Friday, June 30, 2017

A Gallery of Women (Satire 6) - Juvenal

Reading satire two thousand years after it has been written is complicated. I was recently listening to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about satire and he contends that there’s a certain brilliance in good satire that allows the thematic contact to be embraced by both ends of a political spectrum. For example he offers the Colbert Report. Both liberals and conservatives loved the Colbert Report for exactly opposite reasons. The liberals laugh at how ridiculous the conservative stooge is while the conservatives sit back and admirably give Colbert credit for lambasting the degenerate liberals. 

The brilliance is that it’s evenly accessible. The complication is that the truth is ambiguous. 

Many of the reviews that I’ve read on “A Gallery of Women” take the bait and jump onto the platform that Juvenal was a rabid misogynist, excoriating the declining morals of the Roman citizenry. While this is definitely what the narrator is doing, to attribute this position to Juvenal misses the brilliance of satire. 

I think (based on my very limited knowledge) as a cat plays with a ball of yarn, he is playing with a ball comprised of the Augustan social laws and in particular the Justinian law of marriage. 

A little background: 

“In 18 B.C., the Emperor Augustus turned his attention to social problems at Rome. Extravagance and adultery were widespread. Among the upper classes, marriage was increasingly infrequent, and many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring. Augustus, who hoped thereby to elevate both the morals and the numbers of the upper classes in Rome, and to increase the population of native Italians in Italy, enacted laws to encourage marriage and having children (lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus), including provisions establishing adultery as a crime.” (http://www.unrv.com/government/julianmarriage.php)

Perhaps for the 500 years predating the demise of the Roman Republic, Rome had been trying to figure out this whole marriage thing. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus was from one of the oldest and most powerful families in the Roman Republic and offers us this little gem: 

"If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.”

In “What to do with a Fish” we see Juvenal’s scathing critique of the inefficacy of the political system, in particular the senate. The fishermen are unsure of how to proceed after catching a huge and enigmatic fish. Nothing like this has ever been seen before and as the divine and august ruler from heaven shouldn’t all enigmatic fish by default be property of the Caesar? The citizenry immobilized with fear at the thought of committing some impropriety, wait with baited breath as the senators debate the pros and cons of large fish. Then after much debate and pontificating about all things piscivorian, no conclusions are made. Large boxes are suggested and a guard of potters are encouraged to stand at the ready to fashion earthenware vessels for cooking all future gigantic fauna. 

Juvenal is writing during the Pax Romana, in an era of unprecedented peace and wealth and there is an incongruous melding of the Augustan social laws and the reality of the inefficacy of the moralizing political system. 

In his Protesilaus Euripides claims: “whoever, lumping them together, finds fault with all women collectively is stupid and unwise.” 

And as if taking his cue, Juvenal’s narrator takes his role as the rabid moralizer, finding fault with even the Penelopes of this world that sit quietly by waiting with chaste anticipation for their husbands to return. 

“Not one from all these crowds strikes
you as worthy to wed?”
Let her be beautiful, gracious, wealthy, 
fertile and spread
Noble ancestors through her halls, 
let her be more chaste by far 
Than any disheveled Sabine maid who
stopped the war, 
Indeed a rare bird on this earth, as rare
as is a black swan. 
But who could endure a wife who had
all the virtues known? 
I’d much rather a wife used to 
rural ways, than you,
Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if
with your true
Great virtues you bring a haughty 
pride and count with these,
As part of your dowry, your father’s
triumphs. I beg you please, 
Spare me your Hannibal, spare me your 
Syphon who fell
In his own camp- may all of Carthage
and you go to hell!

[161-171]

His poem opens with a nostalgia for by gone days prior to the scourge of society; this infestation of adultery and loose morals. The only historical era when women behaved themselves and chastity “lingered still on earth” was the epoch of cave dwelling. Think Cro-Magnon man, with lots of hair and guttural languages. Unlike these women of nobility that cry at the death of a sparrow, these real women skinned animals and slept in beds of leaves and twigs. They bore their breasts to suckle their young, while belching from a diet of acorns. They were unkempt and rugged and with no mirrors had no vanity. [1-16]

Ah. Those were the good old days. 

But then Astrea withdrew to heaven with Chastity by her side and it’s been a downhill slump into moral decay ever since. 

As a foil, and to slightly ground our talking head of rage, the narrator attempts to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying. Anything would be better than marriage:

“What Fury, what
servants are driving you mad?
Can you let a termagant boss you when
rope is so easily had? 
And so many windows open on dizzy
leaps and the hight
Of the Aemillian bridge so handy? 
[30-32]


Even suicide would be better than the hell that is marriage, where the husband is destined to hate his wife sixteen out of every twenty-four hours.The rest of the poem discusses the minimal pros and vast cons of marriage as an institution and women as a sex. 

The problem, is that women are so categorically unfaithful; ready to run off with a lover at the drop of a hat. And the Julian Law of Marriage which rewards the production of legitimate children is a farce. It is more likely little Johnny will have the color of an Ethiopian or resemble the husky Euryalus or some other gladiator. Women are fools for gladiators, and as anecdotal evidence to support this claim the narrator offers the wretched Eppia, the senator’s wife that ran off with an athlete. Left house and home to follow to the far ends of the earth a guy with muscles. 

“A woman, if faced with danger for
just and honest cause, 
Is afraid, her breast with terror
freezes, her legs are straws,
Trembling, and won't support her.
But if she’s doing a bold
And wicked thing, her courage never
fails. To be told
By her husband to board a ship is 
cruelty; she gets sick
From the smell of bilge and rocking
skies. But firm as a brick 
Is her stomach is she’s eloping with 
a lecher. She’d vomit 
All over her husband if he were there, 
but now, far from it, 
She eats with the crew, strides down
the deck, and even enjoys 
Hauling and coiling rough wet ropes
with the sailor boys.”
[95-104]

The more a man is good and desirable as a husband the less beneficial by far will be his wife. [212] So there’s really no point in trying. Even if you were to marry a “good” woman, there’s no certainty she won’t turn into a Hellenomaniac and become obsessed with Greek culture and language. Profanity and obscenity is always so much worse when whispered with a bad accent into the ear of a lover. 

Or what if she exploits her husband’s generosity and imposes a system of tyranny? Under the Julian law the husband was not allowed to sell or parcel out any part of his wife’s dowry without her permission and consent. In the unlikely case that the husband chastised his wife, she could always leave him and take her dowry with her. This had the potential to create a system where men would put up with increasing levels of debauchery in order to retain property. 

You’ll never address
A gift if she says no, never sell
things if she objects,
Never buy anything unless she consents.
And she will select
Your friends for you and turn your now
aged friend from the door
That saw his beard first sprouting.
Although the entire corps
Of pimps and trainers are free to draw
up wills as they please,
And gladiators have the same right, 
your helpmeet sees 
That you list as heirs more than one
rival of your own.
[215-219]

Women are cruel and litigious. They are quarrelsome and frivolous. With one anecdote after another the narrator makes his claim that women have few if any redeeming qualities. Class is irrelevant, both upper and lower class women have one primary agenda: to seek, kill and destroy the men in their life with calculated cruelty and subjugation.

