Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.23


William Fitzgerald, Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position. Classics and Contemporary Thought, vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Pp. ix + 310. $45.00/£35.00. ISBN 0-520-20062-4.


Reviewed by Brendon Reay, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-8630, brendon@leland.stanford.edu.

If all the world's a stage, life is a play of positions and positioning. So, too, is literature. "All aesthetic transactions," William Fitzgerald reminds us in Catullan Provocations, "involve some kind of positional drama" (1). This premise underpins F.'s reading of Catullus, an eloquent, compelling reorientation of Catullan questions grounded in the cultural context of the first century B.C.E. F.'s historicizing move is doubly potent, for it simultaneously makes explicit the "concerns, anxieties, norms, and contradictions that enabled Catullus' particular orientation to lyric poetry" (1) and points up the hazards that have attended his reception. Modern readers have turned a deaf ear to Catullus's provocations, and tamed a dynamic poet and his oeuvre with "sentimental narratives and ethics of slightness" (16). F. repeatedly exposes these often unconscious constructions and in doing so illustrates how Catullus's readers have tended to remake the poet in their own image. This displacement is not without its own alternative framework, however: "provocation" is another organization, a provocative Catullus another restoration. Therein lies a signal virtue of Catullan Provocations: F.'s displacement of one narrative and powerful articulation of a self-conscious 'anti-narrative' underscore the indispensable role the reader/auditor plays in aesthetic transactions. How and what Catullus means, in other words, always depends on who he means something to.

Catullan Provocations inaugurates a series from the University of California Press, "Classics and Contemporary Thought," edited by Thomas Habinek. Its mission statement reads: "Moving beyond conventional boundaries of classical antiquity or engaging in explicit comparison of ancient Mediterranean cultures with others of the past or present, these volumes open classical scholarship to new forms of inquiry and new audiences." Although it is not obvious how F.'s volume exemplifies a move "beyond conventional boundaries of classical antiquity" or engages in "explicit comparison" with other cultures "of the past or present" (chapter 9, on Catullus's modern creative reincarnations, is a thin fulfillment of this aim), Catullan Provocations is nonetheless an auspicious beginning, challenging and rewarding throughout. F.'s paradigm of positional drama promises to be, as he hopes (1), a fruitful model for future attempts to reintegrate the well-wrought surfaces of Latin lyric within their cultural contexts. F. challenges his audiences to scrutinize their own positions and investments in a "sentimental" and/or "slight" Catullus, a self-conscious thrust that will unsettle, as the best criticism does, deep-seated assumptions and conclusions. And to the extent that the Latinless constitute a potentially new audience, F.'s translations make his interpretations available to cultural and literary critics of every stripe. Catullan Provocations is not only an important contribution to Catullan studies, but indeed to the study of the culture and poetics of Latin literature.

The book comprises nine chapters, an introduction and conclusion, notes, bibliography, and two indices. Chapters 1 and 9, deft bookends to a collection of readings that illuminates Catullus's modern scholarly reception in the service of its own contextualizations, focus explicitly on Catullus's modern reception by scholars (chapter 1) and poets, novelists, and translators (chapter 9). Chapters 2-5 illustrate how varieties of Roman talk -- erotic, obscene, urbane, and that of aristocratic obligation -- motivate varieties of positional drama. Chapters 6-8 explore how the poet claims a position of authority by virtue of the efficacy of poetic expression addressed to contemporary Roman dilemmas: cultural belatedness, imperial power, cultural identity. Individual chapters can be read profitably as self-contained variations on the theme of positionality; taken together, they advance a compelling, albeit selective, reading of Catullus's oeuvre. F.'s exposition is lucid, and his well-signposted arguments (multiple subheadings in each chapter orient the reader) neatly embed close readings of individual poems within the linguistic, social, and political contexts they evoke and manipulate. F.'s well-plotted lucidity is a boon because his arguments are often subtle and complex; this is a book that both demands and repays close re-reading.

