BMCR 1995.07.14

1995.07.14, “When the Lamp is Shattered”: Desire and Narrative in Catullus

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

To begin, a question: why ground a reading of Catullus in the psychologies of Plato, Freud, and Lacan? If one intends to call on psychology, why not take theoretical cues from William James, or Jung, or whoever seems to have the truest notion of the human mind? In this intelligent and suggestive reading of Catullus, Micaela Janan answers that Plato, Freud, and Lacan share beliefs important for creating a postmodern reader of Catullus: beliefs that desire motivates creativity, that in subject-object relationships the subject is both divided and desiring, and that a kind of erotic desire moves readers to seek the vanished wholeness of a fragmented text. Janan’s book, then, does not present an analytic psychological interpretation of an objectified Catullus; instead, she uses her chosen psychological theories to constitute something like an ideal reader of Catullus’ text. Janan’s reader is post-Cartesian and, despite her polite nods to Plato and Freud, Lacanian; not, that is, a unitary subject perceiving and responding to an objectified text, but instead a set of shifting discursive states unified only by their obscure, fundamental desire to become a knowing subject. This reader is created by Catullus’ text no less than she is engaged in creating it. Janan signifies this reader throughout by feminine pronouns: she, her. This choice deserves comment because it illustrates the subtlety of Janan’s rhetoric and the way in which her book compels readers to encounter the Catullan text with new vision. Although she nowhere comments on her choice of the feminine generic pronoun, it seems clear that it does not stem merely from a contrarian reaction to the generic “he” or from any variation of the trendy rhetoric of gender equity. Lacanian gender has, as Janan comments early on, “nothing to do with anatomy and everything to do with epistemology” (xi). The epistemologically masculine stands for a desired unity of the desiring, knowing self and the known object; the epistemologically feminine stands for difference and for unfulfilled desire. Hence Janan’s engendering of the reader reflects a conscious epistemological choice. When that reader becomes she, not he, the conventional subject-object relationship between reader and text read dissolves, and text and reader enter into an inter-subjective relationship of reciprocal desire and self-creation. The Catullus that this reader creates and by which she is created moves fluently between genders as easily as he shifts epistemological stances. Janan suggests that the often-observed feminization of Catullus’ poetic persona forms part of the text’s creation of desire. Catullus’ erotic poetry assimilates the poet’s unfulfilled longing for Lesbia to the reader’s equally unfulfilled longing to interpret the text. The feminine poetic persona, registered as Sappho or Atalanta or an emasculated Attis, creates difference and unfulfilled hermeneutic desire. Gender, in this poetics of desire, is always problematic, never neutral. Janan’s subtle exploration of the gendering of persona and reader demonstrates that the egalitarian but evasive “he or she” will never do. But Janan’s feminization of Catullus’ ideal reader invites a disquieting thought about her rhetoric: is “she” always the right pronoun for this reader? Catullus’ ideal reader, like the poet’s persona itself, is engendered sometimes as masculine, sometimes as feminine. Janan’s consistent choice of “she” as the pronoun for this gender-shifting reader enriches her readings by forcing Janan’s own readers to confront the power of implied gender in Catullus’ text. Janan’s concern with the fluid relationship between text and reader and her desire to “obviate closure of either subject or text” (46) leads her to question the most fundamental subject-object relationship in classical philology: the distinction between “random accidents of manuscript transmission” and “considered choices of aesthetic allegiance and material” (5). Once the author and the authority of his intention disappears from the text, the question of what exactly the author wrote becomes, in Janan’s reading, unimportant. Our text of Catullus is what it is, and our uncertainty over the placing of, for example, the three lines commonly called poem 2b is as much part of our reading of the text as our uncertainty over the possible allegorizing of the passer. Awareness that a printed edition of any ancient author represents one of many possible states of the text and that textual criticism, like any other mode of discourse, has its contingencies can enrich our sense of a text’s possibilities. Janan must be wrong, however, to assert that there can be no distinction between a statement of fact and a statement of interpretation. Post-modern scepticism of all assertions about existence has seduced Janan into forgetting that it is possible to make statements of fact about a poem (“This poem has 14 lines;” or “This poem is a sonnet”) as well as statements of interpretation (“Et means ‘and’;” “Nox is an image for death;” or “This poem is about Catullus’ love for Lesbia.”) Janan’s theoretical position allows her to enrich conventional readings of poems and to consider old questions in new ways. In looking at the notorious passer poems, for example (46-48), she uses Lacan’s concept of the phallus as an empty, arbitrary signifier of desire to circumvent the puerile simplicities of the allegorizing interpretation that reads passer simply as penis. The passer, Janan suggests, embodies both the Lacanian phallus’s encompassing desire for the unattainable other and feminine subversion of this desire through insistence on difference. Her reading has the great merit of accounting both for the erotic coloring of the passer-poems and for the slipperiness of gender in the Atalanta-simile and the transposition of the passer, with which the male poetic persona has iden-tified himself, to a girl in 3.6-7, suamque norat / ipsam tam bene quam puella matrem. Readers who recoil from literary theory and its jargon may find them-selves turning away from When the Lamp is Shattered before they reach the end of its first chapter; if one is not used to sentences like, “Neither the Catullan subject nor the Catullan text is a reified determinate given, but a polymorphous and continuing production of meanings” (x), they may seem to require more decoding than they are worth. But even the theoretically naive, if they persevere, will find much to reward them in the second, third, fourth, and fifth chapters, on Poems 1-11, 11 and 51, the epigrams, and the long poems. Just as it hardly mattered to a sick person in the second century A.D. whether he was treated by an Empiricist, a Dogmatist, or a Methodist, as long as the physician was a good one, so it hardly matters to a reader in the waning twentieth century whether she seeks critical guidance from a Lacanian, a New Historicist, or an old-fashioned philologist. As long as their readings are as sensitive as Janan’s, the reader will return to the poems with a new sense of how they work.