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larvatus prodeo - who was that masked man?
December 24th, 2004
07:03 am

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who was that masked man?
In a passage from the Cogitationes Privatæ, a collection of fragments written around 1619 and known today from a copy made by Leibniz, René Descartes pledges: “Ut comœdi, moniti ne in fronte appareat pudor, personam induunt, sic ego hoc mundi teatrum conscensurus, in quo hactenus spectator exstiti, larvatus prodeo.” (Œuvres de Descartes, Ch. Adam and P. Tannery (eds.), X 213, 4-6.) Just as comedians are counseled not to let shame appear on their foreheads, and so put on a mask, so likewise, now that he is about to mount the stage of the world, where he has so far been a spectator, young Renatus Cartesius comes forward in a mask.
    Since persona is the common Latin word for mask, Descartes’ choice of words is curious. In his turn of phrase, the prime mover of Rationalism harkens back to pagan magic.
Est et secundo significatus species daemonum animus humanus emeritis stipendiis vitae corpore suo abiurans. Hunc vetere Latina lingua reperio Lemurem dictitatum. Ex hisce ergo Lemuribus qui posterorum suorum curam sortitus placato et quieto numine domum possidet, Lar dicitur familiaris; qui vero ob adversa vitae merita nullis (bonis) sedibus incerta vagatione ceu quodam exilio punitur, inane terriculamentum bonis hominibus, ceterum malis noxium, id genus plerique Larvas perhibent. Cum vero incertum est, quae cuique eorum sortitio evenerit, utrum Lar sit an Larva, nomine Manem deum nuncupant: scilicet et honoris gratia dei vocabulum additum est; quippe tantum eos deos appellant, qui ex eodem numero iuste ac prudenter curriculo vitae gubernato pro numine postea ab hominibus praediti fanis et caerimoniis vulgo advertuntur, ut in Boeotia Amphiaraus, in Africa Mopsus, in Aegypto Osiris, alius alibi gentium, Aesculapius ubique.
― Apuleius, De Deo Socratis
There is also another species of demons, according to a second signification, and that is the human soul after it has performed its duties in the present life, and quitted the body. I find that this is called in the ancient Latin language by the name of ‘Lemur.’ Now, of these Lemures, the one who, undertaking the guardianship of his posterity, dwells in a house with propitious and tranquil influence, is called the ‘familiar’ Lar. But those who, having no fixed habitation of their own, are punished with vague wandering, as with a kind of exile, on account of the evil deeds of their life, are usually called ‘Larvæ’, thus becoming a vain terror to the good, but a source of punishment to the bad. But when it is uncertain what is the allotted condition of any of these, and whether it is Lar or Larvæ, it is called a God Manes, the name of God being added for the sake of honor. For only those are called Gods, who being in the number of the Lemures, and having regulated the course of their life justly and prudently, have later been celebrated by men as divinities, and are generally worshipped with temples and religious rites. Such are, for example, Amphiaraus in Bœtia, Mopsus in Africa, Osiris in Egypt, and others in other nations, but especially Esculapius (Asclepius) everywhere.
― Apuleius, On the God of Socrates, by the anonymous translator of the Bohn Classical Library, George Bell & Sons: London, 1889
    The conundrum of masked magic finds its complement in zoological ontogeny. Norman O. Brown pins down these three senses:
Larva means mask; or ghost. Larvatus, masked, a personality ― larvatus prodeo (Descartes); it also means mad, a case of demoniacal possession. Larva is also ‘the immature form of animals characterized by metamorphosis’; in the grub state; before their transformation into a pupa, or pupil; i.e., before their initiation.
— Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body, University of California Press, 1966, p. 96
As Jeff Styler pointed out, we are left with the self-regard of larvatus as a mysterious, isolationist, and occasionally heroic Lone Ranger-type juxtaposed with the reality of grub worm, un asticot, a maggot-like being feeding on decaying organic flesh, and thereby, in its own way, providing a socially and medically viable service of cleansing the surviving host body. “Well said, old mole!”

Le bon sens est la chose au monde la mieux partagée, car chacun s’en trouve si bien pourvu, que ceux-là même qui sont les plus difficiles à contenter en toute autre chose n’ont point coutume d’en désirer plus qu’ils n’en ont.
― René Descartes, Le discours de la méthode
Common sense is the best distributed thing in the world, for everyone finds himself so well provisioned with it it, that even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other matter are not in the habit of wishing for more of it than what they already have.
― translated by MZ

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