BMCR 2020.04.28

Loving writing/Ovid’s Amores

, Loving writing/Ovid's Amores. . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. vii, 202 p.. ISBN 9781108482301 $99.99.


Oliensis begins her book by clearly demarcating her approach in Ovidian scholarship. She proposes to read the Amores as an independent work, “exploring the collection from within and on its own terms” (p. 3). This approach contrasts with and yet complements two dominant approaches—a literary one focused on the poet’s cleverness in engaging his predecessors, and a gender- and power-based one intent on displaying the morally destitute poet-lover exploiting his beloved. For Oliensis, this means focusing more critical attention on the text itself than the literary tradition behind it, leaving aside the premises of intertextuality or touching upon them only incidentally. It also means setting aside the usual division between poet and lover, a division from which the poet emerges as brilliant and the lover as tawdry. She argues, moreover, that the individual poems of the collection should be interpreted in the first instance within the narrow narrative context of the poems that immediately precede or follow them, rather than by juxtaposition with poems found elsewhere in the collection but linked in the mind of the reader by internal echoes and thematic parallels. Oliensis recognizes that her approach is unconventional and may even appear “perverse” (p. 3), given Ovid’s ostentation of his intertextual cleverness and the moral bankruptcy of his fictional persona. She therefore makes use of and builds upon the large body of scholarship produced by the complementary methods of intertextuality and gender and power studies.

Oliensis explains the premises of her approach to the Amores in her first chapter, where she shows that, taken to its logical conclusion, the usual distinction between the two components of the poet-lover leads the reader to diminish the significance of the lover in relation to the poet, de-authenticating the elegiac nature of his desire, and to shift the hermeneutical focus onto the poet, authenticating him as persona with the brilliance of the author. The effect thus created, which Oliensis calls “the authenticity effect” (p. 8), shifts the focus of critical interest onto the meta-poetic dimension of the poems and the intratextual and intertextual networks by which they are surrounded in the consciousness of learned readers. But if the hyphen between the poet and the lover is read more as a sign of unification than demarcation, the lover and the poet will appear engaged in the same project, which Oliensis argues is a project of elegiac masochism.

This project begins by overturning the elegiac convention of the relationship between love and poetry. In the fiction of elegiac poetry, love is prior to verse, in that the pain of troubled love is the force that moves the fictional poet-lover to self-expression in elegiac couplets. But that is not what happens in the case of the protagonist of the Amores, whom Oliensis calls Naso. According to Amores 1.1, Naso was first forced by C upid into a genre alien to his temperament and then made to fall in love so that he might have something to write about in the verse form of that genre. The collection illustrates just how inept he is in the art of loving, but this does not make his erotic activities less authentic than his poetic need to write about them. On the contrary, Oliensis argues, it makes the poet-lover a fictional character in pursuit of a form of poetic self-expression that can showcase his own inadequacies.

To pursue this reading with clarity, Oliensis draws a sharp distinction between the external author, Ovid, and the internal poet-lover Naso. The fictional character is a would-be epic poet, compelled by Cupid to practise his art in a genre for which he is ill-suited, though Cupid attempts to equip him with enough experiential material for composition in elegiac couplets. As a poet-lover, Naso is endowed with this identity, whose integrity Oliensis wishes to respect, avoiding the separation of the poet from the lover, as if they were two fictional personae rather than two aspects of the same fictional character. Moreover, in the narrative of the Amores, this fictional character is an elegist, but, Oliensis points out, he cannot be equated with Ovid himself: “Naso the poet is not Ovid the author” (p. 39). By stressing the distinction between author and the character, and by avoiding the separation of the poet from the lover in the fiction of the Amores, Oliensis argues for a redirection of critical attention from the metapoetics of Ovid to the erotopoetics of Naso. Only then can we return to Ovid with a clear vision of the Amores. Oliensis defines erotopoetics as a “metonymic entanglement … of literary and erotic drives” (p.53). Forced into the elegiac genre, Naso understands that, if he is indeed to write elegies, he must suffer the pains of elegiac love, and so he does, creating for the extra-textual reader an imaginary region somewhere between the poems of which he is the fictional author and the poems authored by Ovid, which comprise the text of the Amores. This middle space is the domain of erotopoetics, “a middle place where desire cohabits with discourse” (p. 159), each as a part of the other, in a dynamic relationship of metonymic reciprocity.

