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  • On the Edge of the TextPreface and Reader in Ovid’s Amores
  • Laura Jansen (bio)

Scholars who deal with the epigram prefacing the Amores open their discussion by addressing the question of the collection’s two editions. The reason is that the preface is the only source available to us which attests to the supposed existence of an earlier version of the Amores comprising a larger collection of poems arranged into a five-book format.1 Historico-relativist scholars have read the epigram for its documentary value and to reconstruct from its contents a chronological and structural reality for an Amores 1–5, as well as an editorial history of the Amores as a whole.2 More recently, for readers of a textualist strand, the epigram’s documentary value has no literal application, and any significance given to the question of the two editions is both misleading and an obstacle to interpretation.3 In their view, the epigram should be interpreted as a literary construct, a fiction at the opening of the text that, rather than offering concrete editorial evidence, registers stylistic, poetological, and/or intertextual preoccupations of the main text.4 Readings on the preface of the Amores have therefore produced a polarized image: the epigram is either a piece of editorial evidence, or a piece of fiction. Both modes of reading, however, work to excavate meaning from a similar analytical procedure whereby the text is not necessarily the focus of analysis per se, but a locus from which to engage into questions for the most part outside its content and scope. It is instructive to switch perspectives and use the split in interpretation as an opportunity to look back into the epigram itself and to ask, regardless of which critical stance might prove more convincing, why it promotes such a polarization of opinion and divergent reading practices in the first place.5

An aspect of the epigram that remains largely unexplored is its pointed ambivalence, especially in relation to its paratextuality, temporality, and teleological structure. Historico-realist and textualist readings—readings that cannot but assert their own position by refuting one another—lend initial support. As we shall see, in its role of preface to the Amores the epigram exhibits as much as it hides, and in doing so it serves to perpetuate a structure that, when read for its potential to reveal a given reality, promises yet frustrates knowledge, opens yet simultaneously closes a door to interpretation. Indeed, one [End Page 1] could argue that, if there is one constant to this text, this is that its meaning thrives on a framework of ambiguity. A central aim of this paper, therefore, will be to uncover moments in the process of reading and interpreting the epigram vis-à-vis the main text which underscore this very sense of ambiguity, and to consider in turn how they might point to alternative, and possibly unexplored, ways of approaching the Amores as a whole. Since stylistic, poeto-logical, and intertextual backgrounds to the epigram have already been investigated sufficiently, I will not revisit existing theses and approaches. Instead, I propose to highlight a new direction in the criticism of the epigram which explores the larger question of how textual borders communicate ideologies and practices for reading that may be otherwise missed if our interpretation is only anchored to the main text.

One way to begin looking at these questions is to consider how reading practices have molded our approach to the Amores. We are perhaps all too accustomed to enter the collection from elegy 1.1 and exit it from 3.15, and so to read the epigram as an editorial note of some kind that stands quite separately from the main text and its area of criticism. The long-established intertextuality between Vergil’s arma at the opening of Aeneid 1 and Ovid’s editorial comment in Amores 1.1.1–2 (arma . . . parabam / edere [Arms . . . I was making ready to utter])6 might well be part of the reason for which we tend to regard Amores 1.1 as the incipit of the collection. This approach to reading also owes something to the frequent association of the attack of...


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