Withdrawing the Grain


When I teach the Prioress’s Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students “who kills the Little Clergeon?” Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: “the Jews,” or “a Jewish professional murderer,” while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy’s tongue.

Who’s the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.

Now, though, I’m newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here’s the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):

“Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,

In honour of that blisful Mayden free

Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;

And after that thus seyde she to me:

‘My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,

Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.

Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'”

This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I

His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,

And he yaf up the goost ful softely.

And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,

His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,

And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,

And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.

The monk’s newly captured my sympathy, now, because I’ve made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk’s choice.

That’s far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.

My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress’s Tale, I was told that we were “tying God’s hands” by letting my mother die). My father’s own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, “you should have let me die.” Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.

It’s odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer’s ugliest tale. It’s not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can’t help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also  “ybounde” to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.


Everything is Food, or Making Friends

6932048837_28d5225601_zThanks a million, everyone, for your comments on my previous posts. Thanks to the later engagements by J. Allan Mitchell, Ashby Kinch, Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Michael Sarabia, and Eileen, for such helpful and generous suggestions and critiques. So many changes! In material I’m not sharing here, probably, I’ve invoked Jonathan Gil Harris on context, Bataille on wet and dry death, Maurice Bloch on the same, and–before cutting it, because, you know, 5000 words! not a lot of room!–Linda Charnes on wormholes. With an eye towards The Babel Working Group’s Boston event, I’ve read the introduction to this brilliant living book on Symbiosis. Oh, and various bits on “radical moisture” (thanks E. R. Truitt!) and a few essays from Micrologus‘s 1999 issue on The Corpse (warning: PDF).

Perhaps the key difference happened to my wet/dry death schema. It’s now dry/dusty/wet. For dry death, think bones, especially skulls. Dry death grants the dead continued agency and presence, on their own terms or that of their community (for the latter point, look at the Maurice Bloch essay Patricia Clare Ingham recommended). Dry death’s remains—a word that, after all, means both “left over” and “persists”—have borders as neat as those the subject presumes itself to have had in life. By contrast, a dusty death, considered by neither Bloch or Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.” Of course I get “dusty death” from Macbeth, where life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. Wet death is as I presented it before.

The essay’s main change, however, is that I reached the end. That’s why I’m here, and that’s what I’m going to give you….NOW.

(nb for the befuddled or impatient: there’s a bit of overlap with my last post).


The worms’ appetite offers a posthuman lesson far in excess of what has typically granted to critical animal theorists by more familiar critters. They tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), and, later, that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). The worms have commanded these messengers:

Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;

Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,

And after come with þe to our regyowne,

þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)

[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].

When the corpse protests by citing scripture, “bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle” (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man’s complaint), the worms counter, “Þat power dures whils man has lyfe…now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe” (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable hunger, the corpse cannot get free. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject promoted by animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims.

All she can do is accept that she is food, and has been, all along, an unwitting host to a world of hungry others. Put another way, the Disputation, like other medieval death texts, operates as a textual pre-history to the new materialism’s frequent (and welcome) microbial perorations, like Jane Bennett’s observation that for the supposedly human body, so prolifically sharing itself with microbes, “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes.” These bodies are our companions, some of whom feed with us, some off us, and some who work for our deaths.

In words that we might hear as addressing these companions, the body declares “lat vs be frendes at þis sodayn brayde / Neghbours and luf as before we gan do / Let vs kys and dwell to gedyr euermore” (194-6; let us be friends after this unexpected commotion; let us be neighbors and love as we did before. Let us kiss and dwell together forever). A beautiful sentiment, ruined perhaps by her added conditions: “to þat God wil þat I sal agayn vpryse / At þe day of dome before þe hye justyse, / With þe body glorified to be” (197-9; until God wills that I shall rise again, on Judgment Day, to be called before his justice with a glorified body). She expects to be rescued from worldly entanglement, but the “euermore” may better characterize her situation than her hope for resurrection. Simply because the word seems to be so inappropriate, it had least merits more attention.

The “euermore” cannot mean the bodies of corpse and worms themselves. The corpse will soon lose itself entirely to the worms’ mouths, while her matter will go on without her. The worms and other vermin, constitutively vulnerable like anything else, have no better claim for personal perpetuity; they too will feed something and be passed on. “Euermore” might be heard, therefore, as characterizing not impossible bodily persistence but rather the activity of corpse and worms dwelling together. To dwell with worms, to kiss them and be friends, means to recognize oneself as caught up in neverending cycles of appetite, abysses that go on swallowing for “euermore.” The corpse may thus be heard as saying, “we share this condition of edibility, you and I. As much as we can, let’s be friends in it.”

