Day 3 – Chaucer – Parliament and House of Fame and Haraway

Pynson's 1526 printing of the "Book of Fame." from EEBO
Pynson’s 1526 printing of the “Book of Fame.” from EEBO

We started with the story of the Giraffe recently killed, publicly dissected, and then fed to lions by the Copenhagen Zoo. Apart from the practical angles of the situation (who brought their children to this event and why?), and the issues of which animals would not have caused a furor (a gazelle? a pig?), we considered the issue of biopolitics. Obviously, the giraffe’s trapped within the sovereign exception, but in this case, the sovereign is acting to preserve, as it were, the health of the herd. In this case, however, the increase in control over a genetic heritage does so to increase geneticdiversity (as the zoo killed the giraffe because it was a product of incest), in other words, to create a situation of maximal “health,” which means maximal unpredictability. That double motion of the motive and effect of preventing incest, biopolitically, is something Wolfe’s Before the Law doesn’t consider. We also considered the oddness of, in effect, punishing a giraffe for violating the fundamental “cultural” taboo of incest.

pointed out the image of the pig on crutches from a fifteenth-century saint’s life of Charlemagne (!), partly to promote Gallica as a resource for medieval studies, partly to show how this manuscript (BnF Français 4970) shows evidence of a workshop (one decorator did plants, and presumably another one did animals of various sorts, including what appears to be a centaur stealing a human baby (f 42r) — suggesting an interesting aesthetic difference between animals and plants — and also, finally, to discuss briefly the difficulty of talking about marginalia or other “purely” decorative items. What can they mean apart from the pleasure of the production?

Then we have a conversation we should have started to have had weeks ago, on the problem of the term “animal” in the Middle Ages. My test case was from Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will, where, in a discussion of the human worldly monopoly on reason, Augustine uses the words “bestiis,” “belluis,” and “animalia.” The latter should not be translated “animal,” I stressed, but rather as “living things” or as “things possessing a soul.” There is, in fact, no single term for “animal” (in the sense this word has in modern English or French) in the Middle Ages, at least not so far as I know. We also discussed the etymological strangeness of the “animal” word, which is that “animal” itself comes from “anima,” both spirit and breath, and some sort of animating essence.

Our example was the Middle English “beast” 1 (a), “One of the animal kingdom (including man), any living creature (non-vegetable).” Can beast mean “human” too? Maybe. In some of the MED‘s examples, yes, but perhaps not in their first, this lyric.

Foweles in þe frith
þe fisses in te flod
And I mon ware wod
Mulch sorwe I walke with
for beste of bon and blod

[Birds in the forest / fishes in the water / and I must go mad / much sorrow I walk with / for beast (best?) of bone and blood]

Birds have a place, and so do fishes. They’re in a place. Humans on the other hand have to move through a place. They don’t fit, which is precisely the condition of madness. But what does that last line mean? What does the “for” mean?: “for them,” as in he is weeping on their behalf or about them? Or “because of” them? And is he among them or somehow separate and weeping? It’s unclear (presumably quite deliberately so). We also noted that the division between the freedom of birds and fish and the confinement of terrestrial beasts also maps onto dietetic practices (fish and fowl didn’t have “blood” in the same sense quadrupeds do, so the former are, generally, okay during Christian fast times) and also onto the six days of creation (humans and beasts are on the sixth day, birds and fish on the day previous).

Then we briefly considered Derrida on the issue of LIFE, as quoted in Wolfe Before the Law.

“life has an absolute value only if it is worth more than life … It is sacred, holy, infinitely respectable only in the name of what is worth more than it and what is not restricted to the naturalness of the bio-zoological….Thus, respect of life in the discourses of religion as such concerns ‘human life’ only in so far as it bears witness, in some manner, to the infinite transcendence of what which is worth more than it”

What is the proper human relationship to “nature,” then? Well, in “Foweles in þe frith,” we are somehow excessive to “nature,” crazy or ill fitting, which is precisely what gives us worth and troubles us. Perhaps.

