Thursday, February 09, 2006

Animal Innovation: William of Malmesbury's Donkey

Here is a bit of the essay I am working on that examines how animals in the Middle Ages might serve as bodies through which were dreamt new possibilities for identity. It is prefaced by a section on the racial line as a species line in the Middle Ages (subaltern races were typically imagined as bestial), then wonders what happens once the prison of race and the flesh of the animal become so intermixed.

A version of this section on William of Malmesbury also appears in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain .

The twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury was the child of conquest, the biological product of the events initiated by William of Normandy in the preceding century. His mother indigenous and English, his father a French-speaking Norman, and his world a celibate, Latinate monastery, William seems to have had a great deal of difficulty working out exactly what history's impurities had fashioned in him. Writing in the turbulent wake of England's transformation from a relatively homogeneous kingdom to a racially bifurcated one, William attempted in his History of the English Kings to provide his fractured country with a continuous history. This repair work was in part propelled (I would argue) by his own precarious position as a man caught between worlds that had moved closer together in his lifetime but were far from constituting a unity.

William has been condemned in the past by critics who do not see the point of the marvels that from time to time erupt within the otherwise sober narrative of his History. Among these is a report of two elderly women who delight in imprisoning men in the bodies of animals, selling them at the market to embark on new lives, imprisoned in selfhoods they never dreamt would be their own (2.171). The story of these two witches culminates a narrative arc instigated by a digression over a necromancer-pope who indirectly triggers the Norman Conquest. It brings the arc's themes of racial and cultural admixture into a more bluntly corporeal register. The story emphasizes the confusions engendered when amalgamated identities coinhabit a single body, and stresses as well as the purifying power of Roman speech:

'On the high road that leads to Rome lived two old crones, altogether filthy and given to liquor, who shared one cottage and were filled with one spirit of witchcraft. If ever a traveller came to lodge with them by himself, they used to make him take the shape of horse or hog or some other animal and offer him for sale to the dealers in such things, spending on their stomachs the coin they thus obtained. One night, as it happened, they gave lodging to a youth who earned his living as an acrobat, and made him to take the shape of an ass, thinking that donkey whose astonishing capers could hold the attentions of passers-by would be a great addition to their assets; for whatever movements were dictated by one of the dames the donkey followed. He had not, you see, lost a man's intelligence, though he had lost the power of speech.' (History of the English Kings 2.171)

The two women find their performing donkey a lucrative addition to their livestock business, but they eventually sell the him to a rich man. The new pet entertains at drunken feasts, but eventually the novelty wears off. The crones had warned the rich man never to allow the ass to approach water. Now that he is unguarded, the donkey runs to a pool and rolls in its cleansing embrace. He is restored to his human shape. Soon thereafter he is asked if he happened to have seen an escaped donkey wander by. The acrobat admits that he was once that very donkey, the case goes all the way to the pope, and eventually the witches are convicted for their crimes.

The acrobat's intelligence [intelligentia] at work in a body that renders him strange combines the human and the animal in novel ways that at once entrap and delight (he yearns for the contours of an ordinary form while performing feats of invention that neither ass nor man could do alone). The artist in a donkey's skin is an alternative figuration for racial and cultural hybridity. Possessed of a fascinating vitality, this conjunction of identities within a single body offers a powerful (if temporary) resolution to all the anxieties about mixed race that circulate in William's narration of his own heritage, anxieties allayed but not transcended through William's ardent embrace of monastic and classical Latin over indigenous English and imported French. True, the man in his animal skin lacks the power of speech [amiserat loquelam], and true, he must submerge himself in the purifying power of water to gain the ability to describe his compoundedness, yet William's breathless narration betrays a deep-seated fascination on his part, an enchantment that no restoration to human ordinariness can lay quickly to rest.

