Unseasonal

For  MLA 2017 session: #208. Ecological Catastrophe: Past and Present: Friday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 411-412.

1  Seasonality is that quality of being at the right time, of using the right amount, or even of being “pleasant,” as when one fifteenth-century letter blandly observes “the wedder waxeth seesonable.” Seasonality marks a good fit. It’s a kind of duty to the time, in which whatever happens happens properly when it responds correctly to what should already be happening. And when unseasonality erupts – as it will in this handful of examples I’m offering you today – we might find it unjust, but mostly we just don’t know what to do.

First: the medieval labors of the months, the most widespread representation of seasonal activation, where we do what we do because it’s suitable: Whan that Aprill &c, the birds stay up, and we go on pilgrimage. The standard calendrical figures coalesce from classical representations of the zodiac and seasonal religious holidays, eventually coming down to earth, not as gods, not as worshipers, exactly, but as workers, and, sometimes, as the rich and indolent, laboring or having fun as they should according to what each moment of the year demands.[i]

And from very early on, winter was for feeding, killing, and butchering pigs. Here I offer two examples, one from the ninth century, and another from the twelfth.

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And then I offer you this, from Texas, where 1.5 million feral pigs wander ineradicable through nearly the whole state, a symptom of colonial incursion and animals that refuse to stay put. As this manual explains, they are “unprotected, exotic, non-game animals. Therefore they may be taken by any means or methods at any time of the year.” In other words, there is no pig season. These animals belong to no one, belong to no time, and, so far as the Texan authorities are concerned, they have no end. They don’t come at the wrong time, because they don’t arrive at all. They are simply always there.

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Another example: the Middle English Sir Cleges, in which an overgenerous knight finds himself broke and depressed, kneeling under a tree in the dark after a Christmas midnight mass. He grasps a branch to drag himself up, and finds his hand full of leaves, and on that branch, fruit.[ii] “Dear God in Trinity,” he wonders: “What kind of berries may these be, that grow at this time of year?” His wife wisely suggests that the cherries are his ticket to Uther’s court, where, if he plays his cards right, he might save his family from penury.

Winter miracles like these are not unheard of in medieval writing. Celtic saints cure the lovesick by providing them the fresh berries they impossibly desire; a shepherd miraculously bestows a flowering cherry bough on the infant Jesus; and in “The Cherry-Bough Carol,” Mary herself receives a similar wintertime gift.[iii] The point here is that unseasonality has to mean something; it can’t just be happening. It has to be a message, even if we’re just meant to respond to it with a certain practical exploitation.

More recently, we have here cherry trees flowering in Heidelberg in December, just in time for Christmas eve. Elsewhere, Japanese records of Cherry Blossom festivals, which date, somewhat spottily, back to the 11th century, and, with steadier continuity, to 1401, attest to shifting start times for the festival, as global temperatures waxed and waned. Both in the countryside and in urban hot pockets, since the 1950s, the festival has shifted steadily towards the year’s beginning; by 2080, it might start an entire month earlier.[iv]

I imagine this as a shift compressing time in parts of the year, and opening it up where it did not exist before. This is a kind of temporal tectonics, in which a maw opens in the midst of summer, a desert in its mouth, swallowing any without the means or the historical luck to escape it. A new season emerges, unsuitable for most.

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Which of course leads to the world’s end. For this, I offer the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgment.[v] The tradition appears in writing in the mid eleventh century, and diffuses over the rest of the Middle Ages into hundreds of examples in writing and the visual arts, appearing in places as well-respected as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and The Golden Legend. Scholars divide the tradition into seven groups, which each vary the order of the final events slightly, but whatever the sequence, what remains is a sequence and the expectation of a future order of destruction: on the fifth day, pictured here on the right, from the Mirror of Human Salvation, the trees bleed, and the birds come together, but neither eat nor drink, for fear of the strict judge, des strengen Richters. On the eighth day, here from The Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement, we get an earthquake, “laying low man and beast.”

