Saturday, February 18, 2012

Caught in Worms' Eyes

by KARL STEEL
Thanks unending for the comments on my last two posts! I really feel privileged. We'll see what I can do in the next 12 days (*gulp*), at which point I'll bow to time's call and submit my first complete draft.

I think this will be the last bit I'll post to ITM, at least in this round of sharing. A bit of a roadmap of what comes between my most recent post and this one: after the dry death/wet death thoughts, I do the obligatory summary of the Disputation and briefly present the standard, moral reading, which, you know, aims to accurately duplicate the poem's original interpretative possibilities: disdain the world for the sake of heaven, etc. etc.. And that's fine! (or maybe it stinks?) Let a thousand (wormy) flowers bloom.

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The first of the Disputation's four illustrations resembles a fashionable late medieval “double” or “cadaver” tomb, and so works perfectly within the contemptus mundi tradition. Classic English examples of these monuments, virtually contemporary with the Disputation manuscript, include those of Bishop Richard Fleming (d. 1431) at Lincoln Cathedral and of Henry Chichele (d. 1443) at Canterbury Cathedral. The top of a typical double tomb display the body as it appeared in the prime of life, dressed in its institutional regalia or otherwise elaborately clothed, lying as if in sleep; in a lower level, the tomb shows the body as an emaciated corpse, naked or barely draped with a shroud.

On the upper level, then, the tomb shows the perfected future body of the resurrection, or the entombed subject's ideal imaginary (in a Lacanian sense) selfhood in the pride of its worldly life; below, the tomb represents the fraudulence of any beauty in this mutable world. Some funerary art went still further by displaying the corpse putrefying, with entrails exposed, swarming with toads, snakes, and other vermin. Some even eschewed the idealized body altogether, displaying only the rotting corpse (again, see Kathleen Cohen's indispensable guide). Those who encountered the tomb were meant at once to admire the dead, to speed them through purgatory with their prayers, and, piously disgusted, to think on their own impending deaths (so says Pamela King).

Drawing on and perfecting this tradition, the Disputation's manuscript shows a lifelike, beautiful tomb sculpture while, at the same time, impossibly displaying the tomb's rotting contents, around which cluster worms and other vermin. The Disputation itself includes a typical cadaver tomb verse on this very leaf (see above) by directing the reader, in the first two lines, to "take hede vnto my fygure here abowne / And se how sumtyne I was fressche & gay / Now turned to wormes mete & corrupcone" (take heed of my figure here above, now turned to worms' meat and corruption), and in the final lines, encircled with a banner, "when þou leste wenes, venit mors te superare / when þi grafe [sic] grenes. bonum est mortis meditari" (when you least expect it, death comes and overcomes you; when the grass is green, it is good to have death in mind). The tomb may represent a woman in the pride of her life--admired by the world of her peers, feared and hated by monks, and scorned by God--but she has seen fit to make advance arrangements to have herself speak, through her tomb, the most properly orthodox sentiments about worldly contempt.

This is thus a tomb that, like other cadaver tombs, simultaneously announces a contempt for worldly existence while demanding that the subject be remembered; this is a promise that this self and the ones watching it will come to nothing that also maintains the self's power to speak significantly as a moral authority. The self-abnegation of the cadaver tomb negates the negation by more firmly preserving the self against death's oblivion. Far from giving the self entirely over to death, cadaver tombs instead grant the human as much perpetuity as this world offers (not least of all because many of them were made of stone!). Therefore, cadaver tombs and other medieval death art, for the most part, operate like anthropophagy narratives, which, by presenting anthropophagy as especially horrific, simultaneously enfold human death within ethical frames and, through significant silence, exclude the deaths of nonhumans from ethical significance (me!). Such deliberate humiliations preserve the self as self simply by letting the self decide to be humiliated; the self of self-abandonment remains its own responsible agent. Dispossession in this case is therefore a mode of continued possession.

Consider the following excerpt from an early fifteenth-century verse, "My lief life that livest in wealth," in which a corpse catalogs its decay:
In mi riggeboon bredith an addir kene,
Min eiyen dasewyn swithe dimme:
Mi guttis rotin, myn heer is green,
My teeth grennen swithe grymme.
[In my spin breeds a fierce adder, my failed eyes dim very much: my guts rot, my hair is green, my teeth grin so grim.]
Rosemary Woolf terms this and the following, similar lines “perhaps too repellent in content...to deserve inclusion in any anthology” (318), but what should have struck her was not the repulsiveness but rather the anaphora: "mi riggeboon," "min eiyen," "mi guttis," "my teeth." The performance of dissolution, a deliquescent striptease, is not an instance of the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft--much loved by the new materialists--in which we confront the “anonymous, impersonal 'in itself' of the world, indifferent to us as human beings” (Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet, 17); nor is this an eruption of the “shapeless, mucous stuff of the life-substance" of the Real into the pride of the Symbolic. The repulsion of "My lief life" does not let itself out into or even past the furthest reaches of repulsion, since the repetition of the possessive pronoun in each line holds on to the body as human, as belonging to a speaking, singular subject, though the operations of the grave should undo it utterly. Here as elsewhere, the human body, whether idealized or hideous, remains the cynosure. As with cadaver tombs, any hungry vermin move through the body's flesh or rest on top of it, or they orbit it as a kind of creeping halo. Focused on us, the vermin are as much of secondary importance to our existence as the pair of faithful dogs (here's one; here's another) so often serving as footrests for the central, human bodies of medieval recumbent tomb sculpture.

