Review of Week 11 and Preview of Week 12
Review of Week 11
[by Smith and Nick]
We first returned to the Akbari reading from last week to clear up some things that weren’t addressed. There is problem with the relationship between human and divine. Christ, both bread and flesh, is simultaneously human and divine. Still, he was not born human—he is in fact divine, with the addition of human characteristics.
The story of Bisclavret starts off by telling us about other werewolves. It sets us up with expectations based on other stories of similar nature, only to digress to another interpretation. We aren’t told how Bisclavret becomes a werewolf, and we don’t really know at the end if he’s ever “cured” of the curse. The story itself is really more about the betrayal and human cruelty. The werewolf stays the same, honorable as he was as a human. In relation, Shaw argues what we really respond to is a kind of perception, aside from embodiment. The King is only afraid momentarily when the wolf approaches him. He quickly realizes he’s not begging for scraps, but begging for mercy, out of respect for his status. While we wouldn’t necessarily assume these traits as human today, humility in Bisclavret is asserted as humanity.
We then turned to Shaw’s “Embodiment and the human from Dante through tomorrow.” Shaw focuses on “evocation of human,” an essential part of what Hayles is doing with her interpretation of embodiment. The body, he says, is built both from and for the human. He draws upon examples from Dante to argue embodiment as Hayles understands. He discusses “hermeneutic features” concerning human nature. Differing from Hayles, Shaw sees understanding, more than embodiment, as what is at the very core. He views embodiment as a means, not vital in the way the Hayles views it. Prior to the fall and in eternity, the body is seen as necessary. Pre-Cartesian people would understand soul/spirit and body as more integrated.
We then moved to our reading of William of Palerne. In the narrative, nobility is understood as blatantly visible—it has nothing to do with culture, it’s in your blood and written on your body. “The fair unknown,” a medieval phrase, comes through without question when nobility is encountered. Melior and William can’t be together because she’s promised to son of King of Greece. William isn’t an option for marriage because he isn’t known to be noble, despite the assertion that he obviously is.
Melior’s maid uses magic to make William fall in love with her. Magic isn’t seen as bad in the terms it’s used in the story; it isn’t portrayed as black magic, but “good;” because William really is noble, he and Melior really should be together. We discussed the nature of the werewolf versus the nature of the human as closely related. Alphonse is not born a werewolf and he is noble by nature. His beastlike appearance is purely physical, brought on by use of an ointment on his skin by his stepmother. It is acceptable, then, that William tried to strangle his stepmother, since she’s the one who caused him to transform.
Alphonse goes and checks on William at the cowherd’s house. It’s seen as an almost motherly gesture; he’s sad, but decides William is better off there. The cowherd does the same thing when the emperor takes William. Though he has human traits, the werewolf is physically an animal in ways others are not. He has to think about what humans would want to eat, going through a thought process of determining what’s appropriate.
Alfonse is called a “witty werewolf” several times, praised for his heroism and ability and especially here for his knowledge, his understanding. He is seen as a figure of divine providence; he’s marked as being even more than human. God has given him the task of taking care of William. Alphonse takes care of William as if he is his own younger self. Both had their conditions bestowed upon them, and both are deprived of humanity because of their appearance. The werewolf symbolizes being excluded, being the outsider.
We connected the story to Gerald of Wales for the presence of religion. In Gerald, the priest has to make a choice about how to treat the werewolf, whether she even has a soul to pray for. William and Melior pray for their werewolf because they recognize Alphonse’s humanity.
Melior’s expression of her affection is atypical to this type of story. It is usually the knight who pursues the hesitant woman and proves his worthiness through what he does on the battlefield. Instead, it is Melior who desires him and has her maid concoct a way to evoke desire in him.
When William and Melior take off their skins, are pleased to see each other in human form again. Still, they desire to maintain their appearance as animals because they can’t express certain things as humans as they can as animals. I forgot to write down who said it, but it was suggested that the skins “allow them a sort of freedom,” since they allow the pair to travel. They see these disguises as a way to get beyond. In lines 2808 and 2985 they are shown snuggling in their animal forms, an example of a shared human and animal physicality.
Still, their true nature is often out-ed because they fail to behave convincingly as animals. Alfonse, on the other hand, is much smarter and better prepared. The queen, for example, catches them because she sees their clothes sticking out from their dried up skins. To see if they would speak, the queen dresses in a deerskin she gets from her priest. It’s her way of finding out William and Melior’s true nature. While they seem human, it’s obviously strange that they are attempting to pass as something else.
“Hermeneutic feature” – concerning human nature
On Thursday we began class by signing up for creative project time slots.
In our discussion of William of Palerne, we briefly discussed the interests of people editing manuscripts. In William of Palerne, the editor suggests it’s the language that makes the story—it’s important that we “pay attention to the poetics” because he finds much of the story embarrassing, not serious enough, a distraction from what matters.
In Bynum’s chapter, “Shape and Story,” Bynum brings up three models of change: unique personality, social association, and temporal continuity. She focuses most closely on continuity, the notion that we remain the same individually over time. She argues that in order to understand identity, we need a more problematic understanding of it, “one that will not force us to choose between mind and body” (p. 165). She concludes that it is impossible to remain the same and simultaneously become something different.
