The Ritual of Lust


The latest issue of the National Geographic magazine [July 2011] puts on its cover the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, whom Harold Bloom famously called the first celebrity in human civilization.  The National Geographic story says that all efforts are on to locate the burial place of the queen and her beloved Roman paramour Mark Antony.  The discovery will be as epoch-making as the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, argues the article. 

Cleopatra was indeed a character worthy of deep study.  Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra, brings alive the “infinite variety” [Shakespeare’s memorable phrase] of that character.  Antony and Cleopatra lived together for many years and the queen gave birth to three children of Antony’s including a pair of twins.  But were the two great lovers or were they great sensualists? 

Antony forgets himself and his duty as a ruler of the great Roman Empire when he leans on the bosom of Cleopatra who was not physically beautiful according to many sources.  Cleopatra’s charms lay elsewhere.  In the words of a Shakespearean character, “Other women / Cloy th’ appetites they feed; but she (Cleopatra) makes hungry / Where most she satisfies.  For the vilest things / Become themselves in her.”  Antony was only happy to let Rome melt in the Tiber for the sake of the queen whom the holy priests blessed when she was “riggish.”

 Was it love or lust that welded Antony and Cleopatra together?  Perhaps, it was a queer cocktail of both.  Perhaps, lust dominated in that cocktail.  Cleopatra’s behaviour when she was told about Antony’s death would make us think of her as “a low trickster” [David Daiches] who was only interested in saving what she was left with.  Probably she would have desisted from committing suicide if the conquering Octavius Caesar would let her live a dignified life.  Perhaps, she would have shared her body with Octavius too!

As David Daiches, literary critic, has pointed out, sensuality spills out of every utterance of Cleopatra’s even when she is going to die.  The sensuality assumes ritualistic proportions when she puts the venomous asp to her breast.  “Does thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” is her question to her maid as the asp is putting her to eternal rest. 

“The sensual life ends in a blaze of ritual pageantry; it has its own amoral nobility,” says Daiches. 

Their overriding lustful passions destroyed both Antony and Cleopatra, the “amoral nobility” in their death notwithstanding.  I am left wondering what would have happened to the history of Egypt [Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh] had Antony and Cleopatra conquered their passion and thrown their lust to the winds?

I am left amused by the thought what would be the history of our civilisation if our wealthiest persons conquer their lust for wealth and throw their riches to the wind – and achieve liberty?


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7 Responses to The Ritual of Lust

  1. doctor san says:

    i have been told that public memory is short lived, but when it comes to an affair, the gossip truly never ceases. Anthony and Cleopatra, their bones have become a mere wisps of air, but yet their romance lingers on.
    Historians keep wondering, writers keep imagining..yet what actually happened between the two we will never know.

  2. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    You say, “I am left wondering what would have happened to the history of Egypt [Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh] had Antony and Cleopatra conquered their passion and thrown their lust to the winds?”

    I will give you a more contemporary question along the same lines, but more material and no feelings. You know that there were a number of conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination, including one as a punishment for blinking first when facing Khrushchev on the Cuban Missile crisis. Just suppose, that it was the Russisan leader who was assassinated. What would have happened?

    The only thing we can be ceratin is this:

    Ari Onassis would not have married Khruschev’s widow! Again, we land on lust! Perhaps all these what-if scenarios either originate or end in lustful stories and or conjectures!

    Enjoyed it.

    Raghuram Ekambaram

    • matheikal says:

      What else, Raghuram! Only lust (in the broad meaning of the term) and conjuctures (gossips) rule the world – except the world of those whose IQs are above 111.

      Thank you for adding the example of JFK. I was in fact thinking of many contemporay Mark Antonys and Cleopatras when I wrote the last para of my article (blog). Unfortunately I cannot mention names lest I get into some legal tangle which I cannot afford.

  3. dawnanddew says:

    There will be a ‘brave new world’!

    • matheikal says:

      No Dawn, I don’t expect a brave new world at all. Huxley borrowed that phrase from Shakespeare and Shakespeare borrowed his story from history. History will repeat. And there’s no brave new world in history. Thomas Moore’s Utopia, for example, won’t be repeated…

  4. dawnanddew says:

    Yes sir. Utopia. May be when I typed it, juxtaposingly this thought of Utopia might have come in my mind, I think. Because I have the habit of living dreams since I found the world around me so vicious most of the time since my childhood. The only way I found to be alive was to live in the world of dreams. I’m still living like Miranda. I’m sorry. I can’t help believing in that. Lest I may take to some drear steps. May be I have the same phobia of Charles Lamb. That’s why people see me struggling to adapt to reality.

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