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Posts Tagged ‘ancient world’

Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Antinoüs was the Bithynian catamite of the Emperor Hadrian and was discovered dead in the river Nile, apparently drowned, in 130 AD. He was about 19 years old. But why did he die? How did he die? That’s been a mystery ever since. This book is a discussion of the possible solutions and of the way Antinoüs’s life and death have influenced Western art and culture right to the present day.

Unfortunately, although Beloved and God has a good crisp title, with a subtle double entendre, its title isn’t matched by its prose. This book is dense and sometimes difficult to read, with some spectacularly crass metaphors. But it’s still rewarding, if partly as an illustration of how biography is more a disguised (and sometimes not-so-disguised) way of talking about oneself than it is of talking about one’s subject. Royston Lambert was presumably a paederast in the classical sense, and when he talks about the complexity of Hadrian’s personality or the beauty of body and soul of Antinoüs, he’s really writing disguised autobiography or sexual fantasy. But as Lambert talks about himself, he also packs in a lot of classical history and tells the fascinating story of how the cult of Antinoüs was created by Hadrian and spread throughout the empire.

I don’t like Antinoüs’ looks or the cult that surrounded him: there’s something bloated and sickly about both of them. But nihil humanum and all that: there were plenty of boy-bandits in the ancient world and there are plenty today, which is why this book has had several editions. And it does have an interesting story to tell. Among other fascinating sidelights was the story of the Paedogogium in Rome (Trajan’s and, to a lesser extent, Hadrian’s boy brothel) and the grafitti scratched there, which seems to record an early Christian pupil being mocked by his peers: there’s a crude donkey-headed Christ crucified, with the subscription ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD. Elsewhere, Alexamenos seems to have struck back by proclaiming himself ALEXAMENOS THE FAITHFUL, which even I found touching. More importantly, there’s a good overview of the representation of Antinoüs in sculpture and coinage. And Lambert manages to convey the power of Antinoüs’ death in the Nile very well, describing the ancient worship of the river and the only occasionally successful attempts to placate its ferocity and caprice. Anyone drowned in the river, however humble their origin, automatically became a god and had shrines erected to them, but Antinoüs was special to someone very important and his cult became the biggest of all.

So what are the possible solutions to the mystery of his death? Lambert lists them: a boating accident; a murder by jealous rivals; a botched castration meant to preserve his youth; suicide prompted by the disappearance of youth and hence, inevitably, of Hadrian’s affections; a sacrifice to reverse successive failures of the very important Egyptian grain-harvest, which would soon have triggered trouble throughout the Empire. Traditionally the way to appease the Nile was to sacrifice to it and perhaps Antinoüs chose to die for the sake of his lover. Royston Lambert sacrificed in another way, because he was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and it was published posthumously. He could have been doing other things in the time he had left, but he wanted to leave a legacy and guide more people around the Antinoüm. But although this book is a memorial to Hadrian and Antinoüs, it’s also a memorial to Lambert himself. We can’t escape death and very few of us manage to escape ego.

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botty by miriam stimbersBotty: An Unnatural History of the Backside, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2014)

With a Miriam Stimbers book you can expect only one thing: the unexpected. From knock-knock jokes to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from allegorical albinism in the music of Hawkwind to fundamentalist phantasmality in the music of the Wombles — Stimbers has an unparalleled ability to dissect the deviant demons of mutant modernity by unleashing a scholarly spotlight of high-octane hermeneutics on the feral formulae of societal psychosis that lurk unsuspected amid the mephitic maelstrom of contemporary culture. And then some…

But might Botty be her best book yet? Quite possibly. The backside is (or can be) a big subject, but Stimbers doesn’t flinch, seamlessly synthesizing the most disparate elements of pygocentric and proctotropic performativity, from bottom-worshipping sculptors in the ancient world to twerking pop-stars in the 21st century. But for me the stand-out – or should that be stand-up? – section has to be the chapter in which Stimbers rolls up her psychoanalytic sleeves and gets to grips with the toxic taboo of the haemorrhoid. Is it merely a coincidence, she asks, that the journalist Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of the immortal Sigmund, should have supplied a rhyming slang for the condition? (i.e., emmas ← Emma Freuds ← haemorrhoids)

Stimbers suggests not, because haemorrhoids occupy a central, albeit (to the general public) little-known, position in the history and culture of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) first suffered from them at the age of 46, writing to his long-term correspondent and confidant Jakob Froschnichts:

My God, Jakob, I could swear that they are the size of grapefruit! [Pampelmusen] I cannot sit for a moment and have to work standing at my desk, which I have raised by propping the legs on the largest volumes in my library. Furthermore, I must sleep on my stomach, strapped to the bed for fear that I should turn over in the night and be woken by a sudden shaft of proctalgia [Arschlochschmerz]. It is a most wearisome business, but nevertheless an educative one, offering the sufferer insights into the human condition that might pass them by who have never endured this atrocious affliction. (Botty, ch. 8, “Of Heresy and Haemorrhoids”, pg. 215, quoting The Collected Letters of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII, ed. Dr Nathan T. Goldberg, Harvard University Press 1983)

But despite his own direct experience, Freud was never able to place haemorrhoids definitively within the schemata of psychoanalytic aetiology. Were they, as he first suspected, a tell-tale symptom of anal retentivity? Or, in fact, of its exact opposite? Or did it vary from patient to patient, from backside to backside? He never made up his mind.

Still afflicted: Freud in 1938

Still afflicted: Freud in 1938

Nor could he have guessed how haemorrhoids would spark a furious controversy in psychoanalytic circles following his death. In the 1950s, some senior disciples began to insist that it was an “insult to the Master” to acquire them substantially before the age of 46, while others insisted, on the contrary, that it was an insult to acquire them an appreciable time after.

Most were agreed that acquisition actually in the year of one’s 46th birthday was best, but what of those who never acquired them at all? Stimbers describes rumours that some unafflicted psychoanalysts were faking the symptoms in order to ingratiate themselves with whichever tendency happened to hold sway in their own city or nation. There is even talk of prosthetic haemorrhoids being secretly manufactured and deployed in such psychoanalytic centres as New York and London. Stimbers keeps a cool head amid the controversy, declines to reveal her own partisan preferences, and guides the reader through the twists and turns of the great Freudian haemorrhoid debate right to the present day.

But if that’s the best bit of Botty, you’ll by no means be disappointed by the rest. As ever, there’s some serious Stimbulation within these pages and, unlike Freud and his fellow sufferers, you’ll be left in the best possible position: glued to your seat and wanting much more. By casting a botlight into the most uncompromising crevices of proctocentric possibility, Stimbers has thrown down an incendiary gauntlet not merely to other cultural commentators but also to her own future self. Will she ever top Botty? We’ll just have to wait and see…


Elsewhere other-posted:

Pestilent, Pustulent and Pox-Pockedmore meticulous Miriamic monitoring of the mephitic maelstrom

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