Thursday, June 18, 2015

Corydon’s Complaint

But Virgil’s songs are pure, except that horrid one
Beginning with ‘Formosum Pastor Corydon.’

Byron, Don Juan, I.42.

The shepherd Corydon burned hopelessly
for handsome Alex, darling of his lord.
He’d often go alone into a grove
of shady beeches, where to hills and woods
he’d longingly fling out his useless plea:

“O savage Alex, you ignore my songs!
Why won’t you pity me? You’ll make me die!
The sheep now flee beneath the cooling shade,
green lizards even hide in thornbushes,
and Thestilis grinds up her fragrant herbs:
garlic and thyme for heatstruck harvesters.
But while I trace your steps through burning sun,
the bushes buzz with crickets on my path.
Should I bear Amaryllis in your place?
Her gloomy rage and snooty pride? Perhaps
Menalcas, though he’s dark and you are fair.
(O handsome boy, these colors can deceive!
White privets fall; dark hyacinth gets plucked.)

“But Alex, ah! you don’t ask who I am,
nor how much sheep and snowy milk I own;
a thousand roaming lambs in Sicily,
that is, and fresh milk during cold and heat.
I sing the songs that Amphion used to sing
to woo his flocks on Aracynthus’ slopes.
And I am far from ugly. I just saw
my own reflection in the windless sea:
you’d love me more than Daphnis, lest it lied.

“If only you’d delight to live with me
in wild fields and humble cottages!
We’d spear the deer and drive the goats to graze.
Together in the woods we’d sing like Pan,
who taught us first to join our reeds with wax,
who tends the sheep and them who herd the sheep.
You’d gladly wear your lips down on his pipe
while we played songs Amyntas longs to know!
I have a pipe of seven sloping reeds
that old Damoetas gave me once. He said
before he died—this is now yours
Damoetas said, and dull Amyntas envied me.
I also have two little white-flecked kids
whom I discovered in a wild dale,
who drain a ewe each day. They’re both for you,
but Thestilis has longed to nab them both,
and I will let her, since you spurn my gifts.

“Come here, my handsome boy, for—look!—the Nymphs
bring basketfuls of lilies. Naïs fair
joins yellow violets and plucked poppy-tops
to narcissus and fragrant dill for you.
She weaves them all with cinnamon;
soft hyacinths with yellow marigolds.
And I’ll add tender peaches, white with down,
and chestnuts that my Amaryllis loved,
and yellow plums, for that fruit’s worthy too.
I’ll also pluck laurel, and myrtle leaves,
which waft sweet odors when they’re both bound up.

“But Alex flouts your gifts, coarse Corydon,
and if we judge by gifts, Iöllas wins.
But ah! I wound myself! My buds are lost
to southern winds, and boars thrash in my pools.

“I madly roam! The gods, too, roamed the woods,
and Trojan Paris. Give Athena towns,
and let me love the woods above all else.
The savage lion hunts the wolf, who hunts
the frisky goat, who hunts the clover-blooms,
and Corydon hunts Alex: each one dragged
by his own lust.

                            “Now look: the oxen pull
their yoked-up plows back home, and shadows creep.
But love still burns me: what can limit love?
What madness holds you fast, ah Corydon!
Your half-pruned vine still drapes the leafy elm.
At least make something useful: take some twigs,
perhaps, and tie them up with grass. 
You’ll find another Alex if you’re scorned.”

—Virgil, Bucolics, II. My translation.

Vergilius Romanus (an illustrated manuscript), 5th century.
Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin,
delicias domini, nec quid speraret habebat.
Tantum inter densas, umbrosa cacumina, fagos
adsidue veniebat. Ibi hæc incondita solus
montibus et silvis studio jactabat inani;

“O crudelis Alexi, nihil mea carmina curas?
nil nostri miserere? mori me denique cogis?
Nunc etiam pecudes umbras et frigora captant,
nunc virides etiam occultant spineta lacertos,
Thestylis et rapido fessis messoribus æstu
alia serpyllumque herbas contundit olentis.
At mecum raucis, tua dum vestigia lustro,
sole sub ardenti resonant arbusta cicadis.
Nonne fuit satius tristis Amaryllidos iras
atque superba pati fastidia? nonne Menalcan,
quamvis ille niger, quamvis tu candidus esses?
O formose puer, nimium ne crede colori;
alba ligustra cadunt, vaccinia nigra leguntur.

