What does Caninophilia Matter?

Readers of this blog and attendees at the medieval to modern posthumanisms session at Kzoo know my position on the boundary between humans and animals. Although I’m willing to entertain the possibility of prediscursive species identities and prediscursive individual identities within species–that cat, this dog, that bat, this human–there is no prediscursive human identity so long as “human” is understood to mean, as it has traditionally, a creature uniquely possessing a set of capacities that relegates every other living creature to the status of mere animal. As I argue (in a position at least aligned with Derrida), humans know themselves as human–as the sole possessors of self-consciousness, reason, language, the capacity to apprehend things “as such,” immortal souls, and so forth–because only animals suffer deaths that cannot be murder, because no animal tames humans. Human reason, understood as a pleonasm, is the effect of the human subjugation of animals, not its cause. This may be true now, but it’s certainly true in the prescientic episteme of the Middle Ages.

It’s practically inevitable that someone mentions pets whenever I push this idea. During the discussion following the posthumanism session, Jane Chance spoke about her assurance in her dog’s love for her. At the BABEL party, James Paxson charmed me by showing off the photo of his dog on his cell phone. And, obviously, I can’t help but think of the many medieval stories of love between animals and humans, of relationships every bit as intensely affectionate as those between Chance and Paxton and their pets.

In the battle in which Yvain rescues Lunete, the wicked seneschels wound Yvain’s lion: “Quant mes sire Yvains voit blecié / son lÿon, molt a correcié / le cuer del vantre” (4543-45; when my lord Yvain saw his lion wounded, he was filled with anger), to which our author adds, “et n’a pas tort” (4545; and rightly so). What could be more touching than his sollicitude for the lion’s wounds? He makes his shield a litter and cushions the lion in it with moss, and has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. In Routeboeuf’s Testamentum de l’âne, a priest explains to his bishop the gratitude that drove him to bury his donkey in the church graveyard. Edward I of England sent his sick falcons on pilgrimage, and Gervase of Tilbury eulogized dogs at length, asserting that they have “special capacities that bring them as close to rational creatures as they set them above the other beasts.” In Medieval Identity Machines, in the midst of a deleuzoguattarian take on knights and their horses, JJC recounts many stories of knights who, having had their horses cut out from under them, declare their wish that they had been killed instead; he also recounts how Lancelot’s patience under his tutor’s blows gives way to violent rage when the tutor beats Lancelot’s hunting dog. Bevis of Hampton prays God for mercy for the souls of Bevis, his wife Josian, “And also for [Bevis’s horse] Arondel, / Yif men for eni hors bidde schel” (4618-19).

Similarly, there’s a horse in Folcuin of Lobbes’ Deeds of the Abbots of S. Bertin (MGH SS 13, 618) who refuses any other riders after its master’s death, and which, in death, refuses, in a manner of speaking, to be eaten by dogs (cum canibus cibus esset appositus, a nullis illorum est attactus): “Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt” (When the citizens saw this, they buried this animal that neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch in the fashion that they would bury a human). This is one of many animals whose love overflows the boundaries of mere obedience. In the Dog of Antioch tradition, which enters Western Christian textuality with Ambrose’ Hexaemeron 6.4.24, a dog refuses to leave the corpse of its murdered master and eventually apprehends the killer. In a Middle English version in Sir Tryamour, the greyhound Trewe-love of the murdered Sir Roger makes a citizen’s arrest (and execution) at a noble feast:

And the hounde wolde nevyr blynne,
But ranne abowte faste wyth wynne
Tyll he wyth hym metyth.
He starte up verament,
The steward be the throte he hente:
The hownd wrekyd hys maystyrs dethe.
The stewardys lyfe ys lorne —
There was fewe that rewyd theron
And fewe for hym wepyth. (532-40)

Roger’s widow, Margaret, names her son after the dog, surely a sign of respect as deep as the call to pray for Arondel. I might even mention Houdain.

That said, counterexamples are not difficult to turn up. There’s ‘Houndsditch’ just beyond London’s city limits, where Londoners dumped their dead dogs; a Middle English sermon describes the deaths of the falcons and hawks so beloved by elite hunters: “Twewly birdes raueners, when þei die þei be cast awey vppon þe myddynges as no þinge of valew” (Ross, ed., Middle English Sermons, EETS o. s. 209, 239); in Lydgate’s “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” the Goose observes that “A ded hors is but a fowle careyn” (204). Richard Thomas’s paper in the collection Just Skin and Bones explains that the archaeological record for medieval England shows that dead dogs might be fed to other dogs, and that dead dogs and cats both might be disposed of in latrines. Baring pre-Christian burials of horses in Northern Europe, medieval animal burials, and all they imply, are the exception.

Consider this too: Walter Map speaks of a rich man and his oxen: each evening, the rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat.” In this story, a deer hides itself among the man’s oxen, but he discovers the deer during his nightly livestock review and orders the interloper killed. These oxen might be recognized and even privileged as pets over the deer; but if they are pets, their names cannot protect them. Regardless of how fond the man is of his herd, this affection encourages them to muster up strength for labor and fortify their bodies for consumption. It would be obtuse, or so I’d like to think, to claim that this is all the affection does, as there’s a love in it that exceeds practicality. But the practical purpose should not be forgotten, and by remembering it, I feel compelled to recognize that the oxen sentimentalize the very sacrificial structure about which Walter is entirely—-except through the substitutive figure of the deer—-silent. Nor can I imagine that Walter would have thought so highly about a sentimental ox who made his way through a rural manor each night, caressing each human in the years leading up to a slaughter it enjoyed rather than suffered.

The short version of this all is this: I can think of no medieval–or for that matter, no modern–example of any human allowing his or her animal to make a decision to have its master put down. As much as I empathize with Chance, Paxton, and the many other cat-, dog-, horse-, and even lion-lovers, I can’t help but think that this empathy is a temptation from the rigor of my project. I think of what Cary Wolfe calls “the logic of the pet,” “the sole exception, the individual who is exempted from the slaughter in order to vindicate, with exquisite bad faith, a sacrificial structure” (Animal Rites 104).

I’m not being fair here, am I? Am I allowed to dismiss the love between humans and pets as Driving Miss Daisyism? Am I allowed to dismiss this: “Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships–co-constitutive relationships in which none of the parterns pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all” (Harraway, Companion Species Manifesto 12)? There’s been a lot of talk about love around these parts since Kzoo. Understandably, unsurprisingly, justifiably so. Michael O’Roarke quoted Hardt and Negri on collaboration: “Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy.” I think of Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke at the BABEL theory panel, I think of this blog here, and why not, also, recall Jane Chance and her dog?

Why not: because of the irreducible power of the human to give life and take it away. I want to believe that I haven’t discovered a foundation, but I think I have. Anyone care to help me get past it?