The following is a continuation of the book review of Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion.
Many philosophical and humanist traditions refer to ancient myths to impart their teachings. Jung employed Wotan. Existentialists employed Sisyphus. Rand employed Atlas. Epicurean mythography has always revolved around Venus, the embodiment of divine Pleasure: Lucretius started his epic poem by praising her, and Venus Urania was imagined as the patroness of the Greek Garden in A Few Days in Athens.
The Shell and the Spiral Goddess
As in Lucretius’ own work, Nail beautifully mixes poetry with cosmology in his book. Venus was born in the waters and transported to the island of Cyprus, and so he links the soothing sound of the waves to Venus’ free, innocent laughter. He also speaks of the relation between the shell’s spiral shape and Goddess spirituality; of how Venus’ vulva-like sea shell is made of crystals, and he over-analyses and over-interprets this in service of creating meaning.
The author focuses on the spiral as a vortex of energy. From galaxies to particles in space, they all move in spiral motion: tornadoes, hurricanes in both hemispheres, water going down a drain, the spiral shape is how matter flows and organizes itself. All four elements do this. What is a planet in orbit revolving on its axis, if not a spiral or tornado of soil, of the earth element?
One of the author’s seminal ideas is the possibility that we can explain the laws of nature by appealing to motion. We can think of gravity, for instance–even its excesses, like the black hole that has so much gravity that it consumes even the light, and does not let it leave–as the force or resistance at the heart of the centrifugal impulse of the spiral. We usually don’t think of gravity as a spiral motion because we forget that planetary bodies are revolving on their axis, but if we factor their revolutions we’ll see that gravity operates in a spiral motion just like tornadoes, hurricanes, galaxies, and water going down a drain, attracting all four elements towards the center in a centrifugal motion or inclination.
The eye enjoys the flows, but when the mind and heart fail to ‘see’ and enjoy, like the eye, they become miserable in their impossible attempt to enslave nature. – Thomas Nail, Ontology of Motion, page 176
The author discusses the relation between sight (and ergo all the senses) and pleasure by appealing, again, to the idea of the spiral. He discusses the fortress of the wise passage–where the sage looks down from his place of refuge and tranquility at the suffering of the masses–as the eye of the storm. Seeing chaos from a place of calm is peaceful. In this way, even the pleasure of philosophy is placed within the center of a spiral.
The Counter-History of Delphi
Just as Apollo, the god of light, tried to cover over the original watery spring of the Delphic Oracle, so the early philosophers tried to build their beginnings from their own inner temple on top of the natural flows of nature. Both came crashing down because both failed to start from nature and her wild springs, and began instead by trying to create their own temples on top of her, blocking her flows and damming them up into perfect and immobile totalities. The key to understanding Lucretius’ critique of the early philosophers, and by contrast his own philosophical method, lies in their different relations to the Delphic Oracle. – Thomas Nail, Ontology of Motion, p. 137
In one passage, the book Ontology of Motion offers a counter-history of the Oracle at Delphi, where the author reinterprets the stories concerning the origin of the Delphi oracle from a materialist and anti-idealist perspective.
The authors follows, and clearly admires, Lucretius’ employment of art, myth and poetry in the service of philosophy, and refers specifically to the Lucretian “honeyed cup”, which sweetens the medicine of therapeutic philosophy. He also speaks of the Delphic bees, again, which links to the Goddess of sweetness.
The Birth of Venus
The “Birth of Venus” chapter of the book is a thealogical work. Venus is chosen as a fully immanent deity of materialist philosophers. We are reminded that there is an etymological connection between mother and matter, which “both maternalises matter and materializes the mother” (p. 23). Materialist creation myths reject the artificial process of creation by the “word”–like we see in the mythos of Egyptian Ptah or Jehovah–at a posited Platonized “beginning” of the world. This is rejected in favor of a natural, cyclical organic process of constant creation, which is what we see in nature. The author makes mention of how Aphrodite’s name derives from aphros (= foam), and claims that Venus is the product of the overthrow of the Sky Father by Mother Earth (p. 26). In aphros, we see the emergence of life in the fertile waters, as elements come together. The first living cells were bubbles, the author reminds us.
The myth of Aphrodite’s birth also involves Uranus’ genitalia falling into the water. The author both gives this an eco-feminist interpretation, and also links it to the contemporary theory of Panspermia, which says that life (or its primal elements) originated in space and fell to Earth early on in meteors. In this way, Nail mythologizes a modern scientific theory, but this is–of course–the reading of a modern person.
The marriage of poetry and physics involves also the description of gravity as an inclination, as attraction or desire, and even the focus on flow rather than atoms seems to serve a poetic purpose in the book.
Venus the Anarchist
Venus never quite fit into the patriarchal values of Greek society. She was too wild, too promiscuous and untamed. She was dismissed as a harlot by the Heras of her day. Venus embodies an anarchic, libertarian spirituality focused on nature.
In page 39-41 of Ontology of Motion, we see the full contrast of Venus against the state, and we see her as a libertarian Goddess. While the state and religion seek to bind mortals, She (that is, nature free from culture) seeks to liberate them. In page 58, the author (like Lucretius) paints religion as rotten, death, stagnant, against mercantile liquidity, against life, and against exchange. Again, nature flows, and so motion is life and nature, while lack of motion and exchange is seen as unnatural.