Procreating like Worms: Ut essem in homine ultra homines

by KARL STEEL

In Aristotle, Isidore, and a host of medieval encyclopedias, we learn that many worms and reptiles (creeping things) generate spontaneously, mostly from filth. From Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Property of Things, for example, the louse “is yngendered of most, corrupt ayer and vapours þat sweten oute bitwen þe felle and the fleissch by pores” (18.48, p. 1239; is birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores); the snail “in lyme oþer of lyme and is þerfore alway foule and vnclene” (18.70, p. 1222; in lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean); butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “bredeþ þerinne wormes þat comeþ of here stynkynge filþe” (18.47, p. 1198, and breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth); fleas lay eggs without “medlyng [mixing] of male and female” (18.49, p. 1240); and, more generally:

A worme hatte vermis and is a beste þat ofte gendreþ of fleisse and of herbes and gendreþ ofte of caule, and somtyme of corrupcioun of humours, and somtyme of medlynge of male and femele, and somtyme of eyren, as it fareþ of scorpiouns, tortuses, and euetes. (Bk 18, Chapt 115, p. 1264)

A worm is called “vermis” and is a beast that often is birthed from flesh and plants and often birthed from cabbage, and sometimes from putrefaction of humors, and sometimes from mixing of male and female [i.e., sexual reproduction], and sometimes from eggs, as it occurs with scorpions, tortoises, and newts.

Worms are the stuff of putrefaction. They are putrefaction come to life. They are life itself. Thick, greasy life.  It’s so obvious how putrefaction reminds us of what our pretension to bodily order tries to forget, and so obvious, too, that when putrefaction is made to play the part of formlessness and excess and the real (in both the Lacanian and “getting real” senses), it only further upholds the pretense of bodily order. No doubt I should read Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics for more.

It’s just as obvious that through their formlessness, dampness, and fleshiness, the myth of bodily order thinks of worms and putrefaction in general as gendered female or as the uncovered truth of feminine filth. It’s no accident that the corpse in theDisputation Between the Body and the Worms is a beautiful, rich woman, gawked at from a distance by a dreaming man, finally suffering her comeuppance when she’s compelled to become what she has been all along.

To clarify, here is the character Leo the Jew from Odo of Tournai’s (d. 1113) Disputation With the Jew, Leo, Concerning the Advent of Christ, the Son of God:

In one thing especially we laugh at you and think that you are crazy. You say that God was conceived within his mother’s womb, surrounded by a vile fluid, and suffered enclosure within this foul prison for nine months when finally, in the tenth month, he emerged from her private parts (who is not embarrassed by such a scene! (95)

It is embarrassing, in fact, how easily this scene yields to a certain kind of psychoanalysis: disgust at the body, disgust at women, disgust at one’s own birth, disgust at one’s own foundational dependency, an unwelcome reminder in the airy purity of men explaining philosophy. And so on. And it’s not just textual Jews who are made to give voice to bodily disgust, nor just Jews who are made the bear the burden of the body, either through being called beasts (as Peter the Venerable did) or accused of being able to read scripture only for the literal, base, bodily meaning (see Guibert of Nogent, for example).

Because here’s the Prik of Conscience, working from Innocent III’s De miseria condicionis humane: 

There dwelled mon in a dongyon

In stede of foule fylth and corrupcyoun,

Where he had noon othur foode

Bot foule glet and lipered bloode

And stynke and fylthe as I seyde ore

Therwith was he norysshed thore. (84-89)

([in the womb] man dwelled in a dungeon , in a place of foul filth and corruption, where he had no other food except foul slime and clotted blood and stink and filth as I have already said, and with that was he nourished there)

The problem is a general one, common to all of us of women born. There’s a way out of putrefaction, though, not simply by abandoning the body and this wormy world but rather, shockingly, by becoming still more wormy.

Because Christ too is a worm. Daniel A. Bertrand has covered this best, in his “Le Christ comme ver: A Propos du Psaume 22 (21), 7” (Christ as Worm: Concerning Psalm 22 (21):7). Psalms 21:2 begins, familiarly, “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?”, which medieval exegetes took as an incipit and not a complete statement. In other words, Christ actually quoted the whole of Psalms 21 from the Cross, including 21:7, “But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people.”

Christ is a worm, said our exegetes, in his being a rebuke to humanity (the so-called worm of conscience). But he is also a worm in having been born miraculously, without sex. Here’s Augustine, from his commentary on the Psalms: “But I am a worm, and no man” (ver. 6). But I, speaking now not in the person of Adam, but I in My own person, Jesus Christ, was born without human generation in the flesh, that I might be as man beyond men” (“ego autem sum vermis, et non homo: ego autem jam non ex persona Adam loquens, sed ego proprie Jesus Christus sine semine in carne natus sum (or, in some mss, “sine semine incarnatus sum”), ut essem in homine ultra homines” (PL 36: 168))

Worms just happen. There’s no one to blame. No locatable desire. No primal scene, because there is no congress, no origin, no loss, and no chance of failure. Worms have no father, no mother, no sin, nothing but their being, a field of filth. The only excess is the excess of stuff itself, which always want to generate still more.

This is not a hope that dies with the Middle Ages. Here’s one source, perhaps. And still another, which I learned about from Marjorie Swann’s “’Procreate like Trees’: Generation and Society in Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici,” in Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser’s superb anthology Engaging With Nature (see my review here). Here is Browne’s hope, in 1643, to do without the filth and embarrassment and loss of commingling:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition: it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed. (106-7)

Browne goes on to aver his love of beauty: he could spend a day admiring even a picture of a horse, and best of all, he loves the clean, pure motion of the spheres, whose order, proportion, and harmony have nothing of the ridiculous, earthly, or moist about them. Procreate like trees, he wishes, but he might have said “like worms,” though, as a man of his age, perhaps he knew that Swammerdam would be coming soon to bar him from that fantasy.

For now, I leave you with a plea to help me remember–was it on twitter?–where I stumbled across the obvious point about the obvious misogyny underlying the clichéd hatred of the words panties and moist.

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