In friendship, the corpse gives herself up to what has always had her. She offers herself to what would have taken her anyway. In so doing, she accepts what we might take as the final lessons of medieval death poetry: that nothing, not our humanity, not our wealth, not our beauty, will let us “outsource” our vulnerability; and that appetites and desires, human and otherwise, will be humbled by the appetites and desires of others. We are not the center; there is no center. Amid appetites like ours, vulnerable and hungry, we should never forget the use that will be made of all of us. We are for others, whether we know it or not.

Memento mori; memento vivere; memento edere; memento edi.


(the post’s title, shared by the whole essay, comes from Henry Nilsson)

(and the image is Kiki Smith’s “Nocturne”)

Caught in Worms’ Eyes

I think this will be the last bit I’ll post to ITM, at least in this round of sharing. A bit of a roadmap of what comes between my most recent post and this one: after the dry death/wet death thoughts, I do the obligatory summary of the Disputation and briefly present the standard, moral reading, which, you know, aims to accurately duplicate the poem’s original interpretative possibilities: disdain the world for the sake of heaven, etc. etc.. And that’s fine! (or maybe it stinks?) Let a thousand (wormy) flowers bloom.


The first of the Disputation‘s four illustrations resembles a fashionable late medieval “double” or “cadaver” tomb, and so works perfectly within the contemptus mundi tradition. Classic English examples of these monuments, virtually contemporary with the Disputation manuscript, include those of Bishop Richard Fleming (d. 1431) at Lincoln Cathedral and of Henry Chichele (d. 1443) at Canterbury Cathedral. The top of a typical double tomb display the body as it appeared in the prime of life, dressed in its institutional regalia or otherwise elaborately clothed, lying as if in sleep; in a lower level, the tomb shows the body as an emaciated corpse, naked or barely draped with a shroud.

On the upper level, then, the tomb shows the perfected future body of the resurrection, or the entombed subject’s ideal imaginary (in a Lacanian sense) selfhood in the pride of its worldly life; below, the tomb represents the fraudulence of any beauty in this mutable world. Some funerary art went still further by displaying the corpse putrefying, with entrails exposed, swarming with toads, snakes, and other vermin. Some even eschewed the idealized body altogether, displaying only the rotting corpse (again, see Kathleen Cohen’s indispensable guide). Those who encountered the tomb were meant at once to admire the dead, to speed them through purgatory with their prayers, and, piously disgusted, to think on their own impending deaths (so says Pamela King).

Drawing on and perfecting this tradition, the Disputation‘s manuscript shows a lifelike, beautiful tomb sculpture while, at the same time, impossibly displaying the tomb’s rotting contents, around which cluster worms and other vermin. The Disputation itself includes a typical cadaver tomb verse on this very leaf (see above) by directing the reader, in the first two lines, to “take hede vnto my fygure here abowne / And se how sumtyne I was fressche & gay / Now turned to wormes mete & corrupcone” (take heed of my figure here above, now turned to worms’ meat and corruption), and in the final lines, encircled with a banner, “when þou leste wenes, venit mors te superare / when þi grafe [sic] grenes. bonum est mortis meditari” (when you least expect it, death comes and overcomes you; when the grass is green, it is good to have death in mind). The tomb may represent a woman in the pride of her life–admired by the world of her peers, feared and hated by monks, and scorned by God–but she has seen fit to make advance arrangements to have herself speak, through her tomb, the most properly orthodox sentiments about worldly contempt.

This is thus a tomb that, like other cadaver tombs, simultaneously announces a contempt for worldly existence while demanding that the subject be remembered; this is a promise that this self and the ones watching it will come to nothing that also maintains the self’s power to speak significantly as a moral authority. The self-abnegation of the cadaver tomb negates the negation by more firmly preserving the self against death’s oblivion. Far from giving the self entirely over to death, cadaver tombs instead grant the human as much perpetuity as this world offers (not least of all because many of them were made of stone!). Therefore, cadaver tombs and other medieval death art, for the most part, operate like anthropophagy narratives, which, by presenting anthropophagy as especially horrific, simultaneously enfold human death within ethical frames and, through significant silence, exclude the deaths of nonhumans from ethical significance (me!). Such deliberate humiliations preserve the self as self simply by letting the self decide to be humiliated; the self of self-abandonment remains its own responsible agent. Dispossession in this case is therefore a mode of continued possession.
Consider the following excerpt from an early fifteenth-century verse, “My lief life that livest in wealth,” in which a corpse catalogs its decay:

In mi riggeboon bredith an addir kene,

Min eiyen dasewyn swithe dimme:

Mi guttis rotin, myn heer is green,

My teeth grennen swithe grymme.

[In my spin breeds a fierce adder, my failed eyes dim very much: my guts rot, my hair is green, my teeth grin so grim.]

