Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The mutable James Howell

I had meant to read James Howell’s Dendrologia Dodona’s grove, or, The vocall forest (for a few talking and ambulant trees) as a follow up to my last post, but I rebounded and digressed to another work by the same writer, Therologia, The parly of beasts, or, Morphandra, queen of the inchanted iland wherein men were found, who being transmuted to beasts, though proffer’d to be dis-inchanted, and to becom men again, yet, in regard of the crying sins and rebellious humors of the times, they prefer the life of a brute animal before that of a rational creture ... : with reflexes upon the present state of most countries in Christendom (1660).

The narrative line here is simple. A voyaging prince, Pererius, has reached an idyllic island ruled by the enchantress ‘Morphandra’, who emphatically explains that she is not a witch, but has transformed certain humans into animal shape. He may talk with them, for she can re-imbue them with the power of speech, and, if he can persuade them to give up their animal form, he may sail away with them - and repatriate them should he wish.

So, in the immediate background is Spenser’s ‘Bower of Bliss’ and its enchantress Acrasia, and those concluding stanzas in which Gryll, transformed back from pig to man, repines, and announces that he wishes to remain a pig: ‘Let Gryll be Gryll, and have his hoggish mind’, concludes Guyon’s Palmer (his Reason), and they leave him there. However, Howell’s satiric point involves an inversion of Spenser’s fable: in this version, the human state is far more corrupt than the animal, so not heading back for home and human society is the more moral choice. As Howell’s full title explains, Pererius fails again and again, until finally a hive of bees collectively assent to become once more a nunnery full of nuns – which is curious, as they have just been praised as a model of a perfect commonwealth, intolerant of idleness. If Howell was thinking about this (for he does seem to fall foul of the active life /contemplative life divide), one can suppose that a nunnery constitutes a human community separated from the vices of the world. Howell’s more than slightly odd work ends with the bees intoning a church gradual hymn of praise to God. They might do this better if they waited till they were nuns again. But if your fable has bees that can talk, why not have them singing too?

There’s a lot of fun to be had on the way. The first interviewee is an Otter, who was when formerly human one of those amphibious neither-sea-nor-land Dutch folk. He condemns the human body: human excrement, symptomatically, even smells worse than any other creature’s: “ther is none whose excrements are more faetid, and stinking; the fewmets of a Deer, the lesses of a Fox, the crotells of a Hare, the dung of a Horse, and the spraints that I use to void backward, are nothing so foetid”.

“Well, let’s give over these impertinent altercations pro & con…” says Pererius later in the work, having haggled with a former Venetian courtesan, in her new shape as a white hind with a black spotted ‘shingle’ (her tail). Argument for and against was one way Howell, like so many others of his time, showed his wit. The otter produces a fulminating attack on his former nation, so Pererius conversely praises the Dutch, in terms that make you think of Vermeer’s paintings and all those neat Dutch interiors:

“How much are they to be commended for their neatness? Go to their Ships, they may be said to be as cleanly as a milking-pail; in their Kitchins, the outside of their Utensils are as bright as the inside; ther’s never a room in their house, where so much dust may be found as to draw the name of Slutt upon it.” I like that suggestion of domestic practice: that if you found a dusty surface, maybe it was acceptable to indicate with a finger-tip scrawl what you thought of the maid’s deficient standards.

The ape refuses re-transformation in these terms, as Howell vents his sense of how bad things have become: “Man! Truly Sir, I am sorry the shape I now bear resembleth Man so much, I could wish it were far more unlike, for the horrid and unheard-of sacrileges and perjuries of my own Nation makes me abhor the very name of Man, much more his nature”. Into the ape’s testimony he inserts a Dantean vision of hell. Hell is extensively re-equipped with new instruments for the perpetual torment of the malefactors of the civil war and instigators of the execution of King Charles, both male and female:

“My good Spirit answered, All these, except Ixion’s wheel, are new torments appointed for Gherionian Sectaries, who had destroyed from top to bottom all Government both of Church and State, And as their brains turn’d round upon earth after every wind of Doctrine, so their souls turn here in perpetuall torments of rotation … Couches of Toads, Scorpions, Asps, and Serpents were in a corner hard by; I asked for whom they were prepared, I was answered, for som Evangelizing Gherionian Ladies, which did egg on their husbands to War.”

