BMCR 2014.12.12

Silence in Catullus. Wisconsin Studies in Classics

, Silence in Catullus. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. x, 338. ISBN 9780299296643. $34.95 (pb).

In his challenging and insightful book, Silence in Catullus, Benjamin Eldon Stevens offers a unique view of the ways in which Catullus considers the nature of poetry and characterizes his own work. In particular, Stevens analyzes the myriad manners in which Catullus handles the concept of silence and argues that, due to its prevalence in the Catullan corpus, silence should be considered as one of the major features of Catullus’s poetics, alongside issues of intersubjectivity, positionality, and social performance. To support his claim for a so-called “poetics of silence”, Stevens provides unique readings of the Catullan corpus using methodologies and theories derived from literary criticism, sociology, and anthropology. Such a prevalence of methodologies and theories from disparate fields undoubtedly provides Stevens with the opportunity for his stimulating and fresh readings of Catullus, which are the unquestioned strength of the work. However, those same methodologies and theories require a range of knowledge and a more technical understanding of vocabulary and concepts for a deep appreciation of the volume. This is the biggest drawback of the book, as the audience is subsequently limited to professional Classicists and, more particularly, Catullan scholars. Graduate students may struggle with the line of argument, and an application in undergraduate education is hard to imagine.

Stevens’s basic premise is straightforward enough: in order to conceptualize a Catullan poetics of silence, one must look at the ways in which silence is employed in the corpus. Stevens identifies two types of silence that must be explored: sociocultural and natural. Sociocultural silence is defined as the silence that “precede[s], structure[s], and follow[s] utterance . . . the silence that marks what may or may not be said according to cultural traditions and social controls” (6). These silences most often include silences in conversation, as one interlocutor must be silent while the other speaks, and vice versa. Natural silence, on the other hand, is defined as the silence enforced by nature, the ultimate form of which is the absolute silence of death. Moving from these basic definitions, Stevens looks for how Catullus manipulates these silences both on the intranarrative (i.e., within the poems proper and between characters) and on the extranarrative level (i.e., within the performance context in which the poems themselves were spoken). Stevens walks his readers through his analysis of internal and external silences in seven chapters, each of which builds upon the previous one. Chapters One and Two focus on sociocultural silences, both intra- and extranarrative, and develop previous work on positionality and lyric consciousness. Chapter Three continues the stress on sociocultural silence, but attacks it from a more extranarrative direction, using theories of social exchange. Chapters Four and Five turn to the concept of natural silence with a particular interest in possible changes to Catullus’s poetics in response to his brother’s death. Finally, Chapters Six and Seven pull together some of the concepts from the previous chapters and engage in a unique analysis of feminized voices and silences, identifying ways in which Catullus draws parallels between himself and silenced females in his poetry.

Chapter One sets the foundation for the work and seeks to illustrate both the differences between natural and sociocultural silence and the contradictory relationship between poetry and silence. To do so, he provides a close reading of Catullus 6 ( Flavi, delicias tuas Catullo), a poem in which a certain Flavius is not forthcoming with intimate details regarding his relationship with his girlfriend and Catullus seeks to fill in the blanks. Using c. 6, Stevens makes two main points, both of which are essential to his conception of a poetics of silence. First, a key tenet in Catullus’s poetics is the poet’s manipulation of sociocultural silence. For Catullus, witty or charming poetry “says aloud what is, traditionally, only trangressively overheard” (44). The opportunity provided by Flavius’s silence is taken by the poet, and the poet has free rein to imagine aloud, filling that silence with his own utterance. Second, there is a certain ironic relationship between poetry and silence; for, in order for Catullus’s poetry to be spoken aloud, it necessitates a silencing of other utterances, including other poems, so that it can be heard. Poetry thus both breaks and creates silence. In Stevens’s view, Catullus takes that basic, ironic relationship and makes it a central feature of literature.

Chapter Two builds on Chapter One’s conception of sociocultural silence and turns to the realm of orality and sexualized silence, and oral sexuality in particular. Here, Stevens identifies a strong link between silence, oral sexuality, and power, arguing that a character’s engagement in oral sexuality leads to the preclusion or occlusion of speech. Stevens uses the triplet of Catullus 5, 6 and 7—the so-called “kiss poems”—as his starting point, before branching into a consideration of 74, 80, 88, 116, and 16. In the “kiss poems”, Stevens explores the relationship between the speaking poet, the lovers whose kisses prohibit them from speaking, and detractors who speak rumors and evil things about them. Silence, then, provides an avenue for evaluating the reading (or misreading) of poetry; for, although the detractors have the power to speak, they are described as less valued than the lovers who cannot speak at all. Sexualized silence is preferred to the misreading of poetry. This argument is then used to interpret the oft-analyzed Catullus 16, a poem that, among other things, allows Catullus to threaten his detractors Aurelius and Furius with forced, sexualized silence.

