Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hug A Medievalist Day 2016


It’s HERE!

It’s International Hug A Medievalist Day!

Since 2011, this holiday has offered people a chance to express their love and affection for medievalists by, well, hugging them. Or if you’re a medievalist, hug yourself! Or snuggle with your favorite medieval book! If there’s a special medievalist in your life, consider giving them a hug today—with their consent, of course.

Some context, if you haven’t come across this before:

Some useful links:

Some interesting medieval #hugpix newly circulating on social media this year:

Once again, always seek consent before hugging. Here’s a useful and humorous guide on how to hug your medievalist today (Natalie Grinnell, 2014).


P.S. Remember that MORE festivities will ensue tomorrow (on Whan That Aprille Day)!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Feral Founders, make way for Feral Foundlings

Jusepe de Ribera, Adoration of the Shepherds (1650)

“The more strange it was to read in a previously-mentioned article by Huxley the following paraphrase of a well-known sentence of Rousseau: ‘The first man who substituted mutual peace for that of mutual war – whatever the motive which impelled them to take that step – created society’)….Society has not been created by man; it is anterior to man.” Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, 54 n1.
"What we usually call society in common speech is only a particular case of [a] general law. A being, whether social or not, is never absolute, indivisible; but essentially comparative and multiple, resulting from the action of a number of forces converging on one point." Leon Metchnikoff, "Revolution and Evolution," 415.
I. The Feral Founder
Dating to between the fourteenth and eighth centuries BCE, the Akkadian story of Sargon is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, written accounts of a child abandoned to the wilderness who grows up to become a great leader. Its narrative elements are famous for what they share with the story of Moses: the woven, waterproofed basket (Exodus 2:3), and the patriarch who orders the baby killed because he fears being supplanted (Exodus 1:9).
Evidence of a story of animals sheltering such an abandoned child appears first in Herodotus’s story of the childhood of Cyrus of Persia: his caregivers, two enslaved cowherds, are named Mitradates and Spako, whose name, Herodotus explains, comes from the Median name for dog, “Spax” (Persian Wars I.110). Later accounts indicate that this woman’s name simply rationalizes a nurturing animal that Herodotus or his sources understood as embarrassingly mythic: see, for example, Peter Comestor’s twelfth-century Historia Scholastica, “When the shepherd returned to [Cyrus], he found a dog offered him her teat, and defended him from wild beasts and birds” Pl 198: 1471a). Whether first nurtured by a dog or a woman “coincidentally” sharing a dog’s name, Cyrus grows up, becomes the natural, even bullying leader of his playmates, and eventually supplants the bad father figure and reclaims, and even expands, his birthright. In this, we have all the common features of the later abandoned child stories: the patriarch who fears being overcome or killed by his child, the child threatened with death, abandoned, and yet preserved, the nurturing animal, the foster parents (typically humble, with Moses as the outlier), and the emergence from enforced obscurity into a demagogic adolescence and heroic adulthood as savior, lawgiver, civic founder, and so on.
Cyrus’s career is most famous as a probable basis for a much better known story. The lost history of Fabius Pictor (second-century BCE), along with a crowd of other histories, passed along a story told by Dionysius of Helicarnassus and Livy (late first-century BCE), Pliny’s Natural History, Lucius Annaeus Florus’s Epitome of Roman Histories, Plutarch, and certainly a heap of coinssculptures (also), vases, metalwork, epigraphy, and whatever else can’t be found with a straightforward search in the Loeb Classical Library. While the story isn’t quite ubiquitous - Cicero’s Republic refers only to a “silvestris beluae” (a wild forest beast), and Appian nor Diodorus of Sicily’s Roman histories say nothing at all about nurturing animals – the story of Romulus and Remus and the wolf that saved them is sufficiently widespread to be called Rome’s founding myth, and the paradigm of subsequent stories of culture heroes first succored by an animal. Here the wicked paternal figure is an uncle, Amulius; the mother herself, variously named Ilia, Rhea, or Rhea Silva, is a temple priestess like Sargon’s mother, and here tends to vanish quickly from the story; the boys’ father is himself is either Mars, an unnamed suitor, or even Amulius, disguised as a god. Rationalizations rush in here as well: Livy, among others, writes that some hold that the story’s lupa (female wolf) is really just slang for a prostitute or loose woman (“Sunt qui Larentiam vulgato corpore lupam inter pastores vocatam putent”).
It has taken nothing but dogged research to pack this story with others of wild founding fathers who draw their outsized potency from the teats of some convenient canid. These stories in turn join with a swath of rampaging männerbunder from Central Asia to Ireland, from the Dacians, Scythians, and Thracians, to the Anatolians to the Lombards to the Guelphs, groups renowned for young men who don the names of wolves or wolf masks or who are styled in narrative, war propaganda, or narrative, as cynocephali or werewolves.
The Langobards moreover, when they beheld the great forces of their enemies, did not dare engage them on account of the smallness of their army, and while they were deciding what they ought to do, necessity at length hit upon a plan. They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs' heads. 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. (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards I.xi)
These stories, and often the scholarship too, imagine the canid as at once the figure of authority and its enemy, incarnations of wildness, power, cruelty, bravery, and even a kind of rough justice, mostly inimicable to women.
Agamben’s discussion of Marie de France’s werewolf lai, “Bisclavret,” is probably the most famous treatment of this theme outside medievalist circles. Medievalists themselves are surely also familiar, to cite a handful of many possible examples, of the eponymous hero of the Wolfdietrich Saga, the illegitimate child of a princess and a passing (and cross-dressed) nobleman: Wolfdietrich acquires his name because once he is cast out as an infant, a wolf scurries this baby away to her den to try to feed him to her pups, who are either too fussy or too friendly to eat him. Old Icelandic law and literature, like the Volsung Saga, famously uses the word vargr, “wolf,” to describe outlaws, resulting in frightening portmanteaux like morðvargr (murder wolf), and in modern Icelandic, the brennuvargur (burning wolf, that is, an arsonist). Ancient and medieval Ireland offers up the lupine characteristics of thieving young men who, until they came into their property, ravaged the countryside, like wolves (as in the anonymous lai of Melion). Here too we also find local versions of a myth dating at least to ancient Greece, of the hero who defeats, and then takes on the characteristics, of his supernatural enemy’s guardian dog: the classic example is the hero whose victory christens him with the name of the very animal he killed, Cú Chulainn, Culain’s Hound (see Kim McCone for more). A final example, William Chester Jordan writes about Count Robert of Artois – justly slain at the Battle of the Golden Spurs – and his pet wolf, which incarnated his “awesome nobility” (407), and which he festooned with bells (while laughing, Jordan imagines) to apprise neighboring peasants of its approach, so they could hurry their livestock off to safety.
