Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Venus in the 21st Century

Italian € 0.10 piece 
The ancient Greeks had a remarkable flare for turning unspeakable crimes and violence into art, and as early 750 BC, with Hesiod’s legend of the birth of Aphrodite – or Venus, as the Romans called her – they were already at the top of their game.

Revered as the goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory (quite a brief even for a goddess), Venus sprang into being fully grown, the oddly paradoxical consequence of a horrific crime – the castration of her father, the primal sky god Uranus, by one of his own sons, the Titan Cronos.

Having scythed off Uranus’ genitals, the story goes, Cronos flung them into the sea, where being immortal flesh they remained vigorous, sloshing about in the ocean foam for awhile before finally giving rise to Venus. Thus, complicated as it sounds, I suppose you could style Venus one of the first ever gender-swapped, anthropoid, ex vivo clones. (Athena and Dionysus, though emerging, respectively, from the head and thigh of Zeus, each had a genetic mother). Her nexus to the sea, moreover, was said to perpetually renew her virginity 1, handy if desire is your name (in Latin, venus means sexual desire or sexual love) and coition, your game.

But talk about dysfunctional families! The shenanigans of Venus’ progenitors, Uranus, Gaia, and the Titans, make the Texas Chain Saw Massacre look docile! No wonder the early Abrahamic writers decided giving up a rib was enough for Adam to get Eve. And no wonder the Greeks with their taste for mayhem ended up with the likes of Oedipus and Phaedra. Before you take up cosmogony, maybe you should consult a therapist.

After making her maritime entrance (how fast could a divine center cut have re-purposed itself like that, you wonder) Venus finds herself adrift on an outsized scallop shell, blown along by the “lascivious2 ” wind god Zephyr until she makes landfall at Paphos on the island of Cyprus (or on the Ionian island of Kythira, according to other accounts). Here she is met by Flora (Chloris, to the Greeks), one of the Horai (Seasons), goddess of spring and flowers, who hastily clothes her in heavenly garments – Venus the while covering her “sweet apple3” with her left hand, and with her right, either wringing out her hair or haphazardly covering her breasts depending on the art work you’re considering.
Venus Anadyomene, from the Casa Veneris, Pompeii, before 79 AD, unknown
artist (probably after an earlier work by Apelles).

This story, going under the generic label
Venus Anadyomene or Venus emerging from the sea, would prove to be a popular, not to say overworked, theme in Western culture, the inspiration for numerous classical paintings and sculptures, and in modern times, satire4 as well. The theme will get no respite here, either, for the time has come, I believe, to update the whole account.

But first let's consider Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus (Uffizi, Florence), done around 1486, arguably the most recognizable and iconic expression of the Venus Anadyomeme idea.

Here we see the goddess exquisitely rendered in delicate pastel shades, the epitome of feminine pulchritude. Yet her neck and torso seem improbably elongated and her contrapposto stance (weight shifted too far to the left), unsustainable, as though her nativity is still very much in progress.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Tempera on canvas, (c. 1486), Uffizi,
With her head cocked at an odd angle, Venus gazes absent-mindedly, blankly, down and to the right, almost in a daze, like the newborn she supposedly is. She appears naïve, unprepared to take on the character of the adult body she has suddenly inhabited: Venus, the undressed, yet still unready. So fresh to the world is she that even her modesty seems improbable.

On the whole, though, not bad for a mutated heap of sky god castrate!

The world the goddess inhabits into appears wholly nascent as well, as though the rest of creation is only just emerging around the event of her birth. Together with Zephyr and Flora, she fully occupies the foreground of the painting, while the background is strangely vacant, offering only the sparsest of a floral covering with not even a presentiment of culture or civilization. Nary a hint does one find of life’s circumstances – enterprise, conflict, passion – portending a bleak beginning for the newly minted goddess of passion.

No wonder Venus betrays, too, an air of distress here. You’d think Botticelli might have thrown in at least a handsome shepherd for her to beguile, a priest or sage to befuddle, yet there's not a soul sight. As the just-anointed CEO of Love and Beauty, UnLtd., Venus would surely have wished to come out of her shell primavera, ready for business, with prospective clients closer to hand.

Venus Reimagined: Apotheosis of the Working Girl (c. 2017)
Which brings me back to the idea of a more contemporary take on Venus, one that speaks to the world of us moderns.

Today’s goddess is not really into “goddessing”  at all – she leaves that to music video figures and Halloween trick-or-treaters.

She’s a woman who’s managed to be both a mother and a top professional. And she’s done it herself with no one to propel her along a career path or swathe her in the apparel of success.

Better educated than most of her peers, she has advanced degrees in science and law.

A self-promoter, she can be aggressive, assertive, and confident when it suits her, but can also switch these traits on and off, depending on circumstances. She loves a challenge, takes a measured approach to risk, and knows how to deal with adversity. She has the courage to break the rules, and – in stark contrast to her classical counterpart – admits when she’s wrong, and knows how to forgive.

She rose quickly to the leadership of her firm.

Politically active, she pushes for “fair representation” in the electoral process (where political parties or interest groups win seats in proportion to their vote share), and aggressively supports legislation on civil rights, education, health, labor, and women’s issues.

Determined to marry well or not at all, she has a consort who stays at home looking after the hearth and their six children. A retired organic chemist, he’s now a gourmet cook.

Careful to prioritize her own needs along with the needs of others, our modern Venus exercises daily. She looks great in Dior or Prada, better still in nothing at all. She’s on the pill.

In short, she's determined, resourceful, engaging, ambitious, and confident.

If you were to feed the classical versions of Venus, Minerva, and Diana into a Cuisinart, sprinkle with hyssop, and then dump them blended into the sea, it would be our Venus la nuova who emerged from such immortal goop —  probably wearing metallic cloqué jacquard by Prada.

Tableau of Venus and companions, David LaChapelle, photograph, 

Joseph-Marie Vien’s Venus (1755) looks downright bedraggled and mentally 
challenged. What on earth could he have been thinking?

1. Sea water is apparently good for psoriasis, too.

2. The idea that the wind god, Zephyr, ought be deemed lascivious merely for puffing on a naked goddess apparently comes from the Stanzas per la giostra (stanza 68) of the Florentine Renaissance classical scholar and poet, Poliziano (1454–1494). To me, this judgment seems a bit harsh. After all, doesn’t a wind god blow on everything? Isn’t that his job? And if he enjoys his work, so what?

3. The “sweet apple” metaphor (which seems somehow droll in this context) appears in stanza 101 of Poliziano’s Stanzas per la giostra and refers, of course, to Venus’ vulva. In Greek mythology, the apple (a pomegranate, maybe, to you and me) was considered sacred to Venus. Thus, in Epigram VII, Plato writes:
I throw an apple to you and, if indeed you are willing to love me, then receive it and let me taste your virgin charms. But if you are otherwise minded, which heaven forbid, take this very apple and see how short-lived all beauty is.
In Christian mythology, the apple was the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, with sexual awareness no doubt being an aspect of this.

4. Some wag was bound to come up with “Venus on the half-shell.”  Philip José Farmer turned it into a science fiction novel.

No comments: