Monday, May 10, 2010

To discourage the others: Gerald's humanity goes awry


Here's a post in the classic mode of 2007 brand Karl: a reading of an animals text, in this case, of a modern classic, namely, Gerald of Wales's shifting reactions to animal-human hybrids and bestiality in a block of stories in his History and Topography of Ireland (also see Eileen in 2007, on this episode and gender).

To the story of a “semibos vir,” a creature partly ox and partly human, sheltered by the Marcher lord Maurice fitzGerald and killed by Irish natives, Gerald responds with what our Jeffrey calls an “uncharacteristic undercurrent of melancholy, ambivalence, and regret.” Gerald does not judge the nature of this, the section's first hybrid: he lists its bovine face and extremities and its speechlessness; he condemns its death; but he is reluctant to categorize it (“an extraordinary man was seen—-if indeed it be right to call him a man”; O'Meara trans.). Notably, in the History's second recension, as if responding to critics, Gerald extends his consideration of the ox/man: he admits the peculiarity of classifying the death of the “semibos vir” as a homicide ("sed et hujus animalis interemptor nunquid homicida dicetur?") and finally suggests that the strange excursus might be excused as simply representing nature having its revenge rather than as offering a topic for disputation ("“Sed excersus hujiusmodi sunt excusandi: potiusque timenda est naturae vindicta, quam disputatione discutienda.”). Gerald thus, very briefly, suspends debate over the nature and privileges of the human; he would rather the ox/man be thought about some other way.

But almost as soon as he relaxes his judgment, he tries to remember himself. He classifies his next hybrid, yet another ox/man, as having “plus hominis quam pecoris” (more of the man than of livestock), and then a cow/stag as being more like livestock than wild animals. In both these cases, he brings them closer to himself—one is nearly human, one nearly domestic—as if refusing to let either one wander too far from his supervision. He concludes with two cases of bestiality, both committed by women, one with a goat, the other with a lion.

Though bestiality produced the hybrids of his previous stories, Gerald strains to refuse himself his own curiosity for it. He had praised the goat, perhaps aesthetically, perhaps erotically, as being “remarkable...for the length of its coat and height of its horns” (O'Meara trans.), yet humans drawn by this beauty to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities” (again, Jeffrey, from "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages") must, as Gerald reports, be consigned to death for submitting themselves to the creatures they should, as humans, master.

Gerald nonetheless does not quite know what to do with the final incident. He first blames the lion. The section heading, in both the first (p. 146-147: warning, pdf) and second recensions of the History, is “de leone mulierem adamante ” (a lion who loved a woman), and he explains that the lion “bestiali amore” (made beastly love) to a “fatuam” (a foolish woman), and, as a result, was locked up; when it escaped from its cage, only the woman could calm it. Gerald then blames the woman, because, “muliebribus ipsum demulcens illecebris” (caressing it with womanly enticements), “omnem statim furorem in amorem convertebat” (she at once changed all its rage into love). Faced with such a horror, he exclaims, “O utramque bestiam turpi morte dignissimam” (Each one a beast, most worthy of a shameful death!). Having allocated responsibility to both human and animal, he then recalls that even the ancients committed bestiality. He quotes Leviticus 20:16, “The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same,” and glosses the verse to explain that the beast is killed “non propter culpam, a qua bestialitas excusat” (not because of its guilt, from which it is excused because of its bestialness). By denying the lion reason, by making it only an object of the woman's lust, by subjecting the lion to death, not execution, by delivering it to the human as mere life, as an instrument broken by misuse, by, in short, hiding himself within doctrinal Christianity, Gerald tries to reactive the temporarily inert system of the human.

But even here he goes awry: he further justifies condemning the lion to death “propter memoriae refricationem, quae ad mentem facinus revocare solet” (in order to irritate the memory again, by recalling to the mind the crime). Fair enough: pour décourager les autres, I suppose. But which others? And whose mind is being irritated (again)? And how to translate that "solet" gracefully? "It is for the habit of recalling the crime to the mind"? I'm honestly a bit lost on this point. Does he mean to frighten animals, or humans, horrified by the deaths of their animal inamoranti, or both?

