BMCR 2001.05.14

The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV

, The politics of desire : Propertius IV. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xi, 244 pages).. ISBN 9780520924819 $17.95.

One of the cultural legacies of psychoanalysis is to perceive all blunders, whether of speech or action, commission or omission, as meaningful. The stubbing of one’s toe or the clumsy mishandling and breaking of a vase issue as much from unconscious repressed conflict as do slips of the tongue or conveniently forgotten, since unpleasant, memories. Micaela Janan’s book, The Politics of Desire, constitutes a literary critical version of this legacy. It is an elegantly written study that employs Lacanian and poststructuralist theory to analyze the unstable and intertwined categories of gender and political identity in Propertius, Book IV, a collection of poems marked by discrepancies among the manuscripts and accused of thematic incoherence. Rather than ascribe inconsistencies—puzzling diction, logical incongruity and thematic contradiction—to either manuscript errors or a nodding author, Janan explicates puzzling aspects of Propertius’ poems in terms of ideological conflicts exacerbated by the rapid changes in Rome during the Augustan period.

Janan’s work makes a distinctive contribution to the on-going critical dialogue about the nature of Latin love elegy, a genre once seen as playfully manipulated conventions but increasingly understood as a literary site of ideological negotiation.1 As extended psychological narrative, elegy foregrounds not only the condition of erotic subjectivity but also the political, social, and institutional forces that make up the subject. Continuing in the methodological vein of her earlier book on Catullus, When the Lamp is Shattered, Janan expands her Lacanian focus to include this “horizon of the political within the personal” (4). Her use of psychoanalytic theory may very well strike some readers as orthodox: Lacan’s concepts of the divided subject, objet a, jouissance, quilting or capitonnage, the Law, and the phallus provide the analytic frame of inquiry. However, scrupulous attention is paid to Propertius’ historical context, and compelling arguments justify the relevance of such a theoretical approach. The contents of Janan’s book comprise a brief introduction, a chapter on “Theoretical preliminaries,” one on the Gallus poems of the Monobiblos, seven chapters devoted each to a single poem of the fourth book (4.3, Arethusa’s letter to Lycotas; 4.4, Tarpeia’s betrayal of Rome; 4.5, Acanthis’ hetaira-catechism; 4.7, Cynthia’s return from the dead; 4.8, Cynthia’s return from Lanuvium; 4.9, Hercules’ attacks on Cacus and the Bona Dea shrine; 4.11, Cornelia’s defense before the Underworld), and a conclusion.

In her introduction Janan sketches what she perceives as the “crisis in conceiving Romanitas” that occurred during the Augustan Principate (6). The Forum Augustum, with its juxtaposition of contradictory images drawn from mythic history, instantiates an “incoherence in Roman cultural identity” (4) that derives from this crisis and that partly accounts for the seeming dichotomies characterizing Propertius’ poetry and love elegy in general. As Janan argues in Chapter 1, studies of Propertius have too often explained his disjunctive style and discontinuous logic in terms of binary oppositions and tension—e. g. between erotic and political themes, or subversive and propagandistic stances—that in fact “reify” the reductive critical view of poets writing during the Principate as either “pro” or “anti-Augustan.” By contrast, Janan views such disjunction as a response to “the disintegration of an ideologically secure sense of self” (12) that Romans experienced during the transition from a republican form of government to the monarchy of empire. Lacan’s concept of the “split” or “divided subject” that seeks wholeness through identification with a culturally freighted, if unanchored, signifier such as “Roman citizen,” “good man,” “good lover,” provides a better way of understanding the hermeneutic difficulties posed by book IV, “the chief riddle of the Propertian corpus” (12-13). In addition, Lacan’s view of “Woman” as a conceptual deadlock that exceeds symbolization systems (23) sheds light on the logical impasses and contradictions that attend the many female voices of Book IV.

