Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Fabulations, Third and Final Installment


A longrunning thread here at ITM has examined the genesis and subsequent abandonment of the elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog I've been calling "The Book I Did Not Write" (for part one, look here; for part two, here; for the orphaned epilogue, here; for the book I actually did publish, look here). Today I offer a few more fabulations culled from that project.

These imaginings are taken from a chapter originally entitled "Impure Blood: The Monsters of Gerald of Wales." Its first draft will be familiar to readers from The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and its fullest version can be found in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity as "In the Borderlands: The Identities of Gerald of Wales." The fabulations will likely make sense only to those who know Gerald's work fairly well. The medieval equivalent of a mixed race child, Gerald used species difference and monstrosity to articulate identities that could be both suffocating and liberating. No language but that of monstrosity existed for their expression.

The first fabulation is a dream I dreamt for Gerald, a vision in which he is haunted by a creature that is not exactly a love cow, but not all that far removed from one, either. The story has no direct source in Gerald's writing, other than his fascination with the lines quoted from Ovid and his deep regard for his own dreams (see especially his ominous vision of the corpse of Henry II in De Principis Instructione and the dream of a bloody attack on heaven that causes him to fear he is losing his mind in the Expugnatio Hibernica).
A Vision of Blood, c. 1197
The same dream again. A stylus scrapes vellum, etching a Latin rubric. Gerald knows the white sheepskin is not stained with ink. It is alive. It bleeds. He can feel the force of every word in his own flesh. This flow that is the ink spells out the same lines, over and over: SEMIBOVEMQUE VIRUM SEMIVIRUMQUE BOVEM. Lines from Ovid, the Roman poet of transformation. Lines that have haunted Gerald since he learned them as a boy, when reading the Art of Love seemed a deliciously wicked pursuit for an aspiring cleric.

SEMIBOVEMQUE VIRUM SEMIVIRUMQUE BOVEM. A man that was half a bull and a bull that was half a man. Ovid's resonant description of the Minotaur. Gerald thinks back to ancient Crete, when love-stricken Pasiphae burned for a handsome white bull. She turned to clever Daedalus, that father destined to lose his beloved son to melted wings. He devised a copulation machine that allowed the queen and her animal lover to consummate their ardor. What unnatural mixing had Daedalus engineered, what mingling of forbidden categories? Gerald imagined that he was watching the birth of the monster in all its taurine glory. As the bullish snout inhaled its first Aegean air, as the pup erupted into very human sobs, Gerald looked into huge, round eyes and divined a future: abandoned by bulls and men, trapped in a labyrinth that offered no escape. Gerald gazed at this mixed up thing lost in his winding maze. Gerald gazed at this monster that could find no people to love him, no destiny, no home, and he knew that he saw himself.
Later in the chapter a vignette that picks up on this oneiric opening appears, this one based upon an anecdote in the Journey Through Wales in which a man and a bull fall in love, spawning an unanticipated child. The style I attempted here is supposed to seem overwritten, glossy, indulgently romantic:
Of the Knight and Bull

No one knows for certain how Gilbert Hagurnell fell in love with the bull. Was the knight returning home to Brecknockshire after a campaign against the princes of the north, weary to the bone of a fighting that never seemed to end? Perhaps on a moonlit evening, the more precious for its winter rarity, the tired rider first glimpsed all that bovine muscle, frisky in the field. It could be that he surrendered to the animal then and there, the blood of war lost in a forgetful orgy.

Or perhaps it was a slower process of bull and knight in mutual admiration. We may imagine that Gilbert's dreams were haunted by the glow of lunar silver on dark eyes, black snout, a tail that flicked with casual indifference. Long days in windy fields brought the two lovers closer, Gilbert clasping a handful of grass like a lover's bouquet, his quivering lips pressed ever nearer to sniffing nostrils. Cold stars and scud clouds found the knight out of bed, restlessly roaming the field with a desire he could not speak. At last a drenching rain brought man and animal to the shelter of a lonely hut, and perhaps it was there that they were first moved to consummate their love. Gilbert must have offered himself to the bull with an awkwardness that, he hoped, did not make his beloved think any the less of his passion.

