Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ocular humanization

Last weekend Kid #1, Kid #2, and I put on our identical green Irish T-shirts and went to the movies (the Spouse would have been welcome to don an identical green Irish T-shirt, too, but it was her hard luck to be away on a business trip). Over the Hedge is what I'd describe as perfectly fine kiddy fare: not cloying like, say, The Tigger Movie (after which I seriously considered filing a lawsuit demanding that the 77 minutes painfully extracted from me be restored), and not driven by an attitudinal obnoxiousness masquerading as humor (a la the horrendous Chicken Little).

What struck me most about this film was the sheer cuteness of its animal characters. I'm not a warm and fuzzy person (see my evident misanthropy in the post below), but there is something so darn cuddly about those critters that, while my entranced progeny munched their popcorn, I was compelled to start theorizing.

The attractiveness of the animals, it struck me, owed much to their general anthropomorphism, and especially to their enormous, human eyes: these computer animated creations possess irises and pupils that belong to homo sapiens and not to other mammals. RJ the racoon's bright blue (!) orbs [see the picture, above] gave him not just a human but a juvenile look, activating the powerful "ooooooooohhh" gene. It was difficult to resist the urge to give him a cookie.

So here is the medieval part. Those oversized, sympathetic eyes reminded me of a strategy that a medieval illustrator utilized to humanize some monsters in an Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East manuscript. I'm reproducing below a bit of a lecture I once gave on Anglo-Saxon monsters; for the full talk, folow the hyperlink at the title. For the scholarly version of these observations, check out the first chapter in Of Giants , or see the reprint in The Postmodern Beowulf.

from Monsters, Cannibalism and the Fragile Body in Early England

Writers and artists in early medieval England were fascinated by the grotesque, the marvelous, the monstrous. Anglo-Saxon literature, historiography, manuscript illustration, and sculpture reveal a cultural obsession with the plasticity of the human form. The Wonders of the East, a catalogue of the monsters of the Orient bound with the famous Beowulf manuscript, is crammed with bodies transfigured and deformed. One magnificent illustration makes real the Donestre, a fabulous race described in the legends of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. The Donestre embody a monstrousness which is both corporeal and linguistic. Because they know all human languages, these strange creatures are able to greet travelers to their country with familiar speech, convincing foreigners that they know their kinsmen and homeland. After they lure their victims close with pleasant conversation, they kill them and devour their bodies except for the head, which they sit over and mourn with weeping. The illustration in the Old English Wonders of the East consists of three successive scenes, read clockwise starting at the top. Here the Donestre is a fleshy, naked man with a lion's head. His curly mane sweeps the curve of his shoulder, and with a sad frown and huge, watery eyes he commiserates with a traveler. The foreigner gestures widely, perhaps in the midst of relating some story about his distant home to his sympathetic listener. The patient monster extends an enormous hand to touch the speaker, a reassuring language of the body. Below and to the right is the next episode of the narrative: the Donestre, having heard enough, is busy devouring the traveler. The monster’s naked body is directly on top of the man, pinning him to the earth. The final scene, in the lower left corner, finds the Donestre looking melancholic. He holds his hands to furry ears, frowns miserably, and stares at the bodiless head of his victim, the only remnant of the feast.

When read chronologically through the three scenes, the Donestre's body undergoes a revealing transformation. At first more manly than bestial, the monster's animal head is fully anthropomorphized to give an sympathetic look — as if he were a medieval version of Simba or some other friendly character from The Lion King. Or, at least, one of the characters from The Lion King on steroids: his hands, calves, and chest bulge with muscles. Unlike any Disney drawing, though, this body possesses genitalia -- here painted bright red and prominently displayed. Compared to the hypermasculine body of the Donestre, the traveler's form is thin, has bad posture, and looks feeble. As the Donestre devours his victim, the monster’s body becomes more leonine: he is on all fours, as if he has just pounced; his nose and lips form a snout; his eyes suddenly lack whites. An oral, animal ecstasy characterizes the second scene as the Donestre -- bare buttocks arched above the prone foreigner's hips -- devours the man's erect arm. That this combination of violence and eroticism is difficult to contain in the illustration is indicated by the Donestre's very human left foot, which steps out of the picture and into the frame -- the only part of the image to violate its protective border. The last segment of the three-part story finds both bodies much reduced. The traveler has vanished, replaced by a peacefully oblivious head. The monster has become an indistinct collection of curved lines that center around a trembling hand, a dark eye, and a tight frown.

The literal incorporation of one body into the flesh of another, cannibalism might be glossed as the fear of losing that boundary which keeps identities individual, separate. The Donestre illustration from Wonders of the East uses cannibalism to explore the limits of personal identity, the fragility of the body as a container of a singular selfhood. The monster here is a cultural, linguistic, and sexual Other who seems to be intimate (he knows you, he can talk about your relatives, he can share in your homesickness), but who in fact brutally converts an identity familiar and secure into an alien thing, into a subject estranged from its own body. In the last scene of the narrative the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer's gaze back to the new body in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become; the traveler ponders what he once was from the outside, as a foreigner. The Donestre transubstantiates the man, making him realize through a bodily conversion that he was always already a stranger to himself. The Donestre-Traveler stares at the mute, lifeless head with such affective sadness because at this moment of plurality he sees the precariousness of selfhood, how much of the world it excludes in its panic to remain self-same, singular, alone.