‘Gherionian’ is Howell’s name for England, and he says it means a ‘land of wool’. Howell had begun his whole work with a couplet addressing the reader “If you will ope this Work with ease, / You must from Greece go fetch your Keys”, but fortunately he had relented, and supplied ‘An Etymologicall Derivation of som Words and Anagrams in the Parly of Beasts, according to the ALPHABET.’

Perhaps the best part of the work comes in the dialogue with the hind, formerly a cortigiana onesta in Venice. They debate views of women, and the hind, though she will refuse to resume her former shape, is smartly feminist. She is keen to assert a woman’s equal part in conception, and takes a swipe at Sir Thomas Browne. Pererius, agreeing with her, has just argued that mules are clear evidence of how both male and female contribute to the mixed nature of offspring. She continues “You may well add hereunto that the child oftentimes resembleth the mother, therfore she must also be an active principle in the formation; If it be so, what a wrong is it to the justice and rules of nature that Women shold be held but little better than Slaves? how comes it that they shold be so vilipended and revil’d? As that foolish Naturalist or Ninny, who wish’d ther were another way to propagat Mankind than by copulation with Women.”

Pererius makes his usual offer: “I told you that Queen Morphandra is willing, at my intercession, to restore you unto your former nature, and I have a lusty Galeon in port to convey you to Marcopolis, that renowned and rare City”. But she says that while she would like, if possible, to retain the power of speech, she would prefer to stay in her form as hind. Deer, she explains, have a blessedly short mating season, and their act of sexual congress itself is quickly over. They are temperate and clean (she testifies, like Marvell’s nymph, to the sweetness of a deer’s breath). Best of all, they do not menstruate:

“But, Sir, touching my former nature, truly I wold desire nothing of it again but the faculty of speech that I might talk somtimes; In all other things I prefer by many degrees this species wherin I am now invested by Queen Morphandra, which is far more chaste and temperat, far more healthfull and longer-liv’d: Touching the first, Ther's no creture whose season of carnall copulation is shorter, for the Rutting-time lasts but from the midst of September to the end of October, nor is there any other creture whose enjoyment of plesure is shorter in the act; moreover when we are full, we never after keep company with the male for eight months; Concerning the second, viz. our temperatnes, we never use to overcharge or cloy nature with excesse, besides our food is simple, those green leafs and grasse you see are our nutriment, which our common mother the Earth affords us so gently, we require no variety of Viands, which makes that our breath is sweeter than the fairest Ladies in Marcopolis, and our fewmishes with what else comes from within us is nothing so unsavoury; Nor need we that monthly purgation which is so improperly called Flowers, it being such rank poyson that it will crack a tru crystall glass; Nay 'tis observed, that if a menstruous woman come near an alveary or hive of Bees, they forsake their food all the while, finding the aire to be infected.”

Howell’s work is full of points sustained by such unlikely yarns. But he was, among his other activities as a man of letters, a collector of proverbs, and these help prevent his work from becoming intolerably verbose: Well, I find here two Proverbs verified, the one is a homely one, viz. Chanter a un Asne, il vous donnera un pet, Sing to an Asse and he will give you a Bum-crack.”

Actually, he did intolerably verbose pretty well: the ass counter-attacks from the charge of braying with a long account of what laughing does to the human form divine:

“the eyes extenuat, they half shut themselfs, and grow humid, the nose crumples up, and growes sharp, the lipps retire and lengthen, ther is an ill-favor’d kind of gaping, and discovery of the teeth, the cheeks lift up themselfs and grow more stiff, they have pitts digg’d in them during the time, the mouth is forc’d to open, and discovers the tremblings of the suspended toung, it thrusts out an obstreperous interrupted sound, and oftentimes ther is a stopping of breath, the neck swells and shortens it self, all the veins grow greter, and extended, an extraordinary hue disperseth it self over all the face, which grows reddish, the brest is impetuously agitated, and with sudden reiterated shakes, that it hinders respiration, the perfect use of speech is lost, and it is impossible to swallow during the fit, a pain rises in the flanck, the whole body bends … The hands becom feeble, the leggs cannot support themselves, and the body is constrained to fall, and tumble, nay it causeth sometimes dangerous syncopes in the heart, and so brings death.”

