Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part II

The Music of the Spheres and the Vanity of Earthly Fame, continued…


The Pythagoreo-Platonic Myth of the Celestial Birth of the Soul…

    The insignificance of worldly glory, by comparison to the spatial and temporal vastness of the cosmos, was yet another commonplace of early literature– “part”, as C.S. Lewis says, “of the moralists’ stock-in-trade”–, and it was almost always expressed in conjunction with the topos of the harmony of the spheres. 

This conjunction was more or less assured by the fact that in the last book of Plato’s Republic there is an account of Er’s descent into Hades and his journey to the other world, during which the music of the spheres fills his ears.  Cicero’s Republic is, of course, a self-conscious tribute to Plato’s; Cicero’s, accordingly, must also end with a visionary ascent to the heavens and another statement of the Pythagorean topos of the musica mundana.

Scipio’s was, in fact, the prototype for any number of ascents to heaven in medieval and Renaissance literature, from which vantage point the visionary looks down with scorn upon the meagerness of earthly fame and glory.  Here, for instance, is the once feted, soon to be ignored, artist Oderisi, as he overlooks Italy from the summit of Mount Purgatory in Dante’s Purgatorio, canto 11:

A breath of wind—no more—is earthly fame,
And now this way it blows and that way now,
And as it changes quarter, changes name.
Ten centuries hence, what greater fame hast thou,
Stripping the flesh off late, than if thoud’st died
Ere thou wast done with gee-gee and bow-wow?
Ten centuries hence—and that’s a briefer tide,
Matched with eternity, than one eye-wink
To that wheeled course Heaven’s tardiest sphere must ride. (100 f.)


     But there are many other examples.  Less than a century after the publication of the Commedia,Chaucer, in his House of Fame, relates that he was lifted up to heaven in a dream by his mystagogue, the philosophical eagle:

But thus sone in a while he
Was flowen fro the gound so hye
That al the world, as to myn ye,
No more semed than a prikke…

“No wonder”,
Quod he, “for half so high as this
Nas Alixandre Macedo;
Ne the kyng, Daun Scipio,
That  saw in drem, at point devys,
Helle and erthe and paradys” (II, 904f.)

The poet then duly expresses his scorn for earthly vanity, in part by comparing the raucous noise that he hears in the House of Fame with the harmonious melody of the spheres.

Similarly, at the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the poet records the apotheosis of Troilus’ ghost who, like Scipio, casts his gaze downward from the height of the fixed stars upon “this little spot of erthe”, realizing, in the clarity of mind that comes with his disembodied state–his reason finally liberated from the passions–, how tiny and insignificant it is when measured against the vastness of the cosmos and the eternity of heaven:

And when that he was slayn in this manere,
His lighte goost ful blisfully is went
Up to the holughnesse [concavity] of the eighthe spere,
In convers letyng everich element [leaving every element behind];
And ther he saugh, with ful avysement,
The erratic sterres [wandering planets], herkenyng armonye
With sownes ful of hevenyssh melodie.
And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyne felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther [where] he was slayn his lokyng down he caste,
And in himself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so faste,
And dampned al oure werk that foloweth so
The blynde lust, the which that may nat laste,
And sholden al our herte on heven caste.

To “such an end”, continues the narrator, has come all of Troilus’ “great worthiness”, all his wealth, nobility, chivalric prowess, all the useless striving, anxiety, and sorrow occasioned by his merely earthly love for Criseyde (for such is the “world’s brittleness”).  And then he ends with this admonition:

O yonge, freshe folks, he or she,
In which that love up growth with youre age,
Repayreth hom fro worldly vanyte,
And of youre herte up casteth the visage
To thilke God that after his ymage
Yow made, and thynketh al nys but a faire,
This world that passeth soon as floures faire.
(V, 1807ff.)

This, then, is the enduring Platonic note, sounded by the Christian Chaucer in the fourteenth century as it had been sounded by the Roman pagan Cicero in the first century B.C.  In both texts, the topos of the music of the spheres is articulated with a larger mythology and doctrine that assumes that the human soul is in origin and nature heavenly and divine; and that it can, and must, “repair homeward” byaverting its gaze from the false and transient goods of the world in which it is an exile and stranger, andfixing it instead upon the eternal and immutable realities of the divine patria from which it first descended.

According to this doctrine, the temporal world is like a play, a pageant, a fair that comes to town and departs as quickly, a summer flower that soon fades and withers; or, as Theseus’ wise father Egeus expresses the topos at the end of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale:

This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.

Whatever the conceit of the moralist, the wise man scorns the transience and mutability of the world, casting his gaze upward toward the stability of heaven, in contemplation of which throughout his lifetime, he “repaireth hom”, returns to the place of his soul’s nativity, where he had once enjoyed his true life before his death, exile, and bondage in the body.  We have dealt with these ubiquitous images before.  But inevitably this entire symbol-system is implicit in every reference to the music of the spheres insofar as it was the soul’s birthsong, which it is the wise man’s vocation to remember and amplify to the point of audibility in the midst of the din of this world.

Cicero, as we’ve just seen, repeats Aristotle’s explanation that we can’t hear it because it is inborn and therefore always with us, like the background noise of the bronze foundries that Aristotle says workers learn to tune out, or like the deafening sound of the cataracts of the Nile (in Cicero’s example), with which the local inhabitants have lived all their lives.

Cicero assures us nonetheless that “learned men, by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region”, and that this redemptive musical regime is conjunctive with the contemplation practiced by “others [who] have obtained the same reward by devoting their brilliant intellects to divine pursuits during their earthly lives”. 

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