The Return of the Pig?

I’m told that I’ve been away for too long. What brought me back, today, and I hope again and again, is a dispensation sealed with a promise. Various people, bless their hearts, wanted to bi- or even tri-localize at SEMA Saturday morning, and I convinced them to leave my panel alone by promising to load down the blog with my conference paper. ITM wouldn’t suffer too much, after all, since chunks of what I gave at SEMA I’ve done in some version before.

But, my friends, by missing my paper, you also missed a very alimentary journey from eating to digestion to excretion to more excretion (yes, twice, for what is shit but excess?): Fabienne Michelet on the OE Andreas, a favorite poem around these parts; Michael Johnson, on a chain of shitty asses in Provençal lyric; and Susan Morrison, Charlotte Allen’s bête noire, who, in granting us a glimpse of her fecopoetics, refused play the hoarder (a favorite piece from her paper: the 15th-century travel guide that describes the habitus of the committed shipboard shitter in a bit too much detail: remember how the reluctance to pray is overcome by habitual kneeling? How habitual kneeling itself makes prayer sincere? Now imagine unbuckling your cloak, 3 times a day, to trick your Jerusalem-bound bowels into sliding past their ironic refusal to engage).

Away from St. Louis, having given your Saturday morning to other pleasures, weep for your loss, charissimi, if you can, but not so hard you can’t track what follows. Pour yourself a cup of tea, put up your fuzzy slippers, and read on.

The earthly material out of which men’s mortal bodies are created never perishes; but though it may crumble into dust and ashes, or be dissolved into vapors and exhalations, though it may be transformed into the substance of other bodies, or dispersed into the elements, though it should become food for beasts or men, and be changed into their flesh, it returns in a moment of time to that human soul which animated it at the first, and which caused it to become man, and to live and grow.

This argument for the persistence and return of the human body, taken from Augustine’s Enchiridion, might have been drawn from any medieval explanation of Christian resurrection doctrine. The doctrine was well suited for alleviating concerns over catastrophic change and the total disappearance of the body. Shipwrecks and anthropophagous animals, deaths in the arena or at the stake, putrefaction, dessication, and dispersal: none of this actually destroyed the body. There could be nothing simpler than coping with catastrophic destruction, but life itself proved an almost insoluble problem. During their life, humans grew, and eating, digestion, and assimilation—apparently—caused this growth. Life means change. If the human body changed as a result of things it consumed, what could be identified as the original body? What if the inhuman substance of food supplanted rather than merely supplemented the resurrectable human body? What if, as Peter Lombard wondered (see Bynum Resurrection 124), eating and digestion gradually transformed human bodies into bread or roast pig? What of the human would remain?

Peter Lombard’s anxiety about bread is unusual. Typically, resurrection doctrine focused on the problem of meat. Another twelfth-century theologian, Master Martin, offered the argument that the

meats of animals and fish that are fit for the table of humans turn into the flesh of the eater. All the flesh of humans will resurrect, therefore the flesh of these animals, having been made human, will resurrect. Also, the flesh of humans crosses over into the flesh of a wolf [that has eaten humans] and thus the flesh of the wolf will resurrect since the flesh of humans, which has crossed over into the wolf, will resurrect.

Similarly, Gilbert of Poitiers argued that if what humans ate turns into human flesh, then “pig flesh would resurrect”; and an anonymous twelfth-century Summa wondered whether “man, in eating beast flesh, turns it into his own flesh and that conversely a beast eating human flesh turns it into its own flesh, and thus the flesh of a beast having been converted into human flesh or having been made human will resurrect” (see Richard Heinzmann, Die Unsterblichkeit der Seele und die Auferstehung des Leibes 211). These questions all implied the possibility of a paradise thronged with human-animal hybrids. In a sense this was a best case scenario, as the “chain consumption” problem suggested that some unfortunate humans might not be able to resurrect at all. In a typical chain consumption scenario—such as that found in Julian of Toledo’s seventh-century Prognosticon or its thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman translation—a wolf kills and eats a man, and then a lion kills and eats the wolf, and then dies shortly afterwards. I’ll quote from the translation: “The carcass lay on the ground and entirely rotted and turned to earth: where could the man be found in here? Know, indeed, that I do not believe at all that this man could be recuperated from death into life, because the earth that was the man cannot be divided from that which became the beasts’!”

