Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

“VENUS” AS VENIA

If ”hubris”, the arrogance implicit in seduction, invites hate and punishment, if amorous suffering is compensated by moral redemption and spiritual salvation, the veneratio of venusian charm solicits venia: the benevolence and grace of the gods, the world, and man. Venia is not properly speaking forgiveness, because no sin or even indulgence has been committed. Nor is it an allowance of space and time for repentance, since no deviation or error has occurred, in the venusian dimension, man is innocent. Of course his innocence is not ingenuous, spontaneous, and natural; it is an innocence located beyond good and evil because veneratio initiates a new beginning. Titus Livy tells that after the devotio of the consul Decius Mus, the Romans ”took up the battle as though the sign had been given for the very first time”.
A conspicuous part of the charm that the venusian perspective has exercised upon poets in particular derives from its character as repetition that presents itself as different, other, not identical to the preceding one, to the model or original. Here we find a explanation of the link between Venus and spring that is less banal than the usual generic reference to enchantment and the flowering of nature. The return of spring is enchanting because it initiates a transition, a passage from the same to the same. The refrain of the poem ”Pervigilium Veneris” brings to the fore the cancellation of experience, the indifference in the face of past erotic experience: ”Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet” (”Let those who have never loved love tomorrow, let those love tomorrow who have loved”).
Venia is the consenting response of the divinity who has been an object of veneration. In the mutual relation of veneratio venia that is established between man and divinity, Venus combines in herself the two poles of the relation: she says yes to those who, inspired by her, have already said yes. She is thus the propitiator par excellence: she suggests ”obsequium” and is ”obsequens”, is propitious and compliant to whoever already moves within a horizon of propitiation and condescension. Roman deities are endowed with venia, and Venus is by definition ”obsequens” because assent and affirmation are implicit in the very notion of ”numen”, of divine power. ”Numen” comes from ”nuo”, to nod. Of course this does not mean that the gods may not be irate or hostile at times, but there is always an expiatory or propitiatory rite that reestablishes the ”pax deorum”. It is this faith in the fundamentally favorable nature of the divine and of the present that allows the Romans to deify (to the horror of Augustine and Hegel) even the most harmful forces like fever and the goddess Lua, symbol of disorder and destruction, as well as the most secondary and laughable forces like those named in the ”indigitamenta”, because all these participate in some way in presence. Upon this faith is founded the possibility of assimilating the most diverse religions to that tolerant syncretism of the strangest cults that characterizes the development of Roman religion. They only thing that is truly unassimilable to the Roman pantheon is moral radicalism, precisely because it negates the present in the name of an ”ought to be,” of German idea of ”Sollen”, of utopia. The concept of aid is implicit in ”venia”. It is curious that the verb ”nuo” (I assent) is confused with an archaic ”nuo” that means ”I suckle” ”I nurse” (whence ”nutrix”). The idea of benevolence and of ”venia” thus seems linked to that of aid given in early infancy, in a state of extreme need. No matter how much this may tempt us to consider Venus as one of the many manifestations of the Mediterranean archetype of the Great Mother, such an identification would overlook the essential point. Readers of the Aeneid will certainly remember the episode in bookVIE when Venus Genetrix runs to the aid of her son, Aeneas, who has been wounded in the battle against Turnus. Venusian literature is equally rich in examples that intend the aid of Venus in an erotic sense, from the Camoens of the Lusiadi (for whom Venus conjures up from the sea a lovely island inhabited by quite compliant nymphs who give themselves in the most voluptuous ways) to Radiguet, for whom Venus ironically ”lets us glimpse her secrets, her fruits” unconsciously in sleep. But the notion of aid implicit in ”venia” is much broader than that of maternity or sexual surrender: it must be understood in all its material and spiritual latitude. Venus is ”obsequens” not only like a mother who nurses or matrons who, fined for their adultery, financed the erection of Venus`s first temple in Rome in 295 B.C. The characteristic of her ”venia” is of the philosophical order: it implies above all a willingness more general and vast.
If ”veneratio” is to say yes to the gods, the world, and oneself, first silently and then according to ritual carmina, ”venia” is to receive a yes from the gods, the world, and oneself, at first through a mute nod, a sign of approval, an intimate consent, and then through a word that is almost ”independent of him who speaks it” which means ``not insofar as it signifies, but insofar as it exists.” This is the meaning that Emile Benveniste attributes to the root *bha whence ”for” (to speak) and its derivations ”fas”, ”fama”, and ”fibula”. Of course the idea of ”fas” understood as a divine word in a mute pantheon presents some difficulty, but the important thing is to point out the affirmative character implicit in the word ”fas” and its ritual, demythified aspect. Thus the term ”fama” seems to have originally had an affirmative intention. Finally ”fibula”, the fabulation of oneself, may create a persona (in the Roman sense of mask), but not a subject: the doubt about its reliability from the very start prevents the individual from failing pietas and becoming arrogant. Just as ”veneratio”, the giving of praise, turns into a mimeticism that dissolves the meaning of that which it praises, so ”venia”, the receiving of praise, finally annuls the content of that which is praised. The facility with which one is accepted as a sexual partner in contemporary life is part of the venusian charm, but this does not justify any particular complacency nor does it authorize any intimacy. These encounters, consummated without pathos and without anyone attributing any particular importance to them, have a profound enchantment: they are appreciable ceremonies precisely because they are empty. They are under the sign of Venus: the ”venia” exercised in them annuls all vanity.

Translated from italian by Barbara Spackman
Published in Giovanna Borradori (ed.), ”Recoding Metaphysics. The New italian Philosophy”, Evaston (IL): Northwestern University Press, 1988
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