The wild founder’s function as a figure of origin isolates him from mundane interconnection with both the people he rules and even from the cultures he establishes. He is not to be just married off, and while he might make laws, he is not himself governed by them. Functionally, he is kin to the giant children that spring parthenogenetically from Albina and her sisters, imperial children exiled because of they had refused to marry beneath themselves: their monstrous progeny are the fruit of a nobility that refuses to abase itself with any genealogical intermingling with its lessers. The wolf child is kin as well to the children of Melusine, the half-serpent and naturally legendary progenitrix of the great crusading dynasty of Lusignan. Her children are monsters, but also great successes – wealthy rulers, implacable conquerors, the rescuers of threatened women and otherwise helpless neighboring kings – while their merely pedestrian father, unwilling to live with such a wild creature, breaks his vow not to look into her background too carefully, thereby dooming her to become fully, irreparably dragon. True, reliable, potent nobility must come from the outside.
For the law at its heart is a wolf; it does what it wants. The wild founder follows none of the petty rules binding petty people. The sovereign is therefore also the outlaw, the figure who neither needs the law’s rules (because he decides what the law is) nor its protections (same). Notably, Romulus – the victorious, city-founding twin – recruits his first citizens from outcasts, bandits, and escaped slaves, as clear a demonstration that the wild founder is an analog to the outlaw, the homo sacer, hounded by the law and the hound of the law. Revolutionaries and the ordinary dispossessed already know this as well as cynics claim to, while academics tend to get the idea at greater length from Derrida’s “Mystical Foundation of Authority” or from the Giorgio Agamben, who alternately despairs and hopes for some Messianic overcoming of the persistently, inevitably cruel relations between the sovereign and his subjects, between law and life.
II. Foundling
This story is what we get if we fall in wholly with the myth of the canid’s wild carnivorousness and all that follows. The tangle of fascinations includes the dog being only partly domesticated, the wolf being Europe’s most feared carnivore, bands of young men as packs of dogs, the Oedipal rivalry between father and son over desire (incarnated by the mother), where the field of battle is mastery of a paternal law that will never empty itself of its obscene core. A supposedly “disruptive” retelling of this story, with these actors, no matter how suspiciously it recasts the primal horde of Totem and Taboo/Moses and Monotheism, ends up reinforcing rather than undoing the centrality of sovereignty and the law and its violence. Telling this story is a good way to stir up a keen sense of justice, or to don a hairshirt of cynicism (whose etymology I trust you know). It’s a good way to assume a tone of anguished disapproval and “anxiety,” but not good for getting us something other than yet another “discovery” of the omnipresence of the beast of the law.
As you might imagine by now, this is not the way I want my story to go. Not anymore. We can first stress that Cyrus of Persia, like Romulus and Remus, like Wolfdietrich, like Ailbe, and so on, represent only one set of spurned children nursed by animals. Wolves are good to think with, but they’re not all there is. Other animals, more commonly exploited for their milk, come crowding in: goats suckle the abandoned Attis, Asclepius, and both Daphnis and Chloe; cows suckle Aeolus and Boeotus; a mare suckles Hyginus. We also have Telephus, nursed by a deer, Cybele, by leopards, Paris of Troy and Atalanta by bears; Semiramis, fed by birds; and finally, wonderfully, Hieron, in Justin’s Universal History, gets his help from bees. The list can be further expanded with examples from India, or from medieval Europe, like Tristan de Nanteuil, that bizarre romance so well studied by Peggy McCracken. Wolves might be common, but goats are commoner, and remembering them, and the bees too, transforms the story of the wild founder into a story of the wild foundling. The commonality is not the canid, with all its supposed wildness and danger, but rather the need to be fed, and its satisfaction.
In short, we can dissolve the arrogance and grandeur of the wild founder by doing more to remember them as happy babies. Almost always, they are taken care of. The servant commanded to kill the children never quite does it: sometimes it is rank incompetence –Romulus and Remus are saved from drowning because the swollen Tiber has flooded its banks, providing ample opportunity for the bank to catch their floating basked in its mud – but more often the killers fear repercussions from the children’s mother is she should come into power, or they are reminded of their own children, or they are struck by the child’s beauty, or its need:
And with that the cowherd uncovered [the child] and showed it. But when the woman saw how fine and fair the child was, she fell a-weeping and laid hold of the man's knees and entreated him by no means to expose him. (Herodotus The Persian Wars I.112)
If we start the story here, not with the competition between father and son, and not with a boy’s alliance with the presumptive unruled beast that intimates the sovereign or männerbund, the story becomes one about care, sympathy, and weakness, but not about helplessness, except insofar as everything is helpless in itself, without some kind support: I have deliberately omitted the “of,” and kind should be heard in its Middle English register as meaning something like “suitable for a particular way of existence”: kind support for a rock is not kind support for a human, yet both need it.
The child is not helpless; it needs help, and it gets it, just as anything that is gets some manner of help, no matter how minimal. We aren’t without help. 
If we start the story here, then, we can go somewhere other than thinking the problem of life as “time after time articulated and divided into bios and zoè, politically qualified life and bare life, public life and private life” (Agamben’s useful summary of his analytic, here taken from Adam Kotsko’s just-published translation of The Use of Bodies). I am not saying that we need not worry any more about the “zone of indistinction” where the sovereign outlaw lurks, or the messianic hope of the friar, whose form of life collapses that distinction cruel division of bios from zoe (Kotsko translation here too).
Rather, I think we can surprise ourselves more if we come at the problem from another angle. I am also stressing that I am simply not done with Derrida’s interest in the “nonpower at the heart of power” (The Animal that Therefore). To remind you, in response to Betham’s observation that the question is not whether animals can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer, Derrida writes:
‘‘Can they suffer?’’ amounts to asking “Can they not be able?’’ And what of this inability [impouvoir]? What of the vulnerability felt on the basis of this inability? What is this nonpower at the heart of power? What is its quality or modality? How should one take it into account? What right should be accorded it? To what extent does it concern us? Being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish. (28)
This formulation has its own problems of course, which I am handling in my oyster chapter. Its other problem is thinking primarily in terms of victimhood and compassion, which has its limited advantages, but which also tends to put violence at the center of our analysis, with all the assumed anguished gravity that follows. I’m putting the baby at the center instead, and with it, one hopes, the communities of care that come to cluster.
Not long ago, I was struck by the nose of a cow. Maybe a bull. Jusepe de Ribera's Adoration of the Shepherds (1650) is yet another painting about just that, but poking its way past the adoration, barely visible, is a bovine snout. This animal also wants to adore this beautiful child. Our bovine may be drawn by the child’s awesome majesty – after all, this is the Creator Himself – but this is an adoration painting, not one of the transfiguration, Harrowing of Hell, or any of the more spectacular miracles (walking on water, and so on). The painting hints unnervingly enough at sacrifice (note the trussed sheep below the cradle) but gives itself over to a child, helpless, probably hungry, but also lovely. Here’s another child with animals, not to attest to the superhuman power drawn from the “wild,” but to attest to the primary need for care, which can draw even a cow in.
For a cluster of anarchist ecologists and geographers, such mutual aid, such society, is the natural law we should be thinking with, not the Malthusian “struggle of all against all.” It’s possible you already know the names Reclus, Metchnikoff, and Kropotkin (I knew only the last, from a high school flirtation with anarchism, abandoned too quickly). I found them in Kristen Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), which I bought and started reading on March 18, the Commune’s 145th anniversary, because I’m in Paris, and it’s what one does. Ross’s book follows the intellectual work that led to the commune, and that followed it into exile and dispersal, surviving the tens of thousands of Parisian workers massacred by their fellow citizens, "the extraordinary attempt to eliminate, one by one and en bloc, one's class enemy" (Ross), still only minimally recognized by Paris’s crowd of historical placards. The experience of the communal government, of cooperation, however short lived, and even if only second hand, produced a massive, and happy, transformation in a host of thinkers, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Karl Marx, Louise Michel, William Morris, and, of course, Metchnikoff and Kropotkin, whose words I quote above and – barring their misguided material about “savages” – recommend, along with Ross's recent book.
The law of all against all explains the wild men, founders and lawbreakers, enjoying the unregulated pleasures from which they issue their regulations. And if this is all one wants to explain, it works. But this law hardly accounts for the babies found and rescued, denied the society of the patriarch, yet still finding succor in the supposed wilderness. This is not the Lacanian baby, dangling at the cusp of a law and identity it can never satisfy; it is not even the Butlerian baby, perhaps to-be-mourned-for, hailed as a member of the community by our anticipating its social vulnerability and future death; it is a baby found and helped, the baby whose entanglement in community attests to law of mutual aid that, understood well, has the power to revive the Commune of blessed memory.
Thanks for research help to ProQuest (!!) and these dissertations:
Lewis, Brian (NYU, 1976). The Legend of Sargon: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero who was Exposed at Birth.
Kershaw, P. K. (Cornell, 1997). The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Maennerbuende.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Language Deprivation II: Past Babel and the Communal Care of Culture


Solothurn history Bible 36v
Part I: Babel
[let me take this reference to BABEL to start off this post (4,000 words!) to call for donations to the BABEL Working Group, surely a communal luxury if ever there was one]
The myth of the existence of a single originary language dates at least to the Biblical story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). From very early on, commentators on both this story and that of Adam naming the animals concluded that this first language was Hebrew. For example, the apocryphal book of Jubilees, 12:25-26, has an angel teaching Abraham what it calls this "tongue of the creation." There are few outliers: some Muslim writers – al-Ṭabarī and al-Ya'qubi – proposed Syriac as the first tongue, as did the twelfth-century Syriac patriarch Michael. And one first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, includes an astonishing story, unique in the commentarial tradition, about the animals’ own Babel Tower. Once, all animals had spoken one language, until they had the audacity to ask for the immortality they believed the snake already enjoyed: God smote them for their pride, and they fell into mutual incomprehension. Philo does not believe it ("this also, as they say, is a fabulous story"), yet here it is nonetheless.
Christian exegesis on Babel tends concern itself with the plural verbs of Genesis 1:7 ("let us go down {descendamus} and confuse {confundamus}"), which demonstrate, they say, the existence of the Trinity. It often asserts — as did Remigius of Auxerre — that God did nothing new in dividing languages, but rather only divided the already existing category of language into different modes and into different forms of speaking and understanding (see also Peter Comestor): perhaps the actual creation of language, with all that implied about the creation of human reason, could happen only once; or perhaps even creation ex nihilo, of whatever sort, could happen only once; perhaps the divine imprimatur could not be granted to more than one language; or, finally, perhaps exegetes recoiled from imagining God creating a punishment.
But when they think to make an argument about the first language, Christian exegetes tend to agree with Jewish exegetes: at least from the time of Paradise up until the disruption of Babel, language was only Hebrew (eg, pseudo-Clementine Recognitions I,30; Isidore, Etymologies IX,1; and, here standing in for the twelfth century, Andrew of St Victor; see also Dante, pro I,6, and con here). Hebrew was preserved by Heber, hence "Hebrew" (Ranulf Higden and many others), which acquired its proper name only when it first had to be distinguished from other languages (Augustine City of God 16.4). Hebrew would be preserved – and here Christians distinguished themselves – because it was suitable that the language of salvation should first be proclaimed in the language through which death first entered the world (Alcuin of YorkRemigius of AuxerreAngelomus of Luxeuil). (for a thick set of further citations, Christian and Jewish, see Resnick 56-59).
Interestingly, the twelfth-century Maurice of [the Yorkshire Augustinian priory of] Kirkham (h/t) declared that since English had so few case endings, it was the closest language to Hebrew (235). While this error suggests something about the late twelfth-century Yorkshire perception of the relative complexity of English and French - England's other dominant tongue - I also have to wonder whether Maurice therefore believed English to be the next-closest language to the language of paradise. One is – or I am, anyway – inevitably reminded of Jan van Gorp (d. 1572), who used Herodotus’s Psamtik story to declare the supposedly Phrygian "bekkos" the same word as the Brabantian "becker" (baker), which proved the antiquity, and hence nobility, of the language of Antwerp (this is why, some of his critics claimed, that he took on the absurd name Goropius Becanus; thanks!, but cf). From Phrygian to Flemish, a conclusion that only seems to be sillier than claims about Hebrew.
Back to Babel: the most influential Christian exegete of the Middle Ages had other fish to fry. Like others, Augustine was bothered by the apparent contradiction between Genesis 11 and the several languages spoken by the Noah’s several sons in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31: how and when did languages actually diversify (and, he might have asked, was the dispersal over the earth a blessing ("be fruitful and multiply") or a curse?). Augustine’s  Questions on the Heptateuch deals with one of these problems by proposing that the Babel story must be a flashback (in Latin; in French).
But on the topic of the original language, Augustine tends to be agnostic. While his City of God, cited above, does not deviate from the general trends of exegesis, his Literal Interpretation of Genesis allows only that Adam’s language, whatever it might have been (quaecumque autem illa lingua fuerit), could have survived to the present. His anti-Manichaean Genesis commentary proposes that God might have divided light from darkness by speaking Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, or some other language, but, in fact, "all these expressions," fiat lux and the like, "are adopted to our intellect….For with God there is pure intellect, without the noise and diversity of languages [sine strepitu et diversitate linguarum]."
Part II: (Not Only) Homo Infans
For those who really wanted to know, something more than speculation was needed. There had to be a test, and this test wondered about children, because they routinely demonstrate the transition from speechlessness to language. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies X.ii.9 correctly derives the Latin word "infans" from a combination of the negating prefix "in" and the present participle “fans” of the deponent verb "fari," to speak. An infant is a speechless human. But this is only our first age ("homo primae aetatis"). For an infant will learn speech, "quia adhuc fari nescit" (because it does not yet know how to speak), or it will acquire the full power of speech, once its body becomes suitable for speech, as "the expression of speech is small," because it "does not yet have a full set of teeth" (nondum enim bene ordinatis dentibus).
The first thing to observe is that Isidore characterizes languages as speaking: his verbs are "fari" and "loqui," verbs that involve the audible voice (several monastic rules, for example, limited or even forbade speech, but in some cases, elaborated "signa loquendi," signs for speaking, marked as a special form of speech simply by its being allowed, and by their distinction as signa). Furthermore, simply making noise would not have been an adequate proof of being human. The noise has to be determined to be understandable; otherwise, it was as good as silence. "Muteness" is a condition associated with animality – Old French uses "mue beste" often, while Isidore himself distinguishes "pecudibus mutis" (mute livestock) from humans – so that mere noise is effectively the same as silence.
The question is how this language emerges from silence. Isidore offers two answers, and in the process two ways of being infans, laying out without resolving the crux of the problem of the origin of language. Either humans have no speech until they learn it, or they have no speech until their body suits itself for its production. In the first conception, language is secondary to us, or it is primary to us as a group, exchanged between us in ongoing acts of teaching and care; in the latter, it belongs to us as much as our teeth do. Such a rooting of language in physical capacity frustrates ideals of disembodiment so common to claims of human rationality, for if language comes out with teeth, perhaps there is no quality that supposedly makes us more than mere bodies, and certainly more than "mere animals."
For Isidore, as for most thinkers, the homo infans passes its first age and then becomes homo loquens. On this point, I prefer Agamben, for whom infancy is a key critical term (for example, here and here, from The Agamben Dictionary). I cannot endorse his notion that the inexorably alien quality of language in us uniquely thrusts humans into historicity: as Steve Mentz reminded me in comments to my last post, some whale species have "cultural lives," and as the New York Times just reported, parrots too can have dialects, which they learn while young and then pass on in turn to members of their own group. Psittacus infans.
I am far more sympathetic to Agamben's insistence that speechlessness is both the necessary condition and the hope of speech. As much as anyone can, Agamben follows Benjamin in arguing that the basic thing language communicates is communication itself [and for my summary of Agamben, I am relying on his commentators rather than his Infancy and History (1978), which has, quite frankly, aged so poorly that I just can’t imagine reading the whole thing]. To be communication, communication must have silence with it; it needs its inbuilt inadequacy. Inadequacy preserves the possibility of communication being something more than a mere back and forth transmission of needs, desires, and aims, something more than what Benjamin called "the bourgeois conception of language." Thus this inadequacy, figured as a silence within speech, holds open the possible, which we might take as standing for Agamben's Messianic suspension of the relation between sovereignty and life, and which I prefer to take, perhaps more mundanely, as a preservation of the helplessness within any social encounter, and a preservation of a extra-linguistic referentiality in any communication.
What is always in communication is the “here I am” of speech, a “here I am” whose silence is the preexistent, inescapable vulnerability of having to be somewhere, of needing to be cared for, heard, and to take up attention that might be bestowed elsewhere. This "here I am" is also a "here we are." Infancy always is within all communication and all community, and all that hope for community. Infancy is always awaiting any attempt to get to the bottom of language, culture, and our civilizations.
Part III: Deprivation and Responsibility
Agobard of Lyon's copy of Tertullian talking about Language Deprivation
Isidore has nothing to say about practical efforts to resolve these questions, nor, in fact, do many medieval writers. These date back to Herodotus and his tale of Psamtik, a powerful and long-ruling Pharaoh of the twenty-sixth dynasty around whom other equally legendary stories clustered (for example, two first-century encyclopedias, Pliny’s Natural History (XXXVI.19) and Pomponius Mela’s Chorographia (I.48I.56 in English), credit him with building the first labyrinth). Though the Egyptians reputed themselves to be the “oldest nation on earth,” others argued that the honor belongs to the Phrygians: Psamtik (whom Herodotus calls Psammetichus) wanted experimental confirmation. He commanded that two newborns taken from the common people be raised in isolation by a herdsman who was never to speak in their presence. After two years – and here I quote from an English translation of 1584, “both the little brats, sprawling at his feete, and stretching forth their handds, cryed thus: Beccos, Beccos,” which Psamtik and his advisers understood as the Phrygian word for bread. Later commentators have tended to misunderstand the importance of the story’s punchline: it is less about the origin of language than it is about ethnos: “Language,” as Margaret Thomas explains, “only entered into his plan through his assumption that he could identify the oldest people on the basis of linguistic evidence” (here): first people rather than first language.