And, having just told the story, has he not just himself recalled to mind the crime, but perhaps for a different purpose, one of wonder--despite himself--rather than a simple, humanist condemnation? After all, in the second recension, he (or someone) can't help but add a little tag to tale's end: "de Pasiphe quoque, taurum adamante, multorum opinione non fabula quidem sed res gesta fuit" (also, Pasiphaë, the bull lover, [whose story] many consider to be not fiction but rather history). Someone, his or her mind irritated, wants to add more, driven to dreamy contemplation of sin, I might say, by an overzealous confessor.


Karl Steel said...

I'm frankly not thrilled with this post. Why? Because I feel as though I've done--and this blog has done--most of this before. But what I wrote is pretty much as stands going in the book, because I need a good exemplar of someone doing monsters and wonder, ending up trying to sort things back into nice, neat human and animal categories, and even here not doing things well (because the barn door's already open, so to speak). I don't think there's a better medieval body of stories for this than these 4 much-read stories in Gerald; and I think these stories give up a lot when read with a critical animal approach in mind (which is not to say that readings more focused on politics or gender aren't equally productive).

We're up against, I suppose, the lag between blogging and booking, especially when we think that the book won't emerge for another, oh, 15 months or so.

Note that in the above post I might have also noted Gerald's rehearsal of the standard human capacities at the end of the second recension of the semibos vir section:

"Preterea animal erectum, risibile, bipes, ab humana proprietate quis separabit? Nunquid enim natura, 'Os bruto sublime dedit, coelumque videre / Jussit?"

Besides who would separate an animal being human that is erect, risible, and bipedal? For surely it had the nature of [and here Gerald quotes from a portion of Metamorphoses I.79-83, which appear in medieval texts all the time whenever some writer wants to compare animal and human bodies (or, rather, to produce bodies as either human or animal)].

He decides, sort of, to grant the oxman humanity because of its posture,What about that "risibile" though? The oxman does NOT laugh; it is LAUGHED AT, risible in the more common sense.

I mean, what the hell? The more I look at these stories, the more I want to write, because Gerald really isn't making much sense. He's not quite at, say, Guibert of Nogent levels of weirdness, but he's getting close...

Eileen Joy said...

You might also think about the function of pity, maybe, in the ox-man episode and don't forget, also, the class consciousness operating here, because the ox-man was "begotten" so to speak by the Irish rubes who are jeering outside the window of the lord who has given the ox-man a seat/place at his table, which is kind of extraordinary in and of itself. I don't think it's possible to read/critique this episode *apart* from considerations of gender, class, etc. since they are all entangled together with other issues relative to animality, wonder, human-ness, sexuality, etc. In other words, what I see as Gerald's *pity* for the ox-man and his "murder," cannot be disentangled from what feels like a kind of vindictive disgust at the woman who copulates with a lion [which lion is "himself" excused from the act and perhaps, then, also a possible site for pity since he was, in a sense, violently expropriated].

To write this episode in order to have to "call to mind" certain things does seem, on one level, a fairly straightforward way of saying that, yes, this is a negative exemplum. The problem, as always, is that it also invites all sorts of other ways of reading/*seeing* the episode for various subversive purposes. So much of hagiography, with its violent episodes of self-mutilation and enjoyment of one's torture at the hands of human and nonhuman others, wanders/"errs" in the dame direction. And when you consider that these are "stories"-by-hearsay first and foremost, as opposed to eyewitness accounts, it raises the stakes even more as regards the possible pleasures taken in re-telling them, as well as the revulsion.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This is why I like Gerald so much. Though schooled in scholastic sorting of categories and careful Latinity, he is not systematic and his writing swiftly veers into poetry, polemic, and/or biography; whims and sudden passions always trump his desire for cold argument. His writing is agitated, conflicted, ambivalent ... and accidentally at times quite artistic. He's no Peter Abelard or William of Ockham; though many critics have judged him a failure for his swerves and obsessions and gossip and love of impure things (even as he condemns them), in my opinion these hesitations and accretions of obscurity are what make him a rewarding writer to think with.

