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'entremetFrightening, 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").
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)].
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)