In this tradition, though we dread the world’s end, we know how to recognize its coming. It will proceed in an orderly fashion, seasonably. As with the seasons themselves, there will be nothing we can do to stop it, but we can be certain too that someone is in charge.

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I offer this not to suggest that the medievals were comfortable with a sensible nature, and we are not, although, of course, it would be foolish not to argue that point at least a little. I’m suggesting instead another way to think about this event we’re in the midst of. I’m responding to the critical habit of presenting the present ecocollapse as undoing the conceptual rift between culture and nature.[vi] This critical habit says we now know again that there’s no real difference between nature and culture; it even argues that what used to be called nature should just be understood as a symptom or effect of human activity, or some subset of humans: androcene, anglocene, anthrobrocene, and so on.

For a good, richly historical complication of this narrative, see The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; for what the narrative does, see Clare Colebrook’s “What is the Anthro-Political,” who observes that it at once gives us someone to blame, while simultaneously dividing some idealized subset of humans, the ones who should be saved, from the ones who shouldn’t be, for example, the bros.

I’m not sure this spatialization of time and responsibility is quite adequate to the present weirdness. I think we have to add unseasonality to the mix. Unseasonality marks a new uncertainty not so much about the future as about predictable time. Unseasonality, that is, marks our being in the midst of an event. It marks the emergence of the terror of an actual future. Think of Derrida’s distinction between l’avenir and le futur.[vii]

Because with seasons, things go on, and then they go on again. This cyclic futurity cancels out uncertainty. It gives us the thing that comes next that is, in fact, only the same old thing coming around again. Seasonality gets us off the hook for really making decisions. It gives us some ground for making plans, so that making plans makes sense because they are mostly a matter of doing the right thing at the right time. Seasons – including the season of the coming destruction – are therefore traditions of subordination, in which nothing new needs be done because we’re not in charge, and because we’re taken care of, anyway. It would be absurd to slaughter a pig in the summer, absurd to hope for a December cherry, absurd to expect anything but an earthquake on the eighth day of the countdown to the world’s end. That’s a kind of comfort: one of giving up, of going along, and of knowing how little we can do.

Unseasonality marks an uncertain relationship to everything that is supported by predictable time, chiefly, what we should be doing at any given moment, and whether we can expect a return on what we are doing. If the season determines both expectations and right action, if the season swaddles us and everything that is, if it takes care of us by meeting our expectations, getting unseasonable puts us in a position of no longer being certain that what we’re doing isn’t absurd.

I’m suggesting, then, that a richer sense of the conceptual weight of normative seasonality can help us realize the absurdity of our present. Thank you.

[i] Standard references: foundational; James Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art (Evanston: University of Illinois, 1938); popular, Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1999).

[ii] Dates to c. 1370-1380 according to Ad Putter. Two copies survive, Scotland, Edinburgh Advocates 19.1.11, and Ashmole 61 (Oxford Bodleian 6922); Bodleian 6922 has been edited twice for the TEAMS series (Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, and also George Shuffelton). I am indebted to Putter’s contribution to Time in the Medieval World for the ‘staging’ of Cleges’s tree prayer in the dark.

[iii] See C Grant Loomis, “Sir Cleges and Unseasonable Growth in Hagiology,” Modern Language Notes 53.8 (1938): 591-94 (for Celtic hagiography) and Sherwyn T. Carr, “The Middle English Nativity Cherry Tree: The Dissemination of a Popular Motif,” Modern Language Quarterly 36.2 (1975): 133-147 (for 3 examples from Middle English drama, a carol, and Cleges).

