Thinking like a Cow: Bestial Reason and Posthumanism in the Mirror of Simple Souls

EFRkwz_X4AUYKjwWhat you’re about to hear is an attempt to work out what is shaping up to be my third book. My first dealt with systematic medieval thinking about human/animal difference; the second concerns a less containable topic, nonsystematic thinking about humans and nonhuman animals: there I look at a range of cultural documents not so worried with policing whether a living thing can be recognized as having agency, moral considerability, or reason, and more concerned with the way we live and die together, and our shared dependencies and vulnerabilities. Reason will be the key concern for book three, The Irrational Animal, which will track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination and hierarchy. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing — since the word derives from “anima,” soul — medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, peasants, and so on — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, which opens them up to being treated, as the common phrase goes, “like animals,” with all that implies in terms of exposure to premature death.

The simplest response to those forms of dehumanization is to include excluded humans within the circle of humans recognized as rational beings: conceptually simple, but of course, I’ll stress, not politically simple. But a merely more expansive humanism does nothing to challenge the significance, the arrogance even, of that claim to, and bestowal of, reason. Challenging the hierarchies of that distinction between irrational and rational therefore requires digging into, among other things, what medieval people meant by Reason, and also paying attention to the ways that the supposed humanity of Reason could go awry. Can the category Reason live up to the claims people make about it? On this point, I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question in his The Animal that Therefore I am, namely, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason itself. My talk today is interested in what that claim to reason does for marking humans out from animals; in the way that several medieval writers considered the real limitations of reason; and whether these writers, even when they criticize reason, are really abandoning the exclusions and delusions of any claim to be “the rational animal.”

One book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, will be my eventual focus, because it goes further than any other medieval theological work I know in asserting the inadequacy of reason for getting close to God: that in itself isn’t unusual for a work of mystical theology, which is what the Mirror is. What’s unusual is its assertion that reason fails because it is, essentially and paradoxically, bestial. That’s an outrageous claim, perhaps even a unique one in medieval textuality. It may be of some importance to note that the Mirror of Simple Souls would be burned by church authorities, and, five years later, its author too. Notwithstanding the enormous importance of these events, I will make no claims that the Mirror’s portrayal of reason as animal has anything to with the author’s fate. Instead, I’m going to argue that the very strangeness of the Mirror’s portrayal tells us something key about what the claim to reason does in medieval, and perhaps even modern thinking. Its claims are indeed strange, but that strangeness does not put the Mirror outside the medieval rational tradition: instead, its strangeness gives us a better understanding of what drives the more normative claims to reason that circulated generally in medieval intellectual cultures.

To understand the full strangeness of Marguerite’s particular demotion of reason, we have to understand what medieval thinkers said reason granted humans. Humans are called the rational animals because they, uniquely among mortal life, are recognized as having the rational soul. It’s not that we had a soul and other things didn’t; it’s that our particular kind of soul enabled the whole economy of salvation. The problem is proving that we had it, and that, among mortal life, we alone had it.

In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon scoffed, in audible frustration, at the “mob of uneducated people who still believe that only humans have souls,” who “mock clergymen who say that dogs and other beasts have souls” (Immo vulgus laicorum in multis regnis adhuc credit quod soli homines animas habent, unde derident clericos qui dicunt canes et cetera bruta habere animas”). Of course they had souls, Bacon insisted; it’s just that theirs are less impressive than ours. Clergymen like Bacon got their beliefs ultimately from Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, which observed that although plants, animals, and humans are all alive, they don’t seem to possess the same forms of life. His solution to the problem of varying kinds of animacy is split the soul into three types: plants have the vegetative soul, through which they can feed and grow; nonhuman animals have that soul as well as the sensitive soul, through which they can sense things and, for the most part, move; and the human animal has these first two as well as the rational soul, “added,” as Bacon observes, “from without and by an act of creation” [ab extrinseco et a creatione], by which he presumably means by miraculous rather than through merely material processes. Because the rational soul was independent of material processes, it was generally thought to be able to act without a body or sensory organs; in other words, it had, and needed, no material component. Demonstrating that we have it was therefore no simple matter: it’s easy enough to prove that something is alive and needs to eat; and that it has working sensory organs that stimulate it to move; but proving that something thinks?

I’ve long been interested in Augustine’s solution to this problem in his On the Free Choice of the Will. He needs to establish that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, we have no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. What sense could the ideas of sin and merit have if humans couldn’t choose to do good or bad? To prove we have reason, and thus, ultimately, to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine surprisingly doesn’t point to what we might typically think of as rational actions. He doesn’t talk abut us writing laws, or engaging in acts of altruism, or philosophizing: rather, he talks about how we dominate animals. Augustine admits that animals do sometimes get the better of us, but in the long term, we overmaster them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?” I’m struck by the vagueness of what counts reason here, and what that says about what the claim is for. Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s notably no more eager to define reason precisely: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” That word “surpasses,” antecellit, tells us exactly how we know that humans are reasonable: whatever we might have in common with nonhuman animals, we dominate them, and that alone is sufficient to prove that we are rational animals, and they’re not. You’ll note, then, the circularity of claims for the unique moral significance of humans: because animals are irrational, it’s okay for us to dominate them; and we know animals are irrational because we dominate them.

Medieval thinkers, including Augustine could be far more specific about what reason was, or what it allows us to do: it enables us, for example, to form abstract concepts. But what about animals that seem to be able to do the same? When sheep run from wolves, are they frightened of only that particular wolf, or by lupinity as a whole? Dogs are neutral, even excited, about sticks; but beat a dog with a stick — that’s a medieval example, from Avicenna, not from me — and the dog grows generally frightened of sticks: does the dog now have an abstract sense of universal stickiness? A key resource here is Anselm Oelze’s recent book on later medieval theories of animal rationality. Although Oelze demonstrates that medieval thinkers recognized a subtle range of quasi-rational capacities in nonhuman animals, underlying all that recognition is an unwavering commitment to denying animals reason. However subtly professional medieval thinkers divided reason from other psychological powers or split it further several constituent faculties, reasons remains that capacity that only humans possess, and indeed that faculty that, added to a mortal living thing, transforms it into a human. The claim to reason is then, primarily, a defensive rather than a descriptive one.