Much of the Lacanian theory that Janan employs in her book is material that builds on the earlier discoveries of Saussurian linguistics and its view of meaning as produced within differential systems of signification. Poststructuralism has emphasized, in turn, the failure of binary signifiers to secure semantic stability. It is specifically the inadequacy and slippage of the dyad Man/Woman (or Man/not-Man) as it intersects with that of Roman/ not-Roman that interests Janan. She is sensitive to readers who are not versed in psychoanalytic theory: she generally provides lucid and straightforward definitions of the terms and concepts she uses, both as her discussion unfolds as well as in extensive endnotes. Such clarity will also be appreciated by those dubious about a project that seeks to illuminate the opaque and disjunctive logic of an ancient poet through ideas developed by Lacan’s similarly arcane, convoluted, and paradoxical mode of thought.

Chapter 2 on the Gallus poems of the Monobiblos serves as a “preliminary test case” for Janan’s Lacanian approach to the theme of the “political-erotic subject’s incoherence” (17). The several identities comprised in the signifier “Gallus”—as womanizer (1.5, 1.13.5-6), as slave for love (1.10, 1.13), as pederast (1.20), as Octavian’s prefect in Egypt and elegiac poet, and as soldier who dies for the Republican cause (1.21 and possibly 1.22)—fracture any coherence or unified subject that the single name promises. Here we see the failure of the process of capitonnage or “quilting” whereby the subject seeks to make himself whole through identification with some master signifier. While this is a Lacanian concept, Janan explains it by referring to Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, where the lovers align themselves with “the divine signifier that conditions their desire” (41). As here, Janan often grounds contemporary psychoanalytic theory in ancient philosophical texts. This helps clarify the theory even as it fends off the potential charge of ahistoricism: some readers might resist the interpretation of an ancient poet that is based on concepts drawn from psychoanalysis, a theory and practice wrapped up with the rise of bourgeois capitalism.

Chapter 3 on Propertius 4.3, Arethusa’s elegiac epistle to her husband Lycotas, away on the front, and Chapter 4 on 4.4 about Tarpeia’s betrayal of Rome to the Sabine leader, Tatius, take up Janan’s main theme as sketched in her first chapter: the imbrication of gender and Roman identity as unstable concepts that founder on the inadequacy of binary modes of thought. Drawing on the work of Slavoj Zizeck, Janan demonstrates that binary opposition always involves one term’s dependence on, and even inclusion of, the other as its structural inversion: thus, the Romanitas of masculine Lycotas, defending the borders of empire, is “literally unthinkable without the decadent, despised Other” (65). Similarly, the vice of Tarpeia’s disloyalty to the Roman state engenders the possibility of Rome’s “integrity as a polity” (75). The latter literally depends on the eventual reconciliation of Romans and Sabines in marriage and thus on “the city’s infiltration by foreigners because of women” (75). In addition, these two poems reveal the workings of a feminine epistemology (Arethusa’s ironic view of the masculine pretense to objective knowledge and mastery of the world) and of feminine desire as diffuse, marked by fluidity (Tarpeia’s passion for Tatius and the prevalence of water imagery). Here Janan makes a case for Propertius’ female characters as exemplifying a feminine mode of thought that stands outside of masculine logic.

The following chapters continue to focus on the concept of Woman as eluding or disrupting masculine symbolization systems. In Chapter 5 Janan explains the speaker’s virulent hatred for Acanthis, a deceased lena, as evidence of objet a“the category of phenomena Lacan labeled the Real” and which persistently “evades symbolization” (91). Cynthia, too, is invested with this mysterious “x” factor, an ungraspable quiddity that also inspires passionate love, and that Acanthis, in fact, threatens to undermine. The speaker’s hatred for the bawd transforms her into a prohibition that preserves his desire for Cynthia (or objet a) as possible, if forever deferred. Janan’s discussion of the triangular operation of desire, and its place in the Lacanian Symbolic is sophisticated and flawless in its logic. However, in this chapter it threatens to overwhelm discussion of Propertius’ text itself. Chapter 6 addresses the interpretive impasses posed by Cynthia’s own voice, returned from the dead in Propertius 4.7: how should the critic explain Cynthia’s version of the affair, so at odds with the Propertian narrator’s account in the first three books of the corpus? And how to reconcile the competing generic claims of 4.7 as a return to elegiac concerns, after the panegyric of 4.6, the celebration of Octavian’s victory at Actium? For Janan, 4.7 serves as a critique of the masculinist vision of the political Actium elegy; and it demonstrates the Lacanian concept of “jouissance,” both enjoyment and “non-sense,” visible in the linguistic punning on names and the illogicality and sensuality of Cynthia’s depiction of Hades. All the same, both Acanthis and Cynthia expose “the pain hidden beneath elegy’s pleasure” (108), juxtaposing “two gender-specific systems of truth”—the public, masculine word as against the private, experiential truth of the body.