By contrast, the remaining three illustrations of the Disputation forsake anthropocentrism altogether, demanding an interpretation of the poem far less faithful to the interpretative traditions of medieval death poetry. The corpse and the worms are figures, as the dreamer explains, “strangly ilk one oþer corespondynge” (27; each one strangely alike the other), each engaging the other “in maner of a dyaloge” (28; in the manner of a dialogue). Here, humans have met their match; surprised to be engaged in a dialogue--or something like a dialogue--they have been dislodged from their presumption of centrality and singular agency.

The illustrations (see my last two worm-posts for the other two) show an emaciated corpse standing, its face a skull, marked as a woman by its fashionable head-dress, and, depending on the illustration, either looking down or up at four worms, all as large as one of her limbs, and all with a single black dot perhaps representing an eye. In the illustrations, as in the text of the poem itself, the worms are the corpse's equal or even superiors, another set of beings, interested in but not secondary to her. While the eye gives them just enough of a face to be able to address her, their featurelessness otherwise refuses anthropomorphic appropriation. Their presentation as a crowd of four “mawkes” (112) rather than an individuals—note that only the maggots are plural among the poem's list of 19 grave animals—is just as much a refusal: as a hungry, speaking group, they are indisputably alive, but as a swarm or pack, they evade personalization, refusing to mirror back to us our pretensions to singular selfhood.

Not dogs, lions, or even birds, certainly not the “charismatic megafauna” so beloved by animal rights thinkers and, for that matter, youtube, not offering to meet us with the intimate, profound gaze of “wildlife,” the worms are like us only in their claim to agency, their need to feed, and, perhaps, their possession of their own wisdom. Furthermore, in their appetite, they claim to be our body's ultimate master, or, in fact, the everpresent master whose supremacy we come to know only when our body gives out. The worms tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), commanding them:
Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;
Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,
And after come with þe to our regyowne,
þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)
[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].
The corpse protests by citing scripture, "bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle" (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man's complaint). The worms counter, "Þat power dures whils man has lyfe...now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe" (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable appetites, the corpse cannot spurn the worms as she should have spurned worldly delights. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject of animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims. And she cannot attempt to construct herself as human by subduing her harassers, because humans' divinely promised mastery has been revealed as only ever temporary and partial, doomed to failure. In short, she cannot escape her own materiality and thus her own useful availability.

The corpse has been reminded that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). In discovering herself to be food, she also discovers herself to have been food all along, an unwitting host to a world of others. Put another way, the “food for worms” topos offers itself readily as a textual pre-history to the new materialism's frequent (and welcome) bacterial perorations. I offer two examples:
The surfaces of living beings are envelopes and filters, thick regions where complex chemical transfers and reactions take place....At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down. (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 36).
Similarly, Jane Bennett glosses an observation that “the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively posses at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome,” with “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are 'embodied.' We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes” (112-113). Matter, vulnerable, temporary, and always sliding towards dissolution, breeds worms, which is to say, a host of abysses perforate it; as Isidore of Seville explains, worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus in fat” (XII.v.18, Barney et al., trans.).

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And. FOLKS, if you're still with me, this is as far as I know what to say. I know I'll have to do more about abysses, then say something witty and helpful about the ethics of flat ontology, and then vainly CMA by dutifully apologizing to the traditional readings that cluster around British Library, Additional 37049, and finally offer another nice worms' eye view. But for the love of Pete, I just don't know how to end the last paragraph! This probably means scrapping the last two graphs and rebuilding them, and maybe digging for inspiration in Gillian Rudd's Greenery.

8 comments:

Jeb said...

I thanked Jeffrey in the last post on wet/dry. What was flashing through my mind while reading the post was the same strong sense of identification I got from the first paper I read on identity by a certain Prof Cohen. It was the first time I read something I agreed with strongly on the subject and was surprising and exciting.

Works from start to finish. Place it alongside the sources I use it just works and adds clarity.

Abyss/ Wet/Dry. Perfect!

E. R. Truitt said...

Great stuff! Karl, you may find it helpful to look at some of the natural philosophy surrounding ideas of death, decay, and putrefaction. Book IV of De Metereologica is pretty canonical on how bodies desiccate and die and how putrefaction occurs. There are also a couple of articles on humidum radicale and the metaphor of the lamp that might be useful to you. I also have some references to articles (one of mine, one of someone else's) about putrefaction and moisture that you might find interesting. Feel free to contact me off-list, if you like.

Karl Steel said...

thanks Jeb, very pleased to hear it. and thanks ALSO ERT (by the way, folks: here's a medieval robots blog to add to your readers), who has been written by me.

