Night-Rule: The Alternative Politics of the Dark; or, Empires of the Nonhuman
Night-Rule: The Alternative Politics of the Dark; or, Empires of the Nonhuman
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers the handicapped experience that humans encounter during the nighttime. The night’s incapacitating nature questions the human claims on panoptical or sovereign earthly rule by measuring our human perceptual skills and effectiveness against the sensory capacities of animals, particularly nocturnal animals. The nighttime, then, is viewed as a nonhuman jurisdiction. The chapter then returns to Montaigne’s “Apologie” and Descartes’s Discourse on a more epistemological front. It also examines William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1570) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca. 1595), where human authority is portrayed within species-defined limits. In the latter work of Shakespeare, the playwright imagines the nighttime and shows it as a nonhuman empire, suggesting that humans should rest their eyes, lie low in bed, and let the vile things rule.
Keywords: night-rule, Apologie, Descartes, Montaigne, William Baldwin, Beware the Cat, Midsummer Night’s Dream, sovereign earthly rule, nighttime, nonhuman empire
King Lear suffers a further human predicament beyond enduring rough weather on bare skin. He roams outdoors in the dark, a violation of place-and-time species decorum that the play calls a straying “out of season” (2.1.119). The relevant night rules are calibrated by kind: because human faculties face such adversity in the dark, people belong inside. As we know vividly from Macbeth, they should also be flat in bed with their eyes shut. Observing the creaturely decorum of night and day, when Banquo must travel late abroad he says he “must become a borrower of night” (3.1.26). Lady Macbeth fears being caught up too late and detected as a night “watcher” (2.2.70). Mistaking night-borrowed time for some special opportunity, Macbeth imagines darkness will “scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,” but instead the fact that he and Lady Macbeth are awake along with the screaming owl, crying crickets, and a crow making “wing to th’ rooky wood” indicts them as unnaturally nocturnal (3.2.46–51, 2.2.15). At night, humans enter a risky domain of sensory deficit, their tender eyes “scarfed up” by a blinding and disorienting absence of light. They wander and err; they get lost; their science—wholly contingent on vision—dims, as errancy turns to crime and error. This chapter contends that with the onset of early modern darkness, human authority itself flickers and falls on its knees. Overthrowing more than just vision, nighttime exposes man’s vaunted competencies as intermittent and qualifies his claimed sovereignty as merely episodic—“because the night,” to vary Patti Smith’s anthemic caw of a refrain, “belongs to others.”1
Macbeth treats sunset as a transfer of power, a daily alternation that is ominous but also routine. At dusk the “good things of day begin to droop and drowse, / While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse” (3.2.53– 54). The drowsing of agencies understood as benign cedes dominion to sinister and adverse actors on a quotidian basis. Day creatures literally “droop” from their upright posture to prostrate unconsciousness, while those who are agentive at night rise up, refreshed and ready to act. From a now-vulnerable human perspective, predation entirely defines the life of “night’s black agents.” Meanwhile, human senses run amok. In Henry VI, Part 2, Bolingbroke glosses “deep night, dark night, the silent of the night” as the domain of nonhuman others: “The time when screech-owls cry, and ban-dogs howl” (1.4.15–17). The self-contradiction of calling night “silent” while filling it with cries and howls of creaturely vocalization reflects not simply anthropocentric reading but also the glitchy unreliability of human perception in the dark. Johan Huizinga’s classic evocation of the late medieval “tenor of life” stressed a more absolute and palpable contrast between darkness and light, and period literature records its effects.2 Indeed, for all the daylight traditions of early modern performance (the “sympa-thizèd one day’s error” from noon to five so marked in The Comedy of Errors [5.1.398]), one has a persistent sense of night terrors in Shakespeare’s drama. Blindfolding what we have seen Ovid praise as man’s “stately looke” and reducing human estate to the trembling condition of quarry, the nightly ascendancy of nonhuman agencies draws the line against exceptionalist accounts of humanity—in the period so often said to be incubating a model of sovereign man for the future.
