Akbar and the Silenced Children: Language as Heritage, or Language as Community?

by KARL STEEL

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Chinese Parrot, c. 1700, collection of Marie-Antionette, 1785

As part of the process of assembling, expanding, and (re)writing the material for Book 2, I’ve returned to the problem of “feral children,” which I first visited here six years (!) ago, when I first stumbled across the Wolf Child of Hesse. It’s now been ten days since I decided language deprivation experiments needed to be part of this discussion. 

The form of this chapter will therefore be two studies of isolated children – first, feral ancestors, like Romulus and Remus, isolated from mundane humans; next, the child raised in silence, a supposedly true representation of the human condition, because they have been isolated from the secondary, cultural accumulation of the larger society – and then, finally, a study of a small set of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century feral children stories in which the children find community with wolves: from isolation to a lupine, more than human sociality.

I now have a lot of material on Herodotus, and its classical afterlife in commentaries on Aristophanes, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and even, perhaps, Quintilian, which I might share here; I have my material on Salimbene de Adam’s record of Frederick II, and even that barest reference to James IV’s deprivation experiment that we find Robert Lindsay’s Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. Outside of the historical texts, speculations about isolation and language appear in Pedro Mexia’s Silva de varia lección, the Qabus-nama, and in the medieval Islamic philosophical novels translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus and Theologus Autodidactus. On the topic of isolation, Avincenna’s famous “floating man” thought experiment may be cited too. Once we abandon simplistic notions of historicity and recognize that thought experiments themselves are also “historical,” the archive fills and expands and fills and so on.

In the interests of your time, though, I’m sharing only my material on Akbar’s experiment. This is all new for me, a medievalist trained in the later Middle Ages and English, French, and Latin materials: it’s not just that the sixteenth-century Emperor Akbar is early modern; it’s that the primary materials outside of Europe on his experiment are all in Persian, so I have had to rely on translations, perhaps disreputable, by Victorian Orientalists. But I had my quarry when I stumbled across a story about “Rege terrae Magor” while searching for early modern references to Herodotus. What could this Magor be?

Of course it’s the Mughals. You already knew that, but learning the obvious took me more than a day to figure out, and that here in Paris, where a day has more value than crummy old Brooklyn. In the process, I reconstructed a chain of witnesses to the experiment, tracking the story’s changes from one version to the next, from the late sixteenth through the early eighteenth century. I also determined that credulous, sloppy repetitions of stories of language deprivation experiments run from the present all the way back to Tertullian and even Quintillian and probably Herodotus himself, and that almost no one almost no one can keep the story straight from one telling to the next. That is, all these tellers always get it exactly right for whatever their needs are at the moment.

The story of Akbar’s experiment has often been told. This lengthy post is better cited than most tellings, so even without my final interpretations, it may have some value. My real interest here, however, is in attempts to think through the problem of the origin of language. Language, as a sign, proof, and indispensable tool of reason, attests to our human existence as being more than merely biological, in there being something in or of us that is mere than bare life. Where could the extra thing possibly come from? Answering this question is the concern of these and so many other language deprivation experiments: not to take something away from us, but to discover, within the crucible of this experiment, what our core self might be. The deprivation experiment wants to give us the gift of ourselves, what we really are once all that might be thought to be only secondary to us has been burnt away.

But what is finds itself is catastrophe. Or, despite itself, community.

The first account of Akbar’s experiment appears the Akbarnama of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s own court historian, which may be the only version that has any claim to being an eye-witness account: to prove that speech comes from hearing, Akbar had several children raised by “tongue-tied” wetnurses, confined to a building that came to be called the “dumb house.” When Akbar visited the house in 1582, four years after the children were first interred, he heard “no cry…nor any speech…no talisman of speech, and nothing came out except the noise of the dumb.” Much the same story (but without anything said about nurses or guards) would be told decades later, the anonymous Dabestan-e Mazaheb (“School of Religions), written between 1645 and 1658, which finished with a wonderful assertion about the deep time of human cultural development: the experiment proves that “letters and language are not natural to man,” but only the result of instruction and conversation, and that therefore (!) “the world is very ancient.”

The anti-Akbarian Montaḵab al-tawārīḵ of ʿAbd-ul-Qadir Bada’uni lays the foundations of the story’s several European versions. This work, the Selection of Chronicles, worries over Akbar’s disdain for religion, and Islam in particular; like Salimbene writing about Frederick II, Bada’uni may be portraying an impious tyrant who goes too far in his curiosity. First, however, Bada’uni attributes the experiment to Akbar’s astonished encounter with a man who can hear, despite having “no ears nor any trace of the orifice of the ear”: to test the origins of language, he has several infants locked up, with “well-disciplined” (rather than mute) nurses, who are commanded not to give the children “any instruction in speaking.” Then, without any transition or explanation, Bada’uni changes Akbar’s motivation: he now wants to test the idea that “everyone that is born is born in a state of nature” (George Ranking translation) or that “everyone that is born is born with an inclination to religion” (Lowe? translation). Twenty children are locked up in what comes to be called the “dumb house,” and “three or four years” later, none can speak. Nothing more is said about the earless man.

The language deprivation experiment is absent from several of the early European accounts of Akbar’s court. Giovanni Battista Peruschi’s 1597 Informatio del regno, et stato del gran re di Mogor (published in Latin the following year, with additional material on Japan) limits itself to worrying over possibilities for gaining the Emperor for Roman Catholicism, while the thirteen pages of the True Relation without all Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, which lately happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor, from 1622, are little but an exoticizing fantasy about the possibilities unleashed by absolute royal power: thus it devotes several of its thirteen pages to the story of a problem-solving ape, like a cleverer Hans, frolicking among the Mughal courtiers, including his two hundred “Boyes…which hee keepeth for unnaturall and beastly uses.”

