The Venus Problem

by Lisa Robertson

Or “On Physical Real Beginning and What Happens Next by T. Lucretius Carus: An Essay on Translation.” Poetry and prose.

“The Venus Problem” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

To water, the earth, a nurse, pleasure, a clew

a minimum of sensible time

To paved streets, the assembly of the senate, the stir and bustle of the crowd, the theatre

a minimum of thinkable time

And trees and gods and cities

a time smaller than the minimum

To the luxuries of wealthy houses, to wine parties, to the boudoirs, to tapestries and mirrors as high as a man,
     to paintings

a time smaller than the minimum of thinkable time

To expensive dogs

a minimum of continuous thinkable time

His intensity, his scorn, his nobility of spirit, his intelligence, his pity

a time smaller than the minimum of sensible time

And we younger folk were good Latinists— We knew what was true, and what legendary, in the sentences

a minimum of continuous sensible time

With his rivers, with his mountains, his clouds, and his stars, his fields, his flowers, his books, and his dogs

Lucretius’s On Nature describes the material structure of the cosmos—atmospheric conditions; plant, animal, and human life; love, the senses, and societies; war and death—in terms of atoms, void, movement, and accident. This description is an Epicurean one, and transmits to us the Greek philosopher’s system of living and thinking.

We then perceive the world as a “nature” in the etymological sense of the word: physis, that movement of growth and birth by which things manifest themselves. We experience ourselves as a moment or instant of this movement; this immense event which reaches beyond us, is always already there before us, and is always behind us.

—Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

I make a model
with folded paper
of the exigent season called Spring
Venus emerges
her sea-scarf’s swirling—

The art historian Aby Warburg wrote his 1893 dissertation on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring. To read the linked images, he isolated a single gestural trope (the moving serpentine line of textile or hair of Venus), established its emergent novelty for the early Renaissance period, and asked why and how such accessory motility came to inflect the visual representations of the period. Referring to this undulating line as the Nympha, which he defined as “concentrations of life tended only by continuous movement,” he traced its appearance in classical sculpture and relief work, through its glorification in Florentine popular pageantry, fashion, and heraldry, and into the paintings of Botticelli. His interest in this Venal gestural presence was not iconographic, and, as he stated in an essay on Dürer, concerned “a real experience felt in the spirit of the pagan past” and expressed stylistically. For Warburg this motile experience in Venus’s flying hair and dress existed as an energetic charge in the image, a charge of memory he called an engram, using a word borrowed from the work of scientist Richard Semon.

Warburg’s biographer Ernst Gombrich here explains the term:

Memory is not a property of consciousness but the one quality which distinguishes living from dead matter. It is the capacity to react to an event over a period of time; that is, a form of preserving and transmitting energy not known to the physical world. Any event affecting living matter leaves a trace which Semon calls an “engram.” The potential energy conserved in this “engram,” may, under suitable conditions, be activated and discharged—we can then say that an organism acts in a certain way because it remembers the previous event.

In his work on the Florentine Renaissance, Warburg was precisely tracing the conditions—cultural, social, and economic—that permitted the active reappearance of this latent Venal energetic charge as received from pagan antiquity.


I feel ambivalent about adoring
The sex of Mars
Like America it basks
Exempt from dolorous stuff
The imperium’s fucked up
So how can I screw or work?

Time, excluded from the world of essence, becomes for him the absolute form of appearance. That is to say, time is determined as accidens of the accidens. The accidens is the change of substance in general. The accidens of the accidens is the change as reflecting in itself, the change as change. This pure form of the world of appearance is time.1 … Since according to Epicurus time is change as change, the reflection of appearance in itself, the nature of appearance is justly posited as objective, sensation is made the real criterion of concrete nature. … Human sensuousness is therefore embodied time, the existing reflection of the sensuous world in itself.

1 Similarly, time by itself does not exist. It must not be claimed that anyone can sense time by itself apart from the movement of things or their restful immobility.

