Monday, February 05, 2007

Sir Gawain and the Shivering Birds

For the many readers -- -- OK, for the ONE reader -- who requested something on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I offer the following snippet, part of an essay in a forthcoming edited collection on Nature in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately I've had so much trouble with the thorns, eths and yoghs that I had to strip out the Old and Middle English. The excerpt seems especially apt, given that is currently 19 degrees in Washington -- freakishly cold, by our standards (What do you make of this inconvenient little truth, Al Gore? Let those glacierless polar bears move here.)


Not every animal is a human in a beast's body, even when it is being deployed as a meditation on the burdens of human identity.

In the Old English poem "The Wanderer," the forlorn narrator voices his isolation through the bodies of birds. In their obliviousness to his plight, these marine fowl demonstrate how the world has quite literally become cold to him. Ice and snow engulf a seascape where gulls perform their animal rituals, oblivious to the friendless exile in their midst. Later in the poem frigidity deepens into animus as the encroaching dark hurls tempests against humankind ("night-shadow darkens, from the north sends bitter hailstorms, with enmity against men" 104-5).

Similar moments occur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Of the surviving Middle English poems, this is the work most obsessed with interweaving nature into its human narratives, not just in the famous hunt scenes, but throughout the unfolding action and in the smallest details. Even the Green Knight is decorated with holly. Every action undertaken by Gawain, every emotion experienced by this knight, has some counterpart in the animal-rich landscapes across which the poem unfolds. Gawain's departure from the Arthurian court culminates a kaleidoscopic change of seasons, a sinuous movement from bright spring to cheerful summer to grey winter. Sir Gawain moves through a world saturated with desire. Bright summer's advent finds the world ardent for life, and vegetation stirs with yearning: "When the dew at dawn drops from the leaves, / To get a gracious glance from the golden sun" (519-20). The faded austerity of winter follows, as "wroth winds in the welkin wrestle with the sun" and the green grass grows grey (525-27), a universe of change and motion.

Gawain, winter cold within his soul, gloomily sets forth from Camelot to discover the habitation of the Green Knight. The nadir of his journey finds him wandering a Welsh wasteland, miserably alone. We know the knight's psychic turmoil not because he voices it like the Wanderer, but because his emotions are the landscape. His gloom is an arboreal tangle, his despondency an animal lament:
By a mountain next morning he makes his way
Into a forest fastness, fearsome and wild;
High hills on either hand, with hoar woods below,
Oaks old and huge by the hundred together,
The hazel and the hawthorn were all intertwined
With rough raveled moss, that raggedly hung,
With many birds unblithe upon bare twigs
That peeped most piteously for pain of the cold. (740-47)

His mind as crowded with foreboding thoughts as an ancient forest, Gawain wanders a terrain that at once seems too full (trees by the hundreds) and too bare (winter has stripped everything, invading the whole of the world with its chill). The knight from Camelot knows that time to accomplish his quest is trickling away while he remains "mon al hym one" ("a man all alone" 749). His misery is embodied in those "mony bryddez vnblythe ...that pitosly piped for pyne of the colde." In a wordless avian complaint, Gawain's pangs at his solitude find their most lyrical expression

... [skip to a longish section on animals as bodies resistant to historicist readings] ...

Derrida's l'animot, Lingis's oceanic humanity, Haraway's companion species: all function as an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory, cannot in the end be sorted for its use value. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features a protagonist's movement across similarly animated geographies. In that somber errantry we can see not just an instance of the pathetic fallacy, where anthropocentrism leads a human author to glean nothing but human meanings from a non-human landscape, but what the philosopher Gail Weiss has called "embodiment as intercorporeality," can see the ways in which our very identities are dispersed across the relations we form. Even better, this vegetal and animal dispersedness could be termed an interspecies alliance, the mode by which a knight of the Arthurian Court can share his sorrow at the world's chill with birds who huddle in winter misery. These animals give voice to their sadness in a language that, while not human, is also not so very difficult to understand:
The hazel and the hawthorn were all intertwined
With rough raveled moss, that raggedly hung,
With many bords unblithe upon bare twigs
That peeped most piteously for pain of the cold.
The good knight on Gringolet glides thereunder
Through many a marsh, a man all alone.(744-49)

We know already that this last line must be untrue. Despite what at first glance appears to be his somber solitariness, Gawain's subjectivity is entangled in hazel and hawthorn, his embodiment completed by shivering birds, his knightly identity inseparable from his good steed Gringolet.