Who knows if knight and bull burned with an equal ardor, or if for one or the other the relationship was simply convenient, a joyfully uncomplicated surrender to lust. Who knows how many times these assignations were repeated, or even how long Gilbert Hagurnell knew the bull to which he humbly offered himself. But the consequences of the secret trysts were clear to everyone. On a certain day the knight felt his abdomen contract, as if in an attempt to expel something inside. Perhaps Gilbert knew already what his taurine union had engendered upon him, perhaps he had felt the first stirrings of life within an expanding belly months before, but the fact of the matter is this. Gilbert Hagurnell spent three years in unremitting anguish, his body wracked by the severest of labor pains. Eventually his ache climaxed, and maybe he even felt the first push of a snout heading for the exit. At any rate he managed to attract a multitude of onlookers, witnesses to the culmination of his labors: the birth of a calf -- a boy [vitulus], as it turns out.

We do not know if the witnesses applauded the arrival of this progeny or ran away in fear. Did they really believe the explanation (perhaps offered by the embarrassed parent himself) that this birth was simply an omen of some impending catastrophe, a sign delivered by God through his innocent and suffering body? Or did they hold with the sole medieval reporter of this marvel when he tartly observed that Gilbert Hagurnell was being punished for some unnatural act of vice?
I know I haven't been giving the scholarly context for these fabulations so far, but perhaps this foray in bestiality deserves some background.

Gerald had earlier in his life explored race in Ireland through animal flesh, associating the Irish too closely with the cattle they revered in order to render their subjugation at his family's hands ethically uncomplicated. Gerald had been especially fascinated by a creature that came to dwell at his conquistador uncle's Irish outpost, a semibos vir (Ox Man) who had apparently been engendered through interspecies desire. Gerald is uncharacteristically sympathetic towards this creature. I observed:
Because he belonged to two categories but could not be absorbed into either – because he had no possibility of home other than the Marcher castle at Wicklow, a place of welcome as well as murderous violence – the Hibernian minotaur (semibos vir) stands at the limit of starkly dualistic racial thinking. This sympathetic monster was capable of engendering what uncle Maurice had decried as ignavia and mora, impedimental hesitation. In Ireland Gerald experienced the confidence of conquerors. In his Welsh writings, however, he became increasingly fascinated with hybrid figures like the semibos vir, with bodies that lose their integrity, their purity, and bring into the world new and intransigent possibilities for identity.

This Irish Ox Man finds a parallel in Wales, where Gerald tells the story I rendered a fabulation:
In the same region ... a remarkable event occurred. A certain knight, name Gilbert, surname Hagurnell, after a long and unremitting anguish, which lasted three years, and the most severe pains as of a woman in labour, at length gave birth to a calf, and event which was witnessed by a great crowd of onlookers. Perhaps it was a portent of some unusual calamity yet to come. It was more probably a punishment exacted for some unnatural act of vice. (Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales)

Here is my scholar's explication:
In isolation, the knight's difficult labor and strange progeny is yet another wonder offered for the reader's consumption, only slightly more remarkable than Saint Patrick's horn and the pig that thinks it is a dog. When a similar birth occurs in Ireland, the "man-calf" [vitulum virilem] of Glendalough born ex coitu viri cum vacca, the prodigy seems almost dull, so usual is "unnatural vice" (nefandi criminis) on those shores. Yet this story is not set across the sea in Hibernia but at the heart of Norman Wales. It involves not some nameless Irish native who can stand in for the entirety of his race but a knight whose name declares him an alien to the land to which his passion attaches him. Unlike the disidentification that motivates the narration of Irish minglings of human and beast, joinings supposed to demonstrate the utter animality of that race, this unnatural coupling is fraught with undecidability. It seems that, looking back on his Welsh work around 1197, Gerald is unable to muster the same confidence that had propelled the Topography of Ireland. During this major revision of the Journey, Gerald began to landmine his text, introducing ambiguities that undermine the unconflicted prose of his earlier days. Gerald, it seems, has taken the vocabulary of race that he developed for the estrangement of Ireland and transferred its animal obsessions to his own locus of origin.