Consider an illustrative quodlibetal problem from Thomas de Bailly. Thomas, a French theologian, died in 1328 in the role of the Chancellor of the University of Paris. Thomas was also one of 21 clergymen who condemned The Mirror of Simple Souls as heretical, and his recorded university debates date to the period of the book’s condemnation, and its author’s, that is, to the first decade of the 14th century. What Thomas says about reason, then, isn’t just normative — and it is, absolutely — but also particularly normative for understanding the scandal of the Mirror’s claims about reason.

Thomas is faced with the question of whether irrational animals have any way of thinking that relies on extrasensory powers. What about a dog that follows a robber to a very remote place and captures him, and not someone else? How did he choose the right person? Only through its senses, says Thomas. He relies chiefly on existing authorities in natural philosophy to do his thinking for him. Aristotle, Thomas explains, holds that only humans can think; even elephants, the most tractable of wild animals, don’t have any intellectual capacity. And while humans and animals may both have memory, Averroes and Avicenna–and, he might have added, Augustine, in De Trinitate 12 — all hold that only humans conjoin memory with intellect, which allows them to recall and analyze things long after they have faded from the senses. And so on, with increasingly subtle, yet quite familiar, taxonomies of psychological faculties, until Thomas gets to his conclusion: yes, a dog might catch a thief far from the scene of the crime, but it does this purely through its sensory capacities: the dog might sense the thief’s fear or some other violent passion, or the dog might discover that the thief shares an odor with the air of the place where the theft happened. But nothing other than sensory knowledge enables the dog’s success. It draws no logical conclusions. For, as Thomas explained almost as soon as the quodlibet started, if a dog were to have a form of thinking that was of a higher power than all sensory powers, it would transcend its own species and be a human — this is literally what he says, “et esset homo,” — “quod est inconveniens,” which would be unsuitable.

That unsuitability, which keeps a dog from becoming human, is why Derrida calls the list of qualities generally supposed to be proper to humans “nonfinite”: they’re nonfinite, not so much infinite, because there’s always just one more. For whenever animals seem to be acting human — by getting their man, for example — the definition of what counts as rational activity shifts slightly, with jealous defensiveness, to enclose humans on the inside, and to keep animals out. The claim to human rationality is less about claiming a particular set of capacities for humans, than it is about claiming both human difference and human superiority, and laying claim to everything that follows from that. The claim to have reason is therefore primarily a hierarchical one, rather than a description of a particular kind of thought, which is always necessarily weaponized against both nonhuman animals and most humans.

But what does reason look like? What does it want us to do, apart from overmastering animals? What are its limitations? With all due respect to Thomas Paine, I’m tempted to call the Middle Ages the Age of Reason. Personification — of the soul, the body, the virtues, the vices, wine, anything imaginable — are figures common to medieval writing, personifications of Reason among them. I’ve started to collect these figures, and, while I haven’t yet read some of what might be your favorites — the Reason personification from The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man chief among them — I’ve read enough to get a sense of what they tend to do and to advise us to do. I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason tends not to be a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even logical induction. As the inheritors or victims of our own “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed.

The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personifications. This early dialog sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals — his examples here are fleas and bugs — have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for immaterial abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.

To say that reason is the essential characteristic of being human, that its presence determines whether a created being is worthy of being loved, that there’d be no point to Christ’s sacrifice were humans irrational, and that the very purported irrationality of nonhuman animals means that their lives are, ultimately, nothing more than natural resources for us: all of these claims, as true a description of mainstream medieval thought as they are, mistaken to the degree that they imply the human insistence on their superiority over animals means that humans are at the top of the hierarchy. For if reason is, as Roger Bacon among others argued, a miraculous capacity, rather than a natural one, then it has to come from God. Reason may be the highest capacity humans possess, but it alone cannot bring them close to reason’s creator.

So we have, for example, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alain de Lille, which has its personified Reason know no more than material things. Reason knows how material things take their particular character from pure Form — this here is basic hylomorphism — and its knows the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. Alain’s work imagines the best possible man; so its presentation of that man’s Reason is therefore as idealized as possible. Even so, Reason suffers from limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and nothing but Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further. One of the work’s medieval French adaptations adds a scene where, as Reason drives the chariot headlong to flee the vices, her passengers, Prudence and Religion, cry out, “Reason, look out!…You’re going to roll the chariot!” (“Raison, prenez garde … Vus et le char verrez tumer,” 2945-2947). Reason knows things; it’s essential to being human; but reason needs to learn to know its place, as cannot take anyone to the highest truths.

So we can say that we have the irrational on the one side, and on the other, the extrarational. We can complicate this further by dividing reason in two, into the ratio inferior and the ratio superior, as Augustine did in his De Trinitate: the former a helper, like a woman — that’s Augustine’s metaphor, not mine — for temporal things, and the latter, the superior, contemplative reason, for dealing with eternal things.To this subdivision we can add, for example, those of Hugh of Pontigny, a twelfth-century Cistercian bishop of Auxerre, who argues that intellect is a higher power than reason, or perhaps still higher is prudence, which comprises memory, intellect, and providence. In either case, the chief distinction holds: humans have some capacity that distinguishes them absolutely from animals, and they have another one that further divides them from material, sensible, temporal things, pointing the way to God.

I know of no medieval work that more thoroughly devalues reason for this highest purpose than The Mirror of Simple Souls. The work is very likely by a woman, Marguerite, “called Porete,” as most contemporary documentation names her. As Porete may have been a nickname rather than a surname, I’m going to call its author simply Marguerite. She worked in Valenciennes, in what’s now Northeast France, and was probably both unmarried and not professionally affiliated with the church. The book was condemned in 1305 by Guido of Collemezzo, Bishop of Cambrai, and Marguerite forbidden from continuing to distribute its ideas; she seems to have added material to the book instead to better explain herself. Her persistence gained her further attention from clerical authorities. Eventually she found herself caught up in royal politics, as the French King had been seeking to assert his supremacy as God’s representative, at least in his own kingdom, at the expense of the Jews, whom he expelled, the Knights Templar, whom he bankrupted and destroyed, and, almost incidentally, the unfortunate Marguerite. The book was adjudged to be heretical, and then Marguerite was burned to death on June 1, 1310, in Paris, alongside a Jew condemned as an apostate convert to Christianity. While no copy of the the Mirror survives in its original Old French, several medieval translations do: some of these, the first Latin one and the Middle English, seem to provide good witnesses to the version or versions of Marguerite’s work that her accusers might have read. Further translations, into Latin and Italian, as well as several references to the work, many disapproving, indicate that it continued to be read.

The Mirror of Simple Souls is not a work of mystical ecstasy along the lines of other so-called works of “women’s” spirituality. There’s no pretense of autobiography, no hint of corporeal malaise or excess, no passionate attention to the crucifixion or Christ’s body, and no strong emotions except, perhaps, scorn or arrogance. It is a spiritual guide, which trains the practitioner to gradually empty themselves of all sensation and knowledge, and with this, all attempts to understand or comprehend God; because God is infinite, we cannot comprehend God, so the best, indeed the only way, to get close to him is through a process of self-annihilation and a gradual unloosing of the mind from all ways of knowing suitable for mere mortal, bounded things.

What stands in the way of this ascent is Reason. One of the elements Marguerite might have in mind in her dismissal might have been the tradition of rational consolation, which is very much a tradition of following the rules. In this tradition, Reason doesn’t demand freedom, but rather constrains us to “be reasonable,” which means submitting to the prevailing circumstances. Most likely Marguerite would have known this tradition from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation: for the work’s psychological allegory may well have been, as Barbara Newman suggests, a key resource for Marguerite’s own allegory in the Mirror, and we know that the work circulated, sometimes in an abridged, bowdlerized form, in Valenciennes in the late thirteenth century.

In the Roman de la Rose, Marguerite might have read how Jean has has Dreamer encounter a successive set of figures, some of them allegorical personifications, to advise him about love and seduction: an old woman, a scheming man, “False Seeming,” and first of all, Reason herself, who urges the Dreamer to abandon his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachments to the temporary gifts of fortune. Desire comes and goes, and is, by its nature, mobile. What Reason advises in response is immobility. Reason insists that the life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression,” Jean writes, “always stayed the same and was found unmoved even by those who killed him with hemlock.” The ultimate source for Jean here is Solinus’s third-century Collectaneum rerum memorabilium, his Collection of Memorable Things. But the Roman de la Rose has Reason give the common story a subtly but significant twist: Solinus is one of many writers who has Socrates remain imperturbable in the face of his impending death. Reason’s Socrates, on the other hand, has an unchanging face, “whatever happened to him.” Not in the face of danger, but in the face of everything. Socrates never reacts. Although Socrates had become, in Christian storytelling, martyred for his contempt for idols, here he takes on a face of absolute fixity, whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from a unmoving, carved one. Here is miniature is Reason’s advice to the Dreamer: Reason does not suggest analysis, nor does it move the spirit at least partially upwards towards God, as it does in Alain de Lille, nor does it use the knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine, as in Augustine. Instead, Reason offers this consolation to ward off not only love, but all sensation: a kind of numbness of simply not caring about what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.

I am reminded of Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, the title of the collected lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason he offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in Horkheimer’s critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice.

That socially useful practice is what Marguerite wants to move us beyond. The Mirror takes us beyond the virtues, beyond the need to do good works, beyond anything that would tie us to a predetermined goal. In developing these ideas, Marguerite would also have had in mind other works of spiritual guidance. Notably, even when these works dismiss reason, they don’t do so as utterly as does Marguerite.

Augustine, we have seen, salvages Reason by dividing it into practical and contemplative modes. The fourteenth-century Middle English Cloud of Unknowing, despite its analogous commitment to the abandonment of the self to God’s immensity, nonetheless simply characterizes reason as a particularly human, even ascetic capacity that knows and judges things, which is no way impedes the “work of contemplation” through which it tries to bring the soul close to God. The thirteenth-century Dutch contemplative Hadewijch, more ambiguously, at times makes Reason Love’s guide, while in her ninth vision, Reason is a queen in a dress covered with eyes, who awes her and then serves her until Hadewijch abandons her to serve love and her “unspeakable wonders.”

Elsewhere, Reason is more obviously an impediment, but typically, the problem is understood to be the human limitations of reason. Dante’s Letter to Cangrande, for example, in talking of his Paradiso, speaks of the “intellect in its ascent passing beyond human reason,” humanam rationem…transierat” (XIII.80), and in the Paradiso itself, Dante speaks of Richard of Saint Victor, “as he whose meditation made him more than man” (“che a considerar fu più che viro,” X.132). Richard’s own twelfth-century contemplative manual, his Mystical Ark, speaks of a level of contemplation that “rises above reason,” and one that goes still further “by admitting no human reason,” humanam rationem, “at all” (I.ix). And The Book of Privy Counseling, also by the Cloud author, interprets the Biblical Rachel’s death, in giving birth to Benjamin, as demonstrating how “human reason completely dies” “as soon as the soul is touched with true contemplation.” The idea comes from Richard of St Victor, on whom Marguerite herself draws. What Marguerite doesn’t do, however, is repeat Richard of St Victor’s otherwise completely standard division between merely corporeal beasts and a human reason that’s free to think beyond bodies. For Richard, and indeed, for spiritual works more generally, human reason may be a problem; but reason, at least, still stands us above animals. It’s still a paradigmatically human capacity.

But not in the Mirror of Simple Souls. For there, Reason is an ass. That’s Marguerite’s metaphor, not mine. “Truly,” Marguerite has Love explain to Reason, “the unsophistication and burden of those who are governed by reason surpasses all description. Reason’s teachings are a donkey’s work” (“Soþeli, seiþ sche, þei þat ben guerned by reson, þe rudenesse ne þe combringes of hem no man may seie. At her techinges it schewiþ an asse deede,” 317). For Marguerite, Reason is, astonishingly enough, bestial. “Ah Sheep,” shouts Soul at Reason, “how bestial is your understanding! You take the chaff and leave the grain” (“A, schepe, schepe, seiþ þe fre soule, what 3oure vndirstandynges ben beestli. 3e taken þe chaf and leuen þe greyn,” 309). People who follow Reason’s guidelines, says Soul, are “donkeys who seek God in creation” (“Suche folkis, seiþ þis soule, þat I clepe asses, seken God in creatures and bi hilles and dales,” 306). Those who listen to Reason’s advice “are so bestial and so asinine” that Soul wants nothing to do with them (“To alle þo, seiþ sche, þat lieun by 3oure counseil, þat ben s bestial & so assed þat me bihoueþ for her rudenesse answere my langage,” 304). And late in the treatise, Soul offers to clarify a division of the spiritual practice to make sense for “the bestial understanders” (“bestials vndirstanders,” 331).

Marguerite’s Reason could not be more inept. In her Mirror, Reason’s chief role is to exclaim in dismay as it’s assailed with one paradox after another, occasionally stopping to suggest that Love or its other interlocutors have gone too far. Reason is incredulous, committed to obedience to the virtues — surely as is appropriate for a faculty of moral judgment — and angrily befuddled whenever it has to abandon the principle of non-contradiction. Marguerite’s Reason represents her reader prior to receiving the techniques of meditation and prayer she teaches; a perfectly good Christian, but merely rule bound, without much access to grace or God’s infinitude.

Marguerite wants something better than just being reasonable. But it’s not, finally, that she abandons reason; it’s that she perfects its best functions under another name, and thus allows us to understand the purpose of the category of reason without getting hung up on either what we suppose reason does or our own self-regard as rational creatures. Recall that while the category Reason might well describe a particular set of activities — calculation, judgment, analysis, and so on — above all, it describes a particular boundary. That boundary places the so-called rational actor on the side of freedom: freedom from the body, freedom from stolid animality, and freedom from those humans who, because of their unfreedom, might as well be animals. That division is one Marguerite doesn’t abandon; she, in fact, doubles down on it.

For in teaching her readers to be better Christians, Marguerite is also teaching them to realize their full humanity, and does this — in the paradox characteristic of such spiritual guidebooks — by demanding that her readers recognize their rational humanity as actually bestial. Marguerite wants her readers to abandon Reason by entering into a superrational realm where the dull boundaries of created Being no longer apply. But as she does so, she also preserves the characteristic structural division between Reason and Irrationality, but, in this case, by demoting what she calls “Reason” to the side of bestial irrationality. The perfect contemplative is better than merely human, because the mere human is now understood as bestial. Submissive to the virtues, Bestial Reason is rule-bound, without freedom. Attentive to the created world, including its own self — for the human rational soul is a created thing – it is bound to this world so long as it refuses to allow itself to move past itself towards the infinite. By reading only for the literal sense, Reason “takes the husk and leaves the grain”: this medieval metaphor of bad exegesis could hardly be more widespread, and here means that Reason can understand no more than what is right before it. Like an animal, or an uneducated layperson.

It’s notable, then, that Marguerite is so elitist. She characterizes merchants as “thralls,” servants or slaves, because they “meddle in merchandise,” and she imagines Reason as like a churl who shows up at a gentleman’s court, without the lineage that would justify his presence (“Þis peple, seiþ þis soule, ben marchauntes þat in þe world ben clepid þrallis, for þralles ben þei, for it falliþ not for no gentelman to kunne medle of marchaundise ne to be oon of hem. But shal seie 3ou, seiþ þis soule, whereynne I me apeese of þis peple. Of þis, lady loue, þat þei ben put out of þe curt of 3oure secres, ri3t as a cherle is out of a gentelmannes court in iugement of Parise, for þere may noon be hadde but if he be of gentel lynage and nameli in þe kynges court,” 302). She draws an analogy about how no gentleman would ever deign to respond to a peasant’s demand to do honorable battle. She characterizes Reason as being rude, as being, in other words, low-class, like the kind of people who also have no regard for higher things.

So I can’t help but read the Mirror alongside a anti-peasant polemical poem surviving in a single late thirteenth-century manuscript mostly filled with fabliaux: this is “Le Despit au vilain.” The Despit recommends that peasants should “live in the woods and be enclosed in a sty” (manoir en bos, / et ester de séu enclose”), be forbidden to eat beef, and “eat thistles, / brambles, thorns, and straw” (mangier chardons / roinsces, espines, et estrain”). Peasants should “pasture on grass with the horned cows on all fours, entirely naked” (“pester herbe avoec les bues cornus, / a iiij. piez alez toz nus”). One imagines that only a modicum of decency kept the poem from modestly suggesting what else the lord might do with the bodies of his peasants.

What all peasants and animals have in common are their unfreedom. Reason’s adherence to sensible facts, to careful syllogistic chains, to the existing knowledge of what she calls the “little church” — recall, for example, Thomas de Bailly’s reliance on Aristotle, Avincenna, and other authorities — makes it similarly unfree. So, when Marguerite charaterizes Reason as animalized and servile, however much she may have abandoned the name of Reason, she has, by no means, abandoned its function or self-delusions. Under cover of the supposedly liberatory practice of mysticism, she has smuggled in the ideological function of Reason, because she preserves the distinctions that typically travel under the titles of Reason and Irrationality. She offers a small elite freedom, and correspondingly denies it to everyone else.

The implications of her animalization of what she calls Reason are equally typical: those on the wrong side of the boundary might be able to read, or to put things together logically, but they’re unable to think; what they think of as thinking is only mechanical, without true understanding; what they mistake as thinking is actually only obedience; and, at best, they are made to serve. In sum, it little matters that Marguerite scorns what she calls Reason as “bestial understanding,” as she’s preserved Reason’s hierarchies, prejudices, and self regard when she presents herself, and her practice, as the only proper activity for truly liberated, free-thinking people. Or, to put this another way, for the only people.

I’m finally suspicious, then, of any claim for freedom or liberation, because these claims rely upon a disdained foundation of supposedly abandoned unfreedom. Whatever’s left behind in the position of unfreedom will be subject to the disdain the now, supposedly free subject claims for themselves. So long as the free subject believes itself to be existing beyond any given categories — and what better illustration of that than the annihilated subject of Marguerite’s Mirror — so long as it believes itself to be in the place where, to recall a still current cliché in literary criticism, “blurred boundaries,” then it can ignore its own constraints, its own necessary unfreedoms. My goal, then, isn’t to liberate us from bestial reason, nor to discover the ways that Marguerite’s self-shattering is itself, despite her efforts, is a new subject position; nor am I interesting in accusing Marguerite of not going far enough: as a theological woman, she may have keenly felt the masculine constraint of what passed for “institutional reason.” Rather, more simply, my aim has been to make us more attentive to the kinds delusions that travel under the claim of reason and freedom.

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Are musards farblondget? A sketch of a lexicographical note on Yde and Olive

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From Peau d’âne, the Lilac fairy tells Donkey Skin that “On n’épouse jamais ses parents”

I’m so grateful to the Medieval Feminist Forum for publishing Mounawar Abbouchi’s edition and translation of Yde et Olive, a portion of the massive Huon de Bordeaux cycle. This section feature a cross-dressed hero (Yde) who, after some chivalric adventures, finds herself, reluctantly, married to Olive, daughter of the Roman emperor; after some awkward moments of attempted intimacy, Yde confesses all, Olive promises her fidelity, but a servant (“garchon”) gossips to the emperor; Yde’s faced with execution for having deceived the emperor, but an angel rescues her by granting her everything a man requires for his humanity (tout chou c’uns hom a de s’umanité; 1048). It’s a reverse castration miracle, with gender transformation (or realization) added.

Yde sets out on this path because her widowed father, Florent, wants to marry her. It’s a familiar story, from Marie de France’s “Les deus amants” (where it’s only hinted at), to Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale (interrupted), to Peau d’âne, and one I typically teach with reference to Gayle Rubin’s classic “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex.'” In essence, girls in such a system are meant to sex trafficked to other families: it’s not as if the normative marriage model is any better for them. King Florent’s advisers are horrified, unsurprisingly, at this insult to the system:

Sire,” font il, “Damledix vous en gart!
Onques n’avint, ne jamais n’avenra;
Or n’est il hom que, s’il vous escoutast,
Ne vous tenist de tel coze a musart. (256-59)

“Sire,” they said, “God keep you from this!
It has never been done, nor will it ever come to pass.
No man who hears you
Would not take you for a deviant. (Abbouchi trans)

“Musart” is a hard word, and “deviant” works well enough in this context, primarily for etymological reasons. In modern English, “deviant” has a slightly statistical quality to it, and, as a noun, a sense of sexual deviance from the norm that feels anachronistic to the Middle Ages. But the word deviant comes from the Latin for going off the way (de + via), that is, wandering; and “musart” has, among its meanings, a similar quality of going astray.

For in modern French, a musard is a flâneur, an idler, a libertine; in Middle French too; In Middle English, idleness, too, although with more than a whiff of general dissipation: one of the MED’s examples sees Dindimus, the ascetic philosopher, accusing Alexander the Great “Of fornicacion & filth & many foule synnes, / Maumentry, & manslatir, mosardry & pride, Þat dose ʒow dompe to þe devill.”

The word also has a more general quality of “fool” or even “jerk,” as it seems to function as an all-purpose insult. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary offers this example:

Que dites vus, mal musard, felon mescreant? Quidez vus sustenir la guerre entretant Contre sire Edward, un tiel prince pussant?

Which we might translate, very loosely, as “What are you saying, you jerk, you asshole? Do you want to go to war against Lord Edward, who’s such a powerful prince?”

Or is a mustard perhaps just an unfortunate, or a fool, as with Yde and Olive’s son Croissant:

Or vous dirons de Croissant le musart
Qui par poverte est alés en essart
[Now we speak to you about Croissant “le musart,” who because of poverty went into a forest clearing; 1149-50, edition Elena Podetti]

And there’s also a proposed historical sense of the word having to do with certain travelling musician/versifiers, who go about, so to speak, with their muzzles (museaux) in the air (E. Rostand, Les musardises; yes, that’s the Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand).

Does the word come from these musicians? From people who muse too much, that is, who think to no particular end? If musards are étourdi, scatterbrained, are they farblondget?

There’s surely much more to say here! Florent’s advisers clearly think their king is up to no good. The poet — not terribly accomplished anyway — may be using “musard” less because of its lexicographical precision than because it fits the laisse’s scheme of assonance. And, anyway, the word doesn’t seem to have much specificity.

Without endorsing Florent’s horrible aims, we might spend some time with the word, taking it up as an early witness to the foolishness of having no particular plans, no fixed address, of wandering by the wayside, of holding open a position for no good to be done. Florent’s court wants him to be productive; they want an heir; but he’s not going to be productive on the terms they require. He’s a bad deviant, but Yde, his daughter, and eventually, his son, is also a bit of a deviant too.

 

 

“Los dreitz que tenon l’amador” [The Laws that Lovers Hold]: Initial Notes on the Political Imaginary of the Trobairitz, or, What’s Wrong with Neofeudalism

Although Aristotle’s Politics begins by insisting that “the qualifications of a statesman, king, householder, and master” are, whatever their apparent resemblances, not the same, he effectively erases this very caution in his next passage, which considers political life at what he claims as its foundation: political life begins with the union of male and female, because of their “natural desire,” shared with animals, “to leave behind them an image of themselves,” but also because of that union of “natural ruler and subject.” Having said this, Aristotle has to distinguish between women and enslaved people (of whatever gender, presumably): though both are made to serve, women have other uses, presumably having to do with the future.

And though Aristotle takes some time before he imagines how households, joined together, form a state with a ruler, we still see his imagination of politics here in miniature: it is the order of ruler and subject, motivating force and object, or, we might say, form and matter, a kind of social hylomorphism.

I offer this by way of contrast to the political imagination of the Trobairitz, although I’m sure what I’m about to say is equally applicable to the roughly 2500 surviving troubadour songs (Bruckner et al, xliii). And, as it’s been perhaps 17 years since I last dipped into this material, I’m certain I’m making points that have been made before, for centuries, many times. Bear with me.

While Aristotle’s political imagination neatly splits ruler from subject, the Trobairitz poetry intermingles them. They do this because their political imagination is essentially that of mutual obligation between local rulers, none with a claim to being the single lord of an entire region or an entire people. Those who were ruled, at least if they possessed the political clout that made their loyalty desirable, could complain, resist, and even betray, leaving their lord for another one, because another castle, another city might be a better home. The permanent claims and obligations of citizenship made to those born to a nation state — and, recall, that “nation” comes “nasci,” that which has been born — are not at all applicable here.

It is for this reason that I have been grumpily resisting claims that our present era of capitalism, characterized by temporary labor (or “at will” employment, where the will is exercised only by the employer), non-disclosure agreements, the privatization of the public sphere for the benefit of the few, and especially the “hardening of divisions in society,” between rich and poor, has much to do with “feudalism,” with all due respect to Jurgan Habermas, and with somewhat less respect to The National Review. To claim that the hardened divisions between rich and poor, and indeed the increasing immiseration of working people after a few decades of postwar prosperity in the industrialized, colonial powers, is a reversion to a “medieval” state of politics is to ignore both the terrible condition of working people through much of the 18th and 19th centuries — a category that includes both colonial subjects and enslaved people — and the characteristically modern tendency of Neoliberalism. “Neofeudal” aims to catalyze resistance to present misery by likening it to the Middle Ages, but insofar as it’s a misdiagnosis, the metaphor offers little guidance, or worse, for any practical reimagining of political and economic life. The diagnosis works only for those who disdain the “medieval” so much that they don’t bother to learn anything about it.

For if we examine the actual language of actual people living under feudalism, we find a language worried about secrets, betrayal, loyalty, and obligation, organized around contracts. Of course, the Trobairitz are poems of elites talking to other elites. They represent no one who is not in possession of property and a band of armed supporters to defend the exploitation to preserve it. Yet the elites do vary slightly in power, enough so that the elites imagine their meeting as something other than equals. And in that slight inequality, we see something other than a mere hardening of social divisions, and something other than a political relationship of form to matter.

“Fin ioi me dona alegranssa” worries about “li lausengiar,” the gossips, who might draw others into alliance with them (the word is “acordamen,” and apologies for not knowing Occitan!) (Bruckner et al, 13). “Ia de chantar non degra aver talan” speaks of ladies and knights, each obligated to plead with each other to prove their love (17), as one might in any legal or social dispute in court: pleading, after all, implies that power doesn’t lie only in the one person. “Amics, s’ie.us trobes avinen” builds sensitive, somewhat fragile mechanisms of contracts:

I will never hold you worthy
nor will I love you with good and faithful heart
until I see if it would help me
to have a harsh or evil heart toward you. (19; see also 27, 31, 45, 51)

Or, this, the opening stanza of “Mout avetz faich lonc estatge,” so easy to read in a political register:

You’ve stayed a very long time away
from me, my friend, since you departed,
and I find it harsh and grim,
because you pledged and you swore
that all your days
you’d have no lady besides me;
and if you’re attending to another,
you have murdered and betrayed me [mi avetz morta e trahida]
for in you I had my hope
that you would love me without wavering. (23; see also 31)

The same poem talks about love having “seized me so” (m’a amors sazida, 23), which I imagine might be military language. I suspect there’s a great deal of other legal or quasi-legal language I’m missing because of my ignorance about the field: for example, one speaks of a lover who wants to “summon” (convenir) her friend (21); another of “maltraich e.l damptnatge” (damage and harm, 25). Another, “Bona dona d’une re” ends with a description of the perfect lover, which also might be a description of the perfect vassal:

Friend Betran, a lover must act nobly
if he is honest, faithful, and no deceiver. (53)

Now, we might say that all of this is simply metaphorical support for love. Since the poets used this language of obligation, submission, and loyalty only because this the material on hand, it might be said that this love language tells us very little about actual political life. But actual political life is not simply a matter of economic relations; it cannot be reduced, in its final analysis, to a play of numbers (for a parody of such analysis, see Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which I just taught in another class). Actual political life is necessarily ideological, and ideology is not only the “false consciousness” of actually existing political relationships; it is also consciousness, as such, because all consciousness is necessarily an inadequate negotiation with the actually existing disorder of things (with measured respect for Slavoj Zizek, who made this very point repeatedly before he derailed himself). That is, we can learn something about “feudal” life, if this is what we want to call this play of petty, local lordships, by reading how they metaphorized their political life.

And, by extension, we can imagine that the gradual disappearance of troubador poetry through the later middle ages, and its general absence from medieval England — which my hunch tells me is the case — has less to do with changing tastes, and perhaps little to do with the submission of Toulouse to Northern France, than it does with the gradual transformation of political life into one that didn’t allow for the (slightly) free play of gossip, betrayal, and loyalty required for anyone to imagine their erotic life as analogous to a political life. Powerful kings, in short, killed courtly love.

 

Brucker, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, ed. and trans., Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland, 2000.

Sayf Ben (or ibn) Dhi Yazan: the maverick motif

Lena Jayyusi knows how readers unfamiliar with Arabic medieval romance are likely to approach her translation of The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, namely, as a repository of narrative motifs. She provides one herself. We will be tempted to index the work still further against the Thompson motif index, for example, or perhaps, more relevantly, against those found in E. H. Ruck’s An Index of Themes and Motifs in Twelfth-Century French Arthurian Poetry, Anita Guerreau-Jalabert’s Index des motifs narratifs dans les romans arthuriens français en vers (published the same year as Ruck’s volume!), or even those in the Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi (ThEMA).

We will do this because so much is so familiar, even to those of us, like me, whose medieval education concentrates only on Middle English, Old French, and Latin works. Readers of medieval romance, from whatever place in whatever language, will know not to look for forms of characterization particular to the modern novel. Characters vary, slightly, but only in a very narrow band: the men are all brave, some wicked, some good, and pagan men never win, though the best fighters among them convert; wizards can be good or wicked, but they are mostly wicked; women might connive, and they are, for the most part, extraordinarily beautiful; and, in the first half of the work, they might creep along beside their beloved — as Shama does with Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan — in full armor, rescuing him from danger. All of this is (mostly) expected, and so too are the elements of the plot (mostly), distinguished from the romance of Latin Christendom (mostly) only by the “local flavor” of the divine and spiritual assistance: no eucharistic miracles, no talk of hell, but instead the great, gigantic, and airy force of the jinn. So we turn to the motifs to organize this episodic, yet (mostly) familiar work into some further, perhaps meaningful pattern.

For example: Sayf is abandoned as an infant by a wicked ruler who fears he will supplant them. He’s left to the elements, though not before being bedecked with jewels that will identify him, much later, as a man of quality, and as the offspring of his bad parent. A gazelle finds him in the wilderness, and feeds him from her teat. The earliest such story dates to the Akkadian account of the childhood of Sargon; and then next earliest, quite similar, that of Cyrus of Persia, abandoned, rescued by dogs (or a human named “dog”), who then reveals his quality as an adult. A later one, a few centuries prior to this Arabic romance (15th or 16th century?) is Marie de France’s lai of “le Fresne.” Such stories at once attest to the innate rather than merely inherited quality of the hero, letting him (and it’s mostly a him) claim his power through his own might, while also speaking, contrarily, of the ineradicable presence of his natural, aristocratic inheritance. Nothing much distinguishes Sayf’s childhood from this pattern, except, perhaps, the acquisition of a new, jinn foster-mother, superior in power and loyalty to the wicked, supplanting concubine, Qamariyya, his mother.

So much weight in that except! For normally the mother in the “feral foundling” story is erased, her child stolen, her mothering shoved aside in favor of the new parent. Romulus and Remus’s mother, or Moses’s, or any number of other, more obscure mothers: they generally don’t matter much. As I write in my forthcoming book:

Typically, as with Cyrus, Romulus and Remus, or Wolfdietrich, the foster mother drops from the narrative altogether, as does the birthmother, whose typical narrative function is only to be impregnated, to flee, to give birth, and to lose her child. The standard feral child story thus erases both mothering and its labor twice, first by cutting off the child from its birth mother and what he owes her for her labor, and then by cutting off the child from the mother who raised him.