The monster exposes what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the extimité, the "intimate otherness" or "interior exteriority" of identity. To be fully human is to disavow the strange space that the inhuman, the monstrous, occupies within. To succeed on a mass scale, this disavowal requires two things: a measure of cultural uniformity and relative social calm. Britain in the centuries before the Norman conquest was a hybrid collection of peoples who were constantly forced to examine who they were in relation to a shifting array of differences. "Anglo-Saxon England" is a blanket term that hides more than it reveals. In a real sense, there were no Anglo-Saxons, only scattered groups of varied ancestry in growing alliances who were slowly building larger political units. "England" existed as an ambiguous region of a larger island, and was very much in the process of being invented as a unifying geography, as a nation-idea capable of transcending the differences among those bodies it collects beneath its name. The various Germanic peoples who sailed to Britain beginning in the fifth century were ethnically diverse. As they settled the island they intermingled with the Britons and with each other. The Latin church meanwhile continued to colonize in successive waves. In 835, the Vikings began their violent incursions, raids, and settlements. The history of Anglo-Saxon England is a narrative of resistant hybridity, of small groups ingested into larger bodies without a full assimilation, without cultural homogeneity: thus the kingdoms of Hwicce, Sussex, Kent, Lindsey, Surrey, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex were sutured over time into progressively larger realms, but despite the fact that they were eventually loosely unified under King Alfred, these areas retained enough force of difference to remain dialect regions that persist to the present day.

Anglo-Saxon England is not so very different from the monstrous Donestre who fascinated it: familiar and strange, hybrid rather than homogenous, a body that absorbs difference without completely reducing or assimilating it. Because of its diversity and because of its permeable, perpetually transgressed borders, Anglo-Saxon England was relentlessly pondering what it meant to be a warrior, a Christian, a hero, a saint, an outlaw, a king, a sexed and gendered being. If there is a generalization under which such a long and varied time period can be gathered without doing reductive violence to its expansiveness, it is simply that during the span of years now designated by "Anglo-Saxon England" the limits of identity were under ceaseless interrogation because they were confronted by almost constant challenge. It is not surprising, then, that the monster became a kind of cultural shorthand for the problems of identity construction, for the irreducible difference that lurks deep within the culture-bound self.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Where was the Spouse and why was she not wearing her identical Irish T-shirt, you ask? I won't say, other than to hint that it involved the Other Coast and a strange creature called EneMan.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for reminding me of this stuff. I remembered your first bit about the Donestre, but forgot your larger point: a mistake, as it's clear that it was your work that must have been in the back of my mind when I was reading Haveloc.

Here's a great, related source, by the way, something I had once wanted to put in the diss.

The Branches of the Appletree, in The Tretyse of Love, ed. J. H. Fischer, EETS OS 223. composed last quarter 13th century trans. 1493

"Vpon this braunche [compunction] makith hir neest a byrde whiche is callid harpia, that hath the semblaunce of a mannes visage, & hir nature is to slee the fyrst man she fyndeth, & thenne gooth she to some water where she beholdeth hirself & seeth that she hath slayn hir owne liknes, & thenne makyth she a full grete sorowe alwaye that euer she sawe ony man. This signefyeth þe soule that slew cryst by hir synne, whose semblaunce is in hir, for to his semblaunce was she created" (113).

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I wanted to include "The Ruins of Identity" in "The Postmodern Beowulf" (forthcoming from West Virginia University Press--likely this fall!) was because I needed a "Beowulf" essay [and granted, Jeffrey's essay also treats "The Wanderer," "The Ruin," and other subjects, not just "Beowulf"], was because it is [still] the only writing I know of on monstrosity in relation to the poem that explores the "intimacy" and abjection of "alterity" [viz. human subjectivity] and then also niftily connects that to the larger "identity" of that foreign country we call "Anglo-Saxon England," which, as John Niles has pointed out in his under-appreciated essay "Appropriations: A Concept of Culture" (in Allen Frantzen and John Niles, "Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity," UP Florida, 1997), is more an "idea" than an actual place. When I was first putting together the contents of the book, a senior Anglo-Saxonist asked, "what does Jeffrey Cohen know about "Beowulf"? Do you really think his essay is good enough to be in this book?" This person, who shall remain nameless, has never read Jeffrey's work, of course, and I just shook my head, and said, "yeah, it's good enough, trust me," and then I kind of panicked a little because no one, and I mean NO ONE, is more "proprietary" than the Old English folks about their subject matter. Jeez. The panic soon subsided. Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

Forgive my grammar errors in previous post--too much Italian espresso!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You wouldn't necessarily know it from my publication record, but I actually trained as an Anglo-Saxonist before moving to later materials -- including many years of Old Norse. I settled the schizophrenic partitioning of my medieval gravitations by concentrating in my last book on the period in between the two periods.

Anonymous said...

But as we all know, Jeffrey Cohen is also anti-"period" and also, simultaneously, "between everything."