Essays Issue 2 Nonfiction
There exists in a near-forgotten book a description of the Land of the Pomegranate. Its inhabitants are singularly marked by incest. Their progeny are either incredibly beautiful or remarkably repugnant.The beautiful are removed in infancy and placed in “The Garden of the Loved Ones” where they know no sorrow. Upon reaching sexual maturity, they are removed from the garden to become objects of amusement for the ugly outside. After a few years of this, they are destroyed. Their remains are enshrined in a cemetery, where they are remembered as they always were: young and perfect.
In the Land of the Pomegranate the beautiful are temporal gods—deities existing only in the fleeting moment of sexual climax, the “highest moment of eternity.” Once achieved, their divinity ceases to be and what is left is consumed. The garden is a sty used to raise gods for slaughter.
When the would-be novelist responsible for this monstrous society is asked why the beautiful must be destroyed, he flippantly replies: because “they’re soon bored by living people.” They are no longer gods, and the ugly cannot bear to see their divinities fallen. That highest moment of eternity—itself a paradox as eternity can have no moments, just as one cannot divide zero—exists only in the act of possession of the ephemeral. They are murdered afterwards, because once possessed, the reason for that possession is rendered meaningless. The moment of divinity has now passed. He later elaborates:
The fundamental rule of possession is ‘to kill the loved one,’ which means that completion of any possession signifies simultaneous termination of possessing, and continued possession is a violation of love.
This rule, taken from Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of Dawn, angers me. It implies that, for the ardent lover, possession of the beloved is ultimately undesirable; a law that, by its seeming simplicity, goes a long a way in explaining the atrocious state of affairs that is the human heart—almost as far as justifying the whiskey that coated my tongue for days after she left. Almost. Yet in her absence, his rule seemed meaningless. Whatever divine moment there was had already fled before I’d even thought I could possess her.
“This is a passing fancy,” she told me. “You know this, right?”
I did. This was a whim, a fluke, a chance happening never to be repeated. Yet that moment of divinity, that fancy, lingered longer than it should have. Longer than Mishima would have you believe. And when it did finally pass, that is when I was spurred to attempt the impossible: claim her as my own. By chance I had seen a goddess naked. Was I a fool for wanting to see her so again?
Weeks afterwards, when the patina of whisky had finally been washed off my tongue, I thought of Mishima’s rule. I thought him wrong. The highest moment of existence occurred only when the act of possession seemed absurd. But I agreed with him that if I had possessed her, it would have signified the death of a goddess. That I couldn’t have her was what made her divine.
There was a story here. I knew it from long ago. So one rainy afternoon I staggered to my branch of the Brooklyn library. The copy I found was appropriately tattered, although Bullfinch’s Mythology was still legible on the spine. I was working on a whim—to be honest, the myth of Actæon and Diana had roiled in my mind ever since I had met her. But for most of that time, I had viewed it as just a fair warning. Later I came to see it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, that afternoon—tucked away in an aisle to avoid the children mobbing the main floor—I suddenly saw the myth as something else: a clue, if not a blueprint, that would unify Mishma’s law with my own affairs. Though still she lingered in the pages as Diana, the basic story of a goddess and hunter leaped from a mundanely personal parable into something grand and universal.
Actæon, prince of Thebes, is in the woods alone, save for the dogs fanned out before him. We are told he has companions, but they only appear at the end of the myth. Where are they at the start? From their description they seem a ribald group,and perhaps Actæon is in no mood for their idle banter; his mind is so intent on the hunt. It could also be that he’s faster, more determined, and soon outstrips them.
As for the dogs, there are a dozen of them. They have names, we’re told, rather good ones like Melampus and Lelaps, but despite how well they roll off the tongue, the names are, frankly, immaterial. When the time comes, Actæon will try to call them out, but, by then, the names will have changed to the desperate bray of a stag.
Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt, bathes in a shallow pool beneath a waterfall (necessary for purely poetic, if not sanitary, reasons). The pool is sacred, but that means nothing, since any pool wherein a goddess bathes is de facto sacred. Her nymphs attend her. One can hardly fault them for not noticing the approaching hunter: Diana is demanding and a goddess’s sweat is hard to clean. I imagine they used moss as sponges, which might have complicated things further. How many of her attendants were there and were they all involved in this godly bath? Were there some to the side amusing her, talking? I think not—Diana, like Actæon, hardly seems the type to abide idle chatter. Singing then? But how did Actæon not hear them, how did their singing fail to warn? Or does the singing of a nymph meld perfectly with the spatter of water? Are they one and the same: the water’s gurgle and the nymph’s song?
