The Hungry, Thirsty Ass : Alexandre Dumas – “The Tower of Nesle”


ABOVE: Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was so shy she rarely went in public without having her eyes modestly covered.

Celebrity scandal preceded supermarket tabloids by many centuries. In 1314, long before there were blogs to weigh  in, Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was communally trashed for her sexual transgressions. The affair of the Tour de Nesle puts to shame any of our modern, prudish presidential sex scandals. Marguerite, dissatisfied with her husband Louis X the Hutin, became an adulterous party gal, frequently indulging in orgies in her richly-furnished tower of sin, located a hop and a skip away from the Louvre. There, “courtly love” found its most carnal expression. But (goes the speculative premise of Alexandre Dumas’ early stage hit, “The Tower of Nesle”) since the Queen had too much to lose should a boastful lover report on their shared night of passion, she routinely had her boyfriends killed post-coitus and dropped into the Seine.

Dumas’ play (written in collaboration with Frederic Gaillardet, with whom Dumas would eventually duel over royalties) is a lurid and exciting melodrama, and must have made many a Parisian critic of 1832 polish their accusations of “Grand Guignol”. The plot has been often imitated (by the Michel Zevaco dyptich “Buridan, the Hero of the Tower of Nesle/ The Bleeding Queen”); novelized ( into an archaically grandiloquent Henry Llewellyn Williams translation); filmed ( into a competent Abel Gance costume piece);  and downright exploited ( there’s a bizarre pastiche out there that inflates Dumas’  two-hour show into a 1,760 page mammoth.)

ABOVE: Tower not affiliated with the Nestle chocolate brand.

“The Tower of Nesle” is perhaps of most interest to the Dumas fan because Marguerite of Burgundy, monstrous and sensual, presages Milady from “The Three Musketeers,” while the hero, Dom Jehan Buridan, (a witty swordsman/ scholar/ master of disguise) has all of the romantic traits that would later split into the characters of D’Artagnan, Montecristo, and Chicot the Jester.

Jean Buridan was a real person, and since he happened to be alive in the same century as Marguerite de Burgundy, Dumas decides to involve them in a tempestuous dalliance, because why not? There was some romance in the life of the historical Buridan, but no sword-wielding escapades or royal affairs: he was a philosopher/ scientist/ priest, and a pupil of Occam (he of the famous razor.) Buridan set the stage for Copernicus and anticipated the idea of inertia, but is now mostly famous for his ass.

This is Buridan’s hypothetical “poser” in its simplest form: an ass is placed between equal, equidistant stacks of hay. The ass, unable to decide between them, will starve to death. Anyone can easily see what the ass would choose between hay and poison; but between hay and hay? What makes an individual choose between equally good alternatives? Baruch Spinoza dedicated some dismissive words to this problem of determinism and  free will. (To the effect of: “Who can say what’s going in the head of an ass? A sane person will just PICK ONE.”)

Here’s the more interesting take on the exercise: what if the poor animal is hungry and thirsty, and is torn between a pail of water and a stack of hay? If he decides to move toward the hay, he will eat but die of thirst. If he eases his thirst, he dies of hunger.

Nobel-Prize-winner Camilo Jose Cela used the header “Buridan’s Ass” for an anthology of political writing. Politics make asses of us all. How DOES one happily cast a vote for either hunger or thirst? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously eliminated the animal with his quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Two ideas? How unimaginative. First rate intellects balance dozens of nuanced view points  in their heads.

But sympathy with every side leaves our asses dead.

Dumas offered a jocular solution to the paradox, BTW: the ass should go for the hay, take the hay to a bar, trade it for beer, drink the beer to kill the thirst, and use the beer carbs to kill the hunger.



9 thoughts on “The Hungry, Thirsty Ass : Alexandre Dumas – “The Tower of Nesle”

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