Friday, June 22, 2007

Mute Beasts

I cited some of my work on Cynocephali in this thread and felt compelled to share some more on dog-headed monsters. Does this have anything to do with our recent interests: wonder, privacy, cosmopolitanism, and the heterogeneity of the past? Perhaps not; you may wish to consider what follows only as a parenthesis.


In a tradition epitomized by Isidore of Seville, to the degree that Cynocephali bark, they lack language, therefore resemble animals, and are likely only animals. Isidore wrote that Cynocephalic barking “magis bestias quam homines confitetur” (reveals them to be more beasts than men), and the eighth-century Liber monstrorum, which emphasizes its monsters' inhumanity, describes Cynocephalic speech as “contaminated” or “perverted” by barking ("Cynocephali quoque in India nasci perhibentur, quorum sunt canina capita, et omne uerbum quod loquuntur intermixtis corrumpunt latratibus"): their voices, as much as their bodies, are contaminated to the degree that they are canine. The thirteenth-century Old French moralized translation of the section on monsters in Thomas of Cantimpré's De naturis rerum similarly observes that Cynocephali “com chien glatisent…/ mes sens de gens est lors savoirs” (489-90; bark like dogs, but have human sense): with the conjunction “mes,” it's clear that barking occludes or opposes the human qualities Cynocephali possess.

The depiction of Cynocephali (labelled "gigantes") on the Hereford Mappamundi seems to belong to this tradition. It is unclear, however, whether the map depicts only barking, which would, following the Isidorian model, demonstrate speechlessness and hence inhumanity; or speech, human by definition; or something for which neither the teratologic tradition nor traditions of natural history normally account: barking that is intelligible as speech to the Cynocephali but not to humans. After all, these Cynocephali face each other and look as though they are communicating. If the barking of the Liber monstrorum and the Hereford map is not opposed to sense, but is rather language evidencing sense, the “mes” of the moralized bestiary should perhaps be an “et”: barking would not be a contamination, but only another mode of communicating. If Cynocephalic barking can be a kind of language, then by the same token humans might reconsider other animals’ noises as potentially linguistic, though incomprehensible to humans. In that case, a key justification of the human subjugation of animals—the animal absence of language, frequently advanced as evidence of animal irrationality—might no longer obtain: if barking could be speech, the world of animals might either be a world of language or, just as confusingly, a world in which creatures or species must be individually assessed for the possession of language. In such a world, the previously homogeneous, predictable irrationality of animals gives way to uncertainty.

Granted, some medieval theories of language allowed for some manner of animal language: Roger Bacon observes that “gallina aliter garrit cum pullis suis quando invitat eos ad escam et quando docet eos cavere a milvo” (hens prattle to each other with their chicks when they summon them to eat and when they teach them to beware the kite), and Abelard allowed that dogs might intend different meanings with different barks. In each case, however, medieval theorists of language would still reserve something exclusively for the human, such as the power of abstraction.

But the gestures of the Hereford image are not the gestures of mere animals; they are not engaged in the merely instrumental communication through which hens share food or warn against predators; rather, their postures suggest intellectual work or at least conviviality among nonhuman mortal creatures. In response to this suggestion, the only recourse to establish or reestablish Cynocephalic animality would be simply, regardless of evidence, to declare them nonhuman. But such a declaration, effective as it might be, also declares the ineffectiveness of relying on animal noise to classify Cynocephali—or indeed any nonhuman creature—as animal. The only certainty is the cold comfort of a chauvinist tautology: if Cynocephalic barking is inhuman, it is because humans declare it to be so.

Sources Used and Essential Works on Cynocephali apart from Friedman

Eco, Umberto, R. Lambertini, C. Marmo, and A. Taborroni, “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs,” in Umberto Eco and Costantino Marmo, eds., On the Medieval Theory of Signs, Foundations of Semiotics 21 (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1989).

Hilka, Alfons, ed., Eine altfranzösische moralisierende Bearbeitung des Liber de monstruosibus hominibus orientis aus Thomas von Cantimpré, De naturis rerum, Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen 7 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1933).

Lecouteux, Claude. “Les Cynocéphales: Étude d’une tradition tératologique de l’Antiquité au XIIe s.” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 24 (1981): 117-29.

Newall, Venetia.”The Dog-Headed Saint Christopher,” in Folklore on Two Continents: Essays in Honor of Linda Dégh, ed. Linda Dégh, et al. (Bloomington: Trickster Press, 1980).