Bynum then discusses three types of stories concerning metamorphosis: the “marvelous,” in which characters accept supernatural presences; the “uncanny” stories where characters rationalize what seems supernatural; and the “fantastic,” wherein characters and readers “vacillate between natural explanation and acceptance of the supernatural” (p. 167). The marvelous is most thoroughly addressed; Bynum asserts that it is the most related to the notion of continuity. In offering an alternative, the marvelous character is both internally consistent, but different from our world—offering alternatives to what we consider human. She relates Ovid’s story of Lycaon, arguing that the subject becomes the wolf, but his human characteristics are present beneath his exterior. He expresses these traits in lines of a wolf’s behavior.
Bynum sees up Bisclavret as a story of “return”—the werewolf’s arrival back into the human form. She argues that the wolf’s transformation in fact improves upon his morality. For Carter, skin is the appearance as well as the essence. However, it is the human persona that Bynum recognizes as human in any physical existence. While one might get the impression that Bynum and Shaw think what continues throughout, as opposed to unchanging self, is what is most important, it is really what marks of humanity remain throughout metamorphosis that truly matter.
We then continued our discussion of William of Palerne. We talked a lot about the queen dressing as a deer when approaching William and Melior in their bearskins as representative of the duality of human and animal characteristics. It is also noteworthy that the hide the queen wears is actually prepared for her by the priest. There is a common theme in this period of characters knowing things without them being confirmed; without actually being told, Melior somehow knows that William was saved by Alphonse.
We discussed Ebroun’s horse, and his reaction to seeing William. Recognizing Ebroun’s presence in his son, the horse becomes excited and kneels before him. This act once again symbolizes an existence of humanity—respect for nobility—in creatures. Animals throughout the story are also highly allegorical, as seen in Melior’s dream of being rescued from the apes by a werewolf. The werewolf is identified as a hybrid of human and nonhuman. The King of Spain calls him a devil—not suggesting that he is actually Satan, but that he is so ferocious in battle it’s as if he’s possessed. We concluded pointing to the narrative’s assertion that status can be shown through violence, but maintained other ways.
“While some form of materiality and localized perspective seem necessary, in the future a person will be identified less by materiality or information than by understanding. The ability to recognize a being as a durable, comprehensible interlocutor will be the litmus test of the posthuman being.” – Shaw
“The challenge that Hayles may want to ward off really is the one that centers on information, the self as a code rather than a presence, a series of mere electronic signatures. This is not exactly immaterial.” – Shaw
“Virtually, corporeally, electronically, cosmically, we may find that persons and actors are all around us and it will take some adjusting for us to understand. It’s going to be a strange time, but as Dante reminds us again, it’s not the first time that the zoology of the intelligent has been more complicated than we usually like to think.” – Shaw
“For my self is my story, known only in my shape, in the marks and visible behaviors I manifest – whether generic or personal. I am my skin and scars, my gender and pigment, my height and bearing, all forever changing – not just a performance, as some contemporary theory would have it, but a story.” – Bynum
“For even if we gaze at our own reflection when we bow low over the pool of our literary past, that gazing is a mark of who we are, and who we are is, in part, what we have been. The stories of our high tradition, like our folklore, are a significant component of what we think with. Hence our self-reflexivity, our tendency to study ourselves, is a mark of the self we carry we bend over the pool.” – Bynum
Preview of Week 12
[by Dr. Seaman]
This is our final week of encountering new material. The following two weeks will focus on creative response presentations and then, on the final day of class, peer review of your drafts of your final paper, and final exam preparations. This week, we shift from romance narratives and human-animal transformations or hybrids and their revelations of the human–often the “ideal” human; we will now focus on how the divine in human form (i.e., Christ) offers an alternative, improved possibility for the human. Akbari and Bynum’s essays that we’ve already encountered will be particularly useful for us as we do this.
Tuesday we devote to Julian of Norwich (you’ll prepare a selection of her Showings: chapters 1-12, 25, 27-39, 45-52, 57, and read an essay from the back of our text, by Nuth [pp. 176-20]). I will offer some introduction to medieval monasticism and mysticism, to assist in our encounter with Julian’s visions, and will spend most of our time discerning her atypical understanding of the role of human contemplation of Christ’s humanity. Pay particular attention to her analysis of the vision of the lord and the servant. Consider, as you prepare, what the body (in the form of Christ’s human body) offers the divine, in this case. What do you make of Nuth’s statement that “Sensual human life, fleshly existence in the world of time, is, from a human perspective, gradually lifted up and included in the eternity of God” (185)? Think, too, about this from Nicholas Watson:
“God the mother (chapters 52-63), pitying humanity’s imperfect understanding of the unconditionality of love, reveals herself to everyone, in a mother tongue understood by everyone, through a woman who – as a recipient, not a clerical proponent, of the Church’s teaching – can represent everyone” (Watson, Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature 559).
Thursday’s fun will be had with Margery Kempe (focused on certain sections of her Book: chapters 1-40, 63-66, 72-74, 79-82). You will also read part of the editor’s introduction (pp. vii-xxiii) and two essays in the back of the book, by Beckwith (pp. 284-88) and our friend Bynum (starting on p. 299). We will now focus on lay piety of the middle ages (compared to the institutional piety of monasticism that we encountered via Julian) and will touch on Lollardy and will discuss Eucharistic devotion. Consider how the focus in medieval piety is on Christ’s suffering, his physical experience of humanness, a great contrast to the detached, observant but not participatory God of the earlier middle ages. Now, Jesus’ passion (his suffering) evokes human compassion. It encourages a pitying relationship to God as well as a notion of human perfectibility. What, in the end, is Margery’s version of God? And of the Human?