The Sorrows of Priapus: Consisting of The Sorrows of Priapus and The Carnal Myth
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY, NY, 1972
237 pp. Paper, $3.95 US.
"The jackal has no respect for the winding sheet, but all knowledge is in the tomb. The Andes is a necropolis of the mastodon, the monkey and the jaguar, and there lies prehistoric man...A dried pomegranate is as entire as the body of the prophet Samuel. The earth is millions of years old, but it has not lost its wit or mind or virtue, for everything can be found in the ground." (p.172)
Unpacking my library as the quarantine keeps me home from my university or frolicking in May Michigan sunshine, I pull some cherished old books from the shelves. The Sorrows of Priapus, a favorite volume consisting of two texts composed in 1957 and 1968, was picked up at a used bookstore circa 1975. A hallmark of the postmodern is the premodern, and Edward Dahlberg's book reads like a Roman text—Lucian's True History maybe?—or something from still-dimly-scientific days of Cabinets of Curiosities, circa 1570 or so.
You know me by now: an art and science guy, boyhood interests in both encouraged by educated Ann Arbor parents, then thriving in San Francisco among community muralists, Silicon Valley UX designers, and Steve Wilson's YLEM Artists Using Science and Technology. I first published in Leonardo when invited by Bryan Rogers of SFSU to review the "science art" part of the International Sculpture Conference in 1983. Now in my own midwestern university, the scientists and mechanical engineering profs seem to "get it"—that the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of art and poetry interface in sweet and fascinating ways—more than do traditional artists.
It's a pleasure in 2020 to read a book of grand statement and learned allusions that slash the reader like scimitar blows (versus the thousand cuts of contemporary distracting academic citations), an author even more assertive in his opinions than John Berger. Yet melancholy pervades the book, as Dahlberg marshals classical learning, allusion, affection, and grouchy humbug. Imagine an ancient scribe taking up the mantle of H.L. Mencken, writing a papyrus as pessimistic as E.M. Cioran:
"Mars and Venus are the two pests of humanity. Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. Life is a vast solitude, and whether alone or with a wife, man is beside himself, which is to say that he is possessed." (p.140)
A whole lot of the book's insights are about sex, less a sentimental philosophy like Stendahl's Love or Roland Barthes', and more a bestiary, compendium, old curiosity shop. Dahlberg dwells upon carnality and its absurdities, world-weariness yet enchantment with the world, in a methodical listing until he spins off into metaphor and cantankerous fancy. Any point can be proven by travel from assertion, through history, into natural history.
"There is nothing more outlandish than the necessities of the scrotum and the anus. Lewd men are almost always eccentric; Charlemagne kept the prepuce of Jesus in a box at Chartres....The saint cannot endure his skin ... He is the prisoner of the least sound or touch; during the season of coition the male fish is in such a state of excitement that if the female strikes his abdomen with her mouth he has an orgasm." (pp. 32-33)
Right, the saint is that way, and the fish only proves it. Wondering who he was, I found New Directions' Edward Dahlberg Reader with the author’s autobiographic tales of hardscrabble and cramped life with his mother in the 1920s. Their world felt akin to that of my own relatives of that generation. Or even my rustbelt Michigan town as freight trains on railroad tracks rumble through our neighborhood, punctuated by the low whistle of an occasional freighter on the river three blocks from our 1913 house. Though his later life seemed to haunt metropolitan bookstores, and The Sorrows garnered favorable reviews from the Nation and The New York Review of Books, the Reader's grim realism seemed a world away from The Sorrows’ ornate meditations.
In a section called The Myth Gatherers, Dahlberg expounds on New World bestiary:
"The civet cat of Brazil is a remarkable teacher; its diet is honey but none is touched until the young and the senile cat is called to join in the meal .... The sloth bellies the ground as it goes, but is as delicate a feeder as the ancient Essene, starving to death without fig leaves. The jacuacini are wallowing brutes, slubbered with sleep, who eat sea crabs and brows among the sugar canes. The jagoarucu are Brazilian dogs with the teeth of eagles who dote on fruit.... The macuacagua is a very small bird; when it sings it is an omen of spring rains, but when it eats it shows the crop of Cerberus." (p.108)
His attention to the Western hemisphere is not quite as magical when maintaining the obnoxious imperial conceit of calling indigenous people "savages". He returns to this part of the world in later meditations on war and its cruelties. I wonder if he was endeavoring to find, someplace in the classical past and archeology, an understanding of the Vietnam War that drained and damaged the United States as he wrote this section.
His rhythms rich as Victorian architectural gingerbread, complex as progressive rock, I'm surprised Dahlberg's Sorrows is not considered an ageless classic of eccentricity like Huysman's Against Nature or Beardsley's erotic oddity Under the Hill. Sorrows of Priapus is as purple as Flaubert's Salaambo or the procession of gods in his Temptation of St. Anthony (fortunately not as turgid as good Gustave's limping Bouvard and Pechuet), but in its way, it's even more processional than Anthony's kaleidoscope of heretical visions. I very, very much hope, in this season of cruel pandemic, I don't find myself hospitalized. But if I do, I'll haul along Dahlberg's The Sorrows of Priapus for yet another engaging read.