“They only call them pigs when they’re alive.”

157576295_abb58da0ffOne of the works I encountered the course of writing my dissertation is the Testamentum Porcelli (the Will of the Little Pig), a short prose work of the fourth century that, as Jerome complained, schoolchildren preferred to Plato’s Timaeus. The Testamentum takes the form of a dictated will—“since I cannot write with my hand”—in which a pig named Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus (translated by one critic, a certain “G. Anderson,” as “Grunter Boarman-Roastpig, Esq.”) bequeaths grain and other foodstuff to his porcine survivors and portions of his body to sectors of human society: his bristles to shoemakers, his intestines to sausage makers, and more fancifully, his tongue to lawyers and “to the verbose” and “cinaedis musculos” (muscles to sodomites), until he reaches the end of his own body.

The work is a joke whose humor relies upon the disjuncture between its solemn legalities and its characters, one a cook, usually a low-class comic figure in classical literature, and the other an ambiguous animal. The Testamentum could be comfortably funny only because animal rights or animal consciousness should be inherently ridiculous; a gecko selling insurance is usually much funnier than the human salesman, Ralph, from Perth Amboy. Usually. But the effectiveness of the Testamentum’s joke requires that its violence not stay comfortably put, that the animal not remain merely an animal. Freud argues that jokes “evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.” The words of smut, Freud’s paradigmatic example of course, compel the person subjected to it “to imagine the part of the body or the procedure in question and shows her that the assailant is himself imagining it.” The pleasures that the Testamentum opens are pleasures of eating, imagined pleasures of cannibalism in fact; they are pleasures of butchery that need not limit itself to animals; they are pleasures of the hidden, unacknowledgable truth about the carnal companionship of animals with humans. What has been exposed by the “smut” of this joke is the human disassembled in, by, or along with a pig temporarily become a person, a joke in which both teller and hearer are victims who participate most fully only by imagining themselves as edible flesh, as human corpus that finds itself in porcus. It is no wonder, then, that the poem tries a little too hard to keep its joke under control by hanging a patronizing diminutive, porcellus, on an animal whose proximity to the human is what makes the joke worth telling in the first place.

Ambiguity 1. The pig possesses something few animals do, an individual, even familial name, yet this name is little more than a concatenation of pigs’ stereotypical traits, a bestiary in miniature. In contrast, the pig’s animal lack of hand joins him to the human. Although pigs have no hands or any other limb they could use to write, nothing prevents Grunnius from drafting a written document formed in accordance with the law; even most fourth-century humans—of whom most were neither professional scribes nor literate—dictated their wills. Thus the first joke, “quoniam manu mea scribere non potui,” hardly separates Grunnius from humans: he cannot write, but neither could most of his supposed superiors.

Ambiguity 2. The pig’s ambiguity necessarily infects his killer. The cook’s initial words belong to a juridical register: “Come here, homewreaker, garden destroyer, fugitive piglet; today I interrupt your life.” The pig should be subject only to the law of human appetite; a cook or butcher’s ideal indifference to their professional killing depends on the irrelevance of morality to animals. They should be only means, not ends; they should be unsubjectable within thanatopolitics—although this point certainly merits more consideration: maybe there is a porcus sacer? Grunnius nevertheless is subject to criminal, that is, human law, and execution administered by the cook: first, because the cook has deemed him a criminal, a bandit even; second, because the cook characterizes the killing as punishment; third, because the cook allows the pig to make a will, which, even by the nature of the word—testamentum derives from testor (to testify/bear witness)—requires acknowledgement of the pig’s subjecthood; and fourth, by recognizing that the goods to be distributed are in fact the pig’s own to distribute, that is, that the pig has a right to property, even if the property is only food for pigs and his own body, food for us. For all these reasons, the cook blurs the classifications dividing his animal victim from humans. And if he colludes with the pig to flout the animal/human boundary, he also flouts the boundary between executioner and butcher, trades both encompassed in the word “carnifex.”

After the pig asks leave to dictate his will, the cook summons a servant, “come here, boy, bring me my knife from the kitchen that I might make this piglet bloody,” apparently restoring both pig and himself to their proper categories. But rather than immediately using the knife, the butcher pauses to allow the pig to make a will. The hesitation catches pig and cook up inextricably in two disharmonious practices: one in which even to execute a pig is to treat it to a legal procedure to which an animal whose sole function is alimentary should not be entitled, and one in which a legally recognized criminal is to be unceremoniously butchered and then consumed. By failing to resolve this tension, in fact by combining these two practices, the Testamentum defamiliarizes both law and appetite: if the cook simultaneously punishes and slaughters, the law becomes little more than the codification of the pleasures of appetite—or the pleasures of appetite become ennobled by expression through the disinterested rigor of law. In the Testamentum the boundary between butcher and executioner swallows criminal and pig, human and animal. All that finally draws or rather cuts the boundary between butcher and pig is not morality, not the law, not species, but who holds the knife and who—or what—suffers it.

d’Ors, Alvaro. “Testamentum Porcelli: Introduccion, Texto, Traduccion y Notas.” Supplementos de ‘Estudios Classicos’: Serie de Textos 3 (1953): 74-83. (thanks to Martha Bayless for pointing me to this edition)
Anderson, G. “The Cognomen of M. Grunnius Corocotta: A dissertantiuncula on Roast Pig.” American Journal of Philology 101 (1980): 57-58
Baldwin, Barry. “The Testamentum Porcelli.Studies on Late Roman and Byzantine History, Literature, and Language. Brill, 1985. 137-148
Braund, D. C. “Coracottas: bandit and hyena.” Liverpool Classical Monthly 5.1 (1980): 13-14
Champlin, Edward. “The Testament of the Piglet.” Phoenix (1987): 174-83
Daube, David. Roman Law: Linguistic, Social, and Philosophical Aspects. Edinburgh, 1969. 78-81