Chapter 3 – Food For Worms, Part I

IMG_0141What follows is, as the title promises, the beginning of what is, by my current count, Chapter 3 of my Book2 [the next bit is here, and I’m sure to revise this to give it some room to breath]. I’ve revised material that’s appeared in print before, in postmedieval’s “Ecomaterialism” special issue, itself a development of several blog posts from 2012 [here and here for example], but in this pass, apart from overhauling the introductory paragraphs entirely, I get to go at things without the space limitations of a journal article, and, moreover, without of the cruft of engagement with ooo, very au courant in 2012, but not so much now. I’d like to think of this is an improvement.


“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through a gate, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17).[2] However many the roads to this gate, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise, or threat, of an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. The subject might think this abyss grand: abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few artistic bodies may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[5] or Alexis Shotwell’s, via Lisa Heldke, for an understanding of “the entangled features of our eating behaviors,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food, with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of the well-known morality play Everyman, about the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the general body of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of medieval death work is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. Certainly most of this material aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. This material can still be read profanely, however, some of it more easily than others. My chapter does not aim to be comprehensive.[8] My interest will be in a work like this version of a famous and widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders it as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.
Earth drew the other earth to the earth.
Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.
Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Admitting that this rendition is “crude,” Rudd then opens up the moral content of the poem’s dense imagery, in which earth is human, flesh, and spouse, but then returns us to the quatrain’s bare materiality: “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” For what we might call Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take this profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem shockingly lacks a soul—not being a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are—it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. My chapter, then, will treat each of these elements singly: flesh; then worms, particularly the natural, antipaternal science of spontaneous generation; and then finally how this alliance between worms and flesh challenges the somber “unsubstitutable singularity” of what is by now a classic strain in critical animal theory.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves,[12] and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[13] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[14]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[15] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[16] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. The bones once again have a place in the Merina community. Think here also of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[17] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[18] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[19] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;
trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;
leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[20]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But of course their material continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[21] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[22] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[23] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[24] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, as could but here I will offer just one more, the Disputation. The body of this poem, far from finding rest in the grave, instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to the body about their hosts of allied vermin:

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.[25]

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

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.

[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64.

[6] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.dimev.net/,

[hereafter DIMEV], 6292. This version might be contrasted with the far more neatly moral and anthropocentric DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008), 15–17, 21–22, 28–29.

[13] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[14] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[15] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[16] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[18] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[19] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[20] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[21] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les Vers Comme Heritiers: Aspects de La Poétique Du Testament Aux XIVe et XVe Siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[22] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[23] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[24] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[25] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13.

Review: Our Dogs, Our Selves

Gelfand, Laura D., ed. Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society. Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 6. Leiden: Brill 2016. Pp. xxxv, 446. €170,00 ISBN: 978-9-00426-916-3.

Reviewed by Karl Steel
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
ksteel@brooklyn.cuny.edu

[for The Medieval Review]

This fifteen-chapter anthology, originating in several sessions at Kalamazoo’s International Medieval Conference, is self-consciously a labor of love, its author biographies often furnished with photos, not of the writers, but of their dogs. Focused chiefly on the social and especially the art history of medieval and early modern Europe, each of its chapters, if read one after another, tend to be repetitive, as nearly all include a summary of the common features of medieval dog writing: we learn often about standard exegesis of the Bible’s dogs (predictably in bono and, especially on the matter of returning to their vomit, in malo), that dogs were praised especially for their loyalty, that large dogs tend to be coded masculine, small dogs as feminine, and that the status of dogs followed that of their owners. It is, then, the particular content of each chapter, as particular as dogs themselves, that saves the volume from repetitiveness: since so few animals, human or otherwise, can boast such extraordinary variety in size, purpose, and comportment, and since so few can belong so comfortably in so many environments, the possibilities for considering “dogs and x” in medieval cultures may well be inexhaustible. Every reader interested in dogs will therefore feel the absence of their favorites. I wanted considerations of Theodorich of St Trond’s eleventh-century poem for his Pitulus, a little dog praised for having no purpose but to play, or the equally charming dog of the Book of Tobit, the loyal companion of the Middle English Sir Tryamour, the whelp of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, or the tragedy of Guinefort, or, for that matter, the few headstones to pet dogs from the classical world, like the second-century grave stele for Helena at the Getty Museum (Object 71.AA.271) or a Greek example at the archaeological museum of Istanbul (Inv. 411 T), dedicated to Parthenope.[1] But the very fact that I missed all this, yet found so much that I otherwise would not have known to miss, is evidence enough of how much more work we can still do in dog studies.

The volume is sorted into five sections: Literal and Literary Dogs (ranging from Greek encomia, to the urban dogs of England and France, to those of Sufi literature); Signs, Symbols, and Dogs (the Bayeux Embroidery and Barocci’s counter-Reformation painting); Love and Dogs (further art history, with a lapdog in the Morgan Old Testament, Giotto’s dogs in the Scrovegni Chapel, and a set of hunting dogs in a late-medieval marriage allegory); Death and Dogs (three chapters on dogs in funerary monuments); and finally Good Dogs and Bad Dogs (ranging from a survey of nearly two thousand years of Japanese dog culture, to dogs as aristocratic accessories in late medieval Europe, to Walter S. Gibson’s study of the infernal dogs of late medieval Dutch writing and art).

For this reviewer, John Block Friedman’s contribution stands out. Far more wide ranging than its title suggests (“Dogs in the Identity Formation and Moral Teaching Offered in Some Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Miniatures”), its payoff here is less its several conclusions (for example, that the dog was “thought to be far more feudal than cats” and that the collared dog shows “rational control over the instinctual side of nature”) than the fact that it covers much of the same ground as several other chapters in this volume, but so much more thoroughly. As one would expect from Friedman, its footnotes are a treasure.

Alexa Sand provides a satisfying entry on the Morgan or Crusader Bible (Morgan Library, MS M.638), that, like Friedman’s chapter, could happily find its way onto a syllabus. Although this manuscript is typically read for its relationship to chivalric narrative and crusader concerns, Sand finds new opportunities by attending to the presence and absence of a little dog in the arms of Michal, daughter of King Saul and David’s first wife, a victim of dynastic politics. When they first meet, Michal carries a little dog; in her few subsequent appearances, after she has been forcibly reunited with David, the dog is absent. Sand quite rightly takes the dog in the first image as a sign of her courtliness, as, by the thirteenth century, small dogs were among the essential accouterments of noblewomen. However, by reading Michal’s gesture alongside similar gestures of the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Sand extends the reading to account both for Michal’s childless and ultimately unhappy marriage to King David, and also, more tentatively, for a common plight of noblewomen during crusades, often bereft of their husbands for years on end. In this rich article, then, the dog functions as much a sign of courtier comforts as it does of neglect and sadness.

