Descende, calve

Descende, calve

In Brief

"Descende, calve, ut ne nimium decalveris": this Latin sentence in Proteus initiates a series of further meditations on Joachim of Fiore. The sense is roughly "Go down, bald one (repeated a sentence later as "Get down, bald poll!"), so that you don't become totally bald." Stephen is altering a sentence from the book of prophecies supposedly authored by Joachim, and it in turn alludes to an appalling Old Testament story about male pattern baldness and divine wrath. Although the exact intentions behind both allusions are exceedingly obscure, he seems to be thinking about having escaped the clutches of the priesthood.

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The second book of Kings tells the gruesome story of some young people (the King James says "little children," but the Hebrew word means "youths") who unwisely mocked the prophet Elisha: "And he went up from thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them" (2:23-24). The Vulgate Bible translates the youths' taunt as ascende calve.

Why this phrase should have found its way to the beginning of Joachim's pseudonymous series of prophecies concerning late medieval popes is unclear, but there seems to be some connection to the fact that Nicholas III (the first pope treated in the series) was a member of the Orsini family (Italian for bears). In the version of the Vaticinia shown here (and it is not unique in this way), the first prophecy represents Nicholas seated between two friendly-looking bear cubs, associating him with the prophet Elisha. The text that accompanies the illustration is highly obscure. It begins "Ascende, calve, ut ne amplius decalveris, qui non vereris decalvere sponsam: ut comam ursae nutrias" ("Go up, bald one, lest you be made more bald, you who are not afraid to make your wife bald: so that you nourish the hair of the she-bear").

Stephen's alterations to the beginning of this sentence, changing "Go up" to "Go down" and "more" (amplius) to "excessively" (nimium), also are hard to fathom. Is he imperfectly remembering what he read? Or deliberately changing the meaning somehow? (Thornton notes that Joyce had amplius in the version of the chapter that he published in the Little Review. He changed it before publishing the complete novel.)

What does seem clear is that 1) Stephen thinks of Joachim (not Elisha) as bald, associating him with the balding priest in the swimming hole at the end of Telemachus ("garland of gray hair"); 2) he thinks of Joachim as having been threatened with censure by the church ("his comminated head"); and 3) he sees Joachim as a version of himself, the Stephen who could have entered the priesthood ("see him me clambering down to the footpace (descende!), clutching a monstrance, basiliskeyed").

To comminate is to threaten with divine punishment. Gifford notes that although Joachim's teachings were never declared heretical during his lifetime, "some were condemned by the Lateran Council of 1215," and a papal commission censured one of his ardent advocates in 1255 while sparing Joachim. A monstrance, in the Catholic church, is a vessel in which the consecrated host of the Eucharist is displayed (it comes from monstrare = to show). A footpace is a platform or raised section of floor, as below an altar ( gives as an example, "The altar, where a weekly requiem had been said for them, was gone, and the footpace and piscina alone showed where it had stood"). The basilisk is a legendary serpent or dragon whose gaze can kill.

Stephen seems to be comparing himself to Joachim as another genius involved with the church, just as he compares himself to Swift as another genius with the misfortune to be born Irish. Both involvements (Catholicism, Ireland) lead to torturing madness. Has Joachim's genius been reduced to the performance of a mere rite? Are his bald head and the murderous look in his eyes images of what Stephen could have become if he had answered the priestly vocation?

In A Portrait Stephen's decision not to answer the call is significantly motivated by thoughts of what the priests look like: "The Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S. J. / His name in that new life leaped into characters before his eyes and to it there followed a mental sensation of an undefined face or colour of a face. The colour faded and became strong like a changing glow of pallid brick red. Was it the raw reddish glow he had so often seen on wintry mornings on the shaven gills of the priests? The face was eyeless and sourfavoured and devout, shot with pink tinges of suffocated anger" (174-75). Stephen associates this face with Father Richard Campbell, the Jesuit priest that he has thought of just before saying "Descende" to Joachim.

Although the meditation on men becoming bald and bears ripping children to shreds is as obscure as anything in Ulysses, it seems clear that Stephen is viewing Joachim as a man of the church who has descended into anger as a result of his joyless institutional commitment. These thoughts return in Wandering Rocks, when Stephen is perusing a book of holy charms about how to win a woman's love: "As good as any other abbot's charms, as mumbling Joachim's. Down, baldynoddle, or we'll wool your wool."

JH 2016
Elisha calling down the wrath of God on disrespectful children, by an unknown artist. Source:
The title page of Vaticinia, sive, Prophetiae Abbatis Ioachimi & Anselmi episcopi marsicani. . . (Venice, 1600), a printed edition of the Vaticinia that pairs the Latin text with an Italian translation. Source:
The first prophecy, on facing page. Source: