Ovid’s Feminine Exiles in Amores, Heroides, and Tristia
The distinctions between art and life, and fiction and truth, have never been clear in the world of the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17).1 An elegiac poet obsessed with writing fictions and pretensions, Ovid’s truths and realities are enacted as situational and fictional. Not only is the Ovidian poet-lover’s mistress Corinna declared to be a sheer fiction (falso, Am. 3.12.43), but the Ovidian praeceptor amoris (“teacher of love”) claims that pretension through verbal construction will bring true love: saepe tamen vere coepit simulator amare; / saepe, quod incipiens finxerat esse, fuit, “Often, he who feigns begins to love in reality; / often he becomes what he has started by pretending to be” (AA 1.615-616).2 This article uses this Ovidian lens of fictional reality to look at Ovid’s self-presentation as an “abject exile” in Amores, Heroides, and Tristia. I would like to investigate the proleptic (predictive) feature of Ovid’s art that distinguishes him from other Roman love elegists. I will show how Ovid’s earlier art of erotics predicts and shapes his later political and artful tristia. His abject poeta-amator (poet-lover), fictional puella (mistress), and abandoned heroines foretell and metaphorize his later “political exile” by Augustus (r. 43 B.C.-A.D. 14) in 8 A.D. In every sense, Ovid is the most painful embodiment of his own art—he becomes what he started by pretending to be—an abject exile.
Throughout Ovid’s elegiac career, the notion of “exile” keeps being reconfigured in his constructions of female figures. Critics have observed parallels in language, stance, and rhetorical self-representation between the Ovidian figures of the poet-lover, the abandoned epistle writer, and the exilic pleader (Thibault 1964; Nagle 1980; Evans 1983; Williams 1994; Casali 1997; Rosenmeyer 1997; Radulescu 2002). However, the notion of “exile” hitherto has been investigated solely through Ovid’s writings after his political exile. Adopting a proleptic viewpoint, this article begins with Ovid’s earlier elegiac works (Amores and Heroides), explores the various forms of exiles encoded in his amatory poetic figures, and examines how these earlier exilic paradigms dominate his exilic discourse in Tristia after his exile to Tomis.
In Amores, Heroides, and Tristia, Ovid employs different configurations of feminine exiles to convey his conceptions of signification, gender, and authorship. In these three works, female figures are constructed in response to the rhetorical needs of an abject, powerless writing subject, seeking to establish moral and writing authorities. The abject subject empowers himself/herself by working through his/her contention with an absent beautiful figure, which may be male or female. In the various interplays between the abject and the beautiful, Ovid explores different tactics to aggrandize his poetic presence, aimed at foregrounding the paradoxical absence of his authorial self and his problematic positionality within the imperial gender and power hierarchies.
These tactics all share a common rhetorical grammar that associates the ideas of void and exile with the feminine while paradoxically granting powers to the feminine positions. At the core of this grammar lies a desire to construct male subjectivity through a feminine void. The figure of woman then functions as a rhetorical signifier of negation and voiding, namely, a “NOT-something” (nothingness, the unrepresentable, the untruth, undecidability, inaccessibility, inter alias). Seemingly evacuated and passive, the feminine void nevertheless regulates and enables the effectiveness of male subjectivities. The positive power of the Ovidian female figures indicates that in the study of woman in antiquity, uncovering “written women” (Wyke 1987, 1989, and 2002) or “woman as a construct” (Sharrock 1991) is not enough. What attracts the male writer is not only the passivity of woman as a written object but also her outcast positionality. The Ovidian outcast positions are constructed with a moral superiority which makes them powerful agents to problematize the authoritative power and gender system, and thereby create an alternative politics of signification that affirms the uncertainty of meaning, gender, authorship, and power.
Through his feminine exiles, Ovid creates a rhetoric of negation to dissimulate his intellectual dissidence. This rhetoric of negation defines what is by describing what is not. In that way it asserts a rhetorical position of aporia (in-betweenness or uncertainty). The result is a politics of self-empowerment that claims power through powerlessness, asserts poetic presence through absence, defines masculinity through femininity, effeminacy or other gender possibilities, and reasserts authorship through authorial dispossession. To put it in another way, OVID defines his elegiac postures and constructs his aggrandized poetic presence paradoxically through a VOID, an inversion of his own name.3 In this article, this VOID is going to emerge while we look at how OVID sends himself into exile in the space of the feminine void that he creates in Amores, Heroides, and Tristia.
Ovid’s Aggrandized Poetic Presence
But what constitutes Ovid’s attachment to aggrandizing his authorial presence? In Roman love elegy, the desire for poetic visibility and the search for self-positioning of the problematic writing subject are intertwined with the Roman young elite elegist’s identity crisis under the Augustan regime and with the invention of Latin literature as a way to sustain the elite culture. In what follows I would like to examine the power relation between Augustus and the imperial elite, especially the equestrian order into which love elegists like Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid were born. After that I will situate the rise of love elegy under the larger literary innovation in Roman literature.
Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, who ended the century-long civil wars and the regime of the Roman Republic, signified by the Battle of Actium he fought in 31 B.C. The establishment of the Augustan Principate in 27 B.C. marked a new political epoch. However, Augustus drew his authority as the Princeps from an honored republican tradition (Lacey 1996). Straddling the old and the new, Augustus in fact faced a double-edged, if not contradictory, mission. As Conte (1994: 251) succinctly puts it, Augustus “on the one hand aims to restore certain republican traditions and on the other hand, far more concretely, lays the basis of the principate, the stable control of the res publica by a single man.” The word Augustus chose to describe his role in the imperial regime of the Principate—princeps (the chief man of the state)—was itself a cunning paradox. It served as a delicate circumlocution to dissimulate his desire for monarchical rule.
To consolidate his new powers, Augustus also constructed a figurative culture out of the republican tradition as new forms of authority. He portrayed himself as the incarnation of the mores maiorum (tradition or ancestral ways) and transformed traditional communal duties of the subject into service to himself as the emperor. Moreover, he reorganized the city-space of Rome by building temples and sculptures dedicated to a selective group of gods and goddesses in the interests of the empire and created rites for those deities (Zanker 1988; Eder 1990). These gestures dissimulated his self-deification as the mandate of heaven (Pollini 1990).
Augustus’ appropriation of tradition was also shown in the recruitment of antiquarians into his imperial court and his self-presentation as an imperator literati (literary emperor), who wished to be viewed not only as a patron of literature but also as a scholar/poet. Wallace-Hadrill (1997: 12) observes a shift in the control of knowledge from the nobiles (nobility or men with ancestors), the traditional social leaders, to antiquarians (academic experts) in the late Republic and early Augustan regime. The traditional function of the nobility was to know, imitate, and transmit the mores maiorum. However, the nobility’s corrupted perfunctoriness gradually yielded its exclusive authority over the tradition to the rising antiquarianism. In the early Augustan regime, it was the antiquarian who through laborious studies of obscure ancient texts and erudite academic training transmitted the Roman tradition. Augustus’ alignment with antiquarians in effect aimed at appropriating their moral and writing authority to legitimate his imperial sovereignty.
Besides, in his revival of the imperial cult, Augustus constructed himself as “a moral paragon of the empire” (Zanker 1988). He attributed to the imperial court the role of moral exemplar, to inspire emulation from below. As Edwards (1993) observes, Augustus’ construction of a superior moral regime was based, on the one hand, on a politics of immorality which created a picture of the moral bankruptcy of the late Republican ruling class and, on the other hand, on the restoration of a tradition lost by that constructed moral bankruptcy. Augustus’ moral superiority was thus predicated on the rhetoric of negation and loss, which, as I shall show, was remarkably similar to Ovid’s elegiac grammar.
Furthermore, after 19 B.C., no one from outside the emperor’s own family was permitted to celebrate a triumph or ovation, no matter whether he campaigned as a deputy or under his own auspices (White 1993: 81). As traditionally valued honors such as triumphs and military acclamations were reserved exclusively for the emperor and his family, and as the emperor monopolized all signifiers of virtus (manliness), men below him became relatively feminized. Besides, the early imperial society suffered from a pervasive crisis of values, largely due to the growth of individualism as a result of the Roman conquests. The imperial enhancement of individual self-esteem and public hierarchical image (dignitas) came into conflict with the traditional notion of virtus, which demanded “an unquestioned self-sacrificing service to the state (civitas)” and “a sacred obligation, the display of piety (pietas)” (Rudich 1993: xviii). These prevalent crises of masculinity among the political elite were accompanied with a positional crisis due to the centralized imperial administrative system.
The Roman imperial administrative apparatus was established on patron-client relations. Prior to Augustus, the Roman society was governed by a group of patrician-plebian elites, topped by the senate and consuls. The relation between the upper bureaucratic circle and the elite had been governed by personal patron-client relations. Into the Augustan regime, however, as the administrative system developed toward a centralized bureaucracy, the personal patron-client system was subsumed under a larger imperial one. As Saller (1982: 1-78) observes, the rising Roman bureaucratic system did not eliminate or minimize the importance of patronage; instead, the skillful embedding of patronage into the imperial power system in effect consolidated the imperial economic power (because of the full control over taxes) and strengthened the central government’s control of the local elite. Now the emperor was the highest and most powerful patron who distributed benefits/favors (beneficia) according to his particular criteria (Saller 1982; Wallace-Hadrill 1989; Williams 1990; White 1993). For old aristocrats such as members of the senatorial and equestrian orders, their effeminacy was thus exacerbated by the redistribution of power in the patron-client subsystem. As clients, they had to accommodate or even cater to the favors, interests, and moods of their patrons. Their position was paradoxical: they were simultaneously in power and powerless. Consequently, they occupied a subservient position, analogous to the female position in sexual and social power structures (Oliensis 1997).
