The papers are currently full of all the new year, new you plans; you can’t move for supplements on detox diets, eight-minute workouts and toned abs. Sometimes I wonder what future cultural historians will make of the 21st century obsession with the body. All this manufactured angst is making me think again about neoplatonism’s attempt to transcend the physical (see my post on the kick-ass shepherdesses, below). In particular, I keep coming back to a striking story in the second volume of L’Astrée (1610) that involves a fraught love triangle on which the shepherdesses have to pronounce judgement.
Celidée was orphaned at just nine and has been brought up by her relative Thamire, who is 30 years older. Thamire has always secretly loved her (in a pure way, of course), but later the household is joined by Calidon, the sort of youth who immediately conceives a great passion and doesn’t stop banging on about it. Thamire selflessly proposes to give her up in favour of the younger man, but after the trio have related their tale, the shepherdesses pronounce in favour of Thamire. Cue high drama as Calidon and Thamire collapse. In an effort to break the triangle, Celidée disfigures herself with a diamond. When Calidon sees Celidée’s scarred face, he abandons his passion completely, but Thamire is steadfast. Thamire has proved himself worthy, and Calidon has turned out to be a rotter.
It’s kind of difficult to read this subplot of L’Astrée without thinking of Molière’s splendid L’École des Femmes (1662) in which he inverts the paradigm whereby old age is equated with goodness and wisdom and youth with inconstancy. In Molière’s play, Arnolphe is the guardian of the much younger Agnès, whom he wants to keep hidden from the world in order to marry. The comedy in Molière is precisely because an old man feels desire and because his efforts at exerting control of his ward are endlessly thwarted. In L’Astrée, desire is precisely what is critiqued; Calidon’s is fleeting and based on exterior beauty, while Thamire’s motives are neoplatonically pure.
When I was thinking about English neoplatonism I kept returning to Francis Quarles’s Argalus and Parthenia (1629). It’s a narrative poem based very closely on a story from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. In it, Parthenia is pursued by Demagoras but he is thwarted by the fact that she and Argalus are in love. Incensed, Demagoras smears her face with poison and disfigures her. Parthenia, wanting to release Argalus from his romantic obligation to her, flees. Here the heroine’s disfigurement is involuntary, but like Thamire with Celidée, Argalus proves his constancy to Parthenia. It’s a happy ending (until Argalus has to fight at the castle of Amphialus, but I digress…).
I quite like what Quarles did to Sidney’s story – he added a fantastically villainous mother who schemes with Demagoras to poison Argalus, and a maid, Athleia, who is initially in on the plot, but who ends up taking the poison herself out of remorse. It was an publishing sensation; the first publication of the poem appeared in 1629 and there were 16 editions between then and 1692 – and even a stage version in 1639 by William Glapthorne (it looks like the 1661 production of the play used a William Lawes song but I haven’t tracked that down yet). I do think, though, what made it so popular in the Caroline era was this neoplatonic version of perfect love that disdained the shell of the body. Argalus declares to Parthenia:
’Thy beauty was but like a Christall vase,
Through which, the Jewell of admired grace
Transparent was, whose hidden worth did make
Me loue the Casket, for the Jewel’s sake’
I have a hunch that we can link Quarles’ explicitly neoplatonic take on Sidney’s tale with the extraordinary successful import into England of the ideas in L’Astrée and the story of Celidée. The worth of the woman does not reside in the beauty of the face but the beauty of the soul. Even more striking, in both L’Astrée and Argalus and Parthenia, the disfigurement of the woman is the moral test of love that proves the worth of the man.