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The Werewolf’s Indifference

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 351-356 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0024

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Awerewolf is the problem of animal difference expressed in monster’s flesh. This compound creature asks how intermixed with the bestial (-wolf) the human (were-) might already be. All that is civilized, ennobling, and sacred is lost in fleshly tumult with lupine appetites, impulses, and violence. The werewolf would seem the ideal monster to query the suppression of “the animal part within us all.”1 Yet a warning that this monstrous admixture is not so easy to make a universalizing metaphor inheres in the fact that Latin possesses no common noun for the creature. Lycaon might be transformed by an angry god into a wolf, and might (in Ovid’s narration) inhabit briefly an inter-stitial space where he possesses human and bestial qualities, but at transformation’s end one term replaces another, vir to lupus. When Gervase of Tilbury in the Otia imperialia is describing men who metamorphose under lunar influence, he observes: “In England we have often seen men change into wolves [homines in lupos mutari] according to the phases of the moon. The Gauls call men of this kind gerulfi, while the English name for them is werewolves, were being the English equivalent of uir.2 Gervase must employ French and English words to gloss his Latinate circumlocution.3

As its etymologically admixed nature suggests, the werewolf is a hybrid monster. Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that hybridity is a dialogue in which “contraries are simultaneous and in conversation with each other.”4 The werewolf is therefore not an identity-robbing degradation of the human, nor the yielding to a submerged and interior animality, but the staging of a conversation in which the human always triumphs. Hybridity is therefore a simultaneity of unequal differences. As Karl Steel has demonstrated, this overpowering of animal possibility by human exceptionality is a ceaseless, fraught, and violence-driven process. Humans are made at animal expense. Steel points out that a werewolf’s raising the problem of “the animal part that is within us all” is possible only “if humans are understood to have discrete ‘animal’ and ‘human’ parts.”5 As idealized differences, these categories need to be produced and stabilized repeatedly: the only way to maintain such separations is through more violence.

As admonitory figures, werewolves would seem to warn us why species difference must remain firm. So keen is the desired division between animal and human that many medieval werewolves are not true composites but humans encased in lupine skin, awaiting liberation. Gerald of Wales describes natives of Ossory cursed by Saint Natalis to don wolf fur and live as beasts. Under these animal garments, their bodies remain unaltered.6 Two of these transformed Irish villagers announce their appearance to a group of startled travelers with the resonant words “Do not be afraid.” Wolf skin is peeled back to reveal an ordinary woman inside. The werewolves deliver a human message, an anthropocentric horror story about being entrapped in an alien encasement. What human would not seek an immediate release from enclosure within such degrading and disjunctive corporeality? If this hybrid form stages a dialogue, the conversation is one-sided. Who speaks the animal’s narrative? Who could wish for such a monster’s impossibly amalgamated body? Who could desire such a life?

Cursed and pedagogical creatures, werewolves cannot be a happy lot. The citizens of Ossory bewail their compulsion. Yet medieval literature also describes werewolves cheerful in their composite bodies: the clever Alphonse, who teaches the young lovers to disguise themselves in animal skins in Guillaume de Palerne; the forest-loving protagonist of Melion, who discovers in wolf fur a success never realized while an ordinary husband and vassal; Bisclavret, who when trapped in animal form attains a satisfaction denied as a quotidian knight. Animality is supposed to be a despised state, the abject condition against which humanity asserts itself. The werewolf knows better. This monster inhabits a space of undifferentiated concurrency, in the doubled sense of a running together and a mutual assent. The werewolf offers neither a conversation (which too easily becomes a conversion) nor a dialogue (weighted in advance toward human domination), but a pause, a hesitation, a concurrence during which what is supposed to be...



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