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, Rev. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Westrem, Scott D., The Hereford Map: A Transcription and Translation of the Legends with Commentary, Terrarum Orbis (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

White, David Gordon. Myths of the Dog-Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).


Jeffrey Cohen said...

They look very human to me. Very queer, too. Just look at them. Cute couple.

Here's a bit about barking as disinformation, pasted from Of Giants:

Paulus Deaconus insisted in the Historia Langobardorum that the Lombards were masters of tactical disinformation. Before engaging an enemy in combat, they spread the rumor that a troop of cynocephali waited in their camp as allies, ready to do merciless battle against any opponent. These exotic dog-headed men, well known from medieval accounts of the monstrous races, were often depicted in manuscript illustrations as anthropophagous or as giants. The Lombards made full use of this monstrous mythology and insisted that their dog soldiers, eager imbibers of human blood, were growing thirsty:

They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood, and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe. And to give faith to this assertion, the Langobards spread their tents wide and kindle a great many fires in their camps (History of the Langobards, tr. William Dudley Foulke, I.XI, 20).

In the face of such intimidating foes, the credulous enemy would ordinarily beat a hasty retreat.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

On second thought, I take it back: no mention at all is made of a lack of language. The bark was obviously my own faulty memory. It is noteworthy that theya re called "dog-headed MEN" though and function as ordinary -- if extremely vicious -- soldiers. The dogs of war indeed.

The Spirit of Creative Writing said...

Very interesting.

This may come over as a flippant comment, but I don't intend it as such. But this post put Brian Griffin, from Family Guy, in my mind. Look at this characteristic picture of him:

You might say 'he's more than cynocephalic, he's cynosomatic too'. But it seems to me that whlst collar-up is unambiguously dog, collar down (that Martini) is more humanoid. Of course Family Guy is kind of surreal, and that's kind of the point of the show, but I've always been a little thrown by Brian nevertheless. The talking baby Stewie is one thing (yes he's a baby, but he is at least a human baby); but there's nothing else in the world of the show that suggests animals can talk. In other words, I wonder whether instead of being a dog with human skills, he's more an examploe of cynocephalic embodiment.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of animal language, you may recall that in the 'Roman de la Rose', in the discourse of Nature, there is a brief digression on what would happen if animals had the facility of language--basically, Nature opines that if they could talk to each other, animals would band together and throw off the yoke of human domination, and it wouldn't be a very pretty picture for us people. I discussed this passage briefly, in a rather different context, in an article in Modern Language Review back in 2000 but I don't think it has attracted much attention otherwise. Could have some very interesting implications though now that I think about it, in terms of the relationship between language and power, community, etc.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I've owned both horses and sheep, animals that are often characterized as stupid (by humans). But though there are both stupid horses and stupid sheep, from my experience it would be more accurate to divide both species into two groups: ones who care to some degree what humans want or think, and those who don't.

Karl Steel said...

Very queer, too.

Yes, I noticed that too. It's rather hard to tell what the Cynocephalus with the outstretched hand is doing with it, although it's easy to guess. There aren't too many depictions of same-sex sex in medieval art so far as I know (which isn't far). I'm reminded of the Egerton Genesis, where the anal sex between sodomites has been rubbed out. We might be able to make an argument about same-sex sexuality being allowed to appear only on the margins, but I wonder, now that I think of it, if such a reading would be worse than dull: it might be totally inaccurate. How might the collective you handle the Cynocephalic manhandling?

I know I used your Paul the Deacon bit in a footnote, although I don't know if it's in a footnote that made it into the final draft: I spent an excess of time on Cynocephali and probably should just put it all together someday and send it off.

But there is a bit about thinking one's enemies bark, isn't there? That sounds familiar, but I don't seem to be able to turn it up. Checking my notes on Lecouteux's Monsters in German Lit, I see that one saint's life sneered at the natives between Nantes and Redon as 'dog heads' because they have not converted to Xianity. Lecout. also suggests that the barkers in the Paul the Deacon are berserkers, but, just as with his reading of Ratramnus's letter on the Cynocephali, I find that kind of empirical reduction, er, reductive.

Adam: also interesting. I'm reminded of, why not, the knight Estonné in the Roman de Perceforest, turned into a bear. When his favorite human is threatened with rape, Estonné, while still a bear, takes up shield and sword (!) and comes to the rescue.

SH: I know that passage in the RR too, and would love to see something more done with it. Maybe I'll attempt something here: I can't think of anything else like it off hand.

