Friday, August 09, 2013

Venus / Joan of Arc / Lucretius

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879.
Something about this painting (which I discovered via this Believer interview of Ben Lerner by Tao Lin) reminds me of the ambiguous role of the gods in Lucretius's De rerum natura. He begins his Epicurean epic with this invocation to Venus (in Basil Bunting's translation):
Darling of Gods and Men, beneath the gliding stars
you fill rich earth and buoyant sea with your presence
for every living thing achieves its life through you
rises and sees the sun. For you the sky is clear,
the tempests still. Deft earth scatters her gentle flowers,
the level ocean laughs, the softened heavens glow
with generous light for you. In the first days of spring
which the untrammelled allrenewing southwind blows
the birds exult in you and herald your coming
Then the shy cattle leap and swim the brooks for love.
Everywhere, through all seas mountains and waterfalls,
love caresses all hearts and kindles all creatures
to overmastering lust and ordained renewals.
Therefore, since you alone control the sum of things
and nothing without you comes forth into the light
and nothing beautiful or glorious can be
without you, Alma Venus! trim my poetry
with your grace; and give peace to write and read and think.
This invocation is deeply puzzling to me, given the thesis that Lucretius goes on to unfold: that the way things are, the nature of the universe, is entirely atomistic and material: the gods have no role in creation, and "grim Religion" is castigated as "Horribly threatening mortal men" (switching now to Rolfe Humphries' translation). Yet Venus, the goddess of eros, "alone control[s] the sum of things," and Lucretius entreats her to distract Mars, the god of war, by having sex with him so that he becomes "Forgetful of his office, head bent back, / No more the roughneck, gazing up at you, / Gazing and gaping, all agog for love, / His every breath dependent on your lips." Later in the poem, Lucretius seems to suggest in almost the same breath two opposed ideas: 1) the gods are only a story or "tradition," metaphors at best; 2) the gods are real, but remote:
All this, all this is wonderfully told,
A marvel of tradition, and yet far
From the real truth. Reject it--for the gods
Must, by their nature, take delight in peace,
Forever calm, serene, forever far
From our affairs, beyond all pain, beyond
All danger, in their own resources strong,
Having no need of us at all, above
Wrath or propitiation.

                                   Let a man
Call upon Neptune, if he likes, say Ceres
When he means corn or wheat, miscall his wine
By an apostrophe to Father Bacchus,
Let him keep on repeating that our globe
Is the gods' mother--but let hi, all this while,
Be careful, really, not to let religion
Infect, pollute, corrupt him. Earth indeed
Is quite insentient, has always been,
And as possessor of all particles
Sends many forth in many ways to light,
No consciousness about it.
Look at Joan in Bastien-Lepage's painting. She is rendered with meticulous realism: her flesh is heavy and palpable, her clothing almost rough to the touch. Her outstretched left hand touches nothing; her gaze is fixed at some elevated point we can't see. Behind her are the weightless, nearly transparent forms of angels--one armed, offering a sword, one enraptured or entreating, one bent over in sorrow or ecstasy. Joan sees, and does not see, what we see. The divine messengers have for her both more and less reality than they do for the viewer. Her vision is ethical: not a mimesis of what is, but of what should be: she, Joan, shall fight for France. And yet she is alone before her humble house.

The angels do not confront her. They are behind her, as her own body as visible object is "behind" her in Merleau-Ponty's theory of the intersection of the body and world as "flesh": "the total visible is always behind, or after, or between the aspects that we see of it, there is access to it only through an experience which, like it, is wholly outside of itself" (The Visible and the Invisible, 136). The body, for Merleau-Ponty, is a kind of fold, möbius strip, or "chiasm," as sensor and sensed. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the world as appearing "behind" the body, in a manner reminiscent of how the world appears in a third-person shooter game like Assassin's Creed. He rejects the transcendental subject--the subject that literally "overlooks" the world, the god's eye view: "No longer are there essences above us, like positive objects, offered to a spiritual eye: but there is an essence beneath us, a common nervure of the signifying and signified, adherence in and reversibility of one another--as the visible things are the secret folds of our flesh, and yet our body is one of the visible things" (118).

Not quite a god's-eye view.
The flesh of Joan appears real, and that flesh discloses to her the the angels as flesh-of-the-world-that-must-be, and they appear to us in question: they are there in an indeterminate register that is not simply psychological. The gods in Lucretius are real in the same indeterminate register, to be appealed to as virtualities, as names for forces that we might address, that hold us in their own grip, behind or to one side of the atomistic actions of matter. Chaste Joan is called to war, as Venus is called upon to "pour yourself around [Mars], bend / With all your body's holiness, above / His supine meekness, drown him in persuasion, / Imploring, for the Romans, blessed peace." Venus and the angels are as real as Mars, as Joan, the flesh of war, the erotics of peace.

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