—Karl Marx, The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature

go Venus go vernal go turning go
darling by folding sky by buoyant kiss

by plenty (I lie in bed and read Marx)
by secret breezes twisting, contriving

by boulevards by cattle by a springle
a springald a springet rise agile from

water, go down modern to the natal
turn by rapacious meetings by luminous

flowers—take with you the eagerness of
my submission to the proliferate

material discipline also
called speech as the political feeling

lusts for public light by engorged
rivers by populated foliage

by veering campus the cry of desire
a morning blackbird in the city entirely

secular and generative and I
can’t curtail my life.

Aeneadum                          genetrix,                          hominum                          divomque                          voluptas,
alma                         Venus,                         caeli                         subter                         labentia                         signa
quae                       mare                       navigerum,                       quae                       terras                       frugiferentis
concelebras,                 per                 te                 quoniam                 genus                 omne                 animantum
concipitur                            visitque                            exortum                            lumina                            solis:
te,                  dea,                  te                  fugiunt                  venti,                  te                  nubila                  caeli
adventumque                       tuum,                       tibi                       suavis                       daedala                       tellus
summittit                         flores,                         tibi                         rident                         aequora                         ponti
placatumque                            nitet                            diffuso                            lumine                            caelum.
nam                    simul                    ac                    species                    patefactast                    verna                    diei
et                         reserata                         viget                         genitabilis                         aura                         favoni,
aeriae                         primum                         volucris                         te,                         diva,                         tuumque
significant                         initum                         perculsae                         corda                         tua                         vi.
inde                        ferae                        pecudes                        persultant                        pabula                        laeta
et                     rapidos                     tranant                     amnis:                     ita                     capta                     lepore
te                sequitur                 cupide                quo                quamque                inducere                pergis.
denique                   per                   maria                   ac                   montis                   fluviosque                   rapacis
frondiferasque                          domos                          avium                          camposque                          virentis
omnibus                     incutiens                     blandum                     per                     pectora                     amorem
efficis                     ut                     cupide                     generatim                     saecla                     propagent

I want a pause in vocation. Venus
chatoyant in the formal dream
Please, tranquilize efficient Mars and his
efficient interests. Do it like this:

The man’s neck’s flung back
His man-shawl’s agitated
He has the soul of a mortal horse
And his saliva’s communal
Flung supine beneath
The concept of a goddess
Who unclasps the depth of his torso
With her skilled goddess-mouth
(consciousness is their consciousness)
Now recite sap and flower juice to the nation
(a lemon falls to pavement outside their window)
Do it like this.

In the essay on Botticelli, Aby Warburg identified On Nature as the source for the Florentine paintings. The poem had been lost for five centuries, having been suppressed by the church due to its heretical Epicurean philosophy. In 1417, a copy was rediscovered in a German monastery by Poggio, an early Italian humanist who brought the text to Florence and had the poem copied and circulated in manuscript, thus establishing an eager readership for the text. Forty-eight of these manuscript copies survive. Between 1472 and 1497, seven printed editions of the poem were produced. “A heavily annotated copy” of one of these books was owned by the poet Angelo Poliziano, a close friend of Botticelli’s, who wrote a bucolic poem closely based on the Lucretian text.

Warburg argues that the Venus and Spring paintings illustrated this poem, which transmitted its explicit stylistic exuberance and vitalism to the painter’s style. The relationship between ancient poem and Florentine painter and his poet friend “enables us to observe,” Warburg says in the introduction to his essay, “within a milieu of working artists, an emerging sense of the aesthetic act of ‘empathy’ as a determinant of style.” Notice that here, aesthetics is act.

Cognition in the room
Felt like sensuous human activity
Real sensuous activity as such
And natality’s ornate
Quiescence tied to fear’s
Superb circumference at
Home in the dominant expressive
Housekeeping of the street
A composition is set in motion.
Unmotivated by any bodily movement
Marx finds in Lucretius the defiant probability.