Halfway through the poem the foil asks: How did we get here? Where did these monsters come from? The narrator responds with the view that poverty has kept women in check for generations, it is only now in the era of Pax Romana that luxury and boredom have given birth to unfettered depravity. 

Long ago the humble state of wives
of Latium forced
Them to be chaste. Long hours of 
toil, short hours of sleep, 
Hands chafed and calloused by Tuscan 
wool, the closer sweep
Of Hannibal toward the city, husbands
on guard for Rome
On the Colline tower, kept vice from 
polluting the modest home. 
Now we suffer the woes of long peace.
Luxury, more savage
Than war, has smothered us, avenging 
the world we ravage.
[286-293]

The narrator then as one would expect waxes xenophobic. It’s not just luxury that has saturated our women with moral decay it’s also all those foreigners with their filthy oysters and Falernian wine…

Interestingly, Rebekah Merkle makes a similar claim (minus the xenophobic part) in her book Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity. She argues that luxury and boredom have created a species of pinterest obsessed disgruntled housewives and the bygone era of choice is that of the pioneers when women were too busy building sod dwellings and herding cattle to spend time thinking about whether or not they were legitimate or valuable.  

Her take away is ultimately that women are legitimate and valuable (because they are made in the image of God) so they should be the best housewives they can be because that is their best contribution to society. Only instead of battling the siren call of adultery, Merkel battles the siren call of Feminism and her proscribed solution looks strikingly similar to that of Xenophon.

The Augustan Marital Legislation of 18 BC made the claim that there was nothing better than a wife that was modest, domestic and a good manager and child bearer. The ideal Matrona of the Roman Republic was a stay at home mom. 

In a similar way, Merkel does the same thing that Juvinal does in jest. She picks an era to glorify and then demonizes everyone along the way that doesn’t fit into her ideal conception of “woman” (read: housewife). 


I think Juvenal is actually more honest. The cavewomen belching acorns are a hilarious ideal to uphold, but between the lines of misogyny and misogamy there is a kernel of truth: illegalizing morality is going to do little to make any contribution to moral change. The Pax Romana world is filled with just as much corruption and evil and the world preceding it. There is no political solution to the depravity of men and women. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Satires of Juvenal


Initially, things were looking pretty good for Juvenal. Privileged upbringing? Check. Officer in the Roman army? Check. But then his career began to stall. He failed to get one promotion after another and slowly found himself becoming embittered. Despite his efforts he has been unable to ingratiate himself into the court life of Emperor Dimitian and remained pigeonholed in a failed career; forced to beg scraps from the tables of the rich to support his meager lifestyle.

"...When the voice of the satirist, aged forty-five, is raised in Rome, he is poor, a client haunting the vestibules of the rich to collect his dole. Obviously his plans for advancement after military service under the wing of the imperial court had collapsed, and he is bitter about the nouveaux riches, the foreigners, the corrupt aristocrats- everything." (The Satires of Juvenal, Translated by Hubert Creekmore, 1963)

Eventually, feeling frustrated and stymied by contemporary politics he takes to his pen. He writes a satire exposing the fact that in Dimition's court favorites have unmitigated power and influence. Juvenal is subsequently banished, possibly to Egypt, possibly to the remote frontier town of Syene.

In his defense, Domitian was kind of full of himself. He had nominated himself the perpetual censor, attempting to control both public and private morals, and saw himself as the new Augustus, enlightened, wise and the preordained guide to lead the Roman Empire into a new era of wealth and brilliance. He slowly cultivates a cult of personality, grooming the contemporary propaganda to speak well of his brilliant endeavors and gloss over his premature balding.

Part 1 of Juvenal's Satire is entitled: "Why Write Satire" and some of his reasoning is as follows:

When limp-limbed eunuchs take wives;
when husky Maevia slits
Wild boars in the games and clamps
a spear between naked tits;
When a barber who scraped my beard in
youth has a bigger pile
Of wealth than all the nobility;
when the scum of the Nile,
Crispinus, ex-slave from Canopus,
around his shoulder flings
A cloak of Tyrian cloth and wafts a
hot weather gold ring
In the air on his sweating finger,
unable to bear thereupon
The extra weight of a heavier jewel-
when this goes on
It's hard to keep from writing satire.

Recognizing the danger of attacking living examples of vice, corruption and immorality, Juvenal takes his examples of the dregs of society from the dead, as such he is virtually immune from attack; although he has been banished and has had all his property confiscated so he nothing left to lose. Using deceased examples for contemporary criticism also illustrates the point that Rome has been on a path to corruption for generations.

"Juvenal's resentment, we may assume, was against those who has come in before and during Domitian's reign, who represented license, perversion, new manners, freed slaves risen to wealth, and in general the new rich. The truth is that Juvenal was clinging to the standards of a bygone age in a time when all was changing. He harks back to the days of the republic, before Julius Ceasar, when men were stern in honor and morals and conduct, and he often cites the early heroes of Rome. That he seems unrealistic in this, since the change from the republic to empire had been made almost a century before his birth, is only slightly surprising.” (Creekmore 1963) 

In Juvenal's fourth satire, "Council of State- What to do with a Fish" we find the most directed barb at Dimitian. Told in mock-epic style it is a tale of prodigious greed and flagrant ineptitude.

Juvenal begins the story with Crispinus, that “monster of evil without one redeeming quality.” Crispinus is impoverished, but his destitution has no effect on his avaricious need to consume. One day he comes across a large mullet and purchases the fish for the equivalent of a farm house in the provinces or an estate in Apulia. Purchasing the most expensive fish known to man, while undeniably foolish is not quite evil, and could be almost considered heroic if purchased for the right cause. An example of a good cause: donating the fish to the impoverished or a childless old man.

But Crisinus does no such thing. Rather he sits there and eats the entire fish himself.

We see
a lot of things done
Today that the frugal glutton Apicius
Would have shunned.
Crispinus, did you, who formerly
Wear a G-string supplied
By your native papyrus, pay that price
For a fish? You might
Have purchased the fisherman himself
Perhaps for less.

Everyone agrees that this grotesque level of gluttony boarders on the pathological. But then Juvenal turns our gaze from the mere profligate everyman to the nobility itself. In an oblique way (the baldheaded Nero is none other than the current Emperor Dimitian) he presents the cast of the next story:

When the last of the Flavians was flaying
A world half dead   
And Rome was a slave to a baldheaded
Nero, there appeared
In a net in the Adriatic, before the
Shrine that’s reared
To Venus high over Greek Ancona, a
Turbot whose size
Was gigantic.

