Getting by in French this time

IMG_20170618_154249

Eugène Allard, veiled, aka, The Final Sleep (Jean Carriès, c. 1877, Petit Palais, Inv.SDUT1176)

 
At the tail end of this Europe trip and thinking about talking French. Many of you, me included, have had spoken language mastery for the entirety of our remembered lives. Many of you, me included, have this just in one language. For basic communication, for many of us, I suspect this one language tends to come almost without thinking. It’s no wonder that trying to get by in another language can be such a shock: to find oneself worrying about being at all comprehensible, at being met with an unexpected response when we produce our rehearsed phrase. The German grocery store where I was asked if I wanted promotional stamps! I might as well have been asked to lecture on topological mathematics.

No wonder at this shock, too, given that we adults, for the most part, enjoy a self-consciousness and dignity that was, for the most part, appallingly absent from the much younger versions of ourselves. We worry about language, while kids worry about snacks. I suppose we worry about snacks too.
I’m inviting you to talk about how you got comfortable or more comfortable doing this, if this is the kind of thing you do. I suspect it’s harder with a language you can read more or less well (French in my case), because of the humiliating gap between our sophisticated vocabulary and our capacity to understand much conversationally. I suspect, too, that getting there is harder for men, because of the grotesque masculine fears of weakness, evidenced in mansplaining, in refusing to ask for directions, and speaking, as the French say, through one’s beard [barbouiller]. And I acknowledge that national origins, race, relation to the dominant language in one’s own country or country of residence, apart from other less obviously political issues, almost certainly factor into questions of comfort and feelings of safety.
All this is by way of saying that on this French trip, the French started to flow a bit. Not so much the give and take of conversation, but simply with more pleasantries, without the anxiety of figuring out how to ask the cheesemongress if I could have a little knife — I just asked, and I got the knife, and it was fine — or if I could refill my water bottle in the upstairs bathroom at the G Moreau museum — of course! — or even a quick explanation of my body of research on animals, which I deployed on a hapless waiter in Dijon. I’m still dreading the next time I visit Germany and try, say, to get my drycleaning done in former East Berlin, where English is rarer; even worse, maybe, will be trying to get by in Spanish, which I’ve also been ineffectively learning. But I hope to draw confidence and cheer from this French trip.
And more than that. For those of us, like me, who enjoy the pleasures and privileges of mastery of the dominant language of our country of residence, and who are generally supposed by the dominant culture to look like the kind of people who are expected to have such mastery: let’s remember, in particular, that our momentary experience of discomfort, of humiliation and fear even, should be experienced as being thrust, however minimally, into the world that so many others are compelled to inhabit. Let this be a cause for generosity, care, and practical, active empathy.
And hats off, particularly, to the white, anglo American sitting near me last night at a Parisian Thai restaurant. When the waiter asked her, in English, ‘how was your meal,’ she responded, without hesitation or reflection, ‘muy buen.’ Bless you!
And Bless Me, too, some 5 years back, for deploying my meager Turkish vocabulary on a customs agent in Istanbul to welcome him to his own country.

Workspeed and the Big Other and Midcareer Funks

by KARL STEEL

My (first) book came out in 2011, the product of a dissertation that took some 4 years to write. Time to degree was slower in those long ago days of the early oughts (at 1999-2007, I was average), but what I have proudly, certainly delusionally remembered, mainly, was that the book – a deeply revised version of my dissertation, with a creaky chapter on hunting swapped out for a new chapter (my favorite, in fact, on resurrection theology and anthropophagy) – saw print when I had only just slipped past halfway through my tenure clock. Fast. I thought this was normal.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 30, c. 800, Ecclesiastes 12:12

It’s now been 6 years since that other book, and much longer still since I first submitted the manuscript for review (2009!), and I’ve been worried. To be sure, I’ve banged out articles and reviews in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to write somewhat coherently without the constant intervention of dissertation supervisors and household writers far more able than I, but the book? Where is it? It may be stupid to say this in public, but not long ago, I sent two chapters to my favored press for an advance contract, and now it seems it’s being sent out for review. Depending on how the review goes, that may be good, but it feels slower than it should be.

