Vulgarity and Poetic Optimism in Catullus

What follows is an essay in which I express opinions that I believe to have belonged to Catullus (84 – 54 BC) or Roman society, but certainly not myself.  Please read discerningly and appreciate this distinction.  I consider Catullus’ sexual humour to be entirely inappropriate, but it is necessary to address the matter from a scholarly perspective in order to see beyond it and ultimately recognise what is lovely and good about Catullus’ poetry.  There is plenty to object to, but the more difficult task is making something of good report out of it all, which is the very essence of what I mean by ‘poetic optimism’.  The essay follows:

No argument need be made to demonstrate that Catullus’ poetry is, on the whole, extraordinarily sensuous, erotic, and even, at times, pornographic.  The most obvious attestation of this point may be Catullus 16 from the Carmina, the first two lines of which stand among the most salacious and infamous vulgarities in all of extant Latin poetry.  But even in this most obscene poem, this disgrace and abomination to mankind, even here is found something of the poetic optimism that is the essential ideal of every pursuer of beauty; that is, the ability to transcend the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceive of them as they ought to be.  The height of Catullus’ ‘poetic optimism’ may be found, as I will argue in this essay, in Catullus 64, but to understand it, we must contextualize the lofty epyllion with his more earthy works and explore how its commonalities with the latter can function as a kind of metatheatrical rupture, making the quixotically crafted aesthetic more powerful and more real by linking it to the mundane.

Catullus 16 seems particularly relevant to this discussion because it affords us insight into the poet’s understanding of his own use of vulgarity.  Such insight can be gained from his adagial distinction between the poet and his poetry: nam castum esse decet pium poetam / ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est, / qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem, “For it is becoming of a godly poet to be pure himself, [but] it is in no way necessary with respect to his verses, which then, in short, hold salt and charm” (Catull. 16.5-7).  Catullus says that poetry ought to hold salem ac leporem.  Here used substantively, the adjective, sal carries a sense of ‘freshness’ or ‘wit’ and leporus of ‘pleasantries’ or ‘attractiveness’.  Elsewhere in the poem, he describes his verses as molliculi, a little bit ‘effeminate’ or ‘mild’, and in Catullus 1 he describes them as lepidus, ‘charming’, ‘effeminate’, or ‘pleasant looking’ (Catull. 16.4, Catull. 1.1).  Catullus tends to use all of these terms almost interchangeably to describe his poetry; hence, there is a sense in which, for Catullus, charm, wittiness, a lack of gravity, and effeminate attractiveness are all inseparable qualities and together play an essential role in good poetry.

Perhaps the last of these qualities, effeminate attractiveness, is the ultimate link to the voluptuousness and vulgarity of his poetry.  If such is the case, the frivolous manner in which Catullus makes sexual references can be accounted for not only by the inseparability of this quality from ‘mildness’ and ‘pleasantry’, but also by the way the quality is described: rather than feminine attractiveness, Catullus’ word choices imply effeminate attractiveness, meaning that there is a sense in which the sexuality is to be feigned—it is, metaphorically, to be the product of a man playing the role of a woman.  And this reversal of gender roles was, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, a source of much comedy and amusement (as clearly evidenced by the Greek comedy, Lysistrata).  Thus, the uncensored sexuality in Catullus is meant to be taken lightly; it is to be charming and even bordering on humorous.

On the other hand, Catullus says that the poet ought to be castus and piusCastus may mean ‘virtuous’ or ‘chaste’ and pius may mean ‘dutiful’, by which translations, a connotation simply of morality and temperateness might be achieved, or we might even create the more specific notion of a poet who strives well to fulfil the high calling of art itself—he is both dutiful to and virtuous in the performance of his craft.  But it is also valuable to note that both of these words may hold religious connotations; castus may mean ‘pious’ and pius may mean ‘godly’.  So the Roman ideals of both virtue and godliness are relevant.  But the differences must be appreciated between these ancient Roman ideals and their modern descendants.  Today, in the christianised west, virtue includes chastity, and chastity means abstinence in all contexts outside of marriage (although, arguably, the definitiveness of this matter may be in the process of waning).  But in ancient Rome, even the gods themselves were unfaithful, and extramarital sex was sometimes a part of religious ritual in the form of sacred prostitution.  So the qualities that Catullus demands of a poet do not necessarily exclude the possibility of what we would consider sexual impurity.

