Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position

Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position

by William Fitzgerald

Restoring to Catullus a provocative power that familiarity has tended to dim, this book argues that Catullus challenges us to think about the nature of lyric in new ways. Fitzgerald shows how Catullus's poetry reflects the conditions of its own consumption as it explores the terms and possibilities of the poet's license. Reading the poetry in relation to the drama


Restoring to Catullus a provocative power that familiarity has tended to dim, this book argues that Catullus challenges us to think about the nature of lyric in new ways. Fitzgerald shows how Catullus's poetry reflects the conditions of its own consumption as it explores the terms and possibilities of the poet's license. Reading the poetry in relation to the drama of position played out between poet, poem, and reader, the author produces a fresh interpretation of almost all of Catullus's oeuvre. Running through the book is an analysis of the ideological stakes behind the construction of the author Catullus in twentieth-century scholarship and of the agenda governing the interpreter's position in relation to Catullus.

Editorial Reviews

Fitzgerald (classics and comparative literature, U. of California-San Diego) reinterprets the lyrics of the first- century Roman by emphasizing Catullus' awareness and manipulation of the relative positions of the poet, the poem, and the reader. He explores such aspects as the erotics of poetry, obscenity, urbanity, the wronged lover, the golden age, and the death of a brother. Does not assume a knowledge of Latin. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Catullan Provocations

By William Fitzgerald

University of California Press

Copyright © 2000 William Fitzgerald
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520221567


This book has three layers of argument. At the level of broadest application, it explores the drama of position and relation in lyric poetry through a reading of Catullus; I hope that this reading exemplifies an approach that can be applied to other authors, genres, and even media, for all aesthetic transactions involve some kind of positional drama. As a study of Roman literature and culture, it situates Catullus' poetry within the dynamics of a particular cultural context and identifies the concerns, anxieties, norms, and contradictions that enabled Catullus' particular orientation to lyric poetry. Finally, as a reinterpretation of a canonical author, it examines the investments that modern writers (scholarly and creative) have had in the canonicity of this author. How have these writers felt themselves authorized by Catullus? How have they imagined their relationship to him? What has been at stake in Catullus' canonicity? My own purpose is to argue for a Catullus who authorizes different enterprises, and in many cases this approach means responding to provocations that the modern construction of the author Catullus has been intended to control.

Let me begin with the first of this book's concerns, what I call aesthetic positionality. The consumer stands in a relation to a work of art that we call aesthetic, a relation that positions the consumer insofar as it determines the sense in which the work and its world are available, the conditions to which the consumer must agree in order to let the work exert its power, the satisfactions that are blocked or enabled, and so on. In every medium or genre, this aesthetic relation is inflected differently,and in any given work of art it may be engaged dramatically so as to become an important part of the work's content.

Poetry, among the other things it does, positions us in relation to the language we use every day: when we read poetry, we delegate speech to another, which means that the poetry positions the poet and the reader, or audience, differentially in relation to language. As an example of how the drama of this positionality might function in a particular poem, let us take William Carlos Williams's "This is Just to Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.1

Like "This is Just to Say," most of Catullus' poems are addressed to someone and purport to have specific occasions or purposes (invitations, accusations, warnings, and the like). As this poetry is conventionally understood, the reader witnesses a portion of a drama going on between the poet and another person who, being neither the writer nor the reader of this poem, exists on a lower level of reality than poet or reader. Because we weren't saving the plums that Williams ate, and which we now enjoy with enhanced orality, the addressee's loss is our gain: she must accept the loss of her anticipated pleasure for his sake and for ours. But, insofar as she too is a reader, the position of Williams's addressee overlaps with our own: like us, she is asked to acknowledge that she has enjoyed the plums more in his mouth than she would have in her own. Her forgiveness depends on the delicious and unexpected enjoyment of the familiar (words like "cold" and "sweet") to which she is given renewed access through the detour of his note. Williams's poem is celebrated for being nothing more than a domestic note of the kind many of his readers will have written, its language plain and direct and its purpose quotidian. It is an objet trouvi claimed by the poet in much the same way as he claimed the plums that he found in the icebox. As a poet, he finds thewords we have used and will use again, and he speaks them in such a way that we are forced to acknowledge they are rightfully his. The drama of this poem resides in the theft to which we, like the poem's addressee, find ourselves the willing victims.

"This is Just to Say" exploits the structure of the relation between everyday users of language, now also readers, and the poet who has preempted our intentions on that language. But why would we allow him to do such a thing? As readers or audience, we have implicitly licensed the poet to take any kind of advantage he can of a position of complete power in relation to language, to show us what can be done.