SM: why only two groups? Your arrangement is still anthropocentric.

Anonymous said...

Well this is a very, very flippant comment – but this conversation, overheard yesterday reminded me of you, Karl.

Walking down by the harbour on a bright sunny day, seagulls creating mayhem as the catch is landed:

Little Boy (about 4 years old) says to his Dad: “Can we eat the fish?”

Dad: “Yes we could cook the fish and eat it, would you like some?”


LB: “Seagulls?”

Dad: “Yes?”

LB: “Can we eat seagulls?”

Dad: “No. We don’t eat seagulls. The seagulls eat the fish.”

[Long silence].

LB: “Ducks?”

D: “Yes, we can eat Ducks. [pause] But we can’t eat the feathers.”

LB: “We have to take the feathers off?”

D: “Yep. We cannot eat the feathers.”

LB (emphatically): “Take the feathers off! Take the feathers off! Take the feathers off!”


LB: “Hens…?”

D: “Yes, we can eat Hens, but we can’t eat the feathers.”

LB (excitedly): “We have to take the feathers OFF!”

D: “Yep. We cannot eat the feathers.”

And so they passed out of my hearing, but I got the impression that the Little Boy was going too strong to stop – he and his Dad had quite a riff going – and that he would keep going until he had learnt just exactly what his folks eat and what they don’t eat – just because they say so.

Karl Steel said...

Well this is a very, very flippant comment

Hardly flippant, anon. It's a marvelous cultural moment. I'm especially interested in this:

Dad: “No. We don’t eat seagulls. The seagulls eat the fish.”

Lots of people have commented on the human (Western? Whatever that means?) reluctance to eat most carnivores and scavengers. Nick Fiddes' book on meat declares that we don't do so because it'd be like eating one of our species: but I wonder. I'd like to push at this a bit harder.

Anonymous said...

oops - 'twas me, Karl.

I liked this for several reasons.

The Little Boy was working hard at trying to understand his father's categories. Fish were OK, but seagulls weren't - so what about other birds. You could see his brain running after the idea - trying to work out where the boundaries were and why.

Second - father and son gradually fell into one of those repetitive rhyming patterns - so familiar in nursery songs and aural culture (refrain: "we cannot eat the feathers" and "take the feathers off".)

Third - yes I wondered about the seagulls eating fish. I guess there are people that eat seagulls - quite probably even past people in this marginal fishing towns. So the particular way it is unconsciously rendered here. "They eat what we eat, so we don't eat them." is fascinating.

Eileen Joy said...

The original post here, plus some of JJC's and Karl's further comments, are pointing to a a kind of disjunction that we need to talk about here, I think. Having spent a good portion of the past 3 years working with the Anglo-Latin "Wonders of the East," as well as the "Liber Monstrorum," the Old English "Letter of Alexander to Aristotle," and some of the exemplar Continental MSS behind the "Wonders" [such as the so-called "Letter of Pharasmenes," Gervais of Tilbury's "Book of Marvels," etc.], this is something I have been thinking about a lot, and it has to do with how, when certain animal-human hybrids are introduced, the first designation is usually "men"--"There is a race of men who . . . ." and so on and so forth. In the case of the giant women with marble-white bodies, ox-tails, camel's feel, boar's teeth and tusks, etc. who appear in the Latin and Old English "Wonders," they are introduced first as "mulieres" and "wif"--"women" first of all, *before* anything else.

This is just my way of saying that, if we want to spin out various theories or ideas about the treatment of Cynocephali, whether depicted in the margins of medieval mappamundi or in various medieval texts, as "animals," we have to also understand [I think] that they are never "just animals"--they also always have to be human *first*. It is precisely because they possess human characteristics that makes them, I believe, so "perverse" or so frightening: they are not "just dogs," or as Karl puts it "likely only animals." Even the image on the Hereford Mappamundi makes this clear. The way that I would choose to read this image would be to focus on how, even if a medieval reader were led to believe, through various other texts, that Cynocephali only "bark" and therefore don't possess human language, the posture of these so-called "animals" on this map, from the physical positioning of their bodies as upright and facing each other and with hands in what I perceive to be "human motion," can only serve to undercut any assurance a "human" reader/viewer might have that Cynocephali are "only animals." Not only can they never be "only animals," regardless of their supposed lack of translatable "language," but they also, by their very existence [even if just as artistic figurations] threaten the designation "human" as denoting something impermeable to [monstrous] change and transformation. One cannot even begin to conceptualize what the Cynocephali are without understanding the physiological template ["human"] upon which their
"dog-ness" expresses itself. It is precisely because their "dog-ness" is capable of extending itself, threateningly, by virtue of their human frame [which possesses capabilities of movement and expression, even *before* language, that exceeds those of what would be "just a dog"], that they, say, "disturb" our illusion[s] about the human-animal divide.