For equestrians (equites), the positional change was even more dramatic. In the late Republic, they shared the high social standing equal to senators. The equestrian order formed an aristocratic class defined mainly by wealth. As a class, they preferred the pursuit of money and pleasure to political responsibility, and thus formed the “non-political” section of the upper class. However, after the establishment of the Augustan Principate, equestrians were transformed into an intermediate class which provided the officer corps of the Roman army and held a wide range of posts in the civil administration.4 The exclusive plutocracy shared by equestrians and senators must have been threatened by the rise of new magnates who procured abundant wealth from spoils of wars in the imperial expansion abroad. To maintain their social privileges, the equestrians had to comply with political responsibilities demanded by the imperial system. However, this political demand produced a dilemma for the young elite born into the equestrian order. Living in an age when the century-long civil wars had brought enough calamities and sufferings to the Roman people, the young elite’s strong desire for peace and the proclivity to maintain their old “non-political” plutocratic aristocracy contradicted the demands of military and civil services in the building of the empire. The resultant crises of masculinity and social positioning thus called for the construction of new forms of masculinity and moral authority.
Verbal construction provided one possibility. I argue that the elegiac poet-lover’s hyper-masculine performances and declaration of exclusive (though futile) fidelity to his unfaithful mistress were literary pursuits of a “constructive” and thus “performative” masculinity due to the insufficiency of traditional signifiers of manliness for a group of young elite poets with equestrian lineage under the Augustan Principate. The emergence of the elegiac slavery convention, in conjunction with figures of the poet-lover and the mistress-enslaver, was inseparable from the elite’s quest for self-adjustment under the new political system. It evinced a new organization of desires and articulated a new conceptualization of male subjectivity. Through the ethical meditation provoked by a problematic elegiac female figure, a new distance between subject and object was created. The new poetic female figure thus could be seen as male elite poets’ response to the social and cultural changes after the rise of an imperial regime.
Women, traditionally associated with love, desire, and pleasure, provided a ready vehicle for ethical meditations. The exploitation of stereotypical women as loci for reflecting upon pleasure and desire was not a phenomenon peculiar only to the field of poetry. Philosophers, satirists, and historians also showed similar interests. As Wyke (1989: 40) points out, after Rome’s rise to empire had brought with it significant social and cultural changes, there began a proliferation of moral discourses associating female sexual misconduct with social and political disorder; and by the first century B.C. childlessness, procreation, marriage, and adultery were appearing regularly as subjects for social concerns in the texts of writers such as Cicero, Sallust, Horace, and Livy. Women in these moral discourses were bipolarized into chaste and depraved stereotypes. I argue that the elegiac construction of a depraved-mistress stereotype invoked a pretext for the poet-lover to articulate negative social values that he rejected. It also worked to dissimulate the male imperial elite’s struggle for redefining masculinity and moral authority.
But why did the imperial elite need circumlocutory pretexts to express themselves? As Augustus enjoyed supremacy in everything, men below him were haunted by mental anguish and discordant tensions between the old and the new regimes. This conflict must have helped nourish the culture of dissimulatio (dissimulation) prevalent among the Roman elite. Dissimulation, as Rudich (1993: xxii) comments, is the “concealment of one’s true feelings by a display of feigned sentiments, the Latin word that most accurately describes the mental effects of the dissident predicament.” The manipulation of dissimulation produced a “rhetoricized mentality,” which betrayed an intellectual resistance to the imperial dictatorship (Ahl 1984; Rudich 1997: 1-16). A conspicuous practice of dissimulation rhetoric was found in the popular elegiac convention of recusationes, poems written to reject the writing of an epic by declaring the poet’s inability to deal with martial themes. This practice was a double-edged poetic performance shaped within the power relation between the emperor and the imperial elite. Analogous to recusationes, elegiac female figures and Ovidian discourses on love (amor) and sorrows (tristia) all participated, I contend, in fostering this mentality of dissimulation.
As White observes (1993: 111), “From the very beginning of the principate, the outlook of literary men on their audience was transformed by their consciousness of the emperor’s presence.” I would like to argue further that Augustan poets, to some extent, all wrote under the shadow of Augustus’ self-representation. Simply put, Augustus’ establishment of new forms of political authority led to the production of new forms of writing authority and masculinity in Roman love elegy. Similar to Augustus’ self-positioning in the tradition as a configuration of his political authority, Roman elegiac poets wrote with an abiding pre-occupation with the poet’s place in poetry and in the poetic tradition. Ross (1975: 4) traces this poetic occupation to the neoterics (poetae novi, or New Poets from Catullus down to the Augustan poets), who no longer saw themselves as translators or imitators, but as new individual voices within an established succession.
Similar to Augustus’ alignment of his moral and political authorities with antiquarianism, Augustan love elegists represented themselves as docti poetae (“learned poets”) and constructed their mistresses as puellae doctae (“learned girls”) (Habinek 1998: 122-36; James 2003). This was evidenced by the common excessive erudite exhibition of the elegist’s knowledge about mythology and tradition. This textual self-display bespeaks a secret pleasure of auto-eroticism and also insidiously panders to the reader’s (the emperor’s) pleasure. Similar to Augustus’ tactic of dissimulation in his self-construction as a princeps, the elegiac poet-lover transposed his identity crises to the representations of a problematic mistress and a tortured love relation.
Roman love elegy thus could be seen as a form of literary innovation generated out of the imperial elite’s efforts to sustain their power. Like elegist’s indebtedness to the neoterics, the rise of love elegy was connected with the larger construction of Romanness and a new sense of literariness based on the invention of literary Latin and the canonization of certain Latin texts as Roman classics. Habinek (1998: 35) observes that the invention of Latin literature starting from the late-third and early-second centuries B.C. arose from the elite’s response to “two contemporaneous yet countervailing developments in Roman society: the transformation of Rome from a city-state to a traditional aristocratic empire and the crisis of identity provoked in Rome’s rulers by that very transformation.” He argues that the invention of Latin literature provided the elite a much-needed vehicle for mutual communication among themselves. The artificiality of the new literary language also guaranteed its inaccessibility; that is to say, the particular language and style marked the social distinction of a moral and economic community reserved exclusively for those who could understand or use them (44). Thus literary invention could provide an effective means for a particular social group to preserve power and social status. As Nelis (1996: 679) observes, neoteric verse was characterized by the exploration of new genres—the miniature poetic forms such as epyllion, elegy, and epigram—as substitutes for large-scale epic and drama, by the cult of erudition shown in the wealth of mythological and poetic allusions, and most important of all, by the emergence of a subjective and personal way of writing. The elegiac desire for poetic visibility and the authorial anxiety over nameless death could be seen as love elegy’s competition with traditional epic-heroic fame.
Although the use of literature to sustain elite culture had already started in Republican Rome, the degree of appropriation would only increase in the imperial period, when the government became even more centralized and the power distribution became even more hierarchized. I argue that, in the early Augustan period, the rise of love elegy was a literary compensation for the social vacuum occupied by a group of elite poets who refused to endorse the prolongation of warfare provoked by Roman politics. The so-called “period of great fear” (44-31 B.C.), between the death of Caesar and Augustus’ defeat of Anthony in Actium, concurred with fervent poetic investments in idyllic and elegiac conventions (Conte 1994: 249-51). These included, among others, Vergil’s Eclogues (42-39 B.C.) and Georgics (29 B.C.), Horace’s Epodes (41-30 B.C.) and Odes (30-23 B.C.), Tibullus’ Corpus Tibullianum (32-26 B.C.), and Propertius’ Monobiblos (28 B.C.). To this line of equestrian poets, I would like to add C. Cornelius Gallus (d. 26? B.C.). Gallus was said to have written in elegiac meters a lost book called Amores of which only two lines are now extant. He was referred to by Augustan poets as a poet-lover and as the link between the neoteric poets and Augustan poets. Our major information about Gallus is contained in Vergil’s Eclogues VI and X, in which he was depicted as a lyric poet suffering from his unrequited love for a girl called Lycoris and submitting himself to the power of Love.
By the time of Ovid, whose Amores first appeared in 20 B.C., the elegiac couplet, with all its codified conventions, had become an alternative mode of existence, deliberately deviating from the traditional values such as pietas and dignitas. It was a remarkable fact that the elegiac poets all came from traditional equestrian families. As the equestrians’ exclusive social privileges had been largely restricted under the Augustan Principate, their participation in the literary tradition indicated an attempt to procure alternative power resources. While looking to maintain their manly prowess and social standing, Roman love elegists challenged the “state-sanctioned manhood” in the traditional equestrian service. This conflict provided a cogent explanation for the elegiac transposition of martial warfare and triumph to the amatory couch.
Emerging during the early Roman Empire, love elegy demonstrates an unprecedented wholesale devotion to amatory themes (Copley 1947; Luck 1959; Lyne 1980 and 1979; Conte 1994: 249-61; Hinds 1996: 518-19). It is within this non-epic tradition that Ovid positions himself in line of succession from “Gallus, Tibullus, and Propertius” (Tr. 4.10.51-54) and also recognizes the indebtedness of love elegy to Catullus (Am. 3.9.60-63). Resonating with its neoteric heritage, the marginalization of Roman love elegy as a feminized genre accused of immorality deliberately contrasts with the masculine, lofty genres of epic and drama and thus calls attention to a mode of writing that signifies an alienated position in the imperial power periphery. Ovid and his predecessors all play the servile, faithful role of the poet-lover, enslaved by a wanton and disloyal mistress, and excuse themselves from public service in the martial enterprise. Their erotic engagement no doubt constructs a discourse of dissidence within the Augustan building of empire. Besides, the domesticated poet-lover also inverts the traditional gender role for men. In Rome, the dominant sexual ideology operated within the dominance-submission frame of male-female power relations (Foucault 1985 and 1986; Skinner 1997: 129-50). The effeminate, powerless, and immoral poet-lover incarnates the imperial elite’s crises of masculinity and identity.
Framing my study within this larger trajectory, I envision Ovid as an intellectual dissident, displaced and alienated, under Augustan imperial dictatorship. Through his poetic female figures, Ovid speaks his intellectual dissonance, while at the same time augmenting his poetic presence in the elegiac tradition that he aligns himself with. Through the patterns of unrequited love and futile loyalism, Ovid creates an oxymoronic pleasure of pathos and suffering. The seemingly endless laments, weeping, and plaints all point to aggrandizing the victimized moral writing subject, paradoxically a triumphant figure capable of enduring pathos and unjust sufferings. Behind the elegiac weeping and lamenting, there is an insidious smile of triumph.