The story had its doubters along with its misreaders, Herodotus himself included, who numbers it among the “foolish tales” repeated by the Greeks. Scholars of our own era have observed (through what perhaps may be circular reasoning) that the experimental method seems more Greek than Egyptian, and, in misguided quibble, that the word "Beccos" sounds Egyptian, not like the (mostly lost) Phrygian tongue. Modern professionals in early childhood development and linguistics – but also, dismayingly, some cultural historians – sometimes take the story literally: they trouble to dispute the validity of its design, and flaunt their conscience by condemning Psamtik’s cruelty (for some treatments, herehere ("a surprising story, if true"); "supposedly conducted"; "utterly preposterous experiment"; an "oddity of history"; disapproval of this "peculiar brand of child abuse"; and an amusing delineation of Psamtik’s logical errors, including a failure to distinguish between logos and glossa).
Medieval Europe probably didn’t know the story. Herodotus would get no Latin translation until the middle of the fifteenth century, while his Psamtik story slides into European vernaculars only with Pedro Mexia’s widely popular 1540 Silva de varia lección (and from thence, among other routes, to Claude Gruget’s 1552 French translationhere in English, from 1571). Even by first century of our era, Herodotus tended to be cited, by Cicero among others, only through intermediaries (see Félix Racine here). Until the Renaissance, there is little evidence that the story had any readers, first or second hand, despite its being from the first few books of the history, accessible even to the lazy, the harried, and the only pretentiously learned. This remains the pattern.
Quintilian may be rare exception, although he never quite sustained a a regular interest among medieval readers. He explains that "all language" [or "all speech"; omnem sermonem] comes to us by hearing:
Hence infants brought up, at the command of princes, by dumb nurses and in solitude, were destitute of the faculty of speech, though they are said to have uttered some unconnected words. (Institutes X.1)
Yet the plural "princes" and likewise plural "words" (unless he is counting Bekkos twice) suggest that even Quintilian either got the story second-hand or, less likely, that he knew of yet another ancient experiment.
Two brief allusions survive in early Christian writing. Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Greeks (the Protrepticus) argues that even if "the Phrygians are shown to be the most ancient people by the goats of the fable," neither they nor the Arcadians nor the Egyptians nor whatever ethnos we claim to be predate the divine logos, responsible for all of us. Clement’s universalist argument (cf Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11) stumbles through a highly compressed allusion not to Herodotus, but rather to an ancient, confused or confusing commentary on an allusion to Herodotus in Aristophanes’s Clouds. The commentary reads that if "goats nursed the children" – which somehow transforms a human herdsman into a female goat – "it is no wonder that hearing the goat they imitated her voice, and it is a coincidence that such an expression occurs among the Phrygians." No later reader rescues Clement from this muddle: surviving medieval manuscripts of the Protepticus are exceedingly scarce, and so far as I know, it finds no Latin translator until 1551. Even now, Protepticus tends to be Clement’s least-studied work.
Around the same time, in the last decade of the second century, Tertullian’s To the Heathens (Ad Nationes) tells the story at greater length, in an argument that begins by demanding that the Romans explain what they mean by describing Christians as a "third race" (distinct from the polytheism of Romans and Greeks, and distinct as well from the Jews; this phrase, sometimes used by Christians themselves, sometimes used as an insult against them, conceptually overlaps with the idea of a "third gender"). With what can only be associative logic, Jerome then retells Herodotus’s story of Psamtik, which he probably acquired from a historical compilation (Racine 209; perhaps Varro’s lost Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum): Tertullian focuses on an alternate version, only quickly summarized in Herodotus, in which it’s not a herdsman who tends the children, but a nurse whose tongue has been amputated. This is the field of battle Tertullian settles on: no one could possibly survive this wound, the removal of "the very organ of the breath of life"! Therefore – one can imagine him spitting triumphantly – the story must be false. He has nothing to say about the origin of language itself. Only one medieval manuscript of this work survives, a ninth-century copy owned by none other than the great polemicist Agobard of Lyons; but I know of no medieval quotation of or even allusion to Tertullian’s retelling of story, nor would it appear again until 1625, long after Herodotus and Psamtik made their way back into European writing.
The next historical account of the story appears an astonishing 1700 years after Herodotus, in the thirteenth-century chronicle of the Franciscan historian Salimbene di Adam, who, several decades after the events he claims to be recording, explains that Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, wanted to know what language children would spontaneously produce if they were never spoken to, or even dandled (blandirentur; in Latinmodern English translation here). Would it be Greek, Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps their parental language, the kind that can be acquired without training, as if – although Salimbene does not say this – one’s particular ethnic language, of whatever sort, sprang from children naturally, and that therefore there were no universal, foundational tongue? This, says Salimbene, is what Frederick wanted to learn. Instead, he learned this: without affection, babies die [since "non enim vivere possent sine aplausu et gestu et letitia faciei et blanditiis baiularum et nutricum suarum": one paraphrase here; for a brief treatment of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Latin thinking about early child care, Mary Martin McLaughlin].
Salimbene includes his story amid a set of the emperor’s other enormities. He had a scribe’s hand cut off for spelling his name "Fredericus" instead of his preferred "Fridericus"; he had a man sealed and drowned in a winecask to demonstrate that the soul dies with the body (a point Salimbene counters with a flurry of scriptural citations); and he ordered one of his men go hunting, and the other to sleep through the day, and when the hunter returned, had them both cut open to see who had better digested his food: Salimbene meant Frederick to be understood as a monster. The language deprivation experiment is just one more example of tyranny, not a historical fact in any simple sense.
It is harder to imagine a context for the final example from medieval Europe, which comes from a sixteenth-century Scottish historian, Robert Lindsey, who reports that James IV (d. 1513) had a mute woman raise two children on Inchkeith, a barren island of the Firth of Forth, North of Edinburgh. It is short enough to be quoted in full:
The king also caused tak ane dumb voman, and pat her in Inchkeith, and gave hir tuo bairnes with hir, and gart furnisch hir in all necessares thingis perteeaning to thair nourischment, desiring heirby to knaw quhat languages they had when they came to the aige of perfyte speech. Some sayes they spake guid Hebrew, but I knaw not by authoris rehearse, etc
That final, frustrating "etc" suggests that Lindsey may have had more to say about the matter. But this is it. Later, Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather would scoff at Lindsey: "it is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like goats and sheep on the island."
And this, combined with my blog post on Akbar and his afterlife, provides a complete record of language deprivation experiments recorded in histories, from Herodotus to the seventeenth century, in other words, 2500 years. Nearly all follow four key points from the pattern laid down by Herodotus.