[iv] Uran Chung, Liz Mack, Jin I. Yun, Soo-Hyung Kim, “Predicting the Timing of Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC and Mid-Atlantic States in Response to Climate Change,” PLoS ONE 6.11 (2011): e27439. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027439 (consulted 15 December 2016); Richard Primack and Hiroyoshi Higuchi, “Climate Change and Cherry Tree Blossom Festivals in Japan,” Arnoldia, 65.2 (2007): 14-22; Jenica M. Allen et al., “Modeling Daily Flowering Probabilities: Expected impact of Climate Change on Japanese Cherry Phenology,” Global Change Biology 20.4 (2014): 1251–1263, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12364

[v] William Watts Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952) has not been superseded; Concetta Giliberto, “The Fifteen Signs of Doomsday of the First Riustring Manuscript,” in Advances in Old Frisian Philology, ed. Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., Stephen Laker, and Oebele Vries (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 129–52, is a good recent treatment.

[vi] Eg, “Recognition of the Anthropocene, therefore, involves acknowledgment that the refusal of premoderns to split nature from culture was wise, and that after a mechanistic interlude of five hundred years the ‘age of humans’ brings ‘natural’ and ‘human’ history back together again (Chakrabarty 2009).” Also see Michael Northcott, “Eschatology in the Anthropocene: From the Chronos of Deep Time to the Kairos of the Age of Humans.” Or Latour.

[vii] From the Derrida documentary – “In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” [the ‘to come]. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”

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David Ignatow, the World, and the Last 15 Days

227633773_146597658e_bFB Tony Perkins introduced me recently to the following poem:

I wished for death often
but now that I am at its door
I have changed my mind about the world.
It should go on; it is beautiful,
even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
plants and animals, others like myself,
ships and buildings and messages
filling the air—a beauty,
if ever I have seen one.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.

David Ignatow, Whisper to the Earth: New Poems

It’s an imperfect fit with my own work, but it’s damned close, and at the very least, it resonates.

More than a year ago, I started thinking about the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Days (for one example, see Aquinas). I turned my blog posts into a conference paper, and then into a short treatment for the inaugeral issue of postmedieval. In its current form, the paper ends by hearing the voices of animals in the last days as a rebuke to the human hope to abandon the world, its flux, and death:

Finally, [animal] voices, this rebuke, are defiantly not the voices of creatures mourning with humans. Ezekiel 38:19-20, although an influence on the Fifteen Signs tradition, differs from the tradition’s eschatology in one key respect: by prophesying “in that day there shall be a great commotion upon the land of Israel: so that the fishes of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the ground, and all men that are upon the face of the earth, shall be moved at my presence,” the passage describes a commotion God directs at all life, human and animal alike. By contrast, in the Fifteen Signs tradition, as in the main lines of the Christian eschatological tradition, humans ultimately face judgment, while animals face death, their own death and the death of the world. The animals mourn along with the stars, the sea, the rocks, all that will be destroyed, all that will not be translated into an eternity freed of the material limitations of worldly existence. In the example in the Mystère d’Adam, “E de toz les fluves parleront / E voiz d’ome parler averont” (1150; and all the rivers will speak and they will have the voices of men to speak), and in another, “Every watyr shall crye þan, / Speke and have steven of man” (182). In its systematic attention to what makes up the world, in its counting off of days and recording of the world—to its stones, rivers, waters, trees, birds, beasts, and fish, each of which cries out and trembles in the last days—the Fifteen Signs tradition recalls the world in all its plenitude at the very moment humans hope finally to realize secure identities by abandoning it, by sealing themselves off from their involvement in it, or, to put this in our language, by uploading themselves. Against this hope, the tradition witnesses that what matters in the world is not only human, and that humans should understand that for life to be life, it must be intermeshed inseparably and precariously in the world. Understood this way, the voices of the Fifteen Signs tradition impart not scorn, but regret and longing for the rich worldly life that humans, believing themselves separate and immutable, will abandon for the empyrean sterility of the resurrection fantasy.

Remember:

In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.

(But let’s not get carried away: please do bear in mind what Julie Orlemanski wrote here on “world” last Spring.)