Janan continues to probe the problem of textual incoherence in her discussion of Propertius 4.8, Cynthia’s return from Lanuvium. The bizarre chronology of the poem (Cynthia still lives despite the appearance of her ghost in 4.7) and its internal rift (the shaky relation between the Lanuvium fertility ritual and the Esquiline “riot” caused by Propertius’ foreclosed infidelity) should be “viewed as a principled textual strategy” (115). Here the Lacanian concept of “the phallic function,” only implicit in other chapters, comes up to explain these and other discontinuities as well as the poem’s pervasive sense of sexuality gone awry. The failure of the “phallic function” to impose a limit on the deferral of signifiers, and specifically to relate either masculinity or femininity to some essence beyond language, accounts for the “contradictory predicates that culture regularly asserts of Woman” (119), as evidenced in Cynthia’s specific quixotism. Her contradictions thus constitute a symptom of the “logical impasse at the heart of the sexual relation” (119), an impossibility that affects the poem’s structure and displaces sexuality so that it permeates everywhere but truly succeeds nowhere. And yet, as Janan argues, Cynthia’s unpredictable caprice constitutes a feminine irony akin to Arethusa’s mode of knowing the world, a skepticism that serves to strip away the public faade of ritual (Lanuvium) that masks the motives of private desire. While Janan’s argument does cohere (in its long form), it might have benefited from a more explicit distinction between effects of the poem that derive from a “principled textual strategy” (115), implying Propertius’ intention, and those that, though not necessarily intended, are elucidated by a Lacanian view of the subject and his relation to language.

Chapter 8 takes up the theme of aetiology, the avowed focus of Propertius Book 4 according to the programmatic first poem, despite the reservations expressed by the astrologer Horos. 4.9 is one of the more explicitly aetiological elegies in that it treats the foundation myth of the Ara Maxima, the monument that commemorates Hercules’ defeat of the monster Cacus. The poem also includes the episode describing Hercules’ lack of reception by the women of the Bona Dea shrine, which inspires his attack on the shrine and his subsequent prohibition of female worshippers at his altar. This is fertile ground for Janan’s analytic inquiry into the interrelatedness of Romanitas and masculinity/femininity. Janan shrewdly interprets the role of aetiology in this poem as a “doomed search for essence” (129) in these two realms of nationalism and gender. Once again her critical approach finds meaning in the logical disjunctions seen as anomalous by other critics, e.g. that the cattle saved by Hercules consecrate the Forum Boarium, a place that had been under water until the hero’s arrival (132), or the harsh juxtaposition of Hercules’ conquest of Cacus and his assault on the Bona Dea shrine. Janan views these temporal and thematic inconcinnities as “the poem’s calculated ineptitude” wherein “Propertius refuses the tendency of his contemporaries to make time an instrument of history” (132). This is in keeping with Propertius’ “investigation of…the conceptual limits of signification,” and despite the poststructuralist tenor of the discussion here, Janan is careful to demonstrate that Plato, in the Theatetus, arrived at “fundamentally” the same conclusions as Saussure (who did not evidence the postmodern alarm of those who came later) regarding definitions, the necessary reference of one signifer to another, and the ultimate regression of meaning (133). Propertius’ Hercules-Cacus episode dramatizes the limits of the signifier Romanitas even as the absence of any “external boundary” (139) to language as a system accounts for the effects of punning and linguistic play, a verbal exuberance of sound, that critics have often remarked in the poem and that Janan identifies as evidence of Lacanian lalangue (141).

