Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

“VENUS” AS VENOM

The word ”venenum”, like the corresponding Greek term ”pharmakon”, presents a double meaning, for it can be used both positively and negatively; it thus originally seems to have indicated the power of venusian charm in its multiple manifestations.
This affinity with the Greek term does not, however, illuminate its conceptual dimension, which is essentially Latin and is determined in opposition to the horizon opened by the noun ”pharmakos”, related to ”pharmakon”. In Greece, the scapegoat sacrificed (put to death or expelled) in order to purify the city of the ills that afflicted it was called a ”pharmakos”. To this end, a certain number of degraded and useless individuals were regularly maintained in Athens at the state`s expense. René Girard sees in this custom a manifestation of sacrifice whose essence consists in the exercise of a ritualized violence that purifies and guards the community from the spread of unrestrained and total violence. This theory is founded on the presupposition that only the ritual repetition of violence, by provoking a cathartic and beneficent effect, can distance and preserve a society from barbarism. Human or animal sacrifice (implying bloodshed) is the only ”pharmakon remedy” to the ”pharmakon venom” of generalized violence: ”non violence appears to be a gift of violence”. As Derrida has shown, this perspective remains operant within Greek philosophy, in particular within Platonic philosophy.
Though there are a few sporadic cases of human sacrifice and ritual expulsion from the city to be found in the religious history of Rome, the word ”venenum” turns our inquiry in a different direction. ”Veteres vinum venenum vocabant,” says Isidorus of Seville. This evidence, together with the study of the Roman feast of Vinalia, points out not only the sacred character of wine understood as the venusian drink par excellence, but also the meaning of the substitution of wine for blood in sacrifices. The sacralization of wine in Venus`s religion plays a role completely different from the one it plays in Dionysus`s religion: in the most ancient Dionysian tradition, there is no reference to wine and the relation between the two is only established retroactively. The Dionysian intoxication comes from the homicidal fury of the ”sparagmos”, the tearing to pieces of the victim, consumption of his blood and flesh. The bloody sacrifice of Dionysism is the ”pharmakon” that restores peace and social order. In the religion of Venus, however, the ”vinum venenum”, significantly considered the ”blood of the earth” immediately takes the place of human blood and implies a refusal of violence even in its therapeutic and prophylactic uses. That the ”pax deorum” is reestablished by means of the libation of the contents of the grape-harvest jars, rather than by means of bloody sacrifices, is a fact of enormous anthropological importance. Venusian charm thus locates itself at the antipodes of orgiastic intoxication. While the attraction exercised by Dionysus derives from the ritualized and controlled imitation of an originary and founding violence, the attraction exercised by Venus is, on the contrary, connected to a sort of displacement, transfer: by offering wine rather than blood, Venus establishes an astute mimeticism that exalts the grace of ”détournements”. ”Venenum” also means dye, tint, color, and by extension makeup, ”maquillage”. In this way the cult of Venus interprets a profoundly rooted orientation in the Roman spirit, traditionally attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius: in response to Jove`s request for human sacrifices, Numa did not refuse but displaced the meanings of words by offering him heads of onions rather than human heads, hair and pilchards rather than men. It is significant that love appreciated Numa`s translation, in contrast to the Greek Zeus, who (as Hesiod recounts) did not forgive Prometheus for having given him bones covered with fat rather than flesh as a sacrifice. Also in this perspective is the tale of a certain Papirius, who, in an era when it was customary to promise entire temples to the gods as a vow, promised love a ”pocillum mulsi,” a glass of honeyed wine, and obtained complete fulfillment of his requests. Venusian charm is certainly linked to appearance, but not necessarily to ”beautiful” appearance. The existence of a cult devoted to Venus Calva, whatever its origin, is yet further evidence of a religious disposition oriented toward an innocent displacement that excites, not the wrath of the gods, but their smile. Demythification is also dedramatization: exaggerations and fanaticism are alien to Roman religion, which rejects the absolutist claims implicit in the delirious experiences of Dionysism. Dionysus`s religion knows ecstatic joy, but has none of that humor benevolent and astute, prosaic and witty, that is an essential part of venusian charm. The poets have been the interpreters of this aspect, from the incomparable Giorgio Baffo (whom Apollinaire considered the greatest erotic poet of all time) to Radiguet. Baffo`s Venus, who sprawled out on the grass in a delightful garden with her lover, teases her companion with these words: ”Corne on, then, my lovely, give me the precious juice of your blessed prick, for I prize the juice of your little click more than muscatel” and concludes: ”May those who don`t fuck go to hell and become so many marmots. But let the first to have screwed be praised, honored, and crowned,” belongs to the same erotic intuition that gives rise to the Bald Venus and ”vinum~venenum.” The demythification that exchanges wine for blood in sacrifices and onion heads for human heads is nonetheless not mere banalization or triviality: disenchantment does not eliminate enchantment, and exteriorization maintains a purity of its own, Venusian charm does not arise from a dialectic of concealment and unveiling: it presupposes an already uncovered and available reality. Enchantment does not depend upon what is hidden or revealed, but on the transformation undergone by the ”crudest” and ”most obscene” reality. If there is still a secret to be revealed, then we are still in the realm of seduction, charm begins when there are no longer any secrets. Hence there were Dionysian mysteries, whereas Venus never had them: ”in her role as scarecrow - writes Radiguet - Venus lacks authority”. All this leads one to believe that the notion of purity that underlies venusian charm (and perhaps all of Roman religion) is completely different from that implicit in Greek religion. In Greece ”katharma” meant ”pharmakos”, scapegoat, as well as purifying sacrifice. For Girard, this refers to a conception of purification as purgation, as the evacuation from the city of all that was held to be harmful by means of the exercise of violence analogous to the violence from which one wished to liberate the society. ”Pharmakon” implies an identity between the evil and its remedy. In Rome, however, the substitution of ”vinus venenum” for blood seems to imply a concept of purity as a simulating operation, displacement and transfer free from passions and traumatic exclusions. Venenum could also be merely water tinted with red or myrtle wine, like that used by matrons for cleansing themselves in the Veneralia feast of the 1st of April, dedicated to Venus Verticordia! Whoever conforms to rituals and scrupulously carries out ceremonies is ”castus”. The Roman ritual without myth dispenses with fixed contents having a precise identity. Purification seems to become precisely the contrary of purification in Greece: it is not the identification and expulsion of something held to be impure, but the ritual emptying out of all aspects of life. On the 1st of April Roman matrons celebrating the rite of Venus were as ”castae” as the prostitutes who worshipped Fortuna Virilis.
We cannot conclude without mentioning the meaning of ”venenum” that has prevailed in the history of the word: ”venenum” as deadly drink. But here, too, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the Romans aimed at a displacement of death itself. Plutarch attributed to Numa Pompilius the institution of an ancient cult dedicated to Venus Libitina, goddess of funeral rites. He observes that the Romans presumably shrewdly assigned the regulation of the birth and death of men to a single goddess. Such a cult appears to be inspired not by a tragic conception of existence, like that of the Greeks, but rather by an aspiration to make the cultural aspect of death coincide with that of birth. Nothing remains foreign to the venusian enchantment of rites and ceremonies.
The very etymological origin of charm, which comes from ”carmen”, refers to this perspective. ”Carmen” has the general meaning of a cadenced formula, endowed with formal characteristics artificially regulated and maintained independently of their original meaning. Both religious formulas and the text of the law were called ”Carmen”. In the ritualism of the ”Carmen”, Roman religion perhaps finds its own unity in the charm of the quotidian, the contemporary crisis perhaps finds its own solution.

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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