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Arethusa 33.2 (2000) 263-284
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Constructing Characters in Propertius
nudus Amor formae non amat artificem
"Naked Love does not love an artificer of form"
One of the major contributions of late republican and early imperial Latin poetry to the course of literature was the development of a subjective, first-personal voice that seems to speak directly to the reader or to the addressee (pretending to ignore the reader), without the framing devices of narrative or dramatic presentation, and without even an explicit rhetorical separation of speaker and persona. 1 This is not to say, of course, that the speaker of Augustan elegy straightforwardly is the poet, the man, the "real person"--far from it, for indeed, there are many levels of "persona" active in the communicative dynamics of elegy--but rather to suggest that the subjective stance offers a pose of immediacy which precisely occludes the artificiality of its own dynamics: ars adeo latet arte sua ("art lies hidden by its own art," Ov. Met. 10.252). 2 As Elizabeth Bruss has said: "To speak in the first person is to identify oneself as the immediate source of the communication, and to make of this a focal issue of that communication." 3 The subjective stance [End Page 263] speaks to our desire for presence, for authority and stability, for the immediacy of communication which Derrida has highlighted as the driving force of Western thought. 4 When the matter is that most subjective of subjects--love--then the desire for immediacy and the cuddly presence of the speaking voice is all the stronger. And there is nothing wrong with that: indeed, this is how love poetry works.
As is well known, for many years the critical response to Propertius' first-person communication was to take it at face value, as really reflecting a real situation. Then came a reaction, influenced partly by New Criticism, which stressed its literary and artificial nature. 5 A revolution in the study of such questions with regard to Propertius came in the work of Maria Wyke, who taught us to see Cynthia as an embodiment of the poetry itself and as a construct of the text whose apparent reality was in fact a "reality effect." 6 This paper is clearly indebted to that approach, but hopes to take it further. In that work, the issue was at least partly whether or not the elegiac mistress "had any objective reality." What I want to do now is to look at how the various realisms of character and situation are constructed and how they interact with each other. This discussion of realien will necessarily deconstruct to some extent the distinction between the "literary" and the "real," just as, as I shall show further, the Propertian text slips in and out of "real life," playing with the possibilities of immediacy, of artificiality, of realism and constructivism, of art and nature.
My aim in this paper is to expose the tricks of realism in Propertian elegy: not to disparage or undermine them, but to suggest how they enrich our involvement in the poetry and offer us a wealth of perspectives that go far beyond the straightforward authorial presence which is the stated (or unstated) pose of first-personal poetry. In this regard, "realism" is a construct which comes into being as an impression of reality and in a mimetic game between poet and reader. That game, I suggest, is itself reflexive with [End Page 264] (reflects and is reflected by) the relationship between the lover and his amicus (his friend, side-kick, rival, and shoulder to cry on). Realism and artificiality are thus closely bound up with each other. I am particularly concerned with the way that all the characters of elegy, from the poet himself to other Roman men to the beloved, are constructs which come into being through interactions in, between, and outside texts. The first-personal realism of presentation allows gaps to open up in the process of representation, through which apparently stable readings and categories are deconstructed. Realism, particularly first-personal realism, is a device set...