Micaela Janan, 'When the Lamp is Shattered': Desire and Narrative in Catullus. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 204. ISBN 0-8093-1765-6. US$34.95.
Universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape
|'It's a shame that more people don't take an interest in what you people write.' - 'It's a shame that we don't write for you to read.'(1)|
Many people do read the poetry of Catullus, not all of them classicists. Catullus' erotic verse provides the earliest near-complete body of extant Western lyric poetry, a fascinating document of late Roman Republican life, and of the life, love(s) and hates of its author, Gaius Valerius Catullus. But it is difficult to read Catullus without a rising sense of frustration. A satisfactory linear reading of the text is nigh- impossible: a fragmented manuscript and an apparently jumbled sequence of poems make it hard for the reader to determine the dominant order of reading, or indeed at times to make even the most basic textual decisions, such as which poems are complete and which are fragments, or where one poem ends and another begins.(2) It is also difficult to achieve interpretative closure with respect to the person(a) of Catullus, whose ranging emotions and sexual identities strain an idealised view of him as a stable, unified individual.
The frustrated desire which inhabits the reader also provides one of the central theme of the text, in the cycle of poems concerning Catullus' thwarted love for the woman he calls Lesbia. Michaela Janan's book is a critical work which addresses that frustration, firstly by recognising that it exists, then by explaining it in rigorously theoretical terms. Her approach should prove both acceptable to classicists, who are notoriously suspicious of the application of modern literary theory to ancient texts, and welcome to non-classicists, many of whom find the still-predominantly positivist or structuralist readings of the classics outdated and dreary.(3) Perhaps, if more classical scholars wrote like Janan, 'more people' would take an interest in what 'we people' write.
In her preface Janan outlines her theoretical orientation. There she announces her intention to construct a 'poetics of desire' out of ancient and modern theoretical discourses, those of Plato, Freud, and Lacan. All three saw the connection between eros and the creative arts, and furthermore, they share a theory of the divided and fragmentary nature of human consciousness. Building on this, Janan replaces the notion of reified author-persona with the more flexible model of 'subject', 'conceived not as a substance (like a stone), but as a site through which social, cultural, institutional and unconscious forces move' (Preface, p. x). Here Janan also indicates that hers is to be a feminist critique, when she announces her intention to valorise irrational elements and gaps in the text ('feminine' knowledge) over epistomological, 'masculine' certainty, and when she declares that she will read Catullus' gender reversals and his fluctating attitude to Lesbia as a deliberate challenge of his culture's fictional institutions of Man and Woman, an interrogation of the validity of a patriarchal value system during the breakdown of societal values and political institutions that was taking place towards the end of the first century B.C.
In Chapter 1, entitled 'From Plato to Freud to Lacan: A History of the Subject', Janan expounds her critical methodology in greater detail, and proposes a set of questions which she aims to answer in the rest of the book, about the temporal and logical sequence of the Catullan text and the construction of the subjects that 'speak, act and love' therein. This introductory chapter needs a careful reading by those who are not already familiar with the tenets of Lananian theory. But it is an effort that must be made, in order to understand and appreciate fully the application of Janan's theoretical model that follows: unlike the text of Catullus, the text of Janan requires a strictly linear construction of meaning!
Moving from Callimachean notions of the setting and crossing of aesthetic boundaries to Freudian-Lacanian theories of the constructing and transgressing of psychic boundaries, Janan proposes to plot a similar procedure in Catullus, both in his poetics (in the wilful building and demolishing of sexual identities) and his subject-matter (in the making and breaking of limits on love and hate with regard to his mistress, Lesbia). For reasons of expediency, Janan applies her 'poetics of desire' to the Lesbia-cycle alone, as the most complete account of a love affair in the Catullan corpus.
