As opposed to the other four senses, touch has the distinction of being (or of being imagined as being) absolutely unmediated: a matter of direct contact, body impinging on body. This immediacy may be viewed as a deficit (touch is conventionally the lowliest of the senses) or as an advantage (touch is the sense freighted with the most “reality”). The underlying argument of this paper is that, either way, as far as erotic touching is concerned (pain is a different story), this perspective overstates the difference between body and non-body (objects and signs, flesh and words) while underestimating the confounding powers of fantasy.
Nowhere in ancient poetry are these confounding powers more on display than in Ovid’s Amores. As Alison Sharrock puts it, “writing poetry, for Ovid, is not just about sexuality; it is itself an erotic experience, in which it is impossible to distinguish clearly between sex and poetry” (Sharrock 2002: 99; cf. Kennedy 1993: 82; Kaesser 2008). In practice, scholars working at the intersections of sex and poetry tend to gravitate toward metapoetics, tracking, for example, the Callimachean implications of the lover’s escapades (see in general Bretzigheimer 2001 and, on 1.5, Keith 1994). The goal of this paper is to explore what a reading would look like that took up Sharrock’s challenge and focused squarely on the erotics of writing.
My texts are Amores 1.4 and 1.5, a diptych that revolves around the sense of touch, first frustrated and then indulged. (Though one might expect forms of tangere to be everywhere in the Amores, in Amores 1 the verb is restricted to this pair of poems, appearing seven times in 1.4 and once in 1.5.) In 1.4 (a poem that has received very little attention from scholars; Miller 2004 is the chief exception), the lover briefs his girlfriend on how to behave at a dinner party she will be attending with someone else; in 1.5 (possibly the most celebrated poem in the Amores), he recounts, to no one in particular, an afternoon of perfect sexual satisfaction provided by a woman he names as Corinna. 1.4 opens with the lover sputtering indignantly at the prospect of being reduced to looking at his girlfriend from a distance, as if he were nothing more than a fellow-dinner guest, while “the other man” enjoys the pleasures of her touch (3-4): ergo ego dilectam tantum conviva puellam / aspiciam? tangi quem iuvet, alter erit? By contrast, 1.5 contains the lover’s gratified recollection of a happy partnership of “seeing” with “touching,” quales vidi tetigique lacertos (19), which culminated in total sexual contact, nudam pressi corpus ad usque meum (24). Taken together, the poems seem to reinforce a contrast between sight and touch, mediation and immediacy, erotic frustration and erotic satisfaction: the lover wants touching in 1.4 and enjoys it in 1.5.
What this paper aims to show is that this account, though accurate as far as it goes, fails to capture the force of either poem. On the one hand, 1.4 invents a mode of long-distance touching that coopts and displaces the actual contact between girlfriend and vir. It shows that the pleasures of touch are underwritten by a communicative intention and, conversely, that the desire to communicate can impose itself (or “make itself felt”) as the exciting equivalent of a touch (thrilling to the lover whether or not his girlfriend receives it). On the other hand, the blank rhetoric of 1.5 (“what arms! what breasts!”) evacuates the very experience it purports to transcribe, transforming it into a template for the reader’s desire (a position with which the lover can in turn identify). Thus the erotic energy that is put into circulation in 1.4 is bottled and displayed in the retrospective narrative of 1.5, as the lover’s frantic tange makes way for a complacent, envy-generating tetigi.