Friday, June 01, 2012

Bisclavret's (Secret) Diet

by Karl Steel

Our readers likely remember how Marie de France's "Bisclavret" begins, because it's one of our favorite stories:
Quant de lais faire m'entremet
ne voil ubliër Bisclavret.
Bisclavret a nun en Bretan,
Garwalf l'apelant li Norman.
Jadis le poeit hum oïr
e sovent suleit avenir,
hume plusur garwalf devindrent
e es boscages maisun tindrent.
Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;
tant cum il est en cele rage,
humes devure, grant mal fait,
es granz forez converse e vait.
Cest afere les or ester:
del bisclavret vus voil cunter. (Bisclavret, 1-14)
[In my effort to compose lays I do not wish to omit Bisclavret--for such is its name in Breton, while the Normans call it Garwaf. In days gone by one could hear tell, and indeed it often used to happen, that many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods. A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. I leave such matters for the moment, for I wish to tell you about Bisclavret" (translation by Gallagher)].
Frightening, no? Well, no, not really, since we never see our werewolf hero [hereafter Mr. B] eat anyone. Or really, anything (barring, perhaps, his estranged wife's nose). When Mr. B's wife wheedles him into giving up his secret, lupine life, he confesses that when he becomes bisclavret he goes into the great forest, into the deepest part of the woodland, and there lives on prey and plunder ("vif de preie e de ravine").

This is violent language, but there's nothing here about his explicitly eating humans. At least not so far as he tells his wife, or us, for that matter. Jeffrey will remark on the vagueness of Mr B's account of his diet in a forthcoming piece in Studies in the Age of Chaucer; Burgwinkle's talked about it too ("As he ceases to be dangerous – no devouring of men that we know of – his wife appears ever more treacherous" (166); no doubt there's more: I don't have Bynum's discussion on hand, for example (although I don't think McCracken and Kinoshita discuss this matter in their recent critical companion to Marie).

Readers of my AVMEO essay would expect me to suspect Mr. B of anthropophagy: wolves like to eat people, and Marie's already told us werewolves eat people. Only special pleading could get Mr. B off the hook: maybe, some might say, Mr. B would be unlikely to find many humans to eat in the deepest part of the forest. That's not much of a defense. It's easier to accuse Mr. B of hiding the nastiest truth from his wife, who nonetheless proves that she understands him perfectly well by immediately plotting to get rid of him. More sympathetically, we might even suspect Mr. B not of being duplicitous, but of being too self-deluded to admit, even to himself, what he's really doing.

Maybe we can suspect worse. For while there's something marvelous about not being confined by the armor of an alienating (human) identity, there's also something horrific (to us) about letting the human frame slip. Again following the path laid by my AVMEO essay, I suggest that Mr. B's own vagueness hints at the consequences of giving up on human supremacy, namely, that once human supremacy doesn't matter, humans fall under the general category of "prey and plunder." There's no need for Mr. B to conceal anthropophagy, but neither does he need to disguise it with a euphemism, because, for him, human flesh is just like other fleshes. There's violence here; there's a wrong being done, to someone or something; but it's not a particular violence, or a violence that quite knows what it's injuring, unless it's the particular violence through which a nobleman sustains his position within the state of exception.

The dehumanized point of view isn't the only stance the lai takes, however. Its opening doesn't forget about the specificity of human flesh, not at all. I propose that we read the opening lines as modeled on a bestiary, not at all an inconsequential genre for the late twelfth-century England in which Marie wrote. See the Aberdeen Bestiary's entry on the wolf, for example. Like Marie's lai, we have an initial discussion of names, followed by a summary of behavior. To be sure, I may be over-reading the resemblance, but I suggest it to call attention to the generic difference between the lai's narrative and the lai's opening. Marie opens with what we might call a scientific and humanist voice, maybe like a bestiary, maybe not. Whatever the voice, it's knowledgeable, distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat.

(Monday edit: I really do need to say, here, that Susan Crane's Animal Encounters will be doing interesting stuff with bestiaries and Bisclavret in ways that will be enormously important to my own developing Bisclavret argument)

The narrative voice, on the other hand, doesn't care so much about human supremacy. For this point, in the next few months, look for Cohen and, as well, Susan Crane's Animal Encounters; also see McCracken on translation and movement. The narrative voice concerns itself with gender and sexuality (see Burgwinkle and Tovi Bibring), and with feudal loyalties, but not with humanity, except to observe how it's slipped. Note that when the King meets (the) bisclavret, he declares, first, that "ele [i.e., this beast] a sen d'ume" [154; this beast has human intelligence], and then revises himself three lines later: "ceste beste a entente e sen" [157; this beast has understanding and intelligence]. Beasts, he realizes, have their own intelligence, not a wan imitation of human reason, but rather their own. When anthropocentrism collapses, what dangers follow?

