SATISFACTION: Interested; Omnipotent; Implacable


First, of course, read Jeffrey on Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human, which I’m co-endorsing as a masterpiece. I’m promising you my own, briefer post on it, now.

Second! A Kalamazoo paper, nearly a month on, from the second Impossible Words session, summarized by Jeffrey like this:

Some fragments: BLISS as an infusion of being as well as a theological colonization of joy (Randy Schiff); places can survive when human settlements do not, so that SURVIVAL is enwrapped in a plural physics, a tale of migration (Dan Remein); an afterlife tells us that our actions have consequences beyond human calculability, beyond SATISFACTION, a knowledge that resonates with ecology’s inhumanism (Karl Steel); within the “I” might be excavated a humble flicker of multiplicity to hold onto (Chris Piuma); TOLERANCE operates at every scale and within every discipline (from cancer to justice to botany) and exceeds them, as supplement (Laurie Finke); COMMUNITY is impossibly built of a with (cum-) and an obligation (-munus), we are incapable of paying the debt of distance from self that community demands, and yet a kind of infinite perishing shows another way (George Edmondson); if we are not gobsmacked, then who are we as a COLLECTIVE (Anne Harris)? The Q&A were fantastic, and a topic for next year’s roundtable even spontaneously emerged, “Lost Words.”

To which I’d only add that the Q/A circled around the horror of collectives. Many of us felt that the call and response of the Material Collective was a bit “creepy.”

My paper follows:

Those of us who do Middle English know that Pearl offers a picture of the “more and more” of God’s grace. In its 101 stanzas — notably, not the expected 100 — merely commercial economies, represented so neatly by the grieving jeweler, break open to make way for God’s unending generosity. Pearl teaches us that life, at its best, isn’t fair, and thank goodness for that.

So, Pearl gives us two ways of not being satisfied , the one insufficient, the other beyond sufficiency. We have the disatisfaction of the jeweler, greedy, malcontent, envious, impatient on his side of the river, sad at the death of what might be his daughter, more than a bit jealous that she’s made such a good match; and then there’s God’s infinite unsatisfiability, always able to do more than what’s required, always exceeding what’s on order, an unsatisfiability whose eternal grace keeps on coming, because — to paraphrase Anselm — it’s its own cause, its own power, its own necessity.1

But for a fuller picture of God’s unsatisfiability, we have to take another trip to the otherworld, travelling, as you might expect, in the other direction: our guide will also hail from the late fourteenth century, the Middle English translation of the Vision of Tundale, a representative medieval best-seller if ever there was one, with some 150 Latin manuscripts and translations into at least 12 vernaculars. It’s sometimes taught. As you might recall, Tundale’s a wicked Irish merchant, keen on collecting debts, who, after falling into a coma, travels first to hell and then, more briefly, into heaven.

The vision says that God’s mercy “passes all things” (39; 813), while the demons, watching Tundale elude their grasp, complain that God “should reward each man according to what he has done” (275-6), that God, in other words, should just do the right thing, and only that. God being God of course does more. The deeper Tundale’s infernal journey, the deeper the pain: “he thought the pain seem to be more than all the pain he had encountered before: that pain surpassed all other pains” (403-5; see also 760-64), and the more he encounters “souls in pain without end” (1128), “in endless pain” (1163), who can do nothing but cry “welaway” (462; 1130), who can suffer “yet might they not fully die” (1080).

As we might expect, doctrinal debates worried over the justness of such eternal punishment. Hugh of St Victor’s De sacramentis explains that sinners wanted to sin eternally, so of course they should be punished eternally; while Aquinas heaps up a jumble of reasons, including that sin “offends God Who is infinite,” and since “punishment cannot be infinite in intensity, because the creature is incapable of an infinite quality, it must needs be infinite at least in duration.”2 Here, presumably, the antecedent, the it, refers to the duration of both punishment and sinner, who endures, “infinite in duration,” without ever fully dying.

Now, it’s easy to see how the same door that opens to infinite mercy also opens to infinite suffering: God is the sovereign, whose unregulated, self-generated goodness at once establishes and suspends the order of justice, with everything that follows from that.3 But this operation, which, essentially, flips or reverse engineers Schmitt’s Political Theology away from the secular and back towards the theological, makes God human, just as awesome and frightening as any other king.

God’s inhuman infinity requires that we not be satisfied with that. To grasp God’s inhuman horror more fully, we have to get him off his throne and sense the impossible, how he’s invisibly and impalpably everywhere. God’s time is beyond ours; his order beyond ours; his realm one that none of us, at least not here, can penetrate fully: you’ll remember what happens to the Pearl-dreamer when he tries, in his frenzy, to slip across the river, while Tundale just as badly fails in trying to get into the furthest reaches of heaven.