The fisherman are initially at a loss as to what to do with the fish. The skipper suggests they give it to the chief pontiff, for surely to purchase such a fish would be a crime and to hack it a part would be sacrilegious. The fish monger’s market swarms with informers and no one will risk buying or selling such a fish.

By now unwholesome autumn was yielding
To frost at last,
Malarial patients hoped for relief,
And cold winter’s blast
Kept the fish quite fresh.

After much debate, it is decided that the only way a fish of this magnitude could be caught is if it so desired, so the fish must have surrendered itself for the benefit of the Emperor, for who else would so regal a beast deign to be devoured by?

The senators gathers together and decides this is true, the fish has recognized the deity of the balding emperor and has offered himself a sacrifice for consumption, but now what? The fish is too large to cook whole and it would be a desecration to serve such delectable to mere mortals. The senators easily convince the emperor not only that this fish belongs to him, but that he is entitled to it.

For who would
Not nowadays be aware
Of Patrician tricks? Who’d think that
old-fashioned ruse you achieved,
Brutus, was wonderful? Kings wearing
Beards are easily deceived.

As the emperor preens himself over his greatness, the senator’s trip over themselves trying to outdo one another with toadying and flattery. The next suggestion, is that not only was the turbot a sign of the natural world’s recognition of their supreme sovereign, but the fish is also an omen of a great victory.

The only solution is to make an enormous clay vessel that can embrace the circumference of the fish and cook it then and there. Suggestions of festivals are offered. Future policy on the accessibility of potters is put forward. The senators debate and discuss at length until after midnight, eventually retreating to their homes, confident of their rhetorical ability to talk at great length about the merits and complications of large fish, while actually accomplishing nothing.

Even so, If only he had devoted to
Trifling nonsense
Like this all those days of cruelty
And violence
When he robbed the city of its most
Noble and brilliant souls,
Unpunished, with none to avenge!
But once he began to hold
Great terror for men in the lower
Classes, he was killed,
Soaked in the noble Lamain blood
That he had spilled.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The War at the End of the World - Mario Vargas Llosa

I can read dystopian novels with the best of them, but for some reason I found this book to be soul crushing. I can’t tell if I’m having situational depression due to reading this book, or if it could be attributed to the weather and the bleak and dreary reality of a German spring…either way, a deep and lurking hopelessness has begun to claw it’s talons into the far reaching geography of my heart. 

Reading this book was sort of like playing monopoly with my twin sister when we were kids. Within 15 minutes there was a clear winner. One of us would spend the next 6 hours winning gloriously and the other would spend 6 hours facing one pecuniary hardship after another. Instead of a decisive coup de grace to put the soon to be vanquished out of their misery, it was just a long hopeless narrative of mortgages and refinancing until eventually the cash reserves were bled out to the last cent, nothing left to mortgage. Usually by this point we were beyond the point of civil communication, if we made it to a stopping point without the board being flipped and our relationship being completely severed that was an unexciting bonus. Either way, we were usually no longer on speaking terms until tempers cooled.

This book is 750 pages long. With 300 pages left to go the narrative takes a whiplash of a turn and jumps forward in time to the end of the battle between Canudos and the Republic and we find this:

“‘People are forgetting Canudos,’ the nearsighted journalist said, in a voice that sounded like an echo. ‘The last lingering memories of what happened there will fade in the air and mingle with the music of the next carnival ball in the Politeama Theater.’

‘Canudos?’ the baron murmured. ‘Epaminondas is right not to want people to talk about what happened there. It’s better to forget it. It’s an unfortunate, unclear episode. It’s not good for anything. History must be instructive, exemplary. In this war, nobody has covered himself with glory. And nobody has understood what happened. People have decided to ring down a curtain on it. And that’s a healthy sensible reaction.’”

I found reading this book to be an unfortunate unclear episode of my life, but I digress. 

It’s 1897. Brazil has been a republic for less than a decade and the growing pains of a new world order can be felt from the booming metropolis to the thorny underbrush of the sertao. The republic has introduced civil marriage, separation of church and state, and the metric system. While most embrace this as progress, a tall emaciated man in a purple robe wanders the country side and says these things can only be the bastard child of the union between Freemasons and Protestantism ie. signs of the Antichrist. 

At first, the man in the purple robe, Antonio Conselheiro, known as the Counselor to his followers, attracts little attention. He wanders into the hot dusty villages and he and his followers set up camp by the church and cemeteries where they repair broken windows and erect fallen tombstones. But over time his message begins to attract  the most motley and desperate cast of characters: prostitutes, murderers, hunchbacks, filicides. In exchange for their deformity, physical or otherwise, the counselor offers them hope. Hope that Christ will raise an army that will defeat the antichrist. Hope that suffering will be abated. Egalitarianism will be ushered in and men and women once and for all will be free. 

Eventually the small contingent sets up camp in Canudos. They begin to build a church from scratch and a society wiped clean from the deleterious effects of class suppression. 

‘There it stood facing the east, that stupendous disharmonious facade, without rule or proportion, with its gross friezes, its impossible volutes, its capering delirium of incorrect curves, its horrible ogives and embrasures, a brutish, shapeless hulk, something like an exhumed crypt, as if the builder had sought to objectivise in stone and cement the disorder of his own delirious mind.’

For a short time Canudos is left to itself. But then the republic issues a national census which for the impoverished and illiterate pilgrims could mean only one thing: a diabolical plot to re-enslave the blacks.They refuse to pay taxes which could only be an attempt to keep the poor impoverished. They will not give in to the hocus-pocus of the metric system only meant to confuse and entrap them. Instead they would live side by side without violence amid a fraternal society and a climate of exaltation. A tapestry of humanity woven from the down trodden and derelict. Without realizing the historical relevance of what they are saying they begin to mutter under their breath something akin to “liberty, equality and fraternity,” and it is not long before a revolutionary from a failed and distant revolution has found them. 

Galileo Gall, a self made/named man has chosen his moniker after the father of the scientific method and Franz Joseph Gall the founder of phrenology. Like his name sake, Galileo Gall is also obsessed with revolutionary ideas, but instead of astronomy he has chased after one societal collapse after another waiting each time with bated breath for mankind to get it right and usher in a new era of humanity. Gall thinks Canudos has picked up the fight where others have left it, and unbeknownst to them they are breathing life back into the Idea…but he must help them realize this. 

‘In the last analysis, names did not matter; they were wrappings, and if they helped uneducated people to identify the contents more easily, it was of little moments that instead of speaking of justice and injustice, freedom and oppression, classless society and class society, they talked in terms of God and the Devil.”

Gall hires a guide, with the help of Baron de Canabrava, the societal detritus of a collapsed monarchy. Quickly a rumor develops that the baron, functioning as a representative of the Autonomists are intent on establishing this group of outlaws in Canudos to profane the Republic and provides them with arms and supplies. 

The militants of the Republic spread the rumor as well. It will be just as helpful for them to amputate the dangerous ideas before they spread like gangrene into the underbrush of the uncivilized peasants eking out a living in an inhospitable world. 

