OPEN INQUIRY ARCHIVE
Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012)
MALLIUS’S WIFE: A Brief History of a Joke
by Norman E. Land
Two of the most important dimensions of human existence, art and sex, or artistic creation and human procreation, have long been associated, sometimes seriously, even philosophically, but often also in jest. Among the first authors to link artistic creation and sexual reproduction is the fifth-century A. D. Roman author and Neo-Platonic philosopher Macrobius. In a joke about the famous Roman painter Mallius, Macrobius implies that the artist is more skillful at creating figures than he is at making children. Mallius claims the difference lies not in skill but in the conditions under which he carries out each kind of creation. In this essay, we see that Mallius’s joke has a long history in which it undergoes several significant permutations. Still, the essential meaning and humor of the story remains constant even into the Renaissance and beyond, when it turns up virtually throughout Europe.
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Text copyright 2012 Norman E. Land