The I-speaker
On her silken rupture
Spills into history.

In the admirable preamble of De Rerum Natura … Ferdinand de Saussure discerns the obsessive presence of Aphrodite’s name. The [poem’s opening] invocation to Venus is constructed on the Greek name of the Goddess; even more, it continues to reverberate after the invocation has ended. Everything happens as if the poet had wished, in the very act of composition, to demonstrate a fecundity and productive power for which the name of Aphrodite was the wellspring. Would Saussure go so far as to believe that Lucretius was more or less consciously renewing links with the primitive religious motivation of hypograms? There is no suggestion of this in the commentary. Nowhere does the hypothesis appear—which is so seductive for us—of an emanation in the fifty opening lines of the first song, based on the phonic substance of Aphrodite, of the verbal body of the name: the maternal and amorous gift of sonorous flesh, the diffusion of a fundamental presence through a song of praise. What prevails is the weight of syllables, the labour of establishing references, of analytic listening, and of placing material in evidence.

—Jean Starobinski, Words upon Words

The “aesthetic act of ‘empathy’” that Warburg opens up as the motive and expressive agency linking the Italian Renaissance to the pagan world describes also the hypogrammic mode of reading that Saussure explored in his notebook entries on Lucretius. For a moment in Saussure’s research, the sonic body of Venus itself conceived the poem. He was later to abandon this research. For both Warburg and the Saussure of the notebooks, meaning circulates in culture as a charged, discontinuous material presence whose iteration brings freshly to life the presence of a historical vitality. The artist or the reader—and for both, reading stands as an active art, with an art’s techniques, cultural pressures, and diverted economies—reinscribes this vitality in the present as style.

Of the life of Lucretius one can say that we know practically nothing.
Our certain knowledge of the life of T. Lucretius Carus can be stated in a sentence.
Nothing is known of his life.
Of Lucretius’s life, remarkably little is known.
Apart from this poem, Lucretius is scarcely more than a name.
Very little is known of the poet’s life.
We know virtually nothing.
No exact deduction is possible from the mention of his name by two contemporaries.
It is doubtful both when T. Lucretius Carus was born, and when he died.
These are the sole circumstances recorded of his life, nor is anything whatever known about his family.
There is no direct evidence in regard to the birthplace of Lucretius.
The life of Lucretius has been all but forgotten.
Sometimes I need a record
Knowing it doesn’t matter
And sometimes I need
A flower machine.

Here is Marx’s massive problem, the reason he goes to Lucretius:
Practice arises from conditions
Yet these are the conditions we must change.
With a cloth on her upraised right hand,
Venus stands on a shell, hair windblown, twisted dance posture, more fluttering cloth draped over her arm.
As Lucretius writes, Rome is torn by civil strife.
Something of the murky tumult of his times shadows his verses.
In his boyhood began the civil wars.
The Goddess is stepping out of a shell in the midst of the sea.
The stress and turmoil of his times stands in the background.
Lucretius is a man of peace.
He keeps much aloof.
On the left are two winds, flying across the waves and propelling the Goddess towards land. Life-Sized.
The text may have become politically disreputable.

Each of the first five lines of the invocation follows a different rhythmic variation, so the poem begins by establishing duration in terms of irregularity and flux. Lucretius wrote the poem in hexameter, the meter conventional for the epic genre. But his use of this meter was unusually, even astoundingly various. In hexameter verse, variation is achieved by the placement of the rhythmic pause or caesura in each line, in relation to the combinations of long and short sounds in the surrounding syllables. Sixteen variations of the hexameter stress pattern are usual; thirty-two are possible. Lucretius exuberantly uses all thirty-two—thirty-two combinations of an extremely limited number of constitutive elements, to create maximum rhythmic variance.