Rosemary Woolf terms this and the following, similar lines “perhaps too repellent in content…to deserve inclusion in any anthology” (318), but what should have struck her was not the repulsiveness but rather the anaphora: “mi riggeboon,” “min eiyen,” “mi guttis,” “my teeth.” The performance of dissolution, a deliquescent striptease, is not an instance of the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft–much loved by the new materialists–in which we confront the “anonymous, impersonal ‘in itself’ of the world, indifferent to us as human beings” (Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet, 17); nor is this an eruption of the “shapeless, mucous stuff of the life-substance” of the Real into the pride of the Symbolic. The repulsion of “My lief life” does not let itself out into or even past the furthest reaches of repulsion, since the repetition of the possessive pronoun in each line holds on to the body as human, as belonging to a speaking, singular subject, though the operations of the grave should undo it utterly. Here as elsewhere, the human body, whether idealized or hideous, remains the cynosure. As with cadaver tombs, any hungry vermin move through the body’s flesh or rest on top of it, or they orbit it as a kind of creeping halo. Focused on us, the vermin are as much of secondary importance to our existence as the pair of faithful dogs (here’s one; here’s another) so often serving as footrests for the central, human bodies of medieval recumbent tomb sculpture.

By contrast, the remaining three illustrations of the Disputation forsake anthropocentrism altogether, demanding an interpretation of the poem far less faithful to the interpretative traditions of medieval death poetry. The corpse and the worms are figures, as the dreamer explains, “strangly ilk one oþer corespondynge” (27; each one strangely alike the other), each engaging the other “in maner of a dyaloge” (28; in the manner of a dialogue). Here, humans have met their match; surprised to be engaged in a dialogue–or something like a dialogue–they have been dislodged from their presumption of centrality and singular agency.
c13087-35The illustrations (see my last two worm-posts for the other two) show an emaciated corpse standing, its face a skull, marked as a woman by its fashionable head-dress, and, depending on the illustration, either looking down or up at four worms, all as large as one of her limbs, and all with a single black dot perhaps representing an eye. In the illustrations, as in the text of the poem itself, the worms are the corpse’s equal or even superiors, another set of beings, interested in but not secondary to her. While the eye gives them just enough of a face to be able to address her, their featurelessness otherwise refuses anthropomorphic appropriation. Their presentation as a crowd of four “mawkes” (112) rather than an individuals—note that only the maggots are plural among the poem’s list of 19 grave animals—is just as much a refusal: as a hungry, speaking group, they are indisputably alive, but as a swarm or pack, they evade personalization, refusing to mirror back to us our pretensions to singular selfhood.

Not dogs, lions, or even birds, certainly not the “charismatic megafauna” so beloved by animal rights thinkers and, for that matter, youtube, not offering to meet us with the intimate, profound gaze of “wildlife,” the worms are like us only in their claim to agency, their need to feed, and, perhaps, their possession of their own wisdom. Furthermore, in their appetite, they claim to be our body’s ultimate master, or, in fact, the everpresent master whose supremacy we come to know only when our body gives out. The worms tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), commanding them:

Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;

Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,

And after come with þe to our regyowne,

þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)

[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].

The corpse protests by citing scripture, “bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle” (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man’s complaint). The worms counter, “Þat power dures whils man has lyfe…now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe” (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable appetites, the corpse cannot spurn the worms as she should have spurned worldly delights. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject of animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims. And she cannot attempt to construct herself as human by subduing her harassers, because humans’ divinely promised mastery has been revealed as only ever temporary and partial, doomed to failure. In short, she cannot escape her own materiality and thus her own useful availability.

The corpse has been reminded that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). In discovering herself to be food, she also discovers herself to have been food all along, an unwitting host to a world of others. Put another way, the “food for worms” topos offers itself readily as a textual pre-history to the new materialism’s frequent (and welcome) bacterial perorations. I offer two examples:

The surfaces of living beings are envelopes and filters, thick regions where complex chemical transfers and reactions take place….At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down. (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 36).

Similarly, Jane Bennett glosses an observation that “the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively posses at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome,” with “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes” (112-113). Matter, vulnerable, temporary, and always sliding towards dissolution, breeds worms, which is to say, a host of abysses perforate it; as Isidore of Seville explains, worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus in fat” (XII.v.18, Barney et al., trans.).

And. FOLKS, if you’re still with me, this is as far as I know what to say. I know I’ll have to do more about abysses, then say something witty and helpful about the ethics of flat ontology, and then vainly CMA by dutifully apologizing to the traditional readings that cluster around British Library, Additional 37049, and finally offer another nice worms’ eye view. But for the love of Pete, I just don’t know how to end the last paragraph! This probably means scrapping the last two graphs and rebuilding them, and maybe digging for inspiration in Gillian Rudd’s Greenery.