And so Canudos finds itself in the political interstices of opposing factions. Each faction demands resolution purified with glorious battle and so Canudos, a favela comprised of the elderly and deformed, must ready itself for a battle for which they are underprepared and undersupplied. 

The cast of characters swarms in and out of focus like the sertao 's carnivorous fire ants, burrowing into flesh and proliferating only to disappear in the hot pulsating flesh for a moment before bursting out in an oozing pustule of narrative and regeneration. The narrative baton is passed quickly and chaotically. 

Gall edges forth as champion of narrative only to make one dire mistake and after being tracked through the scrubland dies in a stranglehold with his guide. Each one fighting for the right to die with honor. 

Jurema, the guide’s wife, has been a quiet background character throughout and momentarily finds herself thrust into the role of protagonist, sullenly picking up the narrative as well as a dwarf and an emaciated birdlike journalist. The three struggle to make their way to Canudos where they dissolve for a time into the background of the city, erecting blockades, shivering in the cold, sharing the last remaining moisture from the marrow of a bone. 

As the Republic mounts its offensive the outlaws are joined by more and more disenfranchised citizens. The Mirandela village of Indians, herded together in the eighteenth century by the Capuchins missionaries, trickle into Canudos to offer their support. While the Republic fights with Krupp cannons and artillery the bandits have slingshots and bees nests. There is no conceivable reason for the bandits to win, but they do, one battle after another. They fight a battle without quarter and mercurial lines of offensive. But even this isn’t enough. The war of attrition takes it’s toll on both sides, and every evening the emaciated and desperate living are harder and harder to distinguish from the dead. 

As the death toll climbs to thirty thousand souls, seven skeletal bandits escape through the cover of darkness. All have been chosen and given consent to leave by the Counselor as he too succumbs to starvation, but not all are joyous at the prospect of abandoning the fight. The Villanova brothers have been chosen to start again, somewhere else sometime else. They will pick up one stone and a trowel of mortar and slowly rebuild the hopes and dreams of the diaspora. The journalist and his nuclear family which now includes the dwarf and Jurema, have been tasked with escaping so that the world can know their story; why they fought and the truth about the end of the world. 

As the seven scurry away the bandits hidden in their trenches hold their breath, waiting for that last bullet that will end the entire conflagration once and for all. Throughout the cacophony of artillery and rubble exploding a voice is heard. The Little Blessed One has decided to send the women and children across the battle lines. There is nothing left for them here and no space for the living amongst the rubble and the dead. As one by one the aged and infirm, women and children begin to make their way across the small no mans land, a few of the bandits begin to think they are sending their loved ones to certain death by torture and mutilation by the Freemasons. Rather than allow this atrocity they begin to shoot their own wives and daughters in the back so as to save them humiliation and pain from being accosted from the front. 

With this last sacrifice they have exchanged ideology for extremity. Fanaticism for clarity of purpose. With the counselor dead and the leadership dispersed each one is left with the imprint of a thought, the ghost of an ideology; shape shifting and indistinguishable. 

‘I don’t know. Once again I don’t know anything. In Belo Monte everything seemed clear to me, day was day and night night. Until the moment, until we began firing on the innocent and on the Little Blessed One. Now everything’s hard to decide again…because maybe the Father wanted us to go to heaven as martyrs.”


As the narrative sputters to a close, one crazy spasmodic episode after another Colonel Macedo stops to ask an emaciated toothless woman if she’s seen one of the notorious outlaws, Abbot Joao who is rumored to still be alive:

“The little old woman shakes her head and clacks her tongue, as though sucking on something. 
‘He got away then?’
The little old woman shakes her head again, encircled by the eyes of the woman prisoners. 
‘Archangels took him to heaven,’ she says, clacking her tongue. ‘I saw them.”

With this last salvo we are left within the swirling vortex comprised of madness and fanaticism, fate and responsibility, hope and oppression.  


“Like Brazil at the dawn of the century, ''The War of the End of the World'' looks both forward and backward; the forces acted out are eternal and elemental. It is not a multitude of competing ideologies that besets the world, Mr. Vargas Llosa tells us; rather it is one, always the same, calling itself by different names, its hero showing a thousand faces, forever haunting the peace of prelates, presidents, general secretaries and chairmen, threatening their benefices, palaces and chairs in the name of liberty, equality and life more abundant. Espousing the rule of the Messiah, the Christ, the people are in pursuit of an unchanging goal - the final liberation of mankind from evil, the settling at last of the oldest direct question in the world, the question of suffering. A thousand revolutions in the name of that one resolution.” (Stone, Robert. “Revolution as Ritual.” New York Times, Books. August 12, 1984.)

Friday, March 31, 2017

Nathan the Wise - Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing loved a good argument, and in 1777 he found himself embroiled in the "hottest theological debate" of the century; Protestantism vs. the Enlightenment. 

First a little history: Lessing is working as a librarian for Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand. It’s 1769 and despite making a name for himself as one of Germany’s foremost writers, he is broke and in love and needs a job to provide for the woman he hopes to marry. Despite the fact that the Prince is a bit of a pecuniary despot, the arrangement seems to work. Lessing spends his time doing librarianish things and reading over a manuscript written by Professor Reimarus.  The manuscript was given to Lessing by the professor’s son with the understanding that Lessing would not publish it. 

Lessing is an artist, or art critic, and as such is impervious to social code and conduct. He doesn’t exactly publish the manuscript, instead he breaks it down into 5 chunks and publishes them in serial form as excerpts from an “unknown author.” 

As expected, these “excerpts” are highly controversial.  They attack everything from the historicity of the resurrection to the inerrancy of the scriptures and offer a plea for religious tolerance (particularly for Deists).

He begins sparring with Johann Melchior Goeze, a Lutheran clergyman with an allegedly radical viewpoint. As the debate is made in serial form, slowly over the course of two years, the attacks become more and more personal. Lessing has lost his infant son and wife and builds himself a cocoon of theological hatred and self preservation. The Goeze debate becomes the perfect catharsis for a man who has lost everything, attempting to patch up a broken heart through inexhaustible work. His quest for truth, unfettered from the oppression of the clergy becomes a clarion call for a man buried alive in grief and the only light at the end of a tunnel of despair. 

Eventually Goeze is concerned for his reputation. Lessing has now focused his attack directly at Goeze in an 11 part publication entitled “Anti-Goeze,.” The debates had become too personal and gone too far and there was no foreseeable end in sight, so Goeze calls in the big guns. He asked the government to forbid any further publications from Lessing and revoke his freedom from censorship, which the government does, and for a singular moment, Lessing has been silenced. 

But Lessing is a man of many talents and decides that if he can’t attack religion through periodicals, he will take his arguments to the theater and in 1779 writes “Nathan the Wise” as a distillation of his 2 year theological debate. 

