Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Milton's scatological views on the 'end times'

Le P├ętomane the 'Flatulist'
Dare he not put extra strain on his belly?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Living in Korea leaves me without the library access that I'd like to have, and though the internet provides its Google-assisted searches, much is still closed off to me, so I can't always follow up interesting crumbs of knowledge to the bountiful table from which they've fallen.

For example, on a recent Milton List thread, scholars have been discussing Milton's sense of humor, and one scholar noted that Professor Nicholas Clary, of St. Michael's College (Winooski, Vermont), had related an anecdote about the young Milton's scatological humor in an officially scheduled postprandial Latin discourse at Christ's Church in which the student Milton had spoken in Latin for an hour or so about the topic of farts to other students too sated on food and drink to catch his scatological references -- and thus suffering too excessively from the very matter of his topical discourse to notice that they were the collective butt of his obscure joke.

This isn't my brand of humor, but from having two young children who laughingly engage in flatulence contests, I've accepted that for some people, flatulence is a laughing gas...

Besides, scholars have to keep an open mind, so I tried to find references to Milton's student discourse in Latin on farts. I don't seem to have found anything online about that after-table talk, but I did find (along with what I take to be a 'faintheart' warning) a Latin passage in which Milton seems to pun on "Sphinx" and "sphincter":

Indeed the warning is not unnecessary, for sometimes his jokes are most becomingly related (as by the editor) in the original Latin. For instance, he threatens that if he sees someone not laughing he will suspect the man has decayed teeth or has eaten so much that he dares not put extra strain on his belly, ne praecinenti ori succinat, et aenigmata quaedam nolens affutiat sua non Sphinx sed Sphincter anus, quae medicis interpretanda, non Oedipo, relinquo; nolim enim hilari vocis sono obstrepat in hoc coetu posticus gemitus: solvant ista medici qui alvum solvunt.

Given my atrocious Latin, I won't attempt a translation, but I've alerted Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti, who likes this sort of thing, and hope that he'll oblige.

Anyway, this passage appears in a PMLA article, "Milton as Satirist" (PMLA, Vol. 51, No. 2, Jun., 1936, pp. 414-429), written by a man whose name is yet more evidence that names are destiny: "John Milton French"! The article is available online to those with a subscription or special access, neither of which I have. I could manage to access only the above quote in French's article, so I'm not completely certain that he's quoting Milton, but I'll assume that he is because Willis Goth Regier, in his Book of the Sphinx, notes that Milton puns on the sphinx's anal sphincter (or so says Joshua T. Katz in the final paragraph of his article "The Riddle of the sp(h)ij-: The Greek Sphinx and her Indic and Indo-European Background" (Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics)).

Elsewhere, flatulence was also on Milton's mind:

But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her Temperance over Appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with Surfet, and soon turns
Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Winde. (PL 7.126-130)
Or so says the archangel Raphael to Adam in his warning that the first couple should not attempt to gorge themselves on more knowledge than they're ready for. Otherwise, they'll suffer mental flatus.

On this point, as the above link shows, Raphael and Milton disagree with Aristotle:
as Nourishment to Winde. The simile compares the result of intellectual intemperance -- folly -- to the result of alimentary intemperance -- farts. Aristotle explicitly denies any such analogy in his Nicomachean Ethics 3. 10: "But we do not speak of men as either temperate or profligate in relation to the pleasures of ambition and of learning. Nor similarly can these terms be applied to the enjoyment of any of the other pleasures that are not bodily pleasures."
Aristotle is here denying that his own Golden Mean -- everything in moderation -- applies to such incorporal pleasures as learning, where all limits seem unwarranted.

Milton would consider such a value of knowledge to be highly inflated, and those who -- like Adam and Eve -- aspire to unlimited knowledge eventually find themselves hoist by their own petard.


At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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At 4:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, SR.

Jeffery Hodges

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