Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.19

Ellen Greene, The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry.   Baltimore and London:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.  Pp. xvi, 142.  ISBN 0-8018-5981-6.  $37.50.  

Reviewed by Christopher Brunelle, Vanderbilt University (
Word count: 2997 words

This short and accessible book offers a close reading of nineteen poems by Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid in order to show "some of the ways Latin love poets perpetuate traditional conceptions of women, of female sexuality, and of the woman's role in amatory relationships" (xi). The issues of dominance and power that informed Roman society, says Greene, also inform the erotic culture of these poems: male narrators dominate and objectify the female puella and worry about the feminine elements within themselves. Even when a poet renounces the standard masculine career of politics and warfare, he nonetheless imports political and military ideas into his private erotic world, and the life of love turns out to be no less defined by dominance and competition than the life that it claims to avoid. Greene is equally concerned to expose complacent readings of these poems. If Propertius' and Ovid's writings are disturbing, even more so are those of their modern interpreters who fail to take account of the gendered imbalance of ancient erotic ethics.

Greene's title resuscitates an old but useful term for the genre in question: just as we talk of epics and georgics and lyrics, we may also talk of erotics, a.k.a. erotic poetry. With the additional sense in 'erotics' of 'amatory science', The erotics of domination asks us to reconsider what we mean by the force of Roman love poetry. Greene updates Simone Weil for the Augustan elegists.

The catchy title unfortunately promises somewhat more than the book delivers; despite its brevity, it is more a collection of individual essays than an integrated discussion of one topic in one genre. The six-page introduction outlines the material in the individual chapters, which themselves would have been better served by conclusions that connected them to other chapters. An epilogue likewise could have explained to what extent Greene's conclusions about nineteen Latin love poems can with validity be applied to the rest of the corpus. There is no mention of Tibullus, whose detailed appraisal of erotic violence (1.10.51-66) would have offered a welcome context for Greene's discussion of Ovid Amores 1.7. The book thus offers many illuminating discussions of particular poems without clarifying their relevance to the genre, an admittedly much larger task.

Greene writes with articulate eloquence. Even ideas that are not entirely new benefit from her lucid expression, and she sets out with clarity the issues of gender and power that we would do well to think about whenever we read love poetry of any sort. Whether one agrees with her stance on these issues is another matter; I was repeatedly unconvinced by the comparisons of male erotic domination and a (male) poet's narrative control. My disagreement, however, with some of her smaller interpretations and larger conclusions by no means outweighs the importance of the general ideas that she raises.

This book incorporates lightly reworked material from Greene's earlier articles on Catullus 8, 11, 72, and 76, Propertius 1.3 and 1.11, and Ovid Amores 3.4, 3.8, and 3.12. The revisions involve incorporation of additional secondary material, but her bibliography contains only English sources and, apart from her own works (which should include her 1997 article on Catullus 11 in Intertexts 1.2, publication of which presumably postdated the proofs of the book), stops at 1994. Chapter Four (on Ovid Amores 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, and 1.7) and the first halves of Chapters Two (on Catullus 5 and 7), Three (on Propertius 1.1 and 1.7) and Five (on Ovid Amores 2.11 and 2.19) are new.

The first chapter ("The Catullan Ego: Fragmentation and the Erotic Self") is perhaps the least relevant to Greene's general thesis of gender politics. Her analysis of Poems 8, 72, and 76 shows the fragmentation of the lover's consciousness as it is revealed in the multiplicity of contradictory narrative voices. In Poem 8 (miser Catulle, desinas ineptire) Catullus' appearances in first, second, and third person make him "a narrator whose identity is defined by the very oppositions that divide him" (4-5). With varying degrees of success the voice of the poet acknowledges or relinquishes mastery of his passion for Lesbia. Poem 72 (dicebas quondam) is a controlled demonstration of Catullus' lack of control over his desires, but Poem 76 (siqua recordanti) reveals more frenetically the mind of a lover unlikely to be cured of his passionate sickness. Both of these poems also ground their discussions of desire in the competition between the values of society (family bonds, duty, friendship) and those of personal eros, and thus questions of gender and power become relevant, if somewhat secondarily, to Greene's larger questions of poetic self-description.