I’m saying that God offers a chance to get totally inhuman. He’s so much more than a sovereign. He–or the divine it–operates at a scale that no human action, no human conceptualization, could ever satisfy. And yet this It still takes an relentless interest, condemning us or saving us according to its own unlimited ends, far beyond anything that we could think just.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, on the topic of Very Large Finitudes, says that there’s “a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of ‘forever’ than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything.”4 Fair enough, but here’s a counterproposal: what the afterlife tells us is that our actions have consequences far beyond anything we could ever imagine. Something out there is taking an interest, disproportionate to our comprehension, but proportionate to Its own, rewarding or condemning us according to calculations that we will enjoy, or suffer, undergoing without understanding, and — given that this is an eternity — without ever giving us an out. Without ever being satisfied that we will have done enough for It, in It.

Having run my human time out, I’ll leave it to you to develop the ecological consequences.

1 Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Chapter V, in a dizzying attempt to save God from having something so compulsory as a motive: “God does nothing of necessity, since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his actions. And when we say that God does something by necessity, as it were, of avoiding dishonor–which, in any case, he need not fear–it is better to interpret this as meaning that he does thing from the necessity of preserving his honor. Now this necessity is nothing but his own changeless honor, which he has from himself and not from another, and on that account it is improper to call it necessity.” In Eugene Fairweather, ed, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 150. [see also Aquinas ST 1a 2ae 112 art 1, “Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.”

2 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis), trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951), 468. Also see Aquinas ST ss 99, Art. 1, “quia per eam contra Deum, qui est infinitus, peccatur. Unde, cum non posset esse infinita poena per intensionem, quia creatura non est capax alicuius qualitatis infinitae; requiritur quod sit saltem duratione infinita”

3 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 38.

4 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Kindle location 1095. Obviously, medievalists would lean on this point a bit with the way that Very Large Numbers work in, for example, the Chansons de geste.


Gerald of Wales, Part 1: Place in the Topographia Hibernica

Douai Bibliotheque municipale 887, 52v


I had the fortune recently to be a keynote speaker at St John’s University Graduate English Conference, whose theme was “Working Through Environmental Unlikeness: Ecology and Nature in the Humanities.” Thanks to Steve Mentz for the invitation, thanks to the students and other organizers (including, I presume, Steve), for running such a fast (in all senses of the word) ship, and thanks and admiration especially to Jamie Skye Bianco, who shared a stage with me.

More later, I expect, but brunch calls. But so does Gerald of Wales. What had started as a paper about oysters turned into a paper about fish in the Topographia Hibernica, which then turned into something entirely different. Read on and see. Here’s the first half of my presentation, with the second half to follow in a couple days.

This is about place.

Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland is, essentially, a three-part twelfth-century advertisement to tempt potential English conquerors towards easier pickings than those offered by far-off Jerusalem. Medievalists have tended to focus their attention on its second and third parts, which concern Ireland’s wonders and its people. No wonder: this is where we find Gerald’s stories about the talking werewolves of Meath, the unfortunate cowboy of Wicklow — literally half man, half cow — and his mangled memory of an old Celtic coronation ritual that, in his version, sees the king first having sex with a horse, then bathing in a broth made of the horse’s meat, and then, finally, enjoying a well-earned kingship. Modern commentators tell us that it’s here where Gerald negotiates his own loyalties, divided between his Welsh and Anglo-Norman ancestry, at the expense of the bestialized Irish, who need a firm colonial hand to be brought in line with modernity.

Though these readings work, they leave the first part of the Topography mostly untouched. Again, no wonder: this is where we hear about Ireland itself and its mundane flora and fauna. If your interest’s in humans, or quasi humans, then there’s not much to do here, which is exactly why I’m not going to leave it alone. I’m starting, naturally enough, with the title.

Gerald’s own title for it, used in some manuscripts and, more importantly, in his own several references to it, is just the Topographia Hibernica, the Topography of Ireland, or just the Topographia, without the “History” that its English translators routinely append. That is, without that little human addition. Place is what Gerald thinks the work’s mainly about, not people; or, to put this differently, it’s about what’s there already, and only secondarily about what we do with it. And that’s the structure of the book, which, again, starts with Ireland’s position, its size, and the unevenness and moistness of its terrain.

The word “topographia” is a bit recherché, especially for a book not written in Greek, appearing, it seems, only 3 times in Latin prior to Gerald. Like other rare words, we shouldn’t just brush it aside. Split it up, and it literally means place/writing, topos + graphein. And to talk about writing is what saves this initial place in Gerald’s Topography from being a just a stable place holder for the human and other biotic activity that follows in books two and three. Do me the favor of imagining the inevitable, Derrida’s spectral presence in the background of what follows. Gerald’s writing about place, certainly, but place is also presented as writing, as something that’s there before us and that will outlast us. Ireland, Gerald tells us, has been peopled five or six times since the Flood, with most of these settlements falling to disease, miasmas, or the inevitable Vikings. When Gerald invites his king to conquer Ireland, he’s also promising Henry a possession that can’t be anything but temporary and precarious. Like any other.

