Caninophilia II

After Kzoo, I wrote a post reevaluating my thoughts on animals. A revised version of the reevaluation became my diss’s conclusion–epilogue, rather, as that sounds less final to me (since in this usage “epi” = “in addition to,” what could be a better encapsulation of supplementarity than epilogos?). I’m defending in a few weeks, in the week after my Brooklyn College job starts. Although I’m able to take a break from dissertatin before the hammer drops on Sept 6th, I’m now in the mode of mad preparation for the 3 courses I’m teaching (Med. Lit., Bible as Lit., and Composition) : in other words, my blog contributions will likely be minimal until I get my footing.

I offer this post as, I suppose, my steward until I return to cast off my wretchedness (can you tell I just reread Sir Orfeo?). I expect that some of you may want to see what your comments wrought on my ideas. For the interested, here you go: a long post, my epilogue, very minimally edited for placement here. If you’re tired of all this, or even if not, please do keep on with discussing Eileen’s excellent course or keep the fun of the ITMBC4DSoMA going.

“Hospitality is the deconstruction of the at-home; deconstruction is hospitality to the other, to the other than oneself, the other than ‘its other,’ to an other who is beyond any ‘its other.'”

Derrida, “Hostipitality.”

“An hous he made of riligioun,

For to singe for Sire Bevoun

And ek for Josian the fre:

God on here saules have pité!

And also for [Bevis’s horse] Arondel

Yif men for eni hors bidde schel.” (4613-18)

Bevis of Hampton

“If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on the one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’: it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits.”

Derrida and and Elisabeth Roudinesco, “Violence against Animals.”

My dissertation identifies a dominant method by which humans identified themselves as human in the Middle Ages. In a double process, humans claimed a set of capabilities for themselves—reason, language, authentically upright bodies, and immortal souls—and denied them to animals, which regardless of the differences among animal individuals and animal species, were all construed as fundamentally distinct from, and inferior to, humans. Animal life was finally only biological, as evidenced, for example, in the argument by the thirteenth-century Cistercian Helinand of Froimont that “s’il n’est autre vie, / entre ame a home et ame a truie / n’a donques point de diference” (if there is no other life, then there is no difference at all between the soul of a human and a sow). Yet unmistakable but persistent resemblances between humans and animals baffled human claims to uniqueness. Like animals, humans are made of flesh and blood; each hungers, each defecates, each dies, and the corpses of each rot and turn to dust. Human flesh was reputed to taste like animal flesh; it certainly could be cooked like it. Rational-seeming behavior in animals—for example, the wolf that, according to Albert the Great, had perfected its pig-snatching technique by practicing on a log—especially disturbed human confidence in their unique identity. As Nature observes in the Roman de la Rose, if animals were reasonable, “mal fust aus omes” (17779; it would not be good for humans), since animals might at the very least band together in rebellion against human oppression: “jamais li bel destrier crenu / ne se laisseraient donter, / ne chevaliers aus monter” (17800-2; never would beautifully maned chargers allow themselves to be broken nor to be mounted by knights) and “ja chien ne chat nou serviraient, car senz ome bien cheviraient” (17813-4; no cat or dog would ever serve us, since they can get along well without humans). Worse still, if animals and humans were each reasonable, then humans might be no better than animals: to rephrase Helinand, if there is no difference between the soul of a human and a sow, then there might be no other life.

