Saturday, October 10, 2009

Epilogue excerpt: surprised by Oxen

by KARL STEEL

To mark the occasion of being on the verge of sending my book manuscript into the great unknown, and as a kind of prayer for a happy return, I'm offering this post on animals. The book began in a seminar on medieval animals and critical theory offered by Susan Crane in Fall 2003. I had passed my oral exam that Spring, and, burdened with an M. Phil., I spent the Summer desperate for a dissertation topic. I settled on something about the fifteenth-century uses of "chivalry." Three months into the research, I was already sick of it, and I decided to audit some classes to clear my head. Hence my presence in Crane's seminar.

There I hit upon a dissertation topic and title, "Eating and Not Eating Meat in the Middle Ages." Huge, and perhaps never to be realized, but that beginning conditioned everything I've said and thought about animals since then. Other scholars started with questions of reason, or love; I started with violence. And it's only gradually that I've been able to think through and with animals with an eye for anything else. Here's a lightly bloggified piece from the book's epilogue representing some of where future projects might take me.

Paulinus of Nola's natalicii poems for Saint Felix frequently speak of animals, and almost just as frequently praise the sacrifice of animals at Felix's shrine. Pigs fly, and then offer themselves to death; oxen hide in the woods to escape this pious slaughter, and then, divinely inspired, give themselves up. But the animal miracle of Paulinus's sixth natalicium (written in 400), saves its animals for love rather than for sacrificial, alimentary use. It speaks of a peasant who made a living by renting out his two oxen, which were dearer to him than his own children: “Neque cura minor saturare juvencos, / Quam dulces natos educere; parcior immo / Natis, quam pecori caro ” (PL 61: 495D; he devoted no less care to giving his oxen their fill than to bringing up his sweet sons. In fact, he fed his children more sparingly than the dear cattle) (this and subsequent translations from here). But the oxen were stolen. After a long and fruitless search, the peasant returned home to grieve; finally he prayed, first to God, and then at the shrine of Felix, whom he scorned for allowing the theft. He waited at Felix's shrine until he was driven off, then went home in the dark to lay inconsolably in the filth of the oxen's empty stall, caressing their hoofprints. Felix, amused by the peasant's violent language, returned the oxen, and when they pounded on the door, the peasant imagined the robbers had returned, until the oxen identified themselves by lowing. As soon as the peasant began to unbolt the door, “juncti simul irrupere juvenci, / Et reserantis adhuc molimina praevenerunt / Dimoto faciles cesserunt obice postes, / Oblatumque sibi mox ipso in limine regem ” (PL 61:499D-500A; the oxen burst in together, anticipating his attempt to open the door, for once the bolts were released the door easily gave way). The oxen and peasant embraced one another:
Dum complectentis domini juga cara benignum
Molliter obnixi blanda vice pectus adulant
Illum dilecti pecoris nec cornua laedunt,
Et collata quasi molles ad pectora frontes
Admovet, et manibus non aspera lingua videtur,
Quae lambens etiam silvestria pabula radit. (PL 61:500A-B)

they gently nuzzled their kindly lord and fawningly caressed his breast in turn. The horns of his beloved cattle did him no injury; he drew their heads as though they were soft to his proffered breast. To his hands the tongues which by licking could scrape their food even from trees did not feel rough.
To be sure, the oxen's love of the peasant may attest to perfect animal servility, as the peasant will presumably loan them out again. But the peasant's sacrifice of himself and his family to the well-being of the oxen, as well as his shock and vulnerability at their loss and return, perhaps overflow the confines of simple utility to erode the borders of both human and animal.

We can understand the import of what occurs here through Derrida's lecture notes for the session that opened his course on “Hostipitalité,” or, as Gil Anidjar straightforwardly translates the word, “hostipitality.” As elsewhere in his oeuvre, Derrida forms a neologism that expresses his argument in miniature. “Hostipitality” incorporates the double meaning of the French “hôte,” which means both “guest” and “host.” As Derrida argues, a host who welcomes a guest in a limited sense—for a limited time, with a limited set of accommodations, and for a guest whose character, desires, and needs are already known in advance—has not been truly hospitable, because the host has measured the hospitality. A truly welcoming host must offer hospitality without limits, which requires that the host be overcome by an unexpected guest with unexpected wants. Thus the true host is unable to welcome, because to welcome means to decide when and how far to open the door. Nor can the true host know the character of the guest in advance, because this, too, reserves to the host the option of denying hospitality. By welcoming, the host risks being caught up entirely by the demands of the guest, even becoming hostage to the guest: hence the ethical and logical affinity of the opposing meanings of “hôte.” Hence too the presence of the Latin root “hostis,” meaning both “stranger” and “enemy”: the arrival of the guest “ruptures, bursts in or breaks in” upon the host, shattering the host's sense of home, boundaries, and, ultimately, self, since the true host reserves nothing to itself. The oxen, too, burst in, “irrupere,” themselves determining when and how wide to open the door, stripping from the peasant, almost as soon as he makes the gesture, his capacity to welcome. Through a generosity that exceeds his ability to give, the peasant becomes hostage to his own guests. Furthermore, as Paulinus makes clear, the oxen are not entirely assimilated to the peasant's bucolic domesticity: they caress the peasant, though they could also have injured him with their bulk, horns, and rough tongues. Faced with creatures of such strength, however, the peasant does not hold himself back, but gives himself over to them entirely, without guarding himself from any injury they might do him. Now a perfect host, hostage to his guests, and beyond all capacity to give, and thus beyond all capacity to be a host, the peasant abandons himself to vulnerability before the oxen. To return to the question from the Dialogue of St. Julien, “Ou porreit l’en cest homme querre?” (where could the man be found in here?). There is violence in this encounter, but it is neither the violence of human domination, nor the violence of animal's claim of lawmaking violence for itself, like that of the boar of the Avowyng. This is the violence of the unexpected arrival that shatters all self-certainty, that evacuates the foundations where a human might stand or where a human might force an animal to stand before it.