Dry Death/Wet Death

another worm imagePicking up from yesterday:

….I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end, a notion that I’ll term “dry death.” Ash Wednesday’s “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” (remember, man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again into dust) is a typical dry conceptualization of death. According to Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, dust is “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put”; as unfertile earth, used up and useless, dust signifies the absence of form; it signifies matter that has ceased to be productive. For a later medieval example, see one of the smaller poems of the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which, echoing Ecclesiastes 3:21, explains “Þus waxeþ & wanteþ Mon, hors & hounde; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe” [129-30; thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. Even more dryly, the Middle English Death and Liffe characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate she grindeth all to power,

trees tremble for ffeare & tipen to the groud,

leaues lighten downe lowe & leauen their might,

fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,

& the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme” [193-7]

in her walking, she grinds the green grass to power, trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground, leaves fall down and lose their power, birds fail to flee when they heard weapons [nb: a textual crux for which I’ll need a better edition], and the fishes in the water fail to swim.

Dry death essentially imagines death only from the perspective of the dying subject, who solipsistically imagines that one’s personal death is the end of all life. It emphasizes formlessness, the end of striving, and the ultimate absence where self once was; death in this model is both absolutely private and absolutely privative.

An opposing strain of medieval death poetry—a wet rather than dry imagination—stresses the putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate around the dead. This strain offers fertile ground for thinking through the ecomaterialist appetitive abyss, for it may be the largest body of literature that so thoroughly worries at the inherent edibility of being, that realizes that one’s subjective death occasions new life, and that acknowledges that like it or not, all worldly things are for others in some way. Humans and others may eventually revert to ashes, which is to say, to unrecognizable formlessness, but to get to this point, they must be used up by a one gullet after another, which will be material for the flourishing of others in turn. Put another way, death is only an end for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. If we know ourselves to be matter, we must recognize our constitutive presence in a world in which we can never be useless.
The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave and see “inde scatentem vermium colluviem” [qtd. from 400; there a mass teeming with worms]: the human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. Ephraem reveals the absence of a self, but just as emphatically, he reveals the constitutive utility of a body for other bodies. A millennium later, John Bromyard’s fourteenth-century Summae praedicantium has a proud young man looks into father’s grave and “invenit bufones horribiles in puteo” [qtd in 403; find horrible toads in the filth]; other citations from medieval works on death could be provided virtually without end, but here I will offer only one more, from what will be the central text of the remainder of this essay, “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes.” At their moment of rhetorical triumph, the worms brag to the body about the hosts of other vermin that accompany them:

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.

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 [note! the only plural?], and the newt, kin,

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

The list’s bravura excessiveness promises proliferation without end. At this point Body gives up its efforts to hold onto itself; confronted with so many mouths, it knows itself helpless, food for a host of others, flowing piece by piece into a host of hungry abysses, as it always has, from the moment it entered the world.

Wormfood: Abysses Swallowing Abysses. Part I.

c13087-36Today I offer my essay’s introduction (first draft!) with the hope of providing the next section tomorrow or Friday. The bulk of the rest of the essay will be a discussion of “A Disputacion Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (IMEV ref.) (text and translation), largely, I think, through a close appreciation of the poem’s three illustrations of the body’s conversation with its worms.

What follows has its most immediate origin on Feb. 4th, when I posted the following to Facebook:

Feb. aim: Pervert medieval death/worms poetry by reading it amorally/ecologically. Not memento mori, but reminder that we’re all food. 5k words and a March 1st deadline says I can do it. [next comment] My task is to write an essay on “abyss” for a special issue on ecomaterialisms. I’m thinking the word right now in terms of mise en abyme, in this case, appetites within appetites within appetites, not infinite–because nothing’s infinite–but very large, and acentric, the closest thing absolute immanence offers by way of infinity. [next comment] Here’s the cool thing about taking ABYSS as MISE EN ABYME: this is a DEPTHLESS ABYSS, not one that promises chthonic secrets or surging secrets from below but rather FLATNESS, ONTOLOGICAL EQUALITY.

And here it is!

Death is life for another. I don’t mean that life will conquer death, that death will come to a stop, as in Paul’s “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Rather, death means the flourishing of others, swallowers who are not an abstract victory but rather a material swarm of worms and other vermin, who will also be swallowed by certain birds, “wormes corrupcioun” as Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles puts it: a meshwork of appetite in which even the agents of corruption, the supposed ultimate eaters of the grave, will themselves be food in turn. If worms are food too, there is no one victory over death, but rather as many victories–and as many defeats–as there are appetites.