Chapter 1, "The Collection and Its Author," is a two-pronged exploration of how and what Catullus has meant to his modern scholarly readers. Modern scholarship, F. argues, has invented a heroic Catullus, the protagonist of a "novel" written by rearranging poems into a comprehensible narrative. "Catullus" thus unifies a collection whose variety of form, subject, and feeling resists even the chastening order that numbers impose upon it. This invention in turn informs the position of the modern scholar, who demystifies the nature of Catullus' love, who "gets" the poetry which Lesbia didn't. Catullus' story is one of progressive self-awareness of the depths of his love, a movement from surface intensity to the depths of despair to profound transcendence. Modern criticism has depended on its own narrative invention, separating and stratifying the 'serious' from the 'frivolous', for example, in order to plumb the depths and preserve the unity of an "essential" Catullus. But the discomfort that motivates such a unification, F. suggests, would not have been shared by the poet's contemporaries and later Roman readers. These audiences, as Cicero and Pliny attest, "relished the chaotic variety with which the author displayed the range and changeability of his off-duty moods and attitudes... The late Republic sees the increasing cultivation of private life as an alternative, even an escape, from the rigors of the public image and its demands of constantia (steadiness, constancy)" (25). F.'s own strategy is to collapse these separations and stratifications, to resist heroic Catullus and the sentimental narrative that his poetry has inspired, and to make sense of Catullan 'chaotic variety' in its own terms. F. organizes his readings thematically, by the species of positionality that Catullus's poetry dramatizes, and he juxtaposes individual poems which at first glance seem not to have any explicit affinity.

Chapters 2-5 explore how Catullus manipulates various registers of Roman talk to dramatize relations of poet, audience, and poem. The pivotal, enabling move in all four chapters is F.'s evocation of the social valences of key terms that Catullus plays with to establish and explore various positions of power and vulnerability for poet and reader alike. Herein lies one variation of Catullus' provocations: by challenging and playing with linguistic and behavioural norms, Catullus stakes out positions for himself, his poetry, his audience. Provocation is thus a species of performance, poetry a weapon or a tool for active intervention in and engagement with the world rather than passive reflection of or on it. So in chapter 2, "Catullus and the Reader: the Erotics of Poetry," for example, F. juxtaposes cc. 1 & 2 to show how Catullus eroticizes his readers' relationship to poetry and in so doing, posits a relational, not absolute, aesthetic. The key term here is deliciae: "to call something or somebody your deliciae is to point in two opposite directions, to the object and to oneself, and it is also to mark one's behavior, quite self-consciously, as questionable" (36). The term's provocative, performative valences suggest that Catullus's poetry is not so much a static object as a relational game played between poet and reader. "For Catullus, the aesthetic is a function of the positionality of agents in a transaction ... of a play with positionality that upsets what has been described as the Roman puritanism of virility" (38). Chapter 3, "Obscenity Figures," explores Catullus' use of irrumatio within the context of Roman obscenity more generally; chapter 4, "Urbanity: The Poetry of Exclusion," illustrates how Catullus plays the relational game of urbanity; chapter 5, "The Wronged Lover and the Poet's Isolation," points up the intimate connection between language and its contexts, the connection that Catullus exploits in his dramatizations of power and position. Here, F. shows how, in select elegiac Lesbia poems, the language of aristocratic obligation is wrested from its normal usage between equals and used to illustrate an unequal relationship. This jarring shift, F. argues, "draws attention to the peculiar status of language in a poem that is recited before a silent audience of people who share, but do not exchange, that language" (115). F.'s readings of cc. 87, 75, and 76 explore how Catullus in an amatory context immobilizes the fluidity of reciprocity that the language of aristocratic obligation normally empowers. Catullus "gets stuck in the pose of outrage, making an absolute of values that are essentially to do with the arrangement and rearrangement of alliance" (131-2).

Chapters 6-8 are related to their predecessors in that they illustrate various ways by which the poet claims a position of authority. Here, F. relates Catullus' positioning strategies to questions of cultural belatedness, imperial power, and cultural identity.

In chapter 6, "Gazing at the Golden Age: Belatedness and Mastery in Catullus 64," F. advances a compelling reading of this definitive neoteric composition, in which the gazes of Ariadne and her viewers, the rustic folk at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, are the central thematic concern of the poem. F. argues that Catullus's "representational virtuosity" engenders and satisfies a longing for the mythical past, a virtuosity which thematizes the very desirous gaze that it creates and satisfies. The choice of Greek myth as an object of representation and the satisfaction of the gaze by that representation reflect a more general cultural condition: the belatedness of the Roman viewer is overcome by creation and consumption. C.64 is a highly-wrought kind of imperialism, an instance of "the conquering Roman as the confident consumer and appropriator of Greek culture" (167).