Poet-Lover’s Exile in Signification:
Negating and Voiding the Figure of the Mistress-Enslaver
From Catullus’ Lesbia, Gallus’ Lycoris, Tibullus’ Delia and Nemesis, and Propertius’ Cynthia to Ovid’s Corinna, the representation of the beautiful mistress in Roman love elegy is characterized by a rhetorical paradox: the concurrent beautification and uglification of the same mistress. As a rule, the description of the mistress’s beauty is governed by exemplarity and negation. The rhetoric of exemplarity piles up stock phraseology and draws upon ancient exempla of female beauty to represent the poet’s mistress, while the rhetoric of negation constructs the mistress’ beauty as a space of the inexhaustible that constantly frustrates the poet’s representational conquest. These double rhetorical investments defamiliarize the mistress as a narrative space of the void and negativity.
The Catullan poet-lover allegorizes his polymetrics written about Lesbia as nugae (“trifles, nonsense,” or “useless things,” poem 1). Not only does he defamiliarize and negate Lesbia’s beauty by “what she is not,” (nec, poem 43), but he also imbeds negative social values into the character of Lesbia (poems 72, 76, 87, 109). The Propertian poet-lover on the one hand employs a rhetoric of negation and exemplarity to describe his enslavement to his girl Cynthia’s beauty (3.3) and on the other hand, equates Cynthia with nihilo (nothingness)” (2.1.15-16; 2.3.4). The Tibullan lover’s elegiac mistress (Delia or Nemesis) embodies herself as a “literal void” since the reader can only find scattered phrases concerning the mistress’ beauty and appearance (1.1.67-68; 1.5.43-46). Further identified with the mercenary culture and urban sophistication from which the poet-lover strives to detach himself, the Tibullan mistress becomes a problematic signifier, inscribed with negative social mores that undercut the romantic ideals woven by the poet-lover.
These paradoxical investments in the mistress’ beauty and immorality all come back to augment the abject writing subject as a displaced, yet powerful, poetic subject. This mode of writing constructs a contradictory feminine beautiful figure in order to fashion a looming, evading, masculine abject subject. The silence, absence, and unfaithfulness of the elegiac mistress become the poet-lover’s rhetorical strategies to empower his writing authority. In Roman love elegy, it is the Ovidian Corinna that uncovers this infrapolitics as the narrative function of the elegiac woman. In the Amores, Corinna is claimed as nothing but a fiction: mea debuerat falso laudata videri / femina, “you ought to have taken my praises for Corinna as fiction” (3.12.43-44). Although Corinna’s precursors are conspicuous fictive poetic figures, their poet-lovers do not make the Ovidian open claim. Consequently, literary criticism of those elegiac mistresses is often clouded by an autobiographical hue, seeking to associate them with certain historical women in the poets’ “real lives” (Luck 1959; Lyne 1980; Wyke 1987).
The Roman elegiac love kingdom is conspicuously constructed as a world of self-contained fiction. It is a world of fiction fraught with incongruities and contradictions. For a male elite living in the Roman society during the first century B.C. when men’s extra-marital sex is not illegal (Lyne 1980: 1-18; Habinek 1997: 23-43), it seems untenable to build and very easy to break the semiotic games in the elegiac love relation—the eternal fidelity, subservience, and suffering of the male lover, in contrast to the fickleness, wantonness, and the necessarily irresistible “physical” beauty of the mistress. The elegiac world is thus born with an incommensurable distance from reality while constantly recalling that reality. It is what Veyne (1988: 2) calls “an aesthetics of dissymmetry”—“a form of poetry that claims to refer to reality only to open a barely perceptible crack between itself and that reality; a fiction that, instead of being coherent with itself and thus competing with civility, denies itself.” This critical distance between reality and fiction hinders any serious autobiographical reading of poetry and excludes the mimetic search of a “true” erotic relation outside the textual world.
The Ovidian poet-lover’s announcement of Corinna as a fiction is a significant proclamation of this critical distance. It ungrounds the moral integrity and sincere pathos of the Catullan, Gallan, Tibullan, and Propertian poet-lovers. Thus the Ovidian poet-lover emerges as the very deconstructive force that undoes the self-contained elegiac world. He can be said to have transformed the love elegy into a poetic form of negation, which not only negates the writing of epic and the figure of the mistress, but also negates itself. The elegiac world becomes a self-undoing world. Ovid’s innovation lies in bringing to the fore this self-undoing process and making it a legitimate part of the elegiac erotic grammar. He turns the antithetic recusatio, employed by the Hellenistic Callimachus and his Roman contemporaries (Virgil, Propertius, Tibullus, and Horace), into a new kind of self-negating recusatio.
In Roman love elegy, the relation between the mistress and the construction of male desire has been explored by Gold (1993) and Greene (1998) and in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner’s co-edited Roman Sexualities (1997). In light of these studies, I would like, in my current investigation, to emphasize the rhetoric of negation and voiding in constructing the mistress as a circum-locus for addressing male identity politics. Specifically, I show how the Ovidian poet-lover creates his defamed and fictive Corinna as an evacuated, unstable signifier with a locus of the void circumscribed at its center. His distancing of the mistress in narrative creates a “feminine exile in signification.” This particular sense of exile marks the limits of social mores and representation. It also allegorizes a politics of signification in which the signifier is cast into exile in the semantic field and thereby produces new meanings in different contexts. Seen in this vein, Corinna functions as a circumlocution of the poet-lover’s positional void, namely, the elite elegist’s feminized elegiac career, accused of being immoral in the imperial gender-power hierarchy. Ovid’s exile in signification through the figure of Corinna is particularly an “aesthetic” one, because it is constructed through the mistress’ beauty.
In the Amores, Corinna’s beauty is portrayed by negation and exemplarity. However, she is not only devoid and mystified, but also “truncated”:
ecce, Corinna venit tunica velata recincta,
candida dividua colla tegente coma,
qualiter in thalamos formosa Semiramis isse
dicitur et multis Lais amata viris.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
ut stetit ante oculos posito velamine nostros,
in toto nusquam corpore menda fuit:
quos umeros, quales vidi tetigique lacertos!
forma papillarum quam fuit apta premi!
quam castigato planus sub pectore venter!
quantum et quale latus! quam iuvenale femur!
singula quid referam? nil non laudabile vidi,
et nudam pressi corpus ad usque meum. (1.5.9-12, 17-24)
Here Corinna comes, draped in a loose tunic,
With divided tresses hanging over her white neck,
Just as the fair Semiramis walking to her bridal chamber,
As it is said, and so Lais passing to her many lovers.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When at last she stood before my eyes, stark naked,
Nowhere on all her body was sign of fault:
What shoulders, what arms did I see and touch!
How apt her belly beneath the faultless bosom!
What a long and beautiful side! What a fair youthful thigh!
Why catalog each charm? Nothing did I see not worthy of praise,
And I clasped her naked body close to mine.
By piling up exempla and negative circumlocutors around Corinna’s body parts, the poet-lover distances and mystifies Corinna’s image (cf. Am. 1.7.11-18). In this representation, Corinna’s neck, body, shoulders, bosom, belly, side, and thigh are all touched upon—everything except her head. I contend that the truncation of Corinna’s image metaphorizes her signifying function—a signifier truncated of its signified. The rhetoric of exemplarity and negation in effect exerts a totalizing effect to evacuate the figure of Corinna. At the discursive level, her inexhaustible beauty signifies the unrepresentable outside the grasp of language. She lacks identity and serves as a blank tablet for male inscription. Hence, she is simultaneously animated and de-animated. In the incessant alternation of evacuation and reinscription, she becomes a signifier inscribed with a void, constantly destabilizing and enabling the semantic field in which she is embedded. Her images are thus fluid and situational: she assumes several stereotypes because she is the figure of her creator’s desires and therefore cannot be confined to only one image. She is organized by the amorous subject as “a ceaselessly unforeseen originality” (Barthes 1978: 34). She lives as an exile in Ovid’s textual empire, as Ovid will live as a political exile in the Augustan Empire.
But this is not all: the Ovidian poet-lover also openly mimics the contradictory function of Corinna as a representational lacuna and sends himself into a similar exile in signification. If Ovid’s precursors evacuate the figure of the elegiac mistress through the rhetoric of exemplarity and negation, he evacuates both Corinna and the poet-lover by exposing the insidious pretension behind the elegiac erotic game. He rewrites the elegiac conventions of servitium amoris (love’s slavery), militia amoris (amatory warfare), and recusatio (generic refusal) with a self-negating rhetoric. For example, in Amores 1.3, the poet-lover’s enslavement to Corinna is undermined by his discursive control over her as “materials” for his poetic inspiration and by his rendering her as dependent upon his eternal fame. In Amores 1.7 and 1.9, the domestication and eroticization of martial warfare, which is avowed to be a better kind of “military career” purified of violence and blood, turns out to reinstate violence and blood in the poet-lover’s hyper-masculine and rape-like sexual encounters with his girls. The poet-lover undermines his own moral authority by showing his complicity in his own erotic despair and the corrupted social values. Debunking his own bathos, the poet-lover calls into question the avowed lofty love and erotic pathos that define the very foundation of this affect-laden genre, love elegy. He also problematizes the simple equation between textual representation and historical reality, and the conventional autobiographical reading of poetry.
Dismantling the discrepancies underlying the elegiac love relation, the Ovidian poet-lover wittily shows how the erotic grammar undoes itself. He represents himself as an evasive figure reinstating Corinna’s contradictory narrative functions. Thus the force of ungrounding and fictionalizing Corinna turns back to unground the poet-lover himself. Both the Ovidian abject writing subject and his beautiful beloved emerge as figures of liminality and textual fissure, dwelling in the ambivalent limbo between historical facts and textual reality. Both become poetic statements of futility and impossibility fraught with contradictions. Above all, these two figures, burdened with allusions to poetic and historical exempla, collaborate to encode the stylistic existence of an imperial male elite subject. They constitute the narrative force of referential aberration at the core of the Ovidian situational ethics. They also help to fashion a poetic of dissimulation—a play of infrapolitics—that Ovid employs to articulate his intellectual dissidence within the Augustan regime.