We might therefore hear Mr. B's "preie e ravine" as at once being aware of the violence of appetite and unaware of the specificity of human flesh as compared to the flesh of deer, or pigs, or sheep. Mr. B may be hiding something from his wife; or he might just have forgotten, like most eaters, that what he eats has any significance apart from how it benefits him. After all, he's concerned mainly with his own safety, not hers, and not with--it seems--ours.

Or he might be observing that eating means subjecting someone or something to prey and plunder; that it means taking someone's "better part" (again, my AVMEO essay), regardless of what that thing is. This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege.

Next-Day Edit: that should read "without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute privilege, human or otherwise." For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says "Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world." I think that "Bisclavret" might answer Levi's statement that he's "not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like." Well, here's one, and it's lycanthropocentric. It's not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because--as Bogost reminds us--there's no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I'm not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics.

And one more next-day edit: I know that going into the deep woods to "vif de preie e de ravine" essentially describes the life of a poacher, which matters, of course, in late twelfth-century England, given the rising importance of royal forest privileges. But I just don't see that observation leading to an interesting reading. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

That's all I have for now, though I have notes on hand for talking about the eaten nose. Those who looked at my book two proposal might suspect (correctly) that this material will probably form the introductory section to second chapter, leading up--of course--into my Wolf Child of Hesse discussion. Time, and effort, will tell. For now, though, I'm planning to learn what the latest issue of postmedieval has to say about about lepers.

 (video from Emilie Mercier's animated Bisclavret)


Ms. Grinberg said...

I just finished reading your entry, but earlier I went to look for the source of the clip because it seemed very interesting.

The whole short film is wonderful and I decided to use it for a class I will be offering during Summer... particularly after noticing the extra emphasis given in the short film to the homosocial relationship between the king and Mr. B.

Thank you for including it!

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: some comments and worries here:

1. I disagree that the opening of Marie's lai constructs a narrative/authorial voice that is "distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat."

I kind of see this opening very differently; I see/hear an author-narrator who is telling is that there are legends about men who turn into werewolves, who devour men, are ferocious, etc., but let;s put that aside right now, because she wants to talk about Bisclavret: meaning that she wants to talk about a different sort of creature, one who is a werewolf, yes, but not *that* sort of werewolf: therefore, the author-narrator is, in fact, concerned with the nonhuman [or mixed animal-human zones of indistinction], and it is not necessarily frightening; indeed, in my mind, she defuses the potential fright by saying something to the effect of, "well, I'm not going to talk about *that* sort of werewolf."

2. Given everything that Bisclavret does throughout the tale, it seems safe to say, no, that his "prey and plunder" in the woods, far away from everyone's eyes, is other animals? And that makes the human-animal indistinction more troubling, maybe, because how does that make him any different from human hunters? [Isn't the king on a hunting venture when he runs into B. as a wolf?]

3. This brings me, then, also to the points you want to push regarding the violence and harm that Bisclavret might be posing/pursuing in his wolf form and which the lai supposedly [darkly] gestures toward: it seems to me, somewhat conversely, that the lai is at pains to depict Bisclavret as *not* a threat to humans [hence, his staying away from home, not harming the king and his men, only attacking the wife + paramour who wronged him, etc.], yet at the same time, he's in need of "prey and plunder" to survive, so again, the animal-human indistinction is further emphasized while Bisclavret himself is something like a queer "more-than-wolf/more [or less]-than-human" wolf-human hybrid. So therefore, the comparison between Bisclavret and a human poacher is, I think, relevant. So I'm not sure there is ever a fully "dehumanized" point-of-view in this lai. Which is not to say *you* could not deploy one as the reader/interpreter.

3. Maybe push a bit harder, too, on the nudity/skin/bare life bit? What, exactly, is Bisclavret ashamed of when in wolf form? I don't think it's that he's eating other humans, but rather, that he is an animal who preys upon other animals "like an animal," and further, in an animal skin/fur, without his clothing, which is the very tenuous, as it turns out, covering/skin that distinguishes the human from the animal?

4. Following all this, I think this is very rich and true:

"This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege."

5. I couldn't disagree more with this comment from Scu:

"Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world."

Any notion of the world [human, inhuman, whatever], as one that is always somehow post-good faith, innocence, etc. just unwittingly participates in what I feel is a kind of Judeo-Christian tragic view of the world. I know [esp. after reading your AVMEO essay] that we need *more* bad conscience [we need to be more hyper-aware of all the ways in which *our* violence has shaped this world], but that is not the same thing as saying this world is always post-lapsarian, always post-evil [as it were], as if the "starting position" for every inquiry, or formulation of ethics, is that there could never be an example, an ontology, of non-violence. At least, I'd like to think "bad conscience" and also goodness outside of religious contexts.

