Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hot Latin for Guys & Guys: Catullus 99

Surripui tibi, dum ludis, mellite Iuventi,
     suaviolum dulci dulcius ambrosia.
verum id non impune tuli: namque amplius horam
     suffixum in summa me memini esse cruce,
dum tibi me purgo nec possum fletibus ullis
     tantillum vestrae demere saevitiae.
nam simul id factum est, multis diluta labella
     guttis abstersisti omnibus articulis,
ne quicquam nostro contractum ex ore maneret,
     tamquam commictae spurca saliva lupae.
praeterea infesto miserum me tradere amori
     non cessasti omnique excruciare modo,
ut mi ex ambrosia mutatum iam foret illud
     suaviolum tristi tristius elleboro.
quam quoniam poenam misero proponis amori,
     numquam iam posthac basia surripiam. 

I just found a very compelling translation by Julia Haig Gaisser from her 2012 book, Catullus, in the Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World series, and I am going to reproduce it here while I think about how to write a verse translation that is anywhere near as good as this prose rendering.
I stole from you while you were teasing, honey-sweet Juventius, a little kiss sweeter than sweet ambrosia. But I did not get away with it unpunished. For I remember being nailed to the top of a cross for more than an hour while I apologized to you and could not for all my tears diminish a bit of your fury. For as soon as it was done, you washed your lips with many splashings of water and wiped them off with your dainty fingers, in case any contagion from my mouth remain, like the filthy spittle of a pissed-on whore. Besides, you did not hesitate to hand me over, wretched, to cruel love and to torture me in every way, so that changed from ambrosia that little kiss was now more bitter to me than bitter hellebore. Since this is the penalty you hold over my wretched love, I'll never steal kisses anymore.
Working on my own verse translation; this is likely to change...

I stole while you played, Juventius honey,
     a little kiss sweeter than sweet ambrosia.
Nor did I go unpunished, but for over an hour
     I remember hanging nailed atop the cross
atoning for my sin, nor for all my tears
     could I diminish a bit of your rage,
but before your lips could dry you rinsed them clean,
     wiped them with the back of your hand,
lest any contagion from my mouth remain,
     like the filthy spit of a piss-soaked whore,
all the while making me sick with hateful love,
     subjecting me to every possible torture,
until that little kiss transformed from ambrosia
     to something more bitter than bitter hellebore.
And since you levy this fine on my wretched love,
     never anymore any more kisses shall I steal.

Why I Love This Poem
You might not be surprised to learn that I love this poem because of its queer/camp sensibility. Again, queer means it's messing around with normative constructions of sex, gender, and kinship. Camp means it uses incongruity, theatricality, and humor to embrace stigmatized identity, particularly stigmatized gender identity. (See other posts in the Hot Latin for Guys & Guys category for further elaboration on these notions of queer and camp.)

To me, this poem is one of the clearest examples of Catullus-as-queer-poet in a strikingly modern sense. He loves another man, and not in some me-Tarzan-you-Jane-its-not-gay-as-long-as-I-stay-on-top kind of way. Yes, Catullus is, presumably, big and hard and hairy, and Juventius is, presumably, little and soft and smooth. But Catullus is Juventius's sexual plaything. Juventius is scornful and contemptuous; Catullus is lovesick, humiliated, degraded, and devastated by rejection, nor for all that does he desire Juventius any the less. To paraphrase Anne Bancroft to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, "Now if this is not a queer poem in a completely modern sense, then I don't know what."

So what's the so-what factor in my love of this poem and poems much like it? Well, we queers have long been told that we delude ourselves if we think we see ourselves among the ancient Greeks and Romans. There was no homo/hetero binary in classical antiquity, only a dominant/submissive binary, according to which there is nothing "queer" about a manly man having sex with a girly man or boy, as long as the manly man stays on top. I don't think, however, that the literary and material facts bear out that argument in quite the form to which we are accustomed to seeing it. Sure, homo/hetero is a nineteenth-century idea; and sure, dom/sub is a fairly accurate way to describe ancient Greek and Roman sex and gender dynamics. But no, that does not mean that there is nothing queer about an ancient Roman man having sex with another ancient Roman man, or boy, or slave. And you wanna know why not? It's because, in context after context, in poems by Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, and others, we see the whole dom/sub dichotomy totally break down. It all goes flippity flip, and soft little sissy boys end up on top, while big hard manly men end up on the bottom. Much like they do every day, right here, right now, in New York, and San Francisco, and Paris, London, Rome, Athens, and Tel Aviv, and Johannesburg, and Sophia, Bulgaria.

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