Or not! Who’s your point of comparison? What’s normal? What’s acceptable? At a book party recently, which was for one author, two books, I told the writer that they wrote a book each time they rolled out of bed (and sometimes, I suppose, they roll out of bed twice, for exercise); they complained about one of their presses – the party wasn’t supposed to be for two books — then laughed at their slowness compared to a couple other colleagues. Joanna Ruocco has five books coming out next year. She writes fiction, but still. Then I think of Kathy Lavezzo, with 11 years between her first and second book; Carolyn Dinshaw, since 1989, one book about every ten years; I think too of a dinner companion at my big medieval conference, a great scholar, whose first book came out in 2010, and who’s still working away at their Book Two; another long conversation with another academic, much and deservedly admired, who started their job the same year I did, who came out with a book not long after I did, and who may be close to finishing their Book 2. All these people are great. And so on.

It’s perhaps possible to be Jeffrey Jerome Cohen or Adam Kotsko or Sara Ahmed, though they themselves also likely wonder if it’s possible to be them. Certainly none can be for themselves what they represent to others. The Big Other’s Always Barred: your idol is worried too. But it’s not necessary to be them, even the worried versions, to be a Worthy Writer.

It’s possible too that I worry about these things because my brain is sometimes addled – it moves fast, it likes to burrow, it often flitters chickadeelike from one short writing piece to another, it tends to wreck itself orthographically and solecistically – and because I worry about class: without the fancy or bourgeois childhood that I inaccurately, I’m sure, imagine most other academics to have enjoyed, a childhood of long conversations with their parents and schoolmates about Lucretius, in Latin; I’m certain that my scholarly life is a decades-long scramble to make up for what I missed by missing these first, necessary loquelae.

It’s possible that this is all Grade A foolishness, but I’m sharing this here in case I’m someone’s Big Other, and letting you know I’m worried, that I’m finding my way past it, and I hope you are too, and hoping, if possible, that we can get more enjoyment from this thing we love.

Keeping the Sabbatical Honest – Chapter 3!

Chapter 3 of the Book Project now exists in a start-to-finish form, suitable for submitting, with Chapter 5, on oysters, for whatever nefarious purposes presses might use them form [for example, a book contract…]

It’s here, not on academia DOT edu, because I am not a chump, and because CUNY, like other public goods, is great.

An excerpt:

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, we might say that Body plays the part of soul, but immanently rather than rather than transcendently, by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always an always shifting materiality that it shares, unequally, with the worms. If we locate the soul in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

Logsex in Hell: An Anecdote

The opening to a forthcoming essay, “Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations.”

[content note: sexual coercion and abuse]


The single manuscript of Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations (c. 1200) comprises more than 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, assembled, as Peter explains, to prove that our souls are immortal and that the afterlife exists.[1] The work is chiefly remarkable for its size. It makes no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, nor to look much further for its material than the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. Even its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don’t, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material.

This would seem to suit the work for a study of prevailing monastic mentalités, were it not for one story in particular, Peter’s version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which appears here and nowhere else in medieval storytelling. Uniquely for Peter’s collection, this story says nothing definite about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world and refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular. More than that, it’s an astonishing story, outstanding even among the enthusiasm for British clerics of this period (Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Tilbury, Ralph of Coggeshall, inter alia) for assembling collections of wonders and oddities.

It goes as follows: on a small island in Ireland, north of Galway, a knight enters a well-appointed hall, followed soon thereafter by a certain King Gulinus and retinue, who are met with wild applause, as if returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[2] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. Then this happens:

And [Gulinus] ordered a servant to prepare a bed for them in a chamber. And this was done. And, lo, when the knight believed he was about to consummate marriage with this girl, his eyes were opened and he saw a most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk lying between his arms, and his male member was squeezed into a certain hole made in that trunk, which a servant deputed to the task by Gulinus shredded and weakened by striking a nail with a hammer vigorously and very frequently, confining his virile member in that hole, so that the knight desired a hundred times to incur death, if it were possible, rather than sustain such agony even for a brief while. When the foresaid servant had very frequently repeated the blows on the nail with the hammer, and, more narrowing compressing the knight’s penis, had dashed, smashed, battered, and pounded it, and when this knight had suffered these dire straits of tortures and cried out and wailed for the great part of the day, and was exhausted to death, Gulinus said to his ministers, “How’s that knight, our son-in-law, getting on?”

