Tuesday, June 24, 2008

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


Please look below for the continuing conversions in two thrilling posts, Mary Kate on Beowulf and love and Eileen on the impasse of gender and sex, with special attention to another favorite, Guthlac.


When 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]


Eileen Joy said...

Quick question, Karl, as this is a subject [medieval texts relating Last Judgment] I have no real familiarity with--it appears from your extract that, at the Last Judgment, the animals are all dying ["it doesn't go well"], and I assume [?], without hope of redemption? But what markers in the language here indicate Ava's sympathy with/pathos over this state of affairs? Is it that her focus on animals is unusual and overly-extended, indicating an ethical concern of some sort, or is it a type of attempt at realism?

Karl Steel said...

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.


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!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I would want to think about time here. For example, if Doomsday is the end of time, and the experience of it concerns the *temporal* experience of the end of time, and part of such experience is the foreclosing of future, and medieval animal temporality is not simply the atemporality of captivation (Heidegger *poor* in world, as Derrida shows, is conspicuously vague here), but as Aquinas for instance argues something that includes hope as an instinctive relation to future, then the animal cry at the end of time means . . .

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Just wrote a ghazal with related couplet.