Catullus as ‘Proto-Queer’

Michael Broder has a piece in the Huffington Post (and he’s elicited comments on the Classics list as well) on a piece suggesting Catullus was a sort of proto-Queer and in the forefront of the development of camp. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, since I started arguing for the Roman invention of camp at academic conferences in 2009, I’ve received some support, but more pushback. A generation of classics scholars staked their careers on the idea that this sort of ridicule was deadly serious and was all the proof we needed that every homophobic bone in our modern social body could be traced back to ancient Rome. These folks don’t take kindly to my claim that Catullus, more than simply being ironic, is a kind of proto-queer figure. Others insist that I cannot use the 20th-century term “camp” to describe a type of poetry and a social milieu found in ancient Rome. Like so many gay voices today, my critics claim, I’m just hell-bent on “seeing us in them,” of finding evidence for gayness wherever I look in history. Both of these sins fall under the general charge of “presentism,” applying modern categories inappropriately to the past. But now I’m on The Huffington Post, not at an academic conference. You make the rules around here. So read on and tell me what you think.

I won’t post any of the rest because I’m trying not to have rogueclassicism blocked in schools for language and the like. Another (fuller) version is apparently in Gay and Lesbian Review 18.5, which is behind a paywall). In any event, as is usually the case at HuffPo, the comments aren’t that deep … it would be nice to see some folks with knowledge of Classics (and I’m thinking Aristophanes and Atellan farce) to make some learned commentary … for my part, I don’t have a problem with Catullus as ‘camp’ but I’m not sure it’s an ‘either or’ sort of thing. But what I really don’t like is when we’re held up as nameless straw people.

5 thoughts on “Catullus as ‘Proto-Queer’

  1. Hi David. I appreciate your posting this here and I also appreciate your comments. When you say “nameless straw people,” do you mean my reluctance to name names in the passage you cite? I hope you realize that I am trying to avoid hurting too many feelings and/or burning too many bridges. I think people who have been involved in these issues for some time will have a pretty clear idea of whom I am referring to. But again, thanks for helping to share my work.

  2. I also want to comment on the idea that Catullus’s queerness it’s not an either-or sort of thing. I suppose you mean we can read Catullus as proto-queer or not, it’s a choice. I don’t really think that’s the case, and this is in fact a part of the pushback I’ve received for the past 5 years or so. If we define “queer” as counter-normative with respect to sex, gender, and kinship, then a person, action, or artifact (like Catullus or a poem of Catullus) either is or is not queer. It does not mean that every reading or analysis of the poem has to foreground this fact. Anyone is free to read, study, or write about the poem from any interpretive framework they choose, although some readings are going to be more successful than others by objective standards of argumentation and evidence. But if I make a *successful* argument for the queerness of Catullus, then my colleagues and peers cannot simply choose not to understand Catullus that way because it’s not to their taste. I’m either right about this or I’m wrong about this. If I’m wrong about this, end of story. If I’m right about this, then refusing to understand Catullus as a queer figure is, I would argue, homophobic and unjust.

  3. Ok, I’m not an expert on some of these issues, but I’ll respond to the invitation posted on facebook to come and comment on this. I’ve read the Huff Post piece, and there are some good things in it, but also some pretty bad things. Like David, I find your use of “nameless straw men” pretty lame, not because they are nameless but because they are straw men. Your piece gives the impression that Classicists are a bunch of stick-in-the-muds resistant to your brilliant ideas, which you present in a way reminiscent of the Mighty Mouse theme song: “Here I come to save the day!” You give the impression that no Classicist had ever thought of applying the modern concept of camp to a classical text, which I hope you know is dead wrong, and also that if they ever had, the whole clueless tribe of us would have rejected the idea. This is not really a good time in history for Classicists to be publishing articles in the popular press falsely claiming that all other Classicists are clueless. The sweeping claims about “a whole generation of Classicists” include one mild overstatement, that everyone in Classics takes Catullus’ abuse poems seriously, linked to one wildly inaccurate claim, that all these misguided folks think that Catullus’ poems are “all the proof we needed that every homophobic bone in our modern social body could be traced back to ancient Rome.” The number of people I know who hold this second view is I think pretty close to zero. In general, your whole attitude towards people who disagree with you seems unfortunate, including your response to David. Your claim that “colleagues and peers cannot simply choose not to understand Catullus that way because it’s not to their taste,” as though that is what David has done, is very unimpressive. In sum, you seem to have some good ideas, but if your every response to criticism is to caricature the views of those who disagree with you, I’m not optimistic about your chances of making the most of them.

  4. Hi Jim,

    Just came across this now…not sure I saw it 7 years ago! Would you be able to tell me which classicists, other than Wooten, C. 1984. “Petronius and ‘Camp.’” Helios. 11:133-9 (which I cite in my dissertation and discuss extensively), have discussed the idea of camp in antiquity?

    Hope you are doing well in these pandemic times. I just looked over your bio on the UNC website and you seem like a lovely guy, a wonderful teacher, and an accomplished scholar.


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