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B+ : a bit of a muddle, but amusing and clever
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The complete review's Review:
Momus features the eponymous god -- the Greek god of criticism, infamously also: "expelled and barred from the ancient councils and assemblies of the gods above" (so Alberti) and banished (at least for a while) to earth.
Momus is unique among all beings as someone who takes amazing delight both in hating and being hated by everyoneHe is a truly extreme character -- and, as such, ideal for the satire Alberti offers. The author also explains in giving his "reasons for introducing gods and why I have taken advantage of poetic license", in his Preface:
I noticed that the ancient writers used to philosophize this way: by the names of gods they wished their readers to understand those mental qualities which compel us to one or another course of action.It is a rollicking story Alberti fashions around this character, which also integrates episodes featuring Momus taken from classical literature (in, for example, Aesop and Lucian; the endnotes helpfully point to various sources and borrowings). Alberti begins by having contrarian -- often simply out of spite -- Momus getting himself in trouble with his fellow gods after the creation of the world (as we know it) by Jupiter -- a place that, initially, rivals their heavenly home. This grand undertaking arouses considerable jealousies in any case:
The gods were not taking it very well that a new race of gods, that is, mankind, had been created. They could hardly bear it that these men were much more blessed, practically, than they were, enjoying as they did breezes, fountains, homes, flowers, wine, cattle, and all sorts of delights.Jupiter appeases them by making terrestrial life considerably less pleasant -- making anxiety, fear, disease, death, and pain all part of humans' lot.
Continuing to stir up trouble, Momus gets on the wrong side of the one figure who really matters, Jupiter -- "the father of the gods and king of men" -- but when Jupiter is still willing to deal with things in an orderly way, preparing to put Momus on trial for his actions, the other gods want quicker action; fearing what looks to become, in short order, a lynch-mob, Momus hightails it out of the heavenly preserve of the gods as quickly as he can -- and falls, literally, down to earth.
This does give him an up-close opportunity to see what human life is like -- and to meddle with it, notably in trying get a measure of revenge on those who drove him out of heaven by setting the humans against the gods. First he goes around in the guise of a poet, recounting tales that make the gods look bad; eventually: "Truth became mixed with falsehood", as he heaps excess on excess. He also has a go at playing philosopher -- "arguing that the gods' power was nothing other than a vain, useless, and trifling fabrication of superstitious minds". Soon later, he's perfectly willing (and able) to completely switch tack, and decides the way to get back at the gods is by having humans overwhelm them -- "to pummel the gods with prayers", making outrageous demands.
For a while, this new-found attention from humans actually pleases the gods, and they're impressed by what Momus has done, and even grant him back his place among them -- but Momus is never satisfied with his situation and immediately starts considering in what new ways he can stir up trouble -- aware, however, that: "I must adopt another mask, one more suitable to my circumstances".
Jupiter now takes a shine to the entertaining Momus, who regales him with stories of his experiences among the humans. Typically, too, the other gods suddenly change their attitude, seeing that Momus has become Jupiter's new favorite: "They considered him a worthy fellow, willingly admitted him to their friendship, respected him and courted him". But he can't stop being a troublemaker, and starts to denigrate humans -- bringing him also into conflict with visiting human Hercules.
Jupiter, for one, is easily convinced, complaining:
But these wicked people forgot that they had received so many favors from me -- those ungrateful, undeserving mortals, always craving change and novelty, always so discontented !He comes up with a radical solution, too -- basically a do-over:
This situation, this state of affairs is grave and unbearable. We shall invent a new way of life; We shall have to construct another whole world from the ground up. It shall be built, it shall be created !Alas, Alberti doesn't take this opportunity to imagine an alternate-world; he leaves his characters stuck with this one -- though not before noting how the various gods got on board with the plan, each thinking they could turn the situation to benefit them; typically, like mortal politicians, everyone was: "sizing it up in light of their own interests and advantage" rather than weighing whether or not it was actually a good idea. Still, for a while, a wholesale reïmagining of what the world should be is in the cards, with Jupiter and then several other gods venturing to the current version to check out what the local philosophers have to say about things.
As with Momus' wanderings among humans, Alberti has some fun with the gods' encounters. Jupiter can't quite get onto Plato, but annoys Diogenes in his tub by blocking his sun; he also comes across Democritus and apparently some Epicureans. When Mercury ventures among mankind, he meets Socrates, and then also has an unpleasant encounter with Diogenes; finally, Apollo also ventures among the philosophers -- promptly finding himself: "enmeshed in their long-winded quibblings", though at least Socrates and Democritus made some impression on him. (Apollo also can't find Plato - "Some said that Plato was far away at that invisible polity he'd constructed" --, or Pythagoras, who seems to make a habit of changing bodies.)
Some of the gods get a bit ahead of themselves in looking towards the old world being dismantled and a new one built in its stead, wreaking large-scale destruction on humans. Desperate, the humans: "pledge lavish games to the gods, for they had noticed that the gods were powerfully influenced by golden offerings" and, indeed, that's enough for the gods to call off their plan and look forward to being honored in this way.
