Drinking Knowledge (and getting sick)

Many salutations to you readers! I just finished settling into my new house over the weekend, a mere five minutes walk from the library in which I spend a disturbing percentage of my life. I have completed my research proposal (available from here for your perusal) and have now started the long process of reading, taking notes, compiling notes and having ideas. This makes me happy, for it is easily my favorite part of the research process.

I believe that it is now that this blog will come into its own as a way of presenting, sharing and collating my ideas. I have set myself a goal of creating several pages of notes each week to show to a group of postgraduate colleagues that I meet with on Friday afternoons, and I have decided to post these notes (edited for easier reading) on Fluid Imaginings. This should, in theory, mean that you will see a new post every Friday or Saturday (in fact I think i’ll make that a promise to give me some deadlines!). So now without further ado I will launch into my notes for this week on the effects of ‘bad knowledge’ through moral and spiritual allegory on the body (firstly, I advise that you follow this link so that you know what Dropsy is, otherwise this will be confusing).

To get you in the mood, I will begin this post with a passage from Alan of Lille’s 12th century text De Planctu Naturae (the Complaint of Nature), in which greed for worldly wealth is equated with drinking:

“After the cursed hunger of gold pierces mortal breasts, the starved mind of man knows not rest. It dissolves friendships, begets hate, incites anger, sows strife, nourishes dissension, lets loose war breaks established bonds, stirs up sons against fathers, mothers against their own bowels, brings it to pass that brothers know not the togas of their brothers, and all those whom union of blood unites one madness wickedly divides. While the passion for having makes the stomach of the mind dropsical, the mind thirsts as it drinks, and, like another, burns in the very water, and the abundance of wealth gives intensity to the thirst. So the satiated man hungers, the drunken thirsts, the one with plenty longs, the individual covets everything, and by that very covetousness is made poor, and stays wealthy without, but needy within.”

In this passage, greed is described as a kind of vitriol, a creeping poison that seeps into the soul and dissolves it. Greed has the superficial appearance of drinking (that is, meeting one’s needs by drinking) but does not nourish – the drinker continues to drink even though they are bloated and dropsical, boiled in the water and racked with a thirst that cannot be quenched. Like a curse, greed inflames one’s desire to drink, while providing no motivation to stop drinking. In the Romance of the Rose (13th c.), the river of good fortune is described as cloying, sweet and addictive:

“…waters so sweet, so flavourful, so honeyed that there is no man that drinks of it who does not drink more than he should; the drink is so sweet and so dear that he cannot satisfy his thirst with it, for those who go on drinking it burn with thirst more than before. No one drinks of with without getting drunk, but no one is freed from his thirst; the overpowering sweetness so deceives men that there is no one who swallows so much that he doesn’t want to swallow more; that is how well the sweetness knows how to deceive them. Lechery so stimulates them that they become hydroptic.” (lines 5981-5998)

This water has the traits of the ‘wine’ of scripture, being sweet and potable. However, it has no value other than compelling the unfortunate drinker to imbibe more and more until he or she is swollen with unassimilated fluid. This is an effective allegory for the intoxicating nature of fickle fortune. Later in the passage, a river of tempestuous, filthy, polluted water (representing bad fortune) sweeps through, mingles with the waters of good fortune and pollutes them.

This is a representation of the Boethian Rota Fortunae or wheel of fortune. In which one ascends the wheel (Regnabo – I shall reign) to the heights of power (Regno – I reign), yet inevitable falls into misfortune (Regnavi – I reigned) and loses it all (Sum Sine Regno – I am without reign or my reign is finished). In Godfrey of St. Victor’s Fons Philosophiae (12th c.), another example occurs when the uneducated mob jostle to drink from the occluded fountain of the ‘Mechanical Arts’:

“Why had these all come to drink? They hope for salvation: Lips polluted gulp it down – too much, that potation!  One is paralysed and has no coordination, Dropsy fells another whose skin reveals dilation” (lines 33-36).

Godfrey has a very low opinion of the ‘Mechanical Arts,’ or those arts not turned towards the spiritual (exegesis, theology, philosophy). They are abundant, but they pollute the soul. By drawing on this symbolic tradition, Godfrey is effectively equating the mechanical arts with greed, bad luck and sinfulness. There are examples of this device in Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXX) in which greed is represented as a thirst in a bloated body, full of water yet forever seeking more:

“And there I saw a soul shaped like a lute, if only he’d been cut off from his legs below the belly, where they divide in two. The bloating dropsy, disproportioning the body’s parts with unconverted humors, so that the face, matched with the paunch, was puny, forced him to keep his parched lips wide apart, as a man who suffers thirst from a raging fever has one lip curling up, the other sagging.

“O you who bear no punishment at all (I can’t think why) within this world of sorrow,” he said to us, “pause here and look upon the misery of one Master Adamo: in life I had all that I could desire, and now, alas, I crave a drop of water.

The little streams that flow from the green hills of Casentino, descending to the Arno, keeping their banks so cool and soft with moisture, forever flow before me, haunting me; and the image of the leaves me far more parched than the sickness that has dried my shrivelled face.” (lines 49-69).

In both of these examples, the soul of the person who is greedy or undiscerning in life will drink endlessly and become swollen with fluid, yet this will not sustain him. Both are suffering from the torment of Tantalus, in which the river retreats when they attempt to drink for all eternity. Tantalus’ punishment for killing and sacrificing his son Pelops was to forever see the object of his desire, yet never touch it. This is the penalty for those who seek knowledge of the world (the acquisition of wealth, non-spiritual or fallow knowledge etc) – they will spend all of eternity denied the object of their ‘thirst’.

On a final note (before I bid you adieu), tell me that some of these passages don’t remind you of a certain bespectacled boy forcing a certain white-bearded wizard to drink a black potion and relive all of his worst memories? Popular culture eat your heart out, your tropes have all been done before! Yet another example of the diverse ways in which an understanding of the Medieval past informs our understanding of the present.




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