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Academic research paper on topic "Macroalgal responses to ocean acidification depend on nutrient and light levels"

PROJECT MUSE"

Silence in Catullus

Stevens, Benjamin Eldon

Published by University ofWisconsin Press

Stevens, Benjamin Eldon. Silence in Catullus.

Madison: University ofWisconsin Press, 2013. ProjectMUSE. Web. 1 May. 201ifcttp://muse.jhu.edu/.

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http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780299296636

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Conclusion

It disturbs / And vexes meditation with its strange / And extreme silentness.

Coleridge, "Frost at Midnight," vv. 8-10

Despite the general consensus that Catullus's poems are not likely to represent the historical poet accurately, in reading the poems we may nevertheless be left with a feeling of contact with another person's mind. Such is our awareness, albeit unconscious, of the pervasive erasure of becoming by nothing, and such our desire to resist that entropy of meaning making, that we regularly read scanty traces such as poems as standing for the fullness of a being-in-language. We thus naturally sympathize with Catullus as he envisions his brother's small, pale foot; or with Ariadne watching Theseus's ship grow smaller; or with Attis looking down at what she/he has done and seeing nothing. As readers we experience a poem and, I think, naturally hope to have encountered the being-in-language of the poet, the historical person, himself.

By listening to poems for their silences, as well as for the silences of their speakers and other subjects, I hope to have shown what it may mean to attend more closely to silence as it is a matter of interest at least in Catullus, certainly in some other Latin poetry, perhaps in other ancient or premodern literature. Catullus was inspirational to other authors, such that we might expect to find meaningful poetics of silence in later works. More generally, by reading certain poems in the light—or illuminating sound—of a poetics of silence, we may learn to listen to silence as a meaningful part of human meaning making. In the hands of a poet like Catullus, that fact of our being-in-language can be made

into an essential feature of literature or other art. The result is a poetics of silence.

By way of generalizing further, it is worth returning to the way in which ancient poetry figures itself as speech overheard, as somehow audible. In Latin, a "poem" is carmen or carmina, literally "song" or "songs," a term whose connotations converge with those of the term "poetry," etymologically a "making" or a "doing." A song or poem takes up its performer's and its audience's time as well as making use of the performer's voice. Audible, a poem is insistently nonsilent, even in some forms antisilent.1 As a result, this sort of poem implies a literal audience of "listeners." This is emphasized by the sociology of ancient reading, much of which was done aloud and with awareness of group-performative elements.2 Insofar as silence is a meaningful element of aural practice, we thus have reason to expect that sound and silence work together to produce great effects on the meaning of an ancient poem.

Going further, Catullus may be read as recognizing that any utterance, any actual linguistic or literary act, requires a corresponding action or selection against other potential acts. Poetic utterance in particular requires a corresponding silence. This silence ramifies into multiple types and forms.3 As a thing that takes up some of our limited time, poetry as it "makes" or "does" necessarily makes other things impossible. If that exclusion is not absolute in fact, then it is significant in the fiction of a poem insofar as it relates to the audience's and the performer's limited time and capacity for perception. In particular, a poem as an audible utterance precludes, or at least insists on imagining the preclusion of, other utterances, with its own sound superseding others' and so requiring, even imposing, their silence. Presupposing a pause as the speaker draws breath, a poem thus depends on a precedent silence that occupies a strange space between factual and purely fictional. If only this poem were not, another poem could be; but this poem is, and therefore there is both a silence that precedes and a silence that comes alongside, suppressing other potential claims on the audience's attention. This is one "meaning" of a poem's precedent silence as a sign that is strictly inaudible but nonetheless interpretable: there is an utterance to come, for/therefore other utterances are precluded or foreclosed. The necessity of silence thus allows for a paradoxical signification both forward, or outward, and backward in time.

We cannot say that Catullus's poems exactly make a "virtue" of this necessity. As we have seen, their valuation of silence as an inevitable

fact of language and of life varies too widely, in parallel to their wide range of topics and tones. As a result, they treat their own silences not as indisputable facts but as aspects of experience that are interesting in their relation to discourse and to how discourse comprises human beings-in-language. As we have seen, however, his poems may nevertheless be read as enacting a dramatic and consequential transformation of silence from "inevitable linguistic fact" to "essential part of literary fiction." In this sense, Catullus's poetics of silence would seem an essential enough feature of his poetry to be ranked alongside, for example, his longer-recognized interests in intersubjectivity, positionality, and social performance

Perhaps above all, attention to a poetics of silence helps to emphasize and nuance the critical observation that Catullus's poetry gives the impression of being overheard. That description may be nuanced in terms of the poems' concrete figurations and abstract senses of their own per-formativity: how they purport to be overheard from secret spaces, from public places into which private meaning has intruded, from behind closed doors, from moments of properly limited publicity and inappropriate intimacy. To a remarkable degree and with remarkable consequences, Catullus's poetics, in my view, willfully requires that this overhearing includes—in variously ramifying shapes and types—silence itself. This poetics of silence corresponds to a literal spontaneity in the poems, that is, to even their most effusive-seeming examples as resulting from the poet's act of artistic will.4 As one human act among others, silence too may be spontaneous, willful, intentional. It is thus easily made meaningful. In other words, silence, being already perceptible, is also, in some of its forms at least, intelligible as a meaningful gesture. As we have seen, silence may be read as a sign in its own peculiar terms.