(image from
(for other ways of reading this episode, see Willy Evenepoel, “Saint Paulin de Nole, Carm. 18, 211-468: Hagiographie et Humour,” in La narrativa Cristiana antica: codici narrativi, strutture formali, schemi retorici: XXIII incontro di studiosi dell'antichità Cristiana (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1995), 507-20, and Dennis E. Trout, “Christianizing the Nolan Countryside: Animal Sacrifice at the Tomb of St. Felix,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995): 281-298.)

7 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Edited, as I was missing the first section of one of my Paulinus quotations: "Dum complectentis domini juga cara benignum." Glad I posted this, since that word "complectentis" encompasses in meanings not only "embrace, clasp," but "entwine around" "encircle," "seize," "seize upon," and "to take possession of."

This benefits my reading hugely.

I'm a little muddled about its root, though. My Lewis and Short indicates that its root is plēcto/plectĕre, "to beat, punish," which meaning would be too tempting to pass up if there weren't also the rare word, from the Greek "plĕcto/plĕxi," "to plait, entertwine, braid," which seems like a more likely root to my untrained eyes...

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Wonderful.

Do you think, though, that part of what is going on here is that a class line is being written as a species line? That is, the peasant can love his oxen with such ebullience because he is from the text's POV not much different from them? Is his neglect of his children humorous because bestial?

I ask this as someone who doesn't know the materials you are working with, nor where Paulinus's values are in them. Is he a typical textual snob, amused by the man-oxen love? Can Paulinus be surprised by oxen, or do they merely reinforce for him a world where partitions are economic and species at once?

Can hardly wait for your book, Karl.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Karl, and I have no doubt we will be seeing your book in print by the end of 2010 [or so], so congratulations on sending it into the world.

Although you do not, for likely very good reasons, invoke the term "love," I would say that one very good definition of love might be what we see being enacted, within the guest-host structure, when the oxen burst through the door [an act of violence, on some level, to be sure] and the so-called "host" allows himself to be overcome/undone by the oxen at the exact moment he allows himself to be "hostage" to them and their desires [and what sort of desires *are* these, anyway, and how can we speak *for* the oxen in this scene?]. This would require too, perhaps, a reworking of how we might define love, not as some sort of possession or overcoming of an Other [although it might include gestures, violent even, of brushing up against/grasping/moving toward an Other--such as those oxen bursting through the door], but rather as some sort of pre-ontological posture of *wanting*/desiring to be held hostage, to be overcome/undone in the grasp/touching of an Other, or otherness in general.

Is it possible that the ethical relation requires this posture? Which, of course, comes with great risk--of pain, of self-shattering, and perhaps even of death. I have been thinking about this a lot in relation to a published conversation that Jeffrey passed on to me this week, "Hope and Hopelessness," a dialogue between Jose Esteban Munoz and Lisa Duggan [published in "Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory" 19.2 (July 2009): 275-283], where Duggan writes that, if one is to take the step of actually believing that some kind of "hope" is possible [vis-a-vis what Munoz calls "educated hope," where hope enacts a critique function--a "certain practice of hope that helps escape from a script in which human existence is reduced" and also of *wanting* what is "beside and beyond the matrix of social controls that is our life in late Capitalism" and also of "thinking beyond the narrative of what stands for the world today by seeing it as not enough"], then one takes the risk of isolation, poverty, pain, and death. But one way of, at the very least, minimizing this risk [or curtailing its "sting," we might say], would be to engage in "modes of expansive sociality" that "would produce energy for alternative, cooperative economies and participatory politics." Hope becomes, then, according to Duggan, a "primary way we bring ourselves to take the risk of breaking out of the constraints of present conditions."

