WOOFING AND WEEPING: The State of Research, or No One Knows But God

437704271_75e20c18caIn much of his late work, Jacques Derrida characterized the question of the animal as “not one question among others” but the question that “represents the limit upon which all the great question are formed and determined, as well as all the concepts that attempt to delimit what is ‘proper to man,’ the essence and future of humanity, ethics, politics, law, ‘human rights,’ ‘crimes against humanity. ‘genocide,’ etc.” The humanism that utterly divides humans from animals is a legacy of the Christian Middle Ages; consequently, the Middle Ages is an ideal site for exploring the development of the modern concept of the human. It is also, however, a place in which other possibilities for human/animal relationship might be discovered. When and where is anthropocentrism suspended? Such moments might be discovered in hunting practices, chivalry, various literary texts–Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, traditions of the “hairy saint”–and medieval theology and philosophy (from either Christian or non-Christian traditions), all of which might productively be used to think through, for example, the phenomenological ethics of Ralph Acampora, the assemblages of humans, animals, and objects in Deleuze and Guattari, and even perhaps the responsibility promoted by Levinas, despite his indifference to the question of animals.

On with the show! Several weeks ago, I discussed stumbling upon the weeping of animals in Ava’s version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment. In response to Eileen’s request that I clarify my interest in this scene, I wrote (slightly edited):

Given the profound anthropocentricism of sacred history–since however much God or Creation matters, God and Creation matter only insofar as they serve humankind–any acknowledgment of other lives is always in excess of what is required. Animal life should not rate; after all, they have no share in the afterlife, there’s no friendship possible with them, they can be the recipient of only indirect duties, &c. I think here of Heidegger’s conviction that animals, in their total captivation in their world and thus their total inability to relate to the future, can only “perish,” that they cannot die [since writing this, I’ve discovered some roots of Heidegarrian animal thinking in Schopenhauer, who wrote “indeed the brutes do not properly speaking feel death” and “between the brute and the external world there is nothing, but between us and the external world there is always our thought about it”]

Yet in Ava we have several stanzas concerned solely with disruptions to animal life. We can conceive of these stages of the 15 signs as a systematic undoing of creation (hence the fish first, then fowl, then beasts of the field), and hence as moving in a trajectory towards the human. Nevertheless, Ava–and I hope not only Ava–marks the suffering of animals as a particular suffering in creation. It’s not simply that the mountains are falling, the seas turning to blood, freshwater is turning bitter, and all the other business from John’s Apocalypse.

Instead, in excess of what is strictly necessary for her project, which nowhere else pays much attention to animals, Ava acknowledges the lives and deaths and passions of animals. And she acknowledges the relations of animals with each other. Her acknowledgment does not redeem animals, but I’d say that the fact that animals cannot be redeemed increases the interest. We might say that we see zoē–mere life–and “animal sacer” given what they should lack: a voice, a sadness, rage, a death that matters, even at the very moment when their deaths, in a sense, matter least of all (since they’re not being sacrificed anymore to human appetite or instrumentality). And we might say that this is not “given” but is rather revealed. At the very moment humans pass into redemption, at the very moment when their lives are marked for eternity as the only lives that ‘really matter,’ we see–maybe!–the catastrophe of human indifference to animal life. Sacrificed life, a life only as means, speaks and reveals itself as what it was all along, as life, as an end in itself, but only at the moment of its destruction. This is the one moment, the only moment, when animal life is for itself.

To this I’ll add that we see a grief that cannot be sacrificed. Whatever the fear of humans during the last 15 days, their fear will be exchanged for something, whether heaven or hell; but whatever the fear–or love, in fact–of animals, they ultimately get nothing for it. Certainly the fear of animals has been put on display for humans, since, insofar as it astonishes humans, since insofar as it’s being expressed in a particular genre with a particular purpose, it is being sacrificed to the generation of proper human piety; but this is not all there is. My argument–and this, I hope, begins to answer Nicola’s complicated comment on the previous post–may include: a) that animals are shown to experience more fully than humans the injustice of the end of hope and dread; b) that animals do in fact get closer than humans to the Great Impossibility, namely, the experience of their own deaths, since, after all, humans, even in dying, leap over their own deaths into eternal life.