With the self-reflexive rhetoric of voiding, Ovid designates a new mode of signification, a different kind of reality, as distinct from the logic of mimetic representation (which presumes a pre-existing Truth to be imitated or re-presented) and dialectical thinking (which emphasizes the antagonism and demarcation, instead of imbrication and uncertainty, between oppositional categories). The void inscribed in the figure of the mistress and the poet-lover encapsulates a fundamental vacuum assumed by the poet. As Lanham (1976) points out, “Encoded in these elegiac erotic-aesthetic discourses are a narrative desire for a search for identity and the public display of it” (54). However, the identity unfolds itself as a conflicted, dispositioned subject who negates and defaces himself into the abyss of his circumlocutions. At stake here is the absence of a socio-political role and the aggrandized poetic presence of the writing subject. Ovid’s elegiac postures indeed are both powerful and powerless; they are the literary version of the elite elegist’s double-edged social position in the Augustan gender-power system. In this power transaction, the traditional gender hierarchy (masculine-dominance and feminine-submission) nonetheless remains intact.
Feminine Signature and Exile:
The Construction of Dido and Sappho as Abandoned Epistle Writers
Besides rewriting the elegiac love relation from a critical distance, Ovid also rewrites it with a gender difference and a different kind of writing authority. In Roman love elegy, Ovid’s another innovation is his impersonation of famous abandoned heroines. In the Heroides, Ovid takes up the silenced part of the heroic tradition and weaves out the unspoken inner worlds of the abandoned women. In his portrayals, elaborate descriptions of pathos displace the dynamics of action. Lipking (1988: 3-4) sees this obsession with words instead of actions as a stance against Aristotelian poetics. However, I would like to go beyond his binary oppositional view of words and actions to show that words themselves are actions and they are no less dynamic than actions. Ovid’s abandoned epistle writers tend to be obsessed with their intense sufferings, constantly invoking their absent lovers and their unrequited love. Their pathos and futile fidelity remind us of the male elegiac lover. In this section, I will show how the abandoned woman reenacts the paradigm of male desire constructed in the Amores. But this time, Ovid dons the mask of the heroines and ventriloquizes through their mouths to convey his ideological messages.
Although the heroines seem to write their own sufferings in melodramatic forms, their voices are nevertheless textually mediated. In the name of woman, Ovid shows no interest in breaking the asymmetrical gender-power hierarchy of masculine dominance and feminine submission. Although he creates a tactic of gender transposition to speak through female personae, he still presumes male dominance (as speaking voice) and female submission (as mask). This literary ventriloquism or narrative transvestism does not aim at redistributing narrative authority, but only at manipulating transposed gender positionalities (duBois 1988: 169-83; Harvey 1989; Kahn 1991: 1-56; Lindheim 2003; Spentzou 2003). Ovid’s concern in the Heroides is to rewrite the traditional grand literary tradition from a peripheral position, as we shall see in his impersonations of Dido and Sappho.
On top of her funeral pyre, Dido, abandoned and alone, writes her last letter to her ruthless lover Aeneas before stabbing herself with Aeneas’ sword. On the edge of the Leucadian cliff, Sappho, abandoned and alone, writes her last letter to her absent lover Phaon before making her suicidal leap into the sea. In these two poetic moments, Ovid creates Dido as a feminine reader of the Vergilian Dido and Sappho as his feminine signature. Although Ovid utilizes Dido and Sappho to address a different politics of reading and writing, both female figures reenact the paradigm of male desire constructed in the figure of the poet-lover in the Amores. Dido and Sappho are both infused with a masculine bent. They both feminize and exert discursive control over their absent male lovers. Besides, in adopting the form of epistolary writing, Ovid asserts a new kind of authorship: authorial dispossession, which focuses on the pre-determined death of the author, pre-asserts his afterlife fame, and evacuates the moment of writing as a moment of what Prins (1999: 175) called “proleptic loss.”
Epistolary writing foregrounds the absence of the addressee at the moment of writing and the absence of the author at the moment of reading. Both the writing subject and the addressee become groundless figures. The epistle’s pre-occupation with absence and proleptic loss at both the moment of writing and reading produces a self-reflexive effect of voiding. It also disrupts the idea of a unitary author and the solidarity of subjectivity. What the reader encounters in Heroides 7 and 15 is a constantly disappearing author, whose constant disappearance paradoxically calls attention to the significance of the author and thus produces an aggrandized authorial presence/absence. In these two Ovidian poetic moments, the rhetorical function of the writing subject (Dido/Sappho/Ovid) is congenial to that of his/her beautiful figure (Aeneas/Phaon/heroines/reader). The politics of reading and writing is interwoven with the erotic relations between the abject and the beautiful, the feminine (writing) and the masculine (reading), and writer and reader. It dissimulates multiple infrastructures of gender, power, and textual contentions.
write with the Trojan’s sword ready in my lap”:
Dido’s Masculine Stylus and Ovid’s Feminine Reading/Writing
In Dido’s epistle to Aeneas (Her. 7), Ovid re-reads and re-writes Vergil’s Dido through poetic impersonation and gender transposition. Critics have observed that Ovid’s impersonation of Dido illustrates his concern with the possibility of gender as linguistic performance (Ginsburg 1989; Desmond 1993). What I intend to show here is that Dido’s gendered presentation of her own desire is modeled on a male paradigm. Consequently, there is a need to reevaluate the exemplarity of Dido as a paradigm of female desire and subject position.
Like the male elegiac poet-lover in the Amores, Dido enacts a poetic presence of her absent addressee—Aeneas. She not only renders Aeneas a dependent of her empire but also feminizes him. She first ridicules Aeneas’ habitual behavior of abandoning women and his lack of self-sufficiency, stating that Aeneas will need another Dido to give him new lands and he is not able to gain them by himself (7.11-18).5 Dido’s view not only blurs the boundary between heroic enterprise and sexual adventure, but also turns Aeneas into a gigolo-like hero, forever depending on women in order to build his empire (Gross 1979). Ovid’s Dido is “masculine” not only in her “virile” virtues but also in her discursive power to depersonalize Aeneas. She objectifies Aeneas as the material/fuel for her affection: aut ego, quae coepi, (neque enim dedignor) amorem, / materiam curae praebeat ille meae, “Or let me who started (and I feel no shame at having done so) supply the love and he be the fuel for my affection” (7.33-34). Like the elegiac poet-lover, Dido is also the catalyst, analyst, and creator of her own desire (Kauffman 1986). Her rhetorical subsuming of Aeneas as the “material” for her affection resembles the poet-lover’s use of his mistress as the materia for his poetry. All she cares is that she loves him; whether Aeneas is responsive to her love or not is not the concern here. Hence, Aeneas assumes the same function as Corinna’s in the Amores—as the “material” for love and writing. Both undergo a similar animation and de-animation.
Furthermore, Dido accuses Aeneas of abandoning Creusa at the Fall of Troy and recognizes that the story Aeneas told at the party should have been a clear warning to her (7.81-86). Writing at a critical distance from her own unfortunate abandonment, Ovid’s Dido critiques Vergil’s Dido as a bad reader, unable to discern such an obvious warning of her own downfall (Desmond 1993: 59-60). Debunking her complicity in her own suffering, the Ovidian Dido reminds us of the Ovidian poet-lover’s self-undoing rhetoric: praeceptis urgeor ipse meis, “I am caught in the snares of my own teaching” (Am. 2.18.20). Moreover, Dido expresses a utilitarian attitude toward Aeneas: her attraction to Aeneas has nothing to do with Aeneas himself, but with his promising “value” as a faithful husband to her (7.107-10). In fact, Dido does not need Aeneas to protect her. She ridicules Aeneas’ martial prowess by showing her independence of him and emphasizing that she is the one who is able to protect him (7.119-22). She even humiliates Aeneas by rendering him useless and a parasite under her empire, though the narrative appears to be an entreaty for Aeneas’ return (7.149-56).
It is obvious that Ovid uses the outcast position of Dido to criticize the problematic epic value “piety.” The feminization of Aeneas’ epical enterprise and the delicate mimicking of the poet-lover’s postures toward Corinna both refer back to the male poet behind the scene of writing. They keep reminding the reader of the absent Ovid. Dido’s final plaint to Aeneas further dramatizes Ovid’s anxiety over authorship. Before stabbing herself with Aeneas’ sword, Dido does not forget to claim her authorship of writing:
adspicias utinam, quae sit scribentis imago!
scribimus, et gremio Troicus ensis adest,
perque genas lacrimae strictum labuntur in ensem,
qui iam pro lacrimis sanguine tinctus erit. (7.183-86)
Could you see the face of her who writes these words!
I write, and the Trojan’s sword is ready in my lap.
Over my cheeks the tears roll and fall upon the drawn steel,
Which soon shall be stained with blood instead of tears.
The image of “writing with a sword in my lap” metaphorizes the gendered writing, since a sword is a common poetic signifier for a penis or male stylus. The insinuation of this looming masculine presence into Dido’s proclamation of authorship subsumes Dido’s feminine writing under the larger Ovidian one. Dido becomes an Ovidian man. At this poetic moment, Ovid’s male voice confounds Dido’s voice, reminding the reader that it is the male stylus that makes Dido speak.
