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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Berkeley and a spider

It is interesting to contemplate the fact that in the period between 1712-1717, Vico, Shaftesbury and Berkeley were all either living in or visiting Naples. Schaftesbury, who was raised, in a manner of speaking, by Locke, and rejected his tutor unequivocally – Berkeley, who grew to detest Shaftesbury’s philosophy as the very antithesis of religion and a much more poisonous skepticism than that he was accused of promoting; and Vico, whose sense of doing battle with the moderns has much in common with Shaftesbury’s sense that raillery and wit were marks of true intellectual freedom, and conversation the method of wisdom – which is another aspect of Vico’s defense of topoi against mere logic. All, in turn, knew Paolo Doria, into whose salon each man, at various times, ventured.

I wonder if Berkeley spoke to Doria of the tarantella. I wonder if there is any meaning in the fact that this idealist metaphysician – to label him in the classroom way – was so fascinated with both the tarantula and the stories of the effect of its bite. Surely as a clergyman, Berkeley was enrolled, forcibly, in the struggle against popular superstition. But Berkeley did not have Shaftesbury’s Tory contempt for the people - his Italian journal is full of incidents that show Berkeley as something more like an anthropologist than judge, recording the dirtiness of cleanliness of towns, the agricultural prospects of the countryside, the speech of the peasants with a certain tone of equanimity and fairness that surely was his tone, and one of the reasons he could get on with Swift.

But to the theme of this post: the future bishop and the spider.

The first mention of the tarantella in the journal is about a doctor who is met with on the road as Berkeley is going into Calabria. The doctor has cheerful contempt fo the peasant superstition of the tarantella, and attributes it to the peasants almost sexual love for drama. seems fascinate
After this, Berkeley records what a certain “Consul” in Tarentum told him about it:

“Tarantato that we saw dance here, no lookingglass or sword ; stamped, screeched, seemed to smile sometimes; danced in a circle like the others. The Consul,
&c. inform us that all spiders except the long-legged ones bite, causing the usual symptoms, though not so violent as the large ones in the country. He tells me the
tarantula causes pain and blackness to a great space round the bite; thinks there can be no deceit, the dancing is so laborious ; tells me they are feverish mad, and sometimes after dancing throw themselves into the sea, and would drown if not prevented ; that in case the tarantula be killed on biting, the patient dances but one year ; otherwise to the death of the tarantula.”

The next day, passing through a small Italian town, Berkeley talks with an Albanian priest about the spider: “The priest told us the arm, e. g. being bitten by the tarantula swelled, confirmed, as indeed everybody, that common notion of the tarantula's death curing the bite. His house very neat. Everywhere great respect for a knowledge of the English, owing to our commerce, fleets, and armies.” In a stop at Gavina, evidently to his enquiries, Berkeley learns this: “Tarantula not in this country ; he hath seen several bitten with a black swoln mark as large as half-a-crown ; they knew not they were bitten till dancing ; tarantula bites only in the hot months ; a peasant at Canosa laughed at their biting, and said he had often taken them in his hands.” In Ascola, or in the environs of the town, Berkeley and his companion eat beans with some peasants in a field: “They boast of a saint's finger kept in a church of a convent on a hill overlooking the town, which, so far as the church is visible, prevents the bite of the tarantula.” Approaching Vesuvius, Berkeley notes: “Taurasi and La Torella. Fricento belongs to the Principe della Torella ; 25,000 souls [2500. M.J ; July and J August without fires. An image on Monte Virgine protects the country about as far as visible from tarantulas, which, say they, are here likewise.Two bears slain last year in a neighbouring wood.” Berkeley wrote a letter about Vesuvius to John Arbuthnot – one of Berkeley’s set, along with Pope and Swift- in which he recounts its eruption and the horrible noise it makes – a letter that makes one wonder if Swift slyly poked at it in Gulliver’s Travels. He would have known of it not only because letters were passed around in the set, but also because the letter was published by the Royal Society. It was one of the odder gothic habits of 18th century intellectuals – like Wincklemann, in the 1760s – to climb Vesuvius and marvel at the lava flows. Wincklemann and his companions, the rather louche Baron d’Hancarville, tossed down a few bottles of wine on the summit. Berkeley doesn’t mention drinking anything.

After arriving at Naples, Berkeley seems to lose interest in the tarantula, and takes up another custom: the nasty habit of murder that has sprung up among the inhabitants of Southern Italy. In a letter to Pope about the island of Ischia, he writes: “and were they but as much strangers to revenge as they are to avarice and ambition, they
might in fact answer the poetical notions of the golden age. But they have got, as an alloy to their happiness, an ill habit of murdering one another on slight offences. We had an instance of this the second night after our arrival, a youth of eighteen being shot dead by our door : and yet by the sole secret of minding our own business, we found a means of living securely among those dangerous people.”

So: what is one to make of the practices of these people, their mental, or physical, reaction to the bite of the certainly real tarantula? In other words, what is the meaning of the appearance of a certain mentalist imperialism during a period when England is undergoing the tremors of the Great Transformation?

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