[Et precepit ministro, ut pararet illis in camera straum. Quod et factum est. Et ecce cum crederet se miles uti connubio illius puelle, aperti sunt oculi eius et uidet truncum uetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem iacere inter amplexus eius, et uirilem ipsius uirgam in quodam foramine facto in illo trunco coartatam, quam minister ad hoc deputatus a Gulino contriuit et eneruauit percutiendo uiriliter et sepissime maleo clauum stringens in illo foramine uirilem uiram illius, ut miles desideraret centies si fieri posset incurrere mortem magi squam talem cruciatum uel ad modicum horam sustinere. Cumque predictus minister sepissime claui cum malleo percussiones iteraret, et uirilem ipsius uirgam arctius stringendo collideret, confringeret, quassaret, et contereret, et miles ille per multum diei tempus inter has angustias crutiatuum laboraret, clamaret, eiularet, et usque ad mortem fatigatus esset, ait Gulinus ministris suis, ‘Quomodo se habet miles ille gener noster?’]

When the knight understandably complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers next is no better for the knight: trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few “emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind.”

Peter’s story was one of several accounts of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory that sprang up in the later twelfth century. The most influential appeared around 1170, in Henry of Saltry’s Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. Unlike the Book of Revelations, Henry’s work was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages–including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions — the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential journey through a place of torment taken physically (that is, not as a spiritual vision) by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before returning to this world.[3] Like many of the work’s medieval adapters, modern scholars have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, but Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[4] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[5] Nothing more is said of the girl. Not every version or adaptation of Henry’s Tractatus ends with the vignettes; many end with Owein’s return from Purgatory; but Marie’s translation, produced not long after Henry wrote his work, suggests that purgatorial travel, the dangers of sexual desire, and castration or at least genital injury traveled together in the early decades of this tradition, as they do in Peter of Cornwall’s story as well.

Henry’s castration story makes straightforward sense: the priest is tempted, and he removes from himself the target of temptation. Peter of Cornwall’s story of genital injury is far stranger, because it cures nothing, and because it isn’t even the central injury of the story: the knight wants to die when his penis is shredded, but he proclaims the loss of his brains still worse. As expected, my chapter will engage with Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory story, but perhaps less expectedly, will make an argument about its ultimate resistance to interpretation. In particular, I will concentrate on how poorly this story fits within the medieval, largely clerical traditions of castration that would be the expected discourse to which Peter’s story belongs. As I will ultimately argue, Peter of Cornwall’s story features what might be called a non-phallic castration, without admonition or redemption, disassociated from medieval and modern narrative and legal traditions that so often mark it as the injury of injuries.

Getting to this point, however, requires first exhausting the paths of meaningfulness. Although the genital injury will be my major concern, nothing in the story can quite be wrangled into easy sense. Several elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally, just enough to demonstrate that this is indeed a purgatorial story, but also just enough to disappoint the straightforward meaning-making the genre typically invites. Peter has a secular man visit a site in Ireland and then physically travel through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinary suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That’s all usual. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais’s entry on Patrick’s Purgatory in his thirteenth-century historical encyclopedia, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret”[6] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, from his History and Topography of Ireland, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[7] Even the rocky walls of the Purgatorial playroom hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy: an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so “thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now.”[8] But what is missing is just as striking: the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments, and especially the promise to the purgatorial traveler, key to Gerald and especially Henry of Saltry, that he will be relieved of any future otherworldly punishment. All this material, indispensable to other Patrick’s Purgatory stories, is missing.