“Despectus tibi sum nec qui sim quæris, Alexi,
quam dives pecoris, nivei quam lactis abundans.
mille meæ Siculis errant in montibus agnæ;
lac mihi non æstate novum, non frigore defit.
canto quæ solitus, si quando armenta vocabat,
Amphion Dircæus in Actæo Aracyntho.
Nec sum adeo informis; nuper me in litore vidi,
cum placidum ventis staret mare. Non ego Daphnin
judice te metuam, si numquam fallit imago.

“O tantum libeat mecum tibi sordida rura
atque humilis habitare casas et figere cervos
hædorumque gregem viridi compellere hibisco!
Mecum una in silvis imitabere Pana canendo.
Pan primum calamos cerâ conjungere pluris
instituit, Pan curat ovis oviumque magistros;
nec te pœniteat calamo trivisse labellum.
Hæc eadem ut sciret, quid non faciebat Amyntas?
Est mihi disparibus septem compacta cicutis
fistula, Damœtas dono mihi quam dedit olim
et dixit moriens: te nunc habet ista secundum;
dixit Damœtas, invidit stultus Amyntas.
Præterea duo—nec tuta mihi valle reperti—
capreoli sparsis etiam nunc pellibus albo,
bina die siccant ovis ubera; quos tibi servo.
Jam pridem a me illos abducere Thestylis orat;
et faciet, quoniam sordent tibi munera nostra.

“Huc ades, o formose puer, tibi lilia plenis
ecce ferunt Nymphæ calathis; tibi candida Naïs,
pallentis violas et summa papavera carpens,
narcissum et florem jungit bene olentis anethi;
tum casia atque aliis intexens suavibus herbis
mollia luteolâ pingit vaccinia calthâ.
Ipse ego cana legam tenera lanugine mala
castaneasque nuces, mea quas Amaryllis amabat;
addam cerea pruna—honos erit huic quoque pomo—
et vos, o lauri, carpam et te, proxime myrte,
sic positæ quoniam suavis miscetis odores.

“Rusticus es, Corydon; nec munera curat Alexis
nec, si muneribus certes, concedat Iöllas.
Heu heu, quid volui misero mihi? Floribus Austrum
perditus et liquidis inmissi fontibus apros.

“Quem fugis, a, demens? Habitarunt dî quoque silvas
Dardaniusque Paris. Pallas quas condidit arces
ipsa colat; nobis placeant ante omnia silvæ.
torva leæna lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,
te Corydon, o Alexi; trahit sua quemque voluptas.
Aspice, aratra jugo referunt suspensa juvenci
et sol crescentis decedens duplicat umbras.
Me tamen urit amor; quis enim modus adsit amori?
A, Corydon, Corydon, quæ te dementia cepit!
semiputata tibi frondosâ vitis in ulmo.
Quin tu aliquid saltem potius, quorum indiget usus,
viminibus mollique paras detexere junco?
Invenies alium si te hic fastidit Alexin.”

Asking for Rapture

In the Scalzi Church in Venice, there are two Baroque statues that caught my attention. Placed in chapels on opposite sides of the altar, I imagine they were installed as a pair.

The first is of St. Teresa of Ávila. Born five hundred years ago last March, she is known for a string of mystical experiences that she underwent and set down in writing. But as far as art is concerned, she is famous for one vision in particular: the moment when, in her words,
I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. … He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. … I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.
There is only one other human experience we can compare this to—two, if you count listening to Tristan und Isolde. This encounter with heaven has nothing to do with the clever intellectual wanderings of the Barnes and Noble religion section. There’s no reflection, only terror. No careful reasoning, only pain and wonder. This is carnal love of heaven: more precisely, carnal love by heaven, since there’s no human agency involved.

Bernini, ~1650, The transverberation of Saint Teresa,
 Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria. 
The other statue is of St. Sebastian, who lived over a thousand years before Teresa. Condemned to death by the Roman Emperor for his Christian faith, Sebastian was tied to a post and shot with dozens of arrows. Who knows what went through the real Sebastian’s head on that day? But it’s obvious what goes on in the heads of the painted and sculpted Sebastians across Europe: we see a thirst for God that’s slaked slightly, and vastly exacerbated, with each new arrow.


