September 27, 2007

Early notes on Dracontius

The poetry of Ovid laid the foundation for a kind of self-knowledge by which the self is not an objective, essential text, which can be deciphered, but as a text constantly open to reinvention, refashioning, rewriting. Unlike Augustine, Ovid presents a self that can always be reinterpreted, recuperated: self-revelation is not necessarily self-renunication.

Dracontius is a late 5th century African poet, a Christian who composed (at least in his early career) on Pagan themes. If we consider the differences that Foucault observed between pagan and early-Christian “technologies of the self”, he, like Ovid in Fraenkel’s study, can be considered a “Poet Between Two Worlds”.

He succeeds Ovid more directly in his (unfortunate) continuation of the genre of Latin exile poetry. The Satisfactio is a poem that tends to be criticised for its “needless repetitions… unnecessary amplifications… untoward digressions… (lack of) logical sequence.” However, the poem explicitly recognises the power of words to both heal and harm: Dracontius was imprisoned for praising in his verse a ruler other than the Vandal King Gunthamund. Taking its indication from the relationship between poetry and an absolute, arbitrary power from Ovid’s Tristia, the Satisfactio seems to self-consciously negate its own meaning.

Found in the Satisfactio is “a self that exists at a remove from the immediate, which is constructed around the valorization of the infinite deferral of meaning, a self first glimpsed in (Ovid’s) exilic poetry” (Miller 2004: 235).

Conte in his entry on Dracontius in Latin Literature: A History remarks: “This attempt to use culture, the technical ability to write verses, as a commodity of exchange with the king is interesting… to address a poem to Augustus or Constantine was quite different from writing for the barbarian Gunthamund” (1994: 719). However, the assumption that the barbarian would even have read the Satisfactio (consider Ovid’s skepticism that Augustus ever read the Ars), or even that he could have been swayed by its rhetoric, remains open to question.

It is in some sense an empty gesture, a poem written because that is what a famous poet does when he is put away by the ruling power: writes elegiac poetry.


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