Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Onyx Underpants of Paradise

The real life Malvolio here is Sir John Pettus (1613?-1685). He was one of those types of people I love to find: transitional, displaced, cranky, all his learning making him all the more foolish.

For instance, at the end of his memorably peculiar Volatiles from the history of Adam and Eve containing many unquestioned truths and allowable notions of several natures (1674) he gets onto the topic of the resurrection of the body, and the conceptually difficult practicalities of that great future event. Now, to bother about such things casts him back in time: he’d have got on well conversing with Donne on the topic. But his observation is pure Royal Society: he has an experiment that will reassure you of the physical resurrection, ‘because the reunion of our parts is the knottiest piece of our belief’. He asserts that if you carefully float little pins of various metals on the surface of water, you will see that brass is attracted to brass, tin to tin ‘and drawing near to their own, will seem to embrace with a certain joyful vigour’. This is a visible proof of the way things will re-cohere, in part because it is in their nature to do so: it demonstrates ‘the magnetick and concatenating virtue of most creatures’. Being the man he was he also says that if you boil two pieces of beef from the same animal in a pot with some comfrey, when you have boiled them for a while, the two pieces will reunite ‘but if the flesh be from two beasts, the Comfrey will not cement them’.

Volatiles from the history of Adam and Eve was a strange project: Pettus is writing a commentary on the opening of Genesis in what he thinks of as the ‘Extravagant’ (unfettered, spontaneous) manner of Montaigne (again, in that wild mismatch of subject and mode a glimpse of two different consciousnesses in the writer). He works through most of the biblical verses, expounding on any particular passage that catches his interest.

Pettus was a kind of anti-Milton: prosy and Royalist, but, like his opposite, fascinated by the Bible, and made crotchety by the departure of Lady Pettus, who left him to turn Catholic abroad, was reconciled to him just long enough (or so he says) to clean him out a second time, then bolted for a foreign nunnery. This persuasive lady managed to get him excommunicated from the (Anglican) Church in a dispute about alimony payments. This post-matrimonial scrap went on even after the King had personally ordered Pettus to cough up £2 a week. I didn’t know that excommunication like this could happen, but that’s what I understand from A narrative of the excommunication of Sir John Pettus of the county of Suffolk, Knight obtained against him by his lady, a Roman Catholick, and the true state of the case between them with his faithful answers to several aspersions raised against him by her, to the prepossessing the judgments of some honourable persons and others. This publication isn’t as bewildered and querulous as you might maliciously hope: he doesn’t come out of it sounding too bad (he largely sticks to doing the sums), but it was published in the same year as his commentary on Adam and Eve: so Eve in his hands was never going enjoy a revisionary approach to the Genesis story.

So much was predictable: but what amazes is the kind of surreal learning Pettus had gathered from Bible commentaries and Talmudic scholarship. He gets onto the fig leaves (‘It is probable that Adam made choice of these fig-leaves rather than any other, both for the breadth, substance, and excellent qualities of repelling all Tumours’), but this prompts him to mention the very special clothes that Adam and Eve (although usually supposed naked) wore before the fall (according to ‘The Targum of Jerusalem’): “They were disrobed of their Garment, which in the time of their Perfection was made of Onyx stone. For there are stones in Italy of which they make most curious threads … and the like might be made of this.”

Leaving us tantalised by what seem to be asbestos garments woven in Italy, Pettus doesn’t evade speculation on what the effects of somehow wearing onyx might have been: “Now this Onyx hath a peculiar quality (as Authors write) to strengthen the Spirits, and heighten Venery: And whether their offence was Venereous, adumbraged under the name of forbidden Fruit may be Considered on.”

Pettus comes up with the notion, unexpected to say the least, that wearing these sexy onyx garments caused Adam and Eve to jump the gun and start having ordinary human sex before God had quite decided what kind of propagation his new beings were going to have:

“And great Reason had God to be Angry, if they had injoyed that forbidden Fruit, till God (as it were) had fully considered whether it had been more advantageous to Man to arise from the ground like the Mandrake, or the Sensitive Lamb, or like Barnacles from trees or shells) or that there should have been Incubents and Succubents to dispose of their Nocturnal ejaculations or decostations” (I regret to say that this clearly important word is NOT in the OED).