Instead, the story first enters Europe via the letters of another Jesuit missionary, Jerónimo Xavier (d. 1617), who draws on either on Bada’uni or one of Bada’uni’s own informants to establish one of the main lines of the story’s European reception. Claiming to have had it from Akbar himself, Xavier explains that “nearly twenty years ago,” Akbar closed up “thirty children,” and “put guards over them so that the nurses might not teach them their language.” There is nothing about an earless man, nor any received wisdom about natural religious inclinations. Instead, Akbar had decided “to follow the laws and customs of the country whose language was that spoken by the children.” Since “none of the children came to speak distinctly,” Xavier calls the experiment a “failure”; for Akbar, it may have been something else, since it allowed him to justify following “no law but his own.” Here Xavier presumably means the short-lived, syncretic faith of Dīn-i Ilāhī, designed by Akbar himself.  What had been a story about the origins of language becomes one about what we might call the natural voice of divinity, and, more practically, about the early modern Roman Catholic failure to make Akbar their Prester John, that imaginary medieval Christian king of Asia or “Ethiopia” that Europe hoped would swoop in and crush Islam from what Europe must have thought of as “behind.”

European speculative scholarship happily stuffed the story into a set of examples that invariably, as they still do, began with Herodotus. In a discussion considering the immutability of language, Christop Besold’s 1632 updated version of his De natura populorum tells it exactly as Xavier does, but without saying anything about the muteness of the (thirty) children’s keepers. We find it again in August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem (1693)on whether the Hebrew language is natural, where Pfeiffer cites Besold, and then references Hebrew masters who claim that the Hebrew language was “implanted naturally” (naturaliter impantatam) in the first human. In English, we find the story preserved in these essentials in the chapter “Of the Great Mogor, or Mogoll” of Samuel Purchas’s 1626 travel writing.

Secularized, greatly shortened versions of the story appear in a 1632 entry in the journal of the English traveler Peter Mundy (“hee caused little children to brought up by dumb Nurses to know what languages they would naturally speak, but it is sayd that in a long time they spake nothing at all”), and on the very first page the Danish scientist Ole Borch’s 1675 On the Causes of the Diversity of Languages, whose Latin is repeated word-for-word in Christian Augustus Ludwig’s 1730 Brief Commentary on the Property of NamesLike so many more recent retellings of the story, both writers fold the story in among citations of the few other language deprivation experiments they know – Herodotus and Quintilian in this case – and in Borch, even the sheep-boy of Ireland, whose preference for the choicest pasture was recounted in 1641 by Rembrandt’s famous Doctor Tulp. Borch’s inclusion of this story amid his examples may be the first time an animal-raised child was deliberately understood not as a wonder, but as just one more, sad example of linguistic deprivation.

In virtually none of these versions do the children ever acquire anything but inarticulate noises. The one exception is François Catrou’s 1708 Histoire générale de l’empire du Mogol (General History of the Mughal Empire), which he claims to have based on Niccolao Mannuchi’s 1698 Storia do Mogor (The History of Mughal India), itself based in turn on accounts of Xavier and others. Like Borch, Mannuchi holds that Akbar is seeking the original language. Some thought it would be Hebrew, others “Chaldean” (meaning Syriac? Persian?); and others Sanskrit, “which is their Latin.” Mannuchi has only twelve children, and says nothing about their nurses, only that no one, “under pain of death,” is to speak to the children “or allow them to communicate with each other” (!). When the children turned twelve, they were questioned, but responded only by cringing, and remained “timid [and] fearful” for the rest of their lives.

With one enormous change, Catrou reproduces Mannuchi’s story of Akbar’s “bizarre” experiment, inspired, Catrou says, by Akbar having heard that Hebrew was a “natural language.” The emperor shuts up twelve children with twelve mute nurses, and a male porter, also mute, who is never to open the doors of the “château” in which they have all been confined. Twelve years later, to witness and deliver the verdict, Akbar has filled his court with judges, led by a Jew who will question the children in Hebrew. Another “failure”: all are astonished (“on fut tout étonné”) that they speak no language. This may just be garbled; or Catrou may have drawn these details from now lost manuscripts, used to supplement Manucchi’s account; or – continuing the longstanding habit of scholars of language deprivation experiments – he may have simply dramatized the story further, or folded into it what he expected to find.

However it happened, what Catrou provides astounds: for in this version, for the first time, the children do in fact acquire language. In no earlier version of any account that pretends to be a true history – in neither Herodotus nor Quintilian nor Salimbene nor Robert Lindsey – are the children able to communicate anything but their distress, or some fundamental language. But here they have sign language, taught to them by their nurse; “they express their thoughts only by gestures, which they use in place of words”: in Catro: “Ils avoient appris de leur Nourrice à s’en parler. Seulement ils exprimoient leurs pensées par des gestes qui leur tenoient lieu de paroles,” or, as the 1826 English translation strangely expands the passage, “they had learnt, from the example of their nurses, to substitute signs for articulate sounds. They used only certain gestures to express their thoughts, and these were all the means which they possessed of conveying their ideas, or a sense of their wants.”

This detail has been understood by some writers as evidence that the Akbar story might be more than just another mutated iteration of the story that first appears in Herodotus; to put it simply these writers – linguists and advocates for the disabled among them – want this story of a sign language community passed on from nurses to children to be evidence that Akbar really conducted this experiment. Thus it could be a heroic story about Akbar underestimating his “mute” nurses, who had a language he and his philosophers were unable to understand. Community had survived after all, even amid this deprivation. I reluctantly doubt it: though certainly important to the history of disability, negotiation, and accommodation, this element of the story arrived late in its tradition, and likely has much more to do with developments in sign language in Europe than it does with the history of disability in the Mughal court.

This is not to say it lacks all truth. None of these stories should be taken as facts in any simple sense. All should be understood as being as legendary as any other bizarre tale about powerful rulers. They are nonetheless still true, in that they are true records of an interest, as real a record as any other fiction, which, as Anna Kłosowska observes of the truth of medieval stories, correspond “to an absolute reality–not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being… and [the] continuing desire for it performed by readers.”

