When the Lamp is Shattered: Desire and Narrative in Catullus
The poetry of the Late Roman Republican poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, a rich document of the human heart, is the earliest-known reasonably complete body of erotic verse in the West. Though approximately 116 poems survive, uncertainties about the condition of the fragmented manuscript and the narrative order of the poems make the Catullan text unusually problematic for the modern critic. Indeed, the poems can be arranged in a number of ways, making a multitude of different plots possible and frustrating the reader's desire for narrative closure. Micaela Janan contends that since unsatisfied desire structures both the experience of reading Catullus as well as its subject matter, critical interpretation of the text demands a "poetics of desire". She proposes an original and provocative feminist reading of Catullus, a reading informed by theories of consciousness as ancient as Plato and as contemporary as Freud and Lacan. Janan holds that traditional text theory achieves interpretive closure by idealizing a self-aware, autonomous, and concrete textual "persona". In such a view, even the most unexpected or bizarre conduct ought to be explainable in terms of this presumably stable core of consciousness. Thus the extraordinary variations in Catullus' sexuality - including apparent shifts of gender identity - have led critics who seek a personality type that would account for the poet's behavior to speculate about his "bisexuality" or "effeminacy". Postmodern critical theory, narratology, and psychoanalysis, however, suggest a more flexible concept of the "subject" as a site through which a multitude of social, cultural, and unconscious forces move. Human consciousness, Janan contends, isinherently incomplete and in a continuous process of transformation. She argues that Catullus' gender transitions should be understood less as evidence of a conflicted sexuality than as a radical, poetic interrogation of the social construction of gender itself. The Late Roman Republic in which Catullus lived, Janan reminds us, was a time of profound social upheaval when political and cultural institutions that had persisted for centuries were rapidly breaking down a time not unlike our own. Catullus' poetry provides an unusually honest look at his culture and its contradictory representations of class, gender, and power. By bringing to the study of this major work of classical literature the themes of consciousness and desire dealt with in postmodern scholarship, Janan's book invites a new conversation among literary disciplines.
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