Wednesday, October 04, 2006

King Alfred's Hemorrhoids

Yesterday my graduate seminar read, along with the Geary and Davis pieces I mentioned , Asser's Life of King Alfred. Today, I offer my meditation on why this great king needed to keep his medicine chest stocked with Preparation H.


Medieval people were fascinated by composite monsters like centaurs and griffins, as well as by corporal transformations like the Irish werewolves which intrigued Gerald of Wales, the princess imprisoned in dragon's flesh described by Mandeville, the snake-woman Mélusine in the romance Huon de Bordeux. Such metamorphoses find inspiration in Ovid, the Roman poet of mutability who was obsessed by what might be called possible bodies, bodies whose seeming solidity melts, flows, resubstantiates into unexpected configurations that violate the sacred integrity of human somatic form. Yet the identity machines which possible bodies construct are not reserved to fantastic creatures and humans transformed into estranging flesh. Fabliaux grant the body an astonishing autonomy of organs. Le Débat du con et du cul stages a lively conversation between a vagina and its neighbor, the anus, while in Les Quatre sohais Saint Martin, pricks (vits) and cunts (cons) proliferate, transforming every inch of the dermis into an obscenely erogenous zone. There is something not quite human about these bodies, with their refusal to respect the boundaries that are supposed to limit their form and to emplace agency within a controlling and singular subjectivity, a soul. Even more surprising, however, is that this inhuman body can as easily be found in chansons de geste, romance, manuals of chivalry, hagiography, mystical revelation, scientific texts, crusading propaganda, history. The bodies which populate these medieval texts are discursively constructed in ways which are inescapably specific to histories behind their production and dissemination, serving particular and often readily identifiable cultural needs. This historical construction, however, never fully captures the flesh in all its possibility, especially as that body escapes the confines of somber individuality and connects itself via some "circuit of intensity" with other bodies, other worlds.

Take, for example, the case of King Alfred's hemorrhoids.

Despite a fire which consumed the single surviving medieval manuscript, a remarkable biography of Alfred survives in transcription. Originally composed in 893 by Asser, a Welshman christened with a Hebrew name, the text now known as the Life of King Alfred demonstrates that the West Saxon monarch truly deserves the epithet "the Great" bestowed upon him by sixteenth century historians. Having been as a child anointed by no less an authority than Pope Leo (8), Alfred distinguished himself early in life by his love of books, poetry, and scholarship (23), the fixity of his religious faith (37), and his astounding success on the battlefield, especially when enormously outnumbered (passim). Not only did he eventually unite the disparate and factitious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against Viking invaders, Alfred also forced the submission of several Welsh kings and ensured that his court was an international center of learning and commerce. And -- Asser emphatically notes -- this exalted king was afflicted with various diseases, the most memorable of which was ficus, "piles" or "hemorrhoids." Alfred receives this painful ailment as a divine reward, sent at his own request to assist him in resisting carnal desire: "he contracted the disease of piles through God's gift; struggling with this long and bitterly through many years, he would despair even of life" (74). This boon of swelling and blood is eventually transmuted by God into an unspecified but "more severe illness" which remains with him to the end of his days. I am going to guess that for many readers a discussion of King Alfred's hemorrhoids seems distasteful, and for that reason I am probably better off not translating the safe Latin word ficus (literally meaning "fig," and more suggestive to contemporary ears of decorative houseplants than of the aching capillaries of a sanguineous anus). Yet Asser is working within an established tradition of hagiography within which bodily infirmity of any kind is taken as a special mark of sanctity. Saints like Guthlac and Cuthbert suffer terribly, and gratefully. Bede represents his beloved Pope Gregory's energetic output of texts in the face of frequent fevers, weakness, and "bowel trouble" as a special proof of the man's holiness (Ecclesiastical History II.1). Alfred, rex omnium britannie insulae christianorum (as Asser's dedication to his text reads), possesses a body that is at once regnal and saintly because it suffers. Ficus and the unnamed diseases which it later becomes are signs of spiritual strength, corporal signifiers that Alfred is powerful enough to triumph over the limitations of mere flesh.
Recurring hemorrhoids also suggest that Alfred's body does not quite belong to Alfred. Bruce Holsinger has detailed the sexual suggestiveness of ficus in the later Middle Ages, and it cannot be an accident that the illness which originates as anal hemorrhaging is divinely transmuted at Alfred's wedding feast, just as he enters into institutionalized heterosexuality. Even more suggestively, the narration of the original onset of Alfred's ficus is provocatively framed by repetitions of the same event, foreign invasion:
72. In that same year the Viking army, which had settled in East Anglia, broke in a most insolent manner the peace which they had established with Alfred.
[73-75. Narration of Alfred's ficus, bodily sufferings, marriage, children]
76. Meanwhile the king, amidst the wars and the numerous interruptions of this present life -- not to mention the Viking attacks and his continual bodily infirmities …