The true record here is not the events but the concern, of course, with the relation between the authentic, the natural, and origins. Consider the version of the story in the “things omitted” section of Daniel Sennert’s medical manual, his Paralipomenon (written after 1631), the first time the story appears outside a missionary text or a travel narrative. Sennert tells the story as Xavier does, but then slides, surprisingly, into an anecdote about parrots, which, as he explains, likewise cannot learn to talk without being taught (“nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem profereunt”). He concludes with an incidental tidbit of parrot lore from Apulius’s Florida 12 (teach a parrot to curse, and it will curse unceasingly, day and night, unless you cut out its tongue or send it back to the forest). With this, Sennert has recognized that speech originates in imitation, and indeed taught imitation. Sennert does not imagine that parrots spontaneously imitate language. They need instruction. At the same time, certain parrots (those with five toes, like humans) are better than others at learning languages: what has to be taught is not merely a cultural activity, but an interaction between bodily affordances and training. As Haraway writes in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs”: “one is too few, but two is too many.” Go back far enough, and what’s found is just this: accommodation, where language acquires the character of seeming natural by an entanglement of training and imitation that coalesces with bodies given the chance to thrive amid conditions designed for them. A “dumb house” is not one of these spaces, unless the nurses subvert the experiment.

Recall as well August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem, which follows its Akbar story with “others argue with those Hebrew masters who say that the Hebrew language was implanted in the first human” (Ebaorum Magistri alias disputant contra illos, qui Ebraeam linguam, ut primam homini naturaliter implantatam esse dicant). This strange metaphor (one might instead expect a metaphor of respiration) at least implicitly recognizes the manufactured character of humans in the Genesis creation myths. If being natural requires springing from or being born from itself or something like itself (as the word “nature” comes from “nasci,” to be born), if it requires spontaneity, humans are not, at their root, natural (barring a few outlying philosophers). Like the rest of organized creation, like everything after the first waters over which God’s form floated, humans are a manufactured product. Language, reason, and the soul: none of this is any more “natural” than we are.

Barring Robert Lindsey, where the children definitely speak Hebrew, and perhaps Herodotus, where the children are understood to have spoken Phrygian, the hunt for an origin, whether of ethnicity (Herodotus), religion (Akbar, in many instances), or language (Frederick II, and often Akbar), gets us nothing but nonsense. Language must be passed on in groups. The hunt for origins reveals not purity, not a definitive answer, but a community, and then, past that, nothing but the most wretched helplessness, a community that has arrived too late for help.

Isolation gets us only noise; being comes with the break into the noise, the wave-form collapse, the phenomenon. The hunt for origins is often a hunt for an excuse, a way past responsibility, to find things as they “really are.” But what we find instead is only one more requirement to have made a decision. What we find is the necessity of care.

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Folcuin’s Horse and the Dog’s Gowther, Beyond Care

Hi gang!

IMG_1762Years back, I submitted a Frankenstein’s monster of a couple conference papers for a collection to be called Fragments toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism. 6 or 7 years ago, in fact. In the way these things go, with overextended editors making huge life changes, the collection died — or hibernated, as it turns out, because it’s now going to press, which means all this stuff — most of which I rewrote for How to Make a Human — could be rewritten again.

Which I just did, over the past few days, as I anticipate next week’s start of the CUNY semester. What I’ve done is a bit of LIFE THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING — sorry! — but it’s also in essence a wholesale rewriting of my book’s conclusion with an eye towards Book #2.

Background, if you’re a sadsack who never finished HtMaH:A&VitMA, are the pairings/readings of 2 stories: the tale of Folcuin’s horse, buried like a human, and Sir Gowther‘s brief encounter with a greyhound on his way to fulfill his penance. Here’s the new stuff:


The temptation would be to praise the stories of Folcuin’s horse and Gowther and the dog as examples of a more fluid, conjoined selfhood, indifferent to rigid binaries, firm boundaries, and hierarchies, all of which serve as the opponents – or strawmen –for critical animal studies, ecocriticism, and a host of other well-meaning modes of critique. Certainly, all of these have the advantage of eliminating any natural foundation for a decision. The “deterritorialized” wasp of Deleuze and Guattari, whose “molecular” becoming cannot be distinguished from the orchid it pollinates, nor finally from the “animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy” with which we are all dependently enmeshed;[1] Haraway’s dog, whose co-training with her is a “naturalcultural practice” that redoes them both “molecule by molecule,” allows “something unexpected” comes into being, “something new and free, something outside the rules of function and calculation, something not ruled by the logic of the reproduction of the same”[2]; or, a less frequently cited example, Ralph Acampora’s Corporal Compassion, whose phenomenological notion of “symphysis” recalls us to our fundamental participation with other bodied beings—notably, not embodied, not minds in bodies – which is a matter of “becoming sensitive to an already constituted ‘inter-zone’ of somaesthetic conviviality”[3]: all of these ontologies describe the actual, mobile, intraactive productivity of things in which the self-other relations that make ethics necessary must be continually renegotiated. However, the danger is in thinking that this recognition is in itself sufficient, as if fluid metaphors were enough to save us, and everything else, from human supremacy. But, as Nicole Shukin reminds us, capitalism loves rhizomes too; it loves to blur boundaries; it loves motion, stirring up trouble, multiplying desire, and giving us new things to cherish.[4]

The key is to know all this and still make a decision, and still know that we will have always made a decision, however inadequate it will always be. The trope of the “blurred boundary” should be understood as just a call to be aware of decision-making. The key to any minimally decent “postdisenchanted”[5] approach to the human and animal is to recognize, for example, the rhizomatic ontologies of Deleuze and Guattari, while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals,”[6] that in an assemblage of human and animal, only one is protected by laws forbidding murder, and that therefore nonhuman animals may have to be minimally singled out in assemblages as objects of care.[7] At the same time, we must also remember, with Donna Haraway’s account of training with her dog, that animals are not only passive victims that need to be rescued or let alone, and that our engagement with animals changes us as it changes them. Inspired by Haraway, we will throw open the doors of the philosopher’s study. In the case of Derrida and his now famous encounter with the fathomless, singular mystery of his cat, we should account for the individual and species history that placed this cat in this particular house fed by some particular meat by this particular world-class philosopher. One of the advantages of Haraway over Derrida is just this attention to the more-than-philosophical, material history of domesticated animals, especially in her Companion Species Manifesto.