Williams's poem suggests that there is some relation between poetry and the note left for someone who will come on the scene when the poet is gone. Once the poet is dead, this relation becomes more poignant; in the following poem by Keats, the poignancy lent by death is quite aggressively anticipated, and the poet casts himself as something of a vampire in relation to the reader:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed. See here it is—
I hold it towards you.2

The fact that we are reading this poem after Keats is dead, and that our own lives are suspended as we infuse the beating of time and the materiality of voice into these written words to realize the poem once more, means that the prophecy has been fulfilled. Jonathan Culler says of this poem that we fulfill the prophecy by forgetting our own empirical lives and by trying to embrace a fictional time in which the hand "is really present and perpetually held towards us through the poem." The drama of this moment is that "the poem predicts this mystification, dares us to resist it, and shows that its power is irresistible."3 I would add that this "mystification" is simply an extreme and provocative version of the reader's position in reading any poem, the resurrection of whose voice depends on the reader's suspension of empirical time as he or she realizes its meter. The poem's extraordinary ending, in which the most immediate gestural challenge coincides with the closure that contains the poem, poses the problem of what the aesthetic object wants of us, andit does so through the paradoxical character of closure, which is both a form of epiphany (of the completed object) and of severance or release from the world of the work.

These two modern poems suggest that, whatever else it does, poetry distributes differential relations to language to poet and reader. In any artistic genre, the consumption of the work involves a drama of position involving at least the producer and the consumer. Frequently, as I show in the case of Catullus, the content of the work serves to elaborate that drama, which usually remains unconscious for the reader; nevertheless, the interest of the viewer, reader, or listener in the content of the work may stem from his or her investment in a particular structure of positionality characteristic of the medium or genre.

Overhearing Poetry

Cast in the form of a note, Williams's "This is Just to Say" encourages us to see a continuity between poetry and our everyday linguistic transactions. John Stuart Mill's influential statement that poetry is not heard but overheard might seem to offer the same encouragement, but in fact it has been received and elaborated in such a way that the emphasis has been put on the illusion rather than the relation of overhearing.4 Recently, in a very interesting study of poet and audience in Latin poetry, Kenneth Quinn credits Catullus with the invention of a poetry that seems to be overheard; Quinn situates this invention in the transition from an audience of listeners to an audience of readers for whom the poem creates the illusion of being overheard:

It is the difference between hearing a planned performance and overhearing a private conversation, even if the poem has been written with the thought in mind that it will be overheard, so that the feeling we have with such poems when we hear them or read them is that we have come along afterwards, that we are intruders, that the text of the poem has, as it were, fallen into our hands by accident is largely an illusion. A new way of writing poetry has come into existence whose success depends on the skill with which the writer can create that illusion.5

But overhearing is not only an illusion, it is also a relation. It disposes us, as intruders, to say apologetic things like "I couldn't help overhearing what you said . . .," and it tends to affect the speech of the speaker,who is aware of the possibility of being overheard. The overheard speaker is both vulnerable to the possibility of giving something away and endowed with the power to tantalize the listener; Catullus, as we shall see, makes a great deal of this ambiguous relation to the reader. But these dimensions of the metaphor are scarcely ever explored by those who use it, any more than, for instance, the metaphor of poetry as confession leads to discussions of the reader's power to give or withhold absolution, or of the reader's standing in for a God who hears and understands all.6 The continuity between poetry and other transactions or relations centered on speech is actually suppressed by the way these metaphors are (or rather, are not) elaborated.

But the idea that poetry is overheard or confessional is no longer as influential as it was. In the last two or three decades, and particularly through the work of Paul de Man, we have learned to read the lyric as an exploration of epistemological problems and aporias. This kind of reading is interested in the illusions in which we are persuaded to believe (e.g., that somebody is speaking, that nature can be addressed, etc.) and in how the figurality and textuality of poetry support or undermine these illusions. Because the focus has been on romantic or modernist lyric, the rhetorical structures of the lyric have been related to post-Kantian philosophical issues of knowledge and perception; commentary has played out a drama of mystification and demystification, either in tandem or in argument with the poet.7 Chapter 8 is the nearest I come to these kinds of issues. Mostly, though, I am concerned less with the tendency of the lyric to solicit the reader with certain illusions (or to challenge those illusions) than with the lyric's exploration of the position of the speaker in relation to other (real or potential) speakers and, more broadly, with the relations and dramas of power that the poet's exploration of his position engage. A large part of my project in this book is to read the positional structures of the lyric through Roman concerns and relations; I argue that an alternative set of issues about the lyric can be elaborated from Catullus' poetry and its Roman cultural context, in which questions of performance, positionality, and power are more central than are those of subjectivity, authenticity, presence, voice, and anthropomorphism.