In the world of King Lear, a text replete with indexings of “to-night,” “this night,” and “such nights as these,” wandering humans animate the night as “dark-eyed” and “wild” (2.1.121, 2.4.310).3 Dark-eyedness figures night’s predacious discernment and the uncanny accuracy of nocturnal vision for creatures who work by it, undetected; at the same time, it also suggests the waning operations of human vision as the view fades to black (literally, in Gloucester’s case). “Wild” is a relative term, only indicating (p.176) nonassimilation to a given perceiver’s paradigm of what is domesticated or civil. King Lear’s night oppresses its human subjects: Gloucester refers to “this tyrannous night,” and Kent laments “the tyranny of the open night” (3.4.149, 3.4.2). The regime of night has a dispositive place in defining natural sequence, of course, as Polonius’s assurance in Hamlet that “it must follow as the night the day” makes clear (1.3.79). But the daily return of a nocturnal order also marks an absolutely regular counterpoint to the daylight regime familiar—and conformable—to the eyes of human perspective.
Beyond the misrule, then, that describes the temporary states of disorder licensed by human culture in traditional comedy, Shakespeare evokes a literally alternative domain: a full-blown nocturnal order that accords human actors, as such, no proper place. Kent stresses the extremity of Lear’s situation by saying that even “things that love night / Love not such nights as these,” calling them “the very wanderers of the dark” (3.2.42–44). But night agencies are not just a matter for the glooming atmosphere of tragedy: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the night-agent Puck uses the same phrasing to dub himself a “merry wanderer of the night” (2.1.43). Shakespeare’s tragedy and comedy alike populate night with nonhuman actors. From the human standpoint, night indicates not so much license (taking a breather from the law) but instead a blinded, debilitating subjection to another law. The nonhuman empire of the night feels like lawless and chaotic violence to those humans straying there “out of sea-son,” but that experience is simply what the night regime has decreed as just for humans under nocturnal jurisdiction. The gap between felt justice to those undergoing it and warranted justice to the agent or entity dispensing it is a perfectly traditional political dilemma.
The night gets notoriously darker if you are caught out in the woods. Henry Peacham’s emblem, titled Nulli penetrabilis (penetrable by no one), shows densely clustered trees, “a shadie wood” whose darkened grove lets no light through from the moon or stars shining above it (fig. 4.1). The poem describes the wood’s “uncouth pathes, and hidden waies unknowne: / Resembling CHAOS, or the hideous night”; its “thickest boughes, and in-most entries are / Not peirceable, to power of any starre.”4 In good em-blem-book style, the poem suggests we should adopt this impenetrability (p.177) as a self-defensive strategy by which to remain “inward close, unsearch’d with outward eies.” As we saw in chapter 3 (fig. 3.4), George Wither’s crocodile emblem recommended,
- If, therefore, thou thy Spoylers, wilt beguile,
- Thou must be armed, like this Crocodile;
- Ev’n with such nat’rall Armour (ev’ry day)
- As no man can bestowe or take away.
Peacham’s remedy for “open-hearted… weakenes” likewise urges human self-armament with an integrity borrowed from a nonhuman model that ordinarily terrifies us: the “hideous” night.5
Classifying human subjective experience at night as disturbed (liter-ally out of its orbit or, in the terms explored in chapter 2, “off course”), (p.178) Thomas Nashe’s Terrors of the Night, Or A Discourse of Apparitions (1594) presents itself as an explanation of the humoral distempers underlying dreams. But it also makes an acerbic contribution to the literary tradition anatomizing human folly. Like Peacham’s emblem, its commentary on the fate of humans at large in a night regime imagines a free fall into chaos. Nashe invokes the “desolate horrour… when Night in her rustie dungeon hath imprisoned our ey-sight” and calls night “this cursed ra-ven” who “pecks out mens eyes.”6 Assessing the “unconstant glimmering of our eies” (here the properties of the eyes waver as much as the ambient light they need), Nashe laments how “our reason… yeelds up our intellective apprehension to be mocked and troden under foote,” which he attributes to “our senses defect and abuse, that those organicall parts which to the minde are ordained embassadours, doo not their message as they ought, but by some misdiet or misgovernment being distempered, faile in their report” (C2r, C3r). Calling even unassisted sight a “glass,” Nashe compares “the glasses of our sight (in the night)” to “prospective glasses… which represented the images of things farre greater than they were; each moate in the darke they make a monster, and everie sleight glimmering a giant” (F4v). (Here “assisted” vision suggests more distortion than enhanced access to truth.) If sight fails, reason stumbles, falls to the ground, and gets “troden under foote.” Consistent with his metaphor invoking the police power of imprisonment, Nashe’s vision of nocturnal (p.179) agencies casts night in political terms as a dominion by other kinds. His main night minister is the devil, who enjoys a “nightly kingdome of dark-nes” as his “peculiar segniorie” (B1v–B2r). He also makes early mention of the “Robbin-good-fellowes, Elfes, Fairies, [and] Hobgoblins of our latter age” who do “most of their merry prankes in the Night” (B2v). In terms of nonhuman animals, a similar order of creatures as those populating Lear or Macbeth appears, and Nashe accords these nocturnal denizens a power to hold men in awe.