To set the stage for his attack against Christianity he picks inarguably one of the worst moments of the Christian faith: 12th century Jerusalem during the crusades. The play opens during the armistice between 1202-1204 and the tension of imposed peace is almost palpable. 

The “basic” plot line is as follows: 

Saladin, a Kurdish Sultan, has decided to let a templar live after he bears a striking resemblance to his brother. 

(The actual Saladin was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem in 1193 and the subsequent near annihilation of the Crusaders- in Lessing’s version Saladin is less of a military strategist and more of a big softy). 

This templar, wanders around Jerusalem with the guilt of an only survivor when he sees a house engulfed in flames and without thinking races in and saves the only occupant, Recha, the daughter of Nathan the Wise. 

Nathan has been away collecting Middle Eastern gems and wealth etc. and when he returns he learns of his daughter’s near death and miraculous rescue. When he is about to go out and seek this Christian templar to proffer his thanksgiving, his daughter’s christian maid Daya says it’s of little use,  she has tried to thank him but the templar seems to have multiple personalities; being heroic and valiant one moment, since the infamous rescue he has become a taunting racist, spitting out slurs against Jews. 

Nathan is unperturbed. Very slowly and with many opportunities for soliloquizing the plot progresses as Daya makes her way to the palm grove in search of the templar. 

Thirty pages in and Nathan is very obviously the poster child for the enlightenment espousing “Passion in the garb of Reason”, while the templar take his place as a foil for Christianity.  As the templar has a short erratic discussion with a friar he says: 

“A templars only calling is to fight, 
And not to ferret out intelligence.” 

In the context of the play he is turning down an opportunity to become a spy, but as the representative of the Christian faith he has distilled the crusade into it’s most basic element: men fighting for a cause they little care to question or understand.

When Daya finally finds the templar and asks him to visit Nathan so that he might show his thanks, the templar says:

“From this day forth good woman, 
Do me at least the favor not to know me; 
I beg it of you; and don’t send the father. 
A Jew’s a Jew. and I am rude and bearish.
The image of the maid is quite erased
Out of my soul - if it was ever there-“

Eventually, to move the plot along the templar is finally persuaded to visit Nathan and Recha and immediately falls in love. Nathan is indebted to the templar for saving his daughter so how could he refuse him his daughter in marriage? But Nathan, like Saladin, feels like the templar marks a striking resemblance to an old friend and hesitates to give the youngsters his blessing until he can go on a fact finding mission. (Also…it’s way too soon!? Get to know each other? Go on a date that doesn’t involve buildings being on fire…)

Daya, a Christian, and as such a treacherous back stabber, secretly goes to the templar and tells him that Recha isn’t actually a Jew! Nathan maliciously adopted her as a child with perhaps the exclusive intent of keeping her soul in perdition. The templar is a mix of emotions; partly enraged that a Jew would do such a disgusting and immoral thing, but also partially hopeful, with the old miserly Jew out of the way he’ll have Recha all to himself, a perfect ending to a most perfect meet-cute. 

The templar races off to ask a bunch of hypothetical questions to a priest such as: Hypothetically if a Jew captured a Christian child and forcibly adopted (her?) and then brought her up as a Jewess…how bad hypothetically would that be? 

The templar with his heart ablaze and the hope of matrimonial bliss on the horizon has enough humanity to be shocked by the rabid ferocity that the priest sics on the hypothetical Jew. All scenarios end with the Jew being burned at the stake. 

“To execute at once upon the Jew
The penal laws in such a case provided
By papal and imperial right, against
So foul a crime- such dire abomination…

How much more the Jew, who forcibly 
Tears from the holy font a Christian child
And breaks the sacramental bond of baptism;
For all what’s done to children is by force-
I mean except what the church does to children…”


The templar begins to think this may not be the best plan and goes off to seek council from Saladin. 

Meanwhile, Nathan has already been to visit Saladin to thank the sultan for saving the templar who in turn rescued his daughter. The sultan after exchanging a few pleasantries turns the discussion to ontology, and here we have the linchpin of the play: The story of the Three Rings, which is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron. 

In Boccaccio’s version, Melchizedek is sent for by Saladin who has devised an intriguing method of extortion: he will trap Melchizedek into debating theology at which point, after being successfully ensnared, Melchizedek will affront the Islamic faith and his wealth will be forcibly taken from him while he dies a horrible death etc. 

In both versions Saladin asks which religion is the true religion? Christianity, Islam or Judaism? And in both versions Nathan and Melchizedek avoid the trap by telling a parable of three rings. 

In Boccaccio’s version a father will bequeath to his son a ring that will allow the entitled heir to receive honor and “homage due to a superior”. Eventually a man has three sons and rather than give the ring to a favorite son, since he loves his sons equally and can find no favorite, he has two replicas made and upon his death bequeaths a ring to each son. Upon the morrow when the sons begin to discuss who was the favorite all produce identical rings and realize that in their father’s eyes they are all equal. 

In Lessing’s version there are a few Enlightenment variations: Now the illustrious owner of the ring is not just entitled to honor but the ring has the “hidden virtue him to render of God and man beloved.” Eventually a father has three sons and is in the same predicament as Boccaccio’s version. He has two replicas made and upon his death the three sons are each given a ring. 

“Scarce is the father dead, each with his ring
Appears and claims to be the lord o’ th’ house. 
Comes questions, strife, complaint- all to no end;
For the true ring could no more be distinguished 
Than now can- the true faith.”

Nathan further argues that religion is contextual. History and tradition must be passed down similarly to genetics and who are we to decide whose version is best?  

“How can I less believe in my forefathers
Than thou thine. How can I ask of thee 
To own that thy forefathers falsified
In order to yield mine the praise of truth. 
The like of the Christians.”

Nathan then lays down his gauntlet: Let the true religion speak for itself in the actions of it’s adherents. 

“The judge said, If ye summon not the father
Before my seat, I cannot give a sentence.
Am I to guess enigmas? Or expect ye
That the true ring should here unseal it’s lips? 
But hold- you tell me that the real ring 
Enjoys the hidden power to make the wearer
Of God and man beloved; let that decide.
Which of you do two brothers love best?
You’re silent. Do these love-exciting rings
Act inwardly only, not without? Does each
Love but himself? Ye’re all deceived deceivers,
None of your rings is true. The real ring
Perhaps is gone. To hide or to supply 
It’s loss, your father ordered three for one. 

Thesis: Truth is relative. If you believe your religion to be true act like it is and it will be. Treat humans as brothers in a global surge of magnanimity and grant that all men are equal and the true religion is arrived at by popular vote. (Paraphrase of the Freemason constitution of which Lessing was a part.) 

Eventually all the players make their way to the court of Saladin all for various reasons when there is a big reveal: Recha and the templar are brother and sister being the children of Saladin’s late brother and good friend of Nathan. The templar is revealed as Guy of Filnek and Recha as Blanda of Filnek and they realize that in this motley crew of emotions and faith here stand the salt of the earth. 