Woofing and Weeping with Animals in Ava’s Das Jüngste Gericht

2466112830_8f6510d3e1_bWhen in medieval intellectual befunkitude, I try to open myself to the unknown in the hopes that I’ll be surprised. German works might be the best for this, since, if you’re anything like me, you know more about Latin than you do French literatures, and more about French than you do Italian or Spanish literatures: but you know next to nothing about anything else. German, in translation or not (and it’s very much in translation for me!), tends to be a backwater unless we’re tracking Eric, Percival, Tristan, and other favorite romance heroes. Too bad! I can highly recommend Duke Ernst, Ortnit, Wolfdietrich, the Munich Oswald, and, now, perhaps less enthusiastically, the sacred histories of Ava.

Translator James A. Rushing, jr. identifies Ava as both the first named woman writer of the vernacular in the Western Middle Ages (as she probably died 1127, she predates Marie de France by several decades) and the first writer of German epic. Ava’s history of the life of John the Baptist and Jesus for the most part closely follows the pericopes of Christmas and Easter. Because so much is so familiar, my reading slid along while waiting to be snagged by 12th-century hazards. This made for a quick but not particularly interesting read.

A sampling of snags: when the three wise men (bearing “gold from Arabia”) remove their armor before honoring Christ; when Mary comports herself like an anchoress by sitting alone in her room praying for the salvation of the world; when the apostles worship Christ and Mary after Christ’s resurrection; when Ava characterizes Jesus’s triumph as a victory over “one who had robbed him of his land”; when we get a glimpse of the investiture controversy, as Jesus, we hear, “never used his divine origin to evade human law” (see also the sustained attention to the powers with which Christ invested Peter and to the socially disruptive force of excommunications, which, immediately prior to the appearance of Antichrist, drive all “the good to flee to caves in the forest”); when we encounter the Hell Mouth, which is, here, perhaps also a Purgatorial mouth (as those who enter it can be freed via confession and repentance), and also very much the mouth of a “helle hunde” (is the species of the mouth of hell elsewhere so specifically identified?); when–presumably à la mode–French appears (“chastellen” (“Life” 56.9); cf. “burge” (“Judgment” 12.3): I wish Rushing had marked the distinction in such places, as my (wholly uninformed!) sense is that the vocab of the translation is much smaller than the original); when the pileus cornutus (e.g., here) crowds the illustrations (even Joseph wears one), which leads me to wonder when this appeared East of the Rhine; and, above all, the astonishing moment of affective piety, of writing and desiring across time, when Ava laments being unable to enter her own history:

Alas, Joseph the good,
there you lifted my Lord down from the cross.
Had I lived then,
I would have clung fast to you,
at the glorious funeral
of my very dear Lord. (“Life,” 157.1-6)


I’m inclined to wonder whether Ava is a pseudonym. With Anne Middleton’s reading of Langland’s autobiography in mind (“Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388″), I wonder if Ava has, through her (claimed?) name, inserted herself into salvation history by taking on something like the Marian name that reversed Eve (“Ave,” hail, revises Eve in an exegetical commonplace). The autobiographical ending claims “This book was written / by the mother of two children,” one of whom is dead and the other alive, “toil[ing] in earthly woes,” and calls upon the reader to wish mercy on the soul of the dead son, and grace for the other and “the mother, who is Ava.” It’d probably be too cute by half to call the dead son Abel and the live one Cain, as this whole paragraph is probably too cute. So let it be stricken.

I can, however, defend my interest in Ava’s version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment (for more on this tradition, see W. W. Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College P, 1952, which is making its interlibrary way to me as of now):

On the fourth day,
then the lamentation arises,
then the fish and all the monsters of the sea
rise up from the abyss.
They fight above the sea
making a loud noise.
Then things do not go very well
for those that have fins and fish bones.On the fifth day,
then comes a greater lamentation.
Then all the fowl
that ever flew under heaven
rise up in the fields,
be they tame or wild.
They woof and weep (I presume this word, “weinent,” is the same Ava uses for Peter’s weeping at his betrayal of Christ, “do ilt er weinende danne gan” (then he hurried away, crying))
with great screaming.
They bite and scratch,
they strike one another.
The day goes very badly
for those that have wings and talons….