I knew that the fifteen signs were a medieval Christian commonplace, but I was also nervous that Ava’s attention to animals would be the only place animals received any notice. Time spent with William W. Heist’s The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College Press, 1952) and in the meagerness of Brooklyn College’s library (would whoever moved The Prick of Conscience please put it back where it belongs?) dispersed all my worries. Here’s some of what I discovered:

  • Heist argues that the Irish Saltair na Rann is the most important source for the transmission of the 15 signs: there are a few references to animals in it, but as I can’t even fake Old Irish, and since Heist offers his translation as provisional, I’m just marking this wellspring and moving on;
  • the pseudo-Bede, from the PL (provided in Heist, with a translation): “Quarta die pisces et omnes belluae marinae, et congregabuntur super aquas, et dabunt voces et gemitus, quarum significationem nemo scit nisi Deus.” “On the fourth day the fishes and all the sea monsters will both gather together upon the waters and give forth voices and groans, whose meaning no one knows but God.” (25);
  • Peter Damian’s De novissimis et Antichristo (warning: PDF): “The sign of the fourth day: all the monsters and all things that live in the water of the sea will be gathered together upon the sea, roaring and bellowing back and forth as though in contest; and men will not know what they are singing or what they are thinking, but only God will know, by whom all live that His purpose may be fulfilled. These four signs are of the sea, and the next three signs are of the air and ether. The sign of the fifth day: flying creatures of all heaven will assemble in the fields, every kind in its order; these birds will be speaking and weeping together, fearing the coming of the Judge…The sign of the ninth day: all the stones, both small and great, will be split into four parts, and each part will strike the other part, and no man will understand that sound, but only God [this included in the quotation because I thought it might interest Jeffrey]….The sign of the twelfth day: all the beasts of the earth will come from the woods and mountains to the fields roaring and bellowing, not eating and not drinking” (Heist trans, 28).

As I expected, the 15 signs appear frequently in Middle English, and the four or five references that I’ve examined so far tend to include references to animals. Two examples. In the “Quindecim Signa ante diem Judicii” (ed. in Furnivall, Hymns to the Virgin and Christ EETS OS 23, 118-25) all creation cries out:

“The ix day, wondyr hytt ys,
As the prophecy tellyth hytt I wys:
Thatt all þynge schall speke þan,
And cry in erthe aftyr þe steuyn off man,
And be-mone hem self in owr sy3th
Ryth as þey speke myth” (ll. 100-105)

To forestall any memory work by medieval drama specialists: I did find the reference in the Chester “Antichrist’s Prophets,” where one of the Expositor’s several references to animals runs “All manner of beastes shall rore and crye / and neyther eate nor drynke” (ll. 321-4)

Now, if you’re still with me, I want to point out that animals are not the only grieving elements of creation. In an Anglo-Norman version, “the stars fall from heaven and run about the earth like lightning; they shed tears and run under the mountain; they turn black and plunge into the abyss….the moon turns to blood, descends, and tries to run into the sea….all the rivers speak and cry to God for mercy” (28-29, Heist’s summary: I haven’t examined the original yet). However, my research so far suggests that crying stars and pleading rivers are less common compared to crying and pleading animals. Surely it’s easier to imagine an animal crying than a star; and most traditions of the 15 Signs do not include weeping stars, which surely matters in an eschatological tradition whose content remained–remarkably?–stable throughout its life. I’m justified, then, in concentrating on animals, but, at the same time, I thought some of our posthuman ITMers might want to know about the stars, just as they might want to know about the “battling rocks” (debellabunt petrae adinvicem) of pseudo-Bede.

We’ll see where this takes me! Hopefully to Kzoo 2009. Suggestions and comments are, of course, encouraged.