Besides, the feminine trope of weeping and the emphasis on the tear-blotted and blood-smudged letter both foreground the discrepancy between the original blotted letter and the clear text in front of the reader’s eyes. What constitutes the textual discrepancy, as Farrell (1998: 307-08) remarks, is the complex conditions of literary transmission and reception and the shadowy figures of editors, translators, interpreters, and scribes. In light of Farrell’s observation, I would like to argue that the tropes of weeping and tears create the Ovidian authorial presence as an interceptive figure between the heroine and her addressee/reader. His authorial presence/absence is constantly foregrounded by the gap between the original stained text and the current clean text in front of the reader’s eyes. The Ovidian feminine writing embodies itself as the very gap, the complex textual process of interpolations between writer and reader. Instead of claiming an origin, Ovid constructs his authorship as a nonoriginary figure and a paradox of presence and absence. The issue of authorship reappears in Ovid’s construction of another feminine signature—Sappho.
name of these characters’ author is Sappho”:
Ovidian Sappho or Sapphic Ovid
Ovid’s construction of Sappho as an abandoned writing woman betrays an anxiety for authorship. His figure of Sappho highlights his appropriation of femininity for the grounding of his authorship. However, this grounding is paradoxically provided by the “groundless” female figure, Sappho. The simultaneous ungrounding of the poet and his poetic woman raises important questions about authorship and gender. In what follows, I will investigate this ungrounding process through a discussion of the triangular relations among Ovid, Sappho, and Phaon.
At the beginning of Heroides 15, Sappho emerges as Ovid’s pseudo-signature for his “alternate verse” (the hexameter-pentameter elegiac couplet):
Ecquid, ut adspecta est studiosae littera dextrae,
protinus est oculis cognita nostra tuis—
an, nisi legisses auctoris nomina Sapphus,
hoc breve nescires unde movetur opus?
forsitan et quare mea sint alterna requiras
carmina, cum lyricis sim magis apta modis.
flendus amor meus est—elegiae flebile carmen;
non facit ad lacrimas barbitos ulla meas. (15.1-8)
When you saw these characters from my eager right hand,
Did your eyes immediately recognize they were mine—
Or, unless you had read the name of their author, Sappho,
Would you fail to know whence these brief words come?
Perhaps, too, you may ask why my verses alternate,
Since I am better suited to the lyric mode.
I must weep, for my love—and the song of elegy is tearful;
No lyre is suited to my tears.
These opening lines usher in several self-referential messages concerning the questions of authorship and gender. In the first place, the narrative itself expects the reader/addressee to raise the question “Who wrote this letter?” and creates a tension between Sappho and Ovid. The imagining of the absent author in front of the letter-receiver forces the reader to think about the question of authorship. What is special in this enforced situation is the impossibility to come to a fixed answer to the question: Is the author Ovid or Sappho or Ovidian Sappho or Sapphic Ovid? Without doubt, it is not Sappho of Lesbos who wrote these elegiac couplets. This Sappho, strangely enough, does not take the lyre as an appropriate tool for poetic expression and instead writes and praises elegy. She is now an abandoned woman suffering from the crisis of her poetic decline. She has lost all her poetic genius as a lyric poetess because she lost her source of inspiration—Phaon. However, it is neither Ovid who is doing the writing; since the writing subject is self-named “Sappho” (“Sapphus” is the Greek genitive form of Sappho). Instead, it is a limping elegiac poet writing with a mask of Sappho. This authorial ambiguity not only creates gender fluidity, it also constructs a peculiar form of authorship, constantly referring to its absence and proleptic death (DeJean 1989: 70-77; Prins 1999: 178-79). With this self-reflexive rhetoric, the Ovidian signature is “Sapphized” and Sapphic signature is “Ovidized.” Homer’s “tenth muse” is now textually mediated as Ovid’s mask and is no longer an autonomous poetic agent.
But why does Ovid choose Sappho as his feminine signature? We can approach this question from at least five aspects. First, Ovid juxtaposes his tension with the Vergilian epic tradition to Sappho’s contention with Homeric epics. Just as Ovid’s amatory perspective contradicts Vergil’s emphasis on piety and state ideology in the Aeneid, Sappho’s lyric creates a “private, erotic” world in contrast with Homeric public, martial scenarios (Stigers 1981; Winkler 1990; duBois 1991: 11-22; Greene 1994). Ovid adopts a Sapphic pose to reflect on the predicament of Roman love elegists who occupy a marginal (levior) poetic status in the Augustan regime. Second, their poetry is invested with similar subject matters of love and desire. In this epistle, Ovid celebrates his poetic art under Sappho’s self-praise for her poetic genius, her skillful kisses, and her art of love (15.41-50, 127-34). Third, Sappho’s exile provides a fertile metaphorical ground for Ovid to reenact his “exile in signification” established in the Amores. Embedded in the Ovidian politics of signification, the motif of exile also provides an outcast position to address his alienation from the center of political power.
Fourth, Ovid inscribes his anxiety over the poetic afterlife into his construction of Sappho. Ovid presents Sappho as an “impossible” posthumous figure who is about to commit suicide by leaping from the Leucadian cliff into the sea and is writing her own epitaph and afterlife. Notice that the first four lines of this epistle are written in the past tense: Sappho “impossibly” narrates Phaon’s reception of her own suicidal notes after her own death. Hence, the appropriation of Sapphic signature is paradoxically the enunciation of the “death of the author.” In this epistle, Sappho’s final suicidal leap can be said to be an assertion of immortal life based on a pre-determined death/disappearance. The Sappho here is no longer a poetess carrying the “barbitos (lyre)” from Lesbia; she/he is a poet with a “limping elegiac foot” from Rome. As Skinner (1997: 22) remarks, “Into Sappho’s warped sexual longings, consequently, Ovid has inscribed a frustrated desire for authorship, for the stylus no more hers by right than the penis.” Fifth, the gesture of “authorial dispossession” supports Ovid’s refusal to create a unitary, fixed identity. The polyphonic aspect of Sappho, with its origin truncated and eternally suspended in a limbo of life and death, echoes the Ovidian diffuse subject of exile in signification and situational ethics. Ovid inscribes the exile in signification into Sapphic exile and proleptic death.
Sappho thus functions as a medium for Ovid’s poetic transmission, only this medium is at the same time evacuated. The Ovidian Sappho in return constructs a “Sapphic Ovid,” one literary mask of Ovid. However, the price for depending on such a vacant female figure for self-representation is the simultaneous ungrounding of the lyric subject himself. The representation of Sappho inevitably will put “mimetic representation” itself into question because of the fragmentality and hollowness of Sappho as a literary figure. The a priori in the paradigm of mimesis is emptied out. Therefore, the representation of Sappho will always be a construction of a figure with specific cultural/gender inscriptions at certain specific historical moments. The figure of Sappho seduces and exposes ideological and political interests that create her. She becomes a trace and allegory of the Augustan Ovid.
Ovid’s masculinization of Sappho is not confined to the level of authorship. He also transforms the homosexual Sappho into a heterosexual woman pining for a young boy Phaon (Gordon 1997; cf. Horace Ep. 1.19.28). This transformation is best shown in the relation between Sappho and Phaon within the narrative itself. In this epistle, Sappho reproaches her old desire for the daughters of Lesbos as unworthy and shameful and regards her unrequited love for Phaon as true love (15.15-20, 199-202). This erotic turn reminds us of the elegiac poet-lover’s devotion to his fictive, wanton mistress: both discourses are predicated on the rhetoric of absence and futility. Besides, the Ovidian Sappho also feminizes Phaon by speaking from a masculine posture. She describes Phaon’s age as anni quos vir amare potest, “the years which a man is able to love” (15.86). She renders Phaon completely passive: non ut ames oro, verum ut amere sinas, “I do not plead that you should love, but that you let yourself be loved by me” (15.96). This love, similar to the Ovidian Dido’s toward Aeneas and the Ovidian poet-lover’s toward Corinna, is not mutual but dominant. Furthermore, she conducts a lecherous gaze at Phaon and objectifies him as the material of her lyric poetry (15.89-95, 123-34). She repeatedly laments for the loss of her poetic genius, which has gone with Phaon and been eroded away by the grief of her abandonment by him (15.13-14, 195-206). Moreover, abandoning her old Lesbian lovers, she is like a male lover who abandoned other women in the Heroides.
Phaon’s narrative function for Sappho parallels Sappho’s for Ovid: both serve as materials for their creators’ poetry and operate as a rhetorical absence for inscription. Thus both Phaon and Sappho undergo a concurrent animation and de-animation, similar to Corinna’s position in the Amores. Besides, Phaon also occupies our position as the reader of Ovid/Sappho. Given the fact that our reading of this epistle could locate Augustan Ovid only in the lacuna between his poetic persona and the historical authorial self, it is impossible for us to reconstruct a unified, autonomous writing subject called Ovid. The Ovidian mode of authorship and subjectivity is continually haunted by the figure of feminine void and undecidability. The Ovidian poetic “I” is a floating signifier sentenced to eternal splitting between the voiding signified “I” and the fictional “me.” A chain of parallels can be drawn from this shared process of self-displacement:
This chain shows the conflation between subject and object, masculine and feminine, writer and reader, reader and addressee, and the abject and his/her beautiful figure—the Ovidian spectrum of aporia.
In Ovid’s heterosexualization and masculinization of Sappho, the traditional gender demarcation is sustained. The heterosexualization of Sappho implies a rejection of love between women, and the masculinization of Sappho reflects an insistence on the hierarchical paradigm of power relations, that is, masculine domination and feminine submission. As Gordon (1997) observes: “The notion that Sappho’s love for women is shameful . . . becomes full-fledged in first-century B.C.E. Rome, where female homoeroticism is almost univocally considered the worst from of female depravity” (278); and “Mannish Sappho” is a Roman construction, which indicates that woman-woman love cannot be tolerated by the Roman imagination (286). Although the traditional power hierarchy remains intact, the gender of writing and authorship is nevertheless destabilized. Ovidian Sappho or Sapphic Ovid? This will always be a haunting question.
