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In this chapter we extend our analysis of the lena to the poetry of Tibullus and Ovid, where the narrative focus is not as much on her appearance or her poetic skill. Tibullus concentrates his readers’ attention on the grotesque actions that the poet–lover visualizes the lena performing, while Ovid focuses on her intention to degrade elegiac love itself. Though they do not have the profile of Acanthis, these lenae are grotesque figures integral to the Tibullan and the Ovidian conceptions of elegy. The images of ugly, sinister, and disgusting actions with which they are associated are for the reader scripts of aversion integral to elegy. Tibullus constructs his script in the subtle manner typical of his style, by making effective use of the reader’s literary memory, which, through a dynamic play of inter- and intra-textual allusion, he engages in the creation of his elegiac grotesque. Ovid constructs his more economically and with bold strokes, presenting his lena with powerful grotesque images– nocturnal, and savage, under the canopy of a bleeding sky – that leave no doubt concerning his intent to use her to subvert with horrid imagery the idealizing purport of love elegy itself.
Roman elegy makes frequent use of themes of ugliness and disfigurement, juxtaposing them with images of ideal beauty and sentiment. In order to overcome the obstacles to his erotic relationship, the poet–lover repeatedly represents his rivals and opponents in such a way as to ridicule their appearance and to degrade their social standing. My purpose in this study is to explore the theme of corporeal, intellectual, and social degradation from a perspective attentive to the aesthetic significance of the grotesque imagery with which such degradation is accomplished. I undertake to show that the grotesque plays a significant role in the self-definition of the genre in which it is least expected. Grotesque and idealizing imagery constitute the polarities of a dialectic that lies at the core of elegy. Classical scholars have long been interested in the use of grotesque imagery in such genres as comedy, invective, and satire. There is a sophisticated discussion of the grotesque in these areas of classical literature, which are concerned in part with themes of transgression and excess. Grotesque imagery occurs frequently also in elegy, a genre that foregrounds love and beauty.
In Propertius 4.7, Cynthia is conceived as the character who, in her role as the beloved, can infuse a sinister sensation of the grotesque into the very concept of elegiac love, of which she is the source and the protagonist. The poet ventriloquizes her voice, superimposing her role and gender identity on his, in a strategy that enables him to transmit to the realm of his aesthetic choices her grotesque embodiment of elegy, as well as her allegation that, in charging her with infidelity, he was not truthful about her. In this poem, Propertius’ elegiac programme appears to be centrally committed to a grotesque ethos, derisive and destabilizing of the epistemological and aesthetic conventions by which the genre is presumed to be governed. As a result, the conceptual and aesthetic domains of the genre appear deeply marked by uncanny imagery, contradiction, and instability of form. The imaginative world of this elegy requires readers to shift their interpretive base continually, accepting the incongruous realm of beauty pierced by ugliness as the manifestation of a poetic congruity of a higher order. That dialectical form of congruity is the distinctive feature of the Propertian elegiac grotesque.
A prominent function of the rival in the elegiac scenario is to make it possible for the poet–lover to express the negative emotions of jealousy and indignation, creating the narrative conditions for the elegist to contemplate images of violence, ugliness, and obtuseness through the aesthetic prism of the elegiac form. He thereby gives rise to a sense of artistic beauty that incorporates images of ugliness. The rival is an agent of the paradox of ugliness, physical as well as moral, operating at the core of elegy, and hence an agent of the grotesque. In describing the rival, Propertius resorts to the language of animal behaviour, Tibullus to that of derisible obtuseness, and Ovid to the rhetoric of blood and gore to raise questions about the possibility of a stable erotic relationship founded on the intensity of the protagonist’s passion and on the merits of his poetry. In the course of this process, the elegists reveal that elegiac love, conceived as it is in corporeal terms and in the context of a triangle formed by two lovers and one beloved, is necessarily susceptible to the intrusion of ugly, befouling, and degrading images.
In the mythological account inherited by Ovid, Pasiphae went through a psychological transformation in which she was assailed by the grotesque desire to be mated by a bull. She thereby lowered the human character of her sexuality to that of an animal. When Ovid imports her story into the domain of elegy, her degradation runs counter to the genre’s conventional idealization of sexual life. Yet Ovid’s Pasiphae lives out that craving as if propelled by the rhetoric of elegy. She is a queen pursuing a beloved in a georgic landscape, but she behaves like a composite of the elegiac puella and the elegiac lover. Pasiphae thereby brings her grotesque psychology into the imaginative world of elegy, cultivating her dark desire under its mannerisms, until she manages to have sex with the bull. The elegiac echoes of her role in the erotic scenario, the meter in which it is outlined, and the elegiac allusions in its images – these all shift the ground of the reading experience from the mythical horror of aberrant sexuality to the realm of the elegiac grotesque, in which nefarious eroticism and elegiac love conventions are fused, appearing at once monstrous, contemptuous, and ridiculous.