I was also impressed by the two chapters that mined urban records of dogs for Northern Europe, Emily Cockayne’s on medieval and early modern England, and Kathleen Ashley’s, much more specifically, on the Burgundian town of Beaune. The chapter on England discovered, for example, that whatever the legislative anxiety over the problems of stray dogs, particularly during time of plague, actual human deaths from dogs were quite rare. From police dogs to butchers’ dogs to nuisance dogs of all sorts, Cockayne’s wonderfully recreates the dog-rich environs of English cities. Ashley, by contrast, encounters a surprising paucity of dog records, especially in wills and urban documents, hinting at the need for more comparative work on the varying dog cultures of England and France.

Craig A. Gibson, Nathan Hofer, and Karen M. Gerhart all effectively presented material unfamiliar to a medievalist focused on Western Europe. Gibson summarizes several dog encomia from the ancient Greeks through to medieval Greek and late medieval Latin humanist writings, describing the standard features of an unfamiliar genre: hunting praise is common, but not universal, for example, and some paeans to dogs single out their barking as uniquely meaningful among animal noises. In the 1420s, Leon Battista Alberti even transforms his subject into an exemplar of the humanist itself, famous for its knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Etruscan. Hofer complicates the mistaken notion that Islam is hostile to dogs. After considering several positive references to dogs in the Qur’ān and its commentaries, and after pointing out that while dogs are ritually impure, so too is sleep, Hofer concentrates on Egyptian Sufi storytelling, in which the very degraded position of dogs allows mystics to engage with them as holy fools. Gerhart’s ambitious chapter covers the whole cultural history of dogs in premodern Japan, concentrating on their behavior in the handscrolls of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: some are comfortable domestic animals; some creatures of the margins, like beggars and hinin (literally “nonhumans,” people who did impure jobs), living off or near the diseased, the dying, and corpses; and some are border figures, associated with figures of the spirit world (European medievalists might be reminded here of the dog of the Irish blacksmith Culann).

In general, I was less convinced by several of the art history chapters, particularly those that sought primarily to discover the “intention” of artists, since I am skeptical about any one-to-one-to-one mapping of artistic intention to symbolic meaning to reception history. Judith W. Mann demonstrates that the animals in Federico Barucci’s counter-Reformation paintings were not painted from life, but then argues that because Barucci was not a “true naturalist,” we might then be allowed to read its dogs symbolically to discover his “intentions,” which, in effect, requires assembling iconographic and doctrinal evidence, alongside currents in doctrinal debates during the counter-Reformation, to fix his canine images as symbols, for example, of unworthy participation in the Eucharist. I am convinced by Jane C. Long’s argument that the dogs of Giotto’s picture cycle of Joachim and Anna recall dramatic conventions, but not by her tendency to read the expressions of dogs and humans both rather straightforwardly as expressing some familiar emotion (“joyful greeting” for example); similarly, at once point, Donna L. Sadler proposes that the “unmistakable smile” of a pair of dogs on a tomb of St Denis “betray[s] [an] unassailable belief in the afterlife” (I liked her suggestion, however, that early modern pleurants may perform the same function as, and be understood as replacing, the dogs of medieval funerary art). Jane Carroll exhaustively treats a late medieval tapestry from Alsace, Die Jagd nach der Treue [The Hunt for Fidelity], in which a husband and wife ride together on a horse, amid a pack of hounds: to solve the problem of how to illustrate the ongoing devotion of married love rather than the successful consummation of courtship, this tapestry features a deer in flight, but not yet captured, by hunters that want only to chase it, so “encod[ing] a fitting summation of traditional marriage” as a balance of “dualities.” Janet Snyder identifies the dogs on Spanish tomb sculpture with contemporary Iberian breeds (the Galgo, Phalène, Alano, Burgos Pointer, Spanish Mastiff, and so on), and then describes the breed-specific traits of these represented dogs to unpack the sculptures’ symbolism: thus the Spanish rat terrier, bred to work in dark wine cellars, is a suitable dog for the tomb of Isabella of Portugal, “who was kept out of the public eye for the last four decades of her life.” I found this approach ingenious but unconvincing, its conclusions too neatly determined by its argumentative approach. I am much more convinced by Sophie Oosterwijk’s study of dogs on tomb monuments: towards the end of her chapter, she suggests that the dead had originally been shown trampling on animal representations of vices and infernal forces, like lions, serpents, and dragons, and that companion animals gradually crowded in on and nudged aside this meaningful symbolic code.

Oosterwijk, however, does not propose why personal dogs might have crowded into a space previously reserved for such a clearly coded piety. This reluctance to speculate a little is indicative of the volume’s larger tendency not to complicate the motives of medieval people or modern scholars, and, more generally, of its disinterest in telling a more ambitious story. For, as a whole, the volume does not aim to shift the way that we think about dogs, the function of animals in medieval or even art history, or, for that matter, what might happen to how we think about ourselves once we think about our companion animals historically. The overall argumentative aimlessness of the volume may stem its near-total disengagement from contemporary critical cultural studies in animals. Such work is mostly concentrated in Elizabeth Carson Paston’s chapter on the Bayeux Embroidery. We would search in vain elsewhere for references, for example, to Donna Haraway’s essential work on play with and the labor of dogs, to her complicated political histories of dogs in American colonialism, environmental activism, and gender (consideration of this work, for example, would counter Pastan’s claims about the Bayeux Embroidery representing King Harold’s preconquest “harmony with nature”). For that matter, Erica Fudge is also missing, despite her decades of scholarship in modeling how to do philosophically savvy studies of early modern animal/human cultures. A fortiori, less obvious but still essential names are missing: Carla Freccero and Colin Dayan on race, dogs, and violence, for example, or Kathy Rudy on the queerness of dog love (which might have offered an interesting counterweight to the marriage tapestry studied by Carroll).

