Saturday, February 16, 2008

. . . and the Baby-Chopper

Thank you Laura Smoller for a very interesting lecture. Here is a continuation of some post-lecture thoughts.

I was particularly struck, as I mentioned last night, by the consistent withholding of judgment on the wife's butchering of her baby in the narratives. Following the lead of the symbolic/allegorical significance of the dismembered and reintegrated body in light of the Schism, one possible reading is that this withholding has to do with the preservation of the literal as a mere container for the symbolic, or more simply, with maintaining the proper hagiographic focus on the miracle. In these terms the woman is very simply the means of getting the baby chopped up so that it can be healed and in a sense spiritually birthed by the saint (Gloria Steinem gave a nice description of this patriarchal function in a recent lecture recorded at Yale, listenable here).

Yet the possibility that the narratives’ withholding of judgment on the mother is more deeply a way of preserving something significant in the literal act of butchering her baby is hard to ignore, especially in comparison to the Mary of Jerusalem story where cooking your baby equals self-condemnation in an irreversible and extravagant way. Even to speak of this and notice it as “withholding” seems to acknowledge that there is something else going on, that the intention to serve up one’s child may be following a logic that the meaning of the story somehow requires. One possibility, to follow Karl Steel’s paper last Kalamazoo on the (mostly virtual) deliciousness of manflesh as an index of the discursivity of the human (available to read here), is that the baby butchering has to do with a transgression of the animal/human boundary which only serves to maintain it, precisely because the intention to transgress it acknowledges in a profane/literal/material way that very superiority, namely, through the fact that the dead human body is not only meat but the choicest meat and that the serving of baby flesh, whether as sacrifice or gourmandise or an interrelationship of the two, is really the perfect way, in the sense of an impossible limit (like death), to follow your husband's meal orders or honor the saint who is coming to supper.

Which means that I am now fixated on the ape in the painting (see previous post, source?), who is placed above the regeneration miracle narrative and opposite the human in the other window, who is above the kitchen. Where the ape is looking downward and eating, the man is looking upward at/through something (anybody know?) and, maybe, knowing. I will resist the historicistically irresponsible temptation to spell out a detailed reading of this painting as representing a kind of factory for the production of transcendent human identity, but I think it could be captioned very productively with this statement from Agamben's The Open: "The anthropological machine of humanism is an ironic apparatus that verifies the absence of a nature proper to Homo, holding him suspended between a celestial and a terrestrial nature, between animal and human -- and thus, his being always less and more than himself" (29).

In these terms the miracle story, as about the unmaking and remaking of a human, has interesting similarities to the late medieval story about the origin of the apes, which later made its way into Grimms' Tales. The story goes, according to Janson's paraphrase: "Christ and St. Peter stop at a blacksmith’s shop, where they were hospitably received. To show His gratitude, Christ took the blacksmith’s old and ugly wife and placed her in the fire of the forge, from which she emerged young and strong as a girl of fifteen. As soon as the two travelers had taken their leave, the blacksmith tried to rejuvenate another old woman by the same procedure, but when he thrust her into the flames she screamed so pitifully that he had to take her out again. Two pregnant women, who witnessed all this, were so shocked when they saw the old woman hideously blackened and shriveled like an ape that shortly thereafter they gave birth to two apes. These escaped into the forest, where they multiplied and thus became the progenitors of the entire simian tribe" (H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore, 97). Here the craftsman's labor is a medium of likeness between man and the divine Artifex as well as a means of transgression that, when it overreaches its limit through an impossible copying of what is beyond it, produces the greater unlikeness of the hyper-mimetic hybrid as a secondary, grotesque creation. Does the Ferrer story incorporate a comparable principle regarding the differently structured domestic labor of the wife who, rather than doing what she wants without understanding, which is the manner of the blacksmith, does what she must with a kind of superb animal rationality?

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