The questions of gender and power are highlighted in Chapter Two, "Gendered Domains: Public and Private in Catullus." Here Greene analyzes in Poems 5, 7, and 11 the lovers' shifting allegiances to the worlds of private love and public empire. Catullus' critique of the mercantile life in Poem 5 develops into a critique in Poem 7 of Lesbia's concerns for propriety, and in Poem 11 he denounces both Caesar's and Lesbia's impersonal conquests. After reading Greene's detailed discussion of the characterization of Lesbia as hyperbolic orgiast and brutal flower-cutting plow, one will never again read Poem 11 (or hear James Brown's "Sex Machine") in quite the same way.

Greene's interpretation of Poem 5 (vivamus, mea Lesbia) typifies the strengths and weaknesses of her book. She combines clear insights into this poem with questionable attempts to incorporate it into her larger points about Catullan poetics. Thus she rightly emphasizes the narrator's preoccupation not with Lesbia and love but with the crabby self-righteous old men who threaten his erotic world. Greene also wants to show, however, that Lesbia is here and everywhere associated with the limited world of propriety and practicality. She certainly is so associated in Poem 7; as Greene and others point out, quaeris quot mihi basiationes implies an anti-erotic concern for social mores. But that concern is nowhere evident in Poem 5, in which the narrator simply ignores Lesbia's ideas. (Greene in fact admits this at the start of the chapter [19].) Scholars have already made strong arguments for distinguishing the portrayals of Lesbia in 5 and 7, and the strongest case that Greene can make is to suggest three rhetorical questions in a row (24). It is more accurate to acknowledge that Catullus portrays Lesbia in many different ways, that the cautious materialist of Poem 7 and the monstrous whore of Poem 11 have little to do with the unvoiced lover of Poem 5.

A few of Greene's analyses of Catullus rely on unconvincing claims of sexual content. In the discussion (8-12) of Poem 72 (dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum) she persuasively explains the different ways that Catullus and Lesbia know one another, but she also implies an essential eroticism in nosse that the rational cognosse lacks. In this poem Lesbia's nosse is certainly more physical than Catullus' nunc te cognovi, but both the simple and the compound verb can elsewhere have sexual and non-sexual senses. Likewise, her interpretation (31) of Poem 11 (Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli) offers parallels of sex and power between the men's cross-country journey and Lesbia's activities of the last two stanzas. But the image of sive in extremos penetrabit Indos (line 2) is not necessarily sexual; Greene is not alone in ignoring Adams, who notes (151) that penetrare "does not occur in a sexual sense in the Classical period." In our Foucauldian era of penetrational identity perhaps this odd linguistic fact is hard to keep in mind.

In Chapter Three, "Elegiac Woman: Fantasy, Materia, and Male Desire in Propertius' Monobiblos," Greene develops the well-known theme that these poems are more about Propertius than Cynthia. Poems 1.1 and 1.7 subordinate the façade of emotional slavery to the narrator's desire for poetic fame: the voice of the poet outweighs the voice of the lover. Moreover, in Poems 1.3 and 1.11 Cynthia "is often depicted either as a helpless victim who needs the guardianship of her male lover or as a creature of uncontrolled passion and emotion" (38). Again, Greene fails to make a case for "often": apart from a brief reference to 1.6, no other poem of Propertius is mentioned in this chapter, and the reader must take it on faith that these poems offer a representative sample of his narrative strategies.

According to Greene, the first and seventh elegies in the Propertian corpus undermine the narrator's apparent servitude: far from exercising erotic power over her enslaved lover, Cynthia is "little more than a vehicle for his artistic fame" (38), and the narrator's voice at the end assumes "the traditionally masculine prerogative to name and write his desire" (46). Heroism is still defined by conquest of the less powerful, and Propertius is still a masculine hero in poetic competition. But why should it surprise us that the narrator is in control of the poem and interested in poetry as well as love? Although many societies have censored female voices, narrative control is not in the end an issue of gender, and Wyke has shown how the issues of poetic control in elegy can be analyzed beyond the domination of the subject by the narrator. Sulpicia's first elegy offers just as valid an example of the narrator's desire to publicize erotic experience; the sad fact that we do not have more women's poetry from the ancient world is not a critique of the men's poetry that we do have. And what then of Ovid's poem (Tristia 3.7) to Perilla, whom he encourages in her poetic efforts?