My point in mentioning these scholars is not to ask that footnotes be swollen so that frequently cited scholars garner still more citations. Rather, it is because without critical animal study, and indeed other without critical fields (like affect studies, for example, or even psychoanalysis), the emotional core to many of these works, which are self-avowedly in love with their subjects, is left unanalyzed. This means that one of key thread for the anthology — the dog as alter ego — is often described but its mechanics never considered. Dogs represent loyalty, to the family, to the church, to the honor of the house. We learn of all this, but without much consideration about what it means for humans to identify with animals, or to perform their own preferred identities through this intimate, living property. We encounter the word “pampered” often to describe certain dogs, but no reflection on what this word might indicate: envy, perhaps, or disgust (I was reminded of James Herriot’s unpleasant musings about Tricki-Woo, the overfed, epistolary Pekingese of All Creatures Great and Small). On this point in particular, then, more critical attention would have been especially welcome, even apart from the work of critical animal studies. As alter egos, dogs can be our ideal selves, in their hunting prowess and loyalty, what we would like to be; or they could be our “natural” selves, devoid of custom and manners, the brute self we must overcome to become truly human; or in their “pure grief and devotion,” as Pastan characterizes some of the dogs on the Bayeux Embroidery, they represent “our best selves,” one that no human could ever hope to achieve. In packs, we might say that dogs invite us to “to go with the flow,” at least as they figure in Deleuze and Guattari’s outraged response to Freud’s misreading of his “Wolf Man” patient, an anti-identitarian consideration of dogs so well treated, in a medieval context, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s reading of both cynocephali and the Middle English Sir Gowther.[2] Gelfand’s capacious anthology has so much material that we might use for further reconsideration of dogs and the self, to burrow further still into how dogs have domesticated us, how we might dream of getting undomesticated through them, and what we might owe the strays.

Notes:

[1] Gutram Koch “Zum Grabrelief der Helena,” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 12 (1984): 59-72
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 120-41.

Skin color and musical notation: A few fascinating manuscript images

One of my (many!) procrastination habits is poking around in manuscripts online to see what might turn up. Recently, I’ve found the following–

To start you off lightly, here’s a multicolored embroidered repair to a hole in a Historia Scholastica manuscript, in a section about the various woods used to manufacture Jesus’s Cross:

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Aarau, Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 203r

And then this – the Occitan Abreviamen [or Abreujamen] de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, c. 1321-1324, an illustrated universal history, specifically, a diagrammic chronicle, remarkable, to me at any rate, for its representations of differences in skin color. Here’s one image:

and here’s another, 52v, from the same manuscript:

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Guy of Lusignan and Sibilla of Jersualem;  Isabella, below, with 3 of her 4 husbands [Almaric, Henry & Conrad]

There is work on the manuscript by Catherine Leglu and especially by Federico Botana, but to my exceedingly limited knowledge, nothing on its skin tones. We could use further comparison. Botana’s superb codicology puts Egerton 1500 alongside Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, MS Zanetti Latino 399, but unfortunately, as the latter manuscript isn’t online, I don’t know how it shows its sultans, nor its Sibilla or Isabella. Nor do I know enough about diagrammic chronicles even to know whether it’s more or less unusual to decorate genealogies with faces: for example, click through for a Biblical genealogy from the Aargauer Kantonsbibliothek, MsWettF 9 239v, mostly a list of names, but also featuring a delightfully nonplussed bird, grumpy at being dragooned into the Flood story. Cambridge, Trinity Library O.1.78 provides only the names of the English kings; see also this mixture of the two in the Biblical genealogies in Dijon Bibliothèque municipale Ms 634, a manuscript of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium.

As further evidence that I poked around a bit, I can also cite these from the British Library: Royal MS 14 B VI (genealogy of the Kings of England, faces and for most kings, full bodies); Royal MS 14 B V (similar but with the full complement of silly medieval marginalia – snails, animal doctors, deer-hunting rabbits, &c); Add MS 48976 (the Rous Roll, so delicately drawn, whose genealogy diagrams are just names, sometimes becrowned); Cotton MS Domitian A VIII (English kings, just names); Cotton MS Nero D I (Matthew Paris’s notes, just names); Harley MS 7353 (Edward IV and biblical typography plus an actual genealogical tree with potentate portraits as leaves, and, well, just click through). The Abington Chronicle [Cambridge Trinity R.17.7] sadly isn’t online yet.

If anyone’s fishing around for an essay topic, then, you might want this in the mix as well:

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King Penda, a red-faced pagan. Houghton Library 40, Chronicle c 1470

No other king in the manuscript is so colored; and if you’d like to try to guess by reading about Penda in a proximate English history, be my guest.

Finally!

Marvel at this notation of hunting horns, represented as floating in air, as sound, in Hardouin de Fontaines-Guérin’s Livre du Tresor de Vanerie. There are just the three manuscripts, one of which, I believe, is a postmedieval copy, and the other unillustrated. But one, BnF 855 is so, so wonderful:

Notation like this graces so many of its illustrations. Of course your humble procrastinator is not the first to notice these: as of the 1990s, the modern expert is Eva Marie HeaterJulien Brunelliere has written on it more recently; and Henri Kling cracked the code in 1911.

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Finally, it was edited twice in the nineteenth century, its illustrations reproduced both times, and once in a style that, at least for those of us who read independent comics in the 1990s, recalls nothing other than Dame Darcy’s legendary Meat Cake

Please compare, and with that, I am done, and back to much more mundane medieval matters:

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Dame Darcy, Meat Cake #0, 1996.

Medieval Muteness: Disability, Objects, and Animals

Sabbatical honesty, then – in the two weeks since the last post, I’ve given back revisions to articles for the Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History (“Animals and Violence: Medieval Humanism, ‘Medieval Brutality,’ and the Carnivorous Vegetarianism of Margery Kempe”), The Open Access Canterbury Tales (animals and the Friar’s Tale), and a revised talk for a chapter in The Body Unbound, a classics &c anthology (“Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations“). I’m hoping to get back to the Book soon, as soon I get past doing my review of a book I’ll tell you about after I write my review.

What follows is a draft of a talk I’m giving in Madison, for the UW Madison Graduate Association of Medieval Studies on Friday, April 14. I’m sure to tweak this again in a few weeks, but just to get it out of my hair, and potentially into yours, here it is.