Which is all just to say that, for me, all medieval rhetoric to the contrary, I don't think, for medieval readers, that any amount of "barking" could render the Cynocephali 100% inhuman--if anything, it makes their human-ness more frightening, because it refuses to reveal itself in a language we are capable of recognizing. Does this make any sense? Why, for example, does Alexander the Great kill the giant women in the "Wonders"? Is it because they are monstrous in their animality? The text tells us it is because "they could not be captured alive," "on account of their giant-ness" [or obscenity in the Latin], and because "they were shameful and unworthy in their bodies." It is not because they are "animals" that they are "available to be murdered" [like any animal], but because [I would respectfully advance] they are women ['wif'] first of all--their queerness resides in their unruly and perverse human-ness, not in their, strictly speaking, hybrid animal characteristics. Maybe I'm applying a bad circular logic here--I'm not sure. Somebody help me out.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Following Eileen's lead, I am struck by the possibility (verifiable?) that the intersection of gesturing, touching, and barking/speaking in the Hereford Cynocephali has to do with representing something like the subhuman boundaries of language, a boundary that is perforce present within human language as the language of a particular kind of animal, the animal that (following Agamben) enters, rather than already inhabits, language. On the one hand their attitudes suggest the fullness of embodied logos, the overflowing of language into the body via touching and gesture, a material proving true of rationality's _being_. On the other hand, their touching and gesturing points to the insufficiency, deficiency of language, logos's never fully making it into speech and hence the need for its continual propping up by other means of communication and verification.

I am reminded of Llull's concept of language as a sixth sense affatus , which seems to be very much about the boundary/conjuction between language and voice.

The dog-headed men speak, but do they know what they say?

Karl Steel said...

First off, I want to thank everyone for having the politeness not to mention the muddled terminology of my final paragraph: what's the distinction between human, inhuman, nonhuman, and animal? What functions can these words use? Something I still need to consider.

EJ: thanks for pointing out the gendering. But I do wonder whether they have to be human first or, for that matter, animal first; I know that they're monstrous homines or mulieres or what have you, and that they unsettle the human/animal boundary, as you so nicely state it, by threatening "the designation 'human' as denoting something impermeable to [monstrous] change and transformation" and by remapping the human body with animal forms. But, with my apology for sloppy terminology in mind, what I'm shooting for, I suppose, is the threat of a third category, call it inhuman, subhuman, nonhuman, depending on what's going to be most productive, that explodes the binary. More than that: think of it as the introduction of a third + n category. I want to imagine the potentially rational theriomorph as something that pries apart the binary and introduces a horde--or, why not, a pack--of other, unimaginable, unclassifiable possibilities. Your notions on Alexander and the monstrous women suggest to me, then, that it is this possibility, multiplicity, that Alexander is trying to kill.

I love your suggestions on corporeality and language, NM. I'd love to do more thinking on this: for example, the body as presence against the mediation of language. We might think, however, of John 1:1, of God as the Word, and God as incorporeal. Think also of the scandal of the corporeal God in Rabbinic commentary as Agobard of Lyons portrays it and compare that to the (non?)scandal of Xian artistic depictions of God; think of the scandal of the corporeal God, Jesus, as both the authentic deity (because of body? because of suffering?) and as the mediator to the incorporeal God. Finally, just to make this list even more turgid, how about Yvain's lion, whose gestures are more than sufficient to establish the fundamental linkages of chivalric culture: Yvain knows that the lion loves him and knows, given the lion's gestures after being rescued from the dragon, that the lion is "his man." Does the lion's effectiveness in getting his point across reveal the human voice as supplement? Do animals accepted as chivalric companions ever betray their lords? That is, are animals, with their bodily language, more trustworthy than merely verbal, merely documentary humans?

Eileen Joy said...