Is he using the hexameter to show how atoms too, though limited in kind, recombine in time to create all the forms of life? Each line, a duration within orality, creates its own mode of continuity, patterning a forward surge. The metrical composition of the opening hymn parallels the Epicurean theory of the unending and always varying atomic composition of the universe. This is the constructive theory the poem goes on to describe. In this sense, Venus, or love, is the motive rhythm of continuous beginning.

Constructive rhythm in Lucretius is Venal natality; language and nature are in the erotic suspension that composes duration.

The transitory movements of hair and garments
     won’t dissolve into tradition.
Sounds of every sort are surging through the air
Myrtle Poppy Apple Sparrow
The fortuities of a name are being pushed
In the philosophy tradition
Indigent, uninvented, unconvertible twisting
Too frail!
She is prosodic.
Her theme has always aroused controversy.

Venus begins in the position of not-knowing, and maintains the movement and errancy of not-knowing.

Venus is a constitutive shimmer of light.

Venus is a dispensation of mind or consciousness.

Venus is a physics of change.

Venus is a stance against all reductive, life-diminishing economies of sadness.

Venus is an opening to the rhythmic inventiveness of material life, which includes human speech and other
     collective acts.

Venus is clinamen.

Venus is conchology.

Venus is engram.

Venus is entirely secular.

Venus is fulsome time, the accident that coins us.

According to Saint Jerome (c. 340–420 AD), Lucretius in a fit of insanity took his own life.

But what of the other items in Jerome—the love-philter, the madness, with lucid intervals of poetic activity,
     and the suicide, all of which Tennyson has made so famous?

They say he was insane, at times an honorable epithet. He may have committed suicide.

A legend which goes back to Scaliger, and is followed by Tennyson in his Lucretius for poetic reasons, that his
     wife killed him by a love-potion, has nothing to support it, and we do not even know that he had a wife.

There is a similar doubt as to his suicide.

It is doubtful what truth, if any, lies behind the traditional story (immortalized by Tennyson) that he died by
     his own hand after being driven mad by a love philtre.

Lucretius had raged with strange frenzy against the passion of love—so some mistress must have tried to
     cure him.

Even less acceptable is the story of the madness of Lucretius, driven crazy by a philter, having written his
     poem during the lucid intervals left by his illness.

If there is a case of fact, it is presumably in the suicide rather than in the love-philter and the insanity.

The description of the passion of love in the fourth book betrays the voluptuary who would inevitably
     drink the love potions given him.

Without totally accepting all the points of the story, Giussani refers to the madness and suicide of Lucretius.

The statement of the insanity of Lucretius is not attested elsewhere. It has been received with varying
     degrees of trust.

This sensational story was in all probability the malicious invention of his enemies.

The madness and suicide, dramatized by Tennyson (1868) have perplexed the poem’s reception history
     with a problem that the text alone would not suggest.

Modern commentators have found comfort in the belief that clinical insanity is incompatible with writing
     DRN; but the Renaissance, which perpetuated belief in the muses and poetic fury, was able to reconcile
     creativity with the madness upon which it bordered.

The insanity of Lucretius is not attested elsewhere.

The guilty wife (who had come to be called Lucilia) is one of the later additions that had helped to swell
     St Jerome’s brief notice into the eleven-page Vita by Gifanius.

Certainly, the possibility that Lucretius may have himself fallen victim to a love potion is a superb irony.
     Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim.

Literary tradition has supplied Lucretius with a wife, Lucilla. However, except for a line or two in the poem
     suggesting the author’s personal familiarity with marital discord and bedroom practices, there is no
     evidence that he himself was ever married.

Lucilla, wedded to Lucretius, found her master cold.

There is nothing in the poem or elsewhere to show that he was married.

St Jerome gives the date of 94 for the birth of Lucretius and says that he committed suicide at the age of 44.

He may have been married to a Lucilla.

It is rumoured that he died from ingesting a love potion given to him by his wife.

It has even been suggested that the story represented Christian calumny.

Then his suicide would follow as a divine retribution.