‘The Sacred Vomit of Martianus Capella’ by J.B. Usher

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A year ago, I wrote a brief essay where I reflected on creative ways to instruct and teach such as The Compleat Angler with its Socratic Dialogue on fishing or the injection of poems and anecdotes into David Arora’s mushroom identification handbook All that the Rain Promises and More. These peculiar alternatives that provide enlightening and entertaining ways to teach beyond rote memorization is what perked my interest when I came across a description of  De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii or “On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury” by fifth century writer Martianus Capella (translated by William Harris Stahl with E.L. Burge). As its title suggests, the book tells the story of the god Mercury marrying Philology, a mortal woman who ascends into godhood at the beginning, and the following marriage ceremony featuring the various members of the Greek pantheon in attendance. It’s in the ceremony where Capella’s intentions for this story are revealed; the narrative itself being a framing device to expound on the learning found in the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmony. Each chapter introduces a personification of each art as a goddess attending the wedding who then gives a speech on their respective allegorical representation; i.e. the goddess Grammar gives a speech on the lessons of grammar. Such a creative pedagogical method enticed me to hunt down the complete text.

The promise of De nuptiis‘ premise is what excited me in much the same way The Compleat Angler excited me. However, the end result did not provide the same initial satisfaction. The contention is that Izaak Walton’s work is a breezy read of a man’s singular passion while Capella is playing a more formal role of a compiler rather than any personal passion on the topics. Much of his descriptions of these arts are mostly copied, sometimes word for word, from the writings of past authors on each topic such as Cicero for Rhetoric’s speech and Pliny for Geometry. What’s more, Capella frequently misreads his own sources leading to not just misinterpretations, but outright reversals of the source’s original meaning. The end result is that many of the arts devolve into arduously dense text and painfully dull reading with translator’s notes detailing how awfully Capella flubbed being the life rafts to keep you going. If you ever wanted a few dozen pages listing Latin spelling rules or the size of various Mediterranean islands in archaic measurement units then you’re in for a delight, but it is not too surprising these days the text is not given much attention beyond being a weird historical curio that bridges the gap between Classical scholarship of the late Roman Empire and the Christian era that supplants it.

While much of the book makes for dry reading, what really shines through and what I think makes Capella worthwhile literature is where he gets the opportunity to get creative with his allegorical narrative. Take for example the description of the goddess Arithmetic:

“She had a stateliness of bearing that reflected her pristine origin, antedating the birth of the Thunderer himself, and shone in the light of her countenance. Certain strange manifestations on her head gave her an awesome appearance. For from her brow a single, scarcely perceptible, whitish ray appeared, and from it emanated another ray, the projection of a line, as it were, from its original source. Then came a third and a fourth ray, and on to a ninth and a tenth, the first decad -all radiating from her glorious and majestic brow in double and triple combinations. But even as the rays emanated in boundless profusion, so they gradually diminished again in a remarkable way, and she reduced them to one. A robe concealing the operations of universal Nature covered her manifold and intricate undergarment.”

In a condensed description, Capella is able to turn the rules and mathematical sorcery of Pythagorean sacred number theory and into the appearance of a person. There’s the single beam of light beginning as the source of all others representing the monad while also expanding into an infinity that simultaneously collapses into a singularity. His creative personas exist in service to the art they describe. Her countenance of appearing to exist before the “Thunderer” (Jove) reveals the eternal importance numbers have to existence and creation just as her robe conceals Nature representing, much like her beams of light, how the multiplicity of reality stems from a singular source. Each of the seven maidens physical characteristics likewise share this many layered density reflecting their art.