As I have argued, in the face of such threats, humans established their difference through acts and discourses that subjugate animals. If animal reason would enable them to throw off their bonds, then surely animal degradation demonstrates their irrationality, and human mastery over them demonstrates human rationality. Augustine, for example, answered the question “what proof is there that men are superior to animals” by observing that “animals can be domesticated and tamed by men, but men not at all by animals.” Thus, domesticating, killing, and eating animals were instrumental in human self identification. Indeed, simply valuing human above animal life and producing written discourses that disparaged animals served this purpose. Humans could seal off their humanity from animality by declaring that wolves and other clever animals possessed not reason but only an inferior “estimative sense”; by relegating animal communication to being a mere “oonde”; and even by complaining, as Palemon does in the Knight’s Tale, that “when a beest is deed he hath no peyne / but a man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne” (I.1319-20). My concern throughout these chapters has been to show that in this system, human identity was an effect of the action of domination, not an essence that preceded, and justified, the act. The centrality to human identity of this dynamic relationship between humans and animals revealed any claim to essential humanity as merely staged. Human identity was therefore constitutively restless, always seeking a foundation that it could never attain. No human could abandon the domination of animals without abandoning human identity, but in a sense, there was no human identity to abandon except the act of domination itself.

At the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, in May of 2007, I described this relationship between human identity and the humiliation of animals to account for medieval reports on the supreme deliciousness of human flesh: as I explained, human superiority was apparent even in the flavor of their flesh, and human deaths could be a source of pleasure in a way that animal deaths could not. Thus, when a wolf, having tasted “savoury” and “pleasant” human flesh, refuses to “eat the flesh of other beasts, though [it] should die of hunger,” its pleasure and longing pays tribute to human uniqueness. In response to my paper, Jane Chance first spoke about her cats; during a conversation at a party the next night, James Paxson produced his cell phone, on which he had stored a picture of his dog. Such responses to my argument for human identity and animal degradation are usual, and I have usually dismissed these attestations of love for pets as mystifications of the brutal, fundamental truth of the human power of life and death over animals. After all, few, if any, humans would sacrifice themselves for their pets, despite their love for them; fewer still would sacrifice the life of an unknown animal instead of the life of an unknown human: but humans commonly give their lives for people they love and even for human strangers. Furthermore, as I have argued, the utilitarian calculations that might elevate an animal to equality with a human tend to do so only because the animal possesses to some degree the characteristics of an idealized humanity: this is not so much a system of animal rights as it is a more expansive anthropocentrism.

Lately, I have wanted to reevaluate my approach to the question of human identity. I have sought inspiration not only through a more generous remembrance of people’s love for their pets but also through Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, which declares that “we [humans and animals] live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.” Stories are of course a way of promoting and concealing ideologies; but, as Haraway hopes, the individual characters in stories can also overflow the restrictions of ideology and its generalizations. I have thought also of Derrida’s cat in his “The Animal that Therefore I am (more to follow),” which Derrida insists is “a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth.” Derrida’s insistence that this cat is this cat removes or preserves it—her, rather (as she is une chatte)—from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures confined to l’animot. This individual relationship between human and animal may suggest another, less fundamentally violent way for the human to be, or even, as I will finally propose, a way for the human to cease to be altogether.

Of course accounts of such encounters between individual humans and animals are not confined to the present day. Folcuin of Lobbes’ Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin tells the story of the horse of a ninth-century bishop of Thérouanne, also named Folcuin. The horse loved Folcuin so much that “ante eius feretrum preisse” (it went before his bier) at its master’s funeral procession, and “omnem deinceps hominem ferre recusasse, nec passus est post menbra tanti pontificis voluptatibus deservire alicuius hominis” (afterwards it refused to carry all men, nor, because of its great delight in the bishop, would it suffer the limb of any other man). It would be simplistic to proclaim the horse’s love for Folcuin as just another instance of animal subjugation. The horse submits only to the bishop, not to humans in general, and once the bishop dies, it refuses to be mastered at all; it has ceased, then, to occupy the position of an animal. The humans attempt to reestablish a proper role for the horse after its death when they give it as food to the dogs, as this is a disgrace no human corpse should ever suffer. But the horse’s great love for the dead bishop protects even its carcass, since “a nullis illorum est attactus” (it was touched by none of [the dogs]). Finally:

Et merito cadaver eius canes non poterant lacerare, super quem ymnidica cantica Christo decantata erant sepissime. Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt.

And because of the merit of its carcass, upon which hymns to Christ were so often chanted, the dogs could not mangle it. When the citizens saw this, they gave a human burial to what neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch.

