Joan DeJean, in her fascinating book, The Re-invention of Obscenity, points to a strange omission in the charges leveled against Théophile de Viau’s trial in his trial in 1623. Théophile’s arrest was, in part, part of a battle that he had nothing to do with. As the result of the proliferation of publications in the early 17th century, the government of Louis XIII to propose an office of censorship, which immediately aroused the indignation of the doctors of theology at the Sorbonne, who, traditionally, had the censor’s powers. Théophile was thus charged for an obscene poem, but the charges were translated into theological language – thus, the awe-inspiring line in which the poet contemplates fucking his lover Phylis in the ass was construed as a form of blasphemy. DeJean makes an interesting case for the threefold importance of the trial:
“Théophile’s trial makes three things clear. First, the modern obscene would not have taken shape as it did, and perhaps not at all, without the decisive role of print culture. Second, whereas all censors, civil and religious alike, claimed to be interested only in religious issues, they were really more concerned with trying to convict Théophile of sexual crimes. Third, their obsession with Théophile’s sexuality, in particular with what we would now term his sexual orientation, ultimately played a crucial role in giving obscenity its modern form.”
As DeJean explains the latter, before Théophile’s trial, bawdy literature was saturated with references to the male organ; after Théophile’s trial, the male organ is figleafed, and the vagina starts to get all the textual attention. Which is a shift that surely has to do with more than the trial – but the trial is the largest social marker of the shift.
But it is the second point that is of interest to me. If Théophile was truly to be charged with blasphemy, his sodomite sonnet was not the place to start. Indeed, there were plenty of other provocations scattered throughout Théophile’s writing, including a scene in Fragments d'une histoire comique in which the author – describes adventures ensuing from his banishment from Paris in 1619. Among those adventures are two with a religious cast - a visit to a possessed woman in Agen, and a riot that ensues when one of his companions, a fellow Protestant (and, more importantly, a “beautiful spirit”, as Théophile’s enemy, the Jesuit Garasse, describes them) refuses to kneel in the street while the consecrated host is being taken from one place to another.
Stuart Clark, pondering the mysteries of the belief systems of early modern Europe (about which a battle has been waged for a long time over the question of whether disbelief in the modern sense would even be intelligible to people in the societies of that time), set up a thought experiment type question in his book, Thinking with Demons: the idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. After showing the changes going on in the definition of the natural and the preternatural among writers in the sixteenth century, he writes:
One way to bring together this array of changes from a position of relative stability to one of confusion in the application of categories to phenomena might be to ask, simply, how hypothetically well-informed inhabitants of early moder urope were expected to make sense of some typically marvelous happenings. Faced by prodigious appearances in the skies, were they to interpret them as signs of divine anger, exhalations of vapours from the earth, or tricks played on the sight by the reflection of light? If they saw a dead person bleed freshly in the presence or at the touch of the suspected murderer, was this a miracle to sustain God’s justice, the effect of physical links between two bodies agitated by antipathy or connected by corpuscular effluxes, a crude deception designed to remove the need ofr harder evidence, or the result of distubing the corpse before the blood was fully coagulated. Was the visitation of an apparition a spiritual reality, a physical counterfeit, or merely a dream? Did a healer like the Restoration sensation Valentine Greatrakes cure by means of a heavenly dispensation, a natural quality in his own physiological make-up transmitted, again, by material effluvia, or by psychosomatic delusion?” (266)
The last question I have quoted rather sneakily. I have already posted about Robert Boyle and his strictures on the word ‘nature’ as having any explanatory force in natural philosophy. In fact, Boyle met Greatrakes, a man who had a chased away pains, like migraine headache, by stroking a person along lines felt to Greatrake’s fingers line the lines of flight of the pain, which he would lead to some outlet and free into the air – for instance, the opening of the ear. A Hobbesian physician, the radical Henry Stubbe, wrote a pamphlet about Greatrake. Stubbe was just the kind of materialist Boyle did not trust – he was forever turning the supernatural into the natural. Stubbe, interestingly enough, met Greatrake, who was raised in Ireland, in 1666, after Stubbe had been in Jamaica for three years. Early modern Europe didn’t really exist – who knows, after all, if Stubbe’s notion of the natural effluvia of the body came from his conversation with some African in Jamaica? The medical body was created out of a confluence of many belief systems. Stubbe’s naturalism, most commentators say, came from a distinctly English tradition, through Hobbes. Yet he is repeating Campanella’s notion of the natural power of certain bodies. Nature, we should remember, does not have a canonical semantic force such that we can look back at these writers and think that they are “humanizing” or disenchanting the world. On the other hand, the imperfect rise of volupte, I’d contend, thematically prefigures the humanization of the world. At least, in Theophile’s case, taking nature, whatever it includes, as all the case is. One has to always remember how the New World showed that it was very had to say what nature did include.
