Day 6 – Animal Testaments

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Christian the Wolf Knight, about to be bashed.

Today we considered a little-studied genre that comprises animal complaint poetry and animal testaments. Our texts were the late antiqueTestamentum Porcelli, two Middle English works, “By a Forest as I gan fare” (aka The Hunting of the Hare) and the Chester play’s “Balaack and Balaam,” and several late medieval or early modern works, the oyster section from Thomas Brown’s translation of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s “Gryllus,” Martin Luther’s “Complaint of the Birds,” and finally Margaret Cavendish’s, “The Hunting of the Hare.” We could have added several more to this list: the “Lament of the Roast Swan” from the Carmina Burana, the Anglo-Saxon riddle about the oyster, Jacques’ lament of the the hunted deer in As You Like It, and so on. We could certainly add Robert Henryson’s “Preaching of the Swallow” from his Fables too. Such works occupy a spectrum from the clearly parodic (the Testamentum, Carmina Burana, and the Martin Luther) to the obviously serious (Cavendish), with most uncertainly occupying a place somewhere in between. Our conversation didn’t get to half of these today, however.

Preliminary to starting, I encouraged everyone to go see Eleonora Stoppino, “Animals, Contagion, and Education from Boccaccio to Fracastoro,” this Wednesday evening at NYU.

We started the class proper by continuing conversations from last week and also from the intervening conversation on the wiki. To this end, I showed a scene from František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová, a classic of Czech and medievalist cinema (now showing at BAM). The film responds well to critical animal studies: in it, the medieval, in its violence and lust, is animal, arguably, though the film’s wolfpack motif suggests a natural that’s, well, beyond good and evil. We watched a scene about the transformation of Christian (that name!), a German knight, and the paragon of chivalric civilization, into a hulking wolf man. When his pagan lover, Alexandra, discovers him, she bashes in his skull with a rock, seemingly with his permission. She herself is a creature of the woods, hardly more than animal herself: having had an incestuous something with one of her brothers, Vláčil clearly wants us to regard her as beyond culture. Which one is the animal here? Which one the wolf? Which the human?

So, how can we read this with Melion? What if the Irish forest woman had bashed in Melion’s skull when he turned into a wolf (to please her)? In a larger sense, what is the gender of the forest?

The forest as silva or nous is clearly feminine, either as form awaiting content, or as the material not organized into service of a masculine order. But the forest is also the place where men go to live more authentically, unmixed with women. And there, they meet women, or things like women. Melion and Guigemar are but two examples of this, but we can think of innumerable examples from modern culture. Like civilization, like culture, the forest has a double gender, then, one that can’t be organized into one or the other neatly.

We used this as an entrance to finish discussing “Guigemar” and “Yonec.” Putting aside the fact that intersex cervids are not all that uncommon, biologically speaking, and thus not exactly “wonders,” and putting aside the tendency of white stags or boars to draw heroes into sylvan adventure in Celtic stories, there’s also the intersex doe as a family unit. She’s with a doe, and she’s also a he. She is, in that sense, a representation of the way that a married couple becomes two in one flesh. Having been forced to leave his pure masculinity, Guigemar finds himself compelled to give up hunting and to enter into the queerness of heterosexual mixing. Through his erotic love, he perhaps may be forced to discover the larger, more ethical love that would recognize the wounding of animals as an injury to himself as well.

And then “Yonec,” where we concentrated on the unnamed wife’s admiration of “Yonec” first of all for being a hawk of quality (species rank is social rank, with the human in general not of paramount importance), and on the shifting bodily perfection of Maldumarec, who can take on any form, versus the tight stasis of the senex amans, who is, in Gallagher’s translation, “baptized [in] hell; strong are his nerves, strong his veins, and full of pulsing blood,” a body that’s at once too tight and full of secret, horrific life. How else to read these bodies against each other?

We also heard a bit about humans suckling puppies. For more on such matters, from medieval perspective, see Peggy McCracken’s essay in this volume.

To turn into animal testaments, we observed how recent laws in Idaho ensure that the killing of animals remains invisible.