I’ve tried to do a little of everything in this, so my theory heads can gnaw on something, as can the ones who mainly want a bunch of neat medieval stories, as can the ones who want some hardcore medieval stuff to fight back against [and, to be honest, my competence in medieval grammar is minimal. At least for now]. 5,000 words is a lot to read! For you, and for me, but it’s a good 40-45 minutes, and: well! One hopes for the best.

Continue reading

No Soul, No Exit – Getting with/at the Body in the Disputation between the Body and the Worms

The 218-line “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (hereafter Disputation) survives only in British Library, Additional 37049, a much studied mid-fifteenth-century miscellany likely produced for or in a Northern English charterhouse, that is, a Carthusian monastery.[1] Medieval debate poetry includes arguments between scholars and knights, water and wine, various birds, and many postmortem debates between body and soul;[2] but the Disputation is the only one of these latter type with a specifically female gendered body, and, to boot, certainly the only one featuring a body at odds, so to speak, with its own edibility.

The poem’s action is as follows: It opens with its narrator escaping a plague and entering a church to pray. There, he encounters a new, freshly painted tomb, personalized with coats of arms and a copper plate engraved with the image of a fashionable woman.[3] The narrator swoons—“rapt and rauesched from my selfe” (25; rapt and ravished from my self) and, in a vision, witnesses the disputation. In it, Body protests the loss of her former beauty under the violence of the “most vnkynde neghbours þat euer war wroght” (44; the most unnatural/improper neighbors that were ever made). The worms insist that they will not leave “while þat one of þi bones with oþer wil hange” (59; while one of your bones still adheres to another), because they want only to feast on flesh. When Body threatens the worms with the warriors she commanded in life, the worms mock her with a typical ubi sunt catalog of departed worthies—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Dido, and others—all of whom ended up as wormfood too. The worms remind Body that she always been food for vermin: parasites have gnawed on her since she came into existence. Finally accepting this lesson on the vanity of worldly glory, Body awaits the Last Judgment, when she will rise again and be glorified. Then the narrator awakes and briefly recounts the clerical imprimatur granted this vision and its subsequent versification.

The Disputation has been often and correctly numbered among a host of late medieval memento mori and contemptus mundi works, which instruct people to prepare for their eventual death and to abandon the mutable and temporary pleasures of this world for the permanent rewards of heaven.[4] These studies remain faithful both to the poem’s moral conclusion and to the first two, especially the second, of its five illustrations: the first shows the narrator kneeling before a gruesome crucifix, an image both of suffering flesh and, at least implicitly, of that flesh’s promised perfection. The gendering of corpse and visionary, one a woman, the other a man, allows for straightforward interpretation of the poem as a whole: obviously the Disputation abjects putrefaction onto the feminized body. As is well known, the late medieval culture of celibate male clerics—practiced with particular intensity in Carthusian environs like the one that produced the compilation in which this poem survives—is just one hot zone of the longstanding misogynist habit of male-identified people performing their disappointment with and superiority to the flux and interdependency of material existence by insulting women.[5] Women, particularly old or laboring women, were made to emblematize the failure of all corporeal delights, all that inevitably goes awry with costume, beauty, desire, sex. The few who went along with the program might be exempted, for instance, a few other women illustrated in this compilation: the Virgin Mary, or its handful of saints, like Mary of Egypt, pictured with a body concealed under her own cascade of thick hair.[6]

Most other women, though, were made to be not bodies but flesh: if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder.[7] One body, the male visionary’s, kneels; the other, the woman’s, rots, liquefying into flesh and from there to ash. Thus the poem’s Body is herself made to say that all should “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189; avoid fleshly temptation), and that she too, even at this late stage, has to unlearn her own attachment to her flesh, just as the poem’s presumptively male-identified readers have to work up a horror for the fleshy existence they share with her.[8]

The poem’s grave and its horrid contents are therefore the interior of a cordon sanitaire into whose horrific interior these readers can clamber to safely explore the failures of their or any body. The poem’s narrator, the visionary, is their obvious stand-in. No stoic, his relationship to his own body, and the suffering bodies of others, is one of fear, horror, and, given the right body, honor: he arrives in the poem fleeing the plague, and then worships before a lurid image of the bleeding Christ. “Ravished” into a vision, he witnesses exactly what he should loathe, another incarnated form of the mortal delights of the world he had just fled. But if the vision is to do its work, the abjection needs to be minimally enacted, with the loathing for this corpse circling back to become self-loathing.

Elsewhere in this compilation, for example, an emperor has his pride tamed by being taken by his steward to his father’s grave. The emperor has the tomb opened, finds a stinking, worm-eaten body within, and then the emperor and his father’s corpse converse:

Þan sayd þe son, “Horrybil bestes restys with þe.” Þe voice sayd, “Thow sal cum and reste with me.” Þan sayd þe son, “Thy fayr flesche falls and fadys away.” “Son, so sal þine do, þat is now so gay.”[9]
[Then the son said, “Horrible beasts rest with you.” The voice said, “You shall come and rest with me.” Then the son said, “Your attractive flesh falls and fades away.” “Son, so shall yours do, which is now so elegant.]

With the son’s voice written in a column on the left, the father’s on the right, and the whole enclosed in a banderole, the conversation occurs in a frame that draws present flesh and future putrefaction into one field, not a conversational sequence but rather a completed admonition. So long as he identifies with his father—and he must, as the tomb’s carved figure of the dead emperor looks virtually identical to the body of the living one—the emperor will be made to know that his present is just the promise of an inevitable future. At minimum, the Disputation also requires identification like this. But only at minimum. Assuming what we can clumsily call a dominant heterosexuality,[10] the male-identified visionary is supposed less to want to be what the corpse was (an emperor, for example) than he is supposed to want the body itself. “Sex,” Masha Raskolnikov observes, “haunt[s] the rhetoric of all Body/Soul debates,”[11] but nowhere else in the tradition does this specter assume quite so material a form. Consider the famous encounter of the three living and three dead, but imagine in this case that the dead, with their statements of “what you are, I once was,” and so on, had once been sexually desirable to the living.

