Thanks a million, everyone, for your comments on my previous posts. Thanks to the later engagements by J. Allan Mitchell, Ashby Kinch, Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Michael Sarabia, and Eileen, for such helpful and generous suggestions and critiques. So many changes! In material I’m not sharing here, probably, I’ve invoked Jonathan Gil Harris on context, Bataille on wet and dry death, Maurice Bloch on the same, and–before cutting it, because, you know, 5000 words! not a lot of room!–Linda Charnes on wormholes. With an eye towards The Babel Working Group’s Boston event, I’ve read the introduction to this brilliant living book on Symbiosis. Oh, and various bits on “radical moisture” (thanks E. R. Truitt!) and a few essays from Micrologus‘s 1999 issue on The Corpse (warning: PDF).
Perhaps the key difference happened to my wet/dry death schema. It’s now dry/dusty/wet. For dry death, think bones, especially skulls. Dry death grants the dead continued agency and presence, on their own terms or that of their community (for the latter point, look at the Maurice Bloch essay Patricia Clare Ingham recommended). Dry death’s remains—a word that, after all, means both “left over” and “persists”—have borders as neat as those the subject presumes itself to have had in life. By contrast, a dusty death, considered by neither Bloch or Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.” Of course I get “dusty death” from Macbeth, where life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. Wet death is as I presented it before.
The essay’s main change, however, is that I reached the end. That’s why I’m here, and that’s what I’m going to give you….NOW.
(nb for the befuddled or impatient: there’s a bit of overlap with my last post).
The worms’ appetite offers a posthuman lesson far in excess of what has typically granted to critical animal theorists by more familiar critters. They tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), and, later, that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). The worms have commanded these messengers:
Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;
Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,
And after come with þe to our regyowne,
þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)
[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].
When the corpse protests by citing scripture, “bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle” (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man’s complaint), the worms counter, “Þat power dures whils man has lyfe…now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe” (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable hunger, the corpse cannot get free. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject promoted by animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims.
All she can do is accept that she is food, and has been, all along, an unwitting host to a world of hungry others. Put another way, the Disputation, like other medieval death texts, operates as a textual pre-history to the new materialism’s frequent (and welcome) microbial perorations, like Jane Bennett’s observation that for the supposedly human body, so prolifically sharing itself with microbes, “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes.” These bodies are our companions, some of whom feed with us, some off us, and some who work for our deaths.
In words that we might hear as addressing these companions, the body declares “lat vs be frendes at þis sodayn brayde / Neghbours and luf as before we gan do / Let vs kys and dwell to gedyr euermore” (194-6; let us be friends after this unexpected commotion; let us be neighbors and love as we did before. Let us kiss and dwell together forever). A beautiful sentiment, ruined perhaps by her added conditions: “to þat God wil þat I sal agayn vpryse / At þe day of dome before þe hye justyse, / With þe body glorified to be” (197-9; until God wills that I shall rise again, on Judgment Day, to be called before his justice with a glorified body). She expects to be rescued from worldly entanglement, but the “euermore” may better characterize her situation than her hope for resurrection. Simply because the word seems to be so inappropriate, it had least merits more attention.
The “euermore” cannot mean the bodies of corpse and worms themselves. The corpse will soon lose itself entirely to the worms’ mouths, while her matter will go on without her. The worms and other vermin, constitutively vulnerable like anything else, have no better claim for personal perpetuity; they too will feed something and be passed on. “Euermore” might be heard, therefore, as characterizing not impossible bodily persistence but rather the activity of corpse and worms dwelling together. To dwell with worms, to kiss them and be friends, means to recognize oneself as caught up in neverending cycles of appetite, abysses that go on swallowing for “euermore.” The corpse may thus be heard as saying, “we share this condition of edibility, you and I. As much as we can, let’s be friends in it.”
In friendship, the corpse gives herself up to what has always had her. She offers herself to what would have taken her anyway. In so doing, she accepts what we might take as the final lessons of medieval death poetry: that nothing, not our humanity, not our wealth, not our beauty, will let us “outsource” our vulnerability; and that appetites and desires, human and otherwise, will be humbled by the appetites and desires of others. We are not the center; there is no center. Amid appetites like ours, vulnerable and hungry, we should never forget the use that will be made of all of us. We are for others, whether we know it or not.
Memento mori; memento vivere; memento edere; memento edi.
(the post’s title, shared by the whole essay, comes from Henry Nilsson)
(and the image is Kiki Smith’s “Nocturne”)