Thursday, 6 June 2013

Socrates, Silenus and the Grotesque

The links between intoxicated excess, wild dance, and rough music is well known in the figures of Bacchus and Dionysus. It comprises what has sometimes been called a celebration of the irrational or the repressed drive in Greek culture.

But the grotesque link between the great deformed philosopher Socrates and the grotesque Silenus is perhaps less well-known. The link is, of course, most famously presented in the 'Author's Prologue' to Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel:

"Most noble and illustrious drinkers, and you thrice precious pockified blades (for to you, and none else, do I dedicate my writings,) Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato's, which is entitled The Banquet, whilst he was setting forth the praises of his schoolmaster Socrates (without all question the prince of philosophers), amongst other discourses to that purpose, said that he resembled the Sileni. Sileni of old were little boxes, like those we now may see in the shops of apothecaries, painted on the outside with wanton toyish figures, as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, thiller harts, and other such-like counterfeited pictures at discretion, to excite people unto laughter, as Silenus himself, who was the foster-father of good Bacchus, was wont to do; but within those capricious caskets were carefully preserved and kept many rich jewels and fine drugs, such as balm, ambergris, amomon, musk, civet, with several kinds of precious stones, and other things of great price."

"Just such another thing was Socrates. For to have eyed his outside, and esteemed of him by his exterior appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him, so deformed he was in body, and ridiculous in his gesture. He had a sharp pointed nose, with the look of a bull, and countenance of a fool: he was in his carriage simple, boorish in his apparel, in fortune poor, unhappy in his wives, unfit for all offices in the commonwealth, always laughing, tippling, and merrily carousing to everyone, with continual gibes and jeers, the better by those means to conceal his divine knowledge. Now, opening this box you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, inimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible disregard of all that for which men commonly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil, and turmoil themselves."

For other life-philosphers of monstrous excess see Shakespeare's Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and John Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2:

“Socrates was poor, Socrates was deformed, Socrates was inglorious, Socrates was of ignoble birth, Socrates lived with ignominy. For how is it possible he should not be deformed, without honour, of ignoble birth, inglorious, and poor; who was the son of a statuary, flat-nosed, and paunch-bellied; who was reviled in comedies and cast into prison; and who died there, where Timagoras died?”

The dissertations of Maximus Tyrius, Translated by Thomas Taylor. Volume 2 (1804), p. 34.

Compare Montaigne

I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonished me, and the less I understand myself.

And Joseph Addison:

A beautiful eye makes silence eloquent; a kind eye makes contradiction an assent; an enraged eye makes beauty deformed. This little member gives life to every other part about us; and I believe the story of Argus implies no more than that the eye is in every part; that is to say, every other part would be mutilated were not its force represented more by the eye than even by itself.

and Richard Bentley:

If the eye were so acute as to rival the finest microscopes, and to discern the smallest hair upon the leg of a gnat, it would be a curse, and not a blessing, to us: it would make all things appear rugged and deformed; the most finely polished crystal would be uneven and rough; the sight of our own selves would affright us; the smoothest skin would be beset all over with rugged scales and bristly hairs.

No comments:

Post a Comment