Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dry Death/Wet Death

by KARL STEEL

Thanks
very much, folks, for all the comments on yesterday's post. I'm continuing today with what follows, and hope to discuss the worms themselves tomorrow or the day following. If you'd like something to accompany or even substitute for what follows, read Nicola Masciandaro's WormSign, much of which I will be ripping off citing enthusiastically in my own essay.

Picking up from yesterday:

....I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life's end, a notion that I'll term “dry death.” Ash Wednesday's "memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris" (remember, man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again into dust) is a typical dry conceptualization of death. According to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, dust is “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put”; as unfertile earth, used up and useless, dust signifies the absence of form; it signifies matter that has ceased to be productive. For a later medieval example, see one of the smaller poems of the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which, echoing Ecclesiastes 3:21, explains “Þus waxeþ & wanteþ Mon, hors & hounde; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe” [129-30; thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. Even more dryly, the Middle English Death and Liffe characterizes death's approach as the end of all vigor and motion:
the greene grasse in her gate she grindeth all to power,
trees tremble for ffeare & tipen to the groud,
leaues lighten downe lowe & leauen their might,
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
& the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme” [193-7]
in her walking, she grinds the green grass to power, trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground, leaves fall down and lose their power, birds fail to flee when they heard weapons [nb: a textual crux for which I'll need a better edition], and the fishes in the water fail to swim.
Dry death essentially imagines death only from the perspective of the dying subject, who solipsistically imagines that one's personal death is the end of all life. It emphasizes formlessness, the end of striving, and the ultimate absence where self once was; death in this model is both absolutely private and absolutely privative.

An opposing strain of medieval death poetry—a wet rather than dry imagination—stresses the putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate around the dead. This strain offers fertile ground for thinking through the ecomaterialist appetitive abyss, for it may be the largest body of literature that so thoroughly worries at the inherent edibility of being, that realizes that one's subjective death occasions new life, and that acknowledges that like it or not, all worldly things are for others in some way. Humans and others may eventually revert to ashes, which is to say, to unrecognizable formlessness, but to get to this point, they must be used up by a one gullet after another, which will be material for the flourishing of others in turn. Put another way, death is only an end for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. If we know ourselves to be matter, we must recognize our constitutive presence in a world in which we can never be useless.

The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave and see “inde scatentem vermium colluviem” [qtd. from 400; there a mass teeming with worms]: the human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. Ephraem reveals the absence of a self, but just as emphatically, he reveals the constitutive utility of a body for other bodies. A millennium later, John Bromyard's fourteenth-century Summae praedicantium has a proud young man looks into father's grave and “invenit bufones horribiles in puteo” [qtd in 403; find horrible toads in the filth]; other citations from medieval works on death could be provided virtually without end, but here I will offer only one more, from what will be the central text of the remainder of this essay, “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes." At their moment of rhetorical triumph, the worms brag to the body about the hosts of other vermin that accompany them:
Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.

The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon,
The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake,
The toad, the mole, and the scorpion,
The viper, the snake, and the adder,
The toad, the ant, and the crab,
The spider, the maggots [note! the only plural?], and the newt, kin,
The water leech, and the others are not far behind.
The list's bravura excessiveness promises proliferation without end. At this point Body gives up its efforts to hold onto itself; confronted with so many mouths, it knows itself helpless, food for a host of others, flowing piece by piece into a host of hungry abysses, as it always has, from the moment it entered the world.

12 comments:

Steve Mentz said...

The wet/dry stuff is talking my language. Don't know if you saw this back in 2010, but I started working out a wet/dry distinction is literary presentations of shipwreck: http://www.stevementz.com/blog/?p=520

Shipwreck is not the same as bodily decay, but there are some interesting homologies around the human desire to avoid wetness and the pressure of universal solvents.

Patricia Ingham said...