The Roman Context

If Catullus provides a particularly rich opportunity to study these aspects of the lyric, it is because of the nature of Romanculture and society, and also because of Catullus' own moment in Roman literary history. This Roman context is the concern of the second layer of my argument. Quinn 1982 locates Catullus' poetry at a transition between spoken performance and written text, and, as he points out, this transition was slow. The ambiguous status of the Catullan poem enhances its elusive quality, the fact that it seems both casually occasional and yet fixed in its polished rightness of expression.8 Art concealing art? Perhaps this is rather a function of the ambiguous status of its receivers, who have different kinds of access to the poem depending on whether they situate themselves as audience or as readership. The poem may be performed, or else read as a text; either way, the consumption of the poem is incomplete.9 Because the written poem is the record of a performance we have missed, and the spoken poem can never realize the possibilities of the written text, the poem is always either more immediate or more enduring than what we experience.10 The interpretive attempt to reconstitute the poem is always excessive with respect to the implied original performance; ultimately, we are made to feel that "you had to be there."

Catullus' collection reflects the existence of a group of like-minded poets (Licinius Calvus, Caius Cinna, and others) who profess literary principles derived from the Alexandrian poets, primarily the cultivation of perfection in small forms and a display of learning. These poets, who engage in polemics against the poetry of which they disapprove, are usually identified with the "neoterics" referred to disparagingly by Cicero (Att. 7.2.1).11 The lively literary scene of Catullus' time was embedded within the Roman social context of the patron (patronus) and his circle of clients and friends (clientes, amici). At this time, the circle would have included professional critics, such as the poet-scholar Valerius Cato, who were beginning to involve themselves with contemporary poetry. These critics would have had the power to recognize the poets who performed at the gatherings of the patronus as worthy of study and commentary by the side of the canonical poets of the past. But the performance of poetry would still have been tied to that central occasion of ancient social life, the dinner, and the circle of the patronus would have included, as Quinn puts it, "people who can be invited to dinner . . . because they are witty talkers and, in a society infatuated with wit, can earn their place at table. These last are the parasiti and scurrae of whom we hear so much; many of the friends of Catullus are clearly of this social status" (136).12 The poem, then, looks toward two different contextsunited in the same situation, and it solicits two different kinds of attention. Like the transition between the spoken and the written, this ambiguous context problematizes the relation between poet and audience or readership. In some respects, the poet is like the dinner guest whose wit holds our attention, whose gossip piques our curiosity, and to whom we listen because or when he outshines us.

Because we are situated at the end of a long tradition of the criticism of written texts and of the perpetuation of a classical canon in which Catullus has played a major role, questions about the consumption of poetry have been increasingly buried by the business of interpretation. Even the modern critical movement that has addressed itself specifically to the issue of reception has been concerned with literary reception on the part of a community of interpreters . In the concluding essay to her anthology of reader-response criticism, Jane Tompkins (1980, 225) makes the point that, even where it describes the strategies by which the text stymies the process of interpretation, modern reader-response criticism has confirmed interpretation as the preeminent mode of the reader's response. But the position of the reader or audience of a poem is not adequately described as that of interpreter, nor can the poet disappear into the text's clues and resistances. We have to understand, for instance, how the poet plays the role of scurra (wit, raconteur, "man about town") in relation to those who have "invited" him just as much as how he makes his bid to be recognized by the critic as a worthy object of commentary and a candidate for canonization.

My conception for this book was formed while reading and thinking about Paul Veyne's brilliant and provocative Roman Erotic Elegy (1988), a book that combines a new understanding of the Roman elegiac poets with a polemic against the modern investments in sincerity and intensity that have prevented us from asking about the relation between poet and audience.13 Veyne has been accused, with some justification, of flogging a dead horse, because at the time of writing—the French edition was published in 1983—few classicists still thought of Roman elegy as autobiographical and sincere.14 Nevertheless, the residual assumption that it is self-evident that (and how) audiences will be interested in the intense erotic experience of a poetic persona has prevented us from asking what kind of taste is being addressed by this poetry. Veyne reads Roman elegy as "a pseudoautobiographical form of poetry in which the poet is in league with his readers at the expense of his own Ego" (44). It is the nature of the league that interests him, a league that he situates in relationto the peculiar, almost unreal world of Roman "irregular" society and to the complicated role it plays within upper-class Roman society as a whole. Veyne's description of the dialectic of author and reader, the shifting relations of power between them, and the contract that governs this game, is worth quoting in full:

There is a whole dialectic of author and reader here, real society merely serving as a pretext for a semiotic game. Decreed to be superior to Ego by his morality the implied reader is next discretely knocked down (Ego comes from high society) and humiliated (Ego frequents alluring women) and then raised up again well above Ego, that naive creature. But who organized this game in which the implied reader gets to see the coarse side of life before his final triumph? It was the other Ego, the one who is his own editor. Is the reader made a fool of? No, for he knows all this. Visiting the carnival of books, he had gone into the palace of mirrors precisely to experience these highs and lows and to laugh (94–95).

Roman society, deeply concerned with hierarchy and with the maintenance of the decorum that befits one's position, but at the same time permeated by anomalies and complexities of status, was the obvious place for this form of entertainment to flourish.15 For poet and reader, the effort of maintaining a clear sense of one's position in the complex, labile, and sometimes contradictory hierarchy of Roman rank and prestige could be suspended, and the whole question of hierarchy could become the premiss of an amusing game.16

Veyne's characterization of what he calls the semiotic game of Roman elegy has the great virtue of correcting the one-sided perspective that fails to recognize the cooperation of the audience in this enterprise. All too often, the elegiac poets, and Catullus himself, are represented as countercultural heroes resisting straitlaced Roman orthodoxy: the gravitas , the stern morality, and the militarism of the political elite. But from the middle of the second century B.C.E. , the frivolous distractions commonly associated with Greek culture had been part of the life of the Roman elite, separated spatially and temporally from the world of negotium (business) by the creation of a private life often centered on the Campanian villa.17 The elite simply got used to living in two different worlds, of negotium and otium (leisure) respectively, and adopted a dual standard of ethics. The situation was always a bit precarious because political enemies would regularly attack, in speeches before the Roman people, the pleasures a rival member of the elite enjoyed in private. The pleasurable aspect of that precariousness was explored bythe poets who professed (or confessed) to have substituted the values of otium for those of negotium . The elegiac poets (Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid) belonged to the rank of knights (equites), a rank from which one might choose to launch oneself on a political career leading to the Senate or, avoiding the struggles of ambitio , to devote oneself to otium , for which "leisure" would be a misleading translation because it could include business pursuits as well as various kinds of studies or artistic activities.18 The elegists, obviously, had chosen the latter course, and one might say that in their poetry they performed the ambiguities of their equestrian status, which put at issue the relative claims of ambitio (potentially glorious but burdensome) and otium . Veyne's semiotic game, in which the reader feels alternately superior to and envious of the persona of the poet-lover, explores the ambivalence of the choice to embrace equestrian status.

As for Catullus, though he came from provincial Verona, he was a member of a family wealthy and important enough to be on social terms with Julius Caesar, and at Rome Catullus' connections brought him into intimate contact with members of the highest aristocracy.19 It is unlikely that Catullus earned money from his poetry or that he needed to; he was a professional poet only in the sense that poetry was what he professed. And yet, as a Cisalpine (or Transpadane) Gaul at Rome, he made his way into high society through his literary talents. At the age of twenty seven (57–56 B.C.E. ), he accompanied Gaius Memmius to Bithynia as one of the entourage (cohors) of the governor (cc. 10, 28). The aristocratic Memmius was a man of considerable literary culture, to whom Lucretius had addressed his De rerum natura , and besides Catullus he brought with him the poet Cinna, another Transpadane. Catullus spoke to his audience not as an outsider, nor as a paid entertainer, but as one whose performance of his membership in high society compensated for a social handicap. Many of the provincials who made their way into Roman high society became champions and performers of the urbane wit (urbanitas) on which elite Roman society prided itself by contrast to the "rusticity" of life outside the capital.20 Catullus and his fellow Transpadanes might have felt pride at the cultural achievements and growing importance of their place of origin and at the same time the need to detach themselves from the boorish rusticity that was still attributed to them by the Roman elite. This cultural schizophrenia duplicated the situation of all Roman intellectuals with respect to the older culture of Greece, of which imperial Rome was now both the proud owner and the humble debtor.

