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Desire and Self-Construction in Tibullus' Elegies Book 1: Reading Tibullus with Lacan


In this dissertation, I propose that a Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to the speaking subject of the lover-poet in Tibullus’ Elegies can deepen our understanding of Tibullus’ poetry, particularly with respect to his fantasy of the countryside and his relationships with Delia and Marathus. I suggest that Lacanian psychoanalytic theory provides us with a framework through which we can articulate the complex and multi-layered process of self-reflection and self-construction in Tibullus’ Elegies Book 1.

In chapter 1, I look closely at the lover-poet’s country fantasy in poems 1.1, 1.10, and 2.1. In his fantasy of rustic happiness, we see the lover-poet’s longing for a sense of wholeness and sufficiency, which he repeatedly describes as “having enough.” Yet in each iteration of his dream, Amor disrupts the lover-poet’s ideal, bringing with it the threat of dissatisfaction, excess, and even violence. I propose that the theory of Amor which we find in the lover-poet’s country fantasy invites a Lacanian interpretation of Tibullus’ poems.

Chapter 2 suggests that the structure of desire in the lover-poet’s country fantasy parallels the structure of desire in his relationship with Delia. The lover-poet’s relationship with Delia thus fits into a broader investigation of the desiring subject in Elegies Book 1. Lacan’s concept of objet a provides a way to account for the ambiguity of what the lover-poet really wants in both of these fantasies and why he never seems to be able to attain it.

Chapter 3 expands my exploration of the lover-poet’s relationship with Delia to include his representation of Delia herself. First, I explain the sense of absence and uncertainty that surrounds the lover-poet’s representation of Delia’s desire in poem 1.2, putting forth Lacan’s account of Woman’s desire as a way to interpret these ambiguities. Second, I show how Lacan’s framework provides a way to understand the lover-poet’s excessive idealization of Delia in poem 1.3 as a series of fantasies around objet a.

In chapter 4, I shift my focus to the lover-poet’s self-portrayal in his relationship with Delia. The Tibullan lover-poet casts himself in a series of enigmatic positions, such as the ianitor (1.1) and the poor attendant (1.5), where he is trapped by restrictions which simultaneously enable and prevent his access to the object of his desire. The lover-poet only ever envisions having a sense of fulfillment from his relationship to Delia when he imagines himself dying or already dead. I suggest that the lover-poet’s self-positioning in each of these scenes reflects the plight of the subject in Lacanian theory.

Finally, in chapter 5, I consider the lover-poet’s representation of his relationship with the boy, Marathus, in poem 1.8. The lover-poet’s representation of the boy first as a puella-figure and then as an amator reveals the crisis of categories that emerges when he tries to articulate the boy’s place in his poetic world. I offer Lacan’s concept of Imaginary object relations to explain why the lover-poet represents Marathus in such a paradoxical manner and why he reacts as he does to his encounter with the boy in poem 1.8.

To conclude the dissertation, I present some ways that reading Tibullus’ Elegies Book 1 through a Lacanian lens enriches our understanding of Tibullus’ poetry and its relationship to the work of the other elegists.

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