Reason, Freedom, and Animality, Week 2: Fables

1521 Spanish translation of Steinhöwels’ Aesop

Fables are short, self-consciously fictitious narratives generally furnished with a moral interpretation, either before the fable (a promythium) or after it (an epimythium). They often travel in collections, and feature talking animals, which, despite being provided with this almost indispensable evidence of rationality, for the most part remain compelled to enact only their fixed, expected traits: wolves are ravenous, foxes clever, lions regal, and sheep mild and hapless.

The fable of the Rooster and the Gem is a good example of how this genre works, because it often begins the collections, and therefore may be understood as a fable that trains its readers how they are to be read and used.[1]Laura Gibbs’ provides wonderfully rich scholarship on this fable on her website, here, and for a list of its witnesses: here and here. We find it standing at the head of John Lydgate’s collection, for example; of Robert Henryson’s;[2]British Library, Harley MS 3865, 3v of those commonly ascribed to Marie de France;[3]Examples: BnF fr. 19152, 15r; BnF fr. 14971, 3r; British Library, Harley MS 978, 40r; BL Harley MS 4333, 73r of Heinrich Steinhöwels’ late medieval Latin/German edition; and of other, anonymous collections.[4]Examples: BnF fr. 24310, 1v, edited here, with a list of other textual witnesses. For a treatment of the textual history of the Romulus collection, and a useful stemma of Phaedrus collection’s … Continue reading It concerns a rooster on a dung heap, which finds a gem and imagines a jeweler’s or rich man’s joy were they in his place, but the rooster knows that a grain of barley would be worth more to him that any gem.

Although the fable may seem to be simply about the diverse needs of humans and animals, its moral instead tends to establish a difference between foolish and savvy readers. The Marie collection, oriented as it is towards worldly, aristocratic values, is an outlier, as she has its frustrated rooster scorn the gem because he cannot mount it nobly as a rich man might: her bird thus represents those who choose dishonor because they “do not value good and honor” (bien ne honor ne prisent).[5]A critical consensus is forming that the various works ascribed to Marie are by several distinct writers. They still might all be women, however: see Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, with an appendix by Ian … Continue reading More usual is the early sixteenth-century Spanish translation of the Steinhöwel, pictured above, which explains “Leer y no entender es menos preciar” [to read and not to understand is of little value]. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century collection offers: “I write this tale to them alone / To whom in vain my pearls are thrown.” The Phaedrus collection, one of the oldest, ends the fable with Aesop complaining about those readers who do not understand his work (“haec illis Aesopus narrat, qui ipsum legunt et non intellegunt“). Robert Henryson–a fifteenth-century Scottish schoolmaster–provides, as was his habit, something far more elaborate: after he complains about his servants, “damisellis wantoun and insolent” who carelessly sweep jewels out the door, he has the rooster offer a sad panegyric to the lost jasper, whose natural properties he lists in the “Moralitas,” before, as expected, telling us that the jewel represents the knowledge that wise men seek, and that any who do not cherish it are “ignorants that understandis nocht.” Henryson’s English predecessor John Lydgate by contrast generously praises the rooster, the “Embassiatour of Phebus fyry lyght,” whose crow “sluggy hertis out of theyr slepe to wake,” while recalling his admirable model, Chaucer’s Chauncecleer from his Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Lydgate even admires the rooster for its diligent “honest labour,” which distinguishes it from thieves, the “folkis bestiall / Voyde of reson,” commonly hanged at Tyburn. And when the rooster finds the gem, he praises it, and when he knows it is too rich an object to suit his nature, Lydgate praises him for that too. Lydgate’s rooster, virtuous, hard-working, and conservative, is a rare dung-strutting bird meriting praise.[6]Laura Gibbs also remarks on the fable’s differing morals: “In Phaedrus, for example, the rooster is a fool who cannot recognize the real value of something he sees right in front of him … Continue reading

The fable as a genre does not seem to offer much to the critical animal theorist. Derrida’s dismissal, in the first chapter of his The Animal that Therefore I am, rings true:

We know the history of fabulization and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming, a moralizing subjugation, a domestication. Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for and in man. (37)

The fable produces the rooster so that it can teach us to realize our humanity. For, being an animal, the rooster can cherish no more than base, material things. Certain humans — thieves, “folkis bestiall / Voyde of reson,” or readers who cannot distinguish between the story and the meaning — are rooster-like, suited for the dung-heap of meniality and not for the schoolroom, where real thinking happens. The rooster, in other words, is not just a rooster, looking only for the things that suit it and pushing aside the things that don’t, but rather a bad reader, something that takes pleasure only in what the Spanish Steinhöwel calls “palabras materiales.”