On the twelfth day
the beasts of the field help us lament.
When the animals go out of the forest
against the beasts of the field,
full loudly they roar
as they clash together
with loud cries,
just before the Judgment.

I hope you find Ava’s concern for animals, and her presumption of animals’ concern for us–and perhaps for their own coming destruction–as astonishing as I do. I think I’ve just found my Kzoo 2009 paper. Without too much effort, I can sense of number of practical approaches to putting this concern in motion:

  • a ‘becoming-human’ of the world, and ‘becoming-world’ of the human, in a rereading of the ‘affective fallacy’ as the world all feeling together;
  • feeling with and for animals, and vice versa, as a discovery of friendship at the ultimate point of vulnerability (here I think of various ethics of the flesh based in phenomenology and on Derrida’s proposed ethics of a ‘not being able’);
  • mourning that which should be unmournable, i.e., animal lives (and one thinks here of the applications of Butler’s-as-yet-unread-for-me Precarious Life

Tentative title for an as-yet inchoate abstract: “Woofing and Weeping: Feeling with Animals in the Last Days.” Any suggestions for an approach to this material will be very much appreciated! I’ve already looked around the house for other versions: the Golden Legend, which practially begins with the 15 signs, gives animals no love, while the 15 signs make no appearance at all in the Last Judgments of the N-Town, Chester, or York plays, nor, so far as I can (quickly) determine, Piers Plowman and perhaps not in McGinn’s Visions of the End anthology, whose index fails me only on this one point. Cheap CUNY gives me no access to the PL, so I can’t see pseudo-Bede’s 15 signs in Vol. 94. Searches of Middle English sacred history–Cursor Mundi and Prick of Conscience–are upon me.

You who are still here, what can you give me?

[picture from flickr user locket479, here, through Creative Commons]


 

Well, first, I hope that what’s happening here is NOT unusual, as just one instance in this tradition seems too thin to hang a reading on. I was pretty disappointed by the absence of animals from the Golden Legend, and I’m hoping that other versions of the 15 Signs (and there are probably tens if not hundreds of versions, either as independent texts or as sections of others) tend towards an acknowledgment of animals.

But what markers in the language here indicate Ava’s sympathy with/pathos over this state of affairs?

I’d say it’s (simply) the acknowledgment of animals. It’s something akin to casualty counts for the Iraq war that include only “Coalition” casualties and leave however many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis unlisted (if I can get away with this example here). Given the profoundly anthropocentric character 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 (at least in medieval moral philosophy/ethics that I know, although whether this is operable in the 1120s here, I don’t know), &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.

Yet 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; nor do we see how humans respond to these days when things go so badly for fish, and so forth.

Instead, Ava acknowledges, in excess of what is strictly necessary for her project–IN a project that nowhere else pays much attention to animals–the lives and deaths and passions of animals. And she acknowledges the relations of animals WITH each other.

This 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 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 the catastrophe of human indifference to animal life. Sacrificed life speaks and reveals itself as what it was all along, AS life, but only at the moment of its destruction.

Now, this reading–and thanks for your question, EJ, as Kzoo 2009 is coming together RAPIDLY–will work much better if/when I can GET MORE STUFF. Again, I’m hanging a LOT of reading on something very small unless I can discover that Ava is not alone in this.

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Then there’s Ava’s imagining the animals helping us lament (and I can’t even GUESS at the German here: “so hilfet uns daz vihe chlagen”: I presume hilfet = help and chlagen = lament). Lord knows what’s happening there! – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/06/woofing-and-weeping-with-animals-in.html#sthash.xoTSN8e3.dpuf