April 15, 2004

It begins...

So, for a while now I've been seeking an outlet to vent my rampaging egomania, register my disgust and rage at all those things that don't really matter to anyone, exercise my critical faculties, and fulfil a long-standing ambition to be a boorish old fool with too much time on his hands. This seems like the perfect solution; and at the end of a hard day's work I can sit back with a satisfied smirk on my face, safe in the knowledge that no-one is likely to read anything I've written. And all this in complete anonymity!

For my first entry, I've decided to write a barely-informed rant on a subject that is very close to my heart: boredom. What prompts this is a comment I read in the journal of the eminent fearful_syzygy by the esteemed blog_meridian. According to b_m, Patricia Mayer Spacks has written a book in which she claims "that boredom is a distinctly modern phenomenon, at least in the West". Without having read or even seen the book in question (it's on the list), I'd like to take issue with the author's overall thesis, her choice of examples and her conclusions (and if there's time, I'll also undertake to write a detailed critique the author's writing style, as well as the book's pagination, page-breaks and typefaces).

Having set up this straw man, I shall now attempt to burn it to the ground like some quixotic Lord Summerisle (and if Edward Woodward happens to be inside it quoting Bible verses, so much the better). I suppose she’s talking about the c19 Romantic ‘ennui’ rather than the general concept of boredom, which certainly exists in Classical literature--either in terms of ‘otium’ (having nothing to do) or in terms of ‘taedium’ or ‘fastidium’ (being fed up and disgusted with life, usually because of overindulgence). In fact, one of the most famous short poems by any Roman author turns on the theme of boredom. Catullus 51:
Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est
Otio exultas nimiumque gestis
Otium et reges prius et beatas
Perdidit urbes

Boredom, Catullus, is a nuisance to you
When bored you jump about and fidget too much
Boredom has ruined kings and great cities
in the past.
Perhaps I’m being a little disingenuous here in translating ‘otium’ as ‘boredom’ (since it is usually translated as 'leisure', and is a concept that also carries the positive connotations of Epicurean/Stoic ataraxia), but in the context of the poem (and indeed of the point I'm trying to make) it seems to fit. Why on earth did Catullus choose to append this superfluous stanza to his translation of the famous - we assume - Sappho poem Fainetai moi khnos isos qeoisin? Where Yeats (I think it was) speaks of young men quoting Catullus at their girlfriends in order to seduce them, we can be sure that these budding Casanovas had Poem 51 in their repertoire, and that they held off quoting the final stanza. At any rate, they probably weren't quoting poem 16: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo ('I'll bugger and fuck you'), even in Latin.

So what's the point? Well, in all the interpretations I've read of this hyper-famous poem, I've never come across one that highlights the literariness of what the poet is doing here. Perhaps this is because Catullus is the poet of [scare quotes]personal expression[/scare quotes] par excellence. When Catullus writes of pain, of joy, of love and loss, we know that it is because he really felt it, and we feel it too. So it was and so it ever will be. But isn't it significant that C's description of the symptoms of love must have been as much of a cliché in the 1st century BC as it is now? After all, the poet is conscious enough of the Anxiety of Influence that he translates/imitates a Greek canonical text rather than being "original" (the threatening presence of the Father, however, takes on a distinctly female form here). Of course, the question of originality didn't bother the Romans much, and it was even less of a concern to the glut of Neo-Catullan imitators, servorum pecus, that flourished in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, ('nevertheless' being the giveaway word that flags the weaknesses in any argument; see also: 'albeit') I'm sure that the enigmatic final stanza relates to this question of cliché: 'I'm bored as hell with love, and I'm even more bored with poetry'. What do we have here? --Divinity of the beloved? --Check. --Speechless? --Uh-huh. --Fire burning in my heart? --You got it. --Blindness? --Who said that? --Ringing in the ears? --Sorry, didn't quite catch that; and so on, and so on.

So C 51 is a mind-numbingly conventional treatment of the only subject that really matters to poetry? There's nothing else to write about love, and a fortiori, there is no more poetry to be written? Did literature really run out of things to say before it even got started? I doubt it. And I'm not willing to go so far as to say that from this point onwards, all literature was really about other literature. Cervantes rears his (far from ugly) head. But there's something else to be understood here, and it's nothing so facile as 'self-referentiality' or 'transgression of conventions'. I believe that this poem pre-figures the emergence of the 'subjective love elegy' in the generation after Catullus: Propertius, Tibullus, and of course Ovid. But Ovid's a subject for another blog entry, and one that I might be able to write once I've finished my thesis.


Since the comments for the original version of this post have been lost, I feel duty-bound to point out that my translation of the first line of Catullus 16 was inaccurate. The verb 'irrumare' does not mean 'fuck', but more specifically 'mouth-fuck', which is to say, 'to force somebody to give you a blow-job'. Further discussion of this can easily be found if you look in the right places. Happy googling!

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