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  • A New Species of Humanities:The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory
  • Doryjane Birrer (bio)

My research and teaching fields are firmly rooted in the present, but as I work through certain vexed conceptions of the human/humane, reciprocal challenges posed by humanism and postmodern theory, and how all of this might relate to the future of the humanities, I want to play around with a premodern-postmodern connection that's a bit out of my field. I'm going to start with medieval monsters—specifically, medieval werewolves. The fourteenth-century Middle English romance William of Palerne tells the story of an heir to the Spanish throne, Alphonse, who has been bewitched into werewolf form by his stepmother. He is a friendly werewolf. A helpful werewolf. A benevolent werewolf. In short, a humane werewolf, in both senses of the term humane outlined by Raymond Williams in Keywords: he is possessed—as those instinct-driven werewolves of horror films like The Wolf Man are not—of "human nature," of "human reason." And he is also humane in the later sixteenth-century sense of being "kind, gentle, courteous, [and] sympathetic" (148). He rescues the eponymous young hero, is sorrowful when William leaves him, and later becomes a sort of lupine protector to him. William, in fact, characterizes the werewolf midway through the narrative as being of "man's kind" (ll. 2505–6) [End Page 217] and, near the end of the tale, he declares that the wolf has more human nature than William himself and the king of Spain combined (l. 4123).

This conception of the werewolf as more human than beast—in fact more human than two humans, and nobility at that—is an intriguing one, given that the classical conception of the human as defined against beasts or monsters was only just beginning its shift toward the late medieval/early Renaissance conception of humanity as conceptualized in relation to divinity (Williams 149).1 Perhaps that's what makes this romance an unsettling tale: when a werewolf can be a compassionate and humane friend, and a parent can be a malevolent and inhumane enemy, how can "humanity" be identified or persuasively characterized within bodies that would be recognizably "human"? This question brings me to my second, postmodern example, from season four (1999–2000) of Joss Whedon's cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This season marks the entrance into Buffy's world of the Initiative: the blinkered, diabolical U.S. paramilitary agency ostensibly dedicated to capturing, de-fanging, and destroying all monsters, but more covertly involved in using them for torturous—in fact, I'll say inhumane—experiments.2 So when Buffy's season four lover Riley Finn, secretly a high-ranking Initiative commander and all around government yes-man, captures a werewolf whom his Initiative cohorts then proceed, as ordered, to torture, it should be business as usual. And yet this particular werewolf is Buffy's friend Oz and Riley's own student from his day job as a university teaching assistant. In fact, for a good three seasons, Oz has been one of the most humane characters on the show. I mean humane again as in benevolent and compassionate (vide Williams), but to continue highlighting the human/beast slippage, I'll turn to the initial and interestingly abstract OED definition of humane as "[c]haracterized by such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man" (emphasis mine). In any case, Riley's military "us versus them" mentality is severely challenged, as he is disturbed to discover how increasingly blurred are the boundaries between us and them, human and monster—and ultimately, given the methods and objectives of the Initiative, human and humane.

Granted, William of Palerne still relies on pretty clear distinctions between the "good" characters and the "bad" despite its humane werewolf,3 and Buffy continually pits her white-hatted "Scooby gang" against each season's unequivocal "Big Bads" despite the show's student werewolf, a scant handful of more or less harmless (if not altogether benign) demons, [End Page 218] and a couple of vampires with souls. Although I can't be so exhaustively circumspect as to try to address every potential loophole in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 217-245
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-18
Open Access
No
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