Chapter seventy-six opens by conjoining Viking incursions and Alfred's suffering body, making explicit the interlacement which the narrative implies in its sequencing of the five chapters as a whole. In case we readers are not astute enough to be surprised by the conjunction of hemorrhoids and Vikings here, moreover, Asser cheerfully repeats it later, this time adding a reference to the thief crucified next to Jesus, ensuring that the passage resonates with religious overtones as well:
91. King Alfred has been transfixed by the nails of many tribulations … he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such as he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomy dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. Moreover, he was perturbed -- not without good reason -- by the relentless attacks of foreign peoples, which he continually sustained from land and sea without any interval of peace. What shall I say of his frequent expeditions and battles against the Vikings and the unceasing responsibilities of government?

Like the ravages of ficus, the Vikings are -- quite literally -- a pain in the royal ass. Their threat to the fragile coherence of a united England needs to be overstated by Asser because in the face of that threat Alfred's ascendancy and permanence as king of the majority of the island cannot be questioned. Asser describes Alfred not simply as ruler of Wessex (rex Occidentalium Saxonum) but with the grandiose title Angul-Saxonum rex. The appellation is unlikely to raise eyebrows today, since the word "Anglo-Saxon" has become an accepted term within the critical vocabulary for describing this era. Yet as Keynes and Lapidge are quick to point out, the ambitiously compound royal appellation which Asser employs became current only in the 880s, the same decade which saw the Viking capture of London and its Alfredian restoration, the subsequent submission of the insular kings to Alfred, and the stabilization of the Danelaw (Alfred the Great 227). "King of the Anglo-Saxons" is not Asser's invention, but is nonetheless a title of quite recent vintage and obvious political utility. Angul-Saxonum rex performs an important suture. Over and against the Viking menace (a threat predicated on rendering as alien as possible peoples who were in fact ethnically continuous with the "Anglo-Saxons"), the collective force of the compound noun Angul-Saxonum gathers a fragmented variousness into an imagined community. This new thing, this kingdom that can suddenly conceptualize itself as a corporate entity rather than a scattering of smaller affiliations, is a body afflicted with ficus, with Vikings that cause pain and bleeding and who menace the integrity of the whole, but who also precipitate that unity into heroic consciousness. In a move which conflates the island, its people, and their king, a move which concatenates history, the sacralizing power of religion, realignments of the past, and the eruption of new futures, Asser opens the regnal body to a becoming-nation, probes its most private regions, transforms its every affliction into movements of armies and a war of the flesh against itself.

Alfred's body in Asser's account could be read as mere agitprop for the emergent West Saxon hegemony, in which case the Life of Alfred would be a narrative reducible to a simple and definitive purpose. Considering the recurrence in Old English poetry of prosopopoeia, considering that even a jewel which likely contains a contemporary portrait of the Angul-Saxonum rex himself can declare "ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" ("Alfred ordered me fashioned") -- considering, that is, that even objects were alive in the ninth century, and still speak today -- we should probably hesitate before rendering the text so inert, so small. In Asser's conjunction of Alfred, his hemorrhoids, the creation of community, Viking incursions, marital relations, disseminations of texts, there is something which resists diminution into mere context. These heterogeneous components form an identity machine full of potential for the reconceptualization of somaticity, unlikely to be constrained by reformation into a singular, larger form. The body of venerable King Alfred is, in Asser's textualization, not so far removed from a babewyn, from those monsters of hybridity who populate the margins of illuminated manuscripts. In the Luttrell Psalter (fol. 175r.), the sober Latin of Psalm 98 is framed by two remarkable figures: an avine body topped by the crowned and dour face of a queen, and a sphinx-like animal bearing a bishop's severe visage and an ornate mitre, a doubled becoming-animal which maps the plasticity of corporeal form. The haunches of the sphinx dissolve into a long, curlicued tail which disperses its bestial form into pendulant clusters of thistles, while the serpentine caudal appendage of the bird-queen creeps with sensuously curls of ivy inward, outward, downward. The babewyns scatter the human into fragments of fauna and flora, opening the flesh to animal and vegetal transformation. Medieval people did not simply fantasize such corporeal hybridity, moreover, but experimented with their own flesh. Susan Crane has described the ritual of Maying as a kind of becoming-plant ("Maytime in Late Medieval Courts" 174). Hobby-horse plays, mummings, village rituals enacted at the changing of the seasons (May Day, Plough Monday, Christmas, New Year) engendered miraculous transfigurations, a surrender of the burden of humanity to fantastic new skins made of hides and painted cloth, to masks concatenated from animal skulls, agricultural tools, domestic objects, even from vegetables like turnips. Half human stags, horses, calves and a plenitude of other hybrid monsters were familiar as both images and as bodies in the process of becoming something other than themselves.