To construct such a poetics of desire, Janan has first to explain her own understanding of the terms 'desire', 'subject' and 'object', 'man' and 'woman' as applied to language and consciousness. In discussing her concept of the divided and desiring subject,(4) Janan equates Plato's tripartite schema Reason-Spirit-Appetite, with Freud's Ego-Superego-Id, then with Lacan's Imaginary- Symbolic-Real. In Lacanian terms, the Symbolic realm of consciousness is that which perceives differences (like Male / Female, Self / Other) in order to define individual (fictional) identity. Language belongs to the Symbolic order, where one may resolve the paradox in Emile Benveniste's famous statement 'I am lying' by acknowledging the distinction between the speaking subject and the subject of the speech.(5)
What is the object of every subject's desire? As a feminist, Janan has to replace Freud's key concept of the penis as the universal object of desire, (thus 'penis- envy' as the foundation of feminine subjectivity), with Lacan's notion of the 'phallus', the empty signifier of the actual object of desire, which, according to Lacan, is the impossible, unsatisfiable Desire of the Other - desire both to possess and to be desired by the Other, to be Absolute Subject, and thereby to achieve the fictive 'wholeness' of being ('we two are as one').(6)
Along with Lacan, Janan emphasizes that temporal ordering of subjectivity is performed by the subject retrospectively, so that gain / presence is preceded by loss / absence (or vice versa) only in logical sequence.(7) Since desire is never completely satisfied, this process of gain and loss is endlessly repeated by the subject, in a desire to place something unified (a narrative chain of lesser signifiers, which Lacan calls points de capiton) between the Real void in being (called the Unary Signifier) and one's knowledge of the void.(8) And since the phallus (as non-object) can never be attained, the subject seeks to replace it with actual, substantial objects, which serve to fulfil a temporary fantasy of wholeness.(9)
Finally Janan addresses the relationship between Woman and epistemology. For Lacan the 'feminine' is an attitude towards knowledge rather than a biological category, a position hors-sens, outside clear epistomological, 'masculine' certainty, which subjects of either gender can assume at will. But as the anatomically female Other, Woman is also the guarantor of Man's identity, who, according to patriarchal myth, makes up conceptual wholeness for him, in the crude Imaginary confusion of penis with phallus.(10) And since, as negative Non-man, Woman is found to be lacking (because her desire is an enigma which exceeds signification in the Symbolic), this attempt to find unity in difference is doomed to failure, and thus to repetition - Woman is in fact a 'symptom' of man's fragmentary nature.(11) To this failure Lacan attributes the antagonism between the sexes. Woman is blamed for this lack of compatibility, this sexual nonrelation with man: thus she is perceived as either too bad for him (misogyny) or too good (idolatry). Yet this so-called 'hole in the Other', where erotic pleasure fails, is also the site of a bizarre, feminine jouissance, a mania of divine possession, an ecstatic, irrational drive 'beyond the pleasure principle' into the dissolution of self in pain and death.(12)
What implications does this 'mass of critical theory' (p. 9) have for Janan's interpretation of the Catullan corpus? Mainly, she is concerned that her reader should adopt certain shifts in perspective. Firstly, there should be a shift away from regarding Catullus as a unitary person / persona to recognising him as a radically divided subject capable of presenting both 'feminine' and 'masculine' knowledge in his hermeneutic suspicion of the contemporary patriarchal discourse. Secondly, Janan advocates a shift away from examining wholeness in the text to analysing its basic discontinuity, since the very essence of desire is to disrupt order, both in the subject's consciousness and in his narrative. Thirdly, Janan proposes a move away from the attempt to construct a single narrative order to reading the Lesbia-affair, (as a progressive decline from love at the 'beginning' of the affair to hate at its 'end') to the acceptance of multiple, even contradictory, readings of the text, whereby Lesbia is simultaneously and continually portrayed as both Whore and Goddess, representative to Catullus (still after all a male of his time) of the unattainable female Object of desire.
Since Janan believes that there is no definite plot sequence, she urges recombinatory (re)reading, so that each reader can find a subject and an order for his / her own reading. Far from arrogant in her approach, Janan does not reject previous critical readings of Catullus - indeed, she embraces them as 'unifying icons' (p. 43) vital to a plausible construction of semantic and temporal sequence, while at the same time stressing their essentially provisional nature.
In Chapter 2, entitled 'Poems One Through Eleven: A Fragmentary History of the Affair', Janan applies her methodology thus outlined to some of the first Lesbia poems in the corpus. Here she uses Todorov's narrative tropes of metaphor and metonymy as analogous to the Freudian functions of condensation and displacement, in order to show how the text simultaneously invites and frustrates the desire of the reader to make unified 'wholes' (metaphor / condensation) out of fragmentary and conflicting data (metonymy / displacement). The jokes and the irony (as fictive controls over desire) and the gender variations (such as the Atalanta-simile in poem 2 and the flower-simile in poem 11), at once conceal and reveal the ruptures in the fiction of a unified Catullus.
