Titles are so bourgeois, don't you think?
by Arthur Yates
Both Catullus 51 and Catullus 2 indirectly comment on the absurdity of the upper social classes. As a reader, "love" does not resonate with me as a theme. I can wax fondly about my love for American Apparel, but I cannot yet do so about my love for another person. When reading Catullus,I find his undercurrent of social commentary to be striking, not his musings on love.
In Poem 51, Catullus is at first lost in a reverie, captivated by Lesbia. Yet, the tone shifts abruptly - a volta- in the 13th stanza. Catullus begins to lament the dangers of leisure:
Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est.
Otio exsultas nimiumque gestis.
Otium et reges prius et beatas
He has reached an epiphany. As if slapped across the face, he suddenly comes back to his senses. A Gallic-frontiersman, Catullus may live in the world of the Roman upper-classes, but he is not of it. His roots draw him back, and he suddenly realizes that his yearning for Lesbia is the product of idleness and leisure, which have "destroyed kings and blessed cities before." If he had a practical purpose to his life, he would not be so preoccupied and affected with trivial, almost adolescent puppy-love. Nearly half a millennium beforehand, has Catullus come upon the dawdling that may have triggered the Roman collapse, already beginning to fester in the Roman elite?
Catullus 2 reiterates this theme. We find an idle Lesbia playing with her sparrow, in which - et solaciolum sui doloris credo ut tum grauis acquiescat ardor
- she finds "small relief from her pain." From what pain? The despondency and disinterest that result from doing absolutely nothing? I quote the Gang of Four, in their classic "Natural's Not in It:"
"The problem of leisure:what to do for pleasure?"
Catullus must be aware of how absurd this nonsense is. I picture him as a sociologist, mocking the Roman elite by tying their petty concerns to a larger message of looking for meaning - for love? - in an existential void. In Catullus 3 he seems to touch upon this directly, injecting a bit of sarcasm into his image of the sparrow's passing.
Perhaps that Catullus - a Catullus who makes light of the Roman elite - has been lost to the ages.