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  • Freud’s Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry by Ellen Oliensis
  • Ruth R. Caston
Ellen Oliensis. Freud’s Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry. Roman Literature and Its Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 148. $80.00 (hb.). ISBN 978-0-521-84661-5; $26.99 (pb.). ISBN 978-0-521-60910-4.

In this elegant and sophisticated study, Ellen Oliensis uses psychoanalysis as a tool to explore three Latin poets, Catullus, Vergil, and Ovid. Her approach is Freudian, not Lacanian (often preferred by Latinists), and her interest is in the “textual unconscious,” wherever that unconscious happens to reside, whether in the voice of a narrator, character, or even author (6). Although Oliensis makes clear that this study will not provide easy or straightforward answers, the undercurrents she discovers here are so well grounded in diction and word play that they are unlikely to scare off even the most traditional scholar. Indeed, the experience of reading this book is like peering over the shoulder of a gifted close reader while she thinks aloud through her various exegetical choices, all of them rich and subtle. It is sure to make every reader look afresh at familiar poems and passages. [End Page 286]

In the introduction, Oliensis describes her methodology, anticipating the hostile reaction to psychoanalytic approaches one often finds among classicists. As she puts it, we do not need to believe in psychoanalysis to use it profitably. What it offers us, even as nonbelievers, is “an orientation towards the unconscious and . . . sexuality” (4). Several examples from recent interpretations of Horace and Tibullus illustrate Oliensis’ own method of detecting the unconscious: where others have viewed either unusual word choice or play as something deliberate on the part of a poet, for Oliensis these reveal the eruption of a repressed idea, places where the text moves out from under the poet’s own control.

Following the introduction are three chapters on the topics of mourning, murder, and the phallus, and finally an afterword on Freud’s own engagement with Rome. The first chapter, “Two Poets Mourning,” explores the role of Orpheus in the Metamorphoses and two poems of Catullus (65 and 68b). Despite the title, the focus is not so much on mourning as on its absence, not so much on tears as on guilt. More could have been said up front about the attention to guilt and its precise relation to mourning. In the case of Orpheus, guilt over losing Eurydice twice emerges in his choice of misogynistic tales in which women are held responsible for death and loss. For the Catullan narrator, guilt is tied to memory and forgetting, as when the repressed feelings of duty to his dead brother resurface in the simile of the apple in poem 65. Oliensis moves from 65 to 68b and to 64 as well, suggesting persuasively that the type of repression she uncovers there is part of a rich and extensive pattern in Catullus’ “long poems.”

Chapter 2, “Murdering Mothers,” is in my view the best in the book. The examples turn our attention away from the father, central both in Freudian theory and Roman ideology, to mothers and sons. The chapter begins with several episodes in Vergil’s Aeneid and the Georgics, and then moves to the story of Philomela in Metamorphoses 6. Incest is central here, as is the subject of speech and silence (an issue in the other chapters as well). In a fascinating argument, Oliensis brings out not only Philomela’s artistic and familial roles, but also her political significance, comparing her to Lucretia and Cicero, both of whom share some element of Philomela’s plight. While Ovid’s story is especially conducive to this type of analysis, the role of sexuality in Vergil is fluid and more deeply submerged, as Oliensis shows. I wish she had addressed these differences among her selected texts more directly. Some view of their relationship seems to emerge from the arrangement of examples, whereby Catullus and Vergil are each discussed together with Ovid, but not with each other (except very briefly).

Chapter 3, “Variations on a Phallic Theme,” takes up the phallus and castration, treating the episodes of Scylla and Minos from...


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