Provided with knowledge like this, knowing what normally happens, and knowing how Sayf differs, we have to wonder at the limited use of the motif index. Tracking similar narrative elements across texts has its uses, not least of all that of undoing the supposed distances — linguistic, religious, geographic, and so on — that supposedly separate one region from another. The boundaries later formed by colonialism and European worldwide dominance prevented no transmission of good stories, or similar encoded anxieties and hopes, in the centuries prior. But we might also want an index of modified motifs, records not just of the similarities, but of the key variations, surprises. And, in response to such an index, we would ask whether a variation actually marks more narrative agency on the part of the work, which thus serves as a mark of significance in the otherwise unchosen, even unthinking flow of narrative motifs; or we might ask whether the variation, and with it, that element of “singularity,” really merits that kind of admiration: because isn’t the belief in the particular significance of singularity a kind of cultural mystification too, like our supposed love of individuals, rebels, and mavericks? What’s more important culturally, the standard model, or the one-off? The Prick of Conscience or Pearl?

Further discussion in class!

Pleasure and Rhetoric: On Matthew of Vendôme and Geoffrey of Vinsauf

Grammar, personified, can be perfectly innocuous, bearing nothing but a wax tablet, as she does in twelfth-century illustrations for what is probably either The Marriage of Mercury and Philology or The Consolation of Philosophy: see the image to the right, for example, or, from the same manuscript, here, or this illustration from a fifteenth-century Boethius. Writing is just what she does, and whatever the difficulties we might encounter in learning how to do it, none are apparent in her placid face or her accoutrements. Yet many medievalists will also know the famous Grammar on the West Facade of Chartres Cathedral, who looms over her young charges with her ferule; underneath her are Donatus or Priscian, backed up by the authority of classroom corporeal punishment. None of the facade’s other seven liberal arts carry a weapon; Music is ringing bells, for example (note: I need to check this more carefully!). Learning to write, the facade says, is difficult, unpleasant, an invitation to pain.

Which is why it’s surprising to find such a focus on pleasure in Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova and Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars Versificatoria: whatever their differences–and the Ars merits its reputation for tedium. while Geoffrey’s perhaps merits its enormous popularity–each work aims to teach writing primarily to ward off boredom, disgust, and creeping feelings of dissonance. Or, to put this another way, each aims to create equilibrium and harmony, to increase our pleasure in reading.

Those of us who teach English Composition may be surprised at this goal: I do, and I certainly was. As I understand it, training in writing in the twenty-first century American college classroom tends to focus on grammatical rules, not to preserve or increase the pleasure of the reader, but for clarity of expression, and, especially, to serve as a sign that the writer has been credentialed. The college-educated writer knows the rules of commas and semi-colons in English, and can at least the fake the manner of being to the manor born by spelling each word correctly. Arguments are the other thing we teach: students have to have something to say, and have to know how to get that across. We want them to learn to think, to make an intervention, to join an existing conversation. And we want them to abandon the habits they acquired in earlier, bad teaching: the standard, pointless openings — the dictionary definition, the inverted triangle, and so on. If pleasure has anything to do with this approach to teaching, I don’t know where it is.

But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, pleasure was all! On metaphor, Geoffrey writes “When you transpose a word whose literal meaning is proper to man, it affords greater pleasure, since it comes from what is your own” (44). Later, on transposition, he observes “When meaning comes clad in such apparel, the sound of words is pleasant to the happy ear, and delight in what is unusual stimulates the mind” (50). On metonymic expressions of cause, “There is greater pleasure and satisfaction for the ear when I attribute to the cause what the effect claims as its own” (51). In warning against “ineffective” word use, Matthew of Vendôme speaks of “suitable” repetition, which “is formed in three ways: for the purpose of an addition, for the purpose of clarification, and for the purpose of greater expressiveness” (95): the first two options are practical, the kind of advice that one might encounter in the tens of thousands of English 1010 classes currently being run right now; the last, though a woolly and uncertain thing, points to the pleasure of being overwhelmed, a little, by what one reads. The so-called “reversible” metaphor, the antistrophe, has, Matthew explains, “a singular pre-eminance among the other tropes, and should be used especially by verse-makers: for it adopts a special beauty to the metrical arrangement”  (86). Or — one more example — Matthew likens effective versification to a bejeweled object:

there are some expressions which are, as it were, substitutes for jewels; from skillful positioning of these the whole meter will seem to be celebrating. For multiform ornamentation of them imparts by positioning the benefit of its beauty to other expressions, and by association, as it were, applies the attractiveness of a certain festive character. (64)

Each writer dedicates themselves to teaching the avoidance of fault. Grammar is taught elsewhere, whereas Geoffrey and Matthew are interested in vocabulary, the arrangement of words and clauses, and, above all, elegance and harmony. In their examples, we encounter a certain social harmony, where the young women who so often serve as objects to illustrate character, are at once the objects of desire and paragons of demureness. Matthew’s disdain for enslaved people, inherited from a Roman slavocacy, further attests to the cruelties and exclusions of the fantasy of social harmony. Men have to be men; matrons have to be wise; the old cannot love, and the young must be full of energy. The avoidance of grammatical fault is the avoidance of social fault. I am reminded, necessarily, of Marcos Gonsalez’s writing about racism and English composition, for example, “When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing’”.

Gonsalez writes about the ignorance of his colleagues, and their largely unconscious subjugation of their students to grammar’s ferrule:

In their radically liberal and progressive and student-centered pedagogies [phrases, I should emphasize, Gonsalez is using with merited disdain –ks], the students are the ones who have to adapt, to change according to a professor’s shifting standards. The underlying assumption beneath my colleague’s question is that my student’s use of language, with their specific ways of speaking, writing, knowing, and experiencing the world, is not of the university and the writing classroom. This implies to students that their everyday speech and their everyday forms of composing the written word is not intellectual, is not appropriate for sharing with others on the page. The words in Spanglish, the humorous inversions of logic at the end of a thought, the hard accent and emphases of a student born and raised in the South Bronx, the means of interpreting the world unique to their kind of body and their bodily history, is deemed not good enough.

Avoiding fault means becoming standardized; avoiding fault means becoming harmonious, which means not standing out. Medieval techniques of rhetoric persist.

