Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Minerva and the Dog

One day during the Easter holiday I watched my youngest granddaughter as, seated on the carpet, she finished the assembly of a kiddy jigsaw puzzle—that is, one with relatively few and distinctly large pieces.  She finished the job pretty quickly, but she had wrongly placed one piece early on, meaning that when she got to the final piece, it didn’t fit the last hole left.  Despite the fact that the earlier misplaced piece stuck out in a sore-thumby fashion, she did her best to jam the last remaining piece into a space not meant to receive it.  This she more or less successfully did at the negligible cost of a couple of semicircles of distressed cardboard.  She looked upon her work and saw that it was good.  Everything seemed to fit.  She had made it fit.  God created the human mind to make sense of things, even if that sense is spurious and contrived.  The results are sometimes amusing.  A good deal of the scholarly life is confidently pounding square pegs into round holes.

My stimulating weekend with experts on the music of the Hispanic Renaissance—previewed in my last post--set me to thinking about all this by way of a kind of textual chain reaction.  One of the most famous works of early Spanish literature is the Celestina, named for one of its central characters.  The Celestina, which styles itself as a tragi-comedy, is a dramatic cautionary tale of the consequences of unbridled sexual passion.  It was written by one Fernando de Rojas at the end of the fifteenth century and enjoyed huge popularity at home and abroad.  I first encountered it in graduate school in the English version of a learned translator of the seventeenth century named James Mabbe—or “Don Diego Puede-Ser” as he styled himself with a joke you’ll get (perhaps) if you know even a little Spanish.  Mr. Maybe’s publisher called the book The Spanish Bawd, as the woman named Celestina is a particularly memorable example of the stock character of the cackling old sexual procurer, go-between, or “madam” made famous by Ovid’s Dipsas and prominent in the Romance of the Rose.

There is some raunchy misogyny in Celestina/Spanish Bawd.  The anti-hero Calisto has fallen madly in love with innocent young Melibea—and I do mean madly.  As a dissuasive, his servant Sempronio hauls out a particularly pungent version of the “all women are sluts” argument, of which the following is one of the gentler parts.  Many ostensibly virtuous women, Mabbe says Sempronio says, “have basely prostituted themselves to the embracement of muleteers and stable grooms, suffering them to breath in their faces, with their unsavory breaths and to embosom them between their breasts.  And other some not ashamed to have companied with brute beasts.  Have you not heard of Pasiphae, who played the wanton with a bull?  And of Minerva, how she dallied with a dog?

Well, I had certainly heard of Pasiphae.  She is hardly obscure in Greco-Roman mythology, and is memorably treated by Ovid.  With the help of the famous artificer Daedalus, she found an imaginative way to mate with a Cretan bull, and the consequence was—the Minotaur!   But Minerva and a dog?  That seemed a little off, but it did say so right there in black and white.  Like my granddaughter I wanted all the pieces to fit, even if it involved bestiality on the part of the goddess of Wisdom, so I thought no more about it.  I packed it away in the cold storage section of my memory. 

One of the musical lectures I just heard referred to an early passage in the Celestina in which Calisto compares his disordered state of libido to that of an out of tune lute.  Afterward, in tracking down the passage in a Spanish text, it all came back.   I came upon the canine conundrum, which defrosted instantaneously.  There it was again: ¿No has leydo de Pasife con el toro, de Minerva con el can [dog] ?  “Haven’t you read of Pasiphae with the bull, of Minerva with the dog?”  Only this time it was in the footnotes of a learned scholarly edition in the original Spanish in which the editor pointed out that the text was absurd and had to be wrong, a printer’s blunder.  What Rojas must have alluded to was Minerva’s encounter not with a dog (un can) but with Vulcan, the ugly blacksmith god and cuckolded husband of Venus.  The Spanish compositor must have misread uulcan as elcan or uncan because he didn’t know any better.  James Mabbe didn’t know any better either nor, as it turned out, did John Fleming.  Minerva’s unwilling commerce with Vulcan, which obliquely eventuated in the birth of Erichthonius, inventor of the quadriga chariot, is a most obscure mythological event, but it is alluded to by Servius, the learned commentator on Virgil, and the Spanish humanist Fernando de Rojas knew about it.  He also knew that in legend Vulcan was so physically unattractive as perhaps to be commonly regarded as brutish.

I can date my reading of Mabbe’s Spanish Bawd pretty precisely.  It had to be in 1962.  That would mean that for fifty-six years I was lumbering around with the very old and very fake news of Minerva and the dog.  Thankfully it was in the deep freeze drawer of the synapses.  I can’t say I meditated on it much over the years.   But it does make me wonder just how many other mangled jigsaw pieces are resting there beside it.