Of course, what is most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter. The king and daughter are themselves somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[9] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[10] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[11] But Peter of Cornwall’s log lady doesn’t just lack of voice or any indication of independent volition; she is more of an “anti-Sovranty hag,” as she begins in beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and ends in hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[12] Still more might be said about her hardness and dryness, suggestive, among other things, of a masculine transformation away from the proverbial wetness and softness (so that mulier and mollis were linked) often imputed to women in clerical writing.

My main concern here, however, is what happens to the knight’s genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[13] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it is in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval narrative more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight’s first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for them, because the story as a whole neither suits Peter’s stated program for the collection nor makes much sense as record of specifically Purgatorial punishments. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Furthermore, since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[14] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory, and not included it among so many other, straightforward otherworld visions.

What may be strangest of all is a story of injury to a man’s genitals that just takes it as one among many injuries—a bad one, to be sure, but not the one. The knight suffers the genital injury first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking absolute precedence over the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. If the knight’s injury is technically castration—or at least a stranger version of how otherworldly traditions represent castration—it is not culturally meaningful as castration, neither in its negative valences, nor, especially, in the positive representations of this injury sometimes found in texts praising medieval clerical celibacy. My next section will describe this peculiar feature of medieval culture at length, before I return, in my conclusion, to what the meaningless “castration” of Peter of Cornwall’s account might mean both for our reading of this story of the knight, Gulinus, and the log lady, and for our cultural understanding of castration more generally.

[1] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013).

[2] All quotations from this story are from the Book of Revelations, 136-37. Translation is Easting and Sharpe’s, barring “uti connubio,” which they render as “enjoy sex.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical History IX.19 has “uti connubio” in the context of an attempt to convince a holy queen to consummate a marriage, and that seems to be its use here too, given Gulinus’s later reference to the knight as a his “gener.”

[3] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[4] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[5] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[6] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[7] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. Gerald continued adding to the work throughout his life. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[8] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[9] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[10] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[11] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[12] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Jacqueline Murray, “‘The Law of Sin That Is in My Members’: The Problem of Male Embodiment,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih (New York: Routledge, 2005), 13–14.

[13] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[14] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

Briefly noted for The March for Science: in the margins, a little faith, a little reason, a little unclarity

 

This morning, the British Library tweeted that a manuscript of Henry of Huntington’s Historia AnglorumArundel MS 48, had just been digitized, so, rather than get into some real writing, I took a brief tour. Among its many treasures (so many marginal faces!), including a cute little miter, I found this bit, where Brutus seeks an omen from Diana about his future. Here’s a 19th-century edition of the Latin, if you like.

You’ll notice, however, that a much later commentator has issues. Earlier, they had complained about the avarice of contemporary clerics; here, they write ‘de veritate huius, doctores dubita[n]t’, ‘about the truth of this, theologians/scholars/teachers doubt.’ Of course Brutus didn’t hear from a sylvan goddess about his future passage to Britain! That’d be absurd!

But then, in response to ‘cui dea respondit’ [to whom the goddess responded], that is, Diana’s answer to Brutus’ supplication, our same commentator sniffingly intervenes, ‘cui diabolus respondit,’ ‘to whom the devil responds.’

I’m reminded, as I’m sure you are, of François Hédelin, whose 1627 treatise, Des satyres, brutes, monstres et démons, takes up the question of the famous talking satyr from Jerome’s Life of Saint Paul, the First Hermit. It’s perhaps a hard story to believe. Jerome himself offered proof, namely, that the corpse was sent along, salted, to the emperor in Antioch [postea cadauer exanime, ne calore aestatis dissiparetur, sale infusum et Antiochiam, ut ab Imperatore uideretur, adlatum est]. The skeptical and scientific Hédelin, however, insists that Constantine was already dead, so clearly this was impossible. And, anyway, the corpse must have been a monkey.

As for the talking satyr? Obviously a demon.

Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.


“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[25]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.dimev.net/,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.