Caught in the Act: Reader As Voyeur in Juvenal

Heather Vincent

Southern Illinois University

In his analysis of humor, Freud postulated that a tendentious joke calls for three people: the narrator, the object, and the listener.  In the experience of aggressive humor, both the narrator and the listener experience libidinal satisfaction when the aggressive impulse that inspires the telling is matched by the release of sexual and aggressive energy in the listener (Freud 1960, 100).  Freud's hypothesis, of course, relies upon a presumed alliance between narrator and listener and a shared, though imaginary, "opponent" as the object of the joke.  It is the safe distance separating listener and object that permits the free expression of hostility against the "other."  Herein lies the traditional explanation for the appeal of biting or invective satire, especially that of Juvenal (e.g. Richlin 1984, 67-77; Richlin 1992, 199-209, Vidén 1993, 141-142).  But from ancient satire to modern stand-up, much aggressive humor relies upon the collapse of the safe distance between the satirized object and the listener. 

My essay examines several instances of the conflation of reader and object in Juvenal's satires, focusing in particular on a few vignettes drawn from the second, sixth, and eighth satires in which we as readers are cast in the role of voyeur.  Although some scholarly work has touched upon this topic, most critics have tended to focus on the ways in which voyeurism ultimately reinforces the distinction between the reader and satirized object.  As Jonathan Walters writes, the use of voyeuristic tropes allows "the readership to implicate themselves pleasurably in the spectacle of deviancy while at the same time reaffirming their own non-deviant status" (Walters 1998, 355-356), and his point is well taken, for by acting as voyeur we seem to experience the vicarious pleasure without fear of repercussion or social stigma. 

But Juvenal's reader does not always get off so scot-free, for something remains to be said about those instances in which we as readers are caught in the act of looking.  As I shall demonstrate, Juvenal tends to engage the reader in a scene, only later to expose his/her pleasure in the engagement, thereby allying the reader with the object of the joke, rather than with the narrator.  Some would point to the collapse of fantasy and voyeuristic pleasure in the scenes as a sign of satire's socially corrective social function, a proof that the pleasure of sin is short-lived and always subject to censure.  But the effect of such tropes often seems more humorous than corrective, and as I argue, the build-up and collapse of voyeuristic fantasy serves to mitigate the aggressive qualities of the satire.  In short, once we as readers have been implicated in the scene, we no longer laugh to express hostility at the "other" but rather are forced to laugh at the "other" within ourselves.   


Freud, S.  1960  (German original 1905).  Jokes and Their Relation to the

Unconscious.  Trans. J. Strachey.  London.

Richlin, A.  1984.  "Invective Against Women in Roman Satire."  Arethusa 17:


______.  1992 (Original edition 1983).  The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and

            Aggression in Roman Humor.  New York.

Vidén, G.  1993.  Women in Roman Literature: Attitudes of Authors Under the

Early Empire.  Göteburg, Sweden.

Walters, J.  1998.  "Making a Spectacle: Deviant Men, Invective, and Pleasure." 

Arethusa 31: 355-367.

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