Chapter Three turns from intranarrative analysis to a more explicitly extranarrative analysis and seeks to situate silence in the context of social performance through an analysis of Catullus 22, 36, and 50. As a basis for the chapter, Stevens begins by setting out the definitions of poems, poets, and poetry. He argues that in Catullus poems are less thought of as language than as material. Here, we think of the physical material on which the poem is constructed and its use qua object in Roman social performance. Poets are individuals who are “living symbols of exemplary language use” and those who create these objects (83). When seen in this way, poems become short-lived objects surrounded by silence on all sides: before a poem is uttered, there is silence; during the poem, there are both intranarrative and extranarrative silences imposed by the utterance of the poem; finally, when the recitation of the poem is complete, silence again is felt. In such an environment of pervasive silence, Stevens argues that Catullus openly calls into question the very nature of poetry as an everlasting monument (cf. Horace 3.30, exegi monumentum aere perennius . . .) capable of bestowing immortality on an individual. In simpler terms: is a mortal object truly capable of providing immortality?

Chapters Four and Five are variations on the same theme. In them, Stevens builds on his problemization of poetry’s ability to provide immortality by considering Catullus’s response to his brother’s passing at Troy, an event that brought the poet face to face with the absolute natural silence of death. Stevens’s analysis leads his readers through descriptions of Catullus’s despair and frustration in cc. 65 and 68, feelings that culminate in the expressions of c. 101. In his previous Chapters, Stevens has shown that key to Catullus’s conception of poetry was his ability to manipulate and fill silences between interlocutors. However, these “death poems” present a Catullus frustrated by the fact that brother, once his interlocutor, is now unable to engage in conversation with him; when Catullus calls on his brother, instead of a brief sociocultural silence followed by an utterance, he is now met by an overwhelming and permanent silence. Spurred by this experience, Catullus begins to question further the efficacy of poetry and its ability to bestow immortality on individuals. The salient symbol of the link between Catullus’s brother and the immortality of poetry pointed to by Stevens is the site of Troy, at once both the site of his brother’s tomb and the site of the Trojan War. Catullus—in c. 101, in particular—attempts to work through how the same Troy can both create the natural silence that causes him to question poetry’s efficacy and provide the impetus for the immortal Homeric songs of klea andron ( Iliad 9.189).

Chapters Six and Seven conclude Stevens’s analysis of silence in Catullus with an exploration of the poet’s handling of “feminized” silences. In particular, Stevens refigures readings of cc. 63, 64, and 51, central texts for the study of gender in antiquity. The Chapters open with Catullus standing on the same shores of Troy on which he was left in the previous Chapters. His problemization of the efficacy of poetry has called into question the potency of his own poetic voice—if poetic power is transient and controlled by silence, what does that mean for Catullus? Stevens shows Catullus working through his anxiety in gendered terms, as a male voice subjected to sociocultural and natural silences in ways in which were typically reserved for feminine voices in Latin literature. Catullus makes multiple connections with the hopelessness of his poetic voice on the shore of Troy, Ariadne’s empty complaints echo into the silence left by Theseus’s departure, and Attis’s inarticulate sounds created by his emasculation. Both of these characters depict individuals “abandoned or stranded in traditionally masculine discourse”, one silenced by her biological sex and one muted by his newly feminized status. C. 51 brings Stevens’s analysis full circle, as Catullus’s translation of Sappho 31 places him in the feminine role and describes the feminized silence created by the inability of the tongue and voice to articulate any of his feelings. Silence, as it were, has now curtailed his poetry in the same manner in which it made room for his poetry in the opening Chapters. As stated by Stevens at the outset, poetry and silence are, albeit ironic, mutually dependent.

Stevens’s work, therefore, provides a fresh and insightful way of looking at Catullus’s poetry that, I believe, will be a welcome addition to the field of Catullan studies. The only potential drawback is the high frequency of theoretical terminology and concepts perhaps unfamiliar to the general Classicist. Yet, silence is an aspect worthy of study, as it is a pervasive force throughout Catullus’s work, and Stevens’s multifaceted approach allows for us to begin to appreciate this understudied side of Catullus and to gain a deeper understanding of his poetics. To borrow an old dictum from the musical realm: music is not simply made by the sounds that are made; it is made by the interplay between the sounds and their intervening silences. Stevens has showed us how to hear the silences in Catullus’s melody; it’s up to us to listen for them.