Typically, Théophile sets up the occasion for his visit with a joke. He is in a garden with his friend, Clitiphon. Clitiphon has touched a rose. The scent getting on his hand, Clitiphon turns pale and rushes to some other flowers to get rid of the smell. It turns out he has an aversion for roses.
“That flower,” I told him, “is the breath of your bad angel, the one that bewitched you and gave you the convulsions of a demomaniac: your eyes rolled up, you gritted your teeth and opened your lips with grimaces that were exactly like the obsessed girl that I visited yesterday. – I don’t have any other devil than that odor, said Clitiphon, but if you love me, tell me the story of that adventure, for they say it is pleasant; I didn’t dare enjoy it, for fear that it was false; and since you have the reputation for being exactly truthful in the least little things, instruct me in what happened, in order that I may dare to assure myself that I know the facts. – Here, I told him, is all there is to it. The noise of this accident had already alarmed all the countryside, and the most incredulous let themselves be convinced at second hand by the infinite number of people who believed to have truly seen effects far above those of the forces of nature in the person of this girl. I found myself on this occasion in the village, where already she had been playing her game for a long time. And since I have been held to be a person whose nature is such as to not easily believe impossibilities, two of my friends, in order to overcome the doubts I entertained about this, pressed me to go see her, with the promise to not believe themselves if, coming away from her, I didn’t find myself of their opinion. She was lodged near the walls of the village, in a mean little house where a priest came to exorcize her regularly two times a week. A very old woman and two small children were inseparably next to her, which gave me the first conjecture of some kind of trick. For, firstly, I see in her room that the feeble and most timid sex and the most aged lived quite securely near the devil, for which reason I supposed it wasn’t the worst of them. After having knocked loudly, an old man, who opened the door for us, told us that the patient had need of a little rest, because of the extraordinary work she’d been put to by the by the bad spirit a little before; but if we returned in two hours, we could content our curiosities. I knew that he had demanded this period to give him the leisure to prepare her ‘supernatural’ faces, and, without stopping for his speech, I promptly went into the chamber where the girl was with her old woman companion and the two children. Starring at her good and hard, I saw she was surprised and could easily see that she fixed her face [contraignoit son visage] and began to study her posture. At that feint, a little too obvious, I hardly held back a smile, which the old woman found to be very unpleasant, and told me that God would punish me for my mockery by the same punishment he inflicted on this poor body. I told her I was smiling because of something else, and that we weren’t people incapable of being converted in spite of our appearance, but that we asked for some visible witness which could make us believe in something so incredible. However the demomaniac began to agitate her body, to make herself look savage and to tell us, breathlessly, that she felt she was in the presence of non-believers and that this pained her. Insensibly, voila, here she was now in a rapture; she threw to the floor a distaff that she held and, passing by us into another room, she threw herself onto the floor, counterfeited the grimaces of a hanged man, the cries of a cat, the convulsions of an epileptic, crawled on her belly, rolled on the beds, jumped to the windows and made as if to jump out, except that the children intervened, before whom she stopped short and growled some words of badly pronounced latin. I spoke the most distinct latin to her that I could, but I saw no appearance that she understood it. I spoke to her in greek, English, Spanish and Italian, but the devil couldn’t articulate a word in response. As for gascon, she didn’t lack curses to throw at me, for she was of the country, and the priest coming by, his latin communicated to her. She understood his questions, and him, her responses. In a word, according to the terms of their dialogue, she would assume or relax her postures, to the fright of his assistants, who I couldn’t help but mock, saying that this devil was ignorant of languages and must not travel much – but since at each time the demomaniac had phrases to throw into my eyes, I didn’t wait for the end of her fit, knowing well that, at least if she didn’t transform herself into something stronger and more savage than a girl, no devil was going to get away with insulting me that easily. The easy resolve with which I witnessed an occurance that everybody thought was so dangerous was the reason that the abuse did not last hidden for long. For the justified suspicions that this event arose permitted many the curiosity to examine this mystery a little closer, and as minds were being slowly delivered of this superstitious credulity, there came a point when a testimony was produced that relieved any incertitude. For, after being treated by a good doctor, it was found that her problem was merely a little melancholy, and a lot of faking.”
The question in my mind, here, is why am I the first person to translate this? Or has there been another? This is amazing stuff.