Micaela Janan, The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 244. ISBN 0-520-22321-7. US$17.95
Brock University, Canada
Janan's second book, The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV is another installment (following her study of Catullus in When the Lamp is Shattered) in the author's application of twentieth century trends in psychology and literary criticism to the Roman poets of the first century B.C. Janan' s two books together could be described as a concerted attempt to drag the study of Latin literature, kicking and screaming, into the 1960's. Such approaches as Janan's are rarely applied to ancient literature, and the names of Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray are not commonly cited by mainstream Classicists, at least in North America. It remains to be seen whether this is a good thing.
Janan justifies her approach to Propertius' fourth book by arguing that 'psychoanalysis . . . can best examine the incoherences that characterize Roman elegy' (p. 3). Janan's basic premise, then, is actually that the ideas of Jacques Lacan are better suited than any other literary or critical approach to the study of Propertius' last book, 'as he offers the best conceptual tools with which to examine the relation between political upheaval and the disintegration of apparently stable selthood' (p. 12). Many would disagree; political upheaval there certainly is at the time when Propertius is writing Book 4, and how the poet deals with his political situation has formed the basis of much analysis of this book. The 'disintegration of apparently stable self-hood' is rather more problematic. For although the Latin love elegy is among the most individual and personal of ancient genres, and the persona of the elegist could certainly approximate the 'self-hood' of which Janan, and originally Lacan, speak. The disintegration of this 'self-hood', and even its apparent stability, could easily be questioned.
Having established this position, Janan follows up in a clear attempt to accomplish two separate goals. Her first goal is an analysis of Propertius' elegies, especially in Book 4, in the light of Jacques Lacan's theories of 'the divided subject as an inherent cleavage that presses human beings to seek "unity" or "wholeness"' (4). Janan's second, and more necessary goal, is to explain such theories to the average classicist, who has had little experience of them.
The second of these goals Janan attempts bravely. The first chapter of the book, entitled 'Theoretical Preliminaries' (pp. 11-32), explains as clearly as is possible the Lacanian theories with which Janan is dealing. I must say, however, that they do not end up seeming particularly clear even at the end of this chapter.
Janan's analysis of Propertius' elegies begins, not with Book 4, although that is the stated subject of her book but with the 'Gallus' poems that appear in the first book of elegies, as these six poems 'are a particularly rich field in which to examine Propertius' elliptical politics' (p. 33). These poems certainly illustrate the problems many scholars have encountered in trying to tease a coherent narrative out of Propertius' corpus. Janan concludes that the Gallus poems in the first book of elegies demonstrate what Propertius will take as his theme throughout the corpus: 'Propertius could have chosen no better way to deconstruct the concept of ideological quilting than to address Octavian's satellite at the zenith of his power and show the emperor's favored friend to be as unstable in his coherence as all the rest' (p. 52). The problem with this approach is that Janan never, to my satisfaction at least, adequately explains the 'concept of ideological quilting', beyond stating that the phenomenon occurs in, for example, Plato's Symposium, where two lovers are argued to be halves of the same token (pp. 41- 45).
Janan' s first real foray into her stated subject, Propertius' fourth book, is delayed until Chapter 3 (pp. 53-69), and begins with elegy 4.3. As Janan points out, this, the Arethusa poem, has received less critical attention than most other poems of Propertius' corpus. This chapter seems the best in Janan's book, perhaps because it relies far less on theoretical jargon than do the rest. For the most part, it presents a clear and straightforward discussion of the Roman state's military ambitions, and their effects on ordinary citizens. Arethusa's letter to Lycotas, and her map of the world, are both 'symbols . . . of dispersion and integration' (p. 68), and 'summarize the specific tensions that traverse the notion of Romanitas in the late Republic and early Empire' (p. 68). In Janan's analysis, Arethusa and Lycotas represent 'masculine and feminine epistemological perspectives on Romanitas' (p. 68). The chapter is clear and well written, and a welcome addition to the scanty bibliography on elegy 4.3.
With Chapter 4 (pp. 70-84), an examination of elegy 4.4, Janan returns to her well-beloved theoretical terminology, arguing that 'elegy 4.4 interrogates the very binary logic implied in framing its loyalties as either "pro-Augustan" or "anti-Augustan"' (p. 71). Because of this, 'guided principally by Irigaray's critique of conventional epistemology, [I] shall show that the Tarpeia poem abounds in details that cannot be captured in "either/or" logic -- details linked (non-coincidentally) to feminine desire' (p. 71). Perhaps it does; perhaps she did. By the end of the chapter, I was not convinced of either point. And yet, buried in this chapter, in the midst of citations of Irigaray's theories of 'Mechanics of Fluids', is some sophisticated and useful analysis of the Tarpeia poem: Tarpeia's relationship to water, and indications of her relative state of chastity, are clearly discussed, as is Propertius' presentation of 'wild women', uncontrolled women, as Bacchants or Amazons. Unfortunately, Irigaray, Lacan and, this time, Freud lure Janan back into their camp, so that Chapter 4 ends with a discussion of 'feminine syntax'.