After briefly discussing poem 1 as programmatic in its Callimachean construction and transgression of aesthetic boundaries, Janan moves to an examination of poems 2-11 as a narrative laid out in a linear progression through stages of desire, from incipient interest through disappointment to revulsion. She provides a detailed analysis of poems 2 and 3, where a female passer is mockingly equated with the phallus (pure signifier of desire) and the binary opposition dolor / iocari illustrates the circular movement of desire (both in love and in poetry), which inevitably and repetitively returns to the impossibility of its own fulfilment. Janan then proceeds to show how the kiss-poems 5 and 7 display, in their proliferation of numbers, a fearful recognition of death (another Real) as the only way to achieve the number one, number of the Absolute Subject, a number possible only when all desire has been removed. Finally, she analyses poem 11 in terms of its portrayal of the rapacious 'masculine' desire for conquest, both in the imperialist greed of Caesar and in the sexual greed of the adulterous Lesbia, both of whom are deluded by the Imaginary equation penis-phallus.
In Chapter 3, entitled 'Poems Eleven and Fifty-one: Repetition and Jouissance', Janan reads these significant and connected poems (putative end and beginning of the affair) as two 'suspended moments in time' (p. 78), expressive of the repetitive oscillation between the two extremes of Man's conjectures of Woman (Whore / Goddess), a circularity that results from the continual failure to achieve unity between the sexes. Janan also points out the undeniable effect of feminine jouissance in poem 51, when Lesbia, in communion with the gods, is perceived as a mystified Other who defies the phallic certainty of the observer, Catullus. Jouissance, 'that terrifying, tantalizing possibility of self-annihilation in the Other' (p. 67) opens a gap in the text before the end of the poem (where Catullus reverts to the safe enclave of male knowledge), and this troubles a 'logical' reading of the poem, breaking the endless repetition Man / Woman, and threatening with dissolution the boundary between Subject and Object.
In Chapter 4, called 'The Epigrams: "I am Lying"', Janan analyses the epigrams concerning Lesbia in a combination of the reading strategies of the two previous chapters. Here metaphor returns as Lacanian capitonnage, as the divided subject, the 'agent-of- knowing', Catullus, makes vain repeated attempts to pin down the 'truth' of Lesbia's statements (she who is the 'object-of-knowing') in order that he may thereby construct his own identity. But the paradox 'I am lying' (as explicitly treated by Catullus in poems 70, 83, 85 and 92) reminds us that language divides the speaking subject from the subject of the speech, while the desire to know the enigmatic desire of Woman is bound to end in frustration.
When his desperate conjectures about Lesbia's desire fail to satisfy, Catullus lays the blame for the failure on Woman's 'lies' (see for example poem 75). He assumes Lesbia's desire to be limitless, while using the language of politics (with signifiers such as foedus and amicitia) to interpret and escape from his defeat (as in poems 76 and 109). Janan feels that the reader of the Catullan text faces the same problems as that of Catullus himself, who is the 'reader' of Lesbia-as-text: the desire for interpretative closure is always frustrated by the elusive nature of the Real.
In the fifth Chapter, 'The Carmina Maiora: Hercules and the Engineering of Desire', Janan applies all the preceding reading patterns to that section of the Catullan corpus where recombinatory reading is not strictly speaking required, since here the received text dictates the order of reading. In this context, Janan examines the role of fantasy as a means of (fictively) exceeding the limits imposed on desire by the Symbolic, without the loss of subjectivity that inevitably follows.
First, she aligns Attis in poem 63 with the Catullus of poems 11 and 51, a subject who displays a similarly disturbed gender and the 'jouissance-like disintegration of self in approaching what is divine' (p. 105). Then the disastrous union between mortal Peleus and goddess Thetis of poem 64 is shown to parallel that of Catullus and Lesbia. Finally, Janan makes an extensive rereading of poem 68 (viewed from both unitarian and separatist perspectives) as the poet's most determined effort to use mythology (the story of Laodamia's love for Protesilaus) in order to reconstruct from memory a self- satisfying narrative of his love and loss of Lesbia, that is, to replace the human object with poetry in the endless 'circuit of desire'.
With poem 68, Janan demonstrates most cogently how the poetic imagination is fuelled by desire: the conflicting portraits of the faithful / faithless Lesbia can never be reconciled, or desire and the subject would both be erased, and along with them the need for writing (and reading) poetry. But Janan also shows how, on the plane of fantasy, this poem simultaneously realises the impossible dream of difference abolished without the obliteration of self: in the linked central similes, the figure of the cross-dressing semi-divine Hercules is Catullus' image of a god-like subject who does not depend on an object to construct his 'wholeness'. This is Catullus' brief culminating vision of creative and sexual autonomy, a subject 'super-male and feminine'. (13)
Janan ends her book on this firm note of sustained contradiction between masculine certainty (as the knowledge of irresoluble difference) and feminine jouissance (the fatal dream of a unified subjectivity). She insists that just like the desire of Catullus himself, the reader's desire, by evading satisfaction, invites repetition, so that the final message of Catullus' text - and Janan's own - is 'keep reading' (p. 142).