Sir Gawain glides through a world alive with flora and fauna, a world where he can never be "a man all alone."

UPDATE: I realize in retrospect that I posted a bit of this essay already, here. My excuse is that the frost benumbed my synapses. Besides, since I started this post by invoking the inconvenient Al Gore, why not take his ecopassion to heart and recycle? I'm sure that I am somehow reducing the planetary carbon emission total in doing so.


Karl Steel said...

Glad to see more of the essay. I'm very much interested in the historicizing of animals bits. Have you seen Aleks Pluskowski's Wolves and Wilderness in the Middle Ages? Or Robert Delort's Les animaux ont une histoire? I've seen neither, yet, but I've looked at some anthologies with which Pluskowski's been associated. In one, I ran across the work of Naomi Sykes, which I found totally, totally exciting. I learned from her that cervid remains change utterly in England after the Norman conquest: there was something so jaw-droppingly strange to me in the discovery that these highly ceremonial, highly literary rituals would be written in bones, or, rather, absence of bones: the 'corbyn bone,' the bone given to the carrion birds, just disappears from post-1066 cervid skeletons. Why? Because the carrion birds would have gone off with it. Fascinating.

A longer response that I'd intended. I'd intended only to post my favorite Werner Herzog quote to date, from My Best Fiend:

[Kinski] says the jungle is full of erotic elements. it's not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there's a lot of misery, but it's the same misery that's all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing; they just screech in pain. taking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of harmony. It's the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It's not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. but I love it against my better judgment. (from here, since I didn't feel like transcribing from the DVD over friggin dinner)

We might take this as a Pathetic Fallacy (much on my mind, since I'm teaching Wordsworth's Prelude next week, god help me), but I'd say: no. Herzog discovers his obsessions in 'Nature,' but he's not discovering himself there or making nature his ape so much as he's being dispersed into it, swallowed up and spread out, rediscovering himself in thickened spots of nature, nodes like grizzlies, dead parrots, rotten wood, deserts matted with oil, and the other weird furniture of his film.

Anonymous said...

Very elegant - the passage on the poverty of the cold bird song reminded me of the song of the poor peasant family walking bare and bleeding on ice of the frozen fields in Piers the Plowman's Creed.

To link the two halves of your post together I think you might also enjoy Green Imperialism by Richard H. Grove - who looks at European philosophical approaches to the environments of the 'new' worlds, c1600-1800 - as a context for the development of modern environmentalist thinking.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You are quite the Herzog fan, aren't you Karl? On your advice I rented The White Diamond via Netflix. What a sad and fascinating film -- and what a complicated person Herzog is (I admire how he never attempts to vanish from his own documentaries).

Thanks for the bibliography. Pluskowski's wolves book was on my radar; Delort and Sykes were not.

Thanks, too, for your suggestions, N50. The Piers Plowman resonance works very well (I hadn't thought of it at all), and Green Imperialism sounds from its title alone wonderful.

Eileen Joy said...

A couple of quick things [well . . . may--be]:

As to Herzog: I love him! Seriously. I am teaching a segment in my ENG102 course this semester on animal rights [kind of] that includes Herzog's film "Grizzly Man," as well as writing by Michael Pollan, Barry Lopez, and Peter Singer. It's obvious in "Grizzly Man," as in the quotation Karl shared, that Herzog is very distrustful, or wary, of "nature," as it were. He sees it as a kind of menacing space that is more about cruelty and death than it is about regeneration, let's say, or beauty. It is a compelling argument, actually, and one that I think is important to ruminate. Here's why: we often think of ourseves as beings "cut off," somehow, through various "civilizing processes," from Nature [with a capital "N"], and if only we could "get back" or "go in" we could re-discover a oneness with the natural world that might reveal to us our more primordial, or more "natural" selves. [In this scenario, being "human" is a kind of aesthetics and artificial/cognitive philosophy and "progressive" history that supplants supposedly more "natural," earlier laws of being.] But what if "human being," from its very inception, was both a part of nature [duh!--we can't deny basic evolutionary theory] but always, somehow, "apart"? After all, part of the horror of "The Wanderer" is that evocation of the screaming of the sea-birds who are anything but human, and who cannot, in any incarnation or artistic act of transmogrification, signify anything even close to what might be called consolation. So, while I think Herzog may go too far in his depiction of nature as "collective murder," I think he was right to argue that Timothy Treadwell, the self-styled hero of "Grizzly Man," was wrong to think he could actually live alongside grizzly bears, almost as if he were a grizzly himself [or so Treadwell believed]. To honor nature--to observe it with a certain solemn respect and even wonder--is one thing, but to believe that "we" are somehoe not so different from an owl or a bear . . . well, that is another thing. I do not actually think it is a bad exercise to spend some time trying to understand how other species think and fell; I just think that we have to also spend more time considering, frankly, the alterity of everything, even ourselves, as a basis for true understanding of the world and our place [or non-place] in it.

Is Gawain's despondency, when lost in the wilderness, really an "animal lament," or is it a very human one--albeit stripped out of its usuall context of city and court? In this sense, I guess I ultimately agree with JJC's statement that the terrifying woods and the creatures in it of the poem "all function as an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory, cannot in the end be sorted for its use value." Whether or not an interspecies alliance is actually possible: is this not a vain hope, ultimately, of the humanist?

[A side-note: could we please not err on the side of conservative right-wingers who claim every frigid temperature trend and the lack of major hurricanes this past summer as supposed "proof" that Al Gore is wrong about global warming? Did Al Gore not demonstrate in his documentary, cogently and persuasively, that one cannot take singular weather events, or trends within one year, as proof of anything? You have to look, my friends, at the picture over a longer "duree," and it ain't pretty.]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

"It was a joke!" he says defensively, swatting away the polar bear on a glacier gliding towards him. "I had been watching An Inconvenient Truth over the weekend, and took it seriously ... but not so seriously that I wouldn't joke about it."

Though it is interesting to speculate, Eileen, how Al Gore constructs nature in that documentary vis a vis Herzog. Gore's nature seems to seek a median state (a fairly constant "average" place that is the line running through predictable oscillations). Catastrophe is human engineered; nature left to itself levels itself. Is that right?

Karl Steel said...

Is Gawain's despondency, when lost in the wilderness, really an "animal lament," or is it a very human one--albeit stripped out of its usuall context of city and court?

I can't think off hand of any instances of despondency in city or court involving this kind of universal sadness, at least not in the chivalric narrative that I can call to mind right now. There are plenty of instances of groups of sad people (the farewell to G and he rides off to his doom in SGGK, for example), but what distinguishes the sadness JJC describes is its multiple embodiment, its (not to coin a word) intercorporeality, its being spread across species (and not simply between two--man and horse, man and dog--but between a human and a pack of animals). Animals are better to think with than chairs, perhaps in part because there's a (either distressingly naive) sense of return (to a Chora?) or a (sophisticated) sense of recognition of the self that makes/discovers alliances with other living things and finds itself always already dispersed through them. Now this kind of assemblage making/realizing can happen with chairs, or armor, or chivalric accessories (see MIMs), but it happens much more readily with animals perhaps. Maybe it's because animals can make these alliances too. In other words, the ease with which humans assemble with animals is a kind of recognition of animal agency. Now there's an inchoate idea!

Maybe we need to dragoon an 18th-century person to talk about the landscape sublime. We can either learn something or trapdoor him/her.

Re: Herzog. Everyone loves Herzog these days. I'm just on the same bus as everyone else. ALK bought me not one but two (!) Herzog box sets for the holidays, and I've been very happily working me way through them or rewatching, as the mood/time strikes/allows me.