This is why the Dreamer must also be identified with the worms too, because they mark out a space of difference between the Dreamer and the (female) Body, so that desire can be enacted, but piously, which is to say, in this case, through loathing and punishment. By speaking the most orthodox lessons in ascetic disgust, the “phallic”[12] worms play the part of the wise men, the angel, or the other knowing figures in other such stories. As a man, the visionary can join this crowd of Big Others in lecturing this woman about the proper, disdainful relation to the flesh, hers and his—with full mouths. This in a Carthusian manuscript, a product of an order that was, by the fifteenth century, infamous for its fanatic vegetarianism![13] As if doubling down on the hypocrisy, the worms explain that they know how disgusting their meal is, even if they cannot feel the disgust: “If we, as bestes, had smellyng & tastynge, / Trows þou þat we wald towche þi caryone playne? / Nay, parde, we wald it voyde for certayne!” (69-71; if we, as beasts, had the capacities to smell or taste, do you think that we would touch your bare carrion? No, by God, we would certainly vomit it out!). This is not the compilation’s only overdetermined entanglement of flesh, self, authority, retribution, and asceticism. A short poem, set down a few pages before the Disputation, features a falconer who entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of “rede flesche”;[14] so too, it explains, does Christ draw us back, where we can join him on the “cros of penaunce” through “discrete poneyschyng of thi body.” Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that “the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences”:[15] Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon whose submission to Christ transforms him into both “meat and crucified savior.” What the Disputation has on this is sexual desire and gender transformation: the visionary has to want this woman, or someone like her, or he has at least to imagine himself superior to anyone who would have been taken in by her. He wants the ascetic lesson inflicted on her for what she and others like her make him want, but at the same time he has to know himself as her too, because unless he recognizes her body as like his own, this ouroboric lesson simply cannot take.

Of course, it matters that the male visionary gets the gift of humiliation by tarrying with a rotten woman. Put bluntly, the Disputation is about a man scared of death who draws solace and wisdom from watching a beautiful woman putrefy. In this system, she should be humiliated, because she is a woman; and if only he would understand himself correctly, he can choose to be humiliated too. The emperor of the parable comes to know that the mighty are finally brought low; the dreamer of this poem, that the attractive, but socially semi-subaltern (given Body’s nobility), are really to be scorned, but also that, when it comes to our bodies, he is not really so different from them. This lesson is meant for all, generated from her body and her comeuppance. But when poem ends with the dreamer telling both “Man & Woman…al lustes for to lefe” [215; men and women to leave all lusts], and indeed with Body intoning “What he salbe & also what is he / Be it he or sche, be þai neuer so fayr, bewar / Of pryde” (184-6; what he shall be, and also what he is, whether it be a he or she, no matter how attractive they are, beware of pride), these universal lessons, for men and women both, erase the distinction between lust for the other and lust for the self that drives the poem’s weird drama. In particular, it erases how this story of sanctimonious retribution draws its vocabulary, as Elizabeth Robertson observes, from the pastourelle poetry of rape.[16] Ecocritical writing on flows of identity and material immanence must always remember what bodies are made to be naturally suitable for their lessons:[17] I know of no medieval death vision of a woman looking, lips tightened with disgust, into the grave of a man

This is all true, but for most of the poem, the visionary is only implicitly present. He is watching, but he does not interact. This absence allows us to concentrate not just on the bizarre identifications the poem requires, but also the lesson of the grave, to identify the feature that distinguishes the Disputation from perhaps every other work in the vast and crowded genre of medieval death piety. This is its refusal to provide the immanent Body with an immaterial counterpart. Typical debate poetry of this sort tends to split body from soul, and sets each to arguing with the other over which should be blamed for the infernal or purgatorial plight the self has fallen into: “Nou is mon hol and soint” [Now is Man Whole and Sound] has soul blame the body for not fasting on Fridays, not giving alms on Saturday, and not attending church on Sundays; “In a þestri stude I stod” [In a Dark State I Stood] has soul begin with contemptuous “Wo worþe þi fleis, þi foule blod, wi liggest þou nou here” [woe betide your flesh, your foul blood, why do you lie here?], an anger that soul unrelentingly maintains until its final prophetic flourish, an eschatological sequence of the world’s terrifying last seven days that concludes with Christ’s return; “Als I lay in winteris nyt” [As I lay in Winter’s night], whose 624 lines give Body space to fight back against Soul’s pious sarcasm (here soul’s “þi foule blod” is met with body’s “3if þou hast schame & gret despite, / Al it is þine owhen gilt” [if you have shame and great disdain / it is entirely your own fault]).[18]

The compilation itself has its own Body versus Soul debate.[19] This four-page prose work, excerpted from the Pilgrimage of the Soul—itself translated from Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme—begins with the usual vituperation: “Art þou þere yon wretchyd body so horribilt and fowle stynkyng wormes mete and noreschyng of corrupcioun? Wher is now þi pryde and þi fers hert? What is þi lewd play cummen to”[20] [are you there wretched Body, so horrible and foul, stinking worms’ food and nourishment of corruption? Where is your pride and fierce heart now? What has your foolish conduct come to?]; it stops, with startling practicality, to consider the science of putrefaction (noble things, Soul explains, smell worse when they rot)[21]; and most of the debate tends to argue in favor of the actual unification of Body and Soul, implicitly resisting the very separation of aspects of the self that makes debate possible. Like so much else in the compilation, it is illustrated. The first three of its four images pair Body, brown and ghastly, stretched out in its shroud, with Soul clean, white, and presumably male (although its pubes, like the other souls of the compilation, are smooth and featureless). Body has itself become white in the last illustration, perhaps finally reduced to bones, as if, by the debate’s end, Body had finally finished rotting. The first and last illustrations also include a hovering angel, who, in the debate, has the last word, telling Body and Soul to leave off their squabbling, since they predestined to salvation anyway,[22] after which it addresses the audience with an allegorical story about two men, one blind, the other deaf, condemned for colluding in the theft of fruit from an orchard in which they had been set to work. By providing each disputant with a clear locus of speech (itself indicated so neatly with their gestures), by furnishing a hovering angel, there to quench the anger with a promise of salvation, and by repairing the self that both death and the debate had split apart, this text offers an end and an escape and a permanence of the self. Though the self does fight, it fights with itself, which will eventually be made whole and find its way, in this case, to heaven.

