This is the conclusion of the oyster chapter I am working on for Book 2. I haven’t shared the opening pages with you, but I have shared this bit [on minimal animals], this bit [on agency], and this bit [on the Anglo-Saxon Oyster riddle] with you, whoever you are. I’m just about done with this start-to-finish chapter draft, which means next working on — as I go backwards through the book — Chapter 3, ‘Esca Vermibus, Esca Avibus,’ on inhumation and sky burial and the ultimate edibility of human bodies.


L. M. Boyd’s column, Sept 2 1988

In 1549, another talking oyster appears, in Giovanni Battista Gelli’s La Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s fourth-century Gryllus, or “Grunter.” Plutarch’s work features Ulysses and one of his men, since transformed by the sorceress Circe into a pig, debating the respective advantages of humanity and porcinity. The pig wins. Plutarch’s work survives in just one, fragmentary manuscript, while Gelli’s work, lucky enough to have been produced near the dawn of the print era, was quickly translated from Italian into Latin and the major European languages, and perhaps even twice adapted for the stage.[1] It also surpasses Plutarch in its dedication to the conceit, for in Gelli, not just the one, but ten animals out-argue Ulysses, until at last he convinces an elephant, and only the elephant, to let itself once more become human. As the elephant had once been a philosopher, its final decision may mean that none but it is sufficiently ratiocinative to recognize the value of reclaiming its human privilege; furthermore, this conclusion, with the elephant presumably ranking as the most august of this beastly collective – which includes an oyster, mole, snake, hare, goat, doe, lion, horse, dog, and cow – may at least hint that the whole work follows a neo-Platonic trajectory, in which all-too-practical animality gradually ascends towards abstractive humanity. Alternately, if we recall that Gelli himself, despite his growing fame among Florentine philosophers, refused to abandon his own trade as a cobbler,[2] the conclusion may be read as a satire: the elephant’s susceptibility to the allures of logos may suggest that only a philosopher, and – given the doe’s earlier complaints about the wretched condition of human women – only a male philosopher at that, would be foolish enough to give up on a happier, animal existence. All the other animals outmaneuver the famously clever Ulysses, because the human world has no allurements for them.[3] Laurie Shannon rightly insists, then, that the text is not concerned with the animal possession of reason, nor even of the superiority of reason to irrationality, but rather with “whether a good life entails duly cherishing what is necessary or striving to attain what is not.”[4] The elephant may furnish the work’s final answer to this question, but it perhaps is not the conclusive one.

The first and presumably the lowest-ranking of Ulysses’s refusnik animals is, of course, an oyster, a former fishmonger that prefers its easy, littoral life to market drudgery and maritime dangers. The oyster argues that Nature has made them “better and more noble than”[5] humans. After all, she has given oysters their own home, which conveniently doubles as their clothing, and has so made them that food comes to them without any struggle. The oyster takes this practical approach not because of its unfamiliarity with maieutics: having eavesdropped on philosophers back when it sold fish in Athens, the oyster observes that if the end is nobler than the means, then–itself answering the implicit question–Ulysses must surely admit that the earth is nobler than humans, since the earth “at last devours you all.”[6] But the offhanded contempt with which it deploys this Socratic paradox suggests both that it recognizes that philosophy is a mere game—notably, it doesn’t extend this argument to its own material existence—and that it thinks the only argument really worth making is a simple description of the comforts of its own oystery life. Against all this, Ulysses can argue only that humans can do things, but has no answer to the oyster’s insistence that humans have to do things. For the oyster, as Shannon observes, “need and pleasure are not opposing modes of being”:[7] felicitous in being what it is, the oyster need not strive for satisfaction, nor for anything else, because it itself is exactly enough and needs nothing but to be.

Then the oyster declares the conversation over (“”I will shut up my little house and take my repose without a single thought”[8]) and the frustrated Ulysses seeks out his next opponent, an equally wily mole. However, just praising the oyster for its victory, or Gelli for his skills as a parodist, would miss the key element of this exchange, which is Gelli’s having the oyster argue as an oyster. It is not that the oyster is just happy, nor just that the “originary perfection” of the oyster lacks the lack that drives humans to mostly noble, sometimes pathetic, attempts to make themselves a better world,[9] nor just that oysters can be defined entirely by their immanent being, and so need not wander uncertain like humans, lost in their own definitional openness.[10] Of course, the contentment of Gelli’s animals in their animal condition is evidence enough of his participation in the long tradition that held all beasts to be innocently content. But before that argument arrives, Gelli first has the oyster speak from its own particular place, which means showing that whatever its happiness, it is subject to the inescapable vulnerability of anything that exists. For the oyster first agrees to speak only on the condition that Ulysses keep watch during the debate, so that “those confounded crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells…[to] make a meal of me.”[11] This tidbit of natural history is virtually proverbial in early modern oyster writing. Here, for example, is a Nicholas Breton’s “Dream of an Oister and a Crab”:

Upon the shore neare to the Sea, an Oister gaping wide,
Lay looking for a little food to come in with the Tide:
But hard by lay a crauling Crab, who watcht his time before,
And threw a stone betweene the shels, that they could shut no more.
The Oister cride, Ho neighbours, theeues: but ere the neighbours came,
The Crab had murtherd the poore fish, and fed upon the same.
When wondering that such craft did live with creatures in the deepe,
With troubling of my braines withall, I wakt out of my sleepe.[12]

The crafty crab, or sometimes a crafty crow, always succeed against the oyster, as if the oyster’s shell is just an invitation to imagine any shelter’s ultimate inadequacy. Similarly, though the oyster of the Anglo-Saxon riddle talks, it does so mainly to protest about being plucked from the nurturing sea. In all these, as even with Lewis Carroll’s poem, the speaking oyster is less evidence of an (imitative) rational power than of their inescapable vulnerability. What all these works first or even mainly give voice to, then, is a normally unheard or unvoicable request not to be injured. If this is a recognition of the oyster’s “agency,” it is a recognition of an agency that speaks mainly to say that it is far less agential than it would prefer to be, that it is as much thwarted as enabled by its life.

This is probably the most sensible way to represent a talking oyster. Of course, no one who pays them any attention can deny that oysters do do things: they are prodigious cleaners of filthy water, and if New York City, for example, had still had its oyster beds, Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t have hit quite as hard. Nor are oysters entirely helpless: they have shells, and their shells give them some definition and protection even if crabs always manage to find some way in. But the main point of the speaking, plaintive oyster may be the recognition of what has to exist, first of all, if there is to be any agency at all: agency requires an existence distinct in time and space from other things – no action is possible otherwise, because action needs to act on some other thing and from somewhere – and therefore the agent must have a location and some particular when, which means that its agency is always accompanied by its limits, its inabilities, its termination. It all goes further than this, however, because the oyster’s only intention, if it can even be called that, is that of their sensus solus itself, which establishes the relation towards the self, combined with a helpless inability to choose to do anything about it. That is, the oyster makes it clear that to be at all, even if all that the thing does is be, means being constrained by and vulnerable to nonexistence. For a living thing, this means, especially, that death awaits, whether it knows it or not.