The editors tasked me with writing about “the abyss.” I thought immediately of death, the “deepest pit” according to Job 17:16, where, as one twelfth-century poem has it, the dead “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [fall into the depth like stones]. In this imagery, death is a deep hole, a channel leading perhaps to rebirth–as Jonah experienced when he emerged from the whale’s gullet–or to hell’s absolute darkness or hell’s mouth, a site of constant eating and cooking, most notoriously, or hilariously, in Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer, 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). This is a singular abyss, one perhaps with many entrances or, if you like, many mouths, but still finally one, dreamed up to horrify humans, or dreamed up out the horror of individual humans at the loss of their own subjectivity or foundation. This abyss is the one great mouth that will swallow us all.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism opens up a less anthropocentric abyssal vision. 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” (Paradise Lost IV.76-77). How, asked 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-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.

I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s formulation. From the perspective of the the subject being swallowed up an abyss, of course the abyss is grand; but the swallowing abyss may think little of what it consumes, and it may itself feel not so grand, so immeasurable, so abyssal. For it too will be swallowed up. Each abyss is subject to the appetites of other abysses. No abyss is final.

De Quincy’s vision of abysses swallowing each other, without end, center, and certainly without reference to one final great abyss–death, Hell, or something even deeper–thus presents abyssal appetites as a kind of mise en abyme of appetite and vulnerability or even just availability. Here, mise en abyme, a term famously borrowed by Andre Gide from medieval heraldry, should not be understood as describing internal duplication (the “play within a play”) or infinite iteration (as with an object placed between two mirrors); it should not be understood, in a postmodern, correlationist manner, as a trope of foundationlessness or the inaccessibility of any final guarantee of meaning. Here, as much inspired by the worms of death as by de Quincey, I mean mise en abyme in a materialist, nonanthropocentric, ateleological sense, as a way of acknowledging that no one appetite has final priority, and that nothing escapes the condition of vulnerability to others, a condition Derrida so usefully called the “nonpower at the heart of power,” the “not be[ing] able” to elude being made use of by others.

I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end….

Strange Conjunctions: Patočka/Derrida and Sancho Panza

h2_1975.1.1416(Okay, so I’ve been writing. And reading. And standing to the side, just over here, watching our blog get along fine. Good! Warning: what follows is just plain silly)

Last night, reading The Gift of Death, I ran across something too familiar in the midst of one of Derrida’s paraphrases of Jan Patočka. He writes “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place.”

Please compare:

“Since your grace has been locked in the cage, enchanted, in your opinion, have you had desire and will to pass what they call major and minor waters?”

“I do not understand what you mean by passing waters, Sancho; speak more clearly if you want me to respond in a straightforward way.”

“Is it possible that your grace doesn’t understand what it means to pass minor or major waters? Even schoolboys know that. Well, what I mean is, have you had desire to do the thing nobody else can do for you?”

“Ah, now I understand you, Sancho! Yes, I have, quite often, and even do now. Save me from this danger, for not everything is absolutely pristine!”

Don Quixote, Part I XLVIII, Grossman trans.

I’m reminded in turn of a scene in the film Derrida where our hero, when asked what he’d like to see in a documentary about a philosopher–say, Heidegger or Kant–responded, “their sex lives.” It’s funny, and would no doubt be telling, given the evidence of the picture above. One imagines Kant, by whose regularity in his daily constitutional the housewives of Königsberg would set their watches, as being as dutiful as Walter Shandy, who, contra the opinion of his son, generally “minded what [he was] about when [he] begot me.” I’m sure that whatever Hannah Arendt did with her Martin, or Simone Weil did with her God, would give us something.

And yet: sex and death. It’s a bit operatic, don’t you think? How would philosophy had [grammar edit!] have been different if it had built itself upon what else no one can do for you? Where would philosophy have tended if Patočka or Heidegger had remembered eating and its natural end, a kind of being-toward-supper (Sein-zum-Abendessen?)? If Plato had imagined creation as something other than a globe consuming its own waste?

When the sequel to Derrida comes (something like this), if someone asks me his question, I know what I’d like to have seen: Adorno in his kitchen, and perhaps elsewhere.



I like the Foucault reference. It also reminds me that I had thought about sex, Jeffrey, as akin to death in its being something that no one else can undergo for you. This doesn’t work, however, for several reasons: a) assuming one doesn’t believe in Christianity, no one’s death can prevent yours: it can only delay it (this bit from familiar faces paraphrased at some length in Gift of Death). Sex, on the other hand, can be put off forever. Maybe; b) if–and this is such a bit if–sex is never a direct relation, but always directed through fantasies, memories, hopes, our constitutively false imago, &c., then sex is precisely that which someone else always undergoes for you. In that way, it’s entirely unlike death, or eating, or shitting, unless we want to believe–and why not?–that there is something intimately ours about our orgasms, consumptions, or defecations, even if they’re always strange to us, even if they’re not entirely recognizable precisely because they are so intimate and hence beyond or below the typical networks that sustain our self-identifications.

I’ve started wondering what Derrida could have done had he turned his considerations on the gift to a consideration of the (singularly?) American locution “to take a shit.”

