BMCR 1995.07.13

1995.07.13, Janan, When the Lamp is Shattered

, When the Lamp is Shattered: Desire and Narrative in Catullus. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 206.

When the Lamp is Shattered by Micaela Janan examines selected poems of Catullus, those which either directly or indirectly concern the relationship between the poet and Lesbia, “from a point of view informed by modern and ancient theoretical discourses on desire” (x). Drawing principally on Plato, Freud, and Lacan, Janan analyzes the Catullan corpus from two theoretical assumptions: the first, that there exists a clear link between desire ( eros) and artistic endeavor; the second, that human consciousness is fragmentary and fundamentally disjointed from itself. Thus, such elements of the Catullan consciousness as the individual self, the fluidity of the poetic persona, and the shifting paradigm of gender constructions in the poems are subjected to a comprehensive and flexible approach that emphasizes the subject as the transmission point of social, cultural, institutional, and unconscious forces. This approach enables Janan to argue for a flexibility of interpretation for the Catullan corpus deriving from a continuous shifting of meanings in both subject and text; and, moreover, it relies on the very essence of knowledge, or as Janan puts it, “what we can know—and even more insistently—what we cannot know” about the text (x). Of particular importance for Janan here is the text’s disclosure of an oppositional tension between masculine authority, which supports certainty and closure bolstered by rationality, and feminine insight, marked by a skeptical attitude toward the definiteness of knowledge. These elements surface in Catullus’ appropriation of the feminine psyche in certain of the poems and in his questioning of gender, roles as fictively determined by culture. Consequently, Lesbia too, as symptomatic of Late Republican social ills, is seen by Janan as less the particular woman as the “overarching, misogynistic construction of Woman” (xi).

The book comprises five main chapters with preliminary remarks and a shorter final chapter that functions as a summary; the text itself of 146 pages is deceptively brief. A preface (ix-xi), summarized above, outlines Janan’s approach. An additional section (“A Note on Citation”, xv-xviii) along with the clarifications of abbreviations used in the text, establishes Janan’s conventions for referring to the Lacanian corpus, which, because it was primarily transmitted orally during lectures, has yet to be edited with any semblance of completeness.

In order to effectively implement her ambitious investigative and interpretive program, Janan devotes the first chapter (“From Plato to Freud to Lacan: A History of the Subject”) to the theoretical underpinnings of the concept of the “subject” as it bears upon the Catullan corpus. Essential to this discussion are the dismissal of the discredited biographical criticism of the poems of Catullus, the recognition of the uncertainties associated with the speaker of the poems, the contradictory evidence of the poems themselves (cf. c. 85), and the concepts of boundary and transgression as critical to the Callimachean poetics espoused by the novi poetae. The bulk of the chapter, however, is Janan’s extended presentation of the importance of the “subject” (as opposed to persona) in the Catullan corpus and how it operates in the theories of desire developed by Plato, Freud, and Lacan. In this regard, Janan points out, the concept “of human consciousness as radically divided from itself” (7) is a common element to all three, and their shared idea that knowledge is fragmented affords useful methodological tools for analyzing Catullan verse and the actual historical reality that underlies it. These tools are brought to the fore in what follows as Janan ranges over the vast theoretical landscape of psychoanalysis, discussing Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, Freud’s siting of desire in the network of Law and culture, Lacan’s explorations of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real, and especially his reconsideration and elaboration of Freud’s Oedipus theory. This latter in turn leads to the recognition of the tensions inherent between masculine certitude ( jouissance phallique) and an alternative, feminine knowledge situated “outside meaning/sense” (28), typified by Lacan’s concept of the threatening jouissance feminine. In appropriate instances, Janan illustrates how such theoretical considerations are useful for seeing Catullan artistry from a new perspective on “poetic unity” (33). The discussion is brought to a conclusion by a summation of the author’s approach and a preview of the content and argument of upcoming chapters.

Chapter Two focusses on the first eleven poems of the collection. C. 1 posits the Callimachean aesthetic of limitation and emphasizes the fragmented nature and lacunose nature of narrative by its representation of Cornelius’ compression of human history. A similar fragmentation occurs in the Lesbia poems as a whole which “both invite and resist ordering in meaningful temporal sequence” (40) and which prompt the reader to construct a narrative of events. The chapter covers much territory, establishing a theoretical groundwork by first analyzing individual poems (like 107 and 16) and then moving on to the initial poems of the Lesbia cycle. Along the way Janan introduces a multitude of topics for consideration, from the sexual significance of the passer as “a fetishized object charged with Catullus’ displaced desire for Lesbia” (47) to the three-way tension between pain, jesting, and poetry that is likewise evident elsewhere (e.g. c. 50). The role of transgression is, moreover, an essential part of the early Lesbia poems, and cc. 3, 5 and 7 all point to the role of poetry itself in passing beyond the confines of reality and of life itself. In c. 11 the spatial boundaries initially encompass the whole earth while Catullus progressively delimits the subject matter in accordance with Callimachean principles; and eros provides “another axis of orientation besides that of space” (64) as a foil for the purely geographical framework.

