David Bell’s Wholly Animals: A Book of Beastly Tales

4299787983_9ecb55394aDespite Bell’s claims not to be writing an academic book, this anthology is a work of astonishing erudition, at least to this scholar, whose language skills fall well short of where he wants them: for Bell ecumenically collects and translates stories from the Latin, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Yiddish, and perhaps from the Old Irish. Freed from the obligatory (and illusions of) objectivity imposed by the reasonable, scholarly pose, Bell lambastes the human species for its cruelty and stupidity, Bernard of Clairvaux for his overrated intellect and religious bigotry, crusaders for being “brutal, barbarian, crude, uncivilized, evil-living, savage, and blood-stained,” but somehow–wonderfully–finds a place in his heart for the great Egyptian father Shenoute, who once beat an acolyte to death for violating a small monastic rule.

Shenoute’s animal moment? He rebukes a camel for rejecting her foal and nurtures it himself. In this, at least, Shenoute models a non-anthropocentric stance towards the right, the law, and life, in which what matters is not species but proper behavior. Most of the other animals in Bell’s anthology, however, are treated as animals, which is to say, as fundamentally of less value than humans. They are thus often servants, recalling–as David Salter stresses–the animal obedience in Eden or the peaceful kingdom promised in Isaiah’s eschatology; or apt targets of charity, whose natural degradation before humans all the better sets off the saint’s great love (we have, then, yet another reminder that charity impedes a structural critique of resource allocation and what Zizek terms “objective violence”); or thieves, having to suppress their appetites before human agriculture, criminal for eating fruit, grain, sheep, piglets, or animal skins (that is, parchment) territorially marked by humans; or, finally, pets, singularly loved in an act of what Cary Wolfe calls “exquisite bad faith.” Animals hunted and sheltered, dragons rescued from Arthur’s heroism, cows resurrected when stolen for a lord’s table: these are resources in political boundary disputes, which is, as Dominic Alexander argues, how most stories of animals and saints should be understood.

But neither the human production of itself as human by degrading animal being, nor the animal as a chit in political struggles, nor the animal as a symbol in some political struggle are all that these animal stories offer us. Shenoute’s story is sufficient evidence of that. As Bell remarks, a wicked animal or an animal that could be excommunicated is an animal with responsibility and choice, or indeed an animal belonging in some way to the community of believers.

And what of the animal characteristics, their merely bodily existence and their irrationality? A great many stories describe animals as behaving “as if” (presumably sicut in the Latin originals) they had human reason, which recalls the “aussi com” of the Wild Herdsman’s suppliant, battered oxen. Barring animals from language by confining them to bodies capable only of inauthentically imitating reason is the paradigmatic act of carnophallogocentrism. Yet Bartholomew of Farne rescues a duckling whose mother begged help in her specifically anatine manner; Benedict of Nursia and a cawing, circling raven struggle to communicate with each other; and a thieving raven hopes for Cuthbert’s forgiveness:

one of a pair returned and found the servant of Christ digging. Then, with its feathers lamentably ruffled and its head bowed down to its feet, with humble claws and using whatever signs it could, it begged forgiveness. The venerable father understood this and gave it permission to come back.

By speaking with and through their bodies, these animals rebuke the carnophallogocentric (or indeed the outmoded AI) conceit that authentic language and community require disembodiment. This, far more than the charitable resurrection of animals–that, at any rate, will eventually die again, abandoned as immortal humans ascend to paradise or descend to hell–and far more than the frequent condemnation of carnivores for eating what they must, challenges the disembodiment sought after by Western metaphysics and the regime of the human this quest sustains. In an anthology assembled by a scholar himself so emotionally and bodily present to us (he complains, for example, of being unable to excommunicate pests from his garden), this may be the proper, best lesson.

Advertisements