One thing leads to another. I had the occasion in my last post to mention the ancient grammarian Macrobius in his capacity as a dream expert. Having piqued my own curiosity, I was led later in the week to take from its shelf the first volume of his “Saturnalia,” a volume I last touched probably 20 years ago when I was binding it. I didn’t get all that far with it before wandering off into this week’s effort.
A point very much in favor of Macrobius, so far as I am concerned, is that he dedicated both of his surviving books to his son Eustachius. The preface to the “Saturnalia” begins with the statement that of all natural affections none is stronger than the love of a parent for a child. For this reason, he continues, there is no greater satisfaction or distress to be found than that of the success or failure in educating one’s offspring. I thought: how true! I myself have had the satisfaction of dedicating a book to each of my children.
He then offers a number of similes for the literary endeavor he proposes. The “Saturnalia” is a huge compendium or anthology of history, folklore, legend and theology having to do with the major winter festival of the Roman Saturnalia, sometimes described as the “pagan Christmas.” It is a kind of omnium gatherum of a book, and Macrobius searches for the right images to stress its synthetic character. Like a bee that flits about among many different flowers but distills their sweetness into the unity of the honeycomb, the author has gone from book to book in search of what he needs. He is like the expert maker of perfumes who mixes a variety of desirable aromas to create a unique perfume singular in its pleasing odor. But to me, his most striking image is of alimentary digestion. The different foods that we eat are transformed within the stomach to a single nourishment of the blood. “Idem in his quibus aluntur ingenia praestemus” — “Let us apply these things to the means by which the mental powers are nourished.”
You are what you eat. But everyone who aspires to a greater than vegetable life — meaning, I presume, everyone — must surely be aware that you are no less what you absorb culturally, what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to. That’s why I try to kid myself that when I take time out to read a true crime or watch a bad free Netflix movie, I am indulging myself with an aberrant mind candy far different from my normal, sterner mental diet of steel-cut oats or a liver casserole as full of iron as the utensil in which it comes from the oven.
The digestion of literary texts has in our old culture a particular association with the text of the Bible. Jesus, sorely hungered at the end of a long and unbroken fast, is tempted by the devil to use his extraordinary powers to break his fast by turning the stones of the desert into loaves of bread; but Jesus rebukes him thus: “Scripture says that ‘Man cannot live on bread alone; he lives on every word that God utters.’” It was for this reason that in the medieval monastic tradition the repetitious and meditative reading of Scripture known as the lectio divina was often described as rumination — literally, a chewing of the cud. Our wonderful tradition of English poetry had its origin in such an instance of spiritual alimentation.
We know this from the lovely story of the poet Caedmon preserved for us by the Venerable Bede. Caedmon was an illiterate cowherd in the coeducational monastery at Whitby presided over by the Abbess Hilda (614–680). One night at a beer party with his fellow boors, he was embarrassed by his inability to take his turn with the harp and compose an extemporaneous song. He retired to his bovine billet in confusion. But an angel there appeared to him and ordered him to sing something, and he complied: “Nu sculon herian heofonrices weard…” — “Now let us praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom”, the short hymn that is the first known poem in the English language. Angels don’t commission all that much poetry, and word got around. Waiving his illiteracy, Hilda immediately nominated Caedmon to monkhood and appointed him as the first poet in residence in the history of Whitby Abbey. One of the brothers would read him something from the Bible; he would think for a while about what he had heard; and then he would turn it into Old English alliterative verse.
Bede’s beautiful account deserves quoting at length:
And Caedmon was able to learn all that he heard, and, keeping it all in mind, just as a clean animal chewing cud, turned it into the sweetest song. And his songs and his poems were so beautiful to hear, that his teachers themselves wrote and learned at his mouth. He sang first about the creation of the world and about the origin of mankind and all of the history of Genesis — that is, the first book of Moses — and afterwards about the exodus of the Israeli people from the land of Egypt and their entry into the promised land; and about many other stories of the holy writ of the books of the canon…
If the Bible bothers you, you can begin your spiritual mastication on something a little easier — “King Lear,” perhaps, or Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” “Winnie the Pooh” is also excellent. After all, one must creep before one walks.