Tag Archives: Lucretius

Body into Body: Lucretius De Rerum Natura 4.1096-1120

Just as when a thirsty man, in his sleep, attempts to take a drink but the moisture needed to extinguish the fire in his limbs is no where to be found; so instead he looks for images of liquids and struggles in vain and drinking in the middle of a roaring river he is still thirsty.   In the same way, Venus, in matters of the heart, teases lovers with images; and these lovers, even when face to face and looking at one another’s actual bodies, can’t satisfy themselves; and even when their hands are wandering  hesitantly over one another’s body they are not able to scrape off anything of  their lover’s tender limbs.  And when, at last, with limbs entwined, they enjoy the fruit of their age, and when their bodies are on the point of ecstasy, and Venus is on the edge of sowing the woman’s field,  they greedily join their bodies and mix together the saliva of their mouths, and breathing into each other they press teeth on mouths. But all this is in vain since they are still not able to scrape off anything from each other, or to penetrate one another or to enter completely into one another—body into body; they often seem to not only want this but they also struggle to do this. And so they longingly cling together in the bonds of Love and, shaken by the force of their pleasure, their limbs melt away.  Finally, when the desire, mounting from their pleasure, bursts forth, there is a brief pause in this violent passion at least for a little.  But once again, this same madness returns and that fury revisits them.  When they are desirous and look to hold onto something—but they aren’t sure what—they are unable to find  a way to conquer the ache.  And so,uncertain, they waste away from this mysterious wound.

 

My reading of Sade and a recent thread from @Noxrpm on Twitter inspired me to spend some time translating this section of De Rerum Natura.

 

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Dispelling our Fears: Aline and Valcour Volume 3 by Marquis de Sade

Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes.  Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus.  The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union.  The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate.  The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.

Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment.  Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system.  Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters.  All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact.  Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry.  He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.

But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral.  Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure.  It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover.  His arguments are cold and chilling:

…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it.  It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.

Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided.  But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire?  The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.

In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion.  Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative.  Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined.  Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife.  But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife?  Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?

In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose.  Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers.  We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge.  In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.”  This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife.  It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.

The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:

After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.

The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel.  In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world?  Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives.  My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.

One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice  copies of the illustrations from the original publication.

 

 

 

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We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

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Lucretius on Dispelling Fear

De Rerum Natura 2.55-61 (translation is my own):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

These lines from Book II of De Rerum Natura are quoted by the Marquis de Sade (although they are mistakenly said to be from Book III) in the introduction to his “philosophical novel” Aline & Valcour which will be published in a new English translation at the end of the year by Contra Mundum. The epistolary style novel, written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, is described as owing “a special debt to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean and materialist philosophy lends it a contemporary feel wholly missing from many 18th century novels.”

Needless to say, I’m very intrigued. This will be my first Sade novel.

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Lucretius, Epicureanism, and a sinking ship: My thoughts on the Inauguration

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

The beginning of Book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura has always been one of my favorite parts of this Roman poet’s epic.  As Inauguration Day approaches in my country, I keep mulling over these lines for various reasons which I will explain.  First, I offer my translation of De Rerum Natura 2.1-19:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore
ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri.
o miseras hominum mentes, o pectora caeca!
qualibus in tenebris vitae quantisque periclis
degitur hoc aevi quodcumquest! nonne videre
nihil aliud sibi naturam latrare, nisi ut qui
corpore seiunctus dolor absit, mensque fruatur
iucundo sensu cura semota metuque?

It is pleasant, when on the vast sea the winds are stirring up
the water, to look at the great misfortune of another person
from the land; not because it is pleasant to rejoice in
another man’s troubles, but because it is a relief to
comprehend what types of evils from which you yourself
have been spared. It is pleasant indeed to look upon great
battles in war being carried out on the battlefield,
the dangers of which you have no part in. There is
nothing sweeter than to possess the fortified, lofty doctrines of
the wise, as serene temples, from which place you might look
down upon others and see that they wander everywhere
seeking a path for their aimless lives, as they struggle with
their intelligence and fight for nobility, as night and day
they wrestle with great toil to climb to the highest
mountain of riches and to acquire things.
O miserable minds of men, o blind souls!
In what shadows of life, in what perils is this age of
yours have you passed! You see, don’t you, that nature barks
for nothing other than this, that pain be severed from the body
and that the mind, freed from worry and fear, enjoy
a pleasant feeling.

As I have spoken to various friends from around the world, especially in the blogging community, I can’t help but feel that other countries are standing on the shores and watching in horror the shipwreck that is occurring in American politics with the inauguration of our 45th President. I have a sense that Canadians in particular, with their universal healthcare, and progressive Prime Minister, are grateful, in the sense Lucretius describes, that they are not part of these turbulent waters in which we Americans have found ourselves drowning.

As the Inauguration approaches, I have tried very hard not to read about any of the preparations for it and I have also vowed not to watch the news coverage on the day of the event. I don’t want to experience this shipwreck of an historical event, but then I realized that perhaps my inability to watch the shipwreck signifies that I have created an illusion for myself. It’s not that I don’t want to watch it, but instead it’s impossible for me to see it because I am on that very ship, being drowned in those waters which the wind has stirred up. Sometimes it’s very difficult not to have such a feeling of despair.

In order to mitigate our despair what are those “lofty doctrines of the wise” Lucretius suggests to which we can cling? How do we counteract a war being played out in horror in front of our eyes—a war against healthcare, basic human rights, freedoms and liberties? We cannot exist in some Epicurean garden or paradise and simply watch these things happen without being affected and without protest or action.

I can’t help but think of our incoming president as I translate Lucretius’ description of men who crave riches and devote their lives to the acquisition of things. It is evident from any thirty-second sound bite we hear that our new leader struggles with intelligence (ingenio) and has quite a lofty view of his own nobility (nobilitate). I site as an example of this exaggerated sense of nobilitas the opulent signs displaying his name on every building he owns or partially owns.

Finally, I particularly admire Lucretius’ word choice in the last few lines when talking about pain (dolor)—our nature barks or howls out (latrare) for us to get rid of any type of pain that invades our bodies and to embrace those things that bring us pleasure. How can we apply Lucretius’ advice to our current political situation? Lucretius’ suggestion of avoidance, as I noted above, seems impossible in this instance. Avoidance, in fact, is downright irresponsible. We are left with the other piece of his philosophy—to embrace those things that give us pleasure. For me this would take the form of reading, writing, connecting with friends, holding my family especially close and setting an example of kindness, tolerance and understanding for my daughter and my students. Will this be enough to mitigate the pain? Who knows. Perhaps it might be better to look to the Stoics or the Cynics for more philosophical advice in this instance.

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