Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ellen Oliensis, Freud's Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry. Roman Literature and Its Contexts. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 148. ISBN 9780521609104. $26.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Mariusz Zagórski, University of Warsaw

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Since psychoanalysis was invented by Freud at the beginning of the 20th century, it has always had an organic connection with literature. Freud's literary interests, which led him to apply some motifs, for instance the Oedipus story, to understand the unconscious of his patients, have been successively replaced by the application of psychoanalysis as a method of interpreting literature as psychoanalysis was criticized and lost its role as a method of therapy.

Psychoanalysis as a theory of literature, however, still meets with a strong opposition on the part of scholars who would rather think of criticism as textual analysis, than a cultural, ideological or symbolic interpretation. This is probably because psychoanalysis seems to be concerned with one of the most "untextual" subjects, that is the unconscious. This exactly is the point where Oliensis' book takes up a challenge to create a real cornerstone in the discussion on this topic. In the Introduction we can find a passage, where Oliensis asks the fundamental question: whose unconscious should we think about when considering literature? When Roman Ingarden published his ontological theory of literary works, discussing the nature of the literary fictional world, he suggested, that the world of literary fiction is created by sentences which he called "quasi judgements" as they are applied to a "quasi reality"1. The idea of the literary unconscious proposed by Oliensis, which is nothing more than "textual unconscious", seems to be based on a similar assumption. It is neither the author's nor the character's nor even a cultural unconscious we should take into consideration, but the unconscious of the text, whatever that means (and the answer to this is given in this book). Oliensis deals here with three main topics of psychoanalysis, mourning, motherhood and sexual difference, and presents two examples of each in each of the three main chapters of the book.

In Chapter One, Oliensis discusses two examples of mourning poets: Orpheus and Catullus. She begins with Orpheus and his mourning after the second loss of Eurydice as described in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is probably the best example of what the textual unconscious might be, because the story of Orpheus is here analysed in the light of stories told by him. Oliensis discusses the idea of E.W. Leach, that the story of Pygmalion is a kind of self projection by Orpheus. But as Oliensis brilliantly shows, all the stories told here by Orpheus are actually a projection of his emotions as a poet in mourning including a projection of blaming Eurydice for her own death.The second example is the mourning of Catullus after his brother's death. Starting with Cat. 65 Oliensis shows the presence of the guilt problem (as with Orpheus) and then turns to Cat. 68b to explore the unconscious that possibly "might be heard speaking in or through the wayward textual surface" (p. 33). Developing the reading of Michaela Janan, Oliensis demonstrates how the complex and self mirroring structure of this poem might be decoded in search of "the dirty discourse of gossip bubbling up through the energetically espoused discourse of praise" (p. 40). This chapter showsthat the textual unconscious can be also intertextual. Searching for relations within the book of Catullus, Oliensis suggeststhat the textual unconscious of 68b is somehow produced by the interplay of love and hate expressed by Catullan odi et amo and that the specific design of Cat. 68b is in some sense complementary to the mannerism of 64. Finally she discusses the question of memory as a crucial aspect of mourning. In this context, sexual pleasures seem to be the way of forgetting but effectively also the cause of death, because for the mourner, "forgetting is murder" (p. 49). It is quite a convincing idea and all the refined intertextual readings indicated here give us a really profound understanding of what kind of emotions Catullus' poetry can hide. It should, however, be noticed, that Oliensis tends perhaps to overestimate connections between single poems of the Catullan corpus, especially between 68a and 68b, which is tempting but controversial.2

In Chapter Two Oliensis deals with the subject of the Oedipus complex and motherhood in general, here also discussing two examples, this time from Virgil and Ovid. Firstly, Oliensis takes into consideration the scene of Venus' encounter with Aeneas brilliantly showing how strongly this scene seems to be powered by the mother's desire imposed by intertextual connections with Euripides' Hippolytus or the Bacchae, but also by the internal analogy of Venus with Dido, who seems to be a maternal figure as well. Scholars had arrived at similar readings before but they suggested that she must have been a middle aged woman.3 However, Oliensis' attempt seems to be the first complex exploration of the erotic dimension of the scene between Aeneas and his mother. Perhaps it would be worth adding that Virgil obviously plays here with Venus' age. She is the goddess of youth and beauty but at the same time she is grandmother of Ascanius, i.e. a middle-aged woman, and perhaps therefore she changes her appearance to seem much younger and more attractive. Oliensis discusses also the accusation of cruelty which Aeneas makes against Venus in 1, 407-8, combining it with the scene from the fifth book, where, like Maenads, the Trojan women are mourning Anchises, a scene which according to Oliensis resembles the Bacchae of Euripides.4 Finally she compares Aeneas and Venus to Aristaeus and his mother Cyrene in the fourth book of the Georgics, showing that they are both examples of connection between motherhood and paternity.