This unwitting helplessness is on the other side even of what Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am called the “non-pouvoir au cœur du pouvoir” [“nonpower at the heart of power”].[13] Derrida arrived at this phrase after observing that, for Jeremy Bentham, the question of animal rights did not depend on whether they could use language or reason, but whether they could suffer. Derrida’s favored animal to think with in this essay was a cat; and cats demonstrably can suffer, so long as we are willing to admit that their cries are not simply the sound of clockwork breaking. However, oysters are not only mute, but also unaware, without any movement or sense of other things, without any ability, short of poetry, to make their distress known. To make vitality synonymous with agency and awareness is to forget this nonpower. It is also a mistake that threatens to grant protections only to those things that can do things, or react to things, or even to experience things, while forgetting that things also need protection because of what they cannot do, and may especially need protection against threats they themselves cannot recognize or even be aware that they are experiencing. For depending on which modern scientific studies of oysters and pain are embraced, the oyster may even lack the sensus solus prescientific natural history granted them. They may have nothing but their lives. If the social problem of pain is not knowing if others are really suffering,[14] then this problem is a subjective one, more like numbness than the problem of other minds. It is a problem that requires that the question of “what it is like to be,” for example, an octopus, tick, or oyster,[15] be answered not only with species specific phenomenology, but also with accounts of sensory incapacities, whether innate or temporary. In summarizing Jakob von Uexküll’s famous experiments on the environment [umwelt] of ticks, Agamben declares that if the tick’s sensory capacities are oriented exclusively to an awareness of mammalian blood, “the tick is this relationship,” living “only in it and for it.”[16] But surely it is a mistake to declare that the tick’s existence can be exhausted by what it believes itself to know (or, more accurately, what we can infer about what we believe it to know). Agamben’s declaration is too experiential. The tick’s unwittingness also has to matter: a complete phenomenological account of the tick means attending to all it does not experience. This is not a problem exclusive to invertebrates, of course. Cows too may be said to have this same impediment, particularly in slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin. By thinking like a cow, Temple Grandin “remove[s] the things that make [cows] stop moving forward: in a good facility cows walk toward slaughter as if toward a milking parlor.”[17] They advance fearlessly, not because they have become stoics, but because they don’t know what’s ahead. Surely this is a strange kind of “humane” slaughter: to remove only the fear and not the killing; to increase the ignorance, and call that a job well done. Surely there’s more worth protecting than just scared cows, and more than just the cow that has a moment to experience the pain of its own death. As one might expect, these insights can be taken even further. If death is inassimilable to the experience of the thing that dies—whether we call this experience “consciousness” or “sensus solus” or some term graced with even less grandeur—then the ultimate threat itself is always on the other side of our knowledge.[18] We can never get away from it, as we already know, but neither can we ever really know it. In sum, if we want to go further than suffering in looking for a paradoxical noncapacity that lies at the “heart of power,” we might seek it here, in the unexperiencable, uncognizable end, what we might call a non-awareness at the heart of existence.

We are now well-positioned to reconsider Descartes’ letter to the Marquess of Cavendish. This short letter only slowly gets to its conclusive denial of thought and soul to nonhuman animals. This assertion is itself a kind of mechanical reflex, an instance where Descartes’ proof of free thought follows a kind of instinctual groove of the belief in human superiority. The rest of the letter, however, is instead largely about the automatism of even most human life: it explains that somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we need not think in order to be able to eat or walk; and if tried not to cover our face as we fell, we would fail.[19] All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconscious. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — are the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence. To use Descartes’ image, we may not be clocks, not entirely, but we are mostly clocks.

This insight in turn requires rethinking the standard medieval hierarchy of being. The tradition is neatly expressed among other places by the fifteenth-century Middle English Mirror of St Edmund:

His wysdom may þou see if þou take kepe how he [God] hase gyffen to ylke a creature to be. Some he hase gyffen to be anely, with-owtten mare, als vn-to stanes. Till oþer to be & to lyffe, als to grysse and trees. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, als to bestes. Till oþer to be, to lyffe, to fele, and with resone to deme, als to mane and to angells. For stanes erre, bot þay ne hafe nogte lyffe, ne felys noghte, ne demes noghte. Trees are; þay lyffe, bot thay fele noghte. Men are; þay lyffe, þay fele, and þay deme, and þay erre with stanes, [þay] lyffe with trees, þay fele with bestes, and demys with angels.[20]

You may see God’s wisdom if you attend to what kind of being God to each creature. Some he has given to be only, without anything more, like stones. To others, to be and to live, like grass and trees. To others, to be, to live, and to feel, like beasts. To others, to be, to live, to feel, and to judge rationally, like men and angels. For stones are, but they have no life, nor any feelings or thought. Trees are; they live, but they do not feel. Men are: they live, they feel, and they think: they are, like stones; they live, like trees; they feel, like beasts; and they think, like angels.