Nashe includes among his tales of “night terrors” a world-upside-down account of people “pursued by wesels and rats, and oftentimes with squirrels and hares” (H1r), harmless creatures terrifying to night-blind man. At night, “a cricket or a raven [can] keepe him fortie times in more awe than God or the Divell” (D1r). Should faith waver, Nashe contends, “me thinkes those dolefull Querristers of the night, the Scritch-owle, the Nightingale and croking Frogs, might over-awe us from anie insolent transgression at that time” (H3r). “Awe” and “overawe” suggest the spectacular coercive force of sovereignty to police “transgression” (”fortie times… more… than God”). The power of the frog reminds us that “we are but slyme & mud,” and the nightingale “puts us in minde of the end and punishment of lust”—both traditionally emblematic warnings. But the screech owl suggests a more intersubjective impact when Nashe refers to “her lavish blabbing of forbidden secrets” (H3r). She operates as a kind of hostile witness. For Shakespeare, who frequently mentions the owl, night’s great bird serves as a messenger. Venus and Adonis tells how “the owl, night’s herald, shrieks, ‘‘Tis very late’” (stanza 87), and Lady Macbeth, associating sleep and death, calls it “the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern’st good-night” (2.2.3–4). In each case the owl enforces creaturely decorum and admonishes humankind to withdraw its forces. A song in Love’s Labors Lost makes a refrain of the “staring owl” (5.2.906, 915), and even Titania commands some of her attendants to
- keep back
- The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders
- At our quaint spirits.
- (Midsummer, 2.2.6–7)
The owl watches and wonders, and it sets off a clamorous report; it is an agent, a spy, even a kind of moral arbiter. As we will see, night creatures threaten not only as potential predators but also as witnesses against straying humans by means of superior nocturnal skill. They see Virginia (p.180) Woolf’s “spot the size of a shilling” on the back of man’s head, and the early modern spot is both a technical blind spot and a moral blemish.7
Amid the snatching thorns and midnight briars of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a host of nonhumans enact and enforce what Oberon heralds as “night-rule,” hailing Puck with “how now, mad spirit! / What night-rule now about this haunted grove?” (3.2.4–5)8 For Midsummer (as for early modern texts generally), the census of the night arrays fantastical and actual creatures alike in its constellation of nocturnal agency. Night citizens range from those fairy royals “of no common rate” to Puck, a “lob of spirits,” and from Titania’s mixed order of servants (Peaseblossom, Mus-tardseed, Cobweb, and Moth) to whatever “vile thing” she might wake to see, “Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, / Pard, or boar with bristled hair” (3.1.148, 2.1.16, 2.2.40, 36–37). From the “ghosts… troop[ing] home to churchyards” before dawn to “spotted snakes,” “thorny hedgehogs,” “weaving spiders,” “beetles black,” worms, snails, and the “clamorous owl that nightly hoots,” the sheer diversity of the enrolled creatures of the night mark the play’s sustained attention to nonhumanity (3.2.381–82, 2.2.6–23 passim). In yet another expression giving the night dark eyes, all of these night agents “consort with black-brow’d night” (3.2.387). Thus the play makes more of nighttime than just the catalyst for identity confusion—among humans—to which an infinity of college essays on moonlight and Midsummer attest.