The only problem with this religious pluralism, is that all the religions being represented look an awful lot like Christianity. The reality of women’s roles in Islamic culture is softened by the relationship Saladin has with his sister. Saladin doesn’t keep a harem but instead in the only instance in literature or perhaps history, his sister does and in this presumed harem there is only musical endeavors and virtuous chivalry. As an embodiment of the Enlightenment Nathan has been forced to give up the Judaeo- part of this faith and what is left is “Christianity”, nowhere is the Torrah mentioned or anything even remotely Jewish. The premise of universal religion is that all religions will be inclusive of everyone else…but what if the bedrock of your religion is the promise of a chosen people? 

In the end what Lessing offers is an exchange of religious sectarianism for secular nationalism. 


And as Esther Cameron in her article “The Street of Nathan the Wise, or The Flawed Contract of Tolerance” says “To portray the ‘ideal’ Jew as one who has foregone all attempts to perpetuate either his lineage or his faith, is to offer tolerance on condition of extinction.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Prose Edda - Snorri Sturluson

According to Jesse Byock (The Prose Edda, Norse Mythology, 2005) the Edda “recounts the Norse creation epic and the subsequent struggles of the gods’ tragic realization that the future holds one final cataclysmic battle, Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed.”  

There is much more of a Christian influence on the Germanic prose of the Nibelungenlied than the Norse. While Snorri Sturluson does ground his mythology in the guise of Christianity, there is actually very little apparent Christian influence outside the prologue:

“In the beginning, almighty God created heaven and earth and all that pertains to them…[short discussion on Adam and Eve and Noah and worldly ambition etc.] …they abandoned their obedience to God, going so far that they no longer desired to name God. Who was able to tell their sons about God’s wondrous deeds? Thus they lost God’s name, and nobody could be found anywhere in the world who knew his maker.”

King Gylfi goes on a quest to understand the origins of the world, and ends up in a hall reminiscent of Valhalla where he sits down with three figures, High, Just-as-High and Third (all of which are names for Odin), to discuss cosmology.

The narrative then progressive with a question and answer session between Gylfi, disguised as an old man, and Odin disguised as three mortals. Gylif is curious about the origin of the gods; who for example is the oldest? Or the highest? What was the beginning or how did things start?
“Early of ages, when nothing was. There was neither sand nor sea nor cold waves. The earth was not found not the sky above. Ginnungagp [the great void before creation] was there, but grass, was nowhere.” (The Sibyl’s Prophecy. 3)

While there are Christian themes ameliorated into the narrative, for example the concept of a Trinitarian God, the Christian elements are subtle and the Edda reads more like a “Just So” story or Ovid’s Metamorphoses than a treatise on faith.

The Nibelungenlied by comparison chooses to keep a Germanic and barbaric epic narrative (lots of blood and gore and descriptive decapitations) with a sprinkling of the catholic rite and ritual.  In fact, I think the most suspenseful scene in the Nibelungenlied is when Hagen and his warriors, suspicious of Kriemhild’s very evident plan to murder them, choose to wear their armor and carry their swords into mass. It’s all very edge of your seat.

The world of the Edda is comprised of dwarfs and elves and Middle Earth etc., It is not hard to see the influence the Edda had on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In fact, I think you could probably insert a paragraph from either book into the other without much discontinuity.  Besides the fact that Tolkein uses many of the same names and concepts of the Edda, probably the most emblematic comparison is that of the ‘ring’. While we are all probably familiar with the role the ‘ring’ played in Tolkein’s trilogy, Snorri’s version is not too dissimilar: the ring will ultimately harm its owner and bring death and destruction wherever it goes.

King Gylfi asks: ‘Why is gold called Otter’s ransom?’ And in response Odin tell the following story:

Loki, Odin and Hoenir are traveling throughout the world, Loki as usual is contemplating some sort of mischief to enact on the gods, when the trio stumble upon an otter taking a bath in a river. Loki kills the otter and a salmon and as they make their way through the forest they are pleased with their catch and anticipated lunch. Unbeknownst to them, they have actually killed the son of the magical woodsman Hreidmar. When Hreidmar realizes this is what has happened, he calls his sons, Fafnir and Regin and they bind the three gods preparing to kill them. 

The gods beg for their lives and promise a ransom. After a bit of contemplation, the woodsmen agree: the gods must fill the sack, made with the skin flayed from the otter, with red gold. The gods agree and Odin sends Loki to go find the dwarf Andvari, who has a predilection for turning himself into a fish, and lives in a rock cave filled with a hoard of gold. As Andvari hands over the gold, he hides a little ring in his hand, not wishing to part with it, but Loki having seen the subtle gesture demands that the ring be turned over. The words ‘my precious’ may not have been used, but it’s the same general gist. As Loki grabs the ring and heads back to the woodsmen, the dwarf screams out a warning and a curse that the ring will be the death of whoever possesses it.

The curse of the ring begins its malevolent work immediately. As Loki unburdens himself of the gold, Hreidmar casts his eyes over the compensation for his son’s death, again the words “my precious” might not actually be spoken in so many words, but you can sense the sentiment. Fafnir and Regin ask for their part of the gold and when their father refuses to part with even a single gold coin, Fafnir kills him. Then Regin turns to Fafnir; now that their father is dead, the most rational decision would be to split the gold evenly down the middle, but Fafnir laughs, after he killed his own father for the gold does Regin actually think he is about to share it? As Regin decides maybe he will leave and take that vacation he’s always promised himself. Fafnir, now wearing the Aegis-Helm (the Helm of Dread) makes himself a lair in the Gnita-Heath, and turning himself into a dragon lays down on his hoard of gold.

Enter our hero from the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried, who in the Norse version has become Sigurd.

Rigen is annoyed at his brother just because he killed his father first and then turned himself into a dragon etc. doesn’t mean he gets to keep the gold. Not fair! He makes his way to Thjod and finds Sigurd, the strongest warrior in the land renowned for his strength and courage, and bates him with treasure (the hoard of the Nibelungelied). We are forced to read between the lines, but the discussion must have gone something like this: A dragon is lying on my pile of gold, want to kill it? My translation says: “Regin told him where Fafnir lay on the gold and urged him to seek the treasure.” I’m emphasizing this because what happens next can only be described as foul play.

Sigurd, the brilliant and cunning warrior that he is, digs a pit in the path that Fafnir always takes and then hides himself in it waiting for the dragon to pass by. As Fafnir crawls along the path inattentive to his surroundings, probably thinking something along the lines of “my precious”, he passes over the pit and Sigurd thrusts his sword into his belly killing him instantaneously. At this point, Regin rushes forward crying “you just killed my brother!”

“As settlement between him and Sigurd, he asked Sigurd to take Fafnir’s heart and roast it on the fire. Then Regin lay down, drank Fafnir’s blood and went to sleep.”