Resurrection doctrine focused particularly on animal flesh because of the essential role played by the resurrection in distinguishing human from merely animal life. The Christian tradition almost universally asserted that the afterlife would be without plants and animals. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies argues that immortal, resurrected humans would spend eternity with animals—including straw-eating, vegetarian lions; there is also the common medieval story about Judas’s rooster [e.g., Cursor Mundi, Horrall ed., III.15985-93], which springs back to life to mock Judas’s declaration that Jesus could no more resurrect than the rooster in his pot; but, to the best of my knowledge, Irenaeus’s conception of heaven as an exact restoration of the Edenic paradise did not take root in medieval Christianity, and Judas’s rooster, after all, was presumably resurrected only to end its existence, once again, in the soup. The main literary tradition on the resurrection, The Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgment, shows humans entering into eternity and animals, if it acknowledges them at all, as only mourning as their complete destruction approaches. Christian scholars generally insisted that the souls of animals did not outlast animal life. And Aquinas explained that since “in that final renewal of the universe…the body will rise not natural but spiritual…animals and plants will…cease to exist then.” Both humans and animals had bodies that were born, that grew and ate, and that underwent pain and putrefaction, but resurrection did away with these resemblances by breaking human life entirely from any shared bodily existence with animals. Furthermore, since humans would resurrect, only animals could really die; humans experienced what might better be called a temporary setback, or a preparatory stage for a more perfect existence. Resurrection would fail as an ultimate guarantee of difference, however, if the doctrinal worries about digestion proved justified. If animals that were eaten by or ate humans could enter into eternal life, if humans might enter eternal life as hybrid human-animals, and if humans eaten by animals might, through digestion, become animal flesh and thus be unable to resurrect, then to quote once more the question from the Dialogue of St. Julian, “where could the man be found in here?” With every bite, the human would gradually meld with the animal and be given over to death.

There is at least one additional complication to the utility of the resurrection for separating humans from animals: the resurrection is the promised, eternal demonstration of the distinction between humans and animals, while the worldly, present-day guarantee of difference is the human subjugation of animals. In a process that Derrida termed carnophallogocentrism, humans establish themselves retroactively, through this subjugation, as uniquely possessing “speech or reason, the logos, history, laughing, mourning, burial, the gift, and so on”: had Derrida extended his analysis to the Christian Middle Ages, his “and so on” would have included the immortal soul. The human consumption of animal flesh is the central act of domination by which animal life is denigrated and human life exalted and thereby created as human life. In this system, no human can be slaughtered and eaten, at least not legitimately, whereas no form of Christianity could deny the legitimacy of eating animals without incurring the suspicion of heresy. A human death might be murder, but an animal death at the most would be only a property crime. With a few notable exceptions, any claim that an animal might possess more than merely instrumental life was self-evidently absurd: this explains, in part, the humor of the Testamentum porcelli and the Stultus Stultorum, and the scorn of the Apostle Paul and Guibert of Nogent for the Deuteronomic verses that call for kindness towards animals.

If the human establishes itself as human by dominating animals, then, in another instance of the key insight of any number of postmodern philosophies, there is no essential human identity; there is only a fundamental conflict. The human is both a structural position and an ongoing event that seeks to produce both the human and the animal by elevating one and denigrating the other. It might be expected that this conflict could end once humans resurrected into an afterlife populated only by God, angels—or demons—and by other humans, where humans will have assumed their perfected bodies, freed from all flux. By passing through death, humans finally realize their distinction from nonhuman earthly life, and, in an afterlife lacking any lifeforms that can be dominated, they should be freed from the necessity of conflict. This peaceful end might be understood as the point when the human at long last comes into its own. But if the meat-eating by which the human struggles to be human contaminates the human body, if the pork we eat resurrects with us, then that struggle will be marked on the human body for eternity. Rather than finally arriving at an identity, the human will permanently display a corporeal reminder of its systemic antagonism; rather than transcending flux, flux would be fixed in the human forever. The truth of human nature—its contingency, its inessential relationality—will be irrepressible.