In describing the power of animals to lead us away from the merely human, the late Jacques Derrida punningly spoke of the "animal-word," l'animot. A jolting neologism, the French term combines a singular article with an ending that sounds plural but cannot be; it also hybridizes animal to meaning-making as a way of undermining allegory. "Ecce animot," writes Derrida, offering a word forged from the proximate and the "radically foreign, a chimerical word" that – like the classical Chimaera – possesses a "monstrousness derived precisely from the multiplicity of animals" from which it was formed, "heterogeneous elements within a single verbal body" ("The Animal that Therefore I am [More to Follow]").

William of Malmesbury's narrative of transformation, storytelling, and bodies in flux offers a medieval counterpart to Derrida's l'animot. William was capable of speaking about the past of his beloved homeland with great confidence. Englishness is never examined so much as assumed; it dominates, collects, purifies. Strange figures of impurity and hesitation like the acrobat-donkey provide another version of that past, branching and ambiguous paths that if acknowledged could disrupt the chain of history once again, ruining William's careful repair work. William does not follow these uncertain roads to their unknown destinations, preferring stable histories and secure futures. He distances his wondrous bodies geographically or through their gender. Despite his allowance of contradiction into his narrative, despite his acknowledgement that history is messy, incongruous, difficult to sort, the History of the English Kings ultimately sides with continuity and firm foundation over invention and disruptive innovation. The acrobat-donkey becomes is abandoned at the wayside along the straight road to Rome.


Karl Steel said...

Writing in the turbulent wake of England's transformation from a relatively homogeneous kingdom to a racially bifurcated one

Did the Island imagine itself (make of that personification what you will) as homogeneous prior to the conquest? Or was it retroactivily imagined as homogeneous as a way to think through the trauma of conquest (or, even, as a way to imagine the conquest as traumatic)? The reason I ask this question is one that I think William Chester Jordan asked (but to a different end): why race? Why should race be a place to imagine trauma? Why should this be the site of worry? Why should this be the site to make worry?

Or to back up still further: what made trauma such a useful way to imagine conquest?

If ever a traveller came to lodge with them by himself, they used to make him take the shape of horse or hog or some other animal and offer him for sale to the dealers in such things, spending on their stomachs the coin they thus obtained.

Fascinating! Cannibalism by proxy, sort of: the people transformed into animals that would be sold to eat, or, at least, be sold to be subjected to animal labor, and the witches – people often accused of cannibalism – end up with full stomachs as a result. The donkey interferes with this, among other reasons, because he’s not being sold to work. He’s being sold to entertain, and so introduces a surplus into the animal-human relationship. Not that I’m going to work this out here, but there’s the problem of attraction and the problem of boredom, two problems that don’t intrude in the ‘normal’ human/animal relationship, which is instead often simply the ‘problem’ of deliciousness. Because entertainment is ostensibly pointed only at pleasure, the question becomes what to do when that pleasure ends. The animal ceases to have a use, not because it is an animal (whose use extends only to labor or food), but because it is functioning as part of a class of things to which animals typically do not belong. There’s a platform for analysis here wherein I want to separate this dancing donkey both from working animals and from companion animals (which were more often than not also working animals in the MA): where this might lead, well, we’ll see.

One more thing: I know we disagree on this, but I prefer to translate l’animot as ‘the animals-word’ in order to preserve the unsettling sort-of plural in English, and to preserve the idea that Derrida critiques through this coinage, that one word should be able to encompass the whole of nonhuman animals. Maybe you’re using ‘Animal-word’ because you think it better preserves the off-kilter almost plural?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I think England was envisioning itself as homogeneous long before the Conquest. James Campbell has dubbed England the most precocious nation of Europe, and I'm inclined to agree: by the time of Athelstan we really are speaking of an England fully capable of imagining its own community. If there was retroactivity involved, it was in activating the vocabulary of union that Bede had articulated long ago, making its eem that an England had endured from at least his time onwards. Thus the Conquest was traumatic, severing the intimate tie between national identity and political power.

Your reading of the donkey is great; it is a surplus in William's workman-like text as well, and that's why it is so fascinating.

Point taken on l'animot; I think I'm best off simply not to translate, because I really dow ant to keep that plural unreduced.