Edit A reader (who can identify him/herself if it wishes) writes, “If the Latin is as you’ve transcribed it, I think it’s likely that ‘merito’ is an adverb meaning ‘deservedly, justly’ (Lewis and Short, s. v. ‘mereo’) and “cadaver” is a neuter nominative or accusative. So the first bit would be something like ‘And justly dogs were not able to mangle its corpse.'”

I think also of Yvain and his lion, whose relationship I contrasted with that of the Wild Herdsman and his beasts in Chapter IV. While the Herdsman beats his beasts and considers them incapable of reason, Yvain responds to the lion’s plea for sympathy and companionship as he might have responded to a fellow knight. Soon, Yvain can declare “l’aim come mon cors” (3792; I love it like my own body), and when the lion disobeys Yvain by joining him in the fight to rescue Lunete, the lion knows that its master “l’en ainme plus” (4539; loved it all the more). After the fight, “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, his heart was filled with anger), to which Chrétien adds, “et n’a pas tort” (4545; and rightly so). Yvain converts his shield into a litter, and fills it with moss to cushion the lion; he then has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. This relationship is not only that between human master and servile animal; it seems to be a relationship of companions, one of intense, mutual affection.

As intense as these relationships are, I should not be uncritically enthusiastic. In the story of the horse and the bishop, the horse’s special qualities may simply reflect the sanctity and power of its master. Given the lion’s gestures of fealty before Yvain, the lion’s relationship with Yvain may literally be one of domination. All of these relationships may be only instances of what Cary Wolfe called “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.” Folcuin of Lobbes implicitly records what happens to other horses: after their master’s death, they are passed to other humans, and after death, they are not honored with burial but rather disgraced by being given as food to other animals. Yvain’s love for the lion does not dissuade Yvain from hunting, killing, and eating other animals. Nevertheless, even if the lives of other animals are not improved by this interspecies love, or, for that matter, by the interspecies love of twenty-first century animals and humans, the relationship between a human and the loved individual animal still bears further analysis. Because the love of the horse for Folcuin removes it from a relationships of domination, because Arondel’s love for Bevis perhaps fits it to be memorialized in prayer, and because Yvain’s concern for his lion outweighs his concern for himself (4558-60), we should do this love the honor of thinking it a site of possibilities, of relationships not available to mere animals or, for that matter, to mere humans.

Such a relationship may be illustrated in a Middle English romance in which the dog Trewe-love buries the corpse of its murdered master, Sir Roger, and eventually tracks down and assaults Roger’s murderer at a noble feast:

[Trewe-Love] starte up verament,

The steward [Roger’s murderer] 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)

This story is much more than just another story of canine loyalty for its human masters. When Roger’s pregnant wife, Margaret, flees the ambush in which Roger will die, she looks back and “Syr Roger…dydd behold / He hewe on ther bodyes bolde, / Hys hownde halpe hym at nede” (322-24). When Margaret gives birth, she commemorates Trewe-love’s fidelity and courage by christening her son with the dog’s name: hence the name of the romance, Sir Tryamour. This name does not function as a simile, as, for example, in Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Lancelot and Maleagant as fighting “plus fierement que dui sengler” (more fiercely than two boars). Nor is Tryamour’s name an instance of animal degradation; unlike the primitives in “The Former Age,” or like the demonic knight Gowther, forced to eat with dogs, he has not been dishonored through his association with animals. In granting her son the name of a particular animal, her dead husband’s dog, Margaret at once frees the dog Trewe-Love from animal degradation and demands that her son live up to the dog’s reputation. Having become centered around honor wherever it might be found, Sir Tryamour has ceased to be anthropocentric. Honor may be a human quality that Trewe-love exemplifies, but it may well be a canine quality that Tryamour exemplifies. This moment of naming, then, is a far more radical reimagining of the human/animal relationship than anything else I have described so far.