There are some deeply disturbing familial issues at play here, but Sigurd seems unfazed. He busies himself with cooking up some dragon heart and as it is roasting nicely on the stick he touches it to find out if it is still raw, when the boiling blood from the heart drips onto his finger scalding him. He quickly puts his finger in his mouth and immediately can understand the language of birds. (Not quite as cool as the immortality Siegfried got for killing his dragon…but still pretty cool.) Lucky for Sigurd, the birds are poets and apparently mind readers for they warn Sigurd of the nefarious plans of Regin in iambic pentameter.

Sigurd kills Regin, hops on his horse Grani, and makes his way to Fafnir’s lair where he loads up the gold and heads home for praise and adoration.

On the way he finds Brynhild, (or Brunhild of the Nibelungenlied), unlike her Germanic counterpart she is not a giantess obsessed with track and field events but a Valkyrie, trapped in a sleep inducing helmet and mail coat.  Sigurd cuts the mail coat away and removes the helmet and frees Brynhild from her stupor and then makes his way to the Gjukungs, where he marries the princess Gudrun (or Kriemhild of the Nibelungenlied.)

In the Norse version Brynhild is the sister of Attila the Hun, and Gudrun’s brother Gunnar has his eye on her. Brynhild after being rescued by Sigurd has established herself on the top of a mountain surrounded by a “wavering flame.” She has taken an oath that she will only marry a man capable of riding through flames for her. Gunnar, with the best of intentions, tries to ride his horse Goti through the flames, but Goti won’t have it. Sigurd changes form with Gunnar and rides through the flame and marries Brynhild on Gunnar’s behalf. That evening as they get into bed, Sigurd draws his sword, Gram, and lays it between them, as a sign of protecting her virginity, which is a much more chivalrous version of the marriage night than the Nibelungenlied.

The next morning, as payment for the ‘linen fee’ Sigurd gives Brynhild the gold ring that Loki had taken from Andvari and she gives him one of her rings in exchange.  He then jumps on his horse, rides back to his companions, presumably with Brynhild in tow, quickly changes form with Gunnar and the now happy party makes their way back to Gjuki to live happily ever after.
Except this is an epic. And there’s that dastardly ring involved, so no one actually lives for long and whether their short lives are happy is questionable.

We now come to the infamous quarrel between the two brides. Once again, a version of ‘my husband’s stronger than your husband’ is played out, but this time as the women are washing their hair in a nearby stream. Brynhild refuses to have her hair washed with water that has already run through Gudrun’s hair because hers is the more courageous husband. Makes sense. Predictably, as these things go, Gudrun then has to wade farther out from shore saying her husband is more valiant and courageous and as proof she offers the anecdotal evidence: her husband (obviously much stronger than any mortal living including Gunner etc.) has killed Fafnir the dragon and Regin the nefarious woodsman and taken both their inheritances.

That’s pretty impressive, but didn’t Gunnar ride gloriously through hell flame and fire to marry Brynhild, while Sigurd was hardly man enough to stand guard? Obviously Brynhild wins. Fire beats dragon.

Gudrun laughingly says “Do you think it was Gunnar who rode through the wavering fire? This I know: the one who came into your bed was the one who gave me this gold ring. Further, the gold ring you have on your hand, which you received as the morning gift, is called Andvaranaut, and I do not believe that Gunnar was the one to get it at Gnita- Heath.”

Brynhild says nothing. Or at least Snorri doesn’t allow her a retort. Instead she makes her way home and urges her husband to kill Sigurd, which he does with little prompting. (Actually, to be more accurate, since he took an oath not to harm Sigurd, he tells his brother Gothram to kill Sigurd, which he immediately does by thrusting a sword threw the sleeping Sigurd).

(I like the immortal Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied a bit better.  With only a small pervious section of his back grounding him in mortality there’s much more intrigue and planning involved than: sword in the back while sleeping.)

 Brynhild then grabbing the sword from Gothram thrusts it into herself. Sigurd and Brynhild are then burnt together on a pyre. We are given nothing about Gunnar’s emotional state, having just lost his wife and brother-in-law, he seems less distraught than one would imagine. He quickly takes the gold from Sigurd and the ring from Brynhild and heads back home to rule over the lands.

Gudrun then decides to marry Brynhild’s brother, King Attila. One sentence later it’s time for a visit from Gunnar, for good measure he decides to hide his hoard of gold in the Rhine, where it remains to be found (the same place it was hidden in the Nibelungenlied). King Attila is waiting for Gunnar and his men and within 2 sentences has cut out the heart of Gunnar’s side kick and thrown Gunnar into a pit of snakes. Luckily, Gunnar was secretly given a harp which he was forced to play with his toes, since his hands were bound. As he plays his melody the snakes begin to fall asleep, all except one:
“This one glided towards him and struck just below the breastbone so that she buried her head into his flesh, grabbing hold of his liver until he died.”

It is now Gudrun’s turn to wreak havoc on the life of her husband, King Attila. She murders her two sons and makes goblets from their skulls. At the funeral procession for her brother she presents her husband with these macabre goblets filled with the blood of their sons. And then just in case he doesn’t get the memo that she is truly psychotic, she has her sons hearts roasted and given to the king to eat. Um what?! She shouts and yells and with “foul” language tells her one dimensional husband what she has done. This is the next sentence:

“There was no lack of strong mead at the feast and most people feel asleep where they were sitting.”
Gudrun does not fall asleep. Instead she murders her husband as he slept (what?!) and then burns the hall so that all the guests burn to death.
As a whole, if one can compare these two entirely different pieces of literature I think the Nibelungendlied is more…readable?


Monday, January 23, 2017

Une Vie - Guy de Maupassant

“Jeanne had left the convent the day before, free for all time, ready to seize all the joys of life.”

Baron Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds is a man of generous temperament and a fanatic devotion to Rousseau. He agrees that the modern world, with all it’s tool making and property rights is no place for a modern woman. 

“Of aristocratic birth, he hated instinctively the year 1793, but being a philosopher by temperament and liberal by education, he execrated tyranny with an inoffensive and declamatory hatred.” 

The Baron believes that the only way to educate and safeguard the chastity of his only daughter Jeanne is to have her brought up in a convent; and there she has spent her childhood, severely cloistered and uneducated about the ways of the world and ignorant of the secrets of life. Her one daydream has been this day, when her father and mother would come and pick her up out of her life of seclusion and bring her to her very own castle where with baited breath she would await matrimonial bliss. 

The day her parents come to fetch her, her jolly father and corpulent mother, squeeze themselves into their carriage and make their way through the dreary grey weather to her long awaited home. As they make their way along the wharf, past tall-masted vessels and the raging sea, the three travelers are cocooned in their own thoughts. “Their minds themselves seem to be saturated with moisture like the earth.” And each held their breath, waiting for the rest of their lives to begin. 