All the biology being in place did not necessarily mean God had decided to let it be used, and He might in His wisdom have come up with other means of dealing with it. Pettus, incidentally, seems quite happy with the notion that Adam and Eve were only in Paradise for six hours, with the fall taking place after just three of them. I daresay anyone could put up with onyx underpants for three hours, but by then fig leaves might have looked more, well, comfortable. (Later in the book, Pettus, maybe a tiny bit worried about the strange garb of prelapsarian Adam and Eve, does seem to allegorise ‘onyx’ as ‘Virtue’.)

I have read elsewhere that the forbidden fruit was identified as an apple because ‘Malum is Latine for an Apple, as also for Evil’, but Pettus has another reason: ‘the small reason that I have heard for the Apple is, because if one Cut an Apple cross the Core, that is, between the stalk and the top, the Beds of the Seeds are just ten in number, representing the ten Commandments; all which Eve did at once break by eating the Apple’. (By the way, I have just dissected a Golden Delicious. It contained nine seeds in five compartments. But the Golden Delicious is a very fallen kind of apple.)

But here to conclude on this worthy and curious man, a typical passage, with that between-two-worlds aspect to it, on Genesis 1:20

“This Green is the first Colour that is mentioned in Scripture, and this properly the first place, and indeed is so pleasing to nature, and so stupefies the understanding, it being impossible to find out why nature should mantle her self more universally with this colour then any other”.

In part, I now feel that I could hold my own at any Marvell conference, with that first sentence (above) to drop in timely fashion into discussion (‘Oh, ‘The Garden’, well, you have to realise that green interested 17th century people as the first colour mentioned in the Bible…’). But Pettus then suggests that the sun is yellow, and the sky is blue, and so we get a lot of green through mixture “And where it is denied to the superficies of the earth by shades or otherwise, it unites its force, and runs into the bodies of trees, & after a secret ascention mounts to the highest branches with a more sublime verdure”. Leaves, it seems, are green, because there is a lot of green around, and if it can’t get onto the ground, it concentrates in trees. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Pettus was also a writer on mineralogy, especially silver mining: here’s a sample: “There appertains to the harsh flowing Copper Oars ... what is splendy, mispickly, glimery or spady.”


Adam Roberts said...

Best. Post. Title. EVAH!

Interesting post, too.

DrRoy said...

You can have it for your next SF title (which the Kilgore Trout in you is already itching to write, yes?).

Henrik said...

Wonderful! Does he go into particulars about that onyx underwear?

Not that I'd care... err

It makes a lot of sense that green should be the first colour mentioned in the bible. But what about pink? Is Pink ever mentioned in the bible?

I should clearly get some sleep!

DrRoy said...

No, no particulars: he has picked on some rabbinical tradition that Adam and Eve were splendidly clothed by God before the fall. Briefly, he rationalises with a stray memory of rock-derived fibres in Italy, but then can't resist what he also knows about the reputed properties of onyx as it is now known, when not treated with the divine fabric-softener. The underpants are my own buffoonish extrapolation from this nonsense. I like the way all this happens in three hours: from 'Let me chip you out of those, my dear' to 'Now, where's this forbidden tree You mentioned?'
No pink in the Bible. Exodus is where the Hebrews really get going with their colour schemes.
The AV a a whole seems to have 44 greens, 50 blues, 4 yellows, 10 purples, 198 reds and 52 scarlets. Thought for the Day from Lamentations:
"They that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills"

Joanne said...


I have made the connection that Sir John Pettus is my 10th great-grandfather. I was perusing the internet for information about him and did a google search leading me to your post.

I am intrigued by his writings and am interested in reading them further. Will have to google those as well to find them and the image! Thanks for your commentary.

DrRoy said...

That's a very impressive piece of genealogy! Well done indeed, to get back to 17th century England from America cannot be a common achievement in tracing back a descent. I will check back on your blog to learn how it's done.