Yet there’s something to be said, still, in favor of Geoffrey and Matthew’s dedication to the pleasure of reading and writing. They don’t really want to rock the boat, of course; they don’t see writing as a kind of thinking, and they certainly don’t see thinking as a form of social transformation. But then again, the same holds true for most instruction in writing, even now, which, as Gonsalez argues, is so poorly fitted to drawing out the artistry and actual experience of our students’ lives. What happens to writing instruction when we put pleasure at the center? And what happens when we find in Geoffrey and Matthew that wellspring of pleasure — surprise, excess — which introduces a certain thrilling disharmony into the smoothness of a rhetorical order that rests on the deadly harmonies of the existing social order?

Intro to Medieval Studies, Class 2, Norse Sagas, Free Write

(going to do this every Thursday so help me God, and thank to the Most Dangerous Writing App)

Anyone familiar with Marie de France’s Lais, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Parsifal will recognize narrative elements from the Saga of Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga: the outsider to court who, like a fool, neither knows nor respects the rules of courtesy and the underlying social hierarchies that they sustain, but who reveals himself to be a greater, less self-conscious hero than anyone already lodged in court, like Svipdag and Bodvar in Hrolf; the strange figure who comes from the outside, a man older or at least more imposing than the usual run of men, who arrives to turn a feast to worry and wonder with his uncanny demands, like Bertilak or Odin; and then, birds that enter through windows, assume the forms of humans, and then have sex with humans longing for a mate, like Marie’s Yonec, or any number of stories in Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga about transformations into fierce, forest carnivores — bears or wolves — and the difficulty of living as both human and beast. Even the bear mate material appears in the late vernacular literature of Christian England. Much of this material belongs to still more widespread narrative traditions, like women who interpret dreams correctly, tell the terrible future, and get ignored, a trend we can identify running from Cassandra’s to Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (where Chaucer parodies the tradition by making Pertelote a misreader) to Hilary Clinton herself.

My hunch is that we might want to avoid calling these elements “folkloric,” although I offer this hunch without any strong grounding in the scholarship of folklore. I am more inclined to mark these elements as common narrative elements belonging to generally non-literate forms of transmission. The kinds of narrative, and what they supposedly say about either a people or the purported “deep structures of human thought,” probably matter less than the technologies of transmission, first of all, and secondly, how the spread of these stories say about the supposed ethnic unities of ancient peoples. If these stories can be so widely told, then what matters is the stories, not the “people,” if that makes sense.

Finally, however, I am interested in what drops out from this material as it makes its way into the storytelling in the later medieval continent, in, say, French, Middle English, and Latin. The question of fate remains important, of course; but now fate becomes wrapped up with the philosophical problem of “free will.” Women warriors do not entirely disappear, but they are far more often outliers; eating the flesh or drinking the blood of the powerful no longer grants the eater the power of what they had eaten. As professional, supervised religious monocultures emerge, we get a new notion of the outside, no longer organized simply between the Hall and the Forest: the outside might be a civilization too. We might do well to consider, then, not the “survivals of the ancients” but rather what does not survive, and what social and economic transformations lead to their disappearance and transformations.

Bret Stephens, Mosquitos, and the Fantasies of Freedom

Bret Stephens, a 45-year-old white man who is currently a New York Times columnist, was recently called a “bedbug” by a faculty member at the George Washington University.  His bizarre reaction to this stimulus: to write both the George Washington University Provost and the Director of its School of Media and Public Affairs, to invite the GWU professor to his house to insult him, personally, in front of his wife and child, and to complain on national television that “there’s a there’s a bad history of being called uh of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”

As others have observed, this “bad history” (double entendre no doubt unintentional) goes back to 2013, in Stephens’ column for the Wall Street Journal. He was then not quite 40. There, in a column someone titled “The Boring Palestinians,” he wrote:

Only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this four-million-year-old mosquito?

Outrageous and pathetic, and, had Stephens stuck to the Wall Street Journal, the column would have remained undiscovered and unread. But as the Times saw fit to translate him to a higher post, I’m going to briefly point out the antisemitic roots of Stephens’ analogy, and then suggest, just as briefly, a few points about the problem of freedom, which I’m considering for my book-in-progress, The Irrational Animal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s chapter on “Race” in his 1856 English Traits argues that the particularly mixed nature of the English, comprising Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic blood, creates in them a freedom of character that has suited them for mastery of the world; what Emerson sees as particularly American, he implies, derives from just this mixture. It’s a telling moment in this history of racism: Emerson isn’t arguing for racial purity, but rather for something more foundational to the dream of racial purity, namely, the dream of natural superiority, and the freedom of culture and self-invention that comes with it.

By way of contrast, Emerson observes, predictably enough: “Race in the negro is of appalling importance”; “the Arabs of to-day are the Arabs of Pharaoh”; and “Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments.”

One race is free: free of compulsion, free of history, and, paradoxically enough, free of racial instincts. The others are constrained to be what they are, forever: trapped in amber.

Medieval European Christian thinkers would generally not have said such things about “Negroes” or “Arabs” (and I use generally advisedly: of course they did, sometimes, but not as often, or with the same political effects, as a nineteenth-century European Christian). They would have said such things about Jews, often. The classic treatment is Jeremy Cohen’s Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999), published when Bret Stephens was 26, by which point he was already working as assistant features editor at the Wall Street Journal. To read Cohen’s book in its entirety is to realize that medieval Christian intellectuals often portrayed Jews as unchanging, sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience to their Law, incapable of true thought. They were intellectual peasants, and peasants were, essentially, beasts. Twelfth-century Christian scholars, in speaking to Rabbis, as they sometimes did, imagined they were speaking directly to the “Old Testament.” One might imagine the same, mutatis mutandis, of scientists able to extract the DNA from the mosquito frozen in amber.

The trick is not, however, to insist that Palestinians are free political actors, and that Jews are rational too, like Christians, although I do recognize the occasional local political utility of such claims. The trick is to push back against the underlying claim of freedom. Stephens’ insistence that the Palestinians are mosquitos frozen in amber — and his implicit claim that Israeli Jews, in their attachment to the Holy Land, are somehow exercising their rational will — relies on an unexamined certainty that certain kinds of people have freedom, and that others do not. It relies on what were already outmoded ideas by the time young Stephens was doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in the early to mid 1990s: for ideology can’t be escaped; the claim to “reason” is never anything more solid than a self-justifying fantasy; and nothing is more delusional than the man who sees himself as free of the weight of history’s incubus, speaking truths that no one else dares to voice. Such a man is, in essence, a bedbug dreaming of being a human. Like us all, I suppose.