In the case of Gowther, for example, we should also recognize that while the particular encounter between knight and dog may break open the circle of penitential exchange “so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return,”[8] violence still makes this encounter possible. In this brief, beautiful moment, Gowther and the dog are literal companions (with bread). The gift of bread is the gift of food; it is nourishment, life, and an invitation to this demonic nonhuman to seek out a companionship outside a lonely human conviviality. And this mundane, material attention to Gowther’s hunger interrupts his journey to satisfy his spiritual needs, with their hope of a final, celestial escape from responsibility for himself and for vulnerable others. Still, the exchanged object is bread. Jared Diamond famously observed that grains are the particular foodstuff of settled, urban, highly stratified civilizations, like those of Western Europe.[9] The gift of bread – and even more so for a gift of meat – should remind us of a system that bound most people to the land, as farmers, as slaves, as overseers, as owners, and as children made to tie one landowning family to another, and of the cultivation of larger and larger oxen and horses for labor, and to the elimination of competing animals and humans as “pests.” The dog bestows a gift on Gowther; the dog steals from others, reminding us, with this gift, that the dog’s victims are bound to a life of laboring for others. There is no way to get it perfectly right.

At a sufficiently large or sufficiently small scale, what Gowther and the dog experience does not matter. Nothing does. There is no possible perspective at which everything can matter. The scale at which Gowther and dog are both recognizable is nonetheless the scale where their existence matters, where they need to be fed, protected, and acculturated; it is the scale we might notice, if we slow down the poem’s push towards its saintly conclusion. However, everything else is also significant, including the fields of “background” violence that temporarily fulfill the needs of dog and knight. Ultimately, amid the always shifting field of stuff, oriented towards the preservation of a self that this very orientation is always transforming, decisions have to be made about who or what to cherish.

Joanna Zylinksa’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a recent, good attempt to deal with this nearly impossible demand. Synthesizing work on ontology and ethics by Henri Bergon, Emmanuel Levinas, Karen Barad, and Rosi Braidotti, Zylinska calls for a non-systemic ethics, without fixed answers, without stable goals, in which these singular beings we call humans do what they can do responsibly, engaging in “pragmatic temporary stabilizations of time and matter,” [10] while also aware of the scales of the very large and very small, the very slow and very fast, that will always escape our notice. She requires local decision-making that disturbs an always lurking universality, whose irrepressible presence undoes our satisfaction and smugness at believing ourselves to have done things right. Zylinska does not give us a posthumanism: she challenges human supremacy, as any ecological thinker must, but her attention to particularity means she abandons neither human singularity nor her own human position. Others may have agency; others may be subject to responsibility; others may come after us who do what we love best better than we do, if only we were to get out of the way. All of this may be true, but none of this saves us from the requirement for “the human to take responsibility for the differentiating cuts into the flow of life s/he is herself making with his/her tongue, language, or tools,” [11] without knowing in advance whether others are doing it better, or what we should protect, or why or if we are doing it wrong.

I will conclude by returning to Derrida’s naked encounter with his cat, surely an ur-moment for critical animal studies. [12] The cat comes across Derrida just as he’s emerged from the shower. From here, we get Derrida feeling ashamed, and a bit ashamed of his shame; we get a sketch of philosophical distinctions between self-aware nudity and unwitting nakedness, and from there, of course, another of Derrida’s dismantling of the pretensions of the humanist tradition. To suspend or refuse human domination, to break with what he calls carnophallogocentrism, Derrida lets himself be “seen seen” by his cat. He allows himself the uneasiness of being caught in his own cat’s eyes; he lets himself stay uncertain; and he opposes those who take “no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ can look at them, and address them from down there.” Derrida’s insistence that his cat is this particular being removes or preserves her from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures shunted into animality. This is a moment of wonder, of uncertainty, of an insistence on the individual, but even a bit of a threat, since the cat, with its fangs, looks curiously at Derrida’s penis. Though Derrida’s cat is a female cat, he often refers to her in the masculine as chat: had he consistently called it a chatte, it might have been more obviously a vagina dentata, since une chatte can be, as in English, a “pussy.” But that is a point to be explored elsewhere: needless to say, this little mixup at least multiples the singular cat into a growing and happily disreputable crowd.[13]

Derrida moves on from here, infesting the category of the “animal” until it bursts apart. Had he stayed longer with the cat and longer in his study, he might have undomesticated both, opening both to the larger – or smaller – world and to other animal possibilities. What if the cat were a worm or a hoard of worms? What possibility for an ethics of the singular could there be were Derrida faced with a faceless hoard, hungry and existing for all that? What if the cat were larger, and could, actually, have eaten the philosopher? Finally, what if the cat could have done this, and simply didn’t care to, or didn’t realize it might have? This possibility of the philosopher not being “seen seen” but being ignored by an indifferent animal offers another model for the groundless ground for our necessary decisions. We must suspend ourselves between two impossibilities: the unjustifiable need to defend ourselves from the appetite of others, and the dizzying fact of temporary mattering, our own and others, within a near universal indifference, where we must make cuts to care, even if what we protect takes no notice of us at all. Knowing all that we know, knowing what little good it might do, what harm it might do, and just how little it will do on any scale, we still have to care.

[1]    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 262, 293, and 250.

[2]    Haraway, When Species Meet, 228 and 223.

[3]    Ralph R. Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy of Body (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 84.

[4]    Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2011), 31-32.

[5]    I borrow this term from Carolyn Dinshaw, who used it in a roundtable discussion led and edited by Elizabeth Freeman, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities,” GLQ 13 (2007): 185.