So, this Irish place is no foundation for human activity. Again, it’s not a “place holder.” Perhaps on human time scales, certainly, but geologically speaking, no: Gerald’s Ireland is also on the move, and if we start by thinking with the land, as he does, we’ll see it: Ireland’s “nine principal rivers” that divide it are just a start: “many other rivers,” he remarks, are “new, and with regard to the ones mentioned, only recently emerged. They are not,however, smaller than the former, and only on the point of antiquity are they inferior” (O’Meara trans, 36). He identifies a “fantasticam” island somewhere in the Orkneys or Faroes, thronged with phantoms, which sinks whenever anyone comes near, and whose furtive movements stop only when some intrepid sailors frighten off the phantoms with fire (66-67). And though God had promised never to flood the world again for its wickedness, Gerald has God do just that to part of Ulster; the flood-lake is still there, ancient steeples visible in its depths (64-65). And, one more, Gerald wonders how islands in general come to be: sometime after the flood, they emerged, “not violently and suddenly, but little by little, and, as it were, by a washing away” (68) or, depending on how we translate, “by alluvial deposits” (Probabiliter tamen ad hoc dici potest longe post dilivium, terra multiplicatis iam animantibus ubique repleta, non violeter et subito, sed paulatim, et tanquam per eluvionem insulas natas fuisse). For Gerald, land has its own slow vulnerability to water or perhaps it’s a kind of coagulation of water’s flow, a slowing down of floods.

To finish off this opening presentation, I’m going to borrow Steve’s recent habit of ending his papers with a three-point summary or program.

  1. Land is liquid too. It’s a standard move in the so-called “new” materialisms to decry the dominance of the “linguistic turn” and to demand a revaluation of material stuff. My approach to the Topographia might look like that, but I want to stress that this is a materiality where the same weird instability of writing prevails. We’ve not left behind language, but recognized what Derrida could have told us anyhow, that the language/material division, like any other, works imperfectly. Since there’s no master signifier that’s going to stop the movement, Gerald gives us not some “back to the land” authenticity, but rather — to borrow still more from Steve — a “post-equilibrial” ecology, unstable and always on the move, where terrestrial solidity looks solid only if we use a human time scale.
  2. We’re also on the move. The Topographia often imagines what we might call spatial taxonomies. Ireland abounds in its own islands and sites that divide men from women, good from evil spirits, fish from, well, other fish. If we remember that Ireland is, like its people, always shifting, we know that these divisions are only temporary. We are all things of the moon, whose constant movement, Gerald tells us, “directs and controls not only the waves of the sea, but also the bone-marrow and brains in all living things as well as the sap of trees and plants” (O’Meara 59). Gerald’s strict divisions — gender, ethnicity, species — all of this is on the move.
  3. But place still matters. To say that everything’s temporary is not to say that things don’t really exist. Graham Harman makes what I hope is an obvious point, that things exist no matter their smallness or brevity. For Gerald, these things, temporary nodes in the always shifting field of stuff, have real effects. They are material practices, and these material practices determine who lives, who starves, who gets to live out their life on the land they think their own, and who has to submit to, flee, or be killed by the conqueror. Our frameworks, human or otherwise, matter too. Nothing lasts; everything’s liquid; but things still exist for all that.

Gerald of Wales, Part 2: Flesh in the Topographia Hibernica

 BN Latin 4846 and a nicely placed PLACUIT



First of all, please read, if you haven’t already, the Babel fundraising pitch below, and go here and throw some money at Babel to make some more Babel. Think of it as putting a down payment on an inspiration and community machine.

And now, with so many of you folks at SAA or MAA, I’m slyly producing the promised second half of last weekend’s Gerald of Wales paper. My shared keynote at the St John’s University Graduate Student conference started with PLACE. The second half continues work on edibility and vulnerability that’s I’ve been teasing out in print in my “Former Age” chapter in Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, in my Hessian Wolf Child chapter in Animal Vegetable Mineral, and, most recently, in my worms essay in the postmedieval ecomaterialism issue. Here’s more.

This is about flesh.
The first part of Gerald’s Topographia has a brief portrait of three lakes in Meath, each with its own species of fish, each unique to Ireland, each that must stay in its own proper lake or die. One of these may be some kind of salmon, rounder and longer than trout, with “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis,” firm and tasty white meat. It’s this word for meat, “carnibus,” that’s striking.