Secret Pleasure of Weeping:
Ovid and/as an Abandoned Wo/man in Tristia
nil nisi flere libet (nothing pleases except weeping)—Tr. 3.2.196
Written after 8 A.D., during his political exile to Tomis by Augustus, Ovid’s Tristia is best known as a work about sorrows and exile. Continuing my exploration of Ovid’s feminine exiles, I would like to show that it is also a work about the art of pathos and the secret pleasure of weeping performed from the powerless feminine abandoned position. In the Tristia, the function of female figures becomes more complex, because here Ovid presents himself as “an abandoned wo/man.” In constructing this abandoned wo/man, Ovid embeds the male and female poetic personae that he creates in his early career into his self-construction as an exiled poet and political outcast. By maneuvering several elegiac figures and tropes from his earlier elegiac works, he pleads against his unfair exile and simultaneously critiques Augustus’ autocracy and fickleness.
These self-referential intertextual allusions include the abject poeta-amator, the abandoned heroines writing epistles for their unrequited love, the elegiac limping foot, the personified book, and the trope of feminine weeping over tear-stained letters. Shifting among these different gender-power positionalities, the Ovidian exilic pleader creates a new sense of dissimulation. Ovid’s amalgamation of his earlier poetic personae stresses the continuity of his dissident position in relation to the grand epic tradition and the Augustan regime, while at the same time it transforms his elegiac erotic themes into a poetics and aesthetics of exilic pathos. Similar to the poet-lover and the abandoned heroines, this protean exilic subject also constructs a mode of subjectivity devoted to situational ethics. He is cast into exile in signification through his self-negating and self-empowering rhetoric.
Ovid’s multiple self-referential performances create a complex poetic figure who occupies contradictory positions and who constantly reminds the reader (and the addressee Augustus) to unveil the buried erotic signatures under the pathetic surface. They also shape a poetic presence which secures its narrative authority paradoxically on the basis of a lost and problematic past, namely, the poet’s unspeakable error and his controversial erotic verses that resulted in his current exilic predicament. Connecting this paradigm of self-aggrandizement with Ovid’s authorial dispossession, I distill a basic grammar which I would call “the Ovidian paradox of authorship”: the construction of the abject poet’s aggrandized presence through constant absence inscribed in the self-referential representation of a devoid, beautiful, yet immoral, figure.
Let’s now unveil Ovid’s erotic signatures draped in the pathetic tunic of exilic sentimentality by examining the figures of the exiled poet in Tristia 2 and the personified book in Tristia 1.1 and 3.1. The reason why I choose to focus on Book 2 is that this book itself forms a separate unit from the other four books in the Tristia. Book 2 is a long poem centered on the poet’s plea against his unfair exile by Augustus. This book is addressed to Augustus as a personal epistle, while other books are composed of several individual poems that do not share a conspicuous homologous theme. To demonstrate the power and gender contentions between Ovid as a victimized imperial exiled poet and Augustus as the omnipotent fickle emperor, I will use Book 2 as the focal point of discussion, and draw relevant passages from 1.1 and 3.1 to support my argument.
The Weeping Poet in Exile
On the seashore of Tomis, Ovid the poet in exile pleads to Augustus against his unfair exile and for his accused obscene writings, reminiscent of the abandoned heroine’s epistolary writing (Rosenmeyer 1997). In Tristia 2, Ovid secures his plea paradoxically on an unspeakable error (blunder) and on the indefinable gap between the moral poet and his obscene work:
perdiderint cum me duo crimina, carmen et error,
alterius facti culpa silenta mihi:
nam non sum tanti, renovem ut tua vulnera, Caesar,
quem nimio plus est indoluisse semel.
altera pars superest, qua turpi carmine factus
arguor obsceni doctor adulterii. (2.207-12)
Although two crimes, a poem and an error, have ruined me,
I must keep silent of my second fault:
My case does not favor me to reopen your wound, Caesar,
It is more than enough that you had been hurt once.
But the first charge stands: that through composing an obscene poem,
I was accused as the teacher of foul adultery.
The unspeakable error that severely offended Caesar and the accused immorality of his erotic verse, presumably his Ars Amatoria, constitute the central moral issues in Tristia 2. Although the error has to be buried in taciturnity, Ovid reiterates it—as culpa (guilt), error (blunder), vulnus (wound), or crimen (crime)—again and again throughout his plea to be the “real” cause of his exile. What is paradoxical about these futile referrals is that the “real” cause is a groundless absence. This unnamable error provides only a hollow name and creates a textual fissure in the narrative. However, it is the constant invocation of this representational lacuna that provides a poetic occasion for the poet to effuse his pathos and discontent with Augustus. The error functions as a poetic space of the void for the poet to weave out his moral image as an abject exile and to construct the volatility and immorality of Augustus.
These sporadic reiterations of the absent error are embedded within the larger discursive investment in problematizing the obscenity of his erotic verses and in proving that it is an unjust cause for the poet’s exile. To plead his case, he insists on the critical distance between the poet and his work:
sic ego delicias et mollia carmina feci,
strinxerit ut nomen fabula nulla meum. (2.349-50)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
crede mihi, distant mores a carmine nostro
(vita verecunda est, Musa iocosa mea)
magnaque pars mendax operum est et ficta meorum:
plus sibi permisit compositore suo.
nec liber indicum est animi, sed honesta voluntas:
plurima mulcendis auribus apta feres. (2.353-58)
It’s true that I’ve written frivolous verses and erotic poems,
But no scandal has ever touched my name.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Have faith in me, my morals differ from my verses
(My life is modest and my Muse is flirtatious)
And the larger part of my work, mendacious and fictive,
Assumes more license than its author has had.
A book is no index of the writer’s mind, but a harmless pleasure:
It will offer many things to delight the ear.
The paradox underlying this distinction between the poet’s moral life style from his lascivious verses is that it is a self-undoing argument. If we are convinced that poetry provides no evidence of the poet’s mind and real-life morals, we will be unable to believe completely in the exilic poet’s avowed loyalty to Augustus and his avowed “morality” for life.
To further support his moral image, the poet argues that the meanings of a text depend on the reader’s intention to find what he/she desires in the text. How many erotic undertones and immoral messages a reader reads from his work are entirely out of his control and none of his business. Consequently, the text should not take moral responsibility for any adulterous affairs inspired by it, especially when he already warned off demure and modest wives from reading his verse at the beginning of the Ars:
este procul, vittae tenues, insigne pudoris,
quaeque tegis medios instita longa pedes!
nil nisi legitimum concessaque furta canemus,
inque meo nullum carmine crimen erit. (2.247-50)
Far from me! You narrow fillet, badge of modesty,
And you who wear long ruffle covering half the feet!
I shall sing of nothing but lawful, of loves which men allow.
There shall be no sin in my song.
Ovid’s concern here is to exempt himself from the responsibility for facilitating adulterous conduct. By “quoting” himself in the manner of a scholarly quotation (lines 247-50 above are directly quoted from Ars 1.31-34), he evidences his own innocence, while simultaneously reasserting his erotic philosophy and aggrandizing his authorial presence. He argues that the Ars is not a book for married women, or even woman in general, since it is about lawful sex and legitimate liaisons from men’s viewpoint (cf. 2.251-58). Claiming the Ars as a gendered text, he skillfully transposes the moral responsibility to the reader. It is the reader’s intention that determines the meaning of the text. After all, the same text has the potential to explode contradictory meanings and effects in different contexts:
posse nocere animis carminis omne genus.
non tamen idcirco crimen liber omnis habebit:
nil prodest, quod non laedere possit idem. (2.264-66)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
sic igitur carmen, recta si mente legatur,
constabit nulli posse nocere meum. (2.275-76)
It is possible for the soul to be harmed by every kind of poem.
Yet no book should be guilty on that account.
Nothing is useful which cannot at the same time be harmful.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So then with verse: if it be read with upright mind,
It will be agreed that it can injure nobody—even though it be mine.
Furthermore, the “obscenity” of the Ars is juxtaposed with the foul-jesting mimes put on stage and the dissipated games that August enjoys at his leisure (2.277-88, 497-516). This contrast insinuates that in real life Augustus is no less frivolous than the accused Ovid is.
To further prove the innocence of his verse, Ovid constructs an erotic poetic tradition, enumerating ancient and modern writers who have devoted their writing to erotic themes and aligns his Ars with this tradition (2.361-496). This erotic tradition constitutes almost one third of the whole Book 2. This massive investment suggests the significance of the poetic tradition and the poet’s place in the tradition in Ovid’s exilic self-construction. In establishing this erotic tradition, Ovid paradoxically performs the politics of reading and the reader’s reception theory that he has just proved to have wrongly injured him. Appropriating these undoing politics, he subsumes his antagonistic discourse to serve his political purposes. He undoes the loftiness and seriousness of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Greek tragedies, and even Vergil’s Aeneid by eroticizing these works with an immoral mind: at tamen ille tuae felix Aeneidos auctor / contulit in Tyrios arma virumque toros, / nec legitur pars ulla magis de corpore toto, / quam non legitimo foedere iunctus amor, “And yet the blessed author of thy Aeneid / Brought his arms and the man to a Tyrian couch, / and no part of the whole work is more read / Than the union of that illicit love” (2.533-36).
This eroticization and delimitation of heroic enterprises reminds us of Dido’s construction of Aeneas as a gigolo-like hero, staking his martial career on women. The alignment of the Aeneid and Augustus’ empire thus ungrounds Augustus’ authority to exile Ovid in the name of writing about illicit love affairs. Besides, the poet also blasphemes the sacred temples of Jupiter, Juno, Pallas, Mars, and Isis by emphasizing the infamous erotic scandals and adulterous affairs related to their myths and compromises the Vestals by mentioning them in the same breath with courtesans (2.289-312). Positioning himself in an eroticized tradition, Ovid successfully constructs a poetic fact: he is not alone in having written tales of tender love, but he alone has been punished for the writing of love: denique composui teneros non solus amores: / composito poenas solus amore dedi, “Moreover, not I alone have written tales of tender love, but for writing of love, I alone have been punished” (2.361-62). In other words, he is nothing but a “scapegoat” of Augustus’ politicization of poetry.