Catullus may therefore productively be read as treating silence as a sign whose meanings consist in its manner of indicating a signified that is, as a result, "inaudible" in various interesting ways. Silence may mean accidentally or historically or, in certain poems and situations, essentially. Catullus develops a range of responses to silence as various but, despite its variety, as always occupying attention in place of a potential utterance. In certain poems, an utterance or an entire being-in-language is kept just out of hearing in ways that are variously amusing, elusive, grave. Above all, Catullus treats this situation as an opportunity that the witty poet may take advantage of, which, indeed, he must take advantage of with certain urbanity if he is to be judged an aesthetic success and, therefore, a social one. Given—or imagining—an

absence of utterance from other potential speakers, the poet must, may, and does gleefully imagine for himself something sensational. At least at first he must do this, imagining if not something that is sensational in itself, then something that may make for sensational poetry. As we have seen, the story that is assumed to lie behind silence, the suppressed utterance, seems to be more useful to Catullus if it is somehow "trivial." For there is the greater challenge for the poet aspiring to a success that consists, in part, in its surprise by contrast or, as we have seen it put, by "making a silk purse of a sow's ear."

At points, however, the contrast between silence or silenced speech and poetry proves too much for the poet to respond to in any way other than seriously, as silence starts to indicate its unfortunately most powerful form, the ultimate silence of death. More often, Catullus's poetics of silence is rather more richly varied. By reading for how a perceptive poet may value silence as an opportunity for his own successful utterance, more than he would value a comparatively lesser utterance by another speaker, implicitly or explicitly less urbane, we have seen in greater detail some of the ways in which Catullus explores the more general relationship that was mooted in antiquity between poetry and its purpose of guaranteeing immortality in culture. Poetry's capacity to preserve is, by definition, a relationship between utterance and silence.

Defining my argument in relation to scholarly work on silence in general, on Latin poetry in general, and on Catullus in particular, I have tried in this book to offer fresh readings of many important poems, including some that are well known and others that have been subjected themselves to a sort of silence, having received less attention in scholarship and criticism. Based on those close readings, I have argued that there is such a thing as a poetics of silence. I have sought to show how close consideration of silence—as structural principle, as thematic concern, and as a crucial aspect of the experience of beings-in-language— is applicable to poetry, literature, and utterance more generally. I hope thus to have enriched our reading of Catullus's poems and, by extension, our understanding of Latin poetry, Latin literature, ancient literature, and the verbal and other arts that have come after.

I also hope to have deepened our understanding of silence. Silence deserves our attention. It may, in a way, lead to our continual re-creation. As in this conclusion's epigraph, it ought to "disturb and vex our meditation," leading first to the sort of reflective representation of the world

at which language seems to excel and, then, as it did for Coleridge no less than Catullus, helping to call that semblance into question. What does language only seem to do, in a sort of hopeful fiction that is really a suppression of what is, in fact, properly a part of silence? What human meanings, or what aspects of human meaning making, live rather in the spaces between words? In what ways might human being, seeming to be a kind of being-in-language, actually consist in its relationship to silence?

Having tried to read certain of Catullus's poems afresh from this perspective, I have the feeling that answers to those questions will not so much surprise us as cause an uncanny shock of recognition. Surrounded as we are by sounds, many of them allegedly of our own choosing, we stand to be surprised by how we may immediately and deeply recognize, as if literally "thinking again" or encountering again, the various meanings of various kinds of silence. In this connection, paying attention to silence reminds us of the sorts of meanings that were possible before so many of us were so continuously surrounded by sounds, before a deep pervasion of public life, personal life, and private time by recorded sounds. We need not agree entirely with, for example, a Merton or a Sontag to feel, at points, that such thinkers are right about such pervasion by sound being a kind of perversion of our being.5 Nor must we believe that a modern noisiness calls us away from the divine in particular to feel, as Merton himself does more generally, that it distracts from something of importance. In silence, at least as it is relative to our experience of noise, there is, still and always, an experience of high value.

Recently it has become possible to calculate the "sound," the vibration, that was generated by the aftereffects of the big bang as well as the average of the vibrations that pervade the observable universe.6 As a result we may understand the second law of thermodynamics, which requires that there be entropy, as implying an ultimate silence of the universe. Silence is therefore not a constant, nor really an absolute, but a thing to which we relate in time. Thinking about beginnings instead of endings, we may understand silence as the background against which sound has surprisingly come into being. It is one of the principles according to which sounds may be said to have internal structure and are differentiated from one another. It is the ground state to which sound, a state of excitement that requires an investment of energy, must return.

Paying attention to silence allows us to recognize its peculiar value as part of our own meaning making, to reconsider it, and, if we choose, to recover it. In my view this process is aided by paying attention to how silence takes place in poetry. Since the rhythms of poetry may serve "to prolong contemplation" (Yeats), poetry helps to focus our attention on the fact that utterance and silence structure each other and make meanings together. Catullus may say outright that "Venus loves wordy talk" (55.20: uerbosa gaudet Venus loquela), but I hope to have shown that he also places high value indeed on silence as it contextualizes utterance, structuring it as well as opposing it. In certain poems at least, Catullus is deeply invested in the fact that, as beings-in-language, we are brought into freighted and meaningful relationships with silence. I have argued for the interest and plausibility of this reading—overhearing—of Catullus. I hope that other readers and listeners will seek to develop it further, correcting my work as needed. For the silence of an ancient author, the silences that are in an ancient author: these we modern readers may break and fill meaningfully indeed.