Eileen, that abstract from Jessica gave me one of those “well, of course!” feelings that we get when we encounter an argument that just looks inherently right and makes jumbled, incorrectness suddenly snap into sense. SEMA’s going to be so great.

I wonder, however, if we can make something of the structural analog here between the woman (on the philosopher’s back) and the hole (into which the philosopher falls). In what way is a woman like a marle pit? Well, The Miller’s Tale has much to say about that; so does Kristeva too, I’m sure.


I’m sure there’s a longer post in here somewhere, but I want to say just now that I’ve found this post’s soulmate.

One guess.

That’s right!

My library just bought Valerie Allen’s On Farting, whereupon I checked it out, and, even though I should be reading Dinshaw, getting party prep in order for our big summer blowout, working on my piece for the Babel anthology, etc., I couldn’t stop myself once I, uh, slid down into this book. A few choice quotes:

“In the midden, one finds the most unlikely bedfellows and is constantly surprised by the connections between objects rather than any coherent whole that depends on an internal connection of deductive reasoning” (4) This belongs to her anti-Introduction, which swipes at notions of presenting a package with pretensions to wholeness, to having a clear beginning and end. With this book–as we are here–we’re always in the middle. Like a fart, Allen (would) say(s).

Or, for my imagining Adorno in the kitchen and perhaps elsewhere, Allen reminding me of the story of Herakleitos, who was discovered by travelers, philosophical tourists, “in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove”: but kitchen, Gk ipnos, Allen points out, only primarily means oven/kitchen, and secondarily means privy/dungheap. Nice.

Or, the scatological mnemonics or schoolroom Latin?

tourde in thy tethe merda dentibus inheret
I am almost beshytten sum in articulo purgandi viscera

Now, I’m not deep enough in the shit to get dirty with the argument. For now, like any good anal scholar, I’m just hoarding details.

Highly recommended!


I can’t think of any examples off hand of permanent sparing, but it’s just that ‘spared for a while’ that our thanatologists–Heidegger and Patočka and (depending on how close he hews to them in this book) Derrida–focus. JD writes “I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporarily snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place” (43).

Sleep is a great example. As is dreaming. Your question is excellent, and I’m hoping something will come to me soon–probably while I’m drifting off!

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/07/strange-conjunctions-patokaderrida-and.html#sthash.MQRMMuOb.dpuf

WOOFING AND WEEPING: The State of Research, or No One Knows But God

437704271_75e20c18caIn much of his late work, Jacques Derrida characterized the question of the animal as “not one question among others” but the question that “represents the limit upon which all the great question are formed and determined, as well as all the concepts that attempt to delimit what is ‘proper to man,’ the essence and future of humanity, ethics, politics, law, ‘human rights,’ ‘crimes against humanity. ‘genocide,’ etc.” The humanism that utterly divides humans from animals is a legacy of the Christian Middle Ages; consequently, the Middle Ages is an ideal site for exploring the development of the modern concept of the human. It is also, however, a place in which other possibilities for human/animal relationship might be discovered. When and where is anthropocentrism suspended? Such moments might be discovered in hunting practices, chivalry, various literary texts–Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, traditions of the “hairy saint”–and medieval theology and philosophy (from either Christian or non-Christian traditions), all of which might productively be used to think through, for example, the phenomenological ethics of Ralph Acampora, the assemblages of humans, animals, and objects in Deleuze and Guattari, and even perhaps the responsibility promoted by Levinas, despite his indifference to the question of animals.

On with the show! Several weeks ago, I discussed stumbling upon the weeping of animals in Ava’s version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment. In response to Eileen’s request that I clarify my interest in this scene, I wrote (slightly edited):

Given the profound anthropocentricism of sacred history–since however much God or Creation matters, God and Creation matter only insofar as they serve humankind–any acknowledgment of other lives is always in excess of what is required. Animal life should not rate; after all, they have no share in the afterlife, there’s no friendship possible with them, they can be the recipient of only indirect duties, &c. I think here of Heidegger’s conviction that animals, in their total captivation in their world and thus their total inability to relate to the future, can only “perish,” that they cannot die [since writing this, I’ve discovered some roots of Heidegarrian animal thinking in Schopenhauer, who wrote “indeed the brutes do not properly speaking feel death” and “between the brute and the external world there is nothing, but between us and the external world there is always our thought about it”]

Yet in Ava we have several stanzas concerned solely with disruptions to animal life. We can conceive of these stages of the 15 signs as a systematic undoing of creation (hence the fish first, then fowl, then beasts of the field), and hence as moving in a trajectory towards the human. Nevertheless, Ava–and I hope not only Ava–marks the suffering of animals as a particular suffering in creation. It’s not simply that the mountains are falling, the seas turning to blood, freshwater is turning bitter, and all the other business from John’s Apocalypse.