This is not a book for new readers of Catullus. Janan's selective, recombinatory approach is best appreciated by those who have grappled before with the difficulties of interpreting Catullus, and who have some prior knowledge of the critical tradition attached to poems such as poem 68.(14) In addition, the relatively complex theoretical framework which Janan employs might keep her book off the undergraduate reading list. But for seasoned re-readers of Catullus, this book is a 'must': it provides an excellent example of the judicious use of contemporary literary theory applied to classical literature. Theory should illuminate a text and not obscure it: with theoretical tools fashioned out of psychoanalysis, narratology and postmodernism, Janan has built on the best of traditional and modern Catullan scholarship to produce an original interpretation that is both provocative and persuasive, a pleasure to (re)read.
(1) Amy Richlin, 'Hijacking the Palladion', Helios 17 (1990) 175-185, at 176.
(2) A. L. Wheeler, Catullus and the Traditions of Ancient Poetry (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1934) represents the orthodox view that the present collection is the work of a posthumous editor, while more recent scholarship tends to favour a theory of Catullan editorship, as for instance that found in the works of T. P. Wiseman, Catullan Questions (Leicester 1969) and Catullus and his World (Cambridge 1985). Either view can be substantiated with cogent arguments based on both internal and external evidence.
(3) Ludwig Schwabe, Quaestiones Catulli (Giessen 1862) initiated the standard historical-biographical treatment of Catullus, based on the identification of Lesbia with Clodia Metelli. The major commentators of the nineteenth century (A. Baehrens 1885, B. Schmidt 1887, R. Ellis 1889) accepted Schwabe's reconstruction of the affair, and although E. A. Havelock, The Lyric Genius of Catullus (Oxford 1939) challenged many of his assumptions, commentators of the second half of the twentieth century (Fordyce 1961, Quinn 1970) still adhere basically to this approach.
(4) I do find it rather distracting that the feminist Janan persists in using feminine personal pronouns and adjectives when discussing the 'subject' - even when that subject is Catullus!
(5) E. Benveniste, 'Relationships of Person in the Verb' in Problems in General Linguistics (Coral Gables 1971) 195-204, and 'The Nature of Pronouns' in ibid. 217-222.
(6) The concept of the 'phallus' is a refinement of Freudian theory that many feminists do not, of course, find satisfactory, since the use of the phallus as primary signifier, even as a notional zero, inevitably involves a subordination of female sexuality.
(7) Lacan illustrates this with Freud's famous story, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in J. Strachey (ed.), S. Freud: Collected Works (London 1953-75) 14-15, of the fort / da ('gone' / 'there') game played with a wooden reel by his infant grandson, Ernst, who was apparently creating a narrative of his own subjectification in and by language, when he threw away the toy, then uttered the cry da! upon having it returned to him. Janan uses the terms fort / da thoughout her work to refer to this oscillation between loss and gain of the desired object.
(8) Lacan calls this process of trying to construct wholeness capitonnage ('quilting'), because the subject, under pressure from the Unary Signifier, tries to 'button down' his / her desire in a legible whole, using 'charged' signifiers called points de capiton ('upholstery buttons'). This process is analogous to and includes connecting and punctuating words to make sentences. Janan uses Lacan's terminology throughout her book, when referring to this process of pinning desire onto various objects. Cf. Alan Sheridan (ed.), Lacan: Écrits: A Selection (New York 1977) 154.
(9) These are objects autres in Lacanian terms -- once again a term to bear in mind when reading Janan.
(10) In this respect, Janan concurs with a Foucauldian classicist such as David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York 1990), who insists that gender positions in ancient Greece and Rome should be seen in terms of the roles of penetrator and penetrated rather than those of the anatomically male and female.
(11) Freud's question 'Was will das Weib?' alludes to the failure of the phallus to signify Woman's desire. Cf. S. Freud, 'Analysis Terminable and Interminable' in J. Strachey (ed.), S. Freud: Collected Works (London 1953-75) Vol. 23, 250-3.
(12) This is Lacan's pun on the French word, with its dual senses of 'enjoyment' and 'orgasm'. Cf. Sheridan above  315-324.
(13) Janan takes this epithet from the title of Nicole Loraux essay 'Herakles: The Super-male and the Feminine', in D. Halperin, John J. Winkler and Froma Zeitlin (edd.) Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1990) 21-52.
(14) Naturally, Janan believes that her 'poetics of desire' is a methodology that can be applied with equal efficacy to the rest of the Catullan corpus.