Added to the Journey through Wales in the revision of 1197, the story of Gilbert Hagurnell, his taurine paramour, and their unanticipated progeny is an intriguing meditation on gemina natura, dual race. The episode is preceded, after all, by a story that declares that a body carries in its flesh the history and the context into which it is born (a wild sow suckled by a domesticated hound becomes a composite form, physically porcine while functionally canine; the flow of breast milk overcodes the biologically innate with the culturally contingent) . . . Gerald is not telling a reductive or nostalgic story about the eradication of native purity by a colonialist regime. Indigenous culture has not simply been replaced by imported customs, language, modes of being. The Welsh March is already impure, and Gerald is a living embodiment of its complexity. The Journey through Wales explores how both Wales and England were changed when two bodies formed a third that carries with it something of both parents without fully being either. Mixed racial descent is disruptive because it arises when cultures meet in unprecedented, "unnatural" couplings. The offspring of a knight like Gilbert Hagurnell who mixes his flesh with native animals (and it is useful to keep in mind here that the Welsh were consistently depicted by the Normans and English as a gens bestialis) perhaps suggests that race is not necessarily an arrest into some dwindled stability, but an opening up of contradiction-riddled possibility. The knight pregnant with a calf through his alliance with a bull transforms a male into a maternal form, a human into an interspecies hybrid ... Gilbert Hagurnell and the baby bull that he bore after three years of labor and an unspecified duration of "unnatural vice" figure the boundary-smashing work of medieval race, especially when its contours are shaped through the energetic flow of impure blood.
For a fuller analysis with many a footnote, see the book that I did publish. For more on animality and race and innovation, you might want to read this post from days of yore.

4 comments:

JKW said...

I remember Bob Hanning telling me once that he'd read that Ovid and his school chums (Ovid's, not Bob's) struck a deal: Ovid's friends could select one line of his perverto poetry that was espeically scandalous and excise it from his compliation, and Ovid could pick one line that he would get to keep no matter what.

Of course, Ovid and his friends both selected that bull-man, man-bull line, which I've always loved.

I have enjoyed your fabulations, and I thank you for sharing them.

Karl Steel said...

Sad to see we've reached the end of the line for your fabulations, JJC. I've really enjoyed them. And nice anecdote, JKW. I'd never heard that one.

Are bull-men especially popular hybrid humans in medieval teratology, once we adjust for the quite popular cynocephali? If they were, why? It makes sense in Ireland, I guess, because of the special value cattle had in Ireland (which you mention in ODM), but apart from that, I'm stymied.

It's easier to figure out for Ovid's era, and earlier, as I think it would have to do with the high status accorded (guessing here) to oxen as sacrificial animals in the classical world. If we follow Rene Girard by seeing animal sacrifice as a substitute for human sacrifice--and I do follow Girard, although perhaps only symbolically (since I'm unconvinced of the literal historic truth of a prehistory of human sacrifice)--the human's already in the bull as a kind of latent content. And it's much more overt with Dionysus, who often appears in classical art as a bull or, more germane to the discussion, as a bull with a human head.

J J Cohen said...

Karl, you know the early penitentials far better than I (in fact you seem to have them all stored on your hard drive), but some neuron in my brain is alight with the memory that at least one of those texts mentions that it is forbidden to wear a bull's head, apparently as part of a ritual of some sort. Other than connecting bulls to agrarian and human fertility via some recurring language of art, I don't have a lot on this one.

Karl Steel said...

I have a lot of penitential material on my computer, but I recall nothing about bull's heads: that's probably because I've been reading the food laws primarily.

I know man are forbidden to dress up in women's clothing and talk a lot of rot in front of the church, but I doubt that women wore taurine chapeaux in those, uh, heady days of yesteryear.