The second example in this chapter is Philomela and her severed tongue in the second half of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Oliensis' reading of this passage is a purely psychoanalytic one. She suggests that Philomela's tongue should be understood as an aborted child and that its severing is a kind of female castration consisting of the deprivation of motherhood. Finally, Oliensis suggests that Philomela's severed tongue is also an allegory of Cicero's eloquence mutilated by Octavian. But it is hard to imagine that Ovid with his rather indifferent attitude to politics could really construct such a refined allegorical image, which would be at the same time so difficult to uncover (especially without any systematic knowledge of psychoanalysis). Even if not an Augustan poet, Ovid was even less of a republican,5 which makes this passage probably the least convincing in the entire book and shows that there is a thin line between the unconscious and the improbable, which should not be crossed.

In Chapter Three, Oliensis discusses the subject of "phallic variations" giving firstly an extensive and well detailed introduction to the subtile distinction between Freudian penis and Lacanian phallus. After that, as in two previous chapters, we have two examples of phallic desires and figurations represented significativelly by two female characters. First of them is Scylla, whose desire for Minos is in fact a desire for her father Nisus, which consequently means a desire for her father's phallus symbolised by his lock. Oliensis compares the tale with the phallic symbolism of the story of Iphis at the end of the ninth book of Metamorphoses. The second example is Ariadne as delineated in Catullus 64. Oliensis stresses here two expressions used by Catullus in his long poems. The first it is relicta sine viro at 63, 6, as a symbol of castration, the second ipsius ante pedes at 64, 67 as a "notorious fetish" and "phallic stand-in".

Finally in the Afterword, Oliensis is concerned with Freud himself and the possible reasons which led him to choose Virgil's Aeneid 7.312 (flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo) as an epigraph to the first edition of his The interpretation of Dreams suggesting that for both Virgil and Freud there is some aggression required by civilisation, and that Freud read Virgil, Sophocles and other Greek and Latin authors in a way they could not take into account; for both, ancient poetry and Freud's texts, have their textual unconscious.

Finally, last but not least, I would like to mention a passage, that strikes me as uncharacteristically inconsistent. At the end of her Introduction, Oliensis returns to the famous discussion about the Catullan passer and unguentum Veneris and their potential obscene meanings. She gives the answer of her own, which seems to be surprising in the context of the whole book: "if forced to choose, I will choose the non-obscene, literal interpretation". I think the whole book shows that there it is neither the obscene nor the literal, but rather the symbolic (in some psychoanalytic sense) interpretation which can be chosen. If the idea of the textual unconscious is right (and I am sure it is), the passer can be nothing else but, if not a Freudian penis, at least a Lacanian phallus (as Oliensis admits also herself later, on page 123). This is one of the passages where Oliensis seems to be not forceful enough in stating her convictions, but a good reason for this kind of timidity could be perhaps the still controversial status of psychoanalysis as a method of literary criticism.

In spite of Oliensis' declaration that this book is her own idiosyncratic contribution, it is actually much more than that. Oliensis gives us a deep insight into psychoanalysis as a method of reading ancient poetry discussing carefully chosen, not obvious but characteristic, passages. Familiar with Freudian as well as Lacanian versions of psychoanalysis, this book shows also full respect to the text. Summarising, this book should be taken into consideration by every scholar looking for new ways of reading Latin poetry. Because of its very carefully chosen examples and very refined and convincing analysis, it will be without doubt a work as important as Alessandro Barchiesi's Speaking Volumes and Stephen Hinds Allusion and Intertext for intertextuality or Don Fowler's essays for deconstruction. Anyway, I think that this slim volume (only 148 pages) has the chance to be a work of considerable impact on modern scholarship in classics.

Table of Contents

Introduction: psychoanalysis and Latin poetry, p.1;

1. Two poets mourning, p. 14;

2. Murdering mothers, p.57;

3. Variations on a phallic theme, p. 92;

Afterword: Freud's Rome, p. 127.


1.   R. Indarden, Das literarische Kunstwerk, Halle (Saale) 1931, p. 167 nn.
2.   See e.g. D.F.S. Thomson, Catullus, Toronto 1997, p. 472.
3.   See W.W. Briggs, Virgil and the Hellenistic Epic, ANRW 31.2 (1981), p. 961, against it W. Clausen, Virgil's Aeneid and the Tradition of Hellenistic Poetry, Berkeley 1987, p. 106-7.
4.   For Bacchic aspects of the Aeneid see V. Panoussi, Greek Tragedy in Vergil's "Aeneid": Ritual, Empire and Intertext, Cambridge 2009.
5.   The question of Augustan propaganda in Ovid's poetry seems to be more complicated in the Fasti, see e.g. A. Barchiesi, The Poet and the Prince, Berkeley 1997 or D. Feeney, Caesar's Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History, Berkeley 2007, but in the Metamorphoses Ovid – at least in my opinion – seems to be concerned more with the cultural and aesthetic than the political aspect of Augustan programme. I think that for Ovid as a poet it was the question of taste rather, than of political engagement, that provoked him to create a kind of parody of Augustus and his propaganda. I have proposed such reading in my doctoral thesis summarized in "Eos" 92 (2005), p. 265-269.

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