Sometime in the mid-first century a.d., an otherwise little known consular official, Gaius Petronius, wrote a brilliant satirical novel about the gross and pretentious new Roman-imperial elite. The Satyricon is an often-cruel parody about how the Roman agrarian republic of old had degenerated into a wealth-obsessed, empty society of wannabe new elites, flush with money, and both obsessed with and bored with sex. Most of the Satyricon is lost. But in its longest surviving chapter — “Dinner with Trimalchio” — Petronius might as well have been describing our own 21st-century nomenklatura.
For the buffoonish libertine guests of the host Trimalchio, food and sex are in such surfeit that they have to be repackaged in bizarre and repulsive ways. Think of someone like the feminist mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, who once railed about the need to enforce sexual-harassment laws, now only to discover ever creepier ways to grope, pat, grab, squeeze, pinch, and slobber on 18 co-workers and veritable strangers, whether in their 20s or over 60. Unfortunately, the sexual luridness does not necessarily end with Filner’s resignation; one of his would-be replacements is already under attack by his opponents on allegations that as a city councilman he was caught masturbating in the city-hall restroom between public meetings.
In good Petronian fashion, the narcissist Anthony Weiner sent pictures of his own genitalia to near-strangers, under the Latinate pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Was Eliot Spitzer any better? As the governor of New York, he preferred anonymous numbers — “Client #9” — to false names, real to virtual sex, very young to mature women, and buying rather than romancing his partners. Is there some Petronian prerequisite in our age that our ascendant politicians must be perverts?
Transvestitism and sexual ambiguity are likewise Petronian themes; in our day, the controversy rages over whether convicted felon Bradley Manning is now a woman because he says he is. The politically correct term “transgendered” trumps biology; and if you doubt that, you are a homophobe or worse. As in the Roman Satyricon, our popular culture also displays a sick fascination with images of teen sex. So how does one trump the now-boring sexual shamelessness of Lady Gaga — still squirming about in a skimpy thong — at an MTV awards ceremony? Bring out former Disney teenage star Miley Cyrus in a vinyl bikini, wearing some sort of huge foam finger on her hand to simulate lewd sex acts.
The orgies at Trimalchio’s cool Pompeii estate (think Malibu) suggest that in imperial-Roman society Kardashian-style displays of wealth and Clintonian influence-peddling were matter-of-fact rather than shocking. Note that in our real version of the novel’s theme, Mayor Filner was not bothered by his exposure, and finally had to be nearly dragged out of office. Carlos Danger would have been mayor of New York, but the liberal press finally became worried over its embarrassment: Apparently two or three sexting episodes were tolerable, but another four or five, replete with more lies, risked parody.
Spitzer is again running for office — comptroller of New York City — and may well win. After all, Bill Clinton, feminist champion, protector of female subordinate employees from workplace harassers, survived Monicagate. John Edwards might have saved his political career had the tabloid National Enquirer not caught him red-handed with his mistress during the 2008 campaign, while his wife was dying of cancer. To an unimpressed masseuse, Al Gore appeared as a “crazed sex poodle.” That sobriquet did no more damage to Gore’s green empire than Trimalchio’s randy escapades imperiled his latifundia.
Another farce in the Satyricon involves the nonchalant ignorance of Trimalchio and his guests. The wannabes equate influence and money with status and learning and so pontificate about current events, with made-up mythologies and half-educated references to history. When Trimalchio and his banqueters begin to sermonize on literature, almost everything that follows turns out to be wrong — as Petronius reminds us how high learning has become as inane a commodity as food or sex, and only sort of half consumed, rather like the 2008 campaign of faux Greek columns and Vero possumus, which were supposed to convey gravitas.