Karl Steel said...

Hi EJ, thanks for the response! You'll see that a lot of my response to you might be summed up as 'we're just going to have to agree to disagree', and a lot, too, will have some of the contours of differing ways we've gone at, say, ontology and ethics over the years we've known each other. With that opening proviso...

1. A totally valid interpretation. What's fascinating to me about the opening, however, is its generic difference from what comes next. If it's bestiary-like, well, I'd see a bestiary as a particularly anthropocentric genre (that's a debatable point though!). Though this might be anachronistic, I think of their tendency to illustrate Adam sitting in a chair naming the animals in Eden (I think Susan Crane talked about this in her New Medieval Literatures article on bestiaries)--human rule and mastery, in other words!--and also the way that moralizations of animals refer them back to human interests. Similarly, the opening to 'Bisclavret' talks about werewolves, what they are, what the names are, and how their behavior impacts humans. In other words, I see the opening as at once scientific, non-narrative, and anthropocentric. It's an enormous contrast with what happens next, once the story gets started.

I don't think the criticism has really dealt well with that real change of tone, nor indeed with the violence of the opening, except to say, 'well, Bisclavret isn't like that.' I'm aiming to fill in that gap.

So, no, I don't think we're meant just to put that violence of the opening aside. Instead, I hear the opening as a kind of 'don't think of white elephants.' She hasn't 'defused the fright' so much as lodged it in our heads, where it's going to stay as we read the tales.

Or not! Because we don't tend to have that fright in our heads, and by 'we' I mean the criticism, so far as I know it. I haven't yet exhausted it, but so far I've noticed that the criticism tends to be on the side of Mr. B., or at least not to worry too much about how the lai actually opens. No wonder! Narrative's seductive, even for those of us (say, Leicester in the Reading Medieval Culture Bob Hannning festschrift) who want to read against the grain. Marie of course would know this, and the wonderful trick she puts over on us is this: by being told that werewolves eat people, and then having us become emotionally invested in the wellbeing of this particular werewolf (or, in the mode of critique, criticizing those who naively go along with his wellbeing), we've had something odd happen to our loyalty to our human interests. We've forgotten that the big issue is that werewolves eat people!

Karl Steel said...

(so one big question for me is: is anthropophagy the consensus in medieval werewolf stories, particularly the 12th- and 13th-c. ones? In Melion, our werewolf does seem to eat people; Arthur and Gorlagon, I don't think so; William of Palerne, definitely not, but the whole effort to ennoble the werewolf looks suspicious to me; the Norwegian and Icelandic versions of Bisclavret? I'm not sure: the Norwegian one's as ambiguous as Marie's original, and the Icelandic one hasn't been translated into anything I can read)

I agree with you 100% that Mr. B, in being in the deep woods like the human hunters. And that that shared activity leads to human/animal indistinction. This would have been very relevant in late 12th-century England, when the English crown's intensifying interest in establishing royal hunting preserves meant that: a) it saw wolves as competitors, not just as a threat (which I think means a real difference from how wolves were seen in Anglo-Saxon England); b) it therefore organized luparii, whose job was to extirpate wolves from hunting preserves. (note that I'm going off Robert Bartlett's book on England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings on this point, I think, but I'm also going to need to dig into this further. See for example this).

So, yes, Mr. B's a hunter, and a poacher. And in that he's very much like these noble hunters.

But the violence of his description of what he lives on matters enormously and furthermore his vagueness matters. Our criticism shouldn't eliminate that ambiguity but rather let it stay and try to figure out what it's going. He doesn't say he lives on animals exclusively; and we've already been told that werewolves eat people, even if Marie might be saying (although it's ambiguous) 'but we're not going to talk about those kinds of werewolves'); but given the opportunity to alleviate our worry about what Mr. B eats, Marie doesn't take it. Not at all. She leaves it murky. (unless of course we take his being in the 'deep woods' (the garine) as sufficient evidence that he's far from people: but I still think that if Marie wanted to tell us to think that we knew precisely what Mr. B ate, she would have been precise).

Notably, 'Biclarel', which is a highly conservative revision of 'Bisclavret' (and notably far more misogynist, as Amanda Hopkins has observed), carefully specifies that its werewolf eats animals:
Demouroit beste par le bois:
Avec autres bestes onjoit
Et char de beste crue manjoit (40-42)
[Hopkins trans.; He would live as a beast in the forest; He would dwell amongst other beasts And eat the raw flesh of beasts]

That change suggests that at least one medieval reader--one notably prone to flattening out the moral complexities of Marie's tale--saw that ambiguity and felt something had to be done with it.