In the second chapter, Oliensis illustrates the interpretive significance of sequential readings in a careful examination of the parrot elegy (2.6) in relation to the poems that immediately precede and follow it in the collection, namely 2.5 and 2.7 and 2.8, poems describing the more unsavoury side of Naso’s life. In such a purview, the parrot elegy figures as a performance by Naso, motivated by his humiliation at a dinner party (2.5) in which Corinna, betrays him with another man directly under his eyes. Viewed in this sequence, the parrot elegy shows that Naso wants to regain his composure after the humiliating experience at the dinner party, moving from lascivious to chaste language. Read in conjunction with 2.7 and 2.8, in which Naso lies about having had sex with a slave and then questions the slave about Corinna’s discovery of the truth. Naso himself does not know the identity of Corinna’s informer, but Oliensis argues that the reader will readily assume that it was the parrot, for which reason Corinna would have broken its neck. In that narrative, the parrot elegy is an extravagant tribute to the parrot that has just paid with his life for snitching on Naso (p. 68). Thus, for Oliensis 2.6 is an instance of lover’s discourse that illustrates the relationship between Naso’s low erotic life and his poetic ambitions. Reading this way may take us too far outside the text into the psychological backstory of the characters. Oliensis is keenly aware of that risk and hastens to reassure the reader that her interpretation is philologically grounded in the text and warranted by precise lexical clues, likely to remain invisible other than in a sequential reading.

In Chapter 3, Oliensis elaborates on the idea that for love poetry to be possible, the experience of love must be a troubled one. In her discussion, Oliensis articulates Naso’s indulgence in suffering as a form of elegiac masochism. She reviews the psychology of masochism and uses some of its vocabulary to offer a masochistic interpretation of Naso’s self-gratification as the poet of his own erotic failures. For Oliensis, Naso establishes himself as a masochist in a variety of ways, including the theme of castration. To this effect, she interprets Cupid’s theft of Naso’s second line as the amputation of a hexameter and as an act of quasi-castration, suffered by Naso in punishment for the audacity with which he assaulted his literary father, Vergil, when he appropriated his epic incipit (arma) to introduce his elegiac narrative of seduction (p. 132). Yet such quasi-castration proves to be a necessary condition of the poet-lover’s pleasure. The feeling provoked in Naso by Corinna’s abortion is interpreted by Oliensis as a close analogy to the feeling of castration, the foetus being almost “the embodiment of its phallic cause” (p. 139).

In Chapter 4, Oliensis develops the premise, that for Ovid the writing of poetry is itself an erotic experience of sorts. Oliensis argues that the same pleasure is involved in the contemplation of the scripted body of the poem and the supposedly real body of the fictional beloved. In Amores 2.4, Oliensis sees a clear instance of the “continuity and intertranslatability of stylistic and erotic lascivia” (p. 154), that is, the experience of erotic feelings which characterize the reader’s encounter with the collection, with respect to its content as well as its form. As far as content is concerned, lascivia refers, to the indulgent contemplation of sexual promiscuity, mostly the result of the protagonist’s ineptitude; with respect to form, it refers to the contemplation of the self-indulgent style of the text, whose writing and reading is understood by Ovid as a pleasure-seeking and pleasure-giving performance, analogous to the erotic encounters that it describes. The title of the book alludes to both the form and the content.

Loving Writing/Ovid’s ‘Amores’ is an impressive new addition to the scholarship on Ovidian elegy. It is a sophisticated exploration of the Amores from a novel perspective, based on the idea that its individual poems should be read in accordance with promptings from within their text as performances by the fictional poet-lover Naso. She thus evokes a lively persona, whom we are dared to dislike and like at the same time, showing how appealing he may be to the reader’s imagination even when he is most appalling. In pursuing this reading, Oliensis provides the reader with a wealth of ideas and references, in the text as well as in the notes, where she discusses in detail relevant primary and secondary sources. Her style is clear and cogent, and she frequently explains Ovid’s humour without sacrificing its pleasant tone in her analytical prose. The book is likely to influence Ovidian scholarship in a highly significant way.