In the Disputation, however, there is no soul, nothing that could be identified as having any permanence. To be sure, Body does speak of the coming Resurrection, but we need not furnish it with an exit if it provides none,[23] just as we need not provide it with a soul.[24] Speaking objects are not uncommon in medieval debate poetry: water and wine, for example, go at each other, as do abstractions like Nature and Nurture (which argue over who has more claim to the gender indeterminate knight of the Roman de Silence), and animate but supposedly irrational animals, like the Owl and Nightingale of the poem of the same name. No modern reader of these works has argued that these entities must have souls, rational or otherwise, to be able to talk; no one has been troubled by their obvious fictionality, by how this form allows problems to be worked out in a dramatic, and open-ended form of a debate, whose superiority to typical philosophical texts lies in their having no illusion that their positions are anything but competing forms of situated knowledge. Speaking bodies are common enough in medieval writing of this period,[25] and, to put it baldly, in a Body and Soul debate, the position of the soul is obviously held by the Soul. That the debate is between the Body and the Worms, and named as such in the manuscript, should mean, quite simply, that it is a debate between exactly these two things. If some fifteenth-century “context” is needed to avoid furnishing the Disputation with a soul, the simplest explanation is that the lady had once had a soul, and that by the time the poem begins, it has already left, either to heaven, hell, or what is more expected in this period, purgatory, and that what we witness in this debate is what is left over, in the period between death and the soul’s return to a recreated body in the Last Judgment.

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, Body in effect plays the part of soul in this poem, with one crucial exception: Body is a body, and therefore immanent rather than transcendent. The place that would have been held, in other such works, by the voice of what could have escaped, is here held by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always shifting materiality. If the soul is located in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

We need not imagine that Body’s voice must emanate from some spiritual immateriality, some promise of transcendence, some separation of agential self from the objectified matter it inhabits and moves.  This is all to say, despite the tendency of even modern critics to persist in using metaphors of “vitality” and “animation” to describe the character of “agency,” this poem presents a disanimated, corporeal self, aware of itself as self, of course, but without any principle of separation that would rescue the self from being an object for others. What the soullessness of the Disputation presents, then, is an almost unimaginable immanent selfhood, something that suffers from a capacity often ignored in accounts of impersonal life, “composting,” and other ecocritical, posthumanist philosophy, namely, the capacity to die, which it gives voice to, impossibly, from the other side of death. This immanent self does not own its death; nothing can. Rather, it gets its voice only to complain that its claim to itself can only be temporary; for all that temporariness, this is a voice nonetheless, whose very intensity of complaint, and capacity to learn even, counteract the disdain for the body that the poem aims to summon. And as I will consider in my next section, the forces of dissolution that take its flesh are not alien to it but inherent to its and any material existence.

[1] For a brief treatment of the manuscript and its likely contexts, Emily Richards, “Writing and Silence: Transitions Between the Contemplative and the Active Life,” in Pieties in Translation: Religious Practices and Experiences C. 1400-1640, ed. Richard Lutton and Elisabeth Salter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 168–70.

[2] Histories of this genre are easy to come by. One of the best is in Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 62–63, 71–72.

[3] At this point, the poem becomes garbled, with perhaps as much as two of its 7-line rhyme royal stanzas missing between the description of the tomb and the narrator’s ravishment; John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), 53 n22-8.

[4] Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 221–27; Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992), 203, 237; Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 29–30; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 191–92; Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, “The Remains of the Royal Dead in an English Carthusian Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 37049,” Viator 33 (2002): 310–354; Marjorie M. Malvern, “An Earnest ‘Monyscyon’ and ‘Þinge Delectabyll’ Realized Verbally and Visually in‘ A Disputacion Betwyx Þe Body and Wormes,’ A Middle English Poem Inspired by Tomb Art and Northern Spirituality,” Viator 13 (1982): 415–450; Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 160–61; Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 328–30.

[5] The classic treatment is Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), eg, 15, “The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.” For a good summary of the tradition and feminist developments, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 25–26. For the persistence of this notion, Midas Dekkers, The Way of All Flesh: A Celebration of Decay, trans. Sherry Marx-Macdonald (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 103, “Generally, it’s easier to tell a group of Chinese people apart than it is a circle of little old ladies from Florida,” here remarking on cosmetics, among many such appalling assessments, fatally marring a book so eager to be a modern version of Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall.

[6] British Museum Additional 37049, 48v. See also a similarly hirsute Mary Magdalene, ascending to heaven on 50v. For the benefit of non-medievalists: manuscripts are typically numbered by the sheet, rather than by the side of the sheet. The 48r would indicate the “recto,” the top side of one sheet (of paper, parchment, etc), and 48v its “verso,” the back side.

[7] For the gendered complexities of body, flesh, and spirit, Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26–34, and, at length, Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[8] For other comments on the poem’s multi-gendered identifications, Elizabeth Robertson, “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English ‘A Disputation Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 138 (“the dreamer is ravished and raped by his vision,” a submission to rape that anticipates what Robertson argues the Body suffers from the worms); Wendy A. Matlock, “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 267 (“the initial image of the woman’s figure unites the anonymous narrator with the unknown woman”).

[9] Brant Lee Doty, “An Edition of British Museum Manuscript Additional 37049” (PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, 1969), 489, 87r. I have been unable to consult the other edition of the compilation, likewise available only in an unpublished dissertation; Barbara B Streeter, “British Museum Additional MS 37049: A Mirror of the Fifteenth-Century Contemplative Mind” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 1971).

[10] James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1 (2006): 14, “If homosexuality was not a ‘recognized concept’ in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn’t either.”

[11] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

[12] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141–42.

[13] For a summary of fifteenth-century controversies about the Carthusian diet, Julia Fleming, “When ‘Meats Are like Medicines’: Vitoria and Lessius on the Role of Food in the Duty to Preserve Life,” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008): 101–3.

[14] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 184, 28r.

[15] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 132.

[16] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141.

[17] Though the “we” in the following is true, I am wary of it: Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 97, “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters–human and not–become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.” See similar statements at 32, 55, and 101-2. As much as I embrace her ontology and politics, Haraway rather has her foot on the scale in her praise for sympoietic becomings and disdain for anthropocentric refusals to involute: the former tend to be represented by queer, anticolonialist, antiracist art, while the latter is represented, for example, by Eichmann himself (“who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle,” 36).

[18] All three poems are edited in Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry.

[19] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 323, for the work, editions, and studies.

[20] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 455.