Instead, what Catullus demands of a poet is better characterised as restraint and self-control.  Catullus writes, [Aurelius et Furius] me ex versiculis meis putastis, / quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum, “[Aurelius and Furius], on account of my verses, which are a little effeminate, you think me insufficiently shamefaced” (Catull. 16.3-4).  In ancient Rome, men possessed an abundance of sexual freedom.  It was socially acceptable for a man to sleep with whomever he pleased, so long as such affairs remained private; however, the moment they became public, it was considered shameful.  Catullus’ poetry displays such sexuality as was to be kept private, and this is why he is accused of being ‘insufficiently shamefaced’.  So his response is, as we have already elaborated, that a poet, in real life, must possess the restraint society demands, but such demands do not apply to poetry itself.  Art, for Catullus as for much of the western world, is to be the honest expression of humanity, uncensored by societal standards and limitations.  This is one of the principles (and perhaps the most pure of the many possible motivations) behind nudity in art.

Both this perspective of nudity and the light humour of sexuality in Catullus are relevant to Catullus’ description of Ariadne in Catullus 64: magnis curarum fluctuat undis, / … non contecta levi velatum pectus amictu, / non tereti strophio lactentis victa papillas, / … omnia … ipsius … fluctus salis alludebant, “[Ariadne] undulates with and is distressed by great waves of concern, not covered with the light cloak that [formerly] covered her breast, her breasts of milk-white not bound by her smooth breastband, the waves of the sea played with all of these things” (Catull 64.62-67).  Initially, this description seems to be an instance of Catullus’ light and humorous sexuality.  Instead of mare, ‘sea’, he uses the word sal, ‘salt’, which by metonymy means ‘sea’.  But notice the metatheatre: sal is also one of his choice words for ‘wit’.  Hence, poetic wit is alludit, ‘playing’, with Ariadne’s leves, ‘light’, garments.  So in this sense, Catullus is clearly being unserious and, at least to his own mind, humorous.  The sexuality is supposed to be effeminate, charming, and inconsequential, a mere pleasantry.

But the sea also symbolises Ariadne’s curae, her cares, worries, and concerns.  Catullus goes on to write: sed neque tum mitrae neque tum fluitantis amictus / illa vicem curans toto ex te pectore, Theseu, / toto animo, tota pendebat perdita mente, “But she, caring about the situation neither then of the headdress nor then of the floating cloak, with all her heart, all her spirit, all her lost mind, she hung upon you, Theseus” (Catull. 64.68-70).  Here the use of the verbal form of cura makes clear that the aforementioned curarum undis were waves of care for Theseus (metaphorically linked to the waves of the sea).  It also becomes clear, in this further elaboration, that a double meaning is implied by the word pectus, which I previously rendered as ‘breast’; here it makes more sense as ‘heart’.  So the image in the previous quotation (lines 62 through 67) can also be reinterpreted: the wave’s of Ariadne’s love for Theseus are playing with those garments with which she hides her heart, leaving her shamefully exposed.  She has been overcome by love and passion, Venus has externavit (Catull. 64.71), driven her out of her mind, and as a consequence, she has been left as a bare expression of what it means to love and to be human, bound no more by societal demands than by her breastband.

This alternative interpretation reflects more of the poetic gravity that would be expected to accompany the lofty epic style of Catullus 64, but the lighter interpretation is also important.  It’s as if Catullus is mocking his own severity.  Humour, triviality, and stylistic rupture serve as a kind of light cloak to mollify (make mollis) the potency of the bare humanity, making it less shameful, and more socially acceptable.  People may have had difficulty relating to the high ideals of Catullus’ epic style, so he bridges the gap between them and something very mundane and commonplace in Rome: lust.  Catullus’ vulgarity is something vulgaris, ‘ordinary’, to which the vulgus, the ‘common people’, could relate.  But it is the nature of his poetic optimism to not leave it at that.  Instead, in his poetry, Catullus transcends the mere acceptance of things as they are and conceives of them as they ought to be—he transforms mere lust and vulgarity into something better, something human.  Perhaps the fact that this action took place even in ancient Rome, a society in which sexual liberality was praised as an essential part of piety, attests to the existence of a universal moral consciousness in the human mind, a conscientia, or ‘common knowledge’, that transcends all cultural barriers, so that even Catullus knew there to be nothing lovely or of good report about lust and salaciousness, and as an artist, thirsted to create something better.