Usually, the last, rational kind of being is thought to be the most important. With reason, we can separate ourselves from our immediate circumstances and from every other living thing; in mainstream medieval Christianity, we might live forever through our immortal rational soul rejoined with a perfected body, so escaping vulnerability altogether. But among created things, only angels escape being tethered to the previous kinds of being. For everything else, every kind of being is additive, supplementing rather than replacing the previous ones. We could therefore read this hierarchy of being as one in which the final rational addition is just one more layer an existence that is mostly animal-like, plant-like, or stonelike. Like angels, humans can reason, but they also have the same capacities—and accompanying vulnerabilities and needs—as beasts, plants, and rocks. The point is not that humans are really like rocks, but rather that they are also like rocks, and that concentrating exclusively on human reason, even if we grant it exclusively to humans among mortal life, means forgetting most of what we are.

Consider, finally, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, widely read and frequently translated from the fifth century through the Middle Ages (when King Alfred of England sponsored a translation) to the Early Modern period (when Queen Elizabeth translated it) through to the present day. Ultimately the Consolation seeks to prove the existence of free will, independent of circumstance or fortune, whether bad or good. Divine Foreknowledge is the impediment: if God is omnipotent, and therefore omniscient, surely all future action is known in advance, and therefore already preordained. Not so, argues Boethius: the objects of knowledge differ from the ways of knowledge. From our limited perspective, true for us, there is a difference between past, present, and future, which preserves free will.[21] To illustrate this point, Boethius talks about shellfish:

Many kinds of knowledge belong to different and diverse substances. For sense alone without any other kind of knowledge belongs to living things that do not move, such as sea shells [“conchae maris” [22]] and such other things clinging to rocks; but imagination belongs to beasts that move, which seem already to have in them some disposition to flee or seek out things. But reason belongs only to human kind, as intelligence only to the divine.[23]

At this point, Boethius seems to making a familiar argument about hierarchies of motion, and then about scales of being, running from the least motile animals, to mobile animals, to humans, and eventually to angels. But the argument is actually about epistemology, and, in particular, about how epistemological impediments preserve space for free will to be possible. The very limitation of human reason gives us the sense of temporal sequence necessary to our temporally local concept of free choice. Boethius thus locates our rational will not on the side of power, but on the side of ignorance. Since our ignorance is so very far from God’s infinite, extra-temporal knowledge, we more like oysters than any divine being.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that limitation is the root of what we are, nor that our unwittingness is somehow the “heart” of nonpower. The point is not that the “simple fact of being there” is more true than human reason, agency, or even sensation. All metaphors of depth reaffirm precritical hopes of getting at the final truth, whether this be located at the heart, the core, in something “profound,” or on a “deeper level,” all of which offer the fantasy of “revealing” the “ground” that would relieve us of having to think or make decisions. The point is rather that critical concentrations on reason, cognition, experience, and agency all go awry by concentrating on their subjects in their potential, not in their presence. That is, these concentrations wait for their subject to do something – to alter something else, to resist its circumstances in some way – not only as if the only “agency” worth noting is the agency of misbehavior or resistance, but also as if the subject becomes worth considering only when it seems to reach out beyond itself. The point of course is not that the thing is somehow truer before it engages in any of these activities. The point is rather that its being there also requires our attention, and that perhaps the best figure for recognizing what this subject of attention might be like is the premodern oyster.

For humans to catch a touch of oysterpomorphism is not to recognize that we cannot do anything, nor that agency is impossible, but to recognize that whatever our agency, we are still bodily, bounded by space and time. Whatever the alliances of always shifting networks that make agency possible, identifiable agency, like identifiable existence, requires definite location. Though we flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, we still should ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.”[24] We tend to attribute to ourselves the capacity of not being bound by our circumstances, on “unconcealing” existence, of immortality, of abstraction, of definitional openness, and so on. We think what we really are is the thing that escapes. But we still have to be somewhere. None of us, of course, chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still cannot untether us from having to live somewhere. Since, in this time of climate change, we know that our freedom to flee danger is limited by our confinement to this sweltering earth, we should, on a planetary scale, number ourselves among with the oysters, as “such other things as feed clinging to rocks.” So constrained, and so enabled too by this constraint, we might as well choose this, for a while, as our analytical starting place.

