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

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Just yesterday I received the welcome news that my submission to the Animals and Religion consultation at the 2010 AAR in Atlanta was accepted. I’ll be presenting the paper at a session entitled “Thinking Animals, Rethinking Theology: Abrahamic and Indigenous Traditions.” I’m very excited for the opportunity to present my thoughts and looking forward to the ensuing conversation. The proposal which was accepted is below:

Though it is an undeniably erotic text, Solomon’s Song of Songs is also undeniably strange. In large part, the text’s strangeness is attributable to its enthusiastically zoological imagery, which strikes contemporary readers as anything but erotic. The very metaphors praising the bodily beauty of a woman and a man and celebrating their union simultaneously release an abundance of flapping, leaping, grazing animals into the space between two naked human bodies. These animals—doves, deer, sheep, horses, goats—pervade the imagery of the Song to the extent that animal bodies are caught up in the erotic interaction of the two lovers and animal eyes seem to peek through every look of longing.

The fourth-century Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa found this canonical text no less strange than we do on account of both its sexually explicit content and its disconcerting animal metaphors. Nevertheless, Gregory lauds the Song of Songs above every other text in Scripture for setting forth the profoundest wisdom for prayer and ascetic contemplation. Gregory’s reading depends upon a powerful sublating hermeneutic which transforms the Song’s erotic energy into the driving impulse for a spiritual ascent. His Commentary on the Song of Songs presents the fruit of an assiduous attention to the many figurative valences latent in every image and a careful effort to explain the manner in which the cumulative effect of this imagery elicits the reader’s desire for God. Remarkably, however, despite Gregory’s vigorous distaste for any carnal understanding of the Song—readily visible in oft-repeated warnings—the animals of the Song populate Gregory’s higher meaning no less pervasively than its literal level, and indeed take on an even greater theological role.

Reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I am alongside Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs provides a critical lens through which to explore the human-animal distinction in Gregory’s theology. Derrida’s text traces an “immense disavowal” of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition wherein all the differences between animals are discarded in favor of a single catch-all category—“the animal.” Politically, the maneuver to sum up all animals in a single term underwrites a notion of human exceptionalism (“the human” over against “the animal”), and justifies regimes of maltreatment, modification, restrictive confinement, over-production, and slaughter. Derrida summons Descartes, Kant, Lacan, Heidegger, and Levinas as exemplary theoretical offenders.

There is no shortage of reasons to see Gregory’s allegorical treatment of animals in the Song of Songs as part and parcel of this same trajectory of disavowal—the impulse to spiritual sublation has rarely worked to the advantage of animals. Nevertheless, Gregory’s relationship to animals is more complex than would initially appear. I argue that although Gregory labors to disavow “the animal” (as a single bounded set) in his interpretation of the Song of Songs, particular animals continue to creep back into his text through gaps in the fence he erects, troubling the purity that Gregory is laboring toward. The re-entry of the animal into Gregory’s text, I argue, is inevitable and necessary, not simply because of the presence of animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but more significantly, because of the ineradicable function of (animal) desire within Gregory’s understanding of theological exegesis and spiritual ascent. Thus, Gregory adopts the blurred lines between humans and animals in the text of the Song of Songs within his own spiritual exegesis because doing so sheds light on the contemplative path of the Christian in a way that would be impossible were his disavowal of the animal more thorough.

The first part of my paper examines the complex of shame, exposure, modesty, nakedness, and clothing (one of many lines along which the human-animal distinction is cut, and a theme central to Derrida’s text), querying the nakedness of the bride in the Song relative to the nakedness of the animals which mediate the description of her body. I ask whether the bride is naked as an animal, naked as an animal, or actually naked at all. Gregory’s squeamish allegorizing hastily weaves a cover for the bride’s nudity, but she is still exposed in and through the animal imagery that describes her contours.

The second part focuses on the distinguishing human “proper” of reason and speech (logos for Gregory). While Gregory differentiates humans from animals (the alogoi) on the basis of their capacity for reason, in the economy of Gregory’s theological exegesis and in his account of spiritual ascent, reason is actually secondary to the faculty of desire that pervades human and animal life alike. The text of the Song of Songs functions anagogically (that is, one layer of its meaning leads the reader toward God) precisely because it incites a propulsive desire within the reader that motivates and focuses her contemplation. Likewise, on the path of spiritual ascent, the Christian’s ever-increasing desire for God carries him beyond any comprehension of reason or language. Thus, for Gregory, (animal) desire finally outstrips discursive rationality in its theological importance, calling into the question the purity of his initial distinction between the human and the animal.

The third part takes up an ethical/political question from Derrida’s text: What happens to the fraternity among brothers (or alternately, relations in human society) when an animal enters the room? I argue that the presence of animals in the text of the Song is what launches Gregory’s theological interpretation in the first place (because the literal reading remains woefully inadequate). Paradoxically, it is the pervasiveness of animal imagery within this erotic poem that opens the text up for an allegorical reading that excises the “animal” content of straightforward sexuality. Thus, on Gregory’s reading, the bride and bridegroom loosen their sexually passionate embrace, and instead are bound up in the intimacies of prayer, forgiveness, and spiritual transformation. The presence of the animal in the text marks an excess that allows for the attempted erasure of the “animal” in the human. Finally, however, insofar as Gregory’s disavowal is incomplete, his gesture imaginatively endues animals with spiritual agency—the dove with her longing eye and the deer leaping across the hills in pursuit of the divine.

In the end, Gregory cannot banish animals from his interpretation of the Song while at the same time sublating the generative power of its metaphors. Gregory succeeds only in folding the animal into the human; redeeming the animal by directing its energy. Equally, the obverse is true, that the human has been folded into the animal whose drives are powerful and determinative. At any rate, what remains are spiritual animals—with equal stress falling on both words. Over the course of Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs the “proper” traits of humans and animals (nakedness, shame, clothing, reason, language, passion, desire) lose the precision whereby they mark a hermetic and exclusive distinction between animals and “the human.” The animals creep in the backdoor of Gregory’s commentary, undermining his disavowal by showing themselves to be integral to the highest human good that he can conceive.

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