Both as a Roman and as a Transpadane, then, Catullus' cultural position was ambiguous, and, as we shall see, this ambiguity intensified the focus on positional drama in his poetry.

Roman Talk

Poetry, and particularly Catullus' poetry, is talk, and the Romans had a passion for it: sonorous speeches, obscene insults, moralistic tirades, witty barbs, urbane dinner conversation, profuse encomia, sly innuendos, solemn contracts, and copious lists. The canonical status of Roman literature has profoundly influenced the way the West has talked. Cicero (in both his speeches and his letters), Catullus, Tacitus, Horace, and Juvenal have all authored linguistic attitudes that centuries of education based on translating and composing Latin have fixed in our repertoires, although their names are beginning to be forgotten. Even in such unlikely places as modern journalistic accounts of trends and gossip in the big city we can recognize the epistolary attitude of Catullus' friend Caelius reporting to Cicero on the life of the city, with the same self-congratulatory ellipticism creating a community of those who are "tuned in."21 All of these forms of speech create specific kinds of relation and of community.

Catullus' poetry, like Williams's "This is Just to Say," parades its relation to everyday acts of speech or writing: invitations, insults, dinner-table witticisms, gossip, obscene graffiti, and the like. More often than not, this aspect of his poetry is taken to display Catullus' ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, proving, for instance, that even a crude insult can be raised to the status of art if enough care is taken with it. But each of these acts of speech or writing creates a particular kind of relationship that throws its own light on the society that a poem creates, at the same time as the particular poem in turn reveals something about the way these acts of everyday speech function.

Catullus' name is particularly associated with urbanity and obscenity, two very different forms of speech that both play an important role in creating the sense of a lively society around the poems and in the gaps between them. In fact, urbanity and obscenity are not as opposed as they might seem, for both forms of speech, in their Roman form, concern the relations within a particular community of speakers. Roman obscenity is preponderantly concerned with the impure mouth, for the word of theRoman is sacred and the place from which it issues must be kept pure by members of the community of speakers; the obscene act to which Catullus most frequently refers is oral rape (irrumatio), and the most shameful perversion in Roman society is fellatio or cunnilingus. Like Greek obscenity, the Roman variety is also concerned with relations of power, with the penetrator and the penetrated, but its primary focus on the mouth makes it a site for exploring relations between speech and silence, between pure and impure speakers, and, as I argue, between the body of the poem and the bodies of poet and reader.

Catullus' urbanity—the various forms of elegant behavior, attitude, and speech that distinguish insiders of his circle from outsiders—is intended to be something that can only be exemplified, not defined; as a new kind of social performance that is continually improvising its own rules and limits while creating its excluded opposite, urbanity is more like a game than a quality. This game, which is a kind of "turf war," can be seen as poetic provided we are prepared to understand poetry itself as an event that takes place within an imagined community of speakers: perhaps the poet will reconstitute his audience as worthy members of his circle, returning to us our own speech with its potentialities now better appreciated; but perhaps he will thumb his nose, reminding us that there will always be something missing in our everyday speech, something we can't put our finger on, which separates the way he speaks from the way we do. Many of Catullus' poems invite us to think of poetry in terms of this kind of drama.

I am concerned throughout this study with the light that some distinctively Roman forms of speech and rhetoric can throw on the poetic relation and vice versa. All of these kinds of speech are trying to do something; they have their distinctive strategies for positioning the speaker and for engaging others in a certain relation to that speaker. My readings show how Catullus uses this dimension of various kinds of Roman speech to explore aspects of the poetic relation; at the same time, I hope they show how poetry reflects and magnifies the positional drama latent in all kinds of linguistic intercourse.

The Author Catullus

The third layer of my argument concerns Catullus the author, both the author that has been constructed by modern scholarship to inhabit and rationalize the collection and the author who has authorized modern writers to produce "Catullan" literature. It is concerned with the focal position of the author in the collection and with the position from which others are authorized to speak by this canonical author. An author, Foucault has argued, is constructed, not born, for an author is the product of critical and scholarly operations, the fulfiller of educational and ideological purposes, and the occupant of a differentiated role and position within the total field of a particular canon.22 A distinct set of investments governs the construction of any author and determines how that author in turn authorizes others, not necessarily critics, to speak in his name or from his position. Throughout the book, I ask how the author Catullus has been constructed in modern times and what roles he has been constructed to play; in other words, what has been at stake in our author Catullus?