Chapter 9 examines Cornelia’s elegiac self-defense in the underworld, Propertius 4.11, from the perspective of Lacan’s concepts of the Law, feminine jouissance, “quilting” and objet a Again, Janan refers to ancient texts other than Propertius’ poems to exemplify both the relevance of the Lacanian concepts and their uncanny anticipation in authors of antiquity. Thus, Lacan’s view of the Law as a differential system akin to language resembles the concept of “autonomous law” (“legislation viewed as an independently existing and self-consistent set of rules to be applied in individual cases”) toward which Cicero, according to Bruce Frier, attempted to move the practice of justice (149). With references to the Skeptics and examples drawn from Livy (the story of Verginia and Appius Claudius) Janan shows that the Law is in fact a vehicle for the satisfaction of particular desires, or, in Lacan’s terms, “instinct with enjoyment ( jouissance)” (150). Cornelia’s vehement insistence on her own chastity and her invocation of her ancestors, their triumphs, and their defeated enemies as witnesses, demonstrate that “successful control over [female] sexuality attests the Law’s effectiveness and the coherence of the body politic underwritten by the Law” (156). But her reference to the punishment of the Danaids for their vengeance on the Aegyptioi, their cousins who raped them, reveals the Law as sadistic and capricious (158). Unlike Alcestis, Cornelia receives nothing in return for her sacrifices to the demands of the State. As Janan remarks in Chapter 10, her conclusion, Lacan’s view of Woman as the place where the signifying systems that construct the subject break down (165) helps us understand more precisely Propertius’ own fascination with Woman in her myriad forms, from bawd to mythological heroine, from mistress to historical figure. Nonetheless, Janan makes no claim for Propertius as a “prescient feminist,” but rather suggests that his representations of women constitute “narrative strategies” (166). As such, his work reveals “logical schisms” within the way Augustan culture “mapped gender” over areas such as “politics, foreign affairs and the division of the world into public and private spheres” (166).

The preceding summary indicates the high degree to which Janan’s analysis draws on a Lacanian view of the subject and its relation to language. In her efforts to explain this view and its development by later writers (Slavoj Zizeck in particular) to the uninitiated reader, Janan at times creates a disproportionate balance between the explication of theory and the poetic text that it aims to illuminate. Nonetheless, her use of textual evidence is always culturally well-informed (e.g. her discussion of the reasons for identifying Propertius’ Gallus with the elegiac poet Gallus, Octavian’s prefect in Egypt [36-39]); and she makes her use of theory relevant by continually demonstrating that many ancient philosophical texts articulate concepts further elaborated by poststructuralism. (In addition to the parallels already cited, Janan notes that Lacanian theory “mimics” even as it exposes the flawed logic behind the Pythagorean table of opposites and its equation of “bounded” with male and “good” [21].) Her index is generally good, although it surprisingly has no entry for jouissance (an omission that perhaps reflects the term’s reference to that which eludes significance?). It should also be noted that given the full chapters devoted to seven of Book 4’s eleven elegies, the reader misses such in-depth treatment of the other four, despite the discussions of them elsewhere—the programmatic elegy (4.1) and the Vertumnus poem (4.2) in “Theoretical preliminaries,” the Actium elegy (4.6) in relation to Cynthia’s return from the dead (4.7) in Chapter 6, and 4.10, the explication of the martial cult of Jupiter Feretrius, as a problematic example of “masculinist poetics,” in a lengthy footnote (197-98n13).

