European studies blog

03 May 2018

Transparency and Too Much Information!!

Do you find yourself saying out loud what should really have stayed in your head?

In the course of a short recent bus ride one passenger exclaimed to no-one in particular, “How am I supposed to get to work on time?” when the driver stopped for a minute for the maintenance of headway (see Magnus Mills’s novel of 2009).  (My answer fortunately stayed silent: “Get up earlier.”)

Five minutes later a man was on the phone, berating his local council for incompetence in the Council Tax department.

The ancients didn’t have buses or phones, but they knew about the problem: mens fenestrata, the windowed mind.

In Lucian:

According to the myth, Athene, Poseidon, and Hephaestus had a match in inventiveness. Poseidon made a bull, Athene planned a house, Hephaestus constructed a man; when they came before Momus, who was to judge, he examined their productions; I need not trouble you with his criticisms of the other two; but his objection to the man, and the fault he found with Hephaestus, was this: he should have made a window in his chest, so that, when it was opened, his thoughts and designs, his truth or falsehood, might have been apparent (Hermotimus 20); tr. Fowler,  p. 52.

We should recall that to the ancients site of the mind was the breast.

Momus# ‘Momus’. Emblem from Hadrianus Junius, Emblemata (Antwerp, 1575) 832.a.4

In the Renaissance the idea  was picked up by Leon Battista Alberti:

Momus found fault with these gifts [of Pallas, Minerva and Prometheus], particularly when the other gods sang their praises. [...] The job had been carried out stupidly in one respect, for man’s mind had been hidden in his chest, among his internal organs, whereas in ought to have been placed upon his lofty brow, in the open space of his face [propatulaque in sede vultus locasse oportuit]  (p. 17)

(‘Open’ I think alludes to the window or door.)

And the 17th century, when Momus was so popular, liked the idea of uncovering the truth. In Luis Vélez de Guevara’s satirical novel of 1641 El Diablo Cojuelo, the Devil on Two Sticks as the English translation calls him, peels the roofs off the houses of Madrid to reveal their true contents:

You are really too polite, replied the Devil; but, can you guess now why I have brought you here? I intend to show you all that is passing in Madrid; and as this part of the town is as good to begin with as any, you will allow that I could not have chosen a more appropriate situation. I am about, by my supernatural powers, to take away the roofs from the houses of this great city; and notwithstanding the darkness of the night, to reveal to your eyes whatever is doing within them. As he spoke, he extended his right arm, the roofs disappeared, and the Student’s astonished sight penetrated the interior of the surrounding dwellings as plainly as if the noon-day sun shone over them. It was, says Luis Velez de Guevara, like looking into a pasty from which a set of greedy monks had just removed the crust. (Translated by Joseph Thomas from the French translation of Lesage)

Diable Boiteux frontis
Frontispiece from Alain René Lesage (tr.), Le Diable boiteux (Amsterdam, 1707), 634.a.18.

Lucian, and those who followed him, thought the window in the chest was a good idea, an instrument of the transparency for which we’re constantly calling nowadays.

But if our inner thoughts were exposed to the world this might be too much information.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


The Works of Lucian of Samosata ... Translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Oxford, 1905)

Leon Battista Alberti, Momus, ed. and tr. Sarah Knight and Virginia Brown (London, 2003) YK.2004.a.2189

Alejandro Coroleu, ‘Mens fenestrata: the Survival of a Lucianic Motif in seventeenth-century Spanish Literature’, Res publica litterarum, 19 (1996), pp. 217-26. 7713.892000

Asmodeus, The Devil On Two Sticks, Translated by Joseph Thomas (London. 1841) 12549.i.1.