"So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it's a fable, an invention of the pagans."
"What a disappointment," I said. "I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what's the pleasure of crossing a wood?”
The lady and the unicorn-- Eco replays this scene over and over again in his books. Why? Because the unicorn and the lady are the symbol of the Middle Ages par excellance. Christian images of love and charity (agape and caritas) became beautifully interwoven with later medieval chivalric tales of amorous knights for ladies to create what became the glorious tapestry of the lady and the unicorn. Both Christian symbol and romantic trope, the unicorn functions as purifier; merging mystical and divine love with that of romantic and earthly love. The lady in taming the unicorn domesticates what was wild. Perhaps less a vessel of secret knowledge as perhaps a tapestry of interwoven meanings, layered and piled up over time.
Knoweable and rich, the uicorn tapestry was an "encyclopedia" in silk and wool.
À mon seul désir
I only vaguely recall seeing the Unicorn Tapestries in the cloisters many, many years ago. The beast chained to a pomegranite tree, fenced in, it's graceful neck beautifully tensed is what I remember. Vaguely recalled, I had found it disturbing somehow. And so never was a great fan of unicorns.
It was the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny, however, that finally grabbed me. We had walked over to the museum from Hotel Observatoire. Having gone to the museum to attend a musical performance, it really is a wonderful place to hear medieval music. Afterward as we left, the museum was closing but passing by the room where the unicorn tapestries were hanging, I was absolutely enthralled.... deep and incredibly rich shades of blue and red were about all I had time to see, but I felt utterly arrested by the vision of those incredible colors in a fabulous milles fleur pattern. It was like a Persian carpet evoking images of paradise.... in some way like the color palette of the murals at Alchi, the image of this blue island floating against the red mille fleur became images I saw before me at night when I closed my eyes to sleep.
Rilke was likewise moved by their colors.
O this is the beast who does not exist.
They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist
but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed
to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,
so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.
In layers of meaning, who could resist this tale?
Going down deeper
Herman Melville was also much drawn to Cluny. Deeply moved by the place, he used it as a device for conveying something of the dark reaches of Captain Ahab's psyche deep underbeneath....Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels of all time, and yt I had forgotten that line comparing the grandness of Ahab's top layers with the bubbling waters beneath...It is wonderful to imagine it: in depicting a madman's psyche as being located an ancient Roman bath lying deep below the Medieval building in the very place which now houses one of the lovliest and most valuable tapestries on earth--tapestries which are symbolic of love and understanding. Of Christ and the power of love. But not just that-- for as both Rilke and Eco suggest, to imagine is to believe!!!
This is much; yet Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted. But vain to popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding far down from within the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where we here stand—however grand and wonderful, now quit it;—and take your way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes; where far beneath the fantastic towers of man's upper earth, his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an antique buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes! So with a broken throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid, he patient sits, upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of ages. Wind ye down there, ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud, sad king! A family likeness! aye, he did beget ye, ye young exiled royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old State-secret come.
Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely: all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad. Yet without power to kill, or change, or shun the fact; he likewise knew that to mankind he did long dissemble; in some sort, did still. But that thing of his dissembling was only subject to his perceptibility, not to his will determinate. Nevertheless, so well did he succeed in that dissembling, that when with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him otherwise than but naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the terrible casualty which had overtaken him.
The report of his undeniable delirium at sea was likewise popularly ascribed to a kindred cause. And so too, all the added moodiness which always afterwards, to the very day of sailing in the Pequod on the present voyage, sat brooding on his brow. Nor is it so very unlikely, that far from distrusting his fitness for another whaling voyage, on account of such dark symptoms, the calculating people of that prudent isle were inclined to harbor the conceit, that for those very reasons he was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales. Gnawed within and scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea; such an one, could he be found, would seem the very man to dart his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of all brutes. Or, if for any reason thought to be corporeally incapacitated for that, yet such an one would seem superlatively competent to cheer and howl on his underlings to the attack. But be all this as it may, certain it is, that with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale. Had any one of his old acquaintances on shore but half dreamed of what was lurking in him then, how soon would their aghast and righteous souls have wrenched the ship from such a fiendish man! They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invunerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man's ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill. (Chap 41)