  • While the children may be raised in an isolated hut or a fortified, well-guarded house, no account imagines the children denied adequate food, shelter, or clothing, only Salimbene de Adam’s account of Frederick II imagines the children denied emotional care: these stories are not presentiments of the several modern, horrific cases of children suffering in appalling confinement for years on end, alone with an uncommunicative, or crueler parent or caregiver; for the most part, all the children are deprived of is spoken communication with adults.
  • Next, the experiment always takes place out of sight of the potentate: practical reasons demand this (the children cannot hear speech, and the potentate and his court need to speak), but it also ensures that in those rare cases where the children produce spoken language, the potentate never directly witnesses language’s emergence: the mystery of whatever truth is sought (whether ethnic, linguistic, or religious) is always screened from the direct observation of the party that first concocted the experiment.
  • All involve multiple children (between two and thirty, but never just one).
  • Finally, from the perspective of the potentate, the experiment is generally a failure: the attempt to find the true origins of an ethnos or language, or an infantile (and therefore “spontaneous”) proof of the superiority of a given faith almost never occurs.
These attempts do not seek to return to the first conditions of creation. To my knowledge, stories of the creation of humans tend not to imagine humans created as infants, or even as a crowd. The Genesis tradition certainly does not begin in silence, but with (in the second creation story, in Genesis 2) God’s supervision as Adam bestows names on animals, most of whom are given no chance to speak back, and certainly no chance to name themselves.
Instead, these experiments attempt to recapitulate an experience common to all humans, all of whom begin in infancy. This experiment is both a grand experimental investigation into the early days of the human species, following the common metaphorization of history as an individual lifecycle of birth, maturity, and decline, and an attempted understanding of the origins of any given individual, who know without remembering that they acquired language some time after coming into existence.
Yet these are not experiments with individuals. That the experiment is conducted with a crowd of forcibly speechless children suggests two key contradictions at the heart of the deprivation experiment. First, they seek to discover proof that language spontaneously emerges, while also recognizing that language is a cultural product, developed and shared between people. Attempts to discover the "authentic" practice – often considered to be the same as the supposed oldest practice, equally presupposed to have kept its purity across time – tend to want practices that just happen, without predetermination. These hunts for the authentic are therefore hunts for culture that inherently distrust the secondary, considered character of culture: they want a natural culture, as if anything acquired by deliberation, desire, and choice must be inherently suspect. They therefore want the benefits of language, ethnicity, and religion, for example, without having to own up to their choice to live through their particular manifestations of these categories. They want culture without responsibility.
Second, they want the find the origin of language while also recognizing that the language’s purpose is interpersonal communication. Though the experiment wants to know if the authentic language (or ethnicity, or religion) lurks within any given child, it also knows that these practices are always practices of a group: it is impossible to imagine an ethnos or a religious community of one, for example. To put this another way, the experiment (almost always) fails because a practice that has the appearance of being inherent to a group is necessarily an emergent and developmental practice, whose feedback structure frustrates any notion of any single origin.
It is therefore not accidental that these experiments are conducted with children. It’s not simply that children are made to function as historically "prior" to adults, though the connection between child and adult that itself maintains and develops culture means that the child is, culturally speaking, secondary to the adult. It is also that children are considered to be free of culture. To deprive children of the care of culture is thus a chance to wait for culture to emerge without our having to care about it.
No wonder the experiments fail. But of course they are not whole failures. In one instance, sign language emerges, taught by “mute” nurses to the children. In another, the children acquire an ordered voice by imitating the sounds of goats. Communication happens, and it happens without the need for spoken or even a human voice. Connections are made.
And what the reveal, again, is that silence amid language. This is not the silence of failure, an aporia or impossibility at the heart of language, though of course the deprivation experiment might be taken that way. The language deprivation experiment is only partially about language, and those who take it as being about language may be overestimating the absence of silence and vulnerability in their own lives.
My preference is to take the supposed failure of the experiment as evidence of the inescapable persistence of bodies. It is a story whose truth the need for community and care. It is a story that produces another witness to the fact that the transformation of silence into any kind of voice requires someone to take the trouble to listen, to talk back, to acknowledge in any way that this too, in this moment, is someone who needs our help. What the potentate sees, finally, is what he should have known all along: his own helplessness, which cannot be overcome.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Akbar and the Silenced Children: Language as Heritage, or Language as Community?


Chinese Parrot, c 1700, collection of Marie-Antoinette, c 1785
As part of the process of assembling, expanding, and (re)writing the material for Book 2, I’ve returned to the problem of “feral children,” which I first visited here six years (!) ago, when I first stumbled across the Wolf Child of Hesse. It’s now been ten days since I decided language deprivation experiments needed to be part of this discussion.
The form of this chapter will therefore be two studies of isolated children – first, feral ancestors, like Romulus and Remus, isolated from mundane humans; next, the child raised in silence, a supposedly true representation of the human condition, because they have been isolated from the secondary, cultural accumulation of the larger society – and then, finally, a study of a small set of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century feral children stories in which the children find community with wolves: from isolation to a lupine, more than human sociality.
I now have a lot of material on Herodotus, and its classical afterlife in commentaries on Aristophanes, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and even, perhaps, Quintilian, which I might share here; I have my material on Salimbene de Adam’s record of Frederick II, and even that barest reference to James IV’s deprivation experiment that we find Robert Lindsay’s Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. Outside of the historical texts, speculations about isolation and language appear in Pedro Mexia’s Silva de varia lección, the Qabus-nama, and in the medieval Islamic philosophical novels translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus and Theologus Autodidactus. On the topic of isolation, Avincenna’s famous “floating man” thought experiment may be cited too. Once we abandon simplistic notions of historicity and recognize that thought experiments themselves are also “historical,” the archive fills and expands and fills and so on.
In the interests of your time, though, I’m sharing only my material on Akbar’s experiment. This is all new for me, a medievalist trained in the later Middle Ages and English, French, and Latin materials: it’s not just that the sixteenth-century Emperor Akbar is early modern; it’s that the primary materials outside of Europe on his experiment are all in Persian, so I have had to rely on translations, perhaps disreputable, by Victorian Orientalists. But I had my quarry when I stumbled across a story about “Rege terrae Magor” while searching for early modern references to Herodotus. What could this Magor be?