Through each singular creature and relationship I describe in my epilogue I am trying to imagine identities outside the human power of life and death over animals; and, as it should be apparent, I am no longer focused on the Middle Ages, as I am convinced the model of human identity I have described is still prevalent. To reimagine human identity, I return to my introduction, which simultaneously raised and suspended Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of “becoming-animal.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari portray a world comprising not subjects but “events, in assemblages that are inseparable from an hour, a season, an atmosphere, an air, a life.” Their paradigmatic example is the “deterritorialization” of a wasp pollinating an orchid, in which the wasp “becomes a liberated piece of the orchid’s reproductive system” and the orchid “becomes the object of an orgasm in the wasp, also liberated from its own reproduction.” In this symbiosis, it is no longer possible to speak of the singular wasp or orchid; it is necessary to speak—to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology—of the becoming-orchid of the wasp and the becoming-wasp of the orchid, of the breakdown from molar beings into the molecular becomings of an assemblage. Creatures form alliances with each other in modes of desire that are not driven, as they are in psychoanalytic models, by the insatiable effort to correct or compensate for some lack. The wasp is far from the impossible effort of trying to establish or complete itself by dominating or abandoning itself to the orchid, and vice versa. In short, this is a world in which human and animal identities, and the tyranny of the processes that try to form these identities, are not the only ways of being. We might think of Folcuin and his horse, for example, as having formed a “sacred circuit” in which sanctity and voluptas interpenetrate and join horse and rider to witness to the love of each.

Like Wolfe, Deleuze and Guattari are impatient with love for pets, since they “invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation…anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool.” But, as Haraway argues, “caninophiliac narcissism,” that is, considering dogs to be childlike sources of unconditional love for humans, and other such precritical apprehensions of human and animal identity are not the only ways for humans and domestic animals to interact; as Harraway asserts, “co-habiting does not mean,” or at least does not necessarily mean, “fuzzy and touchy-feely.” The key to a “postdisenchanted” (to borrow a term from Dinshaw) approach to human and animal identity is to recall the insights of Deleuze and Guattari while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals.” I imagine an approach that acknowledges the violence inherent to forming the two great separate categories of human and animal, that would acknowledge the human reluctance to sacrifice itself for what it identifies as animal, but that would hope for some other way of being with animals. We might try to stop locating ourselves through the humiliation of animals, but this approach would not entail treating pets as surrogate children or extend some form of “human rights” to certain animals.

To dislodge the grandeur and arrogance of human identity, I hope for something better, akin to Derrida’s Lévinasian conception of infinite, impossible hospitality: a way of being with animals and indeed with each other—a category that could in fact include animals—enacted with an awareness of our shared vulnerability, in which no one could act with any certainty that he or she was acting, or not acting, receiving, or not receiving, justly. As Derrida wrote, “If I welcome only what I welcome, what I am ready to welcome, and that I recognize in advance because I expect the coming of the hôte as invited, there is no hospitality.” We should welcome the other without losing our sense of difference from the other; we should apprehend a relationship between humans and animals, and indeed between humans and humans and animals and animals, that allows for multiple points of difference. At the same time, we should lose our certainty that any creature we encounter is an other. By abandoning our presumption of the other creature’s thoughts and character, either in its similarity to our own or its absolute difference, by abandoning our presumption of knowing ourselves, we lose the certainty of our identities. What remains is the imperative to welcome, which is both the beginning of ethics and, as Derrida remarks, of culture itself.

I conclude with Derrida’s cat, which may be the same cat that captures the attention of the camera in the film Derrida by staring out at us and meowing. This is an animal making noise, but it should be heard as something other than mere animal noise, more than an “oonde,” even if we cannot know precisely what the cat intends. We can simply be summoned by the meow to remember Derrida’s love for and indeed his vulnerability and embarrassment, his openness before this one cat. Before this cat, we can lose the certainty of our selves and cease to imagine that the animal is our other, without, however, losing our wonder at the cat’s singularity. In this moment, perhaps we will have ceased to be human, and will have ceased to wish for, and to defend, our human selves.

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