[21] Ibid., 461.

[22] Ibid., 463.

[23] See also Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 264, “the poem ends inconclusively without an account of the body’s fate after resurrection.”; Wendy A. Matlock, “Vernacular Theology in the ‘Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in Translatio: Or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura Holden Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 123–27, on the poem’s irresolution on the question of whether the body will be saved or not.

[24] Compare Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 126, “the corpse that speaks is animated by a soul, of course, because it is a soul that allows it to speak.” Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 274, “The soul never appears,” which leads Matlock to conclude that the soul is present indistinguishably with Body. Also see Katherine H. Terrell, “Rethinking the ‘Corse in Clot’: Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in ‘Pearl,’” Studies in Philology 105, no. 4 (2008): 437 n14, “the soul appears to remain with the body [in the Disputation], awaiting a judgment.”

[25] By engaging with a soulless death poem, I am going further than Phillipa C. Maddern, “Murdering Souls and Killing Bodies: Understanding Spiritual and Physical Sin in Late-Medieval English Devotional Works,” in Conjunctions of Mind, Soul, and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment, ed. Danijela Kambaskovic (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 25–45, which tracks how bodies and souls sometimes “swap essential characteristics” in late medieval writing.

Oysters, How We Begin

And here’s the introduction to my oyster chapter! If you’re VERY eager for 15,304 words on oysters, I’ve put the whole thing up, not on academia.edu, because I’m not a chump, but here, on CUNY Academic Commons. If you’re VERY eager to leave a comment, do it there. It’s a good system.

1

MS Bodley 602 34r

“But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” – David Hume, “On Suicide”

“He that does not perceive any higher degree of perfection in a man than in an oyster . . . hath not the reason or understanding of a man in him.” – Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe

“What is prematurely, or belatedly, called the ‘I’ is, at the outset, enthralled.” – Judith Butler, Precarious Life[1]

Oyster books love to talk about pearls and Chesapeake Bay’s oyster war; they love how oyster middens chart the passage not of cavemen but of ancient “covemen.”[2] These same writers happily accept the oyster’s fleshy invitation to aphrodisiacal excess. And when they look to New York City, they love to mourn the loss of its oyster beds, closed in 1927 by pollution and over-harvesting, once home to trillions of the creatures, a seedbed for nostalgia for the grittier appetites of New York’s presumably populist past.[3] At times they talk about how the oyster itself grants a chance of ecological salvation: “oystertecture” offers a possible fix to New York City’s hurricane problems; the oyster’s shell, made of calcium carbonate, helps offset the increasing acidification of the oceans;  and living oysters themselves prodigiously filter water, as what they ingest and don’t eat they eject as pseudofeces, mucous-coated matter that falls to the ocean floor to be processed and rendered safe by anoxic bacteria.[4]

None of this is unimportant, but even the ecological attention to the oyster as an object still thinks of it as there primarily for the use of others. The oyster itself still remains on the outside of our care, thoughtlessly exiled to where even Peter Singer had once left them, when he once notoriously declared that the line between ethically significant and ethically insignificant animals lies “somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster.”[5] Since the latter are no more likely to feel pain than plants do, Singer concluded that so long as they’re sustainably produced and gathered (what to call this activity – harvesting? hunting? – is itself worth noting), there is “no good reason” not to eat them. If there is, as yet, little behavioral or chemical evidence that oysters can feel pain,[6] and if pain, furthermore, is an adaptation suited for animals that can move, an oyster not only cannot feel pain, it also has no reason to, at least once it has passed its first, mobile larval stage, and affixed itself, for its life’s remainder, to some surface.[7] To put this as baldly as possible: a mature oyster feels no pain because there is no way for them to escape us. So long as we assume that the ethical neutrality of killing and eating things that do not know they’re being killed and eaten, then the only reason to grant any given oyster more ethical consideration than any generally edible plant would be because oysters are animals, and animals, categorically speaking, cannot be deliberately killed and eaten by anyone with good ethics.[8]

The great irony here is that Singer, at least here – as he has since decided that it is ethically safer not to eat oysters[9]—harmonizes in some small way with the philosopher whom we can safely call his arch-nemesis. For in November 1646, René Descartes penned a letter to William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, that likewise offered the oyster, so helpless and so silent, as neatly exemplifying the point where we get to stop caring. Descartes’ chief difference from Singer is to extend this oystery example to all nonhumans. He finished this letter by arguing that if one believed that animals had thought, like us, then they must have an immortal soul, and that one would have to believe this of all animals, oysters or sponges included, which are “too imperfect for this to credible.”[10] This brief passage is a restatement of an argument he published nine years previously, in his Discourse on Method, that likewise ended by insisting that humans uniquely possessed immortal souls, because otherwise “we have nothing to fear or to hope for after this life any more than do flies and ants.”[11] Both these arguments make similarly strange leaps. In the letter to Cavendish, the preceding material is chiefly about the clockwork automatism of nonhumans; in the Discourse on Method, about the inability of nonhumans to produce rational speech, and to get to their respective ends, each argument first passes through the larger animals, so obviously – at least to the nonphilosopher – thrumming with life, intention, and interests: nightingales, parrots, monkeys, dogs, and, cats. And both finish with animals whose silence could hardly be exceeded. Despite being blamed for inaugurating the modern tyranny of instrumental reason over animals,[12] Descartes’ reasoning is essentially that of any Christian medieval scholar, at least insofar as he just assumes that nonhumans die and stay dead and that humans, by contrast, can at least spiritually persist.[13] What is more striking is the presence of the oyster in a proof about clockwork motion: what could be more still than an oyster? Had he not been so bound to prove his own human difference, he might have argued that, for example, oysters were incapable of rational speech or noninstinctual motion, and that other animals were not. The very absurdity of the final flourish of the oyster in an argument about monkeys and cats and nightingales demonstrates both a desire to enclose all nonhuman life, no matter its noisiness and motility, within the stolid shells of oystery immobility, and demonstrates another, even odder point, that when a writer wants to argue about the ethnical inconsiderability of animals, or to imagine animal life at its most minimal, or to determine the absolute limits of animal life, the animal that offers itself up more readily than any other is the oyster. This has been true, as I’ll observe below, since Plato, and remained true at least through to the eighteenth century.

