Catullus 51 and the Erotics of Absence

Catullus at Lesbia’s, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865)
Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnes
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
     <vocis in ore;>

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
     lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbes.
He seems like unto a god to me— dare I say it,
he seems even to surpass the gods,
sitting near and seeing, 
and knowing sweetly

you laughing, and o poor man I
it tears all that is sense from me:
for I see you, Lesbia, and nothing beside remains—
<all speech dead & buried.>

My tongue stills, & light sweet fire
races below my skin, & my ears— they ring
with selfsame sound, as twin flames
extinguished by night.

(Lack, Catullus, is dreadful for you:
you sense its pleasure, and you wear it oftener
than you ought.
Lack, o Catullus, lack has ruined before you great kings
& cities of the blessed.)

Catullus 51 was one of the first actual Latin texts I ever translated. For almost two years before that, we’d learned the fundamentals of the language using the modern Latin written for the Cambridge series of course materials. There I was, fifteen and deeply annoying about pretty much everything, talking over everyone else in my seventh period Latin 2 course while my poor patient angel of a teacher walked us through the basic grammar of this queer specimen, so unlike the straightforwardly-written adventures of Quintus, Salvius, Grumio, and the rest of the Cambridge Latin cast.

Five years and almost a full classics degree later, I still adore this poem. Catullus was my very first Latin love, and my first introduction to Roman poetry— the topic on which I’m now writing my thesis— as a genre. I struggle to articulate precisely why: love poetry as a whole has never quite captured my attention for its content or its form; as much as I adored Dante and Petrarch in high school, it was less for their depictions of actual sentiment and more for the extraordinary ways they wrote about desire. Beatrice and Laura, they’re not real women, and they’re not supposed to be: they’re forces of nature, embodied concepts (God’s love, beauty, truth, philosophy), and the authors’ concern is not the woman but the desire for her: that glorious lack, the negative space between lover and beloved.

So I suppose then that it’s not so much a mystery, because in many ways Catullus 51 is an expression of something very similar. Lesbia, like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, is a negative image. She appears only in her absence, the shape of a woman outlined by the poem: and Catullus is interested not in attaining her but in interrogating the lack of her, the space where she is not. Like the courtly beloveds of our aforementioned medieval models, Lesbia never talks back, never acknowledges the presence of the poet, never deigns even to look away from the man who is like a god.

Plato says, in the Symposium, that one cannot desire what one already has. I can desire to keep my love, but that keeping is not and cannot ever be in my possession: there’s a futurity to it, an inherent uncertainty. Desire requires absence, requires lack, requires a space between the desirer and the desired.

To Catullus, this lack is unbearable to the point of deathliness. The poet is literally sick with love: feverish, blinded, lacking his voice, lacking his sense. I love the sheer tactility of this poem, its sensory constellation of seeing/hearing/feeling/sensing that appears over and over again, glinting at the occasional surface like a silvery fish in the sun. Without sense there is no speech, and without speech Catullus-the-poet is left catastrophically adrift, set loose on an ocean of want without even the tools to make sense of his predicament.

Unbearable, unendurable, untenable: and yet over and over again Catullus returns to this unnameable love, to Lesbia whose real name has been lost to the depths of history. The negative space of desire becomes itself desirable, identidem, again and again, a bitter-sweet recursion of infinite lack.

I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that Catullus 51 is a near-direct translation of Sappho 31, a poem by (standard caveat about homosexual desire in the ancient world and its lack, ha, of intelligibility via modern terms) a lesbian about another woman with whom she was in love. My dear friend Kit, a brilliant scholar of classical reception slightly senior to myself, is currently in the wilds of their B.A. thesis about queer desire and erotic lack in Victorian literature, and I think that their notion of queer absence is both useful in general terms and especially relevant here. We queers, we’re familiar with loving in ways that necessitate a space between us and our beloved: the object of our desires is frequently simply incapable of loving us in the manner we love them. Even when, through some happy trick of fate, we find a reciprocity for our peculiarities— there is still & always the manner of the world we live in to contend with, which is none too fond of our sorts of love. Tribadist that I am, I can’t count the number of times I’ve traced the negative shape of some woman or another on the ceiling of my bedroom while I try to fall asleep at night, knowing that the image of her unwittingly tearing my senses and my sense from me is as much as I can ever hope for.

There is so much more to say about this poem: Catullus possesses such an extraordinary quality of intense brevity that has astonished me since I was that insufferable fifteen-year-old in seventh period Latin. Catullus writes poems like gunshots, enormous and momentary, dashed-off and infinitely turbulent beneath an artfully disaffected surface. I think often of Anne Carson on Catullus and Twombly:

He studied and imitated the Greek lyric poets, transformed Greek meters for Latin phonetics, and translated texts of Sappho and Callimachus into fresh Roman masterpieces. But his main energy was rebellious. The staid surface of Roman poetry bored him. He broke that apart. Conventional pieties made him impatient. He defaced them. His poetic style juxtaposes crudeness on the level of graffiti (in poems of invective) with psychic autopsy as delicate as Sappho’s (in poems of love). He changed the diction of lyric verse, admitting words like lotum (“piss”) and defututa (“fucked to bits”). He changed the whole velocity of the poetic task of telling it like it is, whatever it is—he speeded up the surface. He died at thirty.

I’m sure I’ll find myself circling back around to Catullus 51 at some point or another, but for now I’ll leave you with the work of another friend: Ella Standage, who a few years ago translated the poem thirty-one different times (!), each one more beautiful and thought-provoking than the next. My translation pales in comparison to any one of theirs; I’d like to think it a credit to my humility that I should direct my reader to their work nonetheless! (Though that does somewhat undermine the point of humility, I’ll admit.)


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