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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 September 2016
Mairéad McAuley frames her substantial study of the representation of motherhood in Latin literature in terms of highly relevant modern concerns, poignantly evoked by her opening citation of Eurydice's lament at her baby's funeral in Statius’ Thebaid 6: what really makes a mother? Biology? Care-giving? (Grief? Loss? Suffering?) How do the imprisoning stereotypes of patriarchy interact with lived experiences of mothers or with the rich metaphorical manifestations of maternity (as the focus of fear and awe, for instance, or of idealizing aesthetics, of extreme political rhetoric, or as creativity and the literary imagination?) How do individuals, texts, and societies negotiate maternity's paradoxical relationship to power? Conflicting issues of maternal power and disempowerment run through history, through Latin literature, and through the book. McAuley's focus is the representational work that mothers do in Latin literature, and she pursues this through close readings of works by Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, and Statius, by re-reading their writings in a way that privileges the theme, perspective, or voice of the mother. A lengthy introduction sets the parameters of the project and its aim (which I judge to be admirably realized) to establish a productive dialogue between modern theory (especially psychoanalysis and feminist philosophy) and ancient literature. Her study evokes a dialogue that speaks to theory – even contributes to it – but without stripping the Latin literature of its cultural specificity (and without befuddling interpretation of Latin culture with anachronism and jargon, which is often the challenge). The problem for a Latinist is that psychoanalysis is, as McAuley says, ‘not simply a body of theories about human development, it is also a mode of reading’ (23), and it is a mode of reading often at cross-purposes with the aims of literary criticism in Classical Studies: psychoanalytical notions of the universal and the foundational clash with aspirations to historical awareness and appreciation of the specifics of genre or historical moment. Acknowledging – and articulating with admirable clarity and honesty – the methodological challenges of her approach, McAuley practises what she describes as ‘reading-in-tension’ (25), holding on not only to the contradictions between patriarchal texts and their potentially subversive subtexts but also to the tense conversation between modern theory and ancient literary representation. As she puts it in her epilogue, one of her aims is to ‘release’ mothers’ voices from the pages of Latin literature in the service of modern feminism, while simultaneously preserving their alterity: ‘to pay attention to their specificity within the contexts of text, genre, and history, but not to reduce them to those contexts, in order that they speak to us within and outside them at the same time’ (392). Although McAuley presents her later sections on Seneca and Statius as the heart of the book, they are preceded by two equally weighty contributions, in the form of chapters on Virgil and Ovid, which she rightly sees as important prerequisites to understanding the significance of her later analyses. In these ‘preliminary’ chapters (which in another book might happily have been served as the main course), she sets out the paradigms that inform those discussions of Seneca and Statius’ writings. In her chapter on Virgil McAuley aims to transcend the binary notion that a feminist reading of epic entails either reflecting or resisting patriarchal values. As ‘breeders and mourners of warriors…mothers are readily incorporated into the generic code’ of epic (65), and represent an alternative source of symbolic meaning (66). Her reading of Ovid's Metamorphoses then shows how the poem brings these alternative subjects into the foreground of his own poetry, where the suffering and passion of mothers take centre-stage, allowing an exploration of imperial subjectivity itself. McAuley points out that even feminist readings can often contribute to the erasure of the mother's presence by their emphasis on the patriarchal structures that subjugate the female, and she uses a later anecdote about Octavia fainting at a reading of the Aeneid as a vivid illustration of a ‘reparative reading’ of Roman epic through the eyes of a mother (91–3). Later, in her discussion of mothers in Statian epic, McAuley writes: ‘mothers never stand free of martial epic nor are they fully constituted by it, and, as such, may be one of the most appropriate figures with which to explore issues of belatedness and authority in the genre’ (387). In short, the discourse of motherhood in Latin literature is always revealed to be powerfully implicated in the central issues of Roman literature and culture. A chapter is devoted to the themes of grief, virtue, and masculinity as explored in Seneca's consolation to his own mother, before McAuley turns her attention to the richly disturbing mothers of Senecan tragedy and Statius’ Thebaid. The book explores the metaphorical richness of motherhood in ancient Rome and beyond, but without losing sight of its corporeality, seeking indeed to complicate the long-developed binary distinction between physical reproduction (gendered as female) and abstract reproduction and creativity (gendered as male). This is a long book, but it repays careful reading, and then a return to the introduction via the epilogue, so as to reflect anew on McAuley's thoughtful articulation of her methodological choices. Her study deploys psychoanalytical approaches to reading Latin literature to excellent effect (not an easy task), always enhancing the insights of her reading of the ancient texts, and maintaining lucidity. Indeed, this is the best kind of gender study, which does not merely apply the modern framework of gender and contemporary theoretical approaches to ancient materials (though it does this very skilfully and convincingly), but in addition makes it clear why this is such a valuable endeavour for us now, and how rewarding it can be to place modern psychoanalytic theories into dialogue with the ancient Roman literature. The same tangle of issues surrounding maternity as emerges from these ancient works often persists into our modern era, and by probing those issues with close reading we risk learning much about ourselves; we learn as much when the ancient representations fail to chime with our expectations.
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