As a Greek living in Egypt in the second century C.E., Athenaeus of Naucratis straddled cultures. He was a littérateur, a rhetorician, and grammarian, with wide-ranging interests who literally wrote of “cabbages and kings” with equal relish. His single extant work, the Deipnosophists, is vast though incomplete. Using the form familiar to readers from Plato’s Symposium, Athenaeus portrays a group of scholars discussing food as well as health, music, pornography, and, above all, poetry and words. The dinner seems to stretch on forever, as the appetite of the guests for food and phrases and facts is never satisfied. Even at fifteen volumes, the work is incomplete. The title, “the dinner-wise-guys” is often translated as “doctors at dinner,” or something similar, but more literally means “the dinner experts,” that is, the gastronomers or, in the current American term, the “foodies.” In spite of the inaccuracy, I like my own version “professors kick the willy bobo,” because the talk covers many topics other than food, and the hiphop phrase carries the appropriate sense of expansive desultory recreational conversation.
Athenaeus’ book defies genre. It is a mighty river of words, or perhaps a swamp, since it has little apparent direction. Why, indeed, would a reader choose to ramble in this trackless slough of dead language?
Taste remains a mystery at the heart of aesthetics. Can any critic prove the superiority of Shakespeare to Superman? While some may be led to the café or the parkland on a bright summer day, others will lurk in the back corners of the less prosperous used book shops, perhaps vainly searching for Florio’s Montaigne, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or even Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. All these texts are notable for their hungry inclusivity, their vain but worthy attempt to encompass everything. While an author like Wang Wei or Hakuin shows the universe in the glint of one discrete phenomenon, a sunset’s ray or a breath of breeze, and a troubadour or an Elizabethan sonneteer will chase the same ox through the nuances of love, a poet like Whitman describes everything under the sun, piling detail on detail, word tumbling over word, trying to catch up to the truth. Today’s cultural critics are not the first readers to whom every detail is meaningful and worthy of contemplation. Thus Montaigne discusses odors, drunkenness, “a monstrous child,” and “a custome of the ile of Cea”; the reader of Rabelais is thrown by the barrage of learned and vulgar material; the visitor to Jubilate Agno finds that to Smart the postal service and the stretching cat are equally numinous. And these works tend to go on and on, as though their very length in some way could help to reproduce the fascination of the cosmos.
I read literature rather than philosophy because, while words are always slippery, experience seems a sounder ground for knowledge than authority or the syllogism, but experience may be processed to any point along a spectrum from unedited data to highly abstract, conventional symbols such as the World-Tree. At the limit one approaches monism: Parmenides, or Spinoza, or all is Buddha-nature. If every datum reveals the ultimate reality, each makes an equal claim on our attention, and thus the search for truth can become a wandering scan through the bewildering array of phenomena. Some writers have attempted to order this unmanageable field of information through the illusion of an exhaustive catalogue, which may take the form of epic or of anatomy. In the epic form the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Sundiata from Mali, or the synthesized Kalevala seek to include encyclopedic information: all the most relevant data about belief systems, behavior, and the received ideas of the culture.
While epic is typical of oral cultures in which one mythological/philosophical/moral system is shared by all, the anatomy is the product of a less certain society, one more confident with details than with dogma. In Montaigne’s prefatory note, he declares his true focus to be not the subjects he discusses, but rather himself, i.e. his reactions to those subjects. Though one cannot know the truth about cannibals, for instance, to take one of his most exotic and insightful essays, one can know one’s own reaction. Montaigne sets this down with admirable precision, making a lesson even of error: “My imperfections shall therein be read to the life, and my natural form discerned.”
Such a “natural form,” the “lineaments of my conditions and humours” (to quote another of Florio’s felicitous renderings of Montaigne) is for a skeptic the closest approach to truth. “Real” conversations such as those in television reality shows or those recorded in Visions of Cody or Louis Armstrong’s tapes of himself and his friends talking seem necessarily “true” because they sound like life itself. Even the marijuana (in the cases of Kerouac and Satchmo) appears to remove preconception and intention and bring the reader a step closer to Montaigne’s prelapsarian ideal: “my selfe fully and naked.” Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists reads like an ancient version of these wandering colloquies.
Being scholars the guests’ table talk is filled with allusion and citation. In fact, for years the book has been valued primarily for its many quotations from works now lost. Though it has never had many readers, Casaubon published an edition in 1612 and Sir Thomas Browne wrote a lovely elegiac essay on it. In the Victorian age James Russell Lowell combined harsh imagery with literary sentimentalism in his declaration that “the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus, is turned to gold by time.”
Gold or not, it is one of the most intertextual of works; topics are often viewed through the traces they have left in books. The guests are given the names of real people as though the event had really occurred, but this is a pose (though, like pastoralism, it gives itself the lie). In fact, Athenaeus projects circumstantial truth, a mediated and fragmentary reality. The text gives us an editor, a narrator, characters, and an author, none of whom claims authority. It is a highly artificial story told at fourth-hand, based on dubious memories, in a far-distant language. But is this not an accurate model for the greater part of our experience of reality?
Just as the cubist painters, while highlighting formal experimentation, used as their content the daily litter of the pleasures of urban bohemian café life (newspapers, wine bottles, musical instruments), Athenaeus’ characters talk of food and sex rather than of Platonic ideas. They may seem to be loafing, doing nothing whatever, but their dinner is a studied affair. In the book dining is not just healthful and pleasurable, more even than an artful activity. In Athenaeus the dinner table centers an Edenic commune which promises not only an equal share to every diner in a kind of charming appetitive egalitarianism, but which reserves as well an extra portion for “strangers.” The very word for dinner is assigned an etymology from the words for equal distribution.
