you,” “friend”) are interrogated in Seneca’s rehabilitation of interpersonal relations (Ch. 7). Security comes not from the insistent Ciceronian reiteration of one’s position and identity, but rather from disengaging from the rat race altogether. It is ironic, as you note, that Seneca espouses such in letters (115).

In all this Cicero is the expert, and Seneca the upstart. Cicero sets the standards for the proper deployment of epistolary tactics. And Cicero’s prominence in the sociopolitical life of Rome is the proof that lies in the pudding and the putting on of appropriate airs, genres, and faces. And yet I wonder whether Cicero is merely the Bourdieuian virtuoso. He is, as Jon Hall shows (Politeness and Politics in Cicero’s Letters (Oxford, 2009)), also one to mock and modify epistolary convention. Although a static Cicero better foregrounds Seneca’s dialectical relationship with him, I feel that Cicero’s own relationship to letter-writing was more fluid and complicated. Indeed, you note that you don’t treat the letters Ad Atticum because their friendship was not ideal by Ciceronian standards (15), but could these letters evince a more complex relationship with the function of letters in friendship?

To some final matters of format. Your text is laudably free from errors—I only noticed one, perhaps merely an odd translation of visne tu as “Do you not you wish” (53).

Amanda, your contribution brings a fresh perspective, informed by anthropological theory, to these epistles, and highlights not only Seneca’s inheritance, but also his rejection, of Ciceronian epistolary purpose and practice. A scholarly book is something of a gift of knowledge one bestows upon the world, one for which the repayment is not so much financial as metaphorical. So that I may begin making payments on the intellectual debt as interest compounds, I’ve found an apt line from our man Seneca, who himself purloined it from Epicurus: haec ego non multis, sed tibi; satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus.

Fare well.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Antigone

Tip o’ the pileus to Bill Jennings on twitter for pointing us to this very engaging item by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker … I was wondering if other Classicists were thinking about Antigone over the past week or so (I know I was … I was also picturing faceless New Englanders running around with hooks shouting Tamerlan in Tiberim!, but I guess that’s another spin). Here’s a bit in medias res:

[…] It was hard not to think of all this—of the Iliad with its grand funereal finale, of the Odyssey strangely pivoting around so many burials, and of course of “Antigone”—as I followed the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s unburied body over the past few weeks. I thought, of course, of canny politicians eyeing the public mood, and of the public to whom those politicians wanted to pander. I thought even more of the protesters who, understandably to be sure, wanted to make clear the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between friend and foe, by threatening to strip from the enemy what they saw as the prerogatives of the friend: humane treatment in death. The protesters who wanted, like Creon, not only to deny those prerogatives to an enemy but to strip them away again should anyone else grant them—to “unbury the body.” I thought of Martha Mullen, a Christian, who insisted that the Muslim Tsarnaev, accused of heinous atrocities against innocent citizens, be buried just as a loved one might deserve to be buried, because she honored the religious precept that demands that we see all humans as “brothers,” whatever the evil they have done.

This final point is worth lingering over just now. The last of the many articles I’ve read about the strange odyssey of Tsarnaev’s body was about the reactions of the residents of the small Virginia town where it was, finally, buried. “What do you do when a monster is buried just down the street?” the subhead asked. The sensationalist diction, the word “monster,” I realized, is the problem—and brings you to the deep meaning of Martha Mullen’s gesture, and of Antigone’s argument, too. There is, in the end, a great ethical wisdom in insisting that the criminal dead, that your bitterest enemy, be buried, too; for in doing so, you are insisting that the criminal, however heinous, is precisely not a “monster.” Whatever else is true of the terrible crime that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is accused of having perpetrated, it was, all too clearly, the product of an entirely human psyche, horribly motivated by beliefs and passions that are very human indeed—deina in the worst possible sense. To call him a monster is to treat this enemy’s mind precisely the way some would treat his unburied body—which is to say, to put it beyond the reach of human consideration (and therefore, paradoxically, to refuse to confront his “monstrosity” at all).

This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for. […]

Definitely worth a read … could be useful in a classroom discussion …

“New” Virgil Opera Coming to Auction

From a Christie’s press release:

On 12 June 2013, Christie’s London will offer a newly discovered, deluxe copy of Opera by Virgil (70-19 B.C.) in the sale of Valuable Printed Books & Manuscripts (estimate: £500,000 – 800,000). The Aeneid is accepted as the foundation stone of western literature, and this copy is the earliest edition a collector could ever aspire to own.

Printed in 1470, within a year of the beginning of printing in Venice, it is the second edition, acknowledged to be textually superior. Its rarity is indicated in the fact that the last copy to come on the market was sold almost a century ago, in 1920. This newly discovered copy is complete and printed on costly vellum for a wealthy patron; the elegance of its page and the hand-painted decoration add to its resemblance to a Renaissance manuscript, and indeed, an earlier owner may have regarded it as a manuscript, perhaps contributing to its true identity not being recognised until now.

This book combines rarity with great aesthetic beauty but also represents a monumental moment in the history of printing.

… I can’t find mention of when this was ‘newly discovered …

Classical Words of the Day

Linguatweets: