Eve, Satan, and Sewers…

September 20, 2012

In discussing his fine illustrated version of The Old Testament, R. Crumb said he always thought that Adam and Eve had more fun in Eden than The Bible lets on.  In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the same view, emphasizing just how much our first parents enjoy one another’s company, all without sinful lust, of course.

This all changes of course.  I was very taken by the passage in which Milton describes Satan, in the guise of the serpent, spying on Eve in the garden.  So beautiful is she, that he is briefly transported out of his evil self, almost becoming good, until he comes back down to earth!  Milton uses the simile of a city-dweller, oppressed by the smell of sewer fumes, feeling transported on leaving the town for the country, and viewing the green prospect, smelling that pure air.

Yeah, well, just pointing it out, the sewer bit, that is… (emphasis added to make my tedious point, etc.)

 As one who long in populous City pent,
       Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,
       Forth issuing on a Summers Morn, to breathe
       Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes
       Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,
       The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine,
       Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound;
       If chance with Nymphlike step fair Virgin pass,
       What pleasing seemd, for her now pleases more,
       She most, and in her look summs all Delight.
       Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold
       This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of EVE
       Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav’nly forme
       Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
       Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire
       Of gesture or lest action overawd
       His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav’d
       His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought 

       That space the Evil one abstracted stood
       From his own evil, and for the time remaind
       Stupidly good, of enmitie disarm’d,
       Of guile, of hate, of envie, of revenge;
       But the hot Hell that alwayes in him burnes,
       Though in mid Heav’n, soon ended his delight,
       And tortures him now more, the more he sees
       Of pleasure not for him ordain’d   then soon
       Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
       Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

       Thoughts, whither have he led me, with what sweet
       Compulsion thus transported to forget
       What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope
       Of Paradise for Hell, hope here to taste
       Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
       Save what is in destroying, other joy
       To me is lost. Then let me not let pass
       Occasion which now smiles, behold alone
       The Woman, opportune to all attempts,
       Her Husband, for I view far round, not nigh,
       Whose higher intellectual more I shun,
       And strength, of courage hautie, and of limb
       Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould,
       Foe not informidable, exempt from wound,
       I not; so much hath Hell debas’d, and paine
       Infeebl’d me, to what I was in Heav’n.
       Shee fair, divinely fair, fit Love for Gods,
       Not terrible, though terrour be in Love
       And beautie, not approacht by stronger hate,
       Hate stronger, under shew of Love well feign’d,
       The way which to her ruin now I tend.


The Many-named Jan Gossart

November 27, 2010

The Metropolitan has a marvelous exhibit of the works of Jan Gossart (he is known by a variety of names) that I visited today.  A northerner, in the pictorial tradition of van Eyck and other pioneering artists in oil, he, like Albrecht Durer, went south, and was enthralled by the ruins of the classical world and the Humanist revival in Italy.  He fuses this taste with his northern gothic tradition and produces something that is at times downright weird, but compelling.  The exhibit was unusual, I thought, in its emphasis on the sources in contemporary art of the north for many of his works.  Gossart was on the cutting edge; one of a group of humanist-scholar-artist afficianados who found deep-pocketed patrons to finance their new vision. 

As always, click on the images to enlarge them.

The image at the top was one of my favorites – a disguised portrait of a young girl as Mary Magdalen, so simple, plain, and lovely compared to the other Magdalen below.

His debt to Durer’s popular engraving is clear and direct, but he drops some of the classicizing of the print’s image.

   

Here, he cuts loose a bit and depicts Adam and Eve as actual human beings, rather “than Biblical Figures”, who are obviously quite attracted to one another.

The Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen:  The first is calm, contemplative, and shows that strange marble-like texture found in so many of his portraits.  He seems to enjoy painting people as though they were sculpture, sometimes to a degree that it appears trompe l’oeil.  The second is strange, twisted, writhing, and definitely tipping in the direction of mannerism.

  

Hercules and wife, classical architecture, bodies – see, her breasts are perfect hemispheres – and a weird, erotic entangling of legs.  The picture on the right makes use of blue pigment created from lapis lazuli that was as expensive as gold.

      

A bit of weirdly erotic classicizing…

A portrait of a man who was in charge of municipal toll collections, an important and lucrative post.  From his look, he seems right for the job.  If you look very closely at his eyes, at the white highlight on the iris reflecting the incoming light, you can see the image of the mullions of the window from which this scene is illuminated.


Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?


Doubt in Eden

May 11, 2009

from Genesis

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Now, did the serpent mean: It is certain that you will not die? Or did he mean: It is not certain that you will die? Is this a purposeful ambiguity? Funny that there should be this element of doubt right at the beginning, when knowledge is given to man. Skepticism is at the root, shall we say.

Is the serpent inviting Eve into a structured risky venture, this knowlege business? An invitation to risk assessment? Perhaps she did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and it came out positive for benefit.


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