Dry Death/Wet Death

another worm imagePicking up from yesterday:

….I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end, a notion that I’ll term “dry death.” Ash Wednesday’s “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” (remember, man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again into dust) is a typical dry conceptualization of death. According to Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, dust is “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put”; as unfertile earth, used up and useless, dust signifies the absence of form; it signifies matter that has ceased to be productive. For a later medieval example, see one of the smaller poems of the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which, echoing Ecclesiastes 3:21, explains “Þus waxeþ & wanteþ Mon, hors & hounde; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe” [129-30; thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. Even more dryly, the Middle English Death and Liffe characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate she grindeth all to power,

trees tremble for ffeare & tipen to the groud,

leaues lighten downe lowe & leauen their might,

fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,

& the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme” [193-7]

in her walking, she grinds the green grass to power, trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground, leaves fall down and lose their power, birds fail to flee when they heard weapons [nb: a textual crux for which I’ll need a better edition], and the fishes in the water fail to swim.

Dry death essentially imagines death only from the perspective of the dying subject, who solipsistically imagines that one’s personal death is the end of all life. It emphasizes formlessness, the end of striving, and the ultimate absence where self once was; death in this model is both absolutely private and absolutely privative.

An opposing strain of medieval death poetry—a wet rather than dry imagination—stresses the putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate around the dead. This strain offers fertile ground for thinking through the ecomaterialist appetitive abyss, for it may be the largest body of literature that so thoroughly worries at the inherent edibility of being, that realizes that one’s subjective death occasions new life, and that acknowledges that like it or not, all worldly things are for others in some way. Humans and others may eventually revert to ashes, which is to say, to unrecognizable formlessness, but to get to this point, they must be used up by a one gullet after another, which will be material for the flourishing of others in turn. Put another way, death is only an end for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. If we know ourselves to be matter, we must recognize our constitutive presence in a world in which we can never be useless.
The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave and see “inde scatentem vermium colluviem” [qtd. from 400; there a mass teeming with worms]: the human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. Ephraem reveals the absence of a self, but just as emphatically, he reveals the constitutive utility of a body for other bodies. A millennium later, John Bromyard’s fourteenth-century Summae praedicantium has a proud young man looks into father’s grave and “invenit bufones horribiles in puteo” [qtd in 403; find horrible toads in the filth]; other citations from medieval works on death could be provided virtually without end, but here I will offer only one more, from what will be the central text of the remainder of this essay, “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes.” At their moment of rhetorical triumph, the worms brag to the body about the hosts of other vermin that accompany them:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,

Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,

Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,

Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,

Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,

Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,

Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.

The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon,

The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake,

The toad, the mole, and the scorpion,

The viper, the snake, and the adder,

The toad, the ant, and the crab,

The spider, the maggots [note! the only plural?], and the newt, kin,

The water leech, and the others are not far behind.

The list’s bravura excessiveness promises proliferation without end. At this point Body gives up its efforts to hold onto itself; confronted with so many mouths, it knows itself helpless, food for a host of others, flowing piece by piece into a host of hungry abysses, as it always has, from the moment it entered the world.