What my reading does, then, is try to account for the ambiguity and the violence of what Mr. B eats without resolving it, and, moreover, seeing that lack of resolution itself as key to what Marie's accomplishing.

Karl Steel said...

In re: whether there's a 'fully dehumanized' perspective in the tale...I think that Marie shows how male hunting culture is, in a sense, nonhuman, because its loyalties are between men and dogs, and because these loyalties exclude most humans and certainly most if not all women. There's a lot more to be said on this point! For now, I just want to note that the criticism hasn't yet dealt with the fact that the King changes his reading of Mr. B's intelligence in the space of 4 lines: first it's like human intelligence; and then it's beastly intelligence. Something has happened to human centrality here! Something's been remapped.

And it's a remapping that, in a sense, maps the introduction of dogs into the human circuit, when dogs and men form their own groups together, at the expense of other humans (see Companion Species Manifesto for example).

In re: the nudity, YES, that's something I need to go after. Jeffrey's SAC piece does great work on the nudity issue, and I'll have to review what Susan C's said again.

5. [whew]. Worn out. We might have to discuss this one SOON IN PERSON.

Rick Godden said...

Karl, just a quick thought: you mention the generic difference between the lai and the lai's opening (which I think is an excellent point to be explored), but what about the generic difference in terms of character perspective? Is the potential horror of the opening really set aside as the narrator would have us believe? The lady lives in more of a horror story than Bisclavret himself does.

While he doesn't eat humans onstage like the opening suggests, he does cause great damage. I always think of the opening as presenting not just a contrast with the lai itself, but also as presenting what the lady would know of the werewolf: She finds out that her husband is a monster, and she does what she can to avoid the fate of other victims of the werewolf. But, she's ultimately maimed, tortured, exiled, and cursed.

This is all by way of saying I too think the opening is very problematic and, for me, hovers over the rest of the text.

Jeb said...

I am not familiar with Mr B.but I am with the motif of living in the wilderness and eating raw animal flesh.

I always read it simply as emphasising a non-human landscape. Humanity is not on the dinner table as they do not reside in the wilderness. Although certain occupations will at times stray in to this inhuman world.

I think it's why you see in oral narrative the hunter (think can cover poacher here) or herder as the standard figures who encounter such creatures. They are the only humans who stray into this landscape.

Scu said...

I missed the edits to this post, thanks for the shout out, Karl (btw, I am finishing your book right now, more on that later).

EJ: Thanks for the comments, I will try to respond later.

Jeb said...

Throw in a late but important source on diet.

Two examples of wild children in the text but also wider institutional problems with regard to diet and morality of the inmates.

Late sources I think help to hit home the issue with these things.

The manner in which they become trapped in elite discourse, striped of life to become commodities in a discourse. Part of the career trajectory of the inmates of various learned institution priest, cleric, doctor, anatomist, philosopher etc.

The destitute and the dammed, little value in life but transformed into high value objects in the minds and words of the learned. The sick alchemy of wonder and it's order.

Here the wonder is also concentrated on Jews and how they also can be 'saved'.

Karl Steel said...

I always think of the opening as presenting not just a contrast with the lai itself, but also as presenting what the lady would know of the werewolf:
YES. I think this works perfectly. I think the trick here is that the lai tempts us into identifying with Mr B, i.e., to thinking this is his story. The criticism alone is evidence enough of this. But Marie didn't, I don't believe, start the lai in the way she did only to get all those nasty rumors about werewolves out the way. She wanted to put them in our heads, and also to let us know why precisely Mr B's wife would be so frightened. In short, I think your reading works perfectly.

Jeb, thanks for the link to that text: looks fascinating! In re: humans not being out in the wilderness -- humans did live in the medieval forest, as swineherds, as charcoal makers, as people opening up 'essars', forest clearings for cultivation, or even as forest wardens: Bisclavret might have taken himself into the garine, the deepest part of the forest, but he still might have found humans to eat. Again, Marie doesn't say otherwise, and we have to respect that discomfiting ambiguity.

Jeb said...

Karl, I think in a lateral way. I am trying to maintain ambiguity with an Irish text and figure out why it switches from early med. hairy vegetarian male to a later animal devouring human blood drinking (after death) female who lives deep in the wilderness.

No hint of consuming human flesh here and no local convention either but I think it still lurks in the background as a potential unspoken possibility and increasingly from the 12th cen. to the late 17th praying on humans becomes more overtly spoken about in a range of related figures.

I see no reason to let historical reality get in the way of a good story.

The herdsman/ hunter/ wilderness thing is thought by some to be an old narrative convention you can see it in ancient Egyptian sources or late 17th century Gaelic ones when the related creatures that interest me develop a full taste for human blood.