Friday, December 3, 2010

Some hawk, some bear: last post

(This last blog post is coming from that seductive paper I wish I were writing, instead of the one I’m actually writing. The first takes a look at a misbehaving prosthetic animal, and the second discusses human “transformation” by/within an animal body.)

1) (H)awkward things: Looking at our discussion of falconry, I have the following:

We've seen three separate ideas of the falcon's character (in Frederick): it afraid/disdainful of humans, courageous, and revelatory of the true nature of its handler (this latter: some version of hawks as sincerity). Does this make the practice of falconry a metonymy of self-control by way of the animal appendage, without actually locating oneself within the body of the falcon?

This function of the hawk seems a little more clear when it fails. Last year, my boyfriend and I went to the Fantasea show at the Shedd Aquarium, which for some reason includes hawks (not quite as off-putting as the atmospheric monkeys decorating one of the fish exhibits in the Amazon Rising section, but still odd). The hawk was supposed to fly majestically over the beluga whales to meet a man being lowered from the ceiling, dressed in a hawk suit. Before all this, they've pulled a child from the audience to draw together some kind of narrative with a medallion and wonder and all that around all the animals; she goes in a boat over the aquarium, dances with the belugas, dresses up like a penguin and chases some of those around for a bit, all very magical and heartwarming. Anyhow. The first hawk refuses to fly to the hawk-man, despite the child and the handler's urging. Hawk #1 looks at the handler, looks at the hawk man, makes angry hawk faces. So they break out auxiliary hawk. Spotlight shifts, hawk #1 bites around in the dark, hawk man dangles majestically. Hawk #2 looks to hawk #1, flips itself around over the handler's wrist, bites at the air and gets generally tangled in the leather straps.

You can feel everyone in that room feeling embarrassed for hawk man. He flies back up the zip line, off stage, less majestically, while video of a hawk flying majestically through the woods loops over him. I missed the exits of Hawks 1 and 2.

2) Symbol, change, and bear scat

We've gotten around to representations of animals eating in several classes (Reynard, animals on trial, and the last session on St. Francis), as well as discussing whether the things that animals do are inherently good. I'd like to preface my comments on symbolic animals eating other animals or people with some notes on Timothy Treadwell, so that I’m not delving into bear excrement without some larger context.

Timothy Treadwell was the man living with the bears in Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man." For those who haven't seen it, his death and his girlfriend's were recorded (the film doesn't reproduce the audio, but shows the director listening to the recording); the bear who killed and partially ate them was shot shortly afterwards. What is interesting for our discussion of animals eating is that the bear was cut open in order to recover the remains of its two victims; one wonders, at what point in the bear's digestive tract do we stop looking for human remains and start encountering that which we would no longer identify as human? When do we cede bear victims to bear scat?

I was expecting this to become an issue in discussions of animals killing people, and how those animals are condemned, whether domestic animals are more harshly punished than wild ones when they "sin" by eating humans (if a wolf eats a man, it will still go off into the forest to mingle with other wolves, become indistinguishable from them; if your pig eats someone, you'll still have to deal with the pig excreting that someone). Particularly in the last story of St. Francis and the wolf, in which he rebukes the animal specifically for eating that which is made in God’s image—you’d think the animal’s specific destruction of that image would logically follow. (Eating as transgressive appears differently in Reynard; everyone's doing it, but "no one's doing it," and it becomes hard to talk about without it sounding like a complex metaphor for masturbation--when does animal eating begin to appear excessive? Are there gluttonous animals in the middle ages? We've seen lustful animals, but they only seem to be a problem when people imitate them, and I don't anticipate running across any self-loving animals in the bestiary—if a person is gluttonous, is he being beastly, or excessive in a particularly human way?).

However, in reading Caroline Walker Bynum's "Metamorphosis and Identity" for work on my paper, I came across her discussion of 12th century anxieties over the subject of food and transformation by digestion. I was surprised to find that the dominant anxiety expressed with regard to digestion was not the change in that which was eaten, but in the person eating, anxiety over the idea that food becomes self. “Operating with a model in which the replacement of one thing by another was the death of an entity,” she writes, “theologians thus used Matthew 15.17 (“Whatsoever entereth into the mouth, goeth into the belly and is cast out into the privy”) to posit the continuation of a core of human nature through the process of eating, digesting, and eliminating. As Peter Lombard remarked, our bodies grow ‘with help from foods but foods are not converted into human substance’” (145). While this doesn’t dismiss the possibility of anxiety at becoming-food, it might explain why this aspect of formal change doesn’t show up in the preceding discussions of animals that eat humans. To tie the example of Timothy Treadwell back into my look at the hawk, what is at stake in these different instances of animals altering the human, either by failing to adequately supplement/reflect that human (hawk) or by potentially incorporating its human victim?

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Metamorphosis and Identity. New York: Zone Books, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. What wonderfully disturbing slippages! What happens when animals behave like animals and refuse our training (the hawks) or treat us like food (the bears)? My first thought is that the poor hawk man deserved the scorn of Hawk #1: no self-respecting medieval falconer would dress up like a hawk! That would defeat the whole purpose of the training: to tame the hawk to its handler's human will. The hawk man failed to command the hawk because he assumed "hawkness" himself, rather than maintaining his humanity. I wonder if a similar criticism could be brought against Treadwell and his girlfriend: they were trying to live like animals and so were treated like animals by the animals. In a sense, they wanted to become bears--and so, gruesomely from our perspective, they did.