[6]    I quote from the appraisal of Deleuze and Guattari in Elizabeth A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 163, whose work in imagining a “psychical corporeality” (and whose cautious use of Deleuze and Guattari) I have found inspiring.

[7]    For a rich elaboration of this idea, to which I am much indebted, see Leonard Lawlor, This is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality in Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 71-114. See also Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 84-86.

[8]    See Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7.

[9]    Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine (May 1987): 64-66.

[10]  Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 31.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] But also see Susan Fraiman, “Pussy Panic versus Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies,” Critical Inquiry 39.1 (2012): 89-115.

[13] For the French, compare, for example, Jacques Derrida, L’animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 253, “devant un chat qui vous regarde sans bouger” [before a male cat who looks as you without moving], 255-56, “le chat qui me regarde nu…ce chat dont je parle, qui est aussi une chatte” [the male cat who looks at me naked, the male cat about whom I speak, who is also a female cat], and 257, “la chatte qui me regarde nu, celle-là et nulle autre, celle dont je parle ici” [the female cat who looks at me naked, that female one there and no other, the female one about whom I am speaking here]. For recent good appreciations of gender and Derrida, with special attention to cats, see Carla Freccero, “Chercher la chatte: Derrida’s Queer Feminine Animality,” in French Thinking about Animals, ed. Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus (Ann Arbor: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 105-20, and Jessica Polish, “After Alice After Cats in Derrida’s L’animal que donc je suis,” Derrida Today 7.2 (2014): 180-96.

‘By chance’ or ‘in itself’: Automatos and The Problem of Material Agency

Coney Island Fireworks

Cross-posted to In the Middle: comment there or at the fb.

Here’s a draft of my paper for the New Chaucer Society, which I’ll be giving on Friday July 18th 11am session on “Ecomaterialism: Questions/Problems/Ideologies.” I have all of five minutes. Not 100% confident in what follows, but, here goes.

This paper, a shortened and somewhat rethought version of a paper I gave at Kalamazoo2014, implicitly responds to criticism of the “faith,” “mysticism,” and even “panpsychism” of the new materialisms. Now, that charge may be fair, depending on who we’re looking at or what we’re looking for. Here, for example, is William Connolly on “creativity” in The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism:

Creative processes flow through and over us, and reflexivity doubles the creative adventure. Actions are thus not entirely controlled by preexisting intentions; rather the creative dimension helps to compose and refine intentions as they become consolidated in action. To articulate the creative dimension of freedom, then, is to insert a fundamental qualification or hesitation into the ideas of both the masterful agent and agency as the activation of intentions already there. The creative element is located somewhere between active and passive agency. When creative freedom is under way in an unsettled context we may find ourselves allowing or encouraging a new thought, desire, or strategy to crystallize out of the confusion and nest of proto-thoughts that precede it. An agent, individual or collective, can help to open the portals of creativity, but it cannot will that which is creative to come into being by intending the result before it arrives. Real creativity is thus tinged with uncertainty and mystery. (75)

I’m sympathetic to this. I get it, because it describes, especially, how writing works for me, and probably for you. Outline all you like, something new is going to happen when you’re trying to assemble your actual words. It does feel mysterious, but still, the language of “mystery” or of a “tinge” smacks of mysticism, at least for those who are sniffing it out.

My own hesitation, however, would be with the “proto-thought,” since that, catnip to the humanists, strikes me as just as mysterious, obscuring as it does the question of the location of thought or, especially, its presumptive non-materiality.

That is my angle, then: in the background of this piece, you might hear me throwing the “mysticism” charge back against the accusers, whose certainty in the difference between thinking human subjects/nonhuman objects strikes me as both an act of faith and an unwarranted limitation of their attention only to familiar scales of time and size.

Another caution: the 20-minute version at Kalamazoo had a lot of room for Aquinas and also, especially, to give queer theory its due in assailing the paternalism of an absolute split between agent and object. This paper, like the new materialisms in general, wouldn’t have been possible without Butler and Irigaray.

Here we go:


 

The word “agency” gets a lot of use from New Materialists; Jane Bennett talks about “material agency,” and Karen Barad about the “agential object.” A 9am session tomorrow will ask “Should We Believe in the Agential Object?” And so on. One of the key purposes in using this word “agency,” I think, is to counter the faith that humans, or maybe some animals, are the only agential objects. For the new materialists, nonhuman objects aren’t only mechanical; they might surprise; they might respond; to use Derrida’s terminology, they might even have an excessive “responsibility,” rather than just a limited, predictable reactivity; in short, they—and us too—might exhibit some kind of choice and creativity.

“Some kind,” which is, admittedly, a bit hand-wavey, but deliberately so, to mark the way that the word “agency” acknowledges that actors without obvious political power, without much obvious choice, without obvious importance, and even without deliberation or subjectivity, can still resist, fight back, or make something new. Where they might do something in ways that the dominant agent couldn’t have accounted for. Where we can recognize actors that we would otherwise not notice, to “provincialize the human” and its scales of attention.

Given the conference, of course I’m going to argue that medieval thought has something to offer these discussions. Which of course you already know. I’ll focus on something small: the difficulties Aristotle’s word “automatos” gave some his medieval Latin translators.

Aristotle uses automatos, among other places, in Metaphysics VII.7, where it’s one of his three categories of causation: natural, artistic—the word is techne—and automaton. Techne is a familiar kind of agency to the humanist: the “active principle” is in the “soul” of the artist. “Natural comings to be,” on the other hand, “are the comings to be of those things which come to be by nature.” The tight mechanicity of this obvious, almost hilarious circular reasoning may be why Aristotle provided for the third category of automatic causation.

Automatic causation appears when things are produced “without seeds,” like insects, which come spontaneously from mud or dung, or when things happen without deliberation or by accident. So we have at least two meanings of automaton here, both of which reserve an agency outside both human or quasi-human deliberation and outside the circular causality of nature.