Greene's evaluation of Propertius 1.3 requires that our two impressions of Cynthia, asleep and awake, be equally misogynist and stereotypical: Cynthia must be perfectly passive or actively awful. Such an evaluation requires a certain amount of interpretive omission. Thus when the drunken Propertius compares the sleeping Cynthia to a dance-weary Maenad (1.3.5-6), Greene must downplay Propertius' hints of female eros and activity in order to highlight the sexual and objectifying element of the narrator's fantasies (and Greene's definition of male fantasy, "a static projection of his own desires" (56), implies that all fantasy is bad). When Cynthia awakes and chastises Propertius for his tardiness, Greene hears only the voice of a spiteful shrew, the embodiment of a man's misogynist fears. Other scholars hear this voice too, but Greene offers no support for the likeliness of such an interpretation: by finishing the poem with the narrator's quotation of Cynthia's words, Propertius forces his reader rather than his narrator to explain how we feel about her speech -- and our feelings, as Gamel has recently suggested, may well depend upon the vocal performance of the poem: it is up to the spoken voice of the reader to invest Cynthia's speech with tone.

As in her chapters on Catullus, here with Propertius Greene forces connections between poems. In speaking of Propertius' Baiae poem (1.11), she says "as in 1.3, here the speaker casts Cynthia in the stereotypical role of the faithless, sexually unrestrained female who needs to be monitored and controlled." Yes, the narrator of 1.11 suffers a crisis of control, but the case must still be made (as Harrison has tried to do) that the Cynthia of 1.3 is either openly faithless or sexually unrestrained.

In Chapters Four and Five, Greene analyzes elements of Ovid's portrayal of the game of love in order to show that his picture of the elegiac world, by virtue of its self-contradicting and seriocomic narrator, throws into question the erotic values that it claims on the surface to promote. Propertius had promoted the elegiac life as a refuge from the world of standard masculinity; Ovid shows that the elegiac life operates under the same unequal and misogynist rules as the world it claims to avoid. She concludes these chapters with an ultimately positive view of Ovid as a poet who critiques the idealistic assumptions and views of earlier poets like Propertius: "Ovid's poems reflect a deep commitment to the moral responsibility of the poet to show the cruelty and inhumanity perpetrated in the name of culture, in the name of amor" (113). This new Ovide moralisé needs to be taken on faith, because Greene does not adequately prove that Ovid's outrageous reversals constitute a critique of the system that produced them. Yes, his excessive rhetoric and gleeful contradictions draw attention to themselves, but at what point does paradoxical wit become critical satire? Roman amor is in many ways cruel and inhumane, but it is Greene, not Ovid, who shows us this. The narrator of the Ars amatoria is happy to participate in Augustan culture (3.121-8).

Greene's praise for Ovidian morality via rhetorical excess is in some senses another version of the earlier Ovidian scholarship that she decries at the start of Chapter Four. Older scholars interpreted Ovid's poems by focusing with approval on their entertaining wit and excluding questions of gender politics. But Greene shows that Ovid's wit is in fact his way of expressing gender politics; if, as she claims, the poet's amusing rhetorical conundrums are the tool that demolishes his predecessors' idealistic forms of love, then earlier scholars' interest in Ovidian wit is not all that different from her approach.

In Amores 1.7, Ovid disturbingly repents of hitting Corinna. Greene describes with insightful and incisive detail the contrast between rhetorical levity and physical severity. (She is not the first to notice that Ovid's humor is not limited to the final couplet; see McKeown 164.) I would be grateful for a similar amount of detail that shows how Ovid's obvious trivialization of domestic battery "implicity criticizes the moral indifference inherent in such a casual legitimization of violence" (85); what is to prevent us instead from saying that the whole scene was just a joke?

