Cover of Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan” (1651)

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Hobbes’s political state, the Leviathan, is a monster. The name “Leviathan” refers originally to the Biblical sea beast: “None is so fierce that dare stir him up . . . When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid . . . Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear” (Job 41:10-33). Paradoxically, Hobbes chooses this creature to embody his ideal political state, because the Book of Job describes the Leviathan as “King of all the children of pride.” In essence, Hobbes’s political state must be a Leviathan, the most horrifying of all creatures, because it must mollify the egotism intrinsic in its components: citizens. Thus, in typical Machiavellian fashion, Hobbes approach to statecraft is utilizing fear to prevent a relapse of the ‘state of nature,’ a term broadly used in the political philosophy of the time to denote the natural state of a people lacking the regulatory parameters of a society.

The goliath, crowned monster is drawn rising from the landscape, armed with both a sword and a croisier. Beneath him reads a quote from the Book of Job —”Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei. Iob. ” (“There is no power on earth to be compared to him. Job 41.24”) The upper body of the monster is comprised of more than three hundred persons and, in typical fashion of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, all are facing inwards with only the giant’s face showing visible features.

The lower portion is a triptych bordered in wood. On the two sides of the title-curtain, there is a string of objects that reflect their equivalent power: earthly power on the left and the powers of the church on the right. Each side element reflects the equivalent power – sword to croisier; castle to church; crown to mitre; cannon to excommunication; weapons to judgment; the battlefield to the religious courts. The Leviathan balances the symbols of both sides, echoing the alliance of secular and spiritual in the sovereign power, as the construction of the torso also makes the figure the state itself.

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) by J. M. W. Turner

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Ulysses (otherwise more commonly known as Odysseus) is standing aloft on his ship having narrowly escaped the Cyclops, whom he and his crew have just blinded, and conjuring the maritime vengeance of Neptune. Turner, known for his delectable seascapes and chasmal light funnels, captures this iconic scene with his own anecdotic touches of interpretation: One of the flags is painted with the scene of the Trojan Horse, Polyphemus is disguised as a mountain top, the chanting sirens of the sea resemble broken waves upon Ulysses’ ship, and the horses of the sun god, Apollo, are painted as leaping in arciform over the rising sun; each subject is painted with Turner’s signature ‘vanishing effect’ made of soft hues and transparent lines.

In his article “The Paintings of Turner and the Dynamic Sublime,” George P. Landow points to how “in place of the static composition, rational and controlled, that implies a conception of the scene-as-object, Turner created a dynamic composition that involved the spectator in a subjective relation to the storm.”

The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo (1674)

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Cleopatra’s magestry of pearl,

Offered in toast, it simmers in crystal.

Plucked from her gold-studded ear, and yonder

Plucked from the nacre bosom of Venus’ shell,

The drops of Venus, borne from her fin-streamed shell,

“And in the cup an union shall be thrown.”

A jubilant quaff to drown Antony,

Her Roman bacchanalia, in excess.

Dangled o’er mercurial feasts

It gleams in vapor from another time.

Vaporous hues – a flush of marigold

& crimson lusting – hammocked in a sling

Of madness. The adversaria are flanged

& horns sound through curly silhouettes.

A cluster of sparrows disperse for reprieve;

To fly beyond the cracking tarnish of blue.

At right, an estranged whippet dog is

Whistled up & pries his head around.

This band of fools – an architecture of forms –  a blush of wonder, drear:

     Betwixt & balanced upon stone, Greek

capitals,

        A sinuous banquet, a forked feast of eyes in sextile

Arciforms,

        Necks arched, fingers hooked, glances that careen &

ricochet,

        A carom of fury and frisson they swarm the

triclinium.

         Amass, they unfurl and yield to Cleopatra’s

flagrant feat.

Abyssus abyssum invocat:

Her pearl paradigm returns to natural form,

Like the fate of two lovers forlorn.

Post Script:

And what of the other pearl? Wedged in the impending lobes of Venus – the mother of pearl, the bearer of beauty and opulent grace, the Immortal, the breathless renouncer – it towered in the arena of the Pantheon. And thus leers the looming tale of Cleopatra in the lyric mass of Cytherian form.

The Conquest of Salomé

This is an ekphrastic poem on the Gustave Moreau’s painting, Salomé Dansant Avant Hérode (1876), pictured below. The scene depicts the biblical account of Salomé who, summoned to dance for her the Tetrach of Herod and upon request of her mother, ordered the severed head of John the Baptiste. I followed Moreau’s unique Orientalist depiction of Salome in my poem, emphasizing the symbolic powers of the Lotus flower she holds out in front of her. I refer to the Egyptian god of the sun, Nefertem, and the fertile, rebirthing power of the Lotus flower as an ironic portrayal of this “immortal goddess of Hysteria.”

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A suspended throne poised on high,

Lofty as an altar ‘scap’d to the sky

*

And lodg’d firmly in Immanuel’s Breast,

Towers over an enchased sardonyx chest.

*

Surmounted upon the tabernacle, eyes

Drawn to the right, peering from his guise,

*

Of Cinereal folds, the Herod of Tetrach unthrust

Of veiled desires, seized in a shimmering hour of lust.

*

Summoned by chords and cloaked in a shimmering cirrus,

Salome emerges luminous behind the mitre scepter of Isis:

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This Lotus-coryphée, enclosing the pining altar,

She glides along the eternal pull of Primeval Waters,

*

Absolved under the surface at twilight. She commences

Her chimerical dance – an improviso act of evanescence –

*

Treading her steps in the wake of sunbeams that loom,

From Nefertem’s crown to the pulsing sickle of the moon.

*

Her covenant dappled in blood, fixing the Tetrarch encased

In ferrous lust, fatally bound by petals of luxuriant chaste.

By Quincy Childs

Psyche et Amor by Francois Gèrard (1798)

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Pictured in this tableau is the famous scene where Psyche, the beautiful princess whose beauty ran afoul of the temperaments of Venus, is surprised and aroused by the first kiss of the invisible Cupid. The antique myth of Cupid and Psyche, first told by the Roman writer Apuleius, is both a love story and a metaphysical allegory: As “psyche” is the Greek word for “soul,” Psyche is the personification of the human soul as it is awakened by the kiss of divine love. Thus the work illustrates neoclassicism’s shift towards sensuality and a certain formal abstraction, or rather the Neoplatonic theme of the human soul and eternal love merged in union. The butterfly hovering over the girl’s head is fittingly referred to as psyche in Ancient Greek and thereby symbolizes the soul’s chrysalis or awakening as well.