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Hostius Quadra and his mirrors

Ansgar Allen

Pair of eyes, Greek (MET, 1991.11.3a, b)

In the particular volume of Pseudodoxia found there in the crevice was a note in pencil, see for instance Seneca, Natural Questions, Book I, Chapter XVI. I would go looking for it in the library in the wall.


In the ideal I might chance upon a room in which the bookish remains of Seneca specialists would be gathered together, arranged in their shared obsessive poverty and lodged with Seneca’s greater remains. Or, alternatively, I would find Seneca’s book in a room devoted to Sadean Man that would include Sade’s precursors, and so would shelve the exploits of Heliogabalus, the teenage emperor, as they were variously recorded—including Artaud’s account of the emperor’s short, violent, and uniquely erotic reign. This book by Artaud will be in the wall even centuries before Artaud was born, lived, and died, a poet withered to his unshrinking substrate—and then perhaps in a corner I would find a few pages of Seneca’s Book I, Chapter XVI, which is really very tame and stringently devoid of specifics. In any case, I did eventually come to a copy of Natural Questions and read about Hostius Quadra and his mirrors. These were so adjusted that small things became abnormally large. A finger, to take a comparatively chaste example, might exceed the size of an arm in length and thickness. And a toe might grow so big as a head, but faceless and ill shod with hair. With these mirrors, and with Hostius Quadra at their centre, he could see all his accomplices’ movements, and could gloat over the imagined proportions of his own body. He raised a levy of scamps like himself in all the public baths, writes Seneca, and this only whetted his appetite to have his scenes of riot reproduced in false unnatural proportions. And it goes on, with Seneca repeating himself over and again concerning its baseness, its lewdness, its shamelessness, all in place of any particulars. I could not soil my pen by recording the foul words and deeds of that monster, is written instead. Seneca describes more than once how the mirrors were placed on all sides so to present infamy from all aspects, and how these were all deeds of darkness which ordinary men would balk at, retch at, turn from, and so on, crimes that would usually and even for the most debauched cause the doer to dread the sight of themselves, abominations that would drag heavily at the last vestiges of a conscience. All of which were but a trifle still to this beast. And Seneca goes on with his circular telling of scenes of revolting iniquity, a convolution of sentences wound in their own filament of judgement. One angle alone could not satisfy his lust, and so each deed must be seen from below, and behind, and from every side, he had no dread of the daylight, no repugnance before what he might do, and more likely felt disappointment that whatever it was he did could not be seen enough, nor magnified sufficiently, for the image to reproduce in its grotesque distortion how they each felt in their bodies, or at least how Hostius Quadra felt in his when in the court of their debauchery all accepted notions of the manner of human coitus were disploded, and as the entire evaluative order was rent between them, since this was how he experienced it, and perhaps too those he debauched with, and so it was, this villain presented to his sight what the darkest night is not deep enough to hide. Which might be interpreted then to mean, the reflected image would always fail to fully render something more bestial, elemental, that purest darkness, even, could not conceal. The mirrors distorted body parts and separated them out, and Hostius Quadra feasted upon them. As he feasted himself on the parts presented, he saw himself engorging them in his reflection, and this was the closest any man ever got to feasting his eyes upon an image, to bearing out the common phrase thereby, and to finally replacing the operation of the eye with the sensation of the mouth. This will be achieved by masticating the image, making it whetted and malleable and enlarged as it feels against the tongue and the gums and the palate. The oracular feast will begin here, placing the eye between the lips and sucking in and to a painful endenture, a blunt compression of teeth that brings the organ into a grasp of its nature—a jellied orb distended and overrun with sensitivities. Seneca concludes his vignette by allowing the monster to speak, or at least, Seneca ends by giving him words to speak with. Seneca does this as a narrative ploy for the purposes of burrowing under and undermining those apportioned words, so taking the debauchee down with his own locution. By my art I will defeat nature’s shyness, says the man of the mirrors. Nature is more generous to cattle… than men, Hostius Quadra adds. Men must rail against the smallness nature bequeathed them, against the frailty of the human form, and against its further enfeeblement by the refinements of culture. But this last clause just added, and the one before, and then before that reaching right back to the quoted text, already extends beyond what Seneca permits. For Seneca cannot allow the abominations he hints at to suggest by their fabled existence, by their apparent achievement and their reflected glory, that nature was in any way defeated in the chamber of distorting mirrors. The episode must in its last be reduced to a story of failure. This has to be done for the opening line of Book I, Chapter XVI to be concluded and so delivered in the last words of the passage. The section must make good on its claim that this will be a salutary tale against lust. I wish to tell you a little story to show you how unscrupulous lust is in seizing every instrument that will rouse passion, so resourceful is it in goading to madness its own morbid fury, is how Seneca begins. The beast himself will be made to confess, tell of his failure to defeat nature, and show that he was himself seized by lust against himself and was diminished in its grasp. I only wish I could make the size real, Seneca has him say of the grotesque and magnified reflection Hostius Quadra beholds, but I must be content with the belief of it, or as differently translated, I will feed upon the lie, or again, rendered differently, I will feed myself with the similitude. After all the lewdness, or the suggested lewdness, the monster is reduced to a man, and the man is reduced to his wish to be what he sees, what he has conjured by common trickery, and so to his desire to be what he is not. The debauchee is made small before his reflection. The image is elevated against the man, and not the man before the image that must perpetually fail him, that cannot reproduce him, because the man is always more faceted, and worse in relief, than a mirror, or a mirror-like image can capture.


Excerpt from The Faces of Pluto, forthcoming with Stalking Horse Press.

Ansgar Allen is the author of books including Cynicism (MIT Press), and the novels Black Vellum (Schism Press), Plague Theatre (Equus Press), The Wake and the Manuscript (Anti-Oedipus Press) and The Sick List (Boiler House Press). He is editor-in-chief at Erratum Press, and co-founded Risking Education, an imprint of Punctum Books. He is based in Sheffield, UK. Website:


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