But the opening “Betrothal” and “Marriage” chapters are where the most beautiful and poetic content is found in its story combining the Classical gods, Neo-Platonic cosmology, and just plain good writing. Read the scene where Philology must expulse all her earthly impurities so that she can be pure enough to drink from the Cup of Immortality and become a proper god:

“With these words, she [Immortality] lightly felt with her right hand Philology’s heartbeat and breast; when she found that it was greatly swollen with some inner fullness, she said: ‘Unless you retch and void this matter which is choking your breast, you will never attain the throne of immortality at all.’ The girl strained hard and with great effort vomited up the weight she was carrying in her breast. Then that nausea and labored vomit turned into a stream of writings of all kinds. One could see what books and what great volumes and the works of how many languages flowed from the mouth of the maiden.”

More than just an intense and otherworldly description of the process of ascending to godhood, it also becomes the allegorical understanding of how all of earthbound man’s writings and knowledge came to be and how they all flow from a singular divine source. Upon my first reading, I was only struck by the surreal description on literary emesis, but revisiting it after reading the entire thing I can’t help but feel that Martianus Capella identifies himself with this section in particular. The whole project of  De nuptiis is an attempt to compile all the available knowledge into one singular source. Considering how much of the text is a thick slurry of other sources filled with the impurities of mistranslation and misinterpretation, “vomit” might be an appropriate description for Capella’s project and striving for knowledge altogether; it is vomit, albeit a divine vomit.

Perhaps complimentary to Capella’s sacred vomit imagery is the instances where his own personality and frustrations seem to leak into the text. I expressed my own boredom reading Latin grammar and spelling rules, but what I didn’t mention is when Martianus Capella and, by extension, the narrative gets bored with descriptions seen here near the end of the Grammar chapter, “When Grammar had said this as if she were merely introducing her subject, Minerva intervened, because of the boredom that had  come upon Jove and the celestial senate,”. For what is supposed to be a divine procession of the most sacred and godly of arts and sciences, Capella is very candid when he is sick of compiling and expounding all this info. Likewise, Capella also engages in even more self-aware playfulness when he decides to insert himself as a character into the narrative. Capella opens De nuptiis like many works at the time by invoking the gods or muses for inspiration; in this case, Capella attributes the story being brought to him by Satire personified. While the genre “satire” did not have the same connotations of invectiveness against folly as it now has, the lighthearted way Capella interacts with Satire does contain the ripples of our modern comedic understanding of satire. Rather than start off Astronomy’s chapter in the usual pattern, Capella begins on a tangent describing the gods, late into the festivities and very drunk on wine, goofing around making rude jokes and being overly mirthful. As if Capella was presently writing this now, Satire appears before him to chastise his improper and impious depiction of the gods to which Capella replies in defense:

“What has happened to your ever-ironical and subtle contempt for the bombast of the poets, whereby you content yourself with the chaffing and witticisms while consigning their poetry to the realms of absurdity? […] Am I to dispense with all imaginary creatures and introduce no pleasantry or mirth to relieve the boredom of my readers?”

The argument between Capella and Satire reveals a few things about the text. Much like the maiden’s speech being cut-off early from boredom, Capella is occasionally eager to escape the aims of the text proper and explore his own creative discursions. Likewise, the argument with Satire becomes itself an execution of  the generic elements of the satiric by having a less serious form of writing juxtaposed with more solemn topics. The word “satire” itself derives its roots from the Latin satura meaning a sort mixed up stew of ingredients. For Latin literature, satire was the mixture of both verse and prose discoursing on a variety of topics. Part of what I think Martianus Capella finds so compelling about the genre of satire, and why he attributes Satire for the creation of his story, returns back to the Philology’s vomit scene. The source of all human writing and knowledge begins at a singular source in a violent and explosive mix of all languages and texts together. The source of literature is a “stew”, but one brewed in our guts. So by writing satire, Capella performs a mimetic performance of the projectile admixture that is our divine source of writing. Admittedly,  De nuptiis is often a chore to read and you would be better off reading his sources if ancient knowledge of the world is what you’re looking, but Martianus Capella’s allegorical project a poetic and arguably spiritual context to that world and  is ultimately a masterpiece of spewing literary chunks.

J.B. Usher writes HERE and tweets @jaybeeusher . He is growing mushrooms.

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