The poetry of the Late Roman Republican poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, a rich document of the human heart, is the earliest-known reasonably complete body of erotic verse in the West.
Though approximately 116 poems survive, uncertainties about the condition of the fragmented manuscript and the narrative order of the poems make the Catullan text unusually problematic for the modern critic. Indeed, the poems can be arranged in a number of ways, making a multitude of different plots possible and frustrating the reader’s desire for narrative closure.
Micaela Janan contends that since unsatisfied desire structures both the experience of reading Catullus and its subject matter, critical interpretation of the text demands a "poetics of desire." Furthermore, postmodern critical theory, narratology, and psychoanalysis suggest a flexible concept of the "subject" as a site through which a multitude of social, cultural, and unconscious forces move. Human consciousness, Janan contends, is inherently incomplete and in a continuous process of transformation. She therefore proposes an original and provocative feminist reading of Catullus, a reading informed by theories of consciousness and desire as ancient as Plato and as contemporary as Freud and Lacan.
The Late Roman Republic in which Catullus lived, Janan reminds us, was a time of profound social upheaval when political and cultural institutions that had persisted for centuries were rapidly breaking down—a time not unlike our own. Catullus’ poetry provides an unusually honest look at his culture and its contradictory representations of class, gender, and power. By bringing to the study of this major work of classical literature the themes of consciousness and desire dealt with in postmodern scholarship, Janan’s book invites a new conversation among literary disciplines.