One aspect of sui-similitude in literary discourse that I failed to mention is the notion that there is something called ‘individual style’, that is consubstantial with its author. I am reminded of a quotation, from Henri Michaux, which I found in Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas (the subject of my next entry, no doubt): ‘Va suffisament loin en toi pour que ton style ne puisse pas suivre’ [Go so far into yourself that your style will not be able to follow]. Not particularly good advice, admittedly, but a nice turn of phrase.
The tragedian Agathon (he of Symposium fame), when asked by friends to tone down the rhetorical excesses of his work by editing out some of the more eyebrow-raising verses, answered them: ‘Would you purge Agathon of Agathon?’ This led me back (again) to Ovid, surely a poet ‘too much like himself’. Seneca Rhetor tells the story (Cont. 184.108.40.206) of Ovid being asked by some friends to expunge from his work three lines that they considered de trop; Ovid agreed to do so, but only on condition that he could choose three lines to retain at all costs. Of course, the lines chosen by his friends, it turned out, were exactly those three that Ovid wanted to keep. One of them, Seneca tells us, was this famous verse from the Ars:
semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem—a line trying pretty damn hard to be unlike itself, and one which, I think, could most appropriately be described as ‘unseemly’. But if a poet is too much like himself in a work, that might even be grounds to dismiss the work as interpolation, imposture or forgery; and textual critics over the years have often attempted to expunge from Ovid those elements that are most like Ovid, for that very reason.
The half-bull man, the half-man bull
In other matters, last week I had my attention drawn to More’s Utopia, and specifically to the dedicatory epistles that preface that work. More, you will remember, gets his mate Peter Giles in on the act, and the two exchange letters corroborating the truth of Raphael Hythloday’s account of the fictional island, confabulating, bandying about ‘reality effects’, pretending not to remember specific details of the account, making up true-seeming reasons for gaps in their knowledge, and generally taking the piss out of the reader who doesn’t ‘get it’.
At one point, More claims that in comparing versions he found that his servant John Clement disagreed with him on one particularly trivial point, whether the length of some bridge or other was five hundred yards or three hundred. More himself cannot remember, but decides to retain the detail, on the basis that ‘potius mendacium dicam quam mentiar, quod malim bonus esse quam prudens’ [I should rather tell a lie than lie, because I’d rather be good than clever]. What, then, is the distinction between ‘mendacium dicere’ [to tell a lie] and ‘mentiri’ [to lie]? Well, according to the marginal note (which may have been inserted by Erasmus) there is a ‘theological distinction’ between the two. Amusingly, the footnote to this note in the CUP edition informs us that ‘this distinction has not been located in the theological literature’ (love the use of the passive voice there); but it does direct the reader to Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, XI.XI. Looking at the Gellius passage, it seems obvious that it is this and not some spurious theological text that More has in mind. Aulus Gellius, citing one Publius Nigidius, offers the following information:
Qui mentitur, fallit, quantum in se est; at qui mendacium dicit, ipseSo, the distinction is simple enough; indeed it is the same one Plato makes in the Hippias minor, between lying deliberately (mentiri) and lying unwittingly (mendacium dicere). Of course, this doesn’t really cut much mustard in the context of the work as a whole, since More has made up the whole thing, and on purpose too. In fact, it is the intent behind the lie, and not the absence of intention, that makes it justifiable: More stresses the point that you’d have to be pretty stupid (read: unversed in Greek) not to pick up on all the clues he planted to let you know that the whole thing’s a fiction. When it comes to literature, More might have been saying, the distinction drawn by Nigidius breaks down: the writer of a literary text is not ‘in himself’: he is writing from a point outside of himself, where like and unlike converge.
non fallit, quantum in se est.
He who lies, deceives, to the extent that he can ['quantum in se est': lit. 'as much as he is in himself']; and he who tells an untruth, does not himself deceive, to the extent that he can help it ['quantum in se est'].