Here Catullus is concerned with the power relations between poet and reader, and he begins with a phallic threat that reverses the position that Furius and Aurelius, as readers of Catullus’ titillating verse, have adopted in relation to the poet who speaks in the style of an effeminate:
Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo,
Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi,
qui me ex versiculis meis putastis,
quod surit molliculi, parum pudicum.
I’ll bugger you and make you eat it,
Aurelius you queer and Furius you pansy,
who read my verses and concluded,
because they’re soft, that I’m not straight. (16.1-4)
Catullus claims that his performance turns his audience into excitable pathics. His verses have charm and bite only
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici,
et quod pruriat incitare possunt,
non dico pueris, sed his pilosis
qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos. (8-11)
if they’re a little soft and not quite straight,
and can incite a tingling,
not in boys, I say, but in these hairy types,
whose stiff flanks don’t know how to undulate.
The word durus (hard, 11) is cunningly given a meaning (stiff/clumsy) that upsets the paradigm implied by Furius and Aurelius when they insinuate that Catullus is a pathic: the hairy types are not flexible enough for the undulations of the pathic, but the poet’s verse can still set them twitching.36 This puts his readers in rather a different position from that assumed by Furius and Aurelius.
The identification of the reader with the pathic in this poem has its precedents. There is a type of ancient graffito of which the following is the most elaborate form:
amat qui scribit, pedicatur qui legit,
qui auscultat prurit, pathicus est qui praeterit.
ursi me comedant et ego verpa(m) qui lego.
The writer loves, the reader is buggered,
the hearer itches, the passerby is a pathic.
May bears eat me and I who read eat a penis.37
It seems that Catullus’ poem reflects a model already present in Roman popular culture. An even closer parallel to Catullus’ play with the ambiguous relation between poet and reader is provided by his greatest imitator, Martial (11.90) In Martial’s poem, a certain Chrestillus wants Martial to imitate the rough style of the old poets. Chrestillus disapproves of poems “that move on a soft track” (molli quae limite currunt, 1), but Martial turns the tables on his critic’s implication by concluding, after he has reviewed the manly kind of poetry that Chrestillus likes, “damn me if you don’t know the flavor of prick” (dispeream nisi scis mentula quid sapiat, 8). Depending on whether we take sapiat (tastes) literally or metaphorically, we will interpret Chrestillus’ approval of the ancient poets’ virility in rather different ways, and this raises the important question of how the reader is situated in relation to the poet and the poem. Furius and Aurelius, like Chrestillus, understand the poetry of Catullus to be revealing an effeminacy that puts him in the subordinate position with respect to his male readership; Chrestillus himself adopts the masculine position in relation to Martial by comparing his poetry unfavorably to the “manly” kind that he, Chrestillus, admires. The two poets make a similar kind of move in response, which is to remind the reader that he is the recipient of the poetry. Chrestillus, according to Martial, relishes (as fellator) the prick of the poetry he calls virile, and Furius and Aurelius, as readers, realize the softness of Catullus’ poetry, which he as author forces them to adopt; the subjectivity of the poetry is in some sense assumed by the reader, whose pathic excitement puts the author in the dominant position.38 A more recent example of the same play with the position of the reader is the punning title of John Lahr’s biography of Joe Orton: Prick Up Your Ears!
36. My interpretation of pruriat and “movere lumbos” as referring respectively to the sexual arousal and wiggling buttocks of the pathic and not, as is more usual, to erections is in agreement with T. P. Wiseman, 1987, Roman Studies Literary and Historical Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 222-224, and Vinzenz Buchheit, 1976, “Sal et lepos versiculorum (Catull c.16).” Hermes 104, no. 3: 331-347, pp. 342-344. Both authors provide ample parallels for these meanings. See also Daniel Selden, 1992. “Ceveat Lector: Catullus and the Rhetoric of Performance.” In R. Hexter and D. Selden, eds., Innovations of Antiquity, New York: Routledge, 461-512, p. 485, and especially note 117 on cevere. For the sexual stimulation caused by effeminate poetry, see Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 130-34, and Persius 1.19-21, both of whom locate the excitement in the anus. For movere lumbos used of the movement of the pathic’s buttocks, see Vergil, Cat. 13.21, and for prurire used of the sexual excitement of the pathic (usque ad umbilicum), see Martial 6.37.3.
37. CIL 4.2360; compare 13.10017. On this graffito, see A. E. Housman “Praefanda.” Hermes 66: 402-12, 1931. Housman interprets prurit in line 2 to mean the same as I have argued it does in Catullus 16.9. Jesper Svenbro, Phrasikleia: Anthropologie de la lecture en Grèce ancienne. Paris: La Decouverte, 1988, pp. 207-218, has recently studied the Greek parallels to this graffito and argues that pederasty is one of the models through which the Greeks understood the relation between writing and reader; according to this model, the reader is cast as the ēromenē.
38. For a similar analysis of the relation between reader and author in Catullus 16, see Daniel Selden, “Ceveat Lector: Catullus and the Rhetoric of Performance.” In R. Hexter and D. Selden, eds., Innovations of Antiquity, New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 461-512, at p. 485; William Batstone, “Logic, Rhetoric and Poiesis.” Helios Vol. 20.2, 1993, pp. 143-72, at pp. 150-55, is an interesting study of the relation between literal and figurative in this poem that also raises the issue of the position of the reader. An extraordinary passage from Seneca’s Epistles (46.1-2), in which Seneca describes his encounter with a text of Lucilius, is cited by Thomas Habinek, “An Aristocracy of Virtue: Seneca on the Beginnings of Wisdom.” Yale Classical Studies, 1992, 2.9: pp. 187-203, at pp. 196-97, and it provides a fascinating example of the use of a sexual model for reading. The passage begins with Seneca the reader exploring a text that is levis (smooth), unlike his own body (and Lucilius’). But drawn on by the text’s “sweetness” (dulcedo), Seneca gradually comes to take the feminine position in relation to a text that is “virile”, “big,” and “taut,” and which he swallows whole (exhausi totum)! The process is exactly the same as in Catullus 16, where the effeminacy of the text paradoxically penetrates the reader, except that in this case the reader is actually rejoicing in his passivity.
— William Fitzgerald, Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position (Classics and Contemporary Thought, 1), University of California Press (November, 1999), pp. 49-50