First, there’s the knotty question of defining fish as meat. By profession, Gerald was an archdeacon, ordained as a priest, and he followed the prevailing rules of Roman Christian abstinence, which meant no meat on fasting days, which constituted about one third of the year. More specifically, this meant the flesh of no quadruped: no mutton, no pork, no beef. Just fish, for three reasons: because, after the expulsion from Eden, God cursed only the earth, not the water (eg Speculum Sacerdotale 53); because, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ate fish after his resurrection; and because fish were less like us, and therefore less likely to stir up our strength and our pleasure. I’ll say more about this last point in a bit.

Elsewhere in the Topography, Gerald marks this clerical obligation, and some ways to finesse it. He tells us that some Northern clerics eat beaver tails, and only the tails, during Lent, since beaver tail looked and tasted like fish. And like many medieval writers with a side interest in natural history, Gerald believed that certain geese hatched from barnacles, “tak[ing] their food and nourishment from the juice of wood and water during their mysterious and remarkable generation.” It’s a clever solution to the mystery of migration and the consequent absence of nests or goslings from Ireland; but it’s also an opportunity for certain Northern clerics, likewise, to eat geese during Lent, by reasoning that geese are “not…flesh, since they were not born of flesh.”

Gerald isn’t on board with either argument. A later revision to the Topography adds the argument that, in effect, beavers are beavers all the way through, and, furthermore, that anyone who eats a barnacle goose during Lent is “moved into error through sophistry. For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really flesh, although not born of flesh, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating flesh” (Sed hi quidem scrupolose moventur ad delictum. Si quis enim ex primi parentis, carnei quidem licet de carne non nati, femore comedisset, eum a carnium esu immunem arbitrarer). As Gerald’s remark about Adam and Eve indicates, the question of edibility and abstinence circled around the question of identification: how much like our flesh is theirs? And, by extension, how much fun is it going to be eat? In a larger sense, how much are fish like us?

The human cultural regulation of carnivorousness concerns just this identification, and this delicate negotiation between in-groups and out-groups, between eating something excessively like us and choking on something too alien to be edible. The one, key hang up is the word caro itself. This word is just what Gerald and a host of other medieval writers would have included as one of the three traditional enemies of mankind, “mundus, caro, et diabolus,” the world, the flesh, and the devil, where caro is nominative singular of the Latin noun, and carnibus its dative and ablative plural. It’s the same word Gerald uses to describe the mortal stuff of our flesh — or our meat, the words are the same — when he speaks of the death that finally finishes a long-lived early Irish settler, “the fate,” he writes, “that falls on mortal flesh” (debitam…misere carnis fatalitatem non evasit).

Or meat. To my knowledge, there’s no separate Latin word — or English, for that matter — meaning just “fish meat,” nor, in Latin, a word that differentiates “flesh” from “meat”: for Gerald, as for other writers, caro is caro, whether he’s talking about fish, or cows, or humans, whether he’s talking about edibility, vulnerability, or the pleasures of the flesh in this world. Gerald simply doesn’t have the language to distinguish this fish from his own carnibus, itself firm and tasty, at least in standard medieval accounts of anthropophagy.

So let’s try that again: “For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really meat, although not born of meat, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating meat.”

With that, let’s end with another Mentz three-point program.


  1. There’s no way to do it without delight. Eating fish was a way for Christians to eat, they argued, without pleasure: if meat like ours stirred up delight, then fish — not like quadrupeds, but “of another nature,” as the penitentials termed them — was suppose to be dull. But if fish is caro too, then we have a difference without a difference. Gerald’s description of the carnibus of this Irish fish assesses it, appreciates its color and the resistance of its flesh, finding a spot for it in the way he and his world push up against each other.
  2. Flesh is up to its own business. For Simone de Beauvoir, writing in a Nietzschean mode, flesh stands for the creativity generativity of material, where “having a body no longer seems like a shameful failing […] Flesh is no longer filth: it is joy and beauty”; for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the “fifth element,” the “element of experience,” especially in its “reversibility,” the “weird intertwining…of things that are different but not opposite.” Flesh connects us; it brings us into each other; we feel each other: the fish, the human, the cow, we are all here as fleshy things.
  3. We are food too. But our flesh is up to its own business. Standard medieval Christian morality knew we were creatures of the flesh, but it also wanted us to master our flesh. We were and were not our flesh. And to think of ourselves as flesh, or as only partially flesh, to think of ourselves as at once our flesh and its master, means to know ourselves not fully absorbed by our being in the world. And yet also absorbed. Our fleshiness has its own being, one that alienates us from ourselves, because to be flesh is to be meat, too. It means to be available for others, in excess of what we think our own being, exceeding the capacities of our own self-sovereignty. It means to be the background or the object for the existence of another, who may find that so far as they’re concerned, we too are creatures of an “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis.”