Ovid's notorious "sex scene" in Amores 1.5 offers Greene great scope for her explanation of the objectifying and demeaning male gaze (but see Buchan for an even stronger version of objectification). Though some critics have glossed over Ovid's fetishistic catalog of Corinna's body, Greene seems to have missed how the narrator also forces the reader to participate in the construction of desire. Ovid is no Juvenal: the supposedly "clinical anatomical detail" (82) in his description of her naked body is rather a series of blanks to be filled in. Quam iuvenale femur is as much a question to the reader -- how youthful is a youthful thigh? -- as it is a confession of Ovid's tastes. His implication of the reader in the erection of a fantasy could in fact provide support for Greene's larger thesis: if Ovid's moral aim is to critique patriarchal sexuality through outrageous rhetoric, it is all the more effective to hint to the male reader that he too is guilty by association.

Likewise, Greene interprets Ovid's emphasis on pandering in Amores 2.19 and 3.4 as a critique of the patriarchal traffic in women. By highlighting the exchange of women in the socially unacceptable context of adultery, Ovid reveals the "crassness and commercialism" (104) that also underlie socially accepted practices such as Roman marriage. But Greene's focus on the real world of Roman marriage omits the poetic differences in Ovid's poems. In Amores 2.19 the narrator talks directly to the woman as well as the man, and both are told to comply in denying the narrator what he wants. Greene's comment on 3.4 misrepresents the narrative dynamics of 2.19: "The woman is still treated as a commodity of exchange between her lover and her husband -- with no agency or autonomy of her own" (103;). But no one in the Amores other than the narrator enjoys agency or autonomy; Roman patriarchy is subservient to Ovidian mastery of the text. His selfish desire ignores the wishes of both men and women, unless one takes the last couplet of Ars 2 seriously. Corinna will always be more useful to him as materia than as puella. And any discussion of the gendered control of eros, deception, and poetry ought to make at least a passing reference to the Dipsas episode in Amores 1.8.

The book has a short and useful index, though I could not find its reference to "materia view of woman in Catullus" on page 63. The section headings of the chapters serve as an index locorum. There are a number of typos, but almost all of them are confined to the quotations and translations of Latin.

I read this book with pleasure and regret: pleasure in discovering and rediscovering the intricacies of interaction in some Latin love poems, and regret that the important and challenging issues Greene raises (on page 68 in particular) were not more thoroughly developed. If Catullus and Propertius are as dangerously hierarchical and misogynist as Greene claims, why read them? The praise of earlier scholars for these poets has led many readers to a deeper understanding and enjoyment of these poems; Greene's critique of the poems and the scholars directly questions the value of this literature. Is there a worthier literature? Greene has shown in her work on Sappho that a Lesbian poetics of love can offer a way out of the phallic arena, but others have noted that Sappho herself is not entirely free from all questions of hierarchy and dominance. Conversely, Greene's reading highlights the undeniably hierarchical elements of Roman romance, but Ovid and his predecessors also show an awareness and an approval of other ways of acting and loving, all of which we readers need to keep in mind.

Works Cited

Adams, J.N. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Buchan, Mark. "Ovidius Imperamator," Arethusa 28.1 (1995) 53-85 at 67-70.

Gamel, Mary-Kay. "Reading as a Man: Performance and Gender in Roman Elegy," Helios 25.1 (1998) 79-95.

Harrison, S.J. "Drink, Suspicion, and Comedy in Propertius 1.3," PCPS 40 (1994) 18-26.

McKeown, J.C. Ovid: Amores. Text, Prolegomena and Commentary. Volume 2: A Commentary on Book One. Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1989.

Wyke, Maria. "Taking the Woman's Part: Engendering Roman Love Elegy," in Roman Literature and Ideology, ed. A.J. Boyle. Bendigo: Aureal Publications, 1995, 110-128.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:32, Friday, 03 April 2009