Whale Not Watching

IMG_8335Cross-posted to ITM.

I’m in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today’s papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland’s commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they’re participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.

As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn’t a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.

But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn’t show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.

Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here’s one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we’re doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.

(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)


Sagas and Scarcity: A first-time reader on the frontier


Over the past few months, as a kind of preparation for NCS Iceland, and also just for fun, I’ve read, in translation, maybe 14 sagas (or 12 family sagas+ Harald’s Saga and the Volsung Saga) and a fair chunk of the Poetic Edda. I’ve read all the great ones: Njal, Egil, Grettir, Laxdæla, and a swelling list of deeper cuts. Apart from Njal and the Poetic Edda, which I read in 1989 or 1990 (!), during a Freshman great books course, I’m coming to this material as an absolute novice, with no knowledge of the scholarship and virtually none, I’m sad to say, of the language.

Sagas can’t be read by the bushel without a few notes. While I’ve long since given up on keeping one Thorstein separate from the others, I can still, as I did above, flag features particular to particular sagas. You might notice, for example, the “many prose metaphors, especially about weather” and “talking wounds, diagnosed with onions.”

Talking wounds, in a sequence where someone ends up terribly wounded for showing insufficient compassion:

Then one of the Trondheim yeomen came into the barn as Thormond and the woman spoke together. He was curious to learn about the king’s men. Many of them were sorely wounded, and from those wounds to the innards or the head issued that terrible sound that comes from such deep cuts to the flesh.

(103, Martin Regal trans., Penguin Comic Tales and Tales from Iceland)

There’s a lot, maybe too much, to mention for a medievalist new to this material. There’s nothing like this in the chivalric literature of England and France, whose knights, as most of us know, do nothing but eat, pray, love, and fight.

Just one thing, today, when I’m stewing with a virus on my couch: compared to texts from Western, continental Europe, Icelandic sagas describe a society that’s just plain poor. Iceland is not resource rich, not in people, and not in goods. It seems cut off from the main trade routes of medieval Europe, with its trade being, primarily, cloth in exchange for Norwegian lumber. In Iceland, 60 men is an army; 15 men fighting is a battle worth memory; killings happen over what seem to be petty annoyances, or at least petty annoyances to us, the sleek and comfortable: beatings from porridge ladles, borrowed horses, insults–particularly sexual insults. Or fights are over resources: grazing land, decent grassland for making hay, and especially, meat from beached whales.

Also notable, and perhaps related to the poverty, is the lack of division of labor, perhaps notable to me only because I’ve been reading The German Ideology during my breaks (and, on this, “Division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears” (159, Marx Engels Reader: applicable here, or not?). Warriors are also poets are also farmers (expected to bail hay alongside their slaves) are also porridge cooks are also assassins (often minimally honoring the law when they wake up their victims just before they, uh, bury the hatchet) are also shepherds are also driftwood-gatherers are also craftsmen, able to repair a boat or smelt a silver sow as an insult or to measure the beams of a church to try to match a king’s great architecture. A few, but not many, know how to make a weapon.

The generalized character extends to gender relations. Certainly, the sagas are as sexist as any medieval literature, and often worse. But it’s impossible to imagine a woman in the sagas as retiring as Chrétien’s Enide or as nervous and inept as Lady Bisclavret. If Enide were a Thordis, she would have denounced her husband before his men, and Eric would have stormed out in shame to fight and, probably, die; if Lady Bisclavret were an Aud, she’d have divorced her husband and had her 4 brothers track him down as a witch. In the sagas, so far as I know them, women goad their men into vengeance (as you know from reading, say, Volsung/Nibelungenlied: the precise opposite of the Melibean queen as intercessor!), often fight alongside them, join expeditions to the new world, and often make their own decisions about who to marry and, especially, who to divorce.

I might expect that frontier literature of any sort has the same features (those who know this stuff can chime in below), although the difference here, at least for Iceland, is that Iceland’s only human “natives” were a few Irish monks who scattered (if they were lucky) when the Norse first showed up.