[The above is excerpted from my book Medieval Identity Machines, where you will find a version with proper footnotes. I think that last paragraph goes a long towards offering an answer to Eileen's tough query about why people don cute animal costumes and inhabit alien sexualities or (as Karl's video made clear) gyrate to NSync.]


Anonymous said...

Somedivine reward. Might he need a good gastroenterologist?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Trivia fact, for those who collect trivia facts: I have a spouse whom I adore. She is employed by a gastroenterological association, which is great in that she got me the Fleet EnaMan stuffed doll I keep in my office (yes, EnaMan is a superhero shaped like a smiling enema). She also posts here anonymously from time to time.

To her I say: yes, king Alfred needed a good gastroenterologist. But he never found one. Good thing, too: turns out his pain in sitting is what led him to be always on the move and thus he was never caught by the Vikings.

Karl Steel said...

I'm not sure if I've cited this here, yet, but your discussion of mutable bodies brings this story to mind.

From the ME English Alphabet of Tales:
Cosme & Damyani.
Ther was som tyme a man þat had a speciall deuocion vnto Saynt Cosme & Damyan, & þe canker happend into þe the of hym & had wastid it nerehand away. And on a tyme as he was slepand, hym thoght þies ij saynttis come vnto hym, & þai broght with þaim oyntementtis & playsters they come with medicine. And þe tone of þaim said vnto þe toder; "Whar sall we take vs flessh, þat we may fill þe hole with agayn when we hafe cut oute þe rotyn flessh?" And þe toder ansswerd agayn & sayd; "In þe kurk garth of Saynt Petur ad Vincula, ffor þis day was þer a man of Ynde new berid [me: why should a man of India be buried in a Xian graveyard?: "Ethiops" in Latin ms]; and þerfor go feche vs of þat, at we may fill þe hole with." & þis man of Ynd hight Maurus [a Xian man? Indian? both?]; & þai went & fechid his bodi, and þai cut of þe þe of þe whik man & þan of þe dede man & putt þe dead mans the vnto þe whik mans, & anoyntid þe wownd diligentlie; & þai tuke þe seke man the & put it with þe bodie of þis Maurus, and layd hym agayn þer he was. And þan þis seke man wakkend, and felid at hym aylid no sore, & putt down his hand vnto his hambe, & he felid no hurte; & he garte light a candyll, & lukid, and his the aylid nothyng. And þan he was fayn & rase oute of his bed; and he told vnto euer-ilk man what he had sene in his slepe, & how he was helid. And þai at he told it vnto, went vnto þis Maurus grafe, & lukid; & þai fand his legg away, & þe whik mans leg layd þer in-stede þeroff in þe grafe with þe dead mans bodie.


Not a close connection with your suffering Alfred. His kingdom comes together even as (or because, rather) his bottom falls out, whereas here we have a body made whole miraculously. Sort of. The leg's an alien leg taken from the alien land of wonders (whether India or Ethiopia). Make of that what you will.

Funny thing, although I had the full passage in my notes, I'd neglected to put in a biblio reference. I tried to rectify (finally successfully) the problem by searching for "som tyme a man" in the Middle English Compendium, which got me hits in Chaucer and, serendipitously, the Treatises of fistula in ano: haemorrhoids, and clysters.

Again, none dare call it kismet.

Eileen Joy said...