We could respond by saving the dogs and cats from the briny clutches of this border creature, as some animal rights philosophers have sought to rescue the larger mammals from the ethical irrelevance of insects and other swarming invertebrates;[14] we could go still further and try to rescue the oysters themselves, and thereby liberate nonhuman life in general into the uncertain protection of humans of good conscience. Such generation of sensitivity for the apparently insensible has been the habit of all ecocritics as they seek to ethically outflank one another. On this point at least, I can assure the reader that there is nothing to worry about. My interest is in the rich opportunities oysters offer for rethinking standard approaches to posthumanism. Derrida’s otherwise monumental contribution to critical animal theory, for example, largely has no purchase on the shoals of indifferent, uncharismatic oysters, more like landscapes than collections of individuals: it is not only that they seem to lack the capacity for sentience so important to animal rights philosophy, that they cannot speak or suffer, and not only that they can hardly be thought of like, say, cats, as “unsubstitutable singularities,” not only that they simply cannot look back, so that arrogant philosophers might be “seen seen” in their gaze.[15] It is that in the archives I will describe below, oysters can barely be said to be alive, barely be said to be animals, and could hardly exhibit their “agency” or intention—those bywords of speculative realism—more faintly.

Ultimately, I intend to leave the oyster exactly where Descartes, and Singer, at least for a while, left them, but with this difference: I will propose that we crowd in with it, and that, for a while, we give up on our lonely claim to the other side, where Descartes and his unacknowledged medieval masters cleared a space for us to comfortably, and delusionally, pretend to live a life of free will and obvious moral significance. Singer’s understanding of the oyster as only barely animal, and essentially insensible of harm, accords well both with modern science and, especially, with the premodern archive, which, more than modern oyster writing, is particularly concerned with the helpless, mostly insensible umwelt of the oyster. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t widely known: cultural studies, gustatory tours, or eco-history tend not to do much with premodern writing about oysters.[16] This narrow historical perspective is a mistake. It’s not just that premodern writing often considers the oyster; it’s that fascination with the oyster as the border creature – in Singer, Descartes, and a host of other examples, classical and medieval chiefly – and the surprising tendency of one strain of oyster-thinking to compare humans to them, offers a route to recognizing that the oyster’s passivity and exposure to being injured are not alien to our human condition, but emblematic of it. Thinking with the oyster counters the certainty that the chief feature of humans is our agency. The oyster helps us recognize better own secondariness; our not fully conscious belatedness in relation to our own situation, the basic, inescapable vulnerability of existence, and helps us recognize that not only things that do things merit our consideration.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Posthumous Essays, Of the Immortality of the Soul, and Of Suicide, from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding of Miracles, ed. Richard H. Popkin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 100; Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism Is Confuted; and Its Impossibility Demonstrated (London: Richard Royston, 1678), 858; Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 45.

[2] See especially John R. Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacosts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The first such work may be a fourth-century poetic letter in praise of oysters in all their sybaritic variety, by Ausonius to Paulinus of Nola, in Ausonius, Volume II: Books 18-20. Paulinus Pellaeus: Eucharisticus, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library 115 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921), Letter V, 12–17. For a sampling of modern oyster books, see Summer Brennan, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015); Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006); Rebecca Stott, Oyster (London: Reaktion, 2004); Robb Walsh, Sex, Death, and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); John R. Wennersten, The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay (Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1981). For the libretto of comic opera about the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars, John F. Duncan, “Driven from the Seas, or The Pirate Dredger’s Doom,” 1880.

[4] For a sampling of oyster facts, see the following New York Times articles, which all appeared after Hurricane Sandy hit the city: Andrew C. Revkin, “Students Press the Case for Oysters as New York’s Surge Protector,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/students-press-the-case-for-oysters-as-new-yorks-surge-protector/; Alan Feuer, “Protecting New York City, Before Next Time,” The New York Times, November 3, 2012, sec. N.Y. / Region, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/nyregion/protecting-new-york-city-before-next-time.html; Douglas Quenqua, “Oyster Shells Are an Antacid to the Oceans,” The New York Times, May 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/science/oyster-shells-are-an-antacid-to-the-oceans.html. See also “Living Breakwaters Design and Implementation,” SCAPE, accessed February 20, 2017, http://www.scapestudio.com/projects/living-breakwaters-design-implementation/, flood abatement infrastructure for Tottenville, Staten Island, which will begin construction in 2018.

[5] For his oyster opinions, see Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Random House, 1975), 188; and Christopher Cox, “Consider the Oyster,” Slate, April 7, 2010, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2010/04/consider_the_oyster.html.

[6] Robin Jean Crook and Edgar Walters, “Nociceptive Behavior and Physiology of Molluscs: Animal Welfare Implications,” ILAR Journal / National Research Council, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources 52, no. 2 (2011): 188–89. Further study in molluscs and pain have tended to focus, understandably, on octopuses, squids, and sea slugs; for example, Lynne Sneddon, “Pain in Aquatic Animals,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (2015): 971–73, but also see Gregory A. Lewbart and Conny Mosley, “Clinical Anesthesia and Analgesia in Invertebrates,” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 21, no. 1 (2012): 64, which summarizes research from the 1990s on using a 1% solution of Propylene Phenoxetol to relax oysters into opening their shells.

[7] For a treatment for the general public by an “ostrovegan” scientist (albeit an evolutionary psychologist, not a mollusc expert), Diana Fleischman, “The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels,” Sentientist, May 20, 2013, https://sentientist.org/2013/05/20/the-ethical-case-for-eating-oysters-and-mussels/.

[8] For one version of this argument, Marc Bekoff, “Vegans and Oysters: If You Eat Oysters, You’re Not a Vegan, So Why the Question?,” in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 263–66.

[9] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990), 174.

[10] René Descartes, Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. III: The Correspondence, trans. Robert Stoothoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304; René Descartes, Oeuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1908), vol. iv, 576.

[11] René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 33; Descartes, Oeuvres, vol. vi, 59.

[12] For a particularly smart example, Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[13] For example, “whan a beest is dead he hath no peyne; / but man after his deeth moost wepe and pleyne”; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Dean Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987), Knight’s Tale, I.1319-20.

[14] Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[15] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 9, 13.

[16] This is true even for Stott, Oyster, the only literary/cultural theory volume on the oyster I know, which is otherwise quite good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglophone writing.

Oysterpomorphism

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.


picture1

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.