Instead, in excess of what is strictly necessary for her project, which nowhere else pays much attention to animals, Ava acknowledges the lives and deaths and passions of animals. And she acknowledges the relations of animals with each other. Her acknowledgment does not redeem animals, but I’d say that the fact that animals cannot be redeemed increases the interest. We might say that we see zoē–mere life–and “animal sacer” given what they should lack: a voice, a sadness, rage, a death that matters, even at the very moment when their deaths, in a sense, matter least of all (since they’re not being sacrificed anymore to human appetite or instrumentality). And we might say that this is not “given” but is rather revealed. At the very moment humans pass into redemption, at the very moment when their lives are marked for eternity as the only lives that ‘really matter,’ we see–maybe!–the catastrophe of human indifference to animal life. Sacrificed life, a life only as means, speaks and reveals itself as what it was all along, as life, as an end in itself, but only at the moment of its destruction. This is the one moment, the only moment, when animal life is for itself.

To this I’ll add that we see a grief that cannot be sacrificed. Whatever the fear of humans during the last 15 days, their fear will be exchanged for something, whether heaven or hell; but whatever the fear–or love, in fact–of animals, they ultimately get nothing for it. Certainly the fear of animals has been put on display for humans, since, insofar as it astonishes humans, since insofar as it’s being expressed in a particular genre with a particular purpose, it is being sacrificed to the generation of proper human piety; but this is not all there is. My argument–and this, I hope, begins to answer Nicola’s complicated comment on the previous post–may include: a) that animals are shown to experience more fully than humans the injustice of the end of hope and dread; b) that animals do in fact get closer than humans to the Great Impossibility, namely, the experience of their own deaths, since, after all, humans, even in dying, leap over their own deaths into eternal life.

I knew that the fifteen signs were a medieval Christian commonplace, but I was also nervous that Ava’s attention to animals would be the only place animals received any notice. Time spent with William W. Heist’s The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College Press, 1952) and in the meagerness of Brooklyn College’s library (would whoever moved The Prick of Conscience please put it back where it belongs?) dispersed all my worries. Here’s some of what I discovered:

  • Heist argues that the Irish Saltair na Rann is the most important source for the transmission of the 15 signs: there are a few references to animals in it, but as I can’t even fake Old Irish, and since Heist offers his translation as provisional, I’m just marking this wellspring and moving on;
  • the pseudo-Bede, from the PL (provided in Heist, with a translation): “Quarta die pisces et omnes belluae marinae, et congregabuntur super aquas, et dabunt voces et gemitus, quarum significationem nemo scit nisi Deus.” “On the fourth day the fishes and all the sea monsters will both gather together upon the waters and give forth voices and groans, whose meaning no one knows but God.” (25);
  • Peter Damian’s De novissimis et Antichristo (warning: PDF): “The sign of the fourth day: all the monsters and all things that live in the water of the sea will be gathered together upon the sea, roaring and bellowing back and forth as though in contest; and men will not know what they are singing or what they are thinking, but only God will know, by whom all live that His purpose may be fulfilled. These four signs are of the sea, and the next three signs are of the air and ether. The sign of the fifth day: flying creatures of all heaven will assemble in the fields, every kind in its order; these birds will be speaking and weeping together, fearing the coming of the Judge…The sign of the ninth day: all the stones, both small and great, will be split into four parts, and each part will strike the other part, and no man will understand that sound, but only God [this included in the quotation because I thought it might interest Jeffrey]….The sign of the twelfth day: all the beasts of the earth will come from the woods and mountains to the fields roaring and bellowing, not eating and not drinking” (Heist trans, 28).

As I expected, the 15 signs appear frequently in Middle English, and the four or five references that I’ve examined so far tend to include references to animals. Two examples. In the “Quindecim Signa ante diem Judicii” (ed. in Furnivall, Hymns to the Virgin and Christ EETS OS 23, 118-25) all creation cries out:

“The ix day, wondyr hytt ys,
As the prophecy tellyth hytt I wys:
Thatt all þynge schall speke þan,
And cry in erthe aftyr þe steuyn off man,
And be-mone hem self in owr sy3th
Ryth as þey speke myth” (ll. 100-105)

To forestall any memory work by medieval drama specialists: I did find the reference in the Chester “Antichrist’s Prophets,” where one of the Expositor’s several references to animals runs “All manner of beastes shall rore and crye / and neyther eate nor drynke” (ll. 321-4)

Now, if you’re still with me, I want to point out that animals are not the only grieving elements of creation. In an Anglo-Norman version, “the stars fall from heaven and run about the earth like lightning; they shed tears and run under the mountain; they turn black and plunge into the abyss….the moon turns to blood, descends, and tries to run into the sea….all the rivers speak and cry to God for mercy” (28-29, Heist’s summary: I haven’t examined the original yet). However, my research so far suggests that crying stars and pleading rivers are less common compared to crying and pleading animals. Surely it’s easier to imagine an animal crying than a star; and most traditions of the 15 Signs do not include weeping stars, which surely matters in an eschatological tradition whose content remained–remarkably?–stable throughout its life. I’m justified, then, in concentrating on animals, but, at the same time, I thought some of our posthuman ITMers might want to know about the stars, just as they might want to know about the “battling rocks” (debellabunt petrae adinvicem) of pseudo-Bede.