In one meaning, automatic agency seems to be self-generated, like “natural things…whose matter can be moved even by itself.” This agency seems to come from nowhere because it originates in the thing itself—think for example of the auto in autobiography—so that agent and patient are the same thing. Alternately, automatic agency may be a kind of non-agential activity, with only patients and no agents, as when—to use Aristotle’s example—a patient gets healthy regardless of what the physician does.

Unsurprisingly, automatos troubled some of Aristotle’s medieval translators: Michael Scot and Roger Bacon render it as “per se” (cited from here, 134) through or by itself, and William of Moerbecke, at times, as “a casu,” by chance (here and HA, 130). Self-generated causation is an action whose cause cannot be disentangled from its effect. One analogue might be Anselm’s attempt in Cur Deus Homo to save God from being compelled by a motive (see note 1 here). For Anselm, “God does nothing of necessity,” not even to avoid dishonor, “since nothing whatever can coerce or restrain him in his action.” Here cause and effect form a neat little knot, immanent to and closed on itself.

By contrast, random causation, “a casu,” is a kind of atheistic but also nonmechanistic, nonsolipsistic account of agency. It might be as random as something that’s simply senseless, a thing that just happens. Just as well, random causation might preserve space for a surprise, the hap, the adventure arriving from some unidentifiable elsewhere. This is an agency means interrupting predictable causality to bring something new into being. It’s the agency that frees an origin from some already known end, or it’s an agency that piggy-backs on some deliberate intention.

This excessive or random causality may be the one way short of a divine fiat that agency can bring something new into being. More simply, it may be the only way agency can actually happen.

Thank you!

Humans as Oysters, on Nonconsensual Existence

Sri Lankan oysters (?), BN fr. 22971

by KARL STEEL

Hey gang! I’ve just (finally) submitted my contribution for Steve Mentz’s forthcoming Oceanic New York anthology. I’ve scrapped the essay I wrote for the actual conference in favor of a consideration of consent and existence, in part in response to a paper on (human) consent I heard at Kzoo2014.

Towards the beginning, I consider one of Descartes’ letters to Margaret Cavendish, infamous because he bars all animals from moral relevance on the basis of the “imperfection” of oysters and sponges:

The most one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their bodies are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to these organs some thought such as we experience in ourselves, but of a much less perfect kind. To this I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters as sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.

A usual animal studies/new materialist response might be to use a “touch of anthropomorphism” to discover the agency and voice of the oysters. The resources would be the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Oyster riddle, or the talking oyster of Gelli’s Circe, his adaptation and expansion of Plutarch’s Gryllus. But this might be little more than discovering the rabbit we ourselves had enhatted; and it continues to take the speaking voice as the preeminent ethically relevant subject. My essay counters these tendencies by observing, first, that the most salient characteristic of these talking oysters is not their voices, but rather their helplessness. From this point, I try to take oysters on their own terms — helpless, mute, and mostly indifferent to the world — not by enhancing their agency, but by diminishing ours.

Here’s where I take it:

We’re now in a position to reconsider Descartes’ letter to Cavendish. Much of the letter– a little more than two pages long in a modern translation — is not about denying thought to animals. Rather, it opens with a lengthy proof of automatism of most human life. As Descartes explains, somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we don’t need to think while we eat or walk; and if we tried not to cover our face as we fell, we wouldn’t succeed. The apparently conscious existence of others may just be mechanical. All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconsciousness. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions — of hunger, of self-protection, of motion — is the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence.

In other words, even Descartes begins by admitting that the dominant condition of being human is unwilled exposure. Our existence is at its root not chosen, not rational, not elective, but rather, primarily, nonconsensual. We flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, but we might ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal.” We do not chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still doesn’t untether us from having to live somewhere. The same goes for our ability to seek out our food rather than just receive it as the water gives it, like an oyster. We have a degree of free movement, but we still can’t chose not to eat. Whatever the powers of our agency to supplement our fundamental inadequacy by building ourselves homes, by wrapping ourselves in clothes and armor, to, in effect, give ourselves the covering oysters already have, we can never eliminate our vulnerability. We cover ourselves for the same reasons, and with the same necessity, that oysters do.

Thanks! There’s more. Looking forward very much to seeing how well it plays in the anthology itself. If you’d like to see some other stuff I’ve done here on Descartes and his disciples, read here.

(you might also read this philosophical essay on oysters, which I still plan to do, and, while you’re at it, read a recent and excellent essay on MOOCs by the Dominic Pettman who suggested the oyster essay to me)

Here, Have Some of My Roasted Polyp. I made it myself

A sequence of thoughts:

  1. one of the main problems with meat-eating is that the thing with the meat gives us its meat unwillingly
  2. one solution is to grow meat that has no will.
  3. another is to use meat from our own bodies. this is obviously the most ethical solution.
  4. but we can’t just use our meat for self-steaks, given that we need our flesh to get things done, like, say, standing up or sitting down
  5. so we should grow our meat as extraneous organs, like, say, polyps
  6. except that this would be really calorie-inefficient. it’d probably take more calories to grow the meat than we would gain by eating it, probably even if it were grown partly through photosynthesis.

It says something about something that it wasn’t until item #6 that I realized this was a bad idea.

But it did lead to this fun tweet:

Initial Thoughts on Graham Harman on Lovecraft

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I’m told I’m 31% finished with Graham Harman’s Weird Realism. As a dabbler in speculative realism, and, especially, as an old-time Lovecraft fan forced by critical winds to revive his interest, I’m obligated to read it. But, as with any writing about Lovecraft, I suspect special pleading, and I cringe at the whiff of adolescent habits gone sour with the keeping.