(creative common image from here, from flickr user ChinchillaVilla)


Nicola, first, thanks for the reminder about Lippit. On its face, I’m inclined to say that the animals are not experiencing/shown to be experiencing a suspension of temporality (although I’d have to review Lippit’s argument to know if I’m mangling his thought or not). Rather, I’d say they’re, as they do so often, experiencing the deaths that humans, at least in mainstream medieval Christian doctrine (hereafter MMCD), never do. Only animals experience–or suffer–the complete breakdown of the body, only they have–if this can be called a ‘having’–the sheer vulnerability of life that cannot be exchanged for anything else (including memories, since, after all, who remembers–who memorializes–slaughtered pigs? This gets at my SEMA paper). Can we say that time is being suspended in any way in this moment? I’m not sure, so I’d love to hear more from you on this point. For now, I’m inclined to think that the future ends, and with it, time itself. That complete end marks it, I think, as something other than a suspension. MMCD splits the import of that terminus in two: the end of the future as the end of world and hence the end of self belongs–with the proviso about ‘having’ marked again–only to animals, whereas the end of future as the end of the threat of the future (that is, that time and our names will persist without us) belongs only to humans.

Jeffrey, thanks as well (and THANKS to Letty and Nic too!). I’ve finally ordered the Valerie Allen book, and I suppose I should read all of the Exemplaria medieval noise cluster. You now have me wondering how much I should make of the distinction between versions of the 15 signs that reference God’s singular knowledge of the meaning and those that leave out even that comfort of resolvability. As I said above, it’s a very traditional genre, which means, I think, that I should assume minimal PURPOSE to any individual variation–it’s much safer, I think, to assign the differences to happenstance transmission issues rather than individual/institutional/cultural (wherever we draw our lines) deliberation. Now, do we call this “god only knows” a “comfort”–it CAN be interpreted–or an anxious marking of the ungraspability of meaning: God, after all, isn’t going to tell anyone what the sounds mean. He hears their grief, their wailing, and still destroys them. This approach is on my mind because I was listening to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” which–surprisingly–captures some of the melancholy, uncertain eschatology and deathsense that I’m seeing in the animals of this tradition:

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it

God only knows what I’d be without you

If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me?

God only knows what I’d be without you

Lettty, thanks very much for that reference. The getacniað troubles me, however. I normally go out of my way to avoid animal allegory: my preference has been for creatures like the Donestre, who–for what reason?–mourn over the bodies of the people they kill, just as the harpies do in The Branches of the Appletree (ed. in The Tretyse of Love, J. H. Fischer, EETS OS 223):

“Vpon this braunche [compunction] makith hir neest a byrde whiche is callid harpia, that hath the semblaunce of a mannes visage, & hir nature is to slee the fyrst man she fyndeth, & thenne gooth she to some water where she beholdeth hirself & seeth that she hath slayn hir owne liknes, & thenne makyth she a full grete sorowe alwaye that euer she sawe ony man. This signefyeth þe soule that slew cryst by hir synne, whose semblaunce is in hir, for to his semblaunce was she created” (113).

I love this UNTIL we get to the “signefyeth.”

But responding to your comment has forced me to rethink some of this. The “signefyeth,” “getacniað,” “significavit” shuts things down, but rather than focus on that moment, I should focus instead–as I’ve been doing in my 15 signs thinking–on why animals included at all. In part this is a ‘why are animals good to think with’ question, and the answer to that is, in part, Jeffrey’s observations (in On Difficult Middles and in his essay in the Engaging with Nature anthology) about animals as apt sites of fantasy, as places to dream other lives. So, in part I want to mark, with you Letty, that Aelfric knows these birds mourn, and then to wonder why Aelfric should be interested in this.

Similarly, Nic, THANK you. I’ve largely avoided the Gowther because of its allegory. But you’ve suggested a useful way to come at things, and, no, I’ve NEVER thought of the 15 signs connection to it: right now, I’m inclined to think it’s tenuous, but, who knows? I’ll have another look.

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/07/woofing-and-weeping-state-of-research.html#sthash.lEyqXn9R.dpuf