The dogs though—what about them, how culpable are they? Had they caught the scent of their prey? No, they’d be barking, giving the goddess and nymphs plenty of warning. So instead they’d have moved quietly, their noses pressed to the soil searching for that stagly whiff. Well what about Diana’s scent—did they catch that, or had it been washed away by now? It’s hard to say, for Diana’s odor would not have been the smell of prey: of boar piss, and stag spit, of floating feathers and air blowing from nervous snorts. If she had a smell, it would be of the leather that makes her quiver, the oil in her hair, and the musty smell of rope that clings to her calloused right hand, the smell of smoke and blood and determination.
So even if they caught these subtle scents, the dogs would be curious—and quiet. What about Actæon, though? What goes through his mind? For that we must turn to the time of day. One hunts in the early morning. One bathes afterwards. Given Diana’s bath, the sun must be already high in the sky. Actæon must have been out since dawn, but unable to catch a thing, since a goddess takes all the game away. He’d be frustrated then; he can’t understand what’s happening, why this turn of ill luck? So he heads to a certain pool he knows. His prey must drink, and if he hides away, he might just ambush them.
He approaches the water and sees movement. His heart soars. His dogs don’t move; quietly, quietly he brushes back a branch with his bow, his other arm already taking out the arrow and then before him he…
Well, how much of the goddess does he actually see? A lot, I hope. To suffer such a fate for but a flash of pink seems to me awfully unfair (although what part of this story is fair?). The tale tells us that the nymphs rushed to cover her when they realized his presence, but, as I mentioned, these were hardly the most attentive of nymphs; or rather, they were attentive to her, but not to their surroundings. After all, they had a naked goddess before them; and thus, if her own nymphs, who presumably had bathed her a thousand times, could not draw their eyes away from her godly flesh, what chance did a mortal man have upon seeing her for the first time?
The time that Actæon had to see Diana naked seems completely dependent on her. She is a goddess; she’d have known from the start that he was there—indeed might have even known he was approaching the whole time, no matter what the scurrilous myth-takers might say. I like to believe that she allowed Actæon at least a few moments. She could hardly have been ashamed of her body—this is a Greek goddess after all. No Christian sense of propriety for her. Yes, supposedly she is a virgin, but what does that mean? That she feels the eyes of a man burning her back, different from the desirous gazes of her nymphs. That though the eyes prickle, there is pleasure in that prickling. Even old Bullfinch hints at this: “Such a color that tinges the clouds at sunset or at dawn came over the countenance of Diana thus taken by surprise.” A blush then, which is hardly the trembling rage we’d expect, given the punishment meted out.
What about him, what goes through his mind? I cannot associate Actæon with voyeurism and nor do any of the others who have described this same scene; if there is one thread of consistency in all the versions of the story it is that Actæon is no Peeping Tom. He came upon her unawares and then stood transfixed before her. However, the thoughts of a man facing a naked goddess, particularly this goddess, are unfathomable to us. With the others we might have had an easier time of it, we could even have guessed with some certainty. With Venus, he would have been brought to the greatest heights of love and lust. With Minerva, unclothed but for her helm, he would have felt himself in the presence of naked truth. With Juno, he would have been in a state of immortal terror, mainly due to wondering what Jupiter would do to him when he found out.
But with the beautiful, ferocious Diana—what would go through the mind of a man who sees her naked? With a woman it would be more straightforward: she’d kick off her sandals, she’d race into the woods with the goddess, she’d leave her chains behind and succumb to the goddesses’ silent call. But Actæon? He’d certainly be awed, he might even be a little afraid, but would he feel desire?
I’ll leave that aside for the moment. Diana has turned, her profile is offered up. He’s allowed a moment more before she twists her head and stares straight at him. Her eyes are green dappled with brown. The dogs twist with her; they recognize their true mistress now and begin to snarl at Actæon. The nymphs, a flighty bunch, let out screams as they rush to wrap gossamer robes around their lady’s body. Actæon tries to talk, but his jaw feels wrong, his throat stretched. A blinding pain erupts in his forehead as the horns unfurl. He tries again and this time manages a sound: that fateful bray. The dogs know it and they begin to bark. He tries to run but somehow has more legs than he knows what to do with. The dogs bite; he calls out to them and they bite harder. The chase is over quick enough.