This chapter is concerned with the idea that the elegiac grotesque is rooted in the character of the puella herself and may manifest itself as a consequence of her role in the genre. The repeated use of cosmetics in order to enhance her erotic appeal may cause her to lose her hair and hence her beauty, forcing her to studiously cover up her ugliness. Sex may also result in an unwanted pregnancy, forcing her to have an abortion in order to remain in the elegiac world. Pregnancy and loss of beauty are both anti-elegiac motifs, though they are always potentially present in the very conception of the puella. Elegiac love can cause the puella to cross the boundaries of elegy and to have recourse to anti-elegiac measures in order to re-enter her role in the genre. This is particularly evident in the abortion poems. There the grotesque enters deeply into the elegiac genre, since it is used to restore the condition that can make elegiac love possible again; though it does not become the main point of the elegy, it represents a destabilizing nucleus in its narrative core.
In his diatribe against love in the De Rerum Natura, Lucretius unleashes a powerful grotesque imagination, endowing it with the gravitas of his philosophy, against the type of love that was to furnish the elegists with their basic theme. Writing the Remedia a generation later, Ovid assumes a perspective on elegiac love reminiscent of Lucretius, but whereas Lucretius was writing outside the boundaries of elegy, by chronology as well as choice of genre, Ovid is an elegist and writes from within its conventions. For Ovid, the aesthetic significance of the grotesque is that the elegiac code includes images that simulate foreignness of origin, in that they appear to intrude into the elegiac domain from somewhere beyond its boundary, while expressing ideas that are in fact generated entirely by the same code. Starting with this aesthetic premise and a narrative scenario in which unfulfilled desire figures as an apparently incurable malady, in the Remedia Ovid assumes a therapeutic stance with respect to both the afflicted lover and the elegist, teaching the one how to ‘unlearn’ his behaviour as a lover and the other how to attempt the ultimate permutation of the elegiac scenario, turning its narrative premise upon itself.
The primary purpose of this chapter is to show that, in the philosophical and literary discourse that immediately preceded the development of Roman love elegy, there exists a context conducive to the grotesque figuration of the sublimity of love and lovers. In Roman culture the philosophical discourse was dominated by Lucretius, who developed his views in dialogue with the poetry and natural philosophy of the centuries that preceded him, especially in the expository genres that united poetry and philosophy. The literary discourse is focused on Catullus, whose use of metaphors as instances of material identification shock the reader with the violation of logic and the transgression of nature. In the elegiac libellus Catullus resorts frequently to such violations, extending them to the human body, to social conduct, and to love itself. Indeed, Catullus makes bold use of the grotesque to show that beneath the flimsy surface of elegance, urbanity, and sentiment expected of the poetic discourse on love, there lurks a reality that is both defiled and defiling. By using images and evocations of this reality, Catullus admits into the domain of love poetry thematic materials and language that transgress the expectations of works meant to foreground love and beauty.
Propertius 4.5 is the poet–lover’s vindictive fantasy against the lena, the character who is most inimical to him in the dramatic scenario of love elegy. He expresses his hostility towards her by depicting her as a profoundly grotesque creature, wicked and revolting in every way. Propertius enables the poet–lover to be mercilessly punitive and to use images likely to generate a strong emotional reaction. The images contemplated by the poet–lover in his rage are the same ones contemplated by us, Propertius’ readers, as we move through the text. Being expressions of a rejected lover, such images are likely to generate a sequence of vehement emotions, both within the narrative and in the reading experience, while our gaze and the poet–lover’s both remain fixed on the lena as an embodied source of the dark passions that course through the poem. We would miss the genre’s signature of authenticity if we did not conclude that the grotesque is implicit in and central to the Propertian elegy.
Roman elegy makes frequent use of themes of ugliness and disfigurement, juxtaposing them with images of ideal beauty and sentiment. In order to overcome the obstacles to his erotic relationship, the poet-lover repeatedly represents his rivals and opponents in such a way as to ridicule their appearance and to degrade their social standing. This book explores the theme of corporeal, intellectual, and social degradation from a perspective attentive to the aesthetic significance of the grotesque imagery with which such degradation is accomplished. Although there has been sophisticated discussion of the use of grotesque imagery in genres like comedy, invective, and satire, which are concerned in part with themes of transgression and excess, Mariapia Pietropaolo demonstrates that the grotesque plays a significant role in the self-definition of love elegy, the genre in which it is least expected.
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