Apparently, like elegy 4.4, elegy 4.5 also 'interrogates' something, in this case 'the desperately flawed structure of relations between the sexes' (p. 87). Chapter 5, in which Janan deals with this poem and its 'interrogation' seems largely based on the Lacanian concepts of 'The Real'. The chapter is difficult to read, and more difficult to follow.
Janan rightly recognizes that the three poems in which women speak from the afterlife (4.5, 4.7, 4.11) form a set, which should be viewed together. To this end, she omits elegy 4.6 in order to treat 4.5, the lena, and 4.7, dead Cynthia, together. She does not, however, include 4.11, the Cornelia elegy, with the set. This poem, in Janan's assessment, dramatizes a 'problematic': 'the problem of Law itself and its duplicity' (p. 147). 'Law' is capitalized because apparently it, too, is a Lacanian concept that is 'implicated with enjoyment', where enjoyment bears the technical meaning of 'the limit of interpretation; non-meaning as such' (p. 148). Obviously, Janan and Lacan use such words as enjoyment and law differently than do others, although Janan does allow that law, as others understand it, is related to 'Law': 'Modern jurisprudence exemplifies par excellence the principle of interdependence upon which Lacan's analysis of Law depends' (p. 149).
On one level the treatment of 4.5 and 4.7 together is inspired by a sense of order, since Acanthis was supposedly responsible for Cynthia's misbehaviour, and Cynthia's abuse of Propertius echoes that of Acanthis. Unfortunately, in order to treat these poems together, Janan omits elegy 4.6, the single most 'political' poem in Book 4. And so this poem which really does seem to present a shift in Propertius' attitudes towards Augustus and Augustanism is treated in only a few paragraphs, at the beginning of the chapter on elegy 4.7. Janan clearly regards this extremely important poem as secondary, although it does provide some indication of the poet's intentions: to cast into doubt his bona fides, both patriotic and romantic. 4.6 is apparently most important, however, because of its close relation to 4.7, as the pair form 'thematically and numerically the book's center and "epicenter" respectively' (p. 101). And actually, the chapter treating elegy 4.7 is another of the jewels of the book, as it, too, is clear, easy to follow, and relatively clear of jargon. Janan views elegy 4.7 as presenting an antidote to the extremely masculine sensibilities of the Latin love elegy as a genre (p. 113), and it is in this context that the contrast with the martial elegy 4.6 makes sense.
In Propertius' book, elegy 4.8 is an unsettling sequel to 4.7, since here we find Cynthia again alive, and still angry. Moreover, the comic tones of Cynthia's nostos are troubling, following so closely her horrible death and apparition. Janan bravely attempts to resolve the contradiction. Unfortunately, her constant invocation of Lacan and his theories of sexual relation and objet à tends to obscure her point. Although Janan does point out some very central and important contradictions within the poem itself, especially with regard to war and peace, sexuality and spirituality, faithlessness and loyalty, her seventh chapter is largely Lacan, and largely inaccessible to the average Classical scholar.
The same must be said of the eighth chapter, on elegy 4.9 (Hercules). This chapter focuses on language and words, and introduces us to the concept of 'llanguage': 'the inconsistent "non-all" entity logically primordial to la langue in totality . . . llanguage generates meaning effects that spill over the conventional rules for interpreting language' (p. 139). Janan claims that 'the concept of llanguage can help us analyse the bizarre preciosities of the verses with which Propertius narrates the Hercules-Cacus saga' (p. 139). I am not sure I want or need the help of Lacan's 'llanguage' to analyse Propertius' verse. Janan does, however, present some interesting comments on the transvestitism of Hercules and the 'gender bending' of elegy 4.9, especially as the gate keeper of the shrine of the Bona Dea introduces Teiresias as another example of a man who lived as a woman. Both Hercules and Teiresias bring to our attention the problems of definition, whereby it becomes difficult to assign people (or, indeed, concepts) to categories such as male/female, Roman/'other', Roman/ 'not real Roman' (p. 144). People and concepts tend to keep skipping out of their assigned categories.
This, in fact, is what Janan's book tends to do as well. Is it a work of Classical scholarship, or of twentieth-century literary criticism? Like Propertius' Hercules, it is sometimes one and sometimes the other. Unfortunately, it is never both. For despite her thorough scholarship and knowledge of both Lacan and Propertius, despite her sophisticated writing style (which is as clear as the subject matter will allow), Janan never really manages to integrate her two subjects, and accomplish her two main goals of introducing the Classicist to Lacanian concepts, and demonstrating the applicability of these concepts to Propertius' fourth book.