The following words of a Catullan scholar commenting on an apparent paradox in the posture of Catullus the lover might be a good place to start:

There is no point in asking how Catullus can speak of Lesbia's culpa [fault] when he himself entered the relationship while she was still another man's wife, since his poetry, obviously, presents the relationship from his, not Lesbia's, much less Metellus' [Lesbia's husband's], point of view.23

We could learn much about how the criticism of lyric poetry is conventionally understood by reflecting on the force of the word "obviously" in this statement. If Catullus had not been issued a poetic license, he would look pretty shabby, but in fact he has more often than not been treated as a kind of saint. It appears that as critics we ("obviously") have a duty to speak from the position of the poet we are explicating, and this explication may involve amplifying the rhetoric of the poet in order to fix that position. Here is the same critic explicating Catullus c.11, a bitter farewell to his faithless mistress:

Like some huge, obscene monster, Lesbia wraps her thighs about the middle of countless lovers simultaneously and through this gripping embrace, again and again, breaks the groins of them all. By her insatiable sexual rapacity she crushes their manhood and thus renders them limp, useless, and impotent.24

The passage is notable, first of all, for the misogynistic relish with which it echoes Catullus' more modest, though still violent words.25 But, ironically, the critic who sets out to speak from the position of Catullus with respect to Lesbia ends up taking the position of Lesbia with respectto Catullus' poetry. Fixing on Catullus' words, repeating and amplifying them in an excess of expository zeal, he ends up by wringing them dry and leaving them "limp, useless, and impotent." This rapacity bears not a little resemblance to that of Lesbia, who is accused of reducing the act of love to meaninglessness through her excessive lust.

What this passage shows, along with many like it in Catullan scholarship, is that an author is a position from which others are authorized to speak.26 My final chapter examines Catullan literature, poems and novels inspired by Catullus and informed by Catullan scholarship. Some of that literature explicitly resurrects the Catullan voice to deal with amatory traumas of the writer or his persona, and it will be no surprise to anyone that much of this literature adopts the misogynistic tone of the passage quoted above. Several poems I cite in that chapter are addressed to Catullus himself in tones that recall Catullus' own tender graveside address to his dead brother (c.101); Catullus' readership as reflected in this literature is a brotherhood formed through the triangular relation between the Catullan figure, the woman, and another man. For these writers, "Catullus" means a certain emotional structure in which the unfaithful or unworthy woman plays an instrumental role in facilitating an understanding between men. I argue in other parts of the book that the Catullan scholar typically situates him- or herself in the position of a substitute for Lesbia, a substitute who understands the poet in ways that Lesbia was incapable of understanding him. My version of the position of the Catullan reader will, I hope, upset this tendency of that reader to feature in a drama of betrayal and its often misogynistic agenda.

Fortunately, the criticism of Catullus has been taking some new directions in recent years; the work of Skinner (especially 1979a, 1982, and 1989), Richlin (1983), Selden (1992), and Janan (1993) has suggested different, and various, ways of reading Catullus without relying on the sentimental narratives of the past.

Provocation and Recuperation

Catullus is a provocative poet.27 He tells us himself that poetry should incite a sexual itch,28 but his poetry can also be stunningly trivial, breathtakingly obscene, or breast-tappingly self-righteous. Sometimes we are inclined to turn away or pretend we didn't hear, but for themost part we have been concerned to show that there is more here than meets the ear. My intention is both to recover the more radical implications of the provocation of Catullus' poetry and to describe the strategies by which this provocation has been neutralized or, more significantly, used as a pointer to higher things. The process of provocation and response that governs the creation of lyric value in the mainstream tradition of Catullan scholarship is not always acknowledged. In his exculpation of Catullus the adulterous hypocrite, the critic quoted above tries to make something invisible; he appeals with his "obviously" to an aesthetic rule about what is "out of play," or bracketed, when we agree to read a text as lyric poetry. The point is discreetly tucked away in a footnote because it must not become an issue. But the elaboration of the poet's point of view by the critic doesn't just overlook issues of justice and one-sidedness, for the points of view that are excluded (Lesbia's, Metellus') represent values that must be trumped by the successful poet, who makes it worth our while to take his side. The unsuccessful poet fails to persuade us to ignore other points of view and is usually called self-indulgent. It is therefore a requirement of the appreciation of poetry (as traditionally conceived) that we overcome a resistance to its one-sidedness in the name of values constituted as poetic by that very act of overcoming. This procedure is occluded by the "obviously" that pretends we have not made the first move in the interpretive game because there is no move to make. In fact, the paradox that the adulterer Catullus complains of his mistress's infidelity ensures that, in order to take his side, we must assume (and elaborate) a higher or more intense experience of love on his part that takes precedence over the experiences of others.29 This, at any rate, has been the usual approach of Catullan criticism, which understands Catullan provocation as an invitation to find higher reasons to take the poet's side.

