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 XXIX

 The Garden of Deduit as a Type of the Biblical Paradise…

 The Sirens…

     Idleness boasts to the dreamer that her dearest friend is Seigneur Deduit, the genteel beau who owns the garden.  Deduit in Old French means “divertissement amoureux” or “plaisir”;  whence we might call him in English Sir Pleasure or Sir Amorous Fun and Games.  He is, in other words, the keeper of a kind of brothel for horticulturalists–a Hugh Heffner with a green thumb.

When Idleness says that Sir Pleasure is her closest companion, the allegory is clear enough:  the sin of idleness and the sorts of amorous delights enjoyed in this garden go together.  But the dreamer is not very good at understanding allegorical irony, even irony as straightforward as this.  If the porter of the garden had introduced herself as Lady Disease, a close friend of Sir Death, perhaps the dreamer would have known what to do; but apparently he does not recognize Dame Idleness as a dangerous seductress, even though when we read the sentence, “The gate by Idleness was opened wide”, it’s impossible not to hear in it the sort of moralizing metaphorical idiom that one hears in a sermon.  Still, the dreamer still wants in.

He then describes the garden of Sir Pleasure in terms that make it impossible for the reader not to call to mind the garden of Eden, and the garden of the soul of which it is a symbol:

You may right well believe I thought the place
Was truly a terrestrial paradise,
For so delightful was the scenery
That it looked heavenly; it seemed to me
A better place than Eden for delight.

And then he lists all the species of birds he finds in this “paradise”.

In general, as I said, any literary or artistic garden in the pre-modern period cannot help but evoke (explicitly, as here; but sometimes implicitly) the archetypal garden:  the biblical paradise of Eden.  A pre-modern garden might therefore be a genuine paradise, morally and spiritually speaking, or a hypocritically false one:  a place, that is, in which, under the pretext of having created a heavenly paradise of sanctity and innocence, the inhabitants devote themselves to the enjoyment of distinctly carnal and earthly pleasures.  This, after all, is the dual signification of the biblical Eden itself:  a garden of innocence, but also the scene of capital sin, through which man’s original beatitude and salvation were tragically lost.  The irony of no small number of medieval and Renaissance works of literature turns exactly on this, the misperception or deliberate mischaracterization of an earthly garden as a celestial one. (In Chaucer’s poems alone, one can think of several examples.)

The dreamer, needless to say, either thinks, or pretends to think, that the garden of Deduit really is a celestial paradise on earth, and inevitably, he also imagines that the birdsong he hears is the harmony of angelic choirs:

                   A service meet,
As I have told you, all these birds performed,
For such a song they sang as angels sing,
And sang it, truly, to my great delight.
No mortal man e’er heard a fairer tune,
So soft and sweetly pealed their melody
That, if a man comparison should seek,
It seemed no hymn of birds, but mermaids’ song,
Who for their voices clear, serene, and pure
Are Sirens called.

Ah, the Sirens.  In pre-modern literature, the relationship between the literary themes of music and love practically guarantees that the myth of the Sirens–attaching to which there is an ancient and well-known allegorical tradition–will be invoked sooner or later, in one context or another.

The Sirens, as you recall, are those femmes fatales whose entrancing vocalizations lure sailors to their deaths.  When, in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ ship passes by their island, there is already a mountain of human skeletons piled up on the shore.  Odysseus alone recognizes the danger, and to prevent his sailors from leaping into the sea and swimming into the Sirens’ fatal embrace, he stops up their ears with wax.

The history of the Sirens as moral allegorical symbols begins with the philosophical commentaries on Homer that were first written in the fifth century B.C., and abounded until the close of classical antiquity.  For the Pythagoreans, Odysseus is the wise man who, by avoiding the fleshly temptations represented by the Sirens, was able to escape from the wheel of reincarnation and fly back to the soul’s celestial homeland.  For the Stoics and Middle Platonists, he is the helmsman of the soul, the immanent Logos. The sea through which his ship is tossed is the sea of the passions and temptations of this world; and Ithaca is the safe harbor of the heavenly patria.  The wax with which Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crewmen is, of course, philosophy.

While repeating these allegorical commonplaces, the Neoplatonists twinned the Sirens in the same way as Plato had conferred upon Venus and Eros both a celestial and an earthly aspect.  Their conceit of the two sets of Sirens was inspired by a passage from Plato’s myth of Er in Book X of the Republic, in which Er describes the eight concentric whorls of the cosmos—the eight spheres, that is–rotating on the spindle of Necessity:

Above, on each of its circles is perched a Siren, accompanying its revolution, uttering a single sound, one note; from all eight is produced the accord of a single harmony. (Republic 687 b)

Plato here identifies the Sirens with the Intelligences that intone the harmony of the spheres.  Neoplatonic commentators such as the fifth century Proclus thus differentiated between the celestial Sirens of Plato, whose heavenly music they interpreted as the wisdom of philosophy, and the vulgar Sirens of Homer, whose song symbolized the false pleasures of the world and the flesh.