But I still question whether a body can ever really *ever* be anything other than itself. Everyone knows how much I love "Medieval Identity Machines" [and also the work of other scholars that influenced it, such as Elizabeth Grosz, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, David Halperin, Dinshaw, etc.], but I always have this secret argument with Jeffrey, mainly in relation to the chapter titled "Chevalrie," where some of the ideas elucidated in the Intro. [which includes that wonderful story about Alfred's hemorrhoids] are more fully fleshed out [no pun intended]. More specifically, I do not share the utopian hope of Jeffrey's [following Grosz's work on "bodies-becoming" and "flows" and Deleuze and Guattari's work on "inhuman identity circuits" and "machine assemblages" of "being"] that we can ever really escape the "lonely residence" of our "merely human" bodies, nor do I feel we ever even really extend the boundaries [and hence, possibilities of becomings] of those bodies, except through very elaborate strategies of self-, or let's say, body-deception [through sexual play, mind-altering chemicals, fantasizing, role-playing, surgery, etc.]. Talk to a person who suffers from a terminal or chronic illness, and ask them what they think about Grosz's idea, stated at the end of her book "Space, Time, and Perversion," that a certain moment where bodies are flowing into other bodies, without contours [achieved, naturally enough in Grosz's view, through "queer" sex--or is that just the metaphor?], helps us to escape the prison-house of our embodied [and also culturally-constructed] identities. It could be fun, for sure, but it is also mainly an elaborately-staged bit of "inventio," is it not? To live, or even to exist briefly, outside of the "merely human" body is to be either dead, or not human. of course, there are all sorts of ways in which, historically, "the human," or "Man," has served as the site through which a lot of destruction has been wreaked--physical and psychic--upon individual and collective bodies. Therefore, we have to rewrite "the human," but we cannot live outside of our biology, or our bodies, except in brief and intense moments, not of transfiguration, or transposition, but merely, of psychosis.

Eileen Joy said...

Continuing my thoughts here from my previous post, I want to also say that I think a lot of the so-called corporal transformations and "bodies-becoming" and the escape routes whereby human bodily flesh leaps out of "the confines of somber individuality and connects itself via some 'circuit of intensity' with other bodies, other worlds" are most often located within the domain of art and aesthetics [more often than they are to be found in the surgical theater or in the actual bedrooms of actual persons or in the chemical alterations of a drug therapy]. We might say that art--whether through the medieval werewolf story or futuristic techno-narrative--provides the first stage for the *imagined* limitless and endlessly transmogrifying human body, and then at some point, and in some cases, science catches up? What might be, moreover, the function of art in alleviating and ameliorating what are perceived to be the tragic limits of "being human"? It has to be admitted that, today, surgery is capable of creating some amazing human-machine and even human-animal hybrids, and those hybrids--whether a porcine valve attached to a human heart or a prosthetic limb attached to a human hip--do not necessarily compromise anyone's "humanness," however we want to define that. And sex reassignment drug therapies/surgeries do not in any way [in my opinion, anway] change the fact of one's biology still denoting the surgical-therapeutic subject as "human." But there are other desires for body-transformations and identity-assemblages that might trouble us a bit more, such as a man who wishes he were a lizard, let's say, and has surgery to fork his tongue and add scales to his skin, or the man who wishes to download his brain into a machine and never live in his body again. I worry about the, yes, "human" cost of such desires. To quote Bryan S. Turner [who essentially inaugurated the field of "sociology of the body" studies with his 1984 book, "The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory"]:

"[Human beings] are always and already social. They are deeply involved socially through language and socialization. The argument is that regardless of the cultural hybridity of urban life, we are still held together by a common ontology. However, this interconnectedness is threatened by technological and medical change. The growth of cyborgs and other technologies may transform the nature of embodiment and remove this interconnectedness of human life. This issue is the real importance of the question: Can there be a social world after the body where technology has transformed the ethics of embodiment?" ["The End(s) of Humanity: Vulnerability and the Metaphors of Membership," The Hedgehog Review 3.2 (Summer 2001): p. 17].

This is an important question for Turner [and, admittedly, for me], because, in Turner's view [and admittedlty, again, mine]: " . . . we are ontologically frail and vulnerable; the institutions that we create to compensate for frailty are also precarious; but frailty and precariousness produce an interconnected and interdependent social world" ["The End(s) of Humanity," p. 7].

Turner also asks these important questions: "What are the proper goals (ends) of a political community, and do our current problems anticipate the termination (end) of the human? Is this crisis the end of humanity (as an empirical community of beings) or the end of the human (as the possibility of a conceptual category)?" (p. 9)

Here is something else Turner writes, which I think is *very* apropos to Jeffrey's work in MIM, and I even think Jeffrey's work argues much the same thing [but he can correct me if I'm wrong]:

"The stability of everyday life requires the presumption of a continuous and reliable self, and hence we assume that disruptions are exceptional interventions within this normality. For interaction to take place at all, one must be able to make assumptions about the continuity of an embodied self through time and space. There must be a set of effective 'plausibility structures' giving the everyday world a legitimate sense of stability. Perhaps the continuity of personal identity is merely an illusion, because disruption to life is a constant human experience. The only definite continuity is the continuity of embodiment, but even that is vulnerable. Hence, the everyday world involves a constant struggle to sustain the illusions of order and continuity against a backdrop of persistent but unpredictable disorder. Metaphors, which mediate between the self and chaos, provide the blocks of cultural meaning. . . . [But] we suffer from an eclipse of the metaphor" [pp. 29-30].