And then there’s this, “No other figure in world literature is able to make such outbursts work so effectively,” a sentence that can be understood only as meaning I’m very deep into a shared culture. And, you know, guys read Lovecraft, and especially guys of a certain type. So there’s that. See also Americans certain that their TV is the “best TV ever.” That their preferred sport culminates in something called “the world series.” That superhero comic books matter (or, heck, that medieval superhero ‘comic books’ matter too, if I want to turn this back on myself). This  point, then, isn’t about absolute quality, but about the intensity of our interests, or about how our interests eclipse other things, or, more grimly, about the parochial dangers of not getting out into the wilds where you don’t know enough to crown anything as the best thing ever.

That said, I’m getting a lot from his care in reading Heidegger and Husserl and Lovecraft together. What Harman knows how to do he does very well. Harman’s reading of Heidegger has always been perfectly clear, while Husserl is much, much harder to understand. So, thanks to Harman: I now get it when he points out that Heidegger gives us a model of space, and Husserl one of time. And I now have a better of sense of the sensual unity of, for example, the dog or the gibbering goat god, and the various qualities of the dog or ggg as it moves along through our perception.

And I love his exercise in literal writing to make things worse. It’s hilarious (and an important illustration of his point that reality is not made up of perfectly translatable, i.e., reducible propositions; but it’s also hilarious). For example, imagine someone summarizing Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” as “Ireland’s wet and squishy.”

Here’s Harman’s first big example, on Nietzsche’s comment about Shakespeare, “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon!”, Harman imagines a boring literalizer who goes on,

“What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! For although we might expect the contents of Shakespeare’s writing to be a direct reflection of his personality, modern psychology teaches the contrary lesson. For in fact, what people write if often the opposite of what they are feeling inside. In Shakespeare’s case, the clowning in his comedies may actually be an effort to counterbalance painful personal experience with an outward show of good cheer.”

Then he adds: “Along with the bore just described, we can add other personae capable of leading Nietzsche’s remark into ruin:

  • The Simpleton: “How happy Shakespeare must have been that he played the buffoon so often!” (Here the twist of paradox is destroyed in favor of a facile correspondence between an author’s life and work.)
  • The Judgmental Resenter: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! And I must say I find it a bit pathetic that Shakespeare is so needy and always clowns around to try to make us like him.” (Nietzsche’s cool distance and non-judgmental appreciation of human pathos is extinguished in a cesspool of private bitterness.)
  • The Waffler: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! At least I’m pretty sure about that. The other possibility is that he was actually happy. I could go either way on this one.” (Here we lose Nietzsche’s gallant decisiveness.)
  • The Self-Absorbed: “What must a man have suffered to have such need of being a buffoon! But I’m not like that at all. Personally, I take a balanced approach to life and don’t feel the need to overcompensate.” (Nietzsche’s vigorous interest in the outer world gives way to petty Main Street narcissism.)
  • The Down-Home Cornball: “Whenever he has those comical scenes, I ain’t fooled. I know Ole Billy’s got something stickin’ in his craw!” (Here we completely lose the aristocratic elegance of Nietzsche’s style).
  • The Clutterer: “What people like Shakespeare, Molière, Aristophanes, Plautus, Menander, Juvenal, Rabelais, and Brecht must have suffered to have such need of being buffoons!” (No longer is Shakespeare addressed as one solitary figure by another. Instead, we have a confusing general proposition about a long list of comic authors.)
  • The Pedant: “Shakespeare’s plays exhibit instantiations of a ludic affect that, as it were, bespeak an inversion of his ‘true’ state of mind. Much work has been done in this area, but a full consideration lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Johnson 1994, Miner and Shaltgroverr et al., 1997.” (This character combines aspects of the Waffler and the original Literalizing Bore.)

Touché. Guaranteed, this exercise will appear this semester’s English Composition class.

Finally, for today, because DEADLINES: in his discussion of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Harman laughs about Lovecraft’s comic touches: a Providence scholar seeking out a “mineralogist of note” in, of all places, Paterson, New Jersey; the absolutely ludicrous stereotype of the “excitable Spaniard”; and how no one could honestly find “African voodoo” frightening in itself.

Here’s a sad case where we need a historical reading. It’s not just that Harman arbitrarily swings between what Lovecraft might have been intending (“Paterson, New Jersey, a fairly arbitrary choice of location that must have made Lovecraft chuckle”) and our own response (“Most of us do not live in fear of African voodoo circles, or think of them in anything more than anthropological terms”) depending on what interpretation he’s promoting at any given moment. It’s that Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1928. To my knowledge, Paterson was a thriving industrial town in the 1920s, and seeking out practical, scientific help there would be no more silly than looking for it in Detroit in the 1950s. It would have made more sense, in fact, given Paterson’s important connections to New Jersey’s then thriving mineral industry (see also Franklin, NJ). Harman just didn’t bother to track things down.

The excitable Spaniard is of course a symptom of Lovecraft’s pretentious Anglophilia (which he sends up most effectively in my favorite Lovecraft, always a feature in my lit theory courses to illustrate Bhabha, viz., “He.”)

As for the fear of “African voodoo”: well, this is a late witness, and all the more effective a counterargument for that. I remember a Sunday evening debate about the dangers of rock and roll in my parents’ church back in the … well, let’s just say that I had tickets for Love and Rocket’s “Earth, Sun, Moon” show in Seattle, and I didn’t want to have that wrecked. One old man, though, was sure rock and roll was of the devil because of the African drums. I quote. So.

And Harman writes of Lovecraft’s line about “New York policemen…mobbed by hysterical Levantines on the night of March 22-23,” that “However blameworthy as a sample of Orientalism, Lovecraft’s reference to a mob of hysterical Levantines is genuinely frightening, presumably even for readers from present-day Lebanon and Syria.” Maybe. But I think “New York Levantines,” especially coming from Lovecraft, can only mean not “New York Syrians” or “Turks,” for example, but rather “New York Jews,” and while March 22-23 isn’t Purim in 1928, 27, or 26, it’s not far off, either. So, also: so.

There’s more to be said here about the dangers of a shared culture.

Surely no world philosophy is better suited to talk about this than object-oriented ontology.