The exilic poet’s moral image is also insidiously constructed by feminizing and vilifying the figure of Augustus. The poet compares Augustus’ wrath with Jupiter’s almighty thunderbolts inflicted on human errors as punishments (2.33-40). In this comparison, Ovid performs the submissive posture of the elegiac poet-lover and depends for his happiness on Augustus’ clemency in appeasing his anger toward the poet, like Jupiter sometimes does toward erring humans. Just as the poet-lover avows his unchanging love to his mistress, Ovid pledges his unswerving loyalty to Augustus:
per mare, per terras, per tertia numina, iuro,
per te praesentem conspicuumque deum,
hunc animum favisse tibi, vir maxime, meque,
qua sola potui, mente fuisse tuum.
optavi, peteres caelestia sidera tarde,
parsque fui turbae parva precantis idem,
et pia tura dedi pro te, cumque omnibus unus
ipse quoque adiuvi publica vota meis. (2.53-60)
By sea, by earth, and by sky, I swear,
By you, our present and manifest god, whom all may see,
That this soul of mine favored thee, mightiest of men, and that,
Wherein alone I could, my soul was your devotee.
I prayed that you mightiest will linger on your path to the stars of heaven,
And I could join my humble prayer with the same prayers of the throng,
I offered loyal incense at your shrine, one with all the others,
I too joined the prayers of the state with my own.
Insinuation of a submissive erotic posture and amatory vows into this political plea seems to empower the figure of Augustus as an almighty god admired by the humble poet. However, the valorization of Augustus is immediately undermined after the erotico-political comparison is done. By asking Augustus to examine his Metamorphoses in which the poet praises Augustus’ feats, Ovid insidiously feminizes Augustus as a dependent on his poetic fame, reminiscent of the poet-lover’s discursive control over his mistress:
non tua carminibus maior fit gloria, nec quo,
ut maior fiat, crescere possit, habet.
fama Iovi superest: tamen hunc sua facta referri
et se materiam carminis esse iuvat,
cumque Gigantei memorantur proelia belli,
credibile est laetum laudibus esse suis. (2.67-72)
Your glory cannot be made mightier by verses,
No means of its enhancement can there be.
Jupiter has more than enough of glory: yet when he has his deeds sung
And himself become the material of song, he is gratified,
And when the battles of his war with the Giants are told,
We can believe that he hears those praises with pride.
Indirectly subsuming Augustus as the “material” of his verse, Ovid exerts discursive control over the figure of Augustus. To further inverse the power hierarchy, Ovid also expropriates Augustus’ leniency as his own by arguing that it is his error that has provided a pretext for Augustus to display his leniency: sed nisi peccassem, quid tu concedere posses? / materiam veniae sors tibi nostra dedit, “But had I not sinned, what leniency were it possible for you to display? / Your material of display is given by my fate” (2.31-32). Although the poet subsumes himself as the materia of Augustus’ self-display, he nevertheless problematizes Augustus’ moral integrity in scapegoating the innocent to augment his moral power.
The inversion of the submissive posture is also shown in the poet’s entreaty to Augustus to transfer him to a better place for exile:
parce, precor, fulmenque tuum, fera tela, reconde,
heu nimium misero cognita tela mihi!
parce, pater patriae, nec nominis inmemor huius
olim placandi spem mihi tolle tui. (2.179-82)
Spare me, I pray, and lay aside your thunderbolt,
Cruel weapon, which is too well known to wretched me!
Spare me, father of our country! Do not, forgetful of this name,
Remove my hope that one day I may appease thee.
Appropriating the “imperative voice” of formulaic prayer language, the poet “literally orders” Augustus to spare him, reverses his submissive position, and exerts discursive control over Augustus. Besides, the poet’s exaggeration of the extreme hostile condition that he suffers from the exile betrays a tendency for self-marginalization. Rhetorically and politically, the poet occupies the very edge of the empire, speaking from a peripheral position in relation to the center of Augustan power.
Besides subsuming and feminizing Augustus’ empire under his textual empire, Ovid’s seemingly panegyric comparison of Augustus to omnipotent Jupiter also vilifies Augustus as a fickle ruler without consistent moral principles. He laments how Augustus was wont to approve his style and tastes without criticism, and how owing to some ugly intrigue and unspeakable “recent events,” his youthful erotic verse was excavated as obscene poetry and expelled from public libraries (2.90-93, 97-102, 539-46). The foregrounding of the huge time lag between the publication and the accusation of his Ars questions Augustus’ moral authority and the fairness of the accusation. Besides, the poet constructs Augustus as a “deceived and blind ruler” who never cares to read the frivolous verses (trifles) he has punished (2.77-88, 213-216). He invites Augustus to read his accused verses and vouches that if the emperor is a good reader with an upright mind, he will find no obscenity in them. By this insidious invitation, Augustus’ moral character is problematized.
Through the figures of error and carmen, Ovid creates a politics of dissimulated writing and double reading. Not only the process of writing conforms to an aesthetics of circumlocution, but the process of reading is also directed to speculate about what is absent. This double investment is also shown in the poet’s instruction for the book about what to say and not to say in Rome: vivere me dices, . . . / atque ita tu tacitus (quaerenti plura legendum) / ne, quae non opus est, forte loquare, cave, “Tell him that I live, . . . / For the rest, keep silent (for he who seek for more must read you) / and be aware not to blab out what you should not say!” (1.1.19-22). However, the poet’s effort to remove the false accusation of his obscenity ironically foregrounds the unspeakable error. What the plea has successfully accomplished is not Ovid’s exemption from the accusation, but what is not and cannot be said—the error, which signifies the absence of the cause for exile and the groundlessness of Augustus’ punishment. In other words, Ovid retaliates on Augustus by creating the figure of Augustus as a simulacrum of his contradictory writing subject. The self-undoing and self-reflexive rhetoric we found in Ovid’s earlier elegiac works still dictate the power contention here.
The former slave posture and the abandoned position are now internalized and subsumed under the signature of the male poet Ovid. Absorbing these powerful positions, Ovid creates an aporia of gender which is no longer confined at the levels of “projection,” “transposition,” and “ventriloquization.” This gender aporia allows for the co-existence and sharing of power between gender binaries. Although Ovid does not completely do away with the oppositional categories, he reproduces them with new interests and meanings. Although the exilic persona feeds part of its power on feminine positionalities, it nevertheless envisions a powerful marginal subject. This protean and contradictory writing subject suffers not only the political exile to Tomis but also an exile of signification in his eternal self-splitting.
The Limping Book’s Exile in Rome
In the Tristia, the figures of the poet-lover and the abandoned heroine are reenacted not only in the figure of the exilic poet but also in the personified book. On the seashore of Tomis, Ovid bids farewell to his little elegiac book, which is about to embark on a journey back to the city of Rome:
Parve (nec invideo) sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo! (1.1.1-2)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
longa via est, propera: nobis habitabitur orbis
ultimus, a terra terra remota mea. (1.1.127-28)
Little book, you will go (and I feel no grudge) without me to the City:
Where, alas, your master is not allowed to go!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The road is long. Make haste! I at the word’s end
Shall continue to dwell, a land far removed from my land.
The book’s presence in Rome carries an undoable authorial absence and the infamous imprints of the Ovidian praeceptor amoris. The book’s presence thus signifies the absence and alienation of its defamed begetter. In what follows, I would like to show how Ovid creates the personified book as his exilic signature through interweaving his abject postures of the poet-lover in the Amores and the abandoned heroine in the Heroides.
In Tristia 1.1, the poet identifies his fate with that of his book/verse and gives his book several tips to outlast his obscene reputation. First of all, the book should go “unadorned,” so that it will fit its author’s sorrows and misfortune (1.1.3-4, 10-14). The book’s shabby appearance creates an antithesis to the refined urban male elite and the over-decorated urban girls depicted in the Ars (Newlands 1997).7 The poet here specifically rejects the art of superficiality that has ruined him. As he instructs the book to say in the city: ‘inspice’ dic ‘titulum. non sum praeceptor amoris; / quas meruit, poenas iam dedit illud opus,’ “Tell them, ‘Examine the title. I am not a teacher of love; / that work has already paid the penalty it deserved’” (1.1.67-68). However, the very fabrication of a pathetic appearance reinstates the Ovidian art, only that art of love has now been transformed into an art of pathos. Besides, the tear-blotted text conspicuously reasserts the poet’s abandoned feminine position, reminiscent of Dido’s and Sappho’s epistles. It foregrounds Ovid’s authorial absence while simultaneously invoking his former erotic writings and thereby aggrandizing his writing subject.
The authorial dispossession inscribed in the little book also carries an anxiety over the reception of the new art of tristia in Rome. The elegiac obsession about poetic fame reemerges as the poet warns the book about the indifference and alienation it is going to encounter:
denique securus famae, liber, ire memento,
nec tibi sit lecto displicuisse pudor.
non ita se nobis praebet Fortuna secundam
ut tibi sit ratio laudis habenda tuae.
donec eram sospes, tituli tangebar amore,
quaerendique mihi nominis ardor erat.
carmina nunc si non studiumque, quod obfuit, odi,
sit satis. ingenio sic fuga parta meo. (1.1.49-54)
Take heed, my book, to go unworried about fame,
Feel no shame if your reader gains no pleasure.
Fortune is now not so favorable to me
That you should feel concerned about your fame.
While I was safe, I was touched by the love of the fame,
And I burned my passions to win a name.
Enough now if I do not hate poetry and the pursuit
That has harmed me. For my exile, I have my own wit to blame.
By advising the book to ignore public opinion, the poet indirectly invokes his old fame as an erotic poet. His anxiety over nameless death is now draped with the veil of powerless resignation to fate. Although he tells the book to go incognito and dissimulate itself, the poet is confident that “its style” will gain its own recognition as Ovidian: ut titulo careas, ipso noscere colore: / dissimulare velis, te liquet esse meum, “Though you lack a title, your very style will bring recognition: / though you should wish to dissimulate, it is clear that you are mine” (1.1.61-62). Although it changes its appearance, Ovid’s obsession with poetic fame and self-undoing art remains unchanged. Even though injured by his own art, he continues to pursue it, to undo his writing self. The former self-undoing poetics has now taken on reality in the poet’s political life. He was sent to exile in the name of his own ingenium (talent), the very asset that makes him famous. His poetic reality turns out to shape his political reality. In Tristia 2, the poet’s exile is perceived as the incarnation of his rhetorical wit of self-undoing:
Quid mihi vobiscum est, infelix cura, libelli,
ingenio perii qui miser ipse meo?
cur modo damnatas repeto, mea crimina, Musas? (2.1-3)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
hoc pretium curae vigilatorumque laborum
cepimus: ingenio est poena reperta meo. (2.11-12)
Books, my ill-starred obsession, why do I stay with you,
I, ruined and wretched by my own talent?