Christian thinkers countered this truth of human nature by proposing another truth. Only what belonged to what they called the veritas humanae naturae, “the truth of our human nature” would resurrect. In effect, this clarification set aside a portion of the human body as essentially human, rendering the rest of the body a kind of inhuman supplement unfit for resurrection, associated rather than joined with the truth of body. Philip Lydon Reynolds’s Food and the Body: Some Peculiar Questions in High Medieval Theology tracks the doctrinal debates over whether food could contribute to the truth of human nature. Theologians like Peter Lombard and Master Martin answered no. Proof texts for this position included God’s creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, the feeding of the 5,000 from the 5 loaves, the resurrection of infants into adult bodies, and Matthew 15:17, “Do you not understand, that whatsoever entereth into the mouth, goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the privy?” Thus, the human would be preserved from its own eating; pig flesh, as Gilbert of Poitiers wrote, would not resurrect [“Die Sententie Magistri Gisleberti Pictavensis Episcopi (II). Die Version der Florentiner Handschrift.” Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge (AHDLMA) 46 (1979): 45-105]. While this solution required that human growth take place miraculously rather than naturally, while it cut off the human from any alimentary interaction with the world, it had the advantage of simplicity on other points: nothing essential in the human body was subject to change.

Later theologians promoted a naturalistic explanation for human growth. The aforementioned anonymous twelfth-century Summa, which, after wondering whether animals might resurrect, provides several options, the first two miraculous, and the latter at least tending towards a naturalistic explanation of growth:

Neither human flesh turns into that of a wild beast or the other way around, but…one nourishes the other and makes it grow . . . Or, if it is allowed that one is converted into another, it is not however converted into the truth of human nature or the other way around. Or, however, if they are converted the Lord will know one from another and in the resurrection will separate them.

Another anonymous treatise, De novissimus, argues that pork eaten by people

is not pork but is transformed into human substance to be resurrected, and so will not be unsuitable, just as the mud of the earth is not simply mud, but, having been transfigured into the human form, will arise with Adam. [Edited in Odon Lottin, Psychologie et morale aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles, 6 vols. (Louvain,: Abbaye du Mont César, 1942), Vol. V, 396.]

Chain consumption arguments, like that in the Prognosticon, always ended by asserting that God would sort things out. The Elucidarium explains:

What was the flesh of the man will resurrect; what is of beasts will stay behind. For He knows well how to separate these, who knew how to make everything from nothing. Therefore, whether they are devoured limb by limb by beasts or by fishes or by birds, all will be reformed in the resurrection so much so that not one of their hairs will perish.

Finally, Aquinas, like De novissimus, asserts that “although that part of matter which at one time was under the form of bovine flesh rises again in man under the form of human flesh, it does not follow that the flesh of an ox rises again, but the flesh of a man: else one might conclude that the clay from which Adam’s body was fashioned shall rise again.”

The double argument that food contributed to human growth and that only the human body could resurrect granted humans a monopoly on constructive earthly violence. Animals’ own meat-eating could have no long-term effect: animal flesh consumed by other animals might assimilate to the carnivore’s body, or it might pass out of its body, but both eater and eaten were destined for the same end to which all nonhuman animals were subject. Human flesh consumed by animals might become part of their bodies, for a time, but God will separate human from animal flesh for the resurrection, so ordering animals and humans into their own proper destinies.

Barring the cannibal consumption of unensouled fetuses—which I won’t get into today—the violence of the human consumption of animals is the only violence that might transform flesh into a substance fit for the Eternal City. No pig or cow could become immortal, but by suffering the violence of humans, either might contribute to an immortal substance. What could be put to use would be, and the rest would be discarded. The life of an animal was only a means, never an end.

Yet even while belittling animals, theologians nonetheless commemorated animal life and death, as the peculiar attention to meat in these debates itself attests to the value of animal life. It is that moment prior to the final belittlement, the moment the life of the pig enters the theologian’s consciousness, the moment prior to the declaration that the pig will not resurrect, the moment before the theologian announces that God cannot think the life of a pig worth preserving, on which I want to linger as I continue to think about these matters.