Procreating like Worms: Ut essem in homine ultra homines

by KARL STEEL

In Aristotle, Isidore, and a host of medieval encyclopedias, we learn that many worms and reptiles (creeping things) generate spontaneously, mostly from filth. From Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Property of Things, for example, the louse “is yngendered of most, corrupt ayer and vapours þat sweten oute bitwen þe felle and the fleissch by pores” (18.48, p. 1239; is birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores); the snail “in lyme oþer of lyme and is þerfore alway foule and vnclene” (18.70, p. 1222; in lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean); butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “bredeþ þerinne wormes þat comeþ of here stynkynge filþe” (18.47, p. 1198, and breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth); fleas lay eggs without “medlyng [mixing] of male and female” (18.49, p. 1240); and, more generally:

A worme hatte vermis and is a beste þat ofte gendreþ of fleisse and of herbes and gendreþ ofte of caule, and somtyme of corrupcioun of humours, and somtyme of medlynge of male and femele, and somtyme of eyren, as it fareþ of scorpiouns, tortuses, and euetes. (Bk 18, Chapt 115, p. 1264)

A worm is called “vermis” and is a beast that often is birthed from flesh and plants and often birthed from cabbage, and sometimes from putrefaction of humors, and sometimes from mixing of male and female [i.e., sexual reproduction], and sometimes from eggs, as it occurs with scorpions, tortoises, and newts.

Worms are the stuff of putrefaction. They are putrefaction come to life. They are life itself. Thick, greasy life.  It’s so obvious how putrefaction reminds us of what our pretension to bodily order tries to forget, and so obvious, too, that when putrefaction is made to play the part of formlessness and excess and the real (in both the Lacanian and “getting real” senses), it only further upholds the pretense of bodily order. No doubt I should read Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics for more.

It’s just as obvious that through their formlessness, dampness, and fleshiness, the myth of bodily order thinks of worms and putrefaction in general as gendered female or as the uncovered truth of feminine filth. It’s no accident that the corpse in theDisputation Between the Body and the Worms is a beautiful, rich woman, gawked at from a distance by a dreaming man, finally suffering her comeuppance when she’s compelled to become what she has been all along.

To clarify, here is the character Leo the Jew from Odo of Tournai’s (d. 1113) Disputation With the Jew, Leo, Concerning the Advent of Christ, the Son of God:

In one thing especially we laugh at you and think that you are crazy. You say that God was conceived within his mother’s womb, surrounded by a vile fluid, and suffered enclosure within this foul prison for nine months when finally, in the tenth month, he emerged from her private parts (who is not embarrassed by such a scene! (95)

It is embarrassing, in fact, how easily this scene yields to a certain kind of psychoanalysis: disgust at the body, disgust at women, disgust at one’s own birth, disgust at one’s own foundational dependency, an unwelcome reminder in the airy purity of men explaining philosophy. And so on. And it’s not just textual Jews who are made to give voice to bodily disgust, nor just Jews who are made the bear the burden of the body, either through being called beasts (as Peter the Venerable did) or accused of being able to read scripture only for the literal, base, bodily meaning (see Guibert of Nogent, for example).

Because here’s the Prik of Conscience, working from Innocent III’s De miseria condicionis humane: 

There dwelled mon in a dongyon

In stede of foule fylth and corrupcyoun,

Where he had noon othur foode

Bot foule glet and lipered bloode

And stynke and fylthe as I seyde ore

Therwith was he norysshed thore. (84-89)

([in the womb] man dwelled in a dungeon , in a place of foul filth and corruption, where he had no other food except foul slime and clotted blood and stink and filth as I have already said, and with that was he nourished there)

The problem is a general one, common to all of us of women born. There’s a way out of putrefaction, though, not simply by abandoning the body and this wormy world but rather, shockingly, by becoming still more wormy.

Because Christ too is a worm. Daniel A. Bertrand has covered this best, in his “Le Christ comme ver: A Propos du Psaume 22 (21), 7” (Christ as Worm: Concerning Psalm 22 (21):7). Psalms 21:2 begins, familiarly, “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?”, which medieval exegetes took as an incipit and not a complete statement. In other words, Christ actually quoted the whole of Psalms 21 from the Cross, including 21:7, “But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people.”

Christ is a worm, said our exegetes, in his being a rebuke to humanity (the so-called worm of conscience). But he is also a worm in having been born miraculously, without sex. Here’s Augustine, from his commentary on the Psalms: “But I am a worm, and no man” (ver. 6). But I, speaking now not in the person of Adam, but I in My own person, Jesus Christ, was born without human generation in the flesh, that I might be as man beyond men” (“ego autem sum vermis, et non homo: ego autem jam non ex persona Adam loquens, sed ego proprie Jesus Christus sine semine in carne natus sum (or, in some mss, “sine semine incarnatus sum”), ut essem in homine ultra homines” (PL 36: 168))

Worms just happen. There’s no one to blame. No locatable desire. No primal scene, because there is no congress, no origin, no loss, and no chance of failure. Worms have no father, no mother, no sin, nothing but their being, a field of filth. The only excess is the excess of stuff itself, which always want to generate still more.

This is not a hope that dies with the Middle Ages. Here’s one source, perhaps. And still another, which I learned about from Marjorie Swann’s “’Procreate like Trees’: Generation and Society in Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici,” in Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser’s superb anthology Engaging With Nature (see my review here). Here is Browne’s hope, in 1643, to do without the filth and embarrassment and loss of commingling:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition: it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed. (106-7)

Browne goes on to aver his love of beauty: he could spend a day admiring even a picture of a horse, and best of all, he loves the clean, pure motion of the spheres, whose order, proportion, and harmony have nothing of the ridiculous, earthly, or moist about them. Procreate like trees, he wishes, but he might have said “like worms,” though, as a man of his age, perhaps he knew that Swammerdam would be coming soon to bar him from that fantasy.

For now, I leave you with a plea to help me remember–was it on twitter?–where I stumbled across the obvious point about the obvious misogyny underlying the clichéd hatred of the words panties and moist.