[1] One early translation, absolutely faithful in its treatment of the oyster episode, is Denis Sauvage, trans., La Circe de M. Giovan-Baptista Gello [sic] (Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1550). The two dramatic adaptations may be based on Gelli, or more directly on Plutarch, via “Que les bestes brutes usent de la raison,” in Les Oeuvres morales et meslees, trans. Jacques Amyot, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel de Vascosan, 1572), 270–74, which first made this text generally available in Western Europe (note, however, that the final entry in Machiavelli’s eight-part satire of 1517, “L’asino” [The Donkey], is also an adaptation of “Gryllus”). The two French plays each omit the oyster: from 1661, Antoine-Jacob Montfleury, “Les Bestes raisonnables,” in Les Contemporains de Molière, ed. Victor Fournel, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1863), 223–38, which features one scene in which a man, once a lion, shouts in rage (“Qui diable m’a rendu ma première figure!”) when returned for a while to its human form, and then in effect answers Wittgenstein’s observation (“If a lion could speak &c”) by railing at Ulysses about human cruelty and treachery. The next, from 1718, is Marc-Antoine Legrand and Louis Fuzelier, “Les Animaux raisonnables,” in Le Théâtre de La Foire, ed. Alain René Le Sage and Carolet d’Orneval, vol. 3, 10 vols. (Paris: Etienne Ganeau, 1721), 1–35. Though lacking a talking oyster, this play does have a singing dolphin, which claims to be happy to meet Ulysses once more after vainly searching for him among “deux cens Huîtres” (200 oysters). The lion of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable ‘Les Compagnons d’Ulysse’ is one of several animals, none oysters, that refuses to become human again (here I am a king, it says; were I a human, I would once more be but a simple soldier). For guidance in finding this material, George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), 35–36., which is preceded by a detailed paraphrase of the Gelli; Derek Connon, “Animal Instincts: Homer, Plutarch, and La Fontaine Go to the Fair,” in French Seventeenth-Century Literature: Influences and Transformations: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Gossip, ed. Jane Southwood and Bernard Bourque (Berne: Peter Lang, 2009), 75–90 (which traces the route from Plutarch to the French adaptations); and Marc Escola and Sophie Rabau, “Bibliothèque de Circé,” text, Fabula, Atelier littéraire (April 18, 2010) (particularly good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century reimaginings of Circe).

[2] Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 110–11.

[3] For the deceit and storytelling of Circe and the animals, see especially the reading of Plutarch in Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 272–83.

[4] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 162.

[5] Giovanni Battista Gelli, The Circe, trans. Thomas Brown and Robert Adams (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Shannon, The Accommodated Animal, 160.

[8] Gelli, Circe, 19–20.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 122, summarizing Lacan.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 30, on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as “manlike,” “constitutively nonhuman,” an “ironic” anthropological “machine” the preserves the fundamental human capacity to recreate itself as anything.

[11] Gelli, Circe, 12.

[12] From his 1622 Strange Newes out of Divers Countries, in Nicholas Breton, The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton: Prose, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1879), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278. Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 28.

[14] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[15] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[16] Agamben, The Open, 47. For Agamben’s source, Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 50–52.

[17] This is the summary of Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) from Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 19. Fudge’s essay, which attends to humans and disability, as well as the history of the size and treatment of livestock, is an exceptionally good phenomenological/social-historical engagement with animals.

[18] Cary Wolfe, “Exposures,” in Stanley Cavell et al., Philosophy & Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21, “For Derrida…we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed, death is precisely that which can never be for us—and if we did, then the ethical relation to the other would be immediately foreclosed.”

[19] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 302–3.

[20] G. G. Perry, ed., Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, EETS O. S. 26 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1913), 22.

[21] Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 287, “in the Consolation, the chief objective of his refutation of fatalism is not to make way for contingency in general but to establish the reality of free will.” See also Robert Sharples, “Fate, Prescience, and Free Will,” in The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, ed. John Marenbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216, on the “Iamblichus Principle,” in which “the nature of knowledge is determined by the nature of the knower rather than by the thing known.”

[22] Chaucer’s translation of the Consolation renders this as “oistres”; “Boece,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), 465.

[23] Consolation, V, prose 5.

[24] Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 135.