Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Derrida expresses a sense that the gaze of the animal, if it is written anywhere (other than his own writings), is written within the expression of poetic thought rather than philosophical treatises. On the basis of that intuition this paper takes its beginning in an ancient piece of erotic poetry in which animal metaphor features prominently—the text we have come to know as the biblical book the Song of Songs. This book’s place in the canon was a puzzle and perplexity for many Christian thinkers (and Jewish thinkers as well), but rather than label it lewd or unspiritual and ignore it altogether, by employing a highly developed method of theological exegesis[7] the Christian tradition found the profoundest exploration of the love between God and humanity (concentrated in Christ and the Church) in the erotic movements of the Song of Songs. The fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa penned one such engagement with this enigmatic text in the form of fifteen homilies.[8] The presence of animals all through the text of the Song, and thus all through Gregory’s commentary, provides an opportunity to examine the conceptual interrelation of God, the human being (and the divine image in humanity), and a wide variety of animals. Does Gregory’s theological exegesis affect a disavowal of the animal(s) in the text of the Song of Songs?

This paper, then, ventures a reading of Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs alongside Derrida’s Animal that Therefore I Am in an attempt to locate Gregory relative to the trajectory of disavowal that Derrida traces from Descartes to Levinas, interpolating Kant, Lacan, and Heidegger along the way. The critical maneuvers of Derrida relative to these philosophers will provide tools for an examination of Gregory’s text; conversely, Gregory’s theorizing of the interrelation of the human and the animal may also provide the opportunity to call Derrida in for a few questions as well. Though Gregory labors to disavow “the animal” (as a single bounded set) in his interpretation of the Song of Songs, animals continue to creep back into his text through a variety of holes in the fence he erects, troubling the purity that Gregory seems to be laboring toward. This re-entry of the animal into Gregory’s text, I will argue, is a necessary function, not of the presence of animal metaphor within the text under his consideration, but of his understanding of theological exegesis and the function of (animal) desire within his theological anthropology. I will proceed in three main sections and a lesser fourth: the first deals with the human “proper”[9] of clothing and the dynamic of nakedness, exposition, shame, and modesty, asking whether the bride of the Song of Songs is naked as an animal, naked as an animal, or naked at all; the second deals with the human proper of discourse (logos) and the function of animal desire in the economy of Gregory’s theological anthropology and theological interpretation; the third takes up the major question of the paper more explicitly using a question lifted from Derrida’s own text, namely, what happens between brothers (that is, human society) when an animal enters the scene? Finally, I will direct a few evaluative comments at Derrida stemming from his textual encounter with Gregory and the Song of Songs.


[1] Jacques Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I Am, ed. Marie Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Ibid., 7, 40.

[3] The tremendous continuity of agreement on this point among philosophers who exchange such vitriol over one another’s methods, schools, and conclusions is a matter of some fascination for Derrida.

[4] Matthew Calarco, in his text Zoographies, calls for an extended interdisciplinary inquiry into the genealogy and history of the human-animal distinction and the ways in which this distinction has been the conceptual underpinning for the mistreatment of animals. This inquiry might also unearth alternative conceptions of being human and alternative models of human relations to the many animals co-resident on the planet. Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 140-41. This paper can be considered a preliminary effort at contributing to such a project.

[5] Derrida is certainly aware of this. Early in the text, he offers a reading of the Paradise account of creation in Genesis 2-3, suggesting that Adam’s naming of the creatures before God’s watchful eye (Gen 2:19-20) is a kind of prelude to sacrifice, a demonstration of the power of God and man over “the animal” as a class. Derrida, Animal, 16-17, 30, 42.

[6] Indeed, I would question the propriety of distinguishing the philosophical and theological traditions prior to the mutual polemic exchange following the Enlightenment. We inherit a strong sense that these two discourses can and should be separated; these alienated siblings of Western thought share, nevertheless, a common genealogy and a common stock of tools.

[7] In contradistinction from contemporary fixation on a single literal or historical meaning of a text (discovered by an archeological excavation of the author’s social setting, role, or intention), ancient and medieval interpreters recognized four interrelated layers of meaning within Scripture: 1) the literal, the straightforward narrative; 2) the moral, how the text teaches its readers to lead lives of virtue; 3) the typological wherein broader patterns of repetition or fulfillment in history become visible to the attuned reader; and 4) the anagogical whereby the text works upon the reader leading her to God by inciting her desire or mediating divine grace. These are not understood as four separate meanings (even though an exegete will typically focus on only one or two levels) but four ways in which the meaning of the text operates. Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs focuses primarily on the moral and anagogical levels of the text.

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. Casimir McCambley OCSO (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987); Greek text: Werner Jaeger, ed., Gregorii Nysseni Opera, vol. 6, Gregorii Nysseni in Canticum Canticorum, ed. Hermann Langerbeck (Leiden: Brill, 1960). Hereafter references to Gregory’s Commentary will be to the McCambley translation, followed by the page number in the Jaeger (J) volume.

[9] A “proper” in this context is an attribute or activity that is used to distinguish the human being from animals and theorize human uniqueness. Historically, the propers which have predominated Western thought have been rational thought or language. Derrida focuses on another, less emphasized proper, the complex of clothing, shame, and nakedness.

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