The gendering of the dry/wet death distinction in "traditional cultures" has been analyzed by anthropologist Maurice Bloch. His work was really important to my Sovereign Fantasies--and thanks to Aranye Fradenburg for introducing me to Bloch's essay, "Death, Women, and Power" waaaaaaay back in 1991. Not sure if this will be helpful to you, Karl, but it's worth a look if you don't know it--though perhaps you do.

Karl Steel said...

PI, is that Bloch's "Death, Women, Power" (cited here by you)? Incidentally, the Marcuse you cite in that note I got from AF (but indirectly, via her Knight's Tale essay), and have used it again and again. Will track the Bloch down and, knock on wood, read it tonight. Thanks!

And Steve, great. Ships are bodies too, yeah? I've had whale falls in mind the whole time for this project. Really enjoyed your post: it doesn't align exactly with what I'm doing, but we're definitely working the same field (maybe one described by Bloch?). Will cite your post in my essay and spend some time tomorrow thinking with it/incorporating it into my work. Thanks!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I like this wet-dry formulation in its -- so far -- three variations (you, Steve, Patty). It's especially intriguing to have gender thrown into the mix: do materiality and materialization have a gender? They do if they possess a body, and the abyss you describe is certainly enfleshed.

Actually, the more I think about it even Steve's dry shipwrecks are implicitly gendered, as dryly masculine / rationalist. There's a humoral narrative emerging ...

BUT having said all that, it seems to me a great deal depends upon whether humans are created from dust or clay. The Vetus Latina and Vulgate state that God forms man *de limo terrae,* "from the slime of the earth" that is, from clay (water and dirt). Human bodies are wet from the start, and into wet fecundity they return.

Interestingly, gemstones are also created through the same admixture, indicating why they (like human bodies) are so powerful.

Karl Steel said...

Looking forward to doing some thinking about gender in this. After all, the body in the Worms disputation is a woman. I don't think there's a tendency in medieval death poetry to turn men into dust and women into putrefaction--there's no pattern that I've discerned (heavy caveat, that)--but I don't doubt that dry vs. wet can be mapped onto/intensifies gender binaries (see also closed vs. open bodies).

In re:
. The Vetus Latina and Vulgate state that God forms man *de limo terrae,* "from the slime of the earth" that is, from clay (water and dirt). Human bodies are wet from the start, and into wet fecundity they return.

On the other hand, there's Genesis 3:19 [Vulgate]:

in sudore vultus tui vesceris pane donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris
Which has us taken out of earth and then calls us dust and destined to be dust again.

I don't think I have ready access to the Vetus Latina from where I am...although it would be a FASCINATING study to really lean on this dust vs. earth dynamic in Hexameral commentaries!

Karl Steel said...

and, PI: oh, duh. The "death, women, power" you cite in your comment is PRESUMABLY the same "death, women, power" I'm asking about.

reading comprehension failure. blame it my postdinner languor.

and Jeffrey, YES, looking forward to playing around with this wet body/dry body Genesis material a bit in my essay [and probably thinking it through even more deeply for Boston Babel]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It is interesting, isn't it, that humans are clay at the moment of creation (Gen 2:7, really the 2nd creation story) but dust at the expulsion from Eden.

Karl Steel said...

PI, google books doesn't give me the whole Bloch, but what I've seen looks very interesting/useful. 223-34, on the double funeral (the first part focused 'on pollution and on sorrow, something which in the end has to be removed' (which is associated with wetness and women: see p. 215) and 'another side will always assert the continuity of something else, a reassertion of the vanquishing and victorious order where authority has its legitimate place' He goes on to list a few other societies that practice what look like double funerals: "the Indonesian, Melanesian and Chinese opposition between flesh and bones and the different treatment which these should receive seems to be an example of this same ideological bifurcation which leads the the same result. The flesh, the female part, is polluting and has in these cases to be totally dispersed before the bones, the male part, can release their power of fertility and blessing to the next generation. This the explanation of the temporary burials of Borneo, on platforms away from the earth, on which the flesh of the body must first decay before the bones can be buried so that the social order can reproduce itself. This is also the explanation of the common New Guinea practice of cleaning the bones of one's ancestors of any remains of flesh before these can be used to canalise fertility and the power of the clan"

It's probably too much, though, to think these practices alongside medieval Christian reuse of cemataries, in which bones, once the flesh rotted off, would be piled up in ossuaries?

