Volume III, Number 1
When the Lamp is Shattered: Desire and Narrative in Catullus
by Micaela Janan, Carbondale and Edwardsville 1994
Jacqueline Clarke, Department of Classics, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the past fifteen or twenty years Catullus has been a very fashionable poet for study. Recently the tide has stemmed as scholars, for the time being at any rate, exhaust new perspectives on Catullus' poetry. This book (which the dust jacket describes as original, provocative and invites a new conversation among literary disciplines) professes to offer a fresh approach to some of the controversies in Catullan scholarship.
The author of this work begins by stating that Catullus is a poet about whom everything is difficult. It is certainly true, as she states ,that the unsatisfactory MSS tradition has produced uncertainties about the order of the poems, where one poem ends and another begins and which poems are complete and which are fragments. (Catullus' poetry however is not nearly as difficult in these respects as the poetry of other Roman poets such as Propertius whose MSS tradition is even worse.) In addition to these textual difficulties are difficulties regarding the content of the poems - interpreting exactly what Catullus means and following the twists and contradictions of his thought process.
Janan hopes to shed new light on these difficulties with an approach which combines feminist and post-structuralist theories. Her aim is to interpret Catullus' poetry using a 'poetics of desire' i.e. theories on desire taken from Plato, Freud and Lacan. She justifies this by arguing that 'the bait within the text is...desire' (p. ix) and (rather curiously) that 'the text also solicits the reader's desire for narrative closure...Thus the Catullan text demands that we align its mechanics of reading with its subject matter along the same axis: desire'(p.ix). Accordingly, she concentrates on those poems which she believes have something to say about the relationship between Catullus and Lesbia, either directly or indirectly; she analyses the relevant carmina minora as well as Poems 63, 64 and 68.
Janan states that Plato, Freud and Lacan all see human consciousness as 'radically divided from itself'(p. x). She uses their views to construct a more flexible idea of the self as something which is not always self-aware or self-controlled but can be governed by external forces - social, cultural or unconscious. In this way, according to Janan, the contradictions of the Catullan corpus can begin to make sense. However Janan also believes that Catullus is not blindly following the values of his society but is testing and challenging them. For instance Janan highlights the frequent changes and confusions in gender in Catullus' poetry (e.g. Attis' gender transformations in Poem 63, Catullus' comparison of himself to Atalanta in Poem 2B and to a flower in Poem 11). It is Janan's belief that Catullus is exploring different roles in order to question the gender values of his society.
How far Janan succeeds in proving her theories is difficult to judge. This is largely because in many places it is very hard to follow her line of argument. At this point I must point out that, although I am very interested in Catullus' poetry and have studied many of his poems in detail, up till now I have had very little acquaintance with the post-structuralist approach to literature. It may well be that someone more knowledgeable about postructuralism would get more out of this book; however I would argue that many Classics students (and lecturers) would be in my position and the book must also be evaluated from this perspective.
Janan's book is full of poststructuralist jargon such as 'objet a', 'capitonnage', 'Unary Signifier', 'the fort/da game'. Janan does attempt to explain many of these terms when she is expounding the theories of Freud and Lacan but I am afraid that most of her explanations left me at any rate confused and none the wiser. It is true that many of these terms and concepts are inherently difficult (as Janan herself says 'Lacan requires the reader to keep so many conceptual balls in the air at one time that she needs almost the whole of his work as a context to interpret any part of it' p. xvi). However I gained more understanding of these concepts by reading a book on literary theory than I did by struggling through Janan's explanations. For example Janan explains Lacan's concept of the Real as follows 'The Real can only be defined by an awkward combination of negation, and of stalking its specific intrusions into the Symbolic and the Imaginary Orders' (p. 17). Many of her sentences are hard to follow and her language is over- complex ('inconcinnity', 'alterity', 'ideational', 'irruption', 'divagation', 'ironized', 'etoliation').
All this made the first half of the book (which covered the 'theories of desire' and the polymetrics) a real struggle to read through. Janan's analysis of the polymetrics seemed to make them much more difficult and confusing than they need to be. At times her sentences were unintelligable. What, for example, does this mean? - 'If the passer supports a sexual allegory, then its appearence in feminine garb marks it both as the phallus and as signifying the refusal of difference that grounds the Symbolic's construction of gender when anchored to the anatomical signifier of one sex.' (p. 48). Or this? - 'But when we traced, in cc. 2, 3, and 50, the repetitive, controlled rhythms of pleasure, we found jouissance ultimately excluded by a repetition infinitely repeatable because it carefully preserves the conceptual poles that anchor its circuit around difference (fort/da; I/you; pleasure/pain; and so on).' (p. 67). Janan does make some points that are lucid and interesting; for example she argues that the similes in Poem 7 emphasize human mortality in contrast to the immortality of Jove and the stars and that this draws attention to the impossibility of Catullus' demand for kisses. However many of her sentences are similar to the ones quoted above.
Having said this, I found the second half of the book - on the elegaics and carmina maiora - more interesting and easier to understand. This may be partly because, although the language is difficult to follow, it does not seem to reach the tortuous levels of complexity which bedevil the first half. In addition the elegaics and Poem 68 (which is the main focus of the section on the carmina maiora) are more complex poems; the elegaics because Catullus is struggling to come to terms with his very mixed feelings about his relationship with Lesbia, Poem 68 because of its 'stream of consciousness' structure and the range of subjects it covers (Lesbia, Laodamia, the death of Catullus' brother, Troy , Heracles etc.). Here Janan's theories begin to make a degree of sense. She thinks that Catullus' confusion about his state of mind is a result of his dual perceptions of woman as both whore and goddess which 'drammatizes an insufficiency in masculine knowledge of woman' (p. 91). It is interesting to view poems such as 72 from this perspective. Likewise Janan's arguments that the different subjects of Poem 68 are connected by the theme of loss and that Heracles is the focal figure around whom the poem is organized are well worth considering.
As the reader may gather, my feelings about this book are very mixed. It does provide some interesting insights into Catullus' poetry but to get to them the reader must wade through a lot which is frustrating, confusing and downright incomprehensible. I would hestitate to recommend the book to new students as it may well put them off Catullus. I am afraid that Janan's book is only for the initiated or the very determined.
COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 1 - June 1995 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington email@example.com ISSN 1320-3606