Another potentially provocative aspect of lyric poetry is its slightness. Catullus referred to his poems as "trifles" (nugae, c.1, 4) and often he challenges us not to agree. We have responded by making various kinds of virtue of this slightness. Here is an example from a novel of the thirties:

"There is a good deal of English laughter going on, and a certain number of people reading Catullus."

"Why is Catullus so important?" asked Algernon.

"Because no one could possibly pretend that he was a Fascist or a Communist or belonged to the Right or belonged to the Left, or indeed was anything but just a damned good poet, worth reading for the fun of the sound."30 Slightness becomes a virtue here because it leaves no room for the compromised and compromising interests of the public world, a position that accords with the widespread image of Catullus as a man who stood aloof from the corruption of politics in the late Republic, maintaining a purity of purpose in the small, private arena that he could control.31 A more portentous version of the ethics of slightness is implied by a quotation from Auden that serves as the epigraph to a chapter called "The Poetry of Social Comment" in Quinn 1972:

Even a limerick
Ought to be something a man of
honour, awaiting death from cancer or a firing squad,
could read without contempt.32

Death from cancer is a clumsy business, unlike death before a firing squad, but the implication of Auden's lines is that there is an analogy between the redemption of the limerick by artistic responsibility and the redemption of a messy, meaningless death by the man of honor, perhaps even that the one guarantees the possibility of the other. That the ritualized precision of the firing squad can be read into the progress of cancer is "guaranteed" by the way that Auden's loose versification is tightened up from the word "honour" to achieve the wonderful concentration that is supposed to descend on those faced with the prospect of death. When he quotes these lines, Quinn implies that Catullus, with his careful use of colloquial language and often unprepossessing subject matter, is engaged in a similar redemption of the everyday.

These characterizations of the Catullan ethic of slightness have their own ideological force.33 A Catullus who cannot be claimed by any particular political community, and yet mysteriously proves himself worth reading for the sake of something apparently so private and irreducible as a joy in "the sound alone," is a Catullus who guarantees the community of the most basic human experience beneath the divisions of social and political interests and struggles. Auden's man of honor, retired into the private temporality of reading in the face of his oppression by the inevitabilities of a time he cannot control, guarantees the commensurability of all experience. In the face of the various, though potentially commensurable, death sentences under which we may stand, Auden seems to say, waiting is all, and the quality of waiting is the field of the aesthetic.

My own version of Catullus the author will, I hope, raise some questions about why we read lyric poetry, bringing out what is unconscious about both the modern reception of Catullus and about the lyric genre as a form of entertainment. If the modern reception of Catullus has tended to celebrate a brotherhood between poet and readership, through both its sentimental narratives and its ethics of slightness, my own reading stresses our consumption, as readers, of positional dramas that are more dynamic. The provocation of Catullus has served for the most part to prompt a stabilizing reaction from those who would prove they are "in the know" by confirming certain values against the philistines whose misunderstanding Catullus courts. But I hope to show how Catullus' poetry might provoke us to question the nature of the reader's relation to poetry and of the drama that the licensing of a poetic position enables.

A brief synopsis of the chapters follows to orient the reader. In the first chapter, I examine the construction of the author Catullus as a position within the Catullan collection, a position by means of which the promiscuous variety of the poems is rearranged into a sentimental narrative that controls some of its more provocative aspects. In this chapter, I also describe the position of the Catullan scholar within this sentimental narrative.