Material words! What a strange, seemingly impossible category. You might have noted too (as Laura Gibbs did) the pun in the Latin between “legunt” (they read) and “non intellegunt” (they do not understand), where legunt needs the supplement of the intel to be raised to true reading. That difference marks something that those of us who study literature already know: that reading alone isn’t reading, because true reading, as in “I’m going to do a reading of this text,” requires interpretation.[7]For more on this, Elaine Auyoung, “What We Mean by Reading,” New Literary History 51.1 (2020): 93-114. Reading in itself, in the sense of just reading words, is not enough to elevate the rooster into humanity.

Derrida remarks that:

The list of ‘what is proper to man’ always forms a configuration, from the first moment. For that very reason, it can never be limited to a single trait and it is never closed; structurally speaking it can attract a nonfinite number of other concepts, beginning with the concept of a concept. (5)

Derrida’s point here is that the discourse of humanity will always find another reason to bar what they call animals from whatever quality they believe uniquely valuable in humans. Medieval scholastic theologians, for example, might recognize that, say, cats could be very wily; dogs might seem to make decisions, or even to have some capacity to form an abstract concept: beat a dog with a stick often enough, they observed, and eventually the dog will be afraid of all sticks, as if it has formed a concept of the stick as such.[8]See Anselm Oelze Animal Rationality, and Ian P. Wei, Thinking about Animals in Thirteenth-Century Paris. But they always found a way to keep animals outside: they would ascribe to the animal only the”shadow of reason,” “quasi-rationality,” and the like, so that the animal, regardless of what it did, could never live up to us.

But the nonfinite traits could work the other way too. A human might read, but are they really reading? They might be doing what it seems they should do, but is that really enough? If the categories of inclusion are always shifting, never complete, never entirely writeable — because codifying them would mean fixing them, and therefore limiting the arbitrariness necessary for free choice or sovereign mastery — no degree of respectability will be enough to get certain humans all the way out of roosterdom.[9]I have in mind Michelle Smith, “Affect and Respectability Politics.” Theory & Event 17, no. 3 (2014), and Patricia Matthew’s collection Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the … Continue reading In splitting reading from reading, the fables split not only animals from humans, but humans from humans.

At the same time, the rooster on the dungheap looking for a barley grain isn’t acting like an animal as such: it is acting like a rooster. Derrida rightly goes after the main line of philosophy for its characterization of all nonhuman life as animals (34: he forgets plants, but we get his point). He asks his audience to hear the word l’animot when he says “les animaux” (47). It should sound discordant at this academic conference, accustomed as his colleagues were to good, French grammar, for it combines a plural sounding ending — mot and maux sound the same in French — with a singular article, le rather than les. Animot is the animal-animals word, a word, un mot, that discordantly jumbles together all nonhuman life at once, like every note on a piano, all but one, played at the same time. Derrida accuses fables of being a genre of the animot, and sees fabulization — the interpretative making use of animals — as the essential method of philosophers when they turn to animals. Yet in the rooster’s search for food among the dung, scratching away, it is quite unlike a sheep, or a wolf, or a lion. Fables work when their characters do what they typically do, when, in other words, they behave not like animals in general, but like themselves. And in that particularity, we might be able to go at the fables another way.

References

1 Laura Gibbs’ provides wonderfully rich scholarship on this fable on her website, here, and for a list of its witnesses: here and here.
2 British Library, Harley MS 3865, 3v
3 Examples: BnF fr. 19152, 15r; BnF fr. 14971, 3r; British Library, Harley MS 978, 40r; BL Harley MS 4333, 73r
4 Examples: BnF fr. 24310, 1v, edited here, with a list of other textual witnesses. For a treatment of the textual history of the Romulus collection, and a useful stemma of Phaedrus collection’s complicated branches, see Hanna Vámos, “The Medieval Tradition of the Fables of Romulus,” Graeco-Latina Brunensia 18.1 (2013): 185-97. For the fable in a Latin Phaedrus, Georg Thiele, ed. Der lateinische Äsop des Romulus und die Prosa-fassungen des Phädrus. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1910.
5 A critical consensus is forming that the various works ascribed to Marie are by several distinct writers. They still might all be women, however: see Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, with an appendix by Ian Short, “Recovery and Loss: Women’s Writing around Marie de France,” in Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages, edited by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Boydell & Brewer, 2020, 169–190.
6 Laura Gibbs also remarks on the fable’s differing morals: “In Phaedrus, for example, the rooster is a fool who cannot recognize the real value of something he sees right in front of him – and for Phaedrus, this is an allegory of his situation as a poet, when foolish readers cannot appreciate his poems! In other authors, however, the rooster is a wise creature, who understands that jewels are far less useful than foodstuffs, and the fable is thus an endorsement of the pleasures of a simple life as opposed to the uselessness of wealth and luxury.”
7 For more on this, Elaine Auyoung, “What We Mean by Reading,” New Literary History 51.1 (2020): 93-114.
8 See Anselm Oelze Animal Rationality, and Ian P. Wei, Thinking about Animals in Thirteenth-Century Paris.
9 I have in mind Michelle Smith, “Affect and Respectability Politics.” Theory & Event 17, no. 3 (2014), and Patricia Matthew’s collection Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.
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