Looking forward to doing more putrefaction reading today. After all, what else can one do in the city of lights?

Karl Steel said...

ERT: just read your balm article. Great stuff, also! First, I'm clearly going to need to nuance my wet death/dry death. I'll also need to read the Patrice Georges, Peter H. Niebyl, Michael McVaugh, and *especially* the Katherine Park you cite, in addition to the Aristotle. Looking forward to it!

BTW, you've seen Paul Strohm's Hector article in the anthology Lydgate Matters? It's short and fun and will be a nice supplement to what you're doing.

Clara Bosak-Schroeder said...

The worms are active here, as you say, but is not their attention (and intention) centered on the human?

Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;
Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,
And after come with þe to our regyowne,
þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: thanks for sharing your Abyss essay like this; it's very generous, and I've been enjoying it. It reminded me that a couple of years ago Nicola M. and Anna K. co-organized two panels on the post-abysmal and that there was much rich food for thought offered in those 2 panels [here and there, not in all the papers] regarding abysses as sites of productivity/natality/materialist re-shufflings. I reflect, especially after reading your posts, that the argument could be made for the abyss as a site of queer natality and new dis/orders [with dis/order here meaning something like "sick/dysfunctional orders" but also "Bakhtinian play which is productive of new meanings just under the nose of the dominant powers/readings"]. This might also be a way toward talking about the medieval post-human death abyss as one place where flat ontology [to cadge from Linda Charnes: http://emc.eserver.org/1-6/charnes.html] "crash lands" through a "worm-hole" from the future.

Of course, medieval people thought/believed in the "after the abyss" period as well, and there are SO MANY contradictions and paradoxes inherent in what medieval people believed about the body during and after death, and I can't recommend Caroline Walker Bynum's "Resurrection and the Body" highly enough on this subject: it will give you lots of cites of primary theological texts that you might find very useful here.

So what, then, might be your final aim here that might also make you feel a certain a stuckness, which we all always feel, in concluding? Do you want to argue for the abyss here as a site of teeming anti-hierarchical vibrant materiality? A networked assemblage of actants struggling with each other? A flat ontology [BUT: in the medieval world, can ontological flatness even be imagined, OR: do we pull a kind of reading against the historical grain and use Ian Bogost's idea of "unit operations" to say something like: look, the whole text and its illustrations is pulling in one, holistic direction that is conversant with certain medieval religious precepts/beliefs, but certain "units" within that text offer errant incoherencies, and maybe *obdurate* and *messy* materialities that pull it in other directions.

I hope this helps!

Unknown said...

Karl, thank you for this excellent work. I am glad you are in dialogue with Nicola, with whom I dialogued all-too-briefly regarding worms and regeneration at BABEL-Austin. While finishing up some research for the book I was writing on images of death/dying, I viewed the Add 37049 manuscript at the BL, and I think there are some very interesting things going on in images of the rotting body in that manuscript that are perhaps not properly accounted for by the term "cadaver tomb." I think there are artistic signs in some of the related images--particularly the illustration of the Antiochenus episode on f. 86b--that we are meant to be seeing beneath ground, looking via a kind of "cutaway" into the earth, seeing the grave (note the foot position of the Emperor's son and the use of recessive space surrounding the body). This material did not end up in my book (currently under review), but I think the "wet" grass/ground of a grave, as opposed to the dry stone of a cadaver monument, might amplify some of your interests. The artists of this manuscript are far cleverer than they have been given credit for. Also, have you read or re-read or re-encountered Bataille's _Erotisme_ in light of this wet-dry distinction, which is key to his notion of the repulsion/disgust of the decomposing body? "Spontaneous physical revulsion keeps alive in some indirect fashion at least the consciousness that the terrifying face of death, its stinking putrefaction, are to be identified with the sickening primary condition of life. For primitive people [sic], the moment of greatest anguish is the phase of decomposition; when the bones are bare and white, they are not intolerable as the putrefying flesh is, food for worms. In some obscure way the survivors perceive in the horror aroused by corruption a rancour and a hatred projected towards them by the dead man which it is the function of rites of mourning to appease. But afterwards they feel that the whitening bones bear witness to that appeasement. The bones are objects of reverence to them and draw the first veil of decency and solemnity over death and make it bearable; it is painful still but free of the virulent activity of corruption." (56 in Dalwood translation). Bataille's anthropology was suspect and hasty, to say the least, but his point in this section is crucial, namely that nausea is a construct of a social world built on the distinction from the animal world that we know, at a deeper level, we cannot sustain ("There is no reason to look at a man's corpse otherwise than at an animal's," he says); the recession of life into "continuous being" generates this anxiety of the loss of discontinuity, on which social existence is predicated. Worms, well, they are that animal whose profligate sexuality in the decomposing corpse most unnerves us because it most fully lays bare our own pretensions to animal difference.

Ashby Kinch said...

I don't know why my previous comment ended up "unknown" (I thought I logged in via Google), but I am known, if not to myself: Ashby Kinch.