Allan Mitchell said...

Karl, I love what you're doing with eating and everything else so far. Have you come across the "sotelte" of worms, a meat dish made to look wormy? Look at Liber cur cocorum, recipe 2 (avail. from Internet Archive), and let your imagine run to the in/edible/abyssal.

Patricia Ingham said...

Yes, yes, yes, Karl. That's the one. It was in a volume edited by Bloch and Parry. The notion that was most helpful to me was that women came, in traditional cultures, to be associated with death as the annihilation of particular bodies and subjects, the putrefaction of decaying material; this aspect of death, Bloch argues, was split off (by way of gender) from the notion of death as a transhistorical community or life beyond the grave. In the Merina that Bloch reads, this is the splitting off of the "wet" burial of the body as "worm food" from the "dry" REburial of the dry bones, and their relocation in a common grave, one used for the entire clan community. So that women do the work of the managing the INDIVIDUAL "wet" decaying body; while men are associated with the "deme"--the communal burial, and thus, the communal life beyond the grave. It's crucial to Bloch's analysis that women--based upon their identification with individual birth--get associated with death as the putrefying end of an individual life. Whereas men get associated with death as a transcendent clan community, a life beyond the individual particularity of the material "wet" body in time.

This was very important to my thinking about Arthurian community--obviously. But it is also astonishing how frequently one finds women's association with "wetness" AS decay. For Bloch this is true (in his structuralist way) for all "traditional" societies--by which he means hierarchical ones.

Oh and that Marcuse essay--also HUGELY important to me. AF (then LOF) introduced me to both in my very first graduate seminar with her. Blew my hair back--and was crucial to my thinking for a very, very long time. I think I cite Bloch in a fn in my essay on "Branwen" in that astonishing volume, the Poco Middle Ages, edited by someone by the name of JJ Cohen. Heard of him?

Jeb said...

Thanks Jeffrey.Cuts straight to the heart of a problem I have had with the phoenix and barnacle. After reading Karl's piece I had to go read Thomas Browne on flesh, grass and ashes. This gives me a way to run forward I was going round in circles.

Karl. I will cite it in full as it is short. It's geographic location is most interesting but gender and water are also key.

“In his flight from County Armagh, Finn Mac Coul took his mother on his shoulder, holding her by the legs, but so rapidly did he travel that on reaching the shores of the lake nothing remained of his mother save the two legs, and these he threw down there. Some time later, the Fenians, while searching for Finn, passed the same spot on the lake-shore, and Cinen Moul (?), who was of their number, upon seeing the shin-bones of Finn’s mother and a worm in one, said: “If that worm could get water enough it would come to something great.” “I’ll give it water enough,” said another of the followers, and at that he flung it into the lake (later called Finn Mac Coul’s lake). Immediately the worm turned into an enormous water-monster. This water-monster it was that St. Patrick had to fight and kill; and, as the struggle went on, the lake ran red with the blood of the water-monster, and so the lake came to be called Loch Derg (Red Lake).”

James Ryan recorded by Walter Evan-Wentz, Autumn, 1919; pops up in his Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Wentz's is consumed with the idea of giving the entrance to this abyss a pagan origin, rather static and flat perspective.

Jeb said...

I think I would want to use the phoenix to inflect the notion of reproduction and the cyclical role of nature at play, as in Shakespeare's use. Individual life ends in ashes but also lives on in a generative sense through our offspring.

At my most speculative also in a way with with worms, they are a product of the internalization of the abyss. A production of the dark parts of our mind and thrive and grow on the imbalance of our humours, they begin to consume us slowly before death. It is life that determines our corpses will not reek of the sweet ensnaring perfume of piety that will envelope the eternally fragrant saint and that the grave will not be an escape from sin and anxiety but an ongoing site for its production.