Whatever else it may be, the book is a cabinet of curiosities, individualistic, whimsical, and eccentric. The word-play around tripod reads like nothing so much as a Abbott and Costello routine. One can learn, too, of Charmus the Syracusan who accompanied every dainty he offered his guests with appropriate poetic words. Athenaeus discusses the qualities, the taste, and the effects on health of more waters than Dean & Deluca could ever carry, and provides an explanation of the culinary use of swine’s uterus. The book is endlessly learned, its characters inspired by the pursuit of information, not toward the solution of a problem, practical or spiritual, but rather bits of information treasured like a child’s souvenir of rocks and shells from the beach, handled and examined as marvels. Where else might one learn that the same King Midas who was so fond of gold poured wine into a pond in an attempt to capture Silenus in his cups?
And the loping syntax of association is as odd and natural as the facts: the praise of topers as good fellows leads to mention of a hero called the “drinker of unmixed wine” which leads to several cooks with nicknames derived from their cooking activities whose celebrity had reached the point that statues were erected in their memory. In a momentary return to the starting point of conviviality, drinking is praised as the source of dinner-table joking and improvised poetry, but the speaker immediately adds that it can also bring obnoxious boasting. Wine is linked to meat as a cause of verbal aggression because it feeds false consciousness, and then a catalogue of the delusions of intoxication is suddenly capped with the identification of wine and literature, and the word tragedy is provided a false etymology to strengthen the link. Athenaeus has constructed a semantic field charged with the tensions between truth and lie, discipline and self-indulgence, love and aggression. The code is rich and suggestive. Indeed, this free flow of ideas, which might become tiresome and aimless, is often animated in the text with a mild glow of revelation, not unlike that available from wine in the belly.
Athenaeus is a late writer, as we, perhaps, are late in our own great imperial American Kali Yuga age. His fragmentary and circumstantial material, his close grasp on small and concrete facts and his coolness to generalizations, his tolerance of all and failure to claim access to Truth either religious or political, all these join him to our own time. His characters talk, not to pursue and finally capture the truth as Plato presumed, but to pass the time, yet their endless dinner escapes triviality. Signifying monkeys, as all men are, they talk as apes groom and the conversation has neither beginning nor end. Both eating and talking become arts, games, enough “human business” to occupy a lifetime.
The oral societies of the past typically granted poets a vatic voice with a unique connection to divine inspiration. This view was still influential in classical times, though not universal. In the Middle Ages the church asserted its own didactic imperatives, though the flourishing of secular literature eventually led to lesser claims: the poet as sensitive and insightful, inspired, but by his own genius now. With Chekhov and Joyce fiction came to treat of the apparently inconsequential. The “unity of action” became instead a slice of life, and the poet’s attention shifted focus as time passed from the details of realism ever smaller to imagism, objectivism, minimalism, and finally to the level of the word in language poetry, while at the same time scholars have moved from “great ideas” to minutiae. Athenaeus’ diners would find themselves at home, I think, at the MLA Convention, and perhaps they even lurk between you and me, scanning this essay.
Though the sloppier post-structuralists at academic meetings proceed as though every text were primarily self-reflective, concerned with its own verbal material, this is in fact true of Athenaeus. The speakers most often quote authorities, cite passages, and discuss words, their history, etymology, and regional variations. Whatever their putative topic they are skating on the edge of the semiotic resistance, uttering words not meant as transparent conveyors of content, but rather as material objects, whose procession bears within it the code of the cosmos, no less than the Milky Way itself. They live in citations, quoting one author after another, with the professorial conviction that, whatever the value of their own remarks, they have excellent taste in reading. But this pose only masks the conviction that keeps them reading, the conviction that reading, too, can lead to enlightenment. Their implied footnotes shape a map of consciousness at least as informative as their profile or the crazy pattern of gulls’ tracks on a beach.
Since the work strives to be encyclopedic after a fashion, it includes even the antithesis of this worship of the word. Cynulcus the Cynic denounces the diners both for their hedonism and their erudition, saying: “You glutton, whose god is your belly . . . you have misused your whole time in asking ‘is such a word found or not? Is it used or not used?’ And you test every word that occurs to your companions in talk as one tests a smooth surface by drawing his nail over it, collecting all the thorny places, ‘like one making his way through prickly plants and thorny licorice,’ forever wasting time, but never gathering the flowers that are the sweetest.”
Having gathered, I believe, worthy bouquets in Athenaeus, I would differ from Cynulcus. I fancy, for instance, the figure of a dancer called Memphis (a reference to “the oldest and most royal of cities”). This “philosopher-dancer” expounded, we are told, the Pythagorean philosophy in pantomime more effectively than it ever was taught in words. Whether such a dance is plausible or not, the implied glimpse of truth beyond words indicates that even Athenaeus’ professors, amid all the grubbing and eating and chit-chat through which they ordinarily attempt to sidle up to reality can also imagine a pole-vault into the beyond. If one person’s pole be meditation and another’s sex or sunsets, there are those, too, for whom it is words, and Athenaeus is a wordy writer indeed. But is it not often through words and the carefully constructed complexes of words that constitute literature that we can snare a new insight and even, on occasion, catch a glimpse of freshest vision just being born in our own consciousness?