We might say that Paulinus's peasant and his oxen, in their embrace of each other, definitely break out of the constraints of their present condition [including the conditions/structure of the poems/prayers of Paulinus's text], but by what means? In other words, what is the precondition [read: affective state, inclination, posture, ontology or pre-ontology] that leads the peasant, for example, to come undone under the oxen's hooves and tongue [or to even undo himself at the moment of their noise against his door]? Is it hope? Love? Desire? Insanity? Or something else? Is this the peasant's desire, or the animals' desire(s) overcoming he peasant who is willing to submit, or the desire of the author, or something else entirely that, through language, slips by all of them and "undoes" all of them together? Is this human? Or inhuman? Or something else?

Thank you for the food for thought and any *other* thoughts you might have on the matter.

tenthmedieval said...

I don't know if these questions are any use for what you want to do, Karl, but the things that strike me here (other than what Jeffrey asks about class; the peasant is the friend of beasts making him like a beast? this would, allegedly, not be out of keeping with Paulinus's late Roman views, and if you want more on that I can dig up references—I'm sure you know them though) are two detective-type questions: firstly, where are the children when the oxen burst in? and secondly, where is their mother, all along? Is she just disappeared by the narrative, or is this guy managing things alone? I think the latter possibility would belong in any human reading of his situation, though whether the person who told the story to Paulinus and subsequent links in the chain cared about that is another question of course...

Holly Crocker said...

Hi Karl—

This material is very rich, and I am eager to see where you ultimately go with it. It certainly suggest the book before will make for very compelling reading. But if you’re looking to what’s next, let’s see where you are right now…

I think the comments so far very nicely distill the two main threads of possibility, which I’ll try to connect using one question: if the oxen vs. children scenario is about the distribution of resources (he gives more sustenance to the “beasts” than the “children,” then perhaps the tale acknowledges the fact that the peasant actually gets more from his oxen than his family (particularly children, and if there is no wife, well…), and if we want to render that in terms of an affective disposition, does this vignette potentially acknowledge that love between species is sometimes more satisfying than those we elevate to “human” status? Does this snippet offer a way of dismantling a form of “love” that is necessarily predicated on a consolidated notion of “the human”? The oxen already love the peasant, clearly, and their loss is a complete undoing, as Eileen notes. Jeffrey’s point about class-snobbery seems right on, too, but even if Paulinus (or st. Felix) were being a class snob (peasants and beasts are the same), perhaps, and this is a tentative “perhaps” attached to a question that I only pose as a way of hearing more about what you think, this narrative actually makes room for a realignment of love that does not privilege human interrelations for their (ir)rational attachment? On the one hand, the peasant’s attachment to his beasts is absolutely—we might say flatly—rational: he loves these beasts because his livelihood depends upon them. He does not love those creatures (children) whose helplessness issues a cultural, ethical, you name it, demand for an irrational, unconditional attachment. And, so, herein lies the possibility of “unkind love”: the imperative to love one’s children is based on a theory of likeness, and above all, kindness that flatters humanist notions of rationality. Because they are like us, of a kind, children supposedly carry our possibility forward, perfecting human choices in the next life. It is a corporeal fantasy of redemption, with salvation realized in the next flesh, if you will. The peasant’s reaction to his oxen unsettles all this thinking, since, because of his kind, there is no promise for the future. His material circumstances are what they are, and children are actually more of a drag on his possibility than the oxen. To get more medieval: it also offers the potential to thin about love only in its “sensitive” dimension, without the burdening (dis)order of (ir)rationality. But that’s enough rambling from me…I’d rather hear more from you on this, or any other points. Thanks for sharing this immensely stimulating piece! Cheers, h

anna klosowska said...

I was just reading some lovely stuff on love and wanted to share Bernard of Clairvaux's insistence that marriage between soul and God is not a contract/coventant but better: a marital embrace (parum dixi, contractus: complexus est), one of his more lovely and lyrical moments (sermons on the song of songs 83: 3). A few paragraphs later in the same (83:6): Felix, cui tantae suavitatis complexum experiri donatum est! Love can be as if knocking the door to get in: ad aures pulsans, animam evocat ut exeat et audiat (the sound, striking the ears, calls the soul to get out and listen; Guillaume de Saint-Thierry, de natura et dignitate amoris, caput 7:19). cool post, and good luck! Can't wait to see the cover soon! :o)

anna klosowska said...

I was just reading some lovely stuff on love and wanted to share Bernard of Clairvaux's insistence that marriage between soul and God is not a contract/coventant but better: a marital embrace (parum dixi, contractus: complexus est), one of his more lovely and lyrical moments (sermons on the song of songs 83: 3). A few paragraphs later in the same (83:6): Felix, cui tantae suavitatis complexum experiri donatum est! Love can be as if knocking the door to get in: ad aures pulsans, animam evocat ut exeat et audiat (the sound, striking the ears, calls the soul to get out and listen; Guillaume de Saint-Thierry, de natura et dignitate amoris, caput 7:19). cool post, and good luck! Can't wait to see the cover soon! :o)