So, why did this gruesome metamorphosis occur? The most common interpretation is that Diana, though aware that Actæon’s viewing was accidental, still cannot have him boast that he has seen the goddess naked. This points to a genuine mistrust of men’s ability to keep their mouths shut. To be fair, Actæon was never given a choice in the matter, and Diana could have arranged the curse so that should he ever try to boast, he would then be turned into a stag. That this qualifier is missing makes me suspect there is something deeper going on here.
We must go back, back before the horns emerge—back to the question of whether Actæon desires Diana when he sees her. There is something asexual about his gawking—or if it is sexual, it would be of a type he couldn’t name. Here is the consummate hunter brought before the avatar of the hunt. He would be compelled to want to hunt (desire) her. And yet, the very act of doing so would be a paradox—Diana cannot be hunted. If she could, she would cease to be Diana. Thus Actæon might desire, but it would be a desire estranged from a desire to possess. For the first time a distinction is made between desire and the desire to have, as possession would negate the desired object totally and the desire with it.
Here (at last) we arrive at the crux of the matter. By divorcing desire from possession, Actæon desires the unattainable. He is wanting want itself—and in this I don’t think he’s particularly alone. We might love the chase, but not the catch. It brings to mind the image of the serial philanderer, casually discarding his conquests—he knows he’s searching for something, but does he know that he’s searching for the search itself?
What is to be done? We have the vile solution of the Land of Pomegranate—beloveds destroyed for the sake of a perfect, unsullied memory. But I hazard there exists a more mundane version, although with an equally vile name: unrequited love. This is the type that Christina Rossetti accuses her painter brother of having when he loves a woman: not as she is, but as she fills his dream. The type that shoots young Werner. The type that Socrates describes as ugly and inferior, defined via a negative. It is by its nature passive; it turns the object of desire into a concept and keeps it a concept by making it unreachable and unknowable.
In fact, unsurprisingly, Socrates is the one who offers the best explanation of Mishima’s law. Love, as an inferior emotion, is want, and who wants what one already has? No one. This love is a wretched thing, a yearning by the ugly to be thrust upon the beautiful. (Incidentally, for Socrates, the more superior kind of love is thrust onto young boys, which confirms everything we have suspected about ancient Greeks.) Actæon’s yearning would be nothing more than the inferior type of love; possession would be the end of it. It is this banality of possession that Mishima is driving at (though Socrates never delves into it). This idea lies at the heart of the Don Juans and Cassanovas, who see the hunt as endless—there is always new prey to be found. After all, who wants stale meat? But, beneath that, I see the undertones of insecurity expressed by the words of Groucho Marx: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” How can I love someone who would have me as a lover?
We might ask what Actæon would have done if he’d been allowed to retreat unharmed. After seeing a goddess naked, after experiencing such primordial awe and reverence, would he still have been able to function?
Left then with nothing else but conjecture, I’d take a gamble that Actæon, allowed to live, would have been forever crippled by the paradox of wanting to hunt what cannot be hunted. Not being a passive romantic, he would still have been compelled to give mad chase. The poet Shelley appears to have reached a similar conclusion when he described a phantom who:
Had gazed on Nature’s naked loveliness,
Actæon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness;
And his own Thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued like raging hounds their father and their prey.
(Adonais, Stanza 31)
Still, perhaps what separates Actæon from unrequited fools is that in the presence of divine nakedness, Actæon becomes conscious of his condition. He understands with clarity the nature of desiring the unattainable—that to see Diana is to see the sheer impossibility of attainment—and through this awareness, embraces the paradox in a way that could only signify lunacy. And yet a moment longer and he might slip. The clarity might be gone, forgotten. The lover, not the beloved as Mishima would vilely have it, must be destroyed then and there. In this light, the myth becomes not tragic, but glorious. He is turned into a beast for mercy’s sake, and when the horns unfurl, Actæon brays, not from pain, but to announce that he has fallen madly in love with the moon—and that he is grateful for it.
When I received the text, it was raining on Bowery. Pressed against the wall under a deli’s canopy, I smoked and idly checked my phone. Though the message said the inevitable, it still came as a surprise. I stared for a while at the lamplight playing in the scattered rain and drafted my reply: “Then set the hounds on me now.” After sending it, I looked up. No horns were growing from my head. No dogs, no giant, salivating beasts were racing down the boulevard. I headed home disappointed—at that moment, the dogs really did seem a preferable end.
In the end, all these laws of longing, these parables and myths that we use to seek meaning, none of them applied to me. I really did want her—not a want of want nor desire of desire, nor as some abstract concept designed to justify my life—I wanted her in the flesh and blood. She was not the moon to me.