Jeanne has spent every waking day-dream imagining what this new life would hold in store for her, she envisioned charming incidents and a life filled with ecstatic joy. As they drive up to her new home it is everything that she ever imagined, tucked into the countryside, surrounded by little farms, with an interior painted with Romantic depictions of earlier epochs and she tucks herself into a waking dream of potential hope. 

It is not long after they have established themselves that they hear a rumor of a nearby eligible young bachelor, M. le Vicomte Lamare, from a family of nobility, but little property. His father has recently died, leaving a vast sum of debts to be paid, so our economical hero has sold the family castle and now lives on one of the three farms left to the family estate. He has a reputation of a hard worker but lives a secluded life. Still nobility is nobility, and despite his six thousand livres a year, an almost pitiable sum, he is handsome and confident and slowly begins to weave himself into their lives. 

He is quiet and respectful and for Jeanne’s mother it is love at first sight. Jeanne on the other hand is too busy walking through fields and breathing the fresh scent of warm grass. She is the product of a Rousseauian education and as such spends a lot of time contemplating nature and crying. When she and her father and their new friend decide to take a boat trip to some of the surrounding islands, she is overcome by the breathtaking beauty of the sea. For her the only three things in the world that are truly beautiful are: light, space and water. Jeanne and the vicomte get seated next to each other, their bodies occasionally pressed together at the sudden movement from the waves and in this moment, overcome with the beauty of the sea, Jeanne’s daydream begins to become more distinguishable. 

As she whispers her hopes and dreams about traveling the world, all the things to see and the places of antiquity to discover, their eyes meet and he says: Yes, but it can be tiresome to travel alone, there should be at least two, to exchange ideas. Jeanne for a moment contemplates this. She likes to walk alone though, she says, she likes to run her toes through the sand and dream alone about the future. The vicomte raises his eyes slightly to hers and says, “Two can dream as well as one?”

At this point they are practically married. There is still more blushing and averted gazes and such, but their hearts have been twined and they wait the days and the perfunctory exchanges until they can communicate their true feelings. 

Despite her initial joy, Jeanne is not entirely sure she is quite ready for this next adventure, but things begin to progress quickly and beyond her control and Julien, the vicomte, seems to be everything a girl could ever ask for, patient and kind, devoted and chivalrous. When he asks for her hand in marriage the whole family is happy and excited about their future. 

The wedding preparations are hurried through and as Jeanne and Julien, now married, are about to embark on their honeymoon through Athens, Jeanne’s mother presses into her hand a small purse heavy with the weight of gold. It is two-thousand livres a third of Julien’s income, for Jeanne to purchase some wedding presents for herself. Julien watches the exchange and says nothing and the happy couple make their way to the ancient world. 

At first everything seems to be perfect, minus of course the whole unpleasant business of wedding night expectations etc. Poor Jeanne has very little experience when it comes to any of this more sordid business, she has been raised more by the birds and the bees themselves then educated about them. But even this can not dampen her mood. She loves Julien and humanity and birds and little children. 

Eventually Julien asks to hold the little purse that Jeanne’s mother has given her, and without hesitating she hands it over. Increasingly he begins to exhibit miserly tendencies and at one point when she asks for some change to buy a little something for herself, Julien hands over a couple sous saying she needs to curb her exorbitant spending habits. By the end of their honeymoon he has become distant and laconic. And as they head back to her castle among the poplars she feels as if she has married a stranger. 

“Then it came to her that she had no longer anything to do, never again anything to do. All her young life at the convent had been preoccupied with the future, busied with dreams. The constant excitement of hope filled her hours at the time so that she was not aware of their flight. Then hardly had she left their austere walls, where her illusions had unfolded, then her expectations of love were at once realized. The longed-for lover, met, loved and married within a few weeks, as one marries on these sudden resolves, had carried her off in his arms, without giving her time for reflection.” 

Slowly, Julien becomes more and more aloof and reserved and Jeanne becomes the slave of a life of lethargy and seclusion. 

“It seemed to Jeanne that her mind was expanding, was beginning to understand the psychic meaning of things; and these little scattered gleams in the landscape gave her, all at once, a keen sense of the isolation of all human lives, a feeling that everything detaches, separates, draws one far away from the things they love.” 

And then one morning while she’s sitting silently in her room and contemplating the disillusionment of life, her maid, Rosalie, seems out of breath and unwell. Without really seeing her, Jeanne asks if she’s well, when the response is a moan and a cry of pain as Rosalie holds her stomach a wave of understanding washes over her. She races to the top of the stairs and calls “Julien!! Come quick!” But by the time he runs up the two flights of stairs, their maid Rosalie has already given birth to a baby boy, in what is the shortest recorded labor in literary history.

This is shocking. Especially for a sheltered Rousseauian. How did this happen? Rosalie is an unmarried scullery maid…while Jeanne is trying to rationalize what is taking place her husband seems even more gruff and deleterious. When he walks into the room and sees the maid, crouching on the floor with her new baby he turns around, an evil look on his face and abruptly tells his wife to get out of the room, this is none of her business. 

Jeanne is shocked and horrified. She tries to force the maid to tell her who the father is, but the maid shutters with horror and perhaps revulsion and is unable to speak. Julien is sullen and angry whenever the subject is brought up of their maid’s impropriety, but they gradually fall into acceptance of their new reality. And slowly as the seasons change, with the weather Julien’s mercurial moods wax and wane. One particularly freezing night while a chill has fallen over the house Julien’s mood for some reason seems to thaw. He allows his wife to heat her room with an extra log and then since she is not feeling well, he kisses her goodnight and heads to his own room. 

The weather is perilously cold and Jeanne awakes feeling ill. She rings for her maid and gets no response, concerned for her maid and the child, living in the even colder rooms in the garret, she creeps out of her bed and makes her way to Rosalie’s room softly calling her name. But the maid is not there, the bed sheets are askew and looked slept in, but where could the maid be? Jeanne makes her way to her husband’s room to tell him of her discovery…by the light of the dying embers she perceives Rosalie’s head leaning on her husband’s shoulder. 

At this point it’s hard to decipher if it’s Julien that has failed her or Rousseau.

She has had a completely different expectation of the “noble savage”. She thought that meant taking long walks and discovering native peoples. But in all her day dreams the fidelity and commitment to her lover were always taken for granted. She has married a roving individual with a preference for loose companionship, who has thrown off the tyranny of marital expectation and there is little she can do. Not only that but she is pregnant. 


Her parents and the priest come to force Rosalie to make a confession. She says that she has been having an affair with Julien since the first time he came to the house. That the second they got back from their honeymoon, that night he went to her bed. He has been a more faithful husband to the maid than to his wife. The father is at first apoplectic and about to do something hasty and rash when the priest pulls him aside and says basically “who of us has not had a dalliance with a maid? How can you be harsh with your son in law when you are guilty of the same crime?” The father pauses. The priest is right. And so they all decide to live as happily as possible ever after, quickly marrying the maid off to a burly farmer who for a large sum and the property of a farm decides he can be persuaded to adopt a bastard.