And then there’s Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature (de planctu naturae), a twelfth-century Boethian lament that may well have been one of Chaucer’s sources for the Parliament of Fowls. There humans are the only worldly creature that doesn’t keep to it’s proper natural place; we’re excessive, in fact (and, in our sex acts, solecistic, in to the degree that we don’t model the supposedly proper relationship between subjects and objects); and when we behave this way, we are, per Alan, acting like beasts. Which is to say, we’re behaving…naturally?

So how should we then live? Should we follow the dictates of nature? Should we not fit into nature (and be mad or sodomites?)? Should we somehow transcend nature? What should we do?

This discussion led naturally into the Parliament of Fowls, where Chaucer is somehow excerpted from nature as its witness, mad or broken to the degree that he can’t fit into the game of love.

One recent Chaucer critic talks about the “natural harmony among all living creatures” of the Parliament, which is true, to a degree. This works in the stanzas beginning on line 190 and keep up for several stanzas. The birds have voices like angels and so forth. But then we’re in a world where “no man may …waxe sek ne old” (l. 2077): so this place is anything but natural, then. Once we enter into something like the so-called “natural world,” we have noise; we have all birds pairing off except for the very best bird, met with the impossible choice of three mates.

What messes things up? Maybe things go wrong here:

“And Wille, his doughter, temprede al this while
The hevedes in the welle, and with hire wile
She couchede hem” (ll. 214-16).

Wille, while, welle, wile — will, that is, desire, and will guiding itself — this is where things go wrong.  At this point, we leave the harmonious (super)natural world and enter in to a version of the Roman de la Rose, where desire and will lead all astray. Nothing is settled.

This led us to a consideration of the problem of “common profit.” Is this a kind of oxymoron? Doesn’t profit, which is extra, somehow work against thecommon, the usual, the selfsame, and the predictable? Where does desire fit into this, then?

We took a break to talk about the introduction to Haraway’s When Species Meet and also watched some canine agility training (your professor got particularly excited). What are some of her main arguments? We pointed out how Haraway contests the tragic mode of Derrida: is our relationship to our domestic animals always only one of mystery and shame? Is this really how we engage with our cats? We observed how Barbara Smuts leaves animals in the time(lessness) of evolution, and how she needs Derrida to complicate her picture of time. We contested her notion that it’s “turtles all the way down.” First, there’s the way object-oriented ontology contests Haraway’s process ontologies: what about the way that things are not entirely available to each other or don’t understand each other, or how umwelten (environments) are always insufficient to apprehend fully the things that they come in contact with. And then there’s actual lived experience: those we are, scientifically speaking, turtles all the way down — we really are walking ecosystems, even or especially on the cellular level — in a lived experience, we feel ourselves to be individuals, and we feel that our deaths are the real end of something. As they are. Does Haraway’s turtling “undermine” our lived experience by proposing a more real scientific level? We hope not.

And then to the House of Fame, all too briefly.

I showed some sources. Metamorphoses for the House itself; Vitruvius 5, 3, 6 for the model of sound waves as ripples in water; and AugustineConfessions and City of God for everything having its own natural place (and also some intractable humanism). Here it’s LOVE that makes us want to ascend. But for Chaucer, as for Aristotle (//Physics// 8.4), the motion, whether of sound or anything else, is totally natural.

Several other things about House of Fame: Chaucer has to realize the radical insufficiency of his body: he needs the eagle, so so much for the superiority of the human body in the “homo erectus” topos. I would also say that though Chaucer says he is no Ganymede (589), he is, after all, being taken to heaven by an emissary of Jupiter: he’s like a little boy being taken up by a lusty eagle, which is to say, this is quite a queer moment.

And then there’s the modeling of sound. If the human voice is, to the air, like the squeaking of a mouse or the violent noise of a pipe, if the voice is just broken air, then we’re hearing speech from the perspective of the air. Very ecological! And very nonhuman in its account of the rational voice, that one quality that supposedly separates humans from everything else in this world.

And the voice ascends to Fame not through love but through a purely mechanical process. One has to presume that the world up there is also populated by virtual mice and noisy tables as well as virtual people.

And then we have the eels/humans at the end, which contrasted, for at least one of us, with the desert at the end of Book I.