Of course it’s the Mughals. You already knew that, but learning the obvious took me more than a day to figure out, and that here in Paris, where a day has more value than crummy old Brooklyn. In the process, I reconstructed a chain of witnesses to the experiment, tracking the story’s changes from one version to the next, from the late sixteenth through the early eighteenth century. I also determined that credulous, sloppy repetitions of stories of language deprivation experiments run from the present all the way back to Tertullian and even Quintillian and probably Herodotus himself, and that almost no one almost no one can keep the story straight from one telling to the next. That is, all these tellers always get it exactly right for whatever their needs are at the moment.
The story of Akbar’s experiment has often been told. This lengthy post is better cited than most tellings, so even without my final interpretations, it may have some value. My real interest here, however, is in attempts to think through the problem of the origin of language. Language, as a sign, proof, and indispensable tool of reason, attests to our human existence as being more than merely biological, in there being something in or of us that is mere than bare life. Where could the extra thing possibly come from? Answering this question is the concern of these and so many other language deprivation experiments: not to take something away from us, but to discover, within the crucible of this experiment, what our core self might be. The deprivation experiment wants to give us the gift of ourselves, what we really are once all that might be thought to be only secondary to us has been burnt away.
But what is finds itself is catastrophe. Or, despite itself, community.
The first account of Akbar’s experiment appears the Akbarnama of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s own court historian, which may be the only version that has any claim to being an eye-witness account: to prove that speech comes from hearing, Akbar had several children raised by “tongue-tied” wetnurses, confined to a building that came to be called the “dumb house.” When Akbar visited the house in 1582, four years after the children were first interred, he heard “no cry…nor any speech…no talisman of speech, and nothing came out except the noise of the dumb.” Much the same story (but without anything said about nurses or guards) would be told decades later, the anonymous Dabestan-e Mazaheb (“School of Religions), written between 1645 and 1658, which finished with a wonderful assertion about the deep time of human cultural development: the experiment proves that “letters and language are not natural to man,” but only the result of instruction and conversation, and that therefore (!) “the world is very ancient.”
The anti-Akbarian Montaḵab al-tawārīḵ of ʿAbd-ul-Qadir Bada'uni lays the foundations of the story’s several European versions. This work, the Selection of Chronicles, worries over Akbar’s disdain for religion, and Islam in particular; like Salimbene writing about Frederick II, Bada’uni may be portraying an impious tyrant who goes too far in his curiosity. First, however, Bada’uni attributes the experiment to Akbar’s astonished encounter with a man who can hear, despite having “no ears nor any trace of the orifice of the ear”: to test the origins of language, he has several infants locked up, with “well-disciplined” (rather than mute) nurses, who are commanded not to give the children “any instruction in speaking.” Then, without any transition or explanation, Bada'uni changes Akbar’s motivation: he now wants to test the idea that “everyone that is born is born in a state of nature” (George Ranking translation) or that "everyone that is born is born with an inclination to religion" (Lowe? translation). Twenty children are locked up in what comes to be called the “dumb house,” and “three or four years” later, none can speak. Nothing more is said about the earless man.
The language deprivation experiment is absent from several of the early European accounts of Akbar’s court. Giovanni Battista Peruschi’s 1597 Informatio del regno, et stato del gran re di Mogor (published in Latin the following year, with additional material on Japan) limits itself to worrying over possibilities for gaining the Emperor for Roman Catholicism, while the thirteen pages of the True Relation without all Exception, of Strange and Admirable Accidents, which lately happened in the Kingdome of the Great Magor, from 1622, are little but an exoticizing fantasy about the possibilities unleashed by absolute royal power: thus it devotes several of its thirteen pages to the story of a problem-solving ape, like a cleverer Hans, frolicking among the Mughal courtiers, including his two hundred “Boyes…which hee keepeth for unnaturall and beastly uses.”
Instead, the story first enters Europe via the letters of another Jesuit missionary, Jerónimo Xavier (d. 1617), who draws on either on Bada’uni or one of Bada’uni's own informants to establish one of the main lines of the story’s European reception. Claiming to have had it from Akbar himself, Xavier explains that “nearly twenty years ago,” Akbar closed up “thirty children,” and “put guards over them so that the nurses might not teach them their language.” There is nothing about an earless man, nor any received wisdom about natural religious inclinations. Instead, Akbar had decided “to follow the laws and customs of the country whose language was that spoken by the children.” Since “none of the children came to speak distinctly,” Xavier calls the experiment a “failure”; for Akbar, it may have been something else, since it allowed him to justify following “no law but his own.” Here Xavier presumably means the short-lived, syncretic faith of Dīn-i Ilāhī, designed by Akbar himself.  What had been a story about the origins of language becomes one about what we might call the natural voice of divinity, and, more practically, about the early modern Roman Catholic failure to make Akbar their Prester John, that imaginary medieval Christian king of Asia or “Ethiopia” that Europe hoped would swoop in and crush Islam from what Europe must have thought of as “behind.”
European speculative scholarship happily stuffed the story into a set of examples that invariably, as they still do, began with Herodotus. In a discussion considering the immutability of language, Christop Besold’s 1632 updated version of his De natura populorum tells it exactly as Xavier does, but without saying anything about the muteness of the (thirty) children’s keepers. We find it again in August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem (1693)on whether the Hebrew language is natural, where Pfeiffer cites Besold, and then references Hebrew masters who claim that the Hebrew language was “implanted naturally” (naturaliter impantatam) in the first human. In English, we find the story preserved in these essentials in the chapter “Of the Great Mogor, or Mogoll” of Samuel Purchas’s 1626 travel writing.
Secularized, greatly shortened versions of the story appear in a 1632 entry in the journal of the English traveler Peter Mundy (“hee caused little children to brought up by dumb Nurses to know what languages they would naturally speak, but it is sayd that in a long time they spake nothing at all”), and on the very first page the Danish scientist Ole Borch’s 1675 On the Causes of the Diversity of Languages, whose Latin is repeated word-for-word in Christian Augustus Ludwig’s 1730 Brief Commentary on the Property of NamesLike so many more recent retellings of the story, both writers fold the story in among citations of the few other language deprivation experiments they know – Herodotus and Quintilian in this case – and in Borch, even the sheep-boy of Ireland, whose preference for the choicest pasture was recounted in 1641 by Rembrandt’s famous Doctor Tulp. Borch’s inclusion of this story amid his examples may be the first time an animal-raised child was deliberately understood not as a wonder, but as just one more, sad example of linguistic deprivation.
