Tag Archives: satyricon

Asimov’s Multivac and the Sybil at Cumae

Tomorrow I am leading a tutorial about the episode ‘Dinner at Trimalchio’s’ from Petronius’ Satyricon. This moment in the (oft) inane dinner conversation caught my eye:

… I actually saw with my own eyes the Sybil at Cumae dangling in a bottle, and when the children asked her in Greek: “What do you want, Sybil?” she used to answer: “I want to die.” -Trimalcio to Agamemnon, Satyricon 15.48, trans. J. P. Sullivan for Penguin

The endnotes to this description of the Cumaean Sybil (the famous one from Vergil) refer the reader to T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, which uses the original text as its epigraph before launching into the poem.

I found a different literary resonance — Isaac Asimov’s 1958 short story ‘All the Troubles of the World’ (available in The Complete Stories Vol. 1 and Nine Tomorrows). I am now about to give away the story, so apologies if you really want to read it; it’s quite clever, and deals with the issues of probability that arise from predictions not dissimilar to the same ones in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’.

Although you don’t quite know it for most of the story, the giant supercomputer Multivac is trying to orchestrate its own sabotage and destruction using crime reports — these reports themselves causing officers to engage in activities that would make Multivac’s destruction more and more likely, moving from putting someone under house arrest to that driving his underage son to seek advice from Multivac to Multivac giving him instructions on how to commit the sabotage.

Multivac was being used by the people of Earth to solve all their problems. They would ask Multivac a question, and an answer would pop out. They were required to tell the computer every aspect of their daily lives, including their thoughts, so that Multivac could reliably predict crimes and seek out solutions to political problems that would be the best available. In Asimov’s earlier story of 1955, ‘Franchise’ (also in Vol 1), Multivac would predict the outcome of the election with not a single vote being cast. In ‘All the Troubles of the World’, since crime was basically extinct, they were now about to pose to Multivac the question of curing disease.

So Multivac tries to get itself destroyed.

The story ends with the analysts asking Multivac the crucial question of Multivac’s own desires in the face of all the troubles of the world. Multivac answers, ‘I want to die.’

Multivac is a mechanised Sybil. Technology, in this vision of human development, has successfully supplanted this one role of religion. Come to Multivac with a problem, and he will give you the right answer. Like the Sybil, he is immortal. And like the Sybil, he would rather die than continue being weighed down with all the cares of the world.

There’s no wealth in wisdom or the arts

A coin showing just how fat Nero got

Amidst the sex, debauchery, and so forth, Petronius’ Satyricon is scattered with little gems like this:

He who trust the sea loads himself with great profit;
He who seeks battles and warcamps is belted with gold;
The cheap sycophant lies drunk in purple garb;
And he who seduces married women transgresses into booty;
Eloquence alone shudders in cold garments
And with a helpless tongue invokes the abandoned arts.

Thus it is not to be doubted — if anyone who is an enemy of all vices begins to insist on a right way of life, he gains the first hatred because of the difference of his habits; for who. can approve of different ways? And then those who take care to set aside wealth alone wish nothing amongst men to be trusted better than what they themselves hold. And so lovers of literature are railed at with whatever reason they can grab so that they also seem to be positioned beneath wealth. (83-84, Eumolpus is speaking; my sorry translation)

Through the mouth of Eumolpus, Petronius is — I believe — criticising the decadence of his age (as I also believe he does in the ‘Cena Trimalchionis). The Early Empire of Nero is not an age for philosophers and poets but businessmen, soldiers, sycophants, and adulterers. This fits with Nero’s lavish lifestyle and associating with the spectacles of the stage, racetrack, and amphitheatre. Through the promotion of wealth for its own sake and entertaining themselves to death, those in power tread down those who seek higher things — men and women who would call them to account for theirimpius lifestyles.

And how different are we today?

Trimalchio and Gatsby

Little knowing that I would be auditing a Latin course on Petronius’ Satyricon this term, I reread F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in September as part of preparation for the film in December.* Gatsby is most famous not only for mint juleps but also for the lavish parties thrown by the title character, Jay Gatsby. At one moment in the novel, Fitzgerald explicitly refers to Gatsby’s ‘career as Trimalchio.’

Trimalchio is a character in the Satyricon from the most famous, longest, and most intact part of the whole ‘novel’**, termed the Cena Trimalchionis, or ‘Dinner at Trimalchio’s’ in English. The Cena is the most lavish dinner-party you can imagine. There is theme food, and ridiculous things like a boar stuffed with sausages to resemble offal, or pastry eggs filled with dainties. Wine of the highest quality is used to wash the diners’ hands. A silver skeleton dances on the table. Poetry is recited, speeches are made. People retire to the bath house. And on and on.

Our host is a freedman*** — an ex-slave, that is — who, through luck and banging the right women (Trimalchio’s word, not mine), as well as through investments and mercantile deals, has become filthy rich. He has gone from the lowest of society to being a local magistrate of some sort.

His guests seem largely to be freedmen, at least those we get to know, and the rest at least have Greek names. The speeches are often used as evidence for how Roman freedmen spoke; it could simply be how drunk Romans spoke, or how any Roman spoke, since written Latin was likely different from spoken Latin anyway; it could also be exaggerated for effect. Anyway, these are also self-made men, rolling in the dough, though none as rich as Gats — I mean, Trimalchio.

Everything about the Cena is over the top as well as silently mocking. Encolpius, our narrator, utters no judgements on the events. I think he need not, quite frankly. The excessive lavishness of Trimalchio’s lifestyle is judgement enough. The terrible mangling and mixing of myths is judgement enough. The prickliness of the freedmen towards anyone who may laugh at them is judgement enough.

These exaggerations, of lifestyle, of character, of background, of speech, point to what this passage is about — satirical mockery. Petronius is pointing at these over the top characters and observing how futile and useless it all is. As the dancing silver skeleton observes, we manlings are nothing, bound for death.

Gatsby is not so harshly judged by Fitzgerald. Yet still the world he inhabits, the world of parties and half-remembered show tunes, and famous people going to and fro, and dancing all night — this world is as nothing as well. Unlike Trimalchio, Gatsby comes to be aware of it.

Gatsby, unlike Trimalchio who gets it on not only with his wife but with the slave-boys as well, is a modern man, and that means that his life is defined by romance, by the love of a woman. This empty, futile quest for wealth was geared for only one thing — to capture the love of a woman, Daisy.

But Gatsby, like Trimalchio, is in a world where none of this will satisfy. Events are beyond their ken, beyond their power. So Trimalchio quarrels with his wife. So Gatsby gets his girl, in the darkness of adultery. And so Trimalchio is escaped by Encolpius as the Underworld was escaped by Aeneas.**** So power and lust and desire swirl around and consume Gatsby at the end of it all.

In both men, the world of the very wealthy — especially the new-made wealthy — is silently criticised as it is portrayed in all its gory detail, in all its extravagances, in the shadowiness of the men who inhabit it (both Gatsby and Trimalchio have multiple origin stories).

Wealth is not happiness. And it does not bring us immortality (remember, art does that) but vanishes with the wind, as we all know happened to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age in 1929.

*Not only do I like to have read a book before I see the film of it, but I like to reread those which I read a long time ago before going to the film. Keeps me fresh.

**We can talk about genre another time.

***Even if you take this as an allegory for the court of Nero, the character is a freedman. This is probably symbolic of something to do with Petronius’ view of the man who drove him to suicide.

****The Vergilian parallel is real.