Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XIX

 The Two Venuses and the Two Loves, continued…

The Vulgar Venus and the Lover’s Malady in Lucretius’ De natura rerum…

 The Vulgar Venus and “Courtly Love”…

     Chaucer’s moral satire–as we will see, in rather greater detail, in future installments–is founded on the fundamental disjunction between the Two Loves.  Even while they are on the road to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury (on the road, figuratively, to the Heavenly Jerusalem), his pilgrim-lovers regularly indict themselves as fervent adherents of the vulgar Venus.

This is the Venus, once again, whom Lucretius describes in the fourth book of his De rerum natura–by such obvious contrast, that is, to the sacred goddess he too had invoked at the very beginning of his poem.   The passage is long one, but it is too important—and too much a comic masterpiece–to abridge, insofar as it anticipates in such clinical detail the risible trials and tribulations of the medieval and Renaissance “courtly lover”, and the unnatural madness of the “lover’s malady” from which he suffers.

Lucretius’ gratuitous sermon on the dangers of the vulgar Venus arrives in the context of what purports to be a matter-of-fact description of the organs and function of human reproduction.  But in pre-modern thought, scientific objectivity quickly modulates into moral didacticism:

     In this last case, as I have explained, the thing in us that responds to the stimulus is the seed that comes with ripening years and strengthening limbs.  For different things respond to different stimuli or provocations.  The one stimulus that evokes human seed from the human body is a human form.  As soon as this seed is dislodged from its resting-place, it travels through every member of the body, concentrating at certain reservoirs in the limbs, and promptly acts upon the generative organs.  These organs are stimulated and swollen by the seed.  Hence follows the will to eject it in the direction in which tyrannical lust is tugging.  The body makes for the source from which the mind is pierced by love.  For the wounded normally fall in the direction of their wound; the blood spurts out toward the source of the blow; and the enemy who delivered it, if he is fighting at close quarters, is be-spattered by the crimson stream.  So, when a man is pierced by the shafts of Venus, whether they are launched by a lad with womanish limbs or a woman radiating love from her whole body, he strives towards the source of the wound and craves to be united with it and to transmit something of his own substance from body to body.  His speechless yearning is a presentiment of bliss.

This, then, is what we term Venus.  This is the origin of the thing called love—that drop of Venus’ honey that first drips in our heart, to be followed by numbing heart-ache.  Though the object of your love may be absent, images of it still haunt you and the beloved name chimes sweetly in your ears.  If you find yourself thus passionate enamoured of an individual, you should keep well away from such images.  Thrust from you anything that might feed your passion, and turn your mind elsewhere.   Vent the seed of love upon other objects.  By clinging to it you assure yourself the certainty of heart-sickness and pain.  With nourishment, the festering sore quickens and strengthens.  Day by day the frenzy heightens and the grief deepens.  Your only remedy is to lance the first wound with new incisions; to salve it, while it is still fresh…; to guide the motions of your mind into some new channel.

Do not think that by avoiding grand passions you are missing the delights of Venus. Rather, you are reaping such profits as carry with them no penalty.  Rest assured that this pleasure is enjoyed in a purer form by the healthy than the love-sick.  Lovers’ passion is storm-tossed, even in the moment of fruition, by waves of delusion and incertitude.  They cannot make up their mind what to enjoy first with eye or hand.  They clasp the object of their longing so tightly that the embrace is painful.  They kiss so fiercely that the teeth are driven into lips.  All this because their pleasure is not pure, but they are goaded by an underlying impulse to hurt the thing, whatever it may be, that gives rise to these shoots of madness.

In the actual presence of love, Venus lightens the penalties she imposes, and her sting is assuaged by an admixture of alluring pleasure.  For in love, there is the vain hope that the flame of passion may be quenched by the same body that kindled it.  But this runs counter to the course of nature.  This is the one thing of which the more we have, the more our breast burns with the evil lust of having.  Food and fluid are taken into our body; since they can fill their allotted places, the desire for meat and drink is thus easily appeased.  But a pretty face or a pleasing complexion gives the body nothing to enjoy but insubstantial images, which all too often fond hope scatters to the winds.