Chapter Three effects a transition from the initial verses of the Lesbia cycle to perhaps the most famous of all Catullan poems, c. 51. The emphasis of this relatively brief (66-76) chapter is on the role of repetition and the portrayal of Woman’s knowledge as a non-rational system related to the divine. Lesbia’s dual nature is evident from the comparison of c. 11 with c. 51: the appearance of identidem, describing at once the voraciously destructive behavior of the adulteress and the alluring and inspirational idealization of womanhood, links the two poems in their polarity. The chapter concludes by carefully comparing Sappho’s original with that of Catullus and in doing so stresses the role of both Woman and the Divine in ultimately determining the boundaries of Man’s identity (74-76). The divide between Woman and Man, moreover, is clearly identifiable in the contrast between strophes three and four, where the former exemplifies the jouissance feminine in its description of the mystical nature of infatuation and the latter indicates the logically reflective expression of masculine certitude.

Chapter Four continues the emphasis on Catullus’ attempts to know Lesbia in the collection’s epigrams. Based as these efforts are on masculine knowledge in an attempt to comprehend Woman in logical terms, they are futile. Exemplified by the simple polarity of odo et amo (c. 85) and the tensions experienced in cc. 11 and 51, the epigrams recount the narrative of the affair as a repeating series of moments marked by the same emotions and words which portray Lesbia as both Whore and Goddess. Important to the understanding of the epigrams in general is the concept of rereading, best evidenced in c. 72 where the first line generates ambiguity, thereby prompting the reader to make an interpretive decision about meaning based on grammatical construction. Here too, poetic language makes certainty impossible (88-92). Catullus also uses the vocabulary of political alliance as an antithesis to amatory language, as in c. 109 for example, with a resultant destabilization; more destabilization occurs with the fragmentation of the narrative (as in cc 75 and 85). In c. 76, moreover, while Platonic ideals initially come to the fore as Catullus defines himself in terms of a social order and as independent of Lesbia, the poem reasserts the erotic fragmentation from cc. 85 and 51 (96-100).

Chapter Five is devoted to an examination of the carmina maiora as they reflect Catullus’ involvement with Lesbia. The prominence of the divine and the mythological in these poems (as compared with their significant absence in the carmina minora) allows the poet a wider latitude for exploring the “conceptual borderlines articulated in the contrast and rapprochement between the divine and human planes of being” (103-104). Accordingly, Janan first compares c. 63 with both c. 51 and c. 11, seeing the questions of gender identity as foremost in all three. She concludes, furthermore, that c. 63 is both an account of Attis’ self-disintegration and a representation of Lesbia’s dual nature of cc. 11 and 51 conflated as Cybele, at once goddess and monster. Catullus as lover is also identified with Peleus in c. 64 where, in contrast to the emphasis on spatial divisions of c. 63, temporal dislocation plays a major role. It remains, however, for the lengthy discussion of c. 68 (112-142) to weave the disparate elements already discussed in the book into a unified whole. Janan (like others) considers the poem problematic but also sees its solution in referencing it to the whole cycle of the Lesbia poems. Questions of personal identity, of narrative sequence, of semantic elusiveness, and even of the manuscript tradition itself all surface in this enigmatic poem, and each comes under scrutiny in this extended examination. The roles of mythology, repetition, limitation, and gender reversals are traced as well; and Janan emphasizes the importance of Hercules as a “focal figure” (132) in the transitional state between mortality and divinity, dominance and subservience and, as a result of his transvestism, Man and Woman. The chapter concludes by reaffirming the position of desire in the creative process and the importance of memory in sustaining that process (140-142). The brief (143-146) final chapter offers the author’s estimation of her success and of the usefulness of modern theory in looking at ancient texts, and she contends “that the very categories ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ often used to sequester the one from the other are specious” (144).

The book has a number of things to recommend it. In focussing clearly on the Lesbia cycle, it provides some new perspectives on these most frequently read of Catullus’ works. Well organized according to content, the work affords summaries of theoretical material and of previously made points to assist comprehension throughout the work, and the author is careful to provide appropriate referencing to Chapter One’s exposition of Plato, Freud and Lacan, something quite helpful for the non-specialist wishing to fathom the intricacies of modern literary theory as applied to an ancient text. Passages in Latin and Greek are translated into English (although some individual words in the text are not). The footnotes are quite extensive (149-181), further elucidating many controversial aspects of the Catullan corpus or current theoretical issues. The index is comprehensive.

The book is not all that easy to read, however, and some aspects of both content and style make the work difficult for the general reader. One problem is that the accumulation of specialized vocabulary (e.g., objet a) and Janan’s complexity of expression at some points become very daunting. As a result, despite the author’s attempts in Chapter One to explain fully the foundations upon which she builds her argument and presentation, in many instances rereading passages becomes necessary to ascertain meaning. In this case a glossary of terms for easy reference would have been helpful.

In sum, while When the Lamp is Shattered provides the reader with much thought-provoking material about ways to view Catullan verse, it is a complex and demanding work as well. Thus, it reflects, perhaps unwittingly, what its author has suggested the Catullan corpus requires of us: “continual rereading” (145).