I also like that we have multiple recensions of many of his works, sometimes as many as three. His method is always additive, and the piling up of details and episodes make it even more difficult for him to stay on point.

Which is a long way of saying, it would surprise me to no end to find that Gerald had made neat work of any divide, but especially the animal/human one.

Karl Steel said...


that question of class and gender, never central to my book project, do have to be (re)considered. I've honestly, perhaps foolishly, bracketed those issues off (consciously, I think, rather than unconsciously which may be the norm?) because I wanted my animals discussion to be about animals and humans as such, not about--as in usual in animals criticism--animals as a symbol of class or gender relations. I wanted my attention to be on animals as much as possible.

The sad irony, of course, is that I've remembered only recently that the category 'animal' itself is a symbol. Necessary, of course: it's a word; it's a thought; it's a something, and therefore always already symbolic, yadda yadda. But the 'animal' is especially symbolic (hence Derrida asking that we jar ourselves into hearing him saying l'animot every time he says les animaux). Number one. But ALSO, the category animal is, duh, a symbol FOR humans, a symbolic category that allows humans to think through death, care, violence, those three big issues I think through in my book. There's no way for me to get at animals as such because nonsymbolic 'animals' as such don't exist.

Nonetheless, any given animal also exists (think of the objects here, "no less real for all this." And that remembering of existence by remembering the finitude, the one uncrossable boundary of death, and the ineluctable being of the animal (the human, the stone, the ozone, the New Hampshire Primaries, what have you) is something that reading the scene as ABOUT gender and class might obscure by swerving the analysis too quickly away from the lives (and finitude) of given animals as such. Maybe. I think I'm on the verge of doing a little post here.

Karl Steel said...

I think I've just hit on the topic of my panel presentation at Barnard this December for their animals conference. My approach to matters will no doubt change radically between now and then.

Point two, Jeffrey: inspired by Nicholas Dames' "Forget Bourdieu" in a not-so-recent issue of N+1, I'm all of 4 pages into the translator's introduction to Rancière's Politics of Aesthetics. I think we have in Gerald a struggle between the ethical realm of mimesis (greater or lesser resemblance to the divine ideal, greater or lesser instruction in being a proper member of the social order, greater or lesser proper placement in a hierarchy, greater or lesser instruction in the good, etc) and the aesthetic realm of representation, which contradictorily links pathos and logos, breaking what the mimetic promotes and preserves.

"According to the genealogy [Rancière] has undertaken, the ethical regime of images characteristic of Platonism is primarily concerned with the origin and telos of imagery in relationship to the ethos of the community. It establishes a distribution of images -- without, however, identifying 'art' in the singular -- that rigorously distinguishes between artistic simulacra and the 'true arts' used to educate the citizenry concerning their role in the communal body. The representative regime is an artistic system of Aristotelian heritage that liberates imitation from the constraints of ethical utility and isolates a normatively autonomous domain with its own rules for fabrication and criteria of evaluation. The aesthetic regime of art puts this entire system of norms into question by abolishing the dichotomous structure of mimesis in the name of a contradictory identification between logos and pathos. It thereby provokes a transformation in the distribution of the sensible established the representation regime, which leads from the primacy of fiction to the primacy of language, from the hierarchical organization of genres to the quality of represented subjects, from the principle of appropriate discourse to the indifference of style with regard to subject matter, and from the ideal of speech as act and performance to the model of writing."

And "By rejected the representative regime's poetics of mimesis, modern literature contributed to a general reconfiguration of the sensible order linked to the contradiction inherent in what Rancière calls literarity, i.e., the status of the written word that freely circulates outside any system of legitimation."

This leads me in an entirely new direction, perhaps. Using Dames' schema, to do it as Bourdieu would, one demystifies, both the network of study and one's own place in that network; to do it, so far as I now now, as Rancière would, is to mystify...