On Humanity and Recursion

Having discussed the essentiality of rhetoric to humanity, I now wish to further generalise and universalise the claim.

Notice that existence is the foundation of perspective.  We might define a person’s perspective as “the way in which that person exists”.  In other words, a person has all sorts of attitudes that make up his perspective, but these attitudes can be understood as qualitative descriptions of his existence—he exists in a way such that he favours existence over nonexistence.

It follow then, that underlying this principle of rhetoric, which is the foundation of humanity, is the principle of recursion.  Rhetoric is the power to observe the perspective from which observation takes place—to observe one’s own existence.  Likewise, morality is the power to act in observation of the perspective from which action is taking place, and love is the power to do so on a larger scale.  It is this principle of recursion that gives rise to the concept of a moral agent.  A moral agent is an entity that posses the power to observe its own existence.  For this reason a universalised morality is one in which maxims are formed in observation of all moral agents—being a self-similar construct to a personal morality.  Morality dictates that our actions observe that which observes itself.  In this way, morality is merely the method of creating a self-observant nature.

This relates nicely to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.  In John 14:11, Jesus tells us that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him.  In other words, God is that which contains Himself.  Hitherto, we have seen that reality is made up of self-similar layers, and that these layers define each other and themselves though causality.  Hence, the Primal Cause is that layer which defines itself through causality, and ergo, causes itself.  In metaphysical terms, we might say that God is the Deification of the principle of self-observation, and in so being, is likewise the Deification of morality, reason, and love.

The fact that a rationally sound reality is necessarily self-similar helps us understand the doctrine of Imitatione Christi (trans. in a manner that imitates Christ).  All that follows from the Primal Cause must be similar to it, and must therefore observe all those things which observe themselves, which equates to acting morally, rationally, and lovingly—in short, acting Imitatione Christi.

Humanity and Rhetoric

In his foundational work, The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the power to observe the persuasiveness of which any particular matter admits” (1355b).  In other words, rhetoric is essentially about observation.  It’s about understanding and being aware of the manner in which a particular matter is conveyed for the persuasion of an audience.  Aristotle tells us that this art “belongs to no delimited science” (1354a).  Rhetoric is a facet of all modes of communication and thought, and it may indeed be not merely this but the very most fundamental property of the human mind.  Persuasion is the derivation of a particular perspective, whether such a perspective is being imposed on a third-party or on the self, and human thinking begins with perspective, whether absolute or relative.  A human being is required to have attitudes about things in order to think.  He must find certain things important enough to think about and other things not; he must hold certain methods of deliberation to be more valid than others; and above all, he must hold the facts of reality to be somehow significant—that is, significant in a particular manner and not another.  All these things are the makeup of his perspective.  And rhetoric is the power to observe this very most primitive part of the human mind.

If we understand rhetoric in this way (i.e. we take on this perspective of rhetoric), then we find that rhetoric is the core principle of all matters that are distinctly human.  We may take the field of art as an example.  Art is often understood as being among the most humanising acts in which a person can partake.  And yet, we find that at the centre of all art is a principle of rhetoric.  After all, the purpose of art is to communicate a perspective of reality; art is the power to observe the human attitude of grief over things like death and loss and of joy over things like birth and love.  We might say that art is the celebration of creativity and the mourning of destruction; it is the power to observe a perspective that values being over nonbeing.

And indeed, I do believe this is what makes humanity what it is.  We have been endowed with the power to observe being, that is, to observe our own existence.  Hence, human morality, as we have elsewhere discussed, is the power to act in observance of one’s own existence, and love is the power to do so on a much larger scale.  More on this to come.

A Timeless Shakespeare

After much debating with myself, I have decided to post the following essay (obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this).  I think it will provide a better understanding, for all curious readers, of my references to Dante and other classical things by putting such references in the summarized context of my thoughts about them.  I will yet, as I have promised a friend, post something more specifically on aesthetics.  At first I wasn’t going to post this because I thought it might be too dull (it is an english essay), but then I thought: if one is fascinated with reading a blog about calculus, he mustn’t find anything to be dull.

