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Ideology in Cold Blood

Ideology in Cold Blood

A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War

Shadi Bartsch

ISBN 9780674005501

Publication date: 04/16/2001

Is Lucan’s brilliant and grotesque epic Civil War an example of ideological poetry at its most flagrant, or is it a work that despairingly proclaims the meaninglessness of ideology? Shadi Bartsch offers a startlingly new answer to this split debate on the Roman poet’s magnum opus.

Reflecting on the disintegration of the Roman republic in the wake of the civil war that began in 49 B.C., Lucan (writing during the grim tyranny of Nero’s Rome) recounts that fateful conflict with a strangely ambiguous portrayal of his republican hero, Pompey. Although the story is one of a tragic defeat, the language of his epic is more often violent and nihilistic than heroic and tragic. And Lucan is oddly fascinated by the graphic destruction of lives, the violation of human bodies—an interest paralleled in his deviant syntax and fragmented poetry. In an analysis that draws on contemporary political thought ranging from Hannah Arendt and Richard Rorty to the poetry of Vietnam veterans, as well as on literary theory and ancient sources, Bartsch finds in the paradoxes of Lucan’s poetry both a political irony that responds to the universally perceived need for, yet suspicion of, ideology, and a recourse to the redemptive power of storytelling. This shrewd and lively book contributes substantially to our understanding of Roman civilization and of poetry as a means of political expression.

Praise

  • The problem of Lucan’s stance is notorious, and it is the focus of Bartsch’s book… She makes her own gripping contribution to the dossier of Lucanian despair in her first two chapters; but she believes that ultimately such interpretations sell the poet short, as an artist and a person. Her Lucan, both inside and outside his poem, is a Sartrean existentialist or a Rortyan moral ironist, who accepts the evanescence of traditional moral and political verities but who behaves as if his ideology matters anyhow and makes his choice regardless. Hence the ‘ideology in cold blood’ of her title: Lucan knows, and spellbindingly demonstrates, that Liberty is a cipher, but he commits himself to it none the less. Bartsch has put her finger on a key issue, and her passionate book is a useful check to the establishment of a new orthodoxy on Lucan.

    —Denis Feeney, Times Literary Supplement

Author

  • Shadi Bartsch is Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago.

Book Details

  • 236 pages
  • 5-1/4 x 7-7/8 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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