Our presentation was on the two poems about hare hunting, the Cavendish and one in Middle English. Our presenter set things up by using Erica Fudge’s “Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and Present” to sketch three (not two) early modern ways of thinking about animals:

  • Cartesian mechanization, in which animals were only objects, there to be used in whatever way, guiltlessly;
  • “inward government” and self-fashioning, in which treating animals poorly might disorder a rational mind;
  • and Montaignian skepticism, in which humans and animals all operate together in a community.

The larger distinction is between empirical accounts of animals, which start with animal behavior, and metaphysical accounts, which start with ideas. Descartes clearly is a metaphysician, then.

Now, the Cavendish gives us only observations of the external life (and death) of the hare, while the Middle English poem gives us the voice of the hare itself. Both give us living creatures, anything but mechanistic, anything but there only to be killed. Cavendish’s emphasis on animal life and human tyranny clearly belongs to the Montaignian project of a community of creatures. Cavendish also troubles the human arrogance at hunting: culture is a kind of witchcraft, in its supernatural ability to counteract the wind’s own protection of the hare, and, at any rate, since the dogs do the actual hunting, all humans do is exult. Cavendish’s poem clearly also belongs to 17th-century scientific projects, but with a twist. It’s very careful to observe correctly, but in this case, this “scientific” view does not lead to “instrumental reason,” which simply masters everything it regards, but rather creates emotional connections between viewer and observed animal. Sight here does anything but reduce a body to only a body.

We also thought of Cavendish’s bad poetry. The hare “gives up its ghost.” This is a cliché. But a cliché is also a mark of what “goes without saying.” What does it mean to grant a nonhuman death the unthought sympathy of a cliché? If a community is the group whose borders “go without saying,” how does the cliché actually include the dying hare within it?

Notably, the Middle English poem gives us a “living death,” where the hare witnesses its own death, and the turning of its body into garbage: its guts thrown away, its skin turned into a toy for puppies. And somehow, for some reason, this is the hare “coming home,” as we see from the last two stanzas. Is this, then, the purpose of the hare, where it was never really alive, since it becomes itself fully, it “comes home,” only when its cooked with leeks?

From there, we considered the recent food ethics issue of Phaen/Ex. We talked about meditative baboons, thinking about how the constitutive things of the ‘nature’ that humans often seek to become ‘one with’ in meditation also have their own meditative practices, suggesting a heterocentric mysticism rather than a unified nature from which humans, uniquely, are excluded; we considered how cattle culture in Alberta (and Argentina)doesn’t hide the animal behind the meat but rather makes the slaughter of cattle visible and central to its regional identity: this is a sacrificial culture, then, something quite other than many contemporary discussions of gender and meat-eating in, chiefly, Carol Adams; we considered how the death camp model of biopolitics and modernity promoted by, for example, Agamben, needs to be revised if we’re talking about factory farms: while the Nazis sought to make themselves visible and to erase their killing (as at Treblinka or Sobibór), and while Nazis sought to eliminate an entire people, factory slaughtering operations by contrast want to make the killers invisible and the product of the killing visible. And it wants to continue producing corpses indefinitely. This killing treats the bodies as products, as “already dead,” not in a way that’s worse than death camps, but in a way that’s certainly different, requiring a different thought. And, finally, we considered the problem of thinking of women as food: there’s more to be done here, next week, but we’re found that the essay wanted Bynum as well as an account of the human biome and how the human body-as-food is essential to human health, whatever the gender of the body.

We also considered something called “meat glue,” as a way to think about how we might have a return to the medieval “entremets,” those elaborate margin-hybrid-style sculptures that one would find in the middle of a medieval aristocratic feast. Here, after all, the animal is not an “absent referent” but rather present, in its body, as itself, but also dead. Is a poem like the “Testamentum” a kind of “present absence” in this regard?

On the Testamentum Porcelli, an oddly popular medieval text (some 8 or 9 manuscripts survive), we considered how the pig needs to write with someone else’s hand, which is indeed a porcine problem, but also one general to anyone who needs to use the law to write a will or indeed anyone who needs to use language, since language — as Cary Wolfe among others reminds us — is always already there, belonging to someone else, before we get a chance to use it. In this, as in so many ways, the Testamentum challenges human/animal divisions. Notably, its dispersal of its body alternates between the useful (bristles for shoemakers, bladders – for balls – to boys) and the silly (tongue for lawyers). We wondered whether it had the means to dispose the grain and other pork feed it promised to its relatives.