Jan 31: Inventing With Animals, Cohen

In this course, we’ve often alluded to the relationship between Nature and humanity in the Middle Ages, questioned whether it is holy or pagan, or something else entirely. Cohen introduces the idea of “fantasy bodies”, using the analogy of Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” novels, to point out how medieval writers went beyond the boundaries of their oft-restricted identities in society. He also gives many examples, such as the hyena, the weasel, and the snake to display not just medieval bigotry, but also their worldview. According to Cohen, what are the factors that distinguish animal bodies with human characteristics vs humans in animal bodies? In what ways do we relate to this medieval mentality of using animal-as-allegory through contemporary writing?

5 thoughts on “Jan 31: Inventing With Animals, Cohen

  1. Animals were used as proxies to explain and teach aspects of human nature. They were “proximate strangers”– they were close in a physical sense to humans, but still had many dissimilarities as to use for human behavioral metaphors [41]. In every age, people used animals as story-telling devices. In fairy-tales, just like Marie de France’s animals, you had animals that helped push the plot forward. Like in “Cinderella”, the birds “solved” Cinderella’s need to find the lentils in the fireplace so that she could attend the ball. She was a good soul, thus she could commune with the birds. Later in the story, those same birds plucked the eyes of the evil step-sisters. It was revenge for their mistreatment of Cinderella. In the same sense, France used her animals– like the werewolf in “Biscalvret”– as a way to inform the audience who was “good” and who was “bad”. The king was respected by the animal/Biscalvret, indicating his kindness. The wife had her nose bitten off by the werewolf, indicating her wickedness. Animals were used in medieval times and beyond to create proxies for people. The natural world was in tune with those good enough to “listen” to nature– those who disrespected or ignored it were eventually hurt by or rejected by the natural world in response.

  2. Cohen’s distinction between animals as human and humanlike animals is, I think, a good one to make. Animals as humans are, as he observes, merely a way to explore humanity in different situations (what if we were not apex predators? what if we hibernated for the entire winter? etc.) than the one’s we’re familiar with. Whereas humanlike animals are still animals, just taking on humanlike qualities. He talks about how not just animals, but nature itself can play this role, as in “The Wanderer” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    In terms of contemporary writing, I would use C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and The Wind in the Willows as examples of these two ways of using animals in stories. Though Lewis’ animals talk, their concerns are basically animal concerns. The horses dream of distant meadows to roll and eat in, the beavers show pride in the dams they build, the bears are preoccupied with sleeping, etc. Whereas in The Wind in the Willows, the animals have more or less human concerns: property and wealth, leisure, the complexities of society, etc. Lewis also uses animals in another way discussed by Cohen, as symbols. His badgers are loyal and tenacious, his wolves treacherous, his owls wise and ponderous. This falls short of actual allegory, since the badgers don’t represent loyalty, or the wolves cruelty, the owls wisdom. They simply have those qualities as a part of their characters.

  3. Cohen presents the argument that animals, though seemingly beneath humans, are able to be used as an agent of morality. The actions of animals can be seen as more pure, as with the elephants, or perhaps even Guigemar’s white stag, or as darker, more disturbing entities. People are able to observe, and in a way, understand an animal’s thought process, while humans are much more complex.

    A great example of today’s usage of animals as allegories is in the book, “The Life of Pi.” In it, the animals directly represent Pi, his mother, and the cook. The cook, coincidentally a hyena, is duplicitous and blood thirsty. The mother is a nurturing orangutan, and Pi is a quiet but terrifying force of nature, a tiger. These specific animals correlate to the personalities of each of the human figures when put under the stress of fighting to survive.

  4. Cohen presents the idea that an animal is capable of transcending the human value placed on it in the Middle Ages and is able to become a symbol that reflects a larger purpose and place in a culture. The difference between a human becoming an animal and an animal symbolizing humans seem to be the size of the representation; for example an owl represented the Jews, meaning their culture as a whole. The difference can often only be seen through specific examples, such as a viper also being used to represent the Jews or the Lord in Bisclavret becoming a wolf, but the meaning behind each respective function is vastly different. The association of animals with a certain group or culture or even ethnicities brands that community with all of the connotative associations tied to that particular animal. A modern day example can be seen in the Bald Eagle, the symbolic animal of the United States. The eagle is associated with bravery, freedom, and wisdom, and thus by association Americans become connected to those qualities as well, regardless of actual evidence, they take on those qualities given to them through animalistic association.

  5. Cohen believes animals are essential in the development of humans. After raising children, he proposes that animals in literature are “the vehicles through which desires for a differently configured world are expressed”. The animals he is discussing are more closely related to humans with animal bodies to satisfy the whims of the dreamers of the Medieval era. Cohen also believes that the use of the animal bodies to remove the restrictions of male and female, race, class, etc. He also discusses the Knight’s Tale from “Canterbury Tales” and how animals are not prone to suffering and can do whatever they want, so it seems as though he also thinks animals are an escape to allow humans to be who they want and embody a spirit animal of sorts.

    An example of using an animal to relate to the Medieval mentality about animals in contemporary literature would be in “Alice in Wonderland”. Although Alice is a human, she encounters many creatures that are not. Her first encounter is the White Rabbit, who is able to tell time on his pocket watch and have a conversation with Alice. He is an anthropomorphic animal but he also holds characteristics of a rabbit such as nervousness and hurriedness. Another animal used in Alice’s adventure is the caterpillar. He acts as a sensei for Alice and seems old and due to his sharpness to her questions and his slowness, which is probably because he is about to go through metamorphosis. Although he is given a caterpillar body, he is described as smoking a hookah which is not something a caterpillar does but a human.

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