Somewhere between the inescapable fact of embodiment and the rich metaphoricity of the person, between the disorder of real life and the order of the aesthetic realm, is the place where we can begin, I believe, to write the human anew.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, thanks for your richly detailed thoughts. With several assertions in the first post I take issue, but the second I can't disagree with. The closing quotation from Turner is especially useful, even if it is full of a trepidation that I don't typically feel.

I don't think your represent Grosz's work fairly. She isn't simply yearning for the blissful self-obliteration that queer sex might offer (how narcissistic and la-de-da would that be?). She is arguing that we have never possessed the complete bodily integrity we imagine inheres innately in us. So, it's not about losing something you already have (a personhood that resides in an autonomous body) so much as recognizing the precariousness of that very idea, its historicity and the cultural work it does. Grosz describes embodiment and subjectivity as a Möbius strip: you can't delineate one without finding yourself in the other; corporeality and subjectivity are not separable, and not unchanging (aging alone ensures this instability). But its's more than that. We humans have always relied on "exterior" devices to assist in our embodiment. Sometimes those devices are other beings. Sometimes they are tools. Always they are pieces of the world without which we would not be human at all (we'd be bereft, self-sustaining, monads, I guess). The moment you form an alliance with a keyboard to disseminate your voice across distance and to touch other bodies (yes, bodies as well as subjectivities: thought is embodied, the anger or pleasure or intelelctual stimulation we feel in reaction to a comment on a blog is embodied), you have already become hybrid: a part of you, which is still of you, has left and is circulating elsewhere. It may come back, and its return is going to affect your embodied subjectivity. And it doesn't take a computer: the moment you press letters to a wax tablet, or the moment you make tha air resonate with your vocalizations in the hope they will impress themselves on another's ear drums .... voice alone is the proof that we are not in prison-house bodies (and that *absolutely* doesn't mean that we can somehow escape our own embodiment ... how can we escape the very condition of our being?)

A book of which I am very fond is by the philosopher Gail Weiss, Body Images: Embodiment as Intersubjectivity. Gail (my colleague here at GW) makes the argument that we are always already "out of our bodies": we can't gain a coherent body image without identifications and disidentifications that in fact work to spread our embodiment into interstices, blurring boundaries rather than respecting them. The book has a good chapter on "The Duree of the Techno-body" that is one of the few feminist investigations of technology and embodiment that isn't full of fear (in this way it is like Donna Haraway and Elizabeth Grosz, who also don't code technology as a masculinist penetration of feminine space, but see technology as yet another version of the various alliances [with animals, with material objects, with other people] that have always worked against our ability to actually reside in something "merely human" in the sense of a bounded, autonomous, stable body that is the sum and total truth of our self).

So to the question of "whether a body can really *ever* be anything other than itself," I would answer: it never was itself.

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you, Jeffrey, for taking me to task a bit for not fairly representing the work of Elizabeth Grosz and for also clarifying what you see as the importance of her thought. I get it. I think what is mainly frustrating me [currently] is how much work is done in literary studies on "corporality" that draws heavily upon certain philosophers, but does not take into account the very vast wealth of scholarship in social theory, especially "sociology of the body" studies [which even has its own journal, "Body and Society"]. A lot has been done in that field, for example, to revise and call into serious question the thought of Foucault which has been so influential in Anglo-American criticism [but is not always interrogated the way it needs to be, or perhaps, is not even understood properly?--Speaking of which, has anyone see the recent essay by Richard Wolin, "Foucault the Neohumanist"?]. In any case, I think this is all very very important stuff--meaning, your and other scholars' work on embodiment, etc., and I would actually to say more about it in a separate post, based on my current readings in Turner, Chris Shilling, Mike Hepworth, etc., plus this amazing Nip/Tuck episode I saw recently where a guy wanted to have his leg amputated because he had phantom *amputated* limb syndrome--seriously. In turns out that there are even support groups and a body of scientific literature on this syndrome. Anyway, more on thast soon.

Eileen Joy said...

The syndrome I mentioned in last post, from Nip/Tuck, by the way, is called "Body Integrity Identity Disorder."