In virtually none of these versions do the children ever acquire anything but inarticulate noises. The one exception is François Catrou’s 1708 Histoire générale de l'empire du Mogol (General History of the Mughal Empire), which he claims to have based on Niccolao Mannuchi’s 1698 Storia do Mogor (The History of Mughal India), itself based in turn on accounts of Xavier and others. Like Borch, Mannuchi holds that Akbar is seeking the original language. Some thought it would be Hebrew, others "Chaldean" (meaning Syriac? Persian?); and others Sanskrit, "which is their Latin." Mannuchi has only twelve children, and says nothing about their nurses, only that no one, "under pain of death," is to speak to the children "or allow them to communicate with each other" (!). When the children turned twelve, they were questioned, but responded only by cringing, and remained "timid [and] fearful" for the rest of their lives.
With one enormous change, Catrou reproduces Mannuchi’s story of Akbar’s “bizarre” experiment, inspired, Catrou says, by Akbar having heard that Hebrew was a "natural language.” The emperor shuts up twelve children with twelve mute nurses, and a male porter, also mute, who is never to open the doors of the "château" in which they have all been confined. Twelve years later, to witness and deliver the verdict, Akbar has filled his court with judges, led by a Jew who will question the children in Hebrew. Another “failure”: all are astonished ("on fut tout étonné") that they speak no language. This may just be garbled; or Catrou may have drawn these details from now lost manuscripts, used to supplement Manucchi’s account; or – continuing the longstanding habit of scholars of language deprivation experiments – he may have simply dramatized the story further, or folded into it what he expected to find.
However it happened, what Catrou provides astounds: for in this version, for the first time, the children do in fact acquire language. In no earlier version of any account that pretends to be a true history – in neither Herodotus nor Quintilian nor Salimbene nor Robert Lindsey – are the children able to communicate anything but their distress, or some fundamental language. But here they have sign language, taught to them by their nurse; “they express their thoughts only by gestures, which they use in place of words”: in Catro: "Ils avoient appris de leur Nourrice à s'en parler. Seulement ils exprimoient leurs pensées par des gestes qui leur tenoient lieu de paroles," or, as the 1826 English translation strangely expands the passage, “they had learnt, from the example of their nurses, to substitute signs for articulate sounds. They used only certain gestures to express their thoughts, and these were all the means which they possessed of conveying their ideas, or a sense of their wants.”
This detail has been understood by some writers as evidence that the Akbar story might be more than just another mutated iteration of the story that first appears in Herodotus; to put it simply these writers – linguists and advocates for the disabled among them – want this story of a sign language community passed on from nurses to children to be evidence that Akbar really conducted this experiment. Thus it could be a heroic story about Akbar underestimating his “mute” nurses, who had a language he and his philosophers were unable to understand. Community had survived after all, even amid this deprivation. I reluctantly doubt it: though certainly important to the history of disability, negotiation, and accommodation, this element of the story arrived late in its tradition, and likely has much more to do with developments in sign language in Europe than it does with the history of disability in the Mughal court.
This is not to say it lacks all truth. None of these stories should be taken as facts in any simple sense. All should be understood as being as legendary as any other bizarre tale about powerful rulers. They are nonetheless still true, in that they are true records of an interest, as real a record as any other fiction, which, as Anna Kłosowska observes of the truth of medieval stories, correspond “to an absolute reality--not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being… and [the] continuing desire for it performed by readers.”
The true record here is not the events but the concern, of course, with the relation between the authentic, the natural, and origins. Consider the version of the story in the “things omitted” section of Daniel Sennert’s medical manual, his Paralipomenon (written after 1631), the first time the story appears outside a missionary text or a travel narrative. Sennert tells the story as Xavier does, but then slides, surprisingly, into an anecdote about parrots, which, as he explains, likewise cannot learn to talk without being taught ("nunquam sua sponte ullam humanam vocem profereunt"). He concludes with an incidental tidbit of parrot lore from Apulius's Florida 12 (teach a parrot to curse, and it will curse unceasingly, day and night, unless you cut out its tongue or send it back to the forest). With this, Sennert has recognized that speech originates in imitation, and indeed taught imitation. Sennert does not imagine that parrots spontaneously imitate language. They need instruction. At the same time, certain parrots (those with five toes, like humans) are better than others at learning languages: what has to be taught is not merely a cultural activity, but an interaction between bodily affordances and training. As Haraway writes in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs”: “one is too few, but two is too many.” Go back far enough, and what’s found is just this: accommodation, where language acquires the character of seeming natural by an entanglement of training and imitation that coalesces with bodies given the chance to thrive amid conditions designed for them. A “dumb house” is not one of these spaces, unless the nurses subvert the experiment.
Recall as well August Pfeiffer’s Introductio in Orientem, which follows its Akbar story with “others argue with those Hebrew masters who say that the Hebrew language was implanted in the first human” (Ebaorum Magistri alias disputant contra illos, qui Ebraeam linguam, ut primam homini naturaliter implantatam esse dicant). This strange metaphor (one might instead expect a metaphor of respiration) at least implicitly recognizes the manufactured character of humans in the Genesis creation myths. If being natural requires springing from or being born from itself or something like itself (as the word “nature” comes from “nasci,” to be born), if it requires spontaneity, humans are not, at their root, natural (barring a few outlying philosophers). Like the rest of organized creation, like everything after the first waters over which God’s form floated, humans are a manufactured product. Language, reason, and the soul: none of this is any more “natural” than we are.
Barring Robert Lindsey, where the children definitely speak Hebrew, and perhaps Herodotus, where the children are understood to have spoken Phrygian, the hunt for an origin, whether of ethnicity (Herodotus), religion (Akbar, in many instances), or language (Frederick II, and often Akbar), gets us nothing but nonsense. Language must be passed on in groups. The hunt for origins reveals not purity, not a definitive answer, but a community, and then, past that, nothing but the most wretched helplessness, a community that has arrived too late for help.
Isolation gets us only noise; being comes with the break into the noise, the wave-form collapse, the phenomenon. The hunt for origins is often a hunt for an excuse, a way past responsibility, to find things as they “really are.” But what we find instead is only one more requirement to have made a decision. What we find is the necessity of care.