A Timeless Shakespeare

Examining Shakespeare from the contemporary age begins with identifying the qualities of our age.  Art and philosophy have experienced a dramatic increase in diversity beginning in the early nineteen hundreds, an era commonly defined as the beginning of the postmodern movement.  The postmodern movement was the shift from ideologies such as romanticism and arguably even modernism to ones such as relativism and existentialism.  As a child of the postmodern age, contemporary human philosophy and art no longer rests itself on absolute truth but on relative values and beliefs which are designed arbitrarily for the sake of creating some sort of order to which humanity may answer.  These values and beliefs are not intended to carry any weight on an absolute scale, because absolute truth was rejected long ago, but are there merely to satisfy the natural human longing to believe in something.  This new structure of thought that exists in postmodernism, a reaction to the lack of structure behind modernism, creates an anxiety in humanity.  The creation of arbitrary values and beliefs certainly does fill part of a void in the human heart, but not all of it.  As humans, we not only long to believe in something, but also for that something to be, in some absolute sense, the “right thing.”  And this is how the classical style appeals to the contemporary thinker.

Shakespeare is a great, creative and inventive artist, but there have been many such artists across time; it’s his classicality that has, in a sense, immortalized his mortal words.  Shakespeare’s era is an excellent one for thinkers and artists of today to fall in love with.  He lived in the renaissance: close enough to medieval times to be firmly set on a belief in one absolute God, but also far enough to have an open mind which he may use to explore humanism.  Thus, he speaks the rich, classical language of countless, timeless artists, but does so with a highly accessible take.  One would think that in today’s age Shakespeare would seem too simple, philosophically, but on the contrary, he is regarded as a firm cornerstone to contemporary thought.  Why is that?  The best explanation is simply this: we are wrong.  We were wrong to reject absolute truth and have gotten further and further off course as we created theories to support this fundamental, modern assertion–for it is the mortal pictures of truth that have become immortal to humanity.

No one wants to believe in a single God and Truth, but at the same time, as T.S. Eliot said, “Dante and Shakespeare,” firmly grounded believers in absolute Truth, “divide the modern world between them; there is no third” (Selected Essays 1932).  This paradoxical rejection and adoration of absolutism is best explained as being the result of a much too simple approach to the concept.  Today, Dante looks shallow.  Everyone seems to agree that his portrayal of Hell as a place of physical suffering where “bad people” go when they die is much too simple.  But at the same time, most would much rather read Dante’s Comedy, as it was originally titled, than any of Fredric Niche’s babblings.  It seems the most likely reason for this is that Dante is being taken too much at face value.  Dante never intended his Comedy to be called “Divine.”  He knew that what he was creating was an entirely insufficient model of that which is beyond the reach of human comprehension.  Shakespeare knew this as well.  As he wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth …/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare I.v.187-188).  Yet contemporary humanity seems to have forgotten this fact, and thus when they look at Dante and Shakespeare, they see, what they think to be, an extremely shallow ideology, and yet something deep within them loves it.  This is because they think that art and philosophy are self sufficient.  They no longer look at it as a symbolic representation of truth, but as truth itself, as if the language is the thing which it is describing.

Humanity’s most recent down fall is not in believing in too large of a Truth, though it seems that way, but actually in believing in too small of one.  We rejected absolutism because it seemed too simple, but what we have put in its place, though it is well disguised, is actually much simpler.  It began with thinking that a more abstract vision of Truth is a bigger one, and then finally led to a belief that no vision of Truth is the biggest one of all.  Shakespeare and Dante’s depiction of God, however, is much larger than ours because it is small.  It’s as if by virtue of making their vision of God blatantly small, Shakespeare and other similar artists have rejected the idea that their work can come sufficiently close to the truth, and thus have portrayed God to be infinitely large, as He actually is.  This is the very essence of the classical style.

Thus, the contemporary world can’t help but love the classical style, and the popular world hardly bothers with anything else.  It is the most accessible style because it is the truest and the most popular style because it is the most accessible.  Hence, Shakespeare’s enduring fame is, like that of all other members of his style, grounded in the truth behind the style.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine.  The Tragedy of Hamlet.  New York: Washington

Square, 1992 Print.