The positioning strategies of cc. 10 and 11 are the focus of chapter 7, "The Ruse of the Victim." Weak and vulnerable by virtue of a failed bid "to articulate imperial power with gender relations" (169), the poet uses victimization to display his mastery: "poetic discourse claims a transcendant status for itself when the poet's distinctive position emerges from a situation of complete powerlessness in relation to the contexts of the speaker's social world" (169). F.'s subtle insight that links these two poems is the different roles that neglegentia plays in them, a "carelessness" that is exposed (poem 10) or exploited (poem 11) by a woman. In both poems, neglegentia is assimilated to or underpinned by an imperial ethos, which women (Varus's girlfriend and Lesbia) disrupt because of their figuration both inside and outside imperial borders. In c. 10, F. argues, Catullus's confession that he does not in fact possess the litterbearers that he earlier claimed "becomes an opportunity for a display of poetic power that quite glories in its own capabilities. The comic image of the minimalist litterbearer ... turns absence into presence both supremely visual and aural... Catullus' poetic ability to make something out of nothing is confirmed by the same words that undermine "Catullus'" claim to have made something out of nothing in Bythnia" (178-9). In c. 11, Catullus's assertion of the primacy of his poetic discourse depends on the neglegentia of Lesbia, whose power is both expressed and transformed in the simile of the "touched flower" (flos ... tactus) with which the poem concludes. Here Lesbia's destructive indifference, realized in the plough, serves a deliberate aesthetic purpose: the poem's closure.

Another aspect of the poet's position -- whence and how he speaks, both generically and culturally -- is the theme of chapter 8, "The Death of a Brother: Displacement and Expression." The grief over the death of his brother and multiple requests for poetry threaten to displace one another in Catullus's attempts to satisfy both. This threat, F. argues, motivates alternative, experimental modes of expression, which in turn explore anxieties of Catullus' cultural identity -- from where does the poet speak, Rome, Transpadane Gaul, Alexandria? F. proceeds from c. 101, which sets up the issues of poetic expression and cultural identity that displacement motivates, to nuanced readings of cc 65-68. The outer two poems, F. argues, explore means of poetic expression that negotiate the grief spawned by Catullus' brother's death and the claims for poetry that others make of him. The inner two poems, whose inanimate narrators bespeak their respective cultural milieux, raise questions of the relationship of expression and place. As a group, they thematize artistic and cultural authenticity: "The recurring image of the gremium, unreliable, unretentive, robbed and violated, reflects in sexual terms an anxiety about authenticity that ramifies both into the question of how a poem is conceived and delivered and into problems of cultural filiation" (210).

As compelling as F.'s readings are in all three of these chapters (and they are dazzlingly seductive), a more thorough sketch of the cultural dilemmas which Catullus thematizes would more persuasively cement the interplay of poetry and culture that the whole book points toward. Is Catullus articulating cultural anxieties? Inventing them? Concentrating them? Responding to them? What I specifically miss here is a more extended account of Roman reflection on cultural belatedness, imperial power, and cultural identity, the rich contextualizing thrust that so effectively underpins F.'s close readings in chapters 2-5. In some sense, all of Roman literature thematizes belatedness, imperial power, and identity precisely because of Rome's historical position: its hegemony in the Mediterranean basin, and its cultural and geographical position vis-à-vis Greece. So my question is: to what extent does Catullus provoke these cultural anxieties or, alternatively, simply recapitulate them (albeit in complex and dazzling ways)? A richer distillation of Roman reflection on these issues would help us further appreciate the novelty of Catullus' accomplishment and its cultural significance.

Chapter 9, "Between Men: Catullan Literature," neatly complements chapter 1's account of Catullus's reception by modern scholars (as well as the brief, explicit examinations of specific scholarly arguments scattered throughout the book), with a related, but distinct, reception study. Here, F. turns to Catullus's reception by 19th and 20th century novelists, poets, and translators to illustrate the "confessional mode" (212) that the Roman poet has inspired. The "emotional geography" (213) that F. maps in Catullus's imitators has two axes, captured in the well-known sound bites, "Ave atque vale" and "Odi et amo". On the one hand, a haunting pathos, a tender expression of love for his dead brother; on the other hand, an antithetical addiction, a ferocity of passion for and bitterness against Lesbia. What this trajectory of reception has absorbed from Catullus is an idea of "brotherhood" with "its concomitant, or even its motivation, a rejection of the woman" (213). F. goes on to trace various manifestations of the interplay of misogyny and brotherhood in, to cite just a few, John Cotton's poem "Catullus at Sirmio" (1982), Swinburne's "To Catullus" (1883), A.C.E. Allinson's story "The Estranger" (1913), and Thornton Wilder's novel Ides of March (1948). My urge to hustle off to the library and immerse myself in the echos of these modern Catullan sound chambers is perhaps the best testimony I can give to the excitement F.'s readings incite. If this chapter has a weakness, it is the absence of the intellectual and social contexts of these latter-day Catullans. Such a thick description would, of course, require at least another volume, so my criticism is perhaps mere quibbling. Let us hope that F. provides a more robust account of Catullus's modern, creative reception in the future.