Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebreo to John Donne

By T. Anthony Perry | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Withdrawal or Service: The Paradox of King Lear

From thinking us all soul, neglecting thus Our mutual duties, Lord deliver us.

JOHN DONNE, "A Litany"

It will be useful at this point to review briefly the reinterpretation that the idea of detachment underwent during the sixteenth century. As we have seen, Leone Ebreo took the ascetic sense of the term from Plato Phaedo and added the contemplative sense: it was the philosopher who could unbind (délie) his soul from the body and turn to eternal delights. Scève extended this notion of death when, following Leone, he recognized the aesthetic death of separation from the body and union with the soul, or at least the inner image, of the beloved. But a competing sense of délie may be traced back to Leone as well, and it is competing rather than antagonistic because it engages a dialectical relation with its opposite. In this motion of the soul, which Scève calls love motivated by faithfulness ( Délie247), the soul dies, is unbound or dÙliée, not to allow it a more perfect withdrawal from the body and this world--rather, detachment becomes the quality of soul that best enables it to reattach itself to the body and its earthly duties.

In this chapter I shall propose that Shakespeare's Cordelia may be regarded as the measure of this development in the sense that she carries the notion of reattachment or service to its most perfect expression. I mean that, beyond but including the body's union with the soul (Scève), the androgynous integration of man and woman in marriage (Héroët), and the reconciliation of heaven and earth, Cordelia points both emblematically and dramatically to a fourth dimension, one that hardly interested the love poets: the integration of the body politic, of man in his communal being, through the proper understanding and enforcement of bonds. In so doing, Cordelia represents--in her opposition to Lear--that tension between the active and contemplative ideals that was Leone Ebreo's central theme.

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