After this particular dialogue, Morphandra twits the prince about his success in bandying arguments with the ass: “I saw you somwhat earnest in banding arguments with that Asse, but how have you sped? doth he desire to be disasinated, and becom Man again, as I promised he should be, provided his will concurred therunto?” I love that nonce-word, ‘disasinated’.

Therologia was a fable about mutations. In my favourite passage from his letters, Epistolae Ho-elianae, Howell reflects on a less obvious form of mutation, on how we mutate into ourselves. He is in Venice, and is prompted to reflect by seeing the Doge’s state barge, the Bucentore. Like Lord Nelson’s H.M.S. Victory at Southampton, it exists as a continuous reconstruction of itself, or as a reproduction of itself. This makes Howell reflect on himself, brilliantly: is he really continuous with his former self, or has his bodily selfhood completely changed?

“I fell, I say, to consider whither our bodies may be said to be of like condition with this Bucentore; which though it be reputed still the same Vessell, yet I beleeve ther’s not a foot of that Timber remaining which it had upon the first Dock, having bin as they tell me, so often plank’d and ribb’d, caulk’d and peec’d: In like manner our bodies may be said to be daily repaired by new sustenance, which begets new bloud, and consequently new spirits, new humours, and I may say new flesh, the old by continuall deperdition and insensible transpirations evaporating still out of us, and giving way to fresh; so that I make a question, whither by reason of these perpetuall reparations, and accretions, the body of man may be said to be the same numericall body in his old age that he had in his manhood, or the same in his manhood, that he had in his youth, the same in his youth that he carried about him in his childhood, or the same in his childhood which he wore first in the Womb: I make a doubt, whither I had the same identicall, individually numericall body, when I carried a Calf-Leather Sachell to School in Hereford, as when I woar a Lamskin Hood in Oxford, or whither I have the same masse of bloud in my Veins, and the same Flesh now in Venice which I carried about me three yeers since, up and down London streets, having in lieu of Beer and Ale, drunk Wine all this while, and fed upon different Viands; now the stomach is like a crusible, for it hath a chymicall kind of vertue to transmute one body into another, to transubstantiat Fish and Fruits into Flesh within, and about us; but though it be questionable, whither I wear the same Flesh which is fluxible, I am sure my Hair is not the same, for you may remember I went flaxen-hair’d out of England, but you shall find me return’d with a very dark Brown, which I impute not onely to the heat and ayr of those hot Countries I have eat my bread in, but to the quality and difference of food; but you will say, that hair is but an excrementitious thing, and makes not to this purpose; moreover, me thinks I hear you say, that this may be true, onely in the bloud and spirits, or such fluid parts, not in the solid and heterogeneall parts: But I will presse no further at this time this Philosophical notion which the sight of Bucentore infus’d into me, for it hath already made me exceed the bounds of a Letter.”

“The same identicall, individually numericall body…” Are we ‘individually numerical’, can we be counted just the once, was he the unique James Howell, or is he in effect a sequence of ‘fluxible’ James Howells? He sees his selfhood as a series of processes. Nor does he jump to the soul as a reassuring answer. In Therologia, none of the mutated humans worry about being soulless (as animals), indeed the otter refers to the Turks believing that we also sensitive Cretures have a better World provided for us after we have run out our cours here”: that animals have souls (and that they obey divine laws, rather than transgress them).

Therologia reads as hyperbolised satire, a rhetorical display of condemnation. But it may also hint, alongside the passage about his own mutating body, at a deeper philosophical gloom in Howell.

(Throughout this post, I have retained Howell’s own spelling. Usually, I lightly modernise my early texts, but Howell was a spelling-reformer, who believed that English would only spread beyond its narrow use in the world if it were made easier for other nationalities to learn, so it should be spelled as it sounds, without confusing superfluous letters. His printers did not always heed his dictates, but the spelling is his own as given.

My images are of Howell himself, communing with a tree, and the illustration of Morphandra, the Prince, and his animal interlocutors from 'Therologia')

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