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C h a p t e r 2 Erotic Bodies: Loving Horses The myth of Chiron, the rational hybrid horse-­ human, haunts Renaissance anatomy texts, as we saw in Chapter 1, but that is not the creature’s sole domain . In examples like Philip Sidney’s Musidorus, the more generalized image of the rider-­ as-­ centaur shows up in chivalric romance, where the centaur’s hybrid nature expresses human triumph in appropriating and exploiting animal power and grace through the aristocratic arts of horsemanship. But other uses of the centaur myth in Renaissance literature register the fragility of the supremacy of human reason, most often undermined by the bodily assaults of lust, gluttony, and rage. The centaurs of Thessaly famously violated their peace with the Lapiths when they became drunk at the wedding of Perithous and attempted to rape the Lapith women; Nessus raped Heracles’ wife, and was the eventual cause of the hero’s death, while Pholus, despite behavior as “civilized ” as Chiron’s, breached his fellow centaurs’ communal wine at Heracles’ insistence, leading to an attempt on Heracles’ life.1 It is thus no surprise that Renaissance authors often seized on the image of the centaur to express the tendency of human beings to degenerate into beasts when under the influence of drink or high emotion. That is the origin of one mythological strain in depictions of the centaur, but it does not fully explain the physiological and psychic sources and influences that made the centaur myth so widely relevant to the Renaissance in a way that it could not be, for instance, to a postmodern world. To understand those origins and influences, we would have to resurrect the physical, embodied experience of contact with horses, elaborated in some literature but more thoroughly in the dozens of early modern horsemanship manuals that instruct aspiring gentlemen in how to become imitators of Musidorus—­ to become noble hybrids with their mounts. To be a centaur is to be poised between 76 Chapter 2 absolute assimilation of the body of another, an animal, into one’s own bodily consciousness and riding the knife’s edge of losing oneself to another, enveloped by and transformed by the union. That is the “oneness” of horse and human that the centaur epitomizes. For postmoderns, such knowledge is not usually available—­we are largely uncomprehending of the details, the nuances, the transcendent pleasures, the somatic sympathies, and the reflexes involved in the experience of riding because horses have disappeared from everyday life. Early moderns of any class, however, would have had a glimmering of this ideal through the cultural saturation of horsemanship imagery and discourse. Resurrecting dead horses in anatomies requires merely a good eye and some knowledge of the genre; resurrecting the human-­ horse relationship in terms of the centaur’s unification of bodies is a little more difficult. There is, however, one common and entirely obvious early modern experience that approximates just such an ontological confusion that is still relevant and widespread today, an experience involving the potential loss of individual identity during an act of physical and emotional excess: sexual intercourse.2 In fact, Renaissance drama and poetry often borrow various dimensions of centaur imagery to celebrate, deplore, or register the social anxiety caused by the experience of ecstasy and self-­ transcendence that marks sexual union. Take, for instance, Sidney’s sonnet 49 from Astrophel and Stella: I on my horse, and Love on me doth trie Our horsemanships, while by strange worke I prove A horseman to my horse, a horse to Love; And now man’s wrongs in me, poor beast, descrie. The raines wherewith my Rider doth me tie, Are humbled thoughts, which bit of Reverence move, Curb’d in with Feare, but with guilt bosse above Of Hope which makes it seeme faire to the eye. The Wand is Will, thou, Fancie, saddle art, Girt fast by Memorie, and while I spurre My horse, he spurres with sharpe desire my hart: He sits me fast, how ever I do sturre: And now hath made me to his hand so right, That in the Manage I do take delight.3 The poem’s conceit has its speaker practicing his training of his horse, while love performs the same arts on him: he is saddled and bridled with the effects Erotic Bodies 77 of his own passion, made a “poor beast” instead of a “horseman” by his own desire. Overthrown by his love for Stella, Astrophel degenerates into something less...


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