Gender B(L)Ending and Elegiac Composition: A Queer Reading of Tibullus 1.8
1 Pages Posted: 16 May 2010
Date Written: May 14, 2010
Tibullus 1.8 offers a prime example of the theatrical manner in which characters are arranged onto the elegiac stage. The puer Marathus adorns himself in front of a mirror, as if he were a courtesan in Roman comedy, in the hopes of attracting an unresponsive girl named Pholoe. He arranges his locks in various modes, puts on make-up, gets a manicure, and wears tight-laced shoes (1.8.9-14). Nikoloutsos (2010) has interpreted this account as an allegory for the practice of writing elegy in late 1st-century-B.C.E. Rome. Yet, despite this interesting metapoetic reading, the significance of Marathus’ transvestism for the construction of gender in Tibullus Book One as a whole has been left unexplored. Borrowing Butler’s concept of drag as a practice that exposes the imitative nature of gender and challenges established definitions of man and woman as polar opposite categories (1990), this paper will argue that in poem 1.8 Tibullus fashions a puer whose body serves as a site for the performative reiteration of gender norms and simultaneously undercuts the active/passive binarism. Marathus’ oscillation between masculine and feminine positions, I shall further argue, bears resemblance to, and thus can shed more light on, the Tibullan narrator’s own gender fluidity and his failure to adhere to the hegemonic model of virtus.
Marathus’ cultus demonstrates that gender is, as Butler has put it, “a stylized repetition of acts” (1940: 140), a practice that requires that a set of certain rules be followed or ‘cited’ visually and behaviorally. However, in Marathus’ case the participation in this citational process results in the production of a queer (= strange, odd, ambiguous, eccentric) body. Marathus strives to change his sexual identity and become the amator of Pholoe by paradoxically enhancing his androgynous appeal as a puer delicatus. Although this strategy of approaching the opposite sex makes no sense at the erotic level - indeed, Pholoe rejects Marathus (1.8.49-50) - it does at the poetic level. Tib. 1.8, I shall argue, produces an interesting blending of genre and gender. Marathus is portrayed as tener (1.8.51), a term used by Tibullus in Book One to refer to the delicacy and refinement of his art (Nikoloutsos 2007). Pholoe, on the other hand, is described as dura (1.8.50), a pejorative term that Latin elegists use to refer to epic poetry (e.g., Cairns 1984, Kennedy 1993, Keith 1994, Wyke 2002, Miller 2004). Pursuing the metapoetic connotations behind Pholoe’s construction further, I shall consider various passages (Hor. Carm. 1.33-6-7, 2.5.17, Stat. Silv. 2.3.10), which emphasize the duritia of Pholoe and link her with the epic, heroic world.
Building on James’ observation that Marathus embodies features of the elegiac poet-lover (2003), I shall argue that the gender indeterminacy of the boy calls attention to the queerness of the Tibullan narrator best illustrated in 1.2, 1.3, and 1.5. Tibullan poetry, I shall conclude, renders puer and vir not as antithetical, but as homologous categories.
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