J. HENDERSON. Morals and Villas in Seneca’s Letters: Places to Dwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 189. ISBN 0-521-82944-5. STG £45 (Hb).
Review by Pamela Marin
Henderson’s latest work is not an easy read. Henderson, in a pseudo-Oscar Wilde Parisian mode of discourse with images of cigarettes or opium smoking and absinthe flowing, writes of a topic that would be better suited to an article than a book of this length. Regardless of his or her background in Senecan research, the reader is very likely to be left with a feeling of either ignorance or confusion. Nevertheless, beneath the street terminology, the internet-terms, and the pseudo-intellectual posturing, there are a few interesting insights, although one needs to dig extremely deep in order to find them.
Henderson offers a unique presentation of the material at hand. Deciding to deal with selected letters in detail, he approaches them as a physical journey undertaken by Seneca from his own villa (letter 12) to those of Scipio (86) and Vatia (55) with accompanying translations included, but there are numerous problems with Henderson’s idea of physicality and place as being the major point of debate and discussion. There simply is not enough evidence available for this to work to any great extent, so unfortunately, Henderson tries to fill the gaps with unrelated and irrelevant digressions that last for pages and offer the reader useless bons mots that, as one might say, ‘are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Henderson’s first chapter is thought provoking, but it could have been much better presented, as it is the only chapter with any coherency or semblance of connected thought. Ironically, however, this chapter has little to do with what Henderson appears to want to say overall whatever that might be.
The rest of the book has little merit, aside from Henderson’s own translations of the actual letters. It is only in the first ‘visit’ to Seneca’s own villa that Henderson offers anything beyond a rudimentary commentary. In the first translated letter in Chapter 2, Henderson brings out well an analogy between Seneca’s old age and the disrepair of his own villa, with the servant Felicio, once a youthful playmate of Seneca’s, now an old man with more teeth missing than extant, another reminder to Seneca of his age. The subsequent letters (86 and 55) are translated in separate, isolated chapters with a discussion of sorts following in the remaining chapters of this book. Unfortunately, Henderson makes little, if any, sense in these chapters (8-12) Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius do bring out the concept of morality, but while offering some intriguing insights regarding their interpretation, Henderson does little else with the worthwhile material he has offered.
It seems as if Henderson is teasing and tantalising the reader with a blast of illumination that never appears. It is an awkward and uncomfortable section likely to cause the reader to either toss the book out the window in despair, or try to plough onwards to some final conclusion. I eventually did the latter, but the hoped for resolution does not occur. The reader is, therefore, left with the feeling that the letters themselves would be better served in another publication and by another author, with the appropriate, organised commentary and discussion.
This is not a book for the general reader, either on the undergraduate or graduate level. Indeed, aside from some interesting insights in Chapter 1, this book is more of a discourse on selected letters without any coherency. Henderson’s attempt to use the lingua franca of the internet, web-cam, and e-mail age are simply jarring metaphors which distract the reader from whatever it may be that he is trying to say, but even after several readings, this is not clear. Whatever ideas that he is trying to convey are simply lost within the layers of literary ornamentation. This book does merit some interest for its interpretation of selected Senecan letters, but it assumes detailed knowledge of late Republican history, of the Neronian period, and other authors, not just Seneca. Henderson himself notes on page 6: ‘disorientation of the reader is the first objective of the correction programme’. Whatever the end of the sentence means, from Chapter 2 onwards, the disorientation of both the author and reader is quite successful.