However, the greatest problem I see is a familiar methodological contradiction: given the Lacanian idea that the subject is “spoken by” language as much as he speaks it, Janan does not adequately address the problem of Propertius’ own precarious intentionality. Her claim that the notorious cruxes of Book 4 (illogicalities, dislocations, etc.) should be read not in terms of manuscript errors, authorial stumbling, or ambivalence about patriotic allegiance, but rather as textual “strategies” infers a high degree of intentionality on Propertius’ part that may very well be there but which would be problematic given Lacan’s view of the subject’s relation to language. That is, although Propertius as the poetic persona of the corpus is envisioned as a split subject, vulnerable to the same disintegration as Gallus of the Monobiblos, Propertius the author seems to be exempt, at least as regards Book IV: or rather, the disjunctions that should be the result of “the disintegration of an ideologically secure sense of self” (12) come suspiciously close to being fully controlled by their author. This is somewhat problematic since, as Janan herself observes in her disagreement with Maria Wyke’s view of the poet’s discursive mastery over the elegiac puella in the first three books of his corpus, it is doubtful that “complete “discursive mastery” is possible….Lacan’s persuasive development of the idea that every system has its point of logical breakdown…undermines the premise that anyone can assume the position of Master with complete effectiveness, especially mastery of a signifying system” (177n58).

These reservations do not significantly detract from the intellectual caliber of this book. The Politics of Desire is a substantial addition to the growing body of readings of Latin love poetry that draw from feminist and postmodern theory. Janan’s use not only of Lacan but also of the French feminist writer Irigaray leads her to conclusions similar to those of Barbara Gold, who applies Alice Jardine’s concept of gynesis to examine the way the elegists use women and gender “to disrupt the [symbolic] structures of their society.”2 Woman, in this view, is a discursive construct rather than a biological or anatomical entity, and is visible in spaces of the elegiac text where the narrative appears to have lost control. Contrary to the darker visions of Wyke and Ellen Greene on love elegy, or Ronnie Ancona on Horace’s erotic odes, which have tended to emphasize the poet’s discursive dominance over the mistress as poetic and erotic object, Janan argues for the unsettling skepticism and ironic stance of Woman, set into play but not necessarily governed by Propertius.3 In this more positive reading of elegy’s gender relations, Janan inclines once again to the optimism (if not the methodological premises) of Judith Hallet’s work of the seventies, which argued for a “counter-cultural feminism” promoted by elegiac poets’ assumption of the subservient, feminine role.4

All the same, Janan’s book reveals the effects of the past thirty years and the increasing impact of poststructuralism on classical studies. The introduction’s dialogue (8-9) with Paul Allen Miller’s forthcoming book on love elegy makes clear that the genre’s most alluringly complex characteristics—gender role inversion, brief efflorescence under the Principate, female speakers and subjectivity (Propertius’ voices from the dead)—are being observed with a new methodological lens and striking new conclusions. Indeed, readers’ reactions to this book will probably depend on their capacity to entertain its totalizing view of the Lacanian subject. For those willing to accept her theoretical premises, even provisionally, Janan succeeds admirably at rendering coherent many of the more contradictory and puzzling aspects of a difficult poet’s most challenging collection of poems. For good or for ill, Lacan is part of twentieth century intellectual history and Janan has done a very smart job at elucidating his thought and demonstrating its relevance to Propertius.


1. Trevor Fear, “Introduction. Through the Past Darkly: Elegy and the Problematics of Interpretation,” Arethusa 33.2 (2000) 154. See also the discussion in Paul Allen Miller and Charles Platter, “Introduction,” Classical World 92.5 (1999) 403-407.

2. Barbara K. Gold, “‘But Ariadne was Never There in the First Place’: Finding the Female in Roman Poetry,” in Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics (New York 1993), 83.

3. Ronnie Ancona, Time and the Erotic in Horace’s Odes (Durham 1994); Ellen Greene, The Erotics of Domination: Male Desire and the Mistress in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore 1998); Maria Wyke, “Taking the Woman’s Part: Engendering Roman Love Elegy,” Ramus 23 (1994) 110-128.

4. Judith P. Hallet, “The Role of Women in Roman Elegy: Counter-cultural Feminism,’ in John Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers (Albany 1984), 241-62. [First published in Arethusa 6 (1973), 103-24].