One quick comment regarding Yvain, Karl: within the context of Chretien's story, the lion displays the highest most unbreakable form of loyalty, a loyalty moreover that the humans betray again and again: Laudine quickly turns her grief over her husband's death to love for Yvain, with barely a missed skip of a heartbeat, Yvain betrays Laudine, Laudine betrays Lunete, Gawain betrays everyone except himself, and so on and so forth. Only the lion remains steadfast, and one of the implications would seem to be that, by virtue of his lion-ness [animal-ness], he is exempted from some of the relationship entanglements that make conflicting demands on the main characters, while at the same time, he can be considered chivalric [therefore human, but in the best sense of the term: humane] because he won't desert Yvain and also steps in to help Yvain defeat his enemies. Perhaps the most poignant scene in the story is when both man and lion are wounded together [bleed together] and must be "healed" while lying side-by-side. But the story can only take this relationship so far, right? It has to end in re-marriage, with "best man" Gawain at Yvain's side and the lion, we can imagine, stretched out on the floor beside the "trio" [Yvain, Gawain, and Laudine], reduced finally to obedient "dog." As I like to tell my students, the story *has* to end there, there is no "day after the re-wedding," because there is no way these *four* can really live together. But in any case, the lion, by virtue of being a lion, can accomplish a humane-ness and even a selflessness not available to the human characters--this is a humane-ness, moreover, that would obviously require an extreme rigor of cognition ["high" thinking, which supposedly is human], while by virtue of his inability to speak human language, the lion also remains "low beast."

Eileen Joy said...

And then again, I'm not sure I want to say Yvain's lion is "humane," since his main function seems to be: killing machine. Oh well. It *is* medieval romance, after all.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's interesting, isn't it, how the discussion at this post as well as the one on Stonehenge cenetrs upon the possibility -- or not -- of communication across a divide (species, temporal), and the ephemeral versus enduring possibilities for such messages and their bearers.

Karl Steel said...

Yes, very interesting, JJC. Part of what I'm getting at, I suppose, is what happens when it's possible that animals are talking. We have the possibility that animals will band together (as they are already banded together), conspire, and overthrow us. We have the possibility of getting to talk to the animals (and, given Rex Harrison, certainly not to sing) to the animals), but this is far more fantastic than what I've been imagining: animal language,(s) which by their very nature/speakers, cannot be understood. It's one thing not to be able to think like a bat; it's another thing to suspect that the bat is thinking, speaking, and to know that if this is so, there is no chance of being able to speak to the bat in the voice of the bat.

I wonder if some of that wonder and anxiety is recorded in the OF translation of Thomas of Cantimpré, which my translation, as it seems to me now, damaged. Once more, and try to let it speak: "mes sens de gens est lors savoirs" (but human sense is their knowledge). Does that work better? Because I've just noticed that (at least in this version; the original (p. 99) says nothing directly about their sense: "Homines alii sunt, quos beatus Ieronimus cynocephalos appelat, qui canina capita habentes, unques aduncos, pellibus pecudum induti, pro voce latratus canum proferunt.") Thomas doesn't say they have human sense; they have a knowledge that is (is equivalent to?) human sense. That gap, the possibility of something being rational (and hence human) or being another kind of rationality, is what strikes me most about the Cynocephali, at least as I've portrayed them here.

Thanks for your thoughts on Yvain's lion, EJ. I agree. We might say that the lion's (unique) loyalty derives from his animality: he 'lacks the lack' that would infect him with disloyalty (which perhaps derives from being able to treat things 'as such'? From being mediated?). We can say that this lion does as he does because the natural world is always okay (a standard observation on the animal world in, for example, Ambrose's Hexaemeron and by those, also for example, so outraged by gay penguins and bonobos). At the same time, the lion still communicates; one might say that its 'feudal' gestures are an imitation of human gestures (and I don't have the French on hand right now, so I don't know what C. wrote precisely), but it shouldn't be understood that way, because its gestures do exactly what they should. We might want to judge the effectiveness of legal gesture/speech by the outcome, and the outcome it clear here: the lion becomes Yvain's man. I might exploit that language, too (while still observing that the lion also behaves like an exemplary hunting dog), but for now I just want to observe that either the lion is capable of doing what Yvain cannot, speaking to the other in the voice of the other, or (perhaps less interesting) that there isn't any gap, any other at all, or at least that the lines have to be drawn differently.

Karl Steel said...

But it just occurred to me that I don't know enough about the grammar of this phrase

mes sens de gens est lors savoirs

to argue for an imperfect fit between human sense and their knowledge. I'd like to be able to use some of that litcrit material on comparisons never being perfect--where is that from?--but not before I know whether or not this construction is standard for its dialect and time. In other words, I don't want to make a mountain out of a philological molehill.

So it'll have to wait.