Why do I seek my fresh-condemned Muses, causes of my guilt?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This exile is the reward for my work and my vigilant toil
That I have received: a penalty has been found for my talent.
The obsession with talent is a now synecdoche for the obsession with pathos and self-undoing (cf. 2.339-42). Recalling Sappho’s lament for the change of her lyric career into an elegiac one, in the Tristia the poet’s talent is described as undergoing a poetic decline because of woes and sorrows (cf. Tr. 4.1, 5.12; Pont. 1.5, 3.9, 4.2). Whereas Sappho abandons her lyre, Ovid insists on walking with his elegiac limping foot, which nevertheless becomes the only way that he can walk back to his beloved homeland: contingam certe quo licet illa pede, “I will tread them at least with what ‘foot’ I may” (1.1.16).
Thus with the elegiac limping foot, in Tristia 3.1 the book makes the long journey back to Rome. In this poem, the book assumes the speaking voice and narrates its own adventure in the city of Rome in which it only finds exclusion and alienation. The book’s personified voice reminds us of the proem to the Amores where it is also the book that is doing the speaking. In the Amores, the booklets themselves tell the reader that what he/she is going to read is reduced from the former five booklets to the present three, and thus the reader’s pains will be levior (“lighter”). Through the book’s voice, the poet enunciates an unconventional philosophy of life that elevates “light arts” and the pleasure of otium (leisure and laxity). Now as an exile’s book, even though the book literally carries out all the instructions that its master has told it to perform, it still finds itself a limping exile in Rome (3.1.1-18):
Missus in hanc venio timide liber exulis urbem:
da placidam fesso, lector amice, manum;
neve reformida, ne sim tibi forte pudori:
nullus in hac charta versus amare docet.
haec domini fortuna mei est, ut debeat illam
infelix nullis dissimulare iocis.
id quoque, quod viridi quondam male lusit in aevo,
heu nimium sero damnat et odit opus.
inspice quid portem: nihil hic nisi triste videbis,
carmine temporibus conveniente suis.
clauda quod alterno subsidunt carmina versu,
vel pedis hoc ratio, vel via longa facit;
quod neque sum cedro flavus nec pumice levis,
erubui domino cultior esse meo;
littera suffusas quod habet maculosa lituras,
laesit opus lacrimis ipse poeta suum.
siqua videbuntur casu non dicta Latine,
in qua scribebat, barbara terra fuit.
Having been sent to this city, I, an exile’s book, came in fear.
Friendly reader, offer me a kindly hand to clam my weariness;
And fear not that I may shame you:
Not a line on these sheets teaches love.
My master’s misfortune is not such that
He could dissimulate it with light verse.
Even that work, once his green youth’s ill-starred amusement,
He has learned, alas, too late to condemn and hate.
Examine what I bring: you will see nothing here except sadness,
Verses that suit their sorry time and state.
If the lame couplets hobble in alternate verses,
Blame the limping meter or the long journey;
If I am not cedar-golden nor pumice-smooth,
It is because I blush to be better dressed than my master;
If they are any letters blotted and blurred with erasures,
It is because the poet with tears has injured his own work.
If any phrases shall seem perhaps not Latin,
It is because the land he wrote in was a barbarian one.
The book approaches the city with anxiety over its reception. However, the effort to wipe out its master’s shadow of obscenity paradoxically creates the imprints of the poet’s former erotic writings on the present book. On the one hand, the elegiac metrical foot is now personified as the body of the book, with its lameness playfully dramatized as the result of fatigue. On the other hand, the smudged and blurred pages recall the abandoned feminine writing and reassert the authorial absence. Consequently, Ovid not only experiences exile himself, but his book also suffers from an urban exile. In Rome, the book zealously looks for a potential friendly reader who will appreciate its virtues, but it is constantly rejected outside the thresholds of public libraries. The exclusion at the threshold of the mansions it desires to enter reminds us of the poet-lover’s rejection outside of the mistress’ door (the conceit of the exclusus amator).
In the Tristia, Ovid’s self-representation as an abandoned wo/man destabilizes gender binaries and the idea of unitary authorship. Recreating his former poetic personae, Ovid’s figures of the exilic pleader and the personified book create new forms of gender conception and writing authority. If the Amores demonstrates an intellectual dissidence inevitably always already co-opted in the imperial ideology, the Tristia and Heroides can be seen as Ovid’s experimental writings for searching alternative poetic modes to articulate his moral and writing authority. But the real tristia lies in his final discovery that his self-representation is written on the model of his representation of Augustus as a paradox, which undermines his writing authority in its very construction.
Ovid’s self-undoing poetic subject resembles Augustus’ self-construction as a problematic signifier of the empire: Augustus represents himself as both the autocrat/emperor and first citizen (princeps). Both undermine their self-constructions by insinuating a discrepancy into what they assert. In Amores and Ars, the Ovidian poeta-amator is a paradox of erotic teacher and pimp, a self-undoing prodigal. In the Tristia, Ovid is a moral poet who undoes his own avowed moral integrity. Ovid thus embodies the paradox of authority and power that validates the Augustan mode of rulership. Rewriting the elegiac erotic relation with a critical distance, he is a problematic signifier of Roman love elegy. Debunking and reproducing the infrapolitics of the Augustan form of authority, he is also a problematic signifier in the Augustan regime. In the Tristia, the figure of Ovid is thus co-opted by that of Augustus. Ovid becomes a rhetorical simulacrum of Augustus. Seen in this light, Ovid can be said to be the most Augustan poet. Ovid’s way of being critical and dissident, to use Butler’s terms, is to “embrace paradoxes without really resolving them” (2001). Or to push it a little further, the Ovidian dissidence is to create paradoxes without bothering to resolve them.
The plea to Augustus paradoxically aggrandizes Ovid’s authorial presence into a Void. The VOID is literally already inscribed in the name OVID. The Ovidian authorship is indeed an oxymoronic textual (non-)existence, a paradox of presence and absence. Besides, the plea is also the poetic veil that Ovid uses to denigrate Augustus, protest against his unjust exile, and articulate his resentment. However, after the plea is done, it’s time to put away the veil and enjoy the pleasure of weeping. In Tristia 3.2.19, Ovid tells the reader that nil nisi flere libet (“nothing pleases except weeping”). This pleasure of weeping dissimulates yet another secret pleasure of Ovid. It is Ovid’s triumphal proleptic proclamation of eternal fame. OVID’s poetic fame can be said to have asserted itself through his self-effacement into the feminine VOID.
In this article, I have investigated Ovid’s self-empowering negation by examining three rhetorical interplays between the abject and the beautiful in Amores, Heroides, and Tristia. In Ovid’s elegiac worlds, I perceive a gradual conflation between the abject and the beautiful and between erotic and political despair. Ovid’s feminine exiles take such curious forms as the mistress-enslaver, the poet-lover, the abandoned woman, and finally the poet himself as the abandoned wo/man. His exilic personae demonstrate an innovative conflation of recusationes (generic refusal and self-negating elegiac grammar), tristia (erotic despair and exilic sorrows), and erotics (desire for woman, gender flexibility, and writing authority). Moreover, the binary distinctions between art and life, truth and fiction, sincerity and pretension, masculine and feminine, morality and immorality, and past and future collapse into a state of aporia. This spirit of aporia not only constitutes Ovid’s poetic performances, but is also built into his existence as a poet and as a human being. Prior to his exile in the Augustan Empire, Ovid has already been an exile in his own textual empire.
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1 This article is a revised version of a chapter originally entitled “Ovid’s Exile of Signification and Feminine Exile: Wo/man/ufacture in His Amores, Heroides, and Tristia” in my dissertation “The Politics and Poetics of Wo/man/ufacture: Male Representations of Woman in Chinese Han Fu and Roman Love Elegy” (University of Michigan, 2001). It was presented on May 28, 2004, at the Feminism and Classics IV Conference: Gender and Diversity in Place, held at the University of Arizona, and is published here with the permission of the editors. In preparing this essay for publication, I have benefited greatly from Professor Marilyn B. Skinner’s suggestions and an anonymous referee’s advice, and from constructive and encouraging responses of the participants in F&C IV.
2 All citations of the Latin texts of the Amores and Ars Amatoria are to Kenney 1994. These two sentences are translated by Duncan Kennedy (1993: 67). All other translations are my own.
3 The anagram OVID and VOID does not exist in Latin. “Ovid” is from Latin “Ovidius” and “Void” derives from Latin “vacuus” or “vacivus.” The word “void” makes quite a detour through Late Latin and Old French (“vacant”) to get into Old English (“voide”) and its modern spelling. My assumptions here are based on the natural affinities between the modern terms “Ovid” and “void.” The idea of anagram in fact echoes very well what I perceive as a genuine Ovidian spirit—deconstructing what we first see/read on the surface leads us to see other truths beneath the text. The anagrammatical action of breaking up an old word to form a new word without changing the essential letters of the old involves the politics of inversion, dissimulation, and reading more that lies at the core of Ovid’s representations of female figures and exilic sentiments.
4 For the transformation of the equestrian order from late Republic to the imperial period, see Burton 1996.
5 Citations of the Latin texts of the Heroides are to Goold 1977.
6 For the Latin text of the Tristia, I use Owen 1922.
7 Besides being antithetical to the Ars, the book’s unadorned appearance also speaks against Propertius 1.2, where the poet-lover “dresses his book up” ready for publication, mimicking the way a Roman lady adorns herself for a party.