We’ll see where this takes me! Hopefully to Kzoo 2009. Suggestions and comments are, of course, encouraged.

(creative common image from here, from flickr user ChinchillaVilla)


Nicola, first, thanks for the reminder about Lippit. On its face, I’m inclined to say that the animals are not experiencing/shown to be experiencing a suspension of temporality (although I’d have to review Lippit’s argument to know if I’m mangling his thought or not). Rather, I’d say they’re, as they do so often, experiencing the deaths that humans, at least in mainstream medieval Christian doctrine (hereafter MMCD), never do. Only animals experience–or suffer–the complete breakdown of the body, only they have–if this can be called a ‘having’–the sheer vulnerability of life that cannot be exchanged for anything else (including memories, since, after all, who remembers–who memorializes–slaughtered pigs? This gets at my SEMA paper). Can we say that time is being suspended in any way in this moment? I’m not sure, so I’d love to hear more from you on this point. For now, I’m inclined to think that the future ends, and with it, time itself. That complete end marks it, I think, as something other than a suspension. MMCD splits the import of that terminus in two: the end of the future as the end of world and hence the end of self belongs–with the proviso about ‘having’ marked again–only to animals, whereas the end of future as the end of the threat of the future (that is, that time and our names will persist without us) belongs only to humans.

Jeffrey, thanks as well (and THANKS to Letty and Nic too!). I’ve finally ordered the Valerie Allen book, and I suppose I should read all of the Exemplaria medieval noise cluster. You now have me wondering how much I should make of the distinction between versions of the 15 signs that reference God’s singular knowledge of the meaning and those that leave out even that comfort of resolvability. As I said above, it’s a very traditional genre, which means, I think, that I should assume minimal PURPOSE to any individual variation–it’s much safer, I think, to assign the differences to happenstance transmission issues rather than individual/institutional/cultural (wherever we draw our lines) deliberation. Now, do we call this “god only knows” a “comfort”–it CAN be interpreted–or an anxious marking of the ungraspability of meaning: God, after all, isn’t going to tell anyone what the sounds mean. He hears their grief, their wailing, and still destroys them. This approach is on my mind because I was listening to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” which–surprisingly–captures some of the melancholy, uncertain eschatology and deathsense that I’m seeing in the animals of this tradition:

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it

God only knows what I’d be without you

If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me?

God only knows what I’d be without you

Lettty, thanks very much for that reference. The getacniað troubles me, however. I normally go out of my way to avoid animal allegory: my preference has been for creatures like the Donestre, who–for what reason?–mourn over the bodies of the people they kill, just as the harpies do in The Branches of the Appletree (ed. in The Tretyse of Love, J. H. Fischer, EETS OS 223):

“Vpon this braunche [compunction] makith hir neest a byrde whiche is callid harpia, that hath the semblaunce of a mannes visage, & hir nature is to slee the fyrst man she fyndeth, & thenne gooth she to some water where she beholdeth hirself & seeth that she hath slayn hir owne liknes, & thenne makyth she a full grete sorowe alwaye that euer she sawe ony man. This signefyeth þe soule that slew cryst by hir synne, whose semblaunce is in hir, for to his semblaunce was she created” (113).

I love this UNTIL we get to the “signefyeth.”

But responding to your comment has forced me to rethink some of this. The “signefyeth,” “getacniað,” “significavit” shuts things down, but rather than focus on that moment, I should focus instead–as I’ve been doing in my 15 signs thinking–on why animals included at all. In part this is a ‘why are animals good to think with’ question, and the answer to that is, in part, Jeffrey’s observations (in On Difficult Middles and in his essay in the Engaging with Nature anthology) about animals as apt sites of fantasy, as places to dream other lives. So, in part I want to mark, with you Letty, that Aelfric knows these birds mourn, and then to wonder why Aelfric should be interested in this.

Similarly, Nic, THANK you. I’ve largely avoided the Gowther because of its allegory. But you’ve suggested a useful way to come at things, and, no, I’ve NEVER thought of the 15 signs connection to it: right now, I’m inclined to think it’s tenuous, but, who knows? I’ll have another look.

– See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/07/woofing-and-weeping-state-of-research.html#sthash.lEyqXn9R.dpuf