When a thirsty man tries to drink in his dreams but is given no drop to quench the fire in his limbs, he clutches at images of water with fruitless effort and while he laps up a rushing stream, he remains thirst in the midst.  Just so in the midst of of love Venus teases lovers with images.  They cannot glut their eyes by gazing on the beloved form, however closely.  Their hands glean nothing from those dainty limbs in their aimless roving over all the body.  Then comes the moment when with limbs entwined they pluck the flower of youth.  Their bodies thrill to the presentiment of joy, and it is seed-time in the fields of Venus.  Body clings greedily to body; moist lips are pressed on lips, and deep breaths are drawn through clenched teeth.  But all to no purpose.  One can glean nothing from the other, nor enter in and be wholly absorbed, body in body; for sometimes it seems that that is what they are craving and striving to do, so hungrily do they cling together in Venus’ fetters, while their limbs are unnerved and liquefied by the intensity of rapture.  At length, when the spate of lust is spent, there comes a slight intermission in the raging fever.  But not for long.  Soon the same frenzy returns.  The fit is upon them once more.  They ask themselves what it is they are craving for, but find no device that will master their malady.  In aimless bewilderment they waste away, stricken by an unseen wound.

Add to this that they spend their strength and fail under the strain.  Their days are passed at the mercy of another’s whim.  Their wealth  slips from them, transmuted to Babylonian brocades.  Their duties are neglected.  Their reputation totters and goes into decline….A hard-won patrimony is metamorphosed into bonnets and tiaras or, it may be, into Grecians robes, masterpieces from the looms of Elis or of Ceos.  No matter how lavish the décor and the cuisine—drinking parties (with no lack of drinks), entertainments, perfumes, garlands, festoons and all—they are still to no purpose.  From the very heart of the fountain of delight there rises a jet of bitterness that poisons the fragrance of the flowers.  Perhaps the unforgetting mind frets itself remorsefully with the thought of life’s best years squandered in sloth and debauchery.  Perhaps the beloved has let fly some two-edged word, which lodges in the impassioned heart and flows there like a living flame.  Perhaps he thinks she is rolling her eyes too freely and turning them upon another, or he catches in her face a hint of mockery.

And these are the evils inherent in the love that prospers and fulfills its hopes.  In starved and thwarted love the evils you can see plainly without even opening your eyes are past all counting.  How much better to be on your guard beforehand, as I have advised, and take care that you are not enmeshed!

To avoid enticement into the snares of love is not so difficult as, once entrapped, to escape out of the toils and snap the tenacious knots of Venus.  And yet, be you never so tightly entangled and embrangled, you can still free yourself from the curse unless you stand in the way of your own freedom.  Fist you should concentrate on all the faults of mind or body of her whom you covet and sigh for.  For men often behave as though blinded by love and credit the beloved with charms to which she has no valid title.  How often do we see blemished and unsightly women basking in a lover’s adoration!…A sallow wench is acclaimed as a nut-brown maid.  A sluttish slattern is admired for her “sweet disorder”.  Her eyes are never green, but grey as Athene’s.   If she is stringy and woody, she is lithe as a gazelle.  A stunted runt is a sprite, a sheer delight from top to toe.  A clumsy giantess is “a daughter of the gods divinely tall”.  She has an impediment in her speech—a charming lisp, of course.  She’s as mute as a stockfish—what modesty!  A waspish, fiery-tempered scold—she “burns with a gem-like flame”.  She becomes “svelte” and “willow” when she is almost too skinny to live; “delicate” when she is half-dead with coughing.  Her breasts are swollen and protuberant:  she is “Ceres suckling Bacchus”.  Her nose is snub—“a Faun”, then, or “a child of the Satyrs”.  Her lips bulge:  she is “all kiss”….


I remind you that Lucretius is a disciple of Epicurus, popularly (although wrongly) understood to be antiquity’s first exponent of the Playboy Philosophy.  But if an Epicurean can be so repelled by the sin of lust, and so contemptuous of those who allow themselves to be caught in its snare, the idea that an antique Platonist, Stoic, or medieval Christian could extol it in the form of a courtly “religion of Cupid” is absurd on its face.

As we will see presently, the classical source of the medieval courtly love tradition is Ovid, whose mocking and ironic encouragement (in his Ars amatorica) of the sort of vulgar venereal behaviour that Lucretius clearly ridicules, was taken at face value by nineteenth-century literary critics, who imagined that love poets such as Chaucer or the author of the Roman de la Rose were, in spite of the Christian morality they affected to profess, somehow sympathetic to adulterous lust.

But this is a subject we’ll return to in a moment; I mention it here only because Ovid in his Fasti also plainly refers to Venus as the mother of “twin loves”, and he does so while jokingly brushing aside the notion that he is there setting out to describe the same disreputable mother of the vulgar love he treats of in the Ars amatorica.