Chapters 2–5 all relate to the positional drama activated by various kinds of Roman talk. In Chapter 2, I examine the erotico-aesthetic language that Catullus uses about his own poetry and the provocative relation of this language to Roman social and sexual norms. I then describe the provocative game that Catullus plays with the positionality of reader and poet, and in particular his use of erotic models to explore the ambiguity of power relations in the transaction between them. Chapter 3 is closely related to my discussion of the erotics of poetry; it describes how obscenity figures in Catullus' poetry, that is, both how it figures as a form of diction with its own distinctive ways of engaging the reader and how it functions figuratively to explore power relations within the society of speakers created by a poem. Again, Catullus uses the dynamics of distinctly Roman forms of obscenity to frame the transaction of the poem. In Chapter 4, I consider the increasing importance of the concept of urbanity in Catullus' time and the strategies employed by those who lay claim to urbanitas to position themselves in relation to the excluded. As an indefinable quality that becomes visible only in relation to those who lack it, urbanitas in Catullus' poetry is often displayed in the context of a struggle for power. The performance of urbanitas involves an actof appropriation or theft of language that dramatizes the privileged position of the poet. Chapter 5 focuses on a group of Catullus' Lesbia poems, written in elegiac meter, which consist largely of accusations against Lesbia for betraying her lover; these accusations are accompanied by protestations of the poet's fruitless fidelity to an unreciprocated love from which he is unable to tear himself away. The language of these poems is pervaded by the rhetoric of aristocratic obligation, which is wrenched from its usual social context to speak of a radically unconventional relationship, whose distinctive features are emphasized by this misuse. In this chapter, I read the situations of the lover as dramatizations of the situations of the poet. The poems in which Catullus parades his inability to break off an unreciprocated love, I argue, dramatize the performing poet's isolation and immobility before his audience: the special status of the isolated performer who must sustain the illusion of his persona before an audience is reflected by that of the lover trapped in an unreciprocated love. The poems in which Catullus expresses doubts about the sincerity of Lesbia's amorous protestations dramatize the separation of poetic speech from what is spoken outside the poem.

Chapters 6–8 are concerned with various ways in which the poet negotiates an apparent weakness in order to locate strategically the power of his position. In each case, the distinctive capacities of poetic speech are realized in relation to a problem that has some characteristically Roman cast to it. In Chapter 6, on Catullus' "little epic" (c.64), I describe how Catullus both raises and solves the problem of the latecomer's relation to a lost but longed-for Golden Age. The poem consists mainly in the story of Theseus and Ariadne as represented on the coverlet of the nuptial bed of Peleus and Thetis, whose wedding is ostensibly the subject of the poem. But if this poem, which not only calls on an age that has passed but also describes another work of art, parades its own secondariness, it also proceeds to turn that position into one of power and mastery. Most important, an elaborate play between the gaze of the characters represented in the poem and the gaze to which they are subjected dramatizes the power of the latecomer to re-present what he has missed. I argue that the issue of secondary power is peculiarly relevant to Roman culture, which stands in a secondary but dominant position in relation to the Greeks, from whose literature and art the stories and figures of this poem have been both (humbly) borrowed and (imperiously) appropriated.

The following chapter focuses on two poems (cc.10, 11) in which the poet represents his persona as victimized by a woman; both poemsconsist of an elaborate scenario involving a three-way relationship between Catullus (or his persona), a woman, and other men, and they find the speaker using the woman to negotiate his relation to other men and vice versa. The attempt of the persona to master his situation fails in each case, but this only serves to locate the position of the poet that transcends the problematic situation in which his persona is caught. Set in a metropolitan Rome that presides confidently and arrogantly over an empire, these poems both feature a speaker who attempts unsuccessfully to manipulate this position of power; it is the persona's failure at this gambit that sets off the transcendent position of the poet.

Chapter 8 deals with the poems related to the death of Catullus' brother (cc.101, 65–68), which is represented as causing a crisis in poetic activity. Though on the one hand his brother's death makes it impossible for Catullus to communicate with his brother, on the other hand his bereavement also renders it impossible for him to write of anything else but his grief, in spite of other claims on him from friends. The negotiation of two different and conflicting kinds of officia (duties), threatening mutually to displace each other, and the displacement of communication caused by his brother's death, provoke Catullus to explore the nature of poetic speech, and particularly its potential for multiple origins and stratified texture. Woven into this problem of expressive displacement is the problem of cultural displacement for this Roman poet from Cisalpine Gaul who professes literary affiliations with the poets of Greek Alexandria. The death of Catullus' brother raises the question of where the poet speaks from, and it raises this question both from a cultural and from a generic perspective.

Catullus' poem on his brother's death (c.101) is one of his most famous and has spawned many imitations and adaptations. Readers and imitators of Catullus have often situated the pathos of this tender farewell in relation to the bitterness of Catullus' rejection of the faithless Lesbia (c.11). In the final chapter, I discuss Catullan literature and the use by late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers of Catullus' voice, figure, or story to construct brotherhoods between men that are mediated by women; much of this Catullan literature is explicitly or implicitly misogynistic, and this chapter describes the strategies of Catullan misogyny as reflected in his imitators.


Excerpted from Catullan Provocations by William Fitzgerald Copyright © 2000 by William Fitzgerald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William Fitzgerald is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

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