(The focus on this episode by the way, seems to have been completely invented by painters: Sebastian actually survived being arrowed, and was later clubbed to death. Just as well, since real suffering is usually nowhere near as picturesque as spiritual suffering.)

Art historians, eager to save the downtrodden from the weight of history, have contended that Sebastian was a homosexual icon in Western art. He gave (so they say) Renaissance artists an opportunity to paint a bare-chested male in a heroic pose, and thus let them express their socially unacceptable desires. True enough. But this interpretation misses the deeper significance of Sebastian’s suffering, which I only understood when I saw his statue paired with Teresa’s.

Sebastian and Teresa were spiritual siblings. Both were seized by heaven in a violent, involuntary trance, brought on on both cases by painful arrows. They are the chief Christian examples of epileptic rapture. (Christ’s suffering does not fall into this category: his suffering on the cross made him believe that God had abandoned him, and it simply sucked.)

Sacred possession is, in fact, a common spiritual motif in world religion. It is common to male and female, slave and freeman, Christian and Pagan. The ancients had an instance of it in Ganymede, a Trojan youth who was snatched up by Zeus. It was also present in the ancient tales of the Maenads, the raving priestesses of Dionysus. And in the Hebrew Bible too:
And the spirit of God came upon [Saul] also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes, and he also prophesied before Samuel, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (I Sam. 19:23–4)
I’ve heard very often that the Ganymedean experience is fundamentally opposed to modern church-religion. This is true. But that’s almost always said with a reformist tone: we need to stop focusing on dry rituals, it’s said, and instead supply the passion that young people crave. Jay Michaelson, my intellectual nemesis, made this argument in an article about what Judaism has to learn from megachurches. And the Hasidim of the 18th century, afraid of scholastic malaise, inaugurated a massive romantic craze across Eastern Europe.

But attempting to invite divine possession, just like “searching for meaning,” usually becomes a grotesque charade. That’s because rapture is by definition involuntary. Daphne, though pursued by a god, pleaded to be turned into an unfeeling tree to be saved from him. Moses turned his face from the burning bush. Ecstasy, after all, happens when we don’t want it. And if we do want it, we’re setting ourselves up for pointless exhaustion and emotional striving. Unless a god is already frighteningly, unpleasantly close to us, we can’t summon one at will.

So even restoring the bloody, mysterious parts of the old cults—animal sacrifice, forest-dances, hieros gamos, etc.—would only come off as a smelly, pointless game. No: it’s up to the gods to instill awe, not to mortals to manufacture it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, God is in search of man.

You might say, as I once said, that there are certain conditions under which epileptic spiritual experiences are more likely. I still think it’s true; choosing to drink gin or to sing in a Corsican choir can bring on throbs of emotion that feel like they’re forced on you. But just as Harry chose Gryffindor because he was already a Gryffindor, we tend to go to church—and end up rattled and crying—only if we already have the spirit of God in us. When it comes to rapture, the gods choose their own.

Now, I’m not advocating for emotionless religion. I can think of few things worse. Unwilling terror, pain, and pleasure are still indispensable parts of any religion that’s worth anything. But we can’t have them. They belong to darkness, and we live in a brightly lit century. Nor would we necessarily want them back. But as historians, we should know what our ancestors felt, and as humans, we should understand that the spiritual spasms that shake us from time to time are echoes of a more sacred past.

I did some work a year ago on Christian medieval mystics, and as part of my research I had coffee with Bernard McGinn, one of the the foremost authorities on the topic. I asked him the question that strikes everyone who reads Catharine of Siena and Margery Kempe: “Why do these medievals put so much emphasis on visions?” He didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because they had them all the time. It sounds blunt, but people in the Middle Ages simply had more visions than us. It’s still common today, mostly in rural Africa and South America. But North Americans who live in cities just don’t hear voices or see angels.”

That’s all there is to say about our own relationship to Teresa and Sebastian. We can understand their inner fire—it’s written on their faces—but we can only rarely feel it ourselves. Now that the unwelcome sun is up, we rightfully judge it to be just a dream.