Momus remains a problem -- but Jupiter again changes course, admitting he'd been misled by this: "wickedest disturber of the universe" and sentencing him to be chained to a rock, everything except for the top of his head: "submerged beneath the waves forever". It only does so much good: the final of the novel's four book opens with the observation that: "Momus, banished and fastened to a rock, wreaked more havoc than he had ever done when he enjoyed freedom of action". Not entirely without influence, even in his awkward position, Momus manages to make some more trouble for the gods. Meanwhile, Charon decides to visit the world of the mortals, an adventure that leads him both to the gods and their spot of trouble, as well as to Momus.
Much earlier Momus had given Jupiter some notebooks with advice as to how Jupiter might "preserve and enlarge" his power -- a guide based on the knowledge he'd acquired, "derived from the teachings of the philosophers, about how to acquire and maintain power"; apparently Momus had been paying close attention while he mingled with the wise men on earth. As unpleasant a character as Momus might be, he apparently meant well with these -- but Jupiter: "didn't even open them, but threw them down unread in his private quarters". It's only in the novel's conclusion, after the latest godly disasters, that Jupiter bothers to pick up the notebooks and looks at them -- and is pleasantly surprised to find: "such fine teachings, so suited to glory and to grace". Meant always also as a guide to what a prince should take into account in ruling, using the example of the ultimate prince, the god of gods, Jupiter, Momus thus closes with a final summing up of the most important points of leadership -- after offering a variety of lessons along the way (having also poked constant fun at philosophers and statesmen alike, in amusingly exaggerated scenes).
As a work of fiction, Momus is something of a mess. In particular, Momus' advice, written in the long untouched notebooks, stands in strange contrast to his usual being. Throughout, the character is presented as a meddling troublemaker, never feeling appropriately acknowledged and valued, always wanting more -- and changing his position at will, basically whenever doing that can stir things up more. As such, the character is an amusing (if also very disturbing) creation, helping to make Alberti's points, such as that:
The citizens present showed the vicious tendencies of a mob to follow spontaneously any and all rabble-rousers, and to rush headlong into the waves of sedition that had been pointed out to them.. Their spirits now aflame, they set up a clamor, everywhere accusing their rulers of shameless wickedness, and rose up in riot.Yet the notebook-advice Momus gives Jupiter is tempered and fairly sensible -- hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the character's other actions or his temperament generally.
A secondary episode is also revealing about the kind of person Momus is, as he falls in love with Praise, the daughter of Venus, and is ready to do anything to "have his way with the girl"; eventually, he rapes her. The immediate fallout for Momus is minimal -- an unpleasant tumble to the ground -- with mother Virtue even turning aside when she hears her daughter's screams, deciding to: "feign sleep and listen until time had lessened the horror of the event". The incident does result in a scene that stands out even among the novel's many colorful inventions, the birth of Rumor, as Praise almost immediately gives birth ("the foetus spontaneously bursting out of her body") after the rape -- "to a horrible, revolting monster". This foul-mouthed creation -- unkillable, too --, takes after its father, in no small part:
It wouldn't stop reeling off everything that had gone on there, but it often mixed falsehoods with truth even when describing what it had seen and heard.To make Momus responsible for Rumor is fitting enough -- and for a while Momus even worries some about what he's done (well, he worries about the reaction of the gods to his behavior, more than having loosed Rumor on the world). He doesn't pay too heavily for his violation of Praise -- but does get his own later, getting himself castrated: as Alberti puts it: "I shall not elaborate, but in the hands of the women, Momus went from manly to unmanly". One might have thought that this would have made a changed man out of him, as it were, but Momus' character remains much the same -- perhaps the clearest case of how Alberti's approach to fiction differs from that of modern novelists, who would certainly have treated this in at least some ways as a turning point.
Momus proceeds in fits and starts. There is a story arc, and a cohesiveness to the whole, but the scaffolding is nowhere as neat as we're used to from the modern novel. The familiar Momus-stories are woven into the larger work, more or less successfully, if not always to as much effect as they might have been. Alberti is at his best when he brings the gods down to an earthly scale, whether with the interactions with the philosophers or the catastrophic theater-scene near the story's conclusion involving statues of the gods that leads Jupiter to rethink how he's been handling things.
Individual scenes do stand out -- and are often quite humorous -- even if it's all a bit awkwardly fit together. Sarah Knight's English translation reads very well, presenting the story in an appropriately lively manner (and the original Latin text, printed on each facing page, can readily be consulted). A few words creep in that one might question -- 'lover boy'; Jupiter finding himself 'clueless'; 'one teensy thing' -- but far more often Knight's choices fully capture tone and spirit, as in describing how Momus: "demagogued his way through the gymnasia".
Momus is an odd mix of a novel, satirizing the political elite while also addressing any number of (then-)contemporary issues -- not least the role of religion. It does brush in broad strokes -- which is fine -- but also somewhat haphazard ones, as Alberti maybe tries to do too much; in particular a consistent-to-the-end Momus would have made for a more powerful work (as Jupiter could certainly have learned Momus' final lessons in other ways as well).
If a bit rough as a novel, Momus is nevertheless an impressive early European example of one, and of more than merely historical interest. There is some good writing here, and some very funny episodes, and even the efforts at shaping something of a whole are successful enough. Certainly, Alberti could have elaborated on many of the episodes, and tidied up some of the flow of the story, but even as is it makes for good entertainment -- and a fascinating glimpse of a reworking of many bits of classical literature and learning in a Renaissance-era work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 February 2022
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Leon Battista Alberti lived 1404 to 1472.
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© 2022 the complete review