Organ Swapping in Medieval Iceland: quot lectores, tot sententiae, I hope

Thomas Saga ErkibyskupsAs a lingering flu drags me through the weekend, I offer you a brief story, which involves some ongoing themes of ITM: animals; disability; and the technological and organic supplementarity of the posthuman body. Please turn in your hymnals to the 97th Chapter of the fourteenth-century Thómas Saga Erkibyskups, which belongs, as you might have guessed, to an Icelandic Life of Thomas Becket. Here you will find a tale of Thomas’ peculiar solicitude for a hawk that had accidentally put out its eye during a hunt. The falconer decides to seek help at Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury, but on his way there, he meets a flock (“flokkar”) of noblemen, one of whom mocks him for his quest:

the mighty man breaketh out fiercely, saying that it is a most unchristian work to call in the aid of a holy man in such a matter, ‘or deemest thou,’ said he, ‘that the archbishop carest, whether the carrion-bird hath two eyes or one?'”

(the translation is Eiríkr Magnússon’s, not mine)

The falconer bravely makes his way to the shrine, where he once again encounters the mocking nobleman, who, in the meanwhile, has lost an eye to the plucking mystic hand of Thomas (“For shortly after our parting it seemed to me, as if the bent finger of a man moved toward my eye, doing me such harm as to gouge it out unto the cheek”). Having made his point, Thomas makes all well…sort of.

This matter we may bring to an end without prolixity by relating that in a wondrous manner God the Lord so ruled it, that the man and the bird underwent such a change, according to the command of our Lord, that the man had a bird’s eye, but the bird got back a man’s eye. This miracle became far-famed and manifoldly for this reason, that whosoever inquired into the form and nature of either eye, could judge truly, that by creation it was natural to one, what the other had. Now ever afterwards the lord was much more keen-sighted than before, though he was somewhat odd-looking; but with this it went that he needed so little sleep for the eye which the bird had had, that he deemed it a right troublesome matter, as it would be awake through nearly all the night. The hawk’s case was the contrary; he being as sleepy as a man is wont to be, so that he might scarcely be roused to his feet or to flight to do his work. This miracle endeth with the words that the Lord is made glorious through archbishop Thomas and all his beloved ones.

I discovered this miracle through Briony Aitchison’s stupendously researched “Holy Cow!: The Miraculous Cures of Animals in Late Medieval England,” European Review of History 16.6 (2009): 875-92, about which more later (briefly, though: if you thought animal resurrection stories occured only in Christianity’s Celtic periphery, then clearly you’re not a devotee of Henry VI). Apart from the Aitchison’s analytic catalog, my chevauchée through my college’s electronic databases has turned up little: e.g., a glancing reference to the miracle in Robin S. Oggins’ Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (p. 104), and a more sustained discussion of the saga itself in Haki Antonsson, “Two Twelfth-Century Martyrs: St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Magnús of Orkney,” in Gareth Williams and Paul Bibire, eds., Sagas, Saints and Settlements. Leiden: Brill, 2004, 52-64. Clearly there’s more to be done!

So many ways in! The miracle’s most obviously about the social capital of falconry, although this straightforward reading runs aground on the conflict between the falconer’s working piety and the properly anthropocentric piety of idle rich whose class the falconer serves. We require a more nuanced analysis attendant to the bonds between huntsmen and their animals, which may make up communities independent of the needs, desires, and values of their mutual masters.

Alternately, the miracle may be just as obviously about Thomas’s expansive regard for all life and all prayers, regardless of how absurd (credo quod absurdum est): not so expansive, however, since what happens to the birds that the hawk kills for a living? In this, then, a clear instance of the logic of the pet, which is nowhere so evident as in the carnivorous community formed by the falconer and falcon? But a good reading must recognize that the logic of the pet may not be sufficient to explain what happens to the human caught up in the supplementarity of the bonds of love and sympathy (reread Jeffrey’s beautiful post below). With Jeffrey’s work in mind, we may recognize the story as a site of fantasy for (im)possible bodies beyond the pedestrian fantasy of merely human and animal identities.The story may, too, be about the privilege accorded the eye as the organ of reason, with an implicit suggestion that humans are disabled compared to hawks in this regard. What happens to the notion of human disability when it’s thought of less anthropocentrically? It’s a longstanding cliché that humans, lacking fur, claws, speed, devoted themselves to creating suitable accommodations to mitigate and indeed overcome their relative weakness (see, for example, Origen, Contra Celsus, IV.76, for which reference I thank Nicola Masciandaro’s Voice of the Hammer).

And what happens to the integrity of the human body presumed by the liberal humanist subject (the bête noire of posthuman theory!) when organs, human or animal, are technological supplements in a vertigineous system that may be supplementary all the way down?