Midsummer’s night enacts the acute diminution of human powers as such, both sensory and political. By this comparatist sensibility, the play engages in the zoographic mode of critique outlined in chapter 3, and in this context, as we will see, it actually goes further and enforces human identity as a constraint. Even Theseus, the spokesperson of rational authority and civil order in the play, must be reconsidered in this light because Midsummer’s night sets sharp jurisdictional limits on the human institutions he represents. When Hermia concedes,
- Never so weary, never so in woe,
- Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briers,
- I can no further crawl, no further go,
(p.181) she has been reduced from the much-celebrated human privilege of bipedal uprightness to going on “all fours” in an agency crisis in which she then loses the locomotive power of her will. Shorn of self-moving autonomy, she curls up to wait until daylight rule resumes: “My legs can keep no pace with my desires. / Here will I rest me till the break of day” (3.2.442– 45). At dawn she can anticipate the withdrawal of night’s forces and the restoration of orthodox relations—among humans, that is, and with the firm caveat that they retire to bed on time when night inevitably returns. Too exclusive a focus on the promise of a flourishing human “kind” in Theseus’s closing lines obscures his observance of a transition in authority and his acceptance of the ongoing terms that require human confinement or withdrawal on a nightly basis. “Sweet friends, to bed” (5.1.363) gestures not only to sexual reproduction but to the dormancies of sleep.
Midsummer’s night setting thus alters the problem of resort beyond “the peril of the Athenian law” (4.1.152; italics added), intensifying it as a literal wandering in the dark without the protections human sovereignty is supposed to provide. To enter “a shadie wood,” in Peacham’s words, “resembling chaos, or the hideous night,” means switching between two perils. As Athenian power extends only to the city limits, so human authority finds the edge of its reach. Instead of a territorial horizon, though, we find a temporal one: human jurisdiction coincides, more or less, with daylight. The fact that Athenians stand for humanity in the play recalls the association of Athens with human pretensions to reason and philosophy evident in Gelli’s La Circe and in King Lear. What I hope to add to the familiar topographies of Midsummer, then, is an attention to questions of kind—more specifically, to the diverse capacities distributed across those different kinds. Thus instead of stressing the openly illusionistic, Ovidian transformation of Bottom into an ass and the entire rich field of metamorphosis, poesis, and (human) makerly power it suggests, this chapter considers the play’s representations of the agentive capacities of nonhuman actors—and the cosmopolitical ramifications of its taking note of them.9 How does nighttime enfranchise nonhumans? What are the implications (p.182) of the daily alternation of night and day not only for human laws but for cosmic claims about human political tenure itself? If we attend to the night-and-day jurisdictional implications posed by the play’s cast of nonhuman/nocturnal creatures, how do they qualify “the human” and the omnicompetence said to be developing for that species in period discourses? Perhaps nighttime in tragic contexts tends to resonate more at-mospherically and emblematically; as Nashe points out, “When anie Poet would describe a horrible Tragicall accident[,] to adde the more probabilitie & credence unto it, he dismally beginneth to tell, how it was darke night when it was done, and cheerfull daylight had quite abandoned the firma-ment” (H2v). Midsummer’s engagement of night rule, though, specifically brings it into the orbit of traditional comic concerns about the jurisdictional scope and mandate of (human) civil order.
Whether as the “rule” accorded to man in Genesis 1, or as Adam’s ability to name the animals, or as the mastery over nature then twinkling in the assisted eyes of technoscience, human authority depends on claims to cognitive and political preeminence. This is not a question whether the design of an authoritative man can “withstand the light of day,” as our sight-oriented, very human proverb for testing truth asks. What Midsummer suggests instead is that concepts of humanity and its competencies radically depend on time of day; we might even call them figments of daylight. Early modern human sovereignty, in other words, unravels in the jurisdictions of the night, when we hold neither cognitive nor political empire. The enterprises of experimental science and the Enlightenment respond to perceptions of this specifically human sensory shortfall—a weakness in whose description scientific and long-standing Christian notions substantially overlap.10 Because both traditions largely assert human dominion over creation, both necessarily contend with the dangerous weakness that (p.183) human limits inject into the project. Night subjects human ambitions for rule to the stern disciplines of a circadian rhythm.
This chapter, then, first explores what species considerations have to do with the analyses of cognition and sensation at the heart of two major treatments of doubt and human knowledge in early modernity: Montaigne’s “Apologie for Raymond Sebond” and Descartes’s Discourse on Method11 In a larger relay from sixteenth-century skepticism (especially Montaigne’s grasp of it as an ethical administration of doubt in light of traditional attributions of “vanity” to human knowledge) to the method-oriented protocols of seventeenth-century science, the workings of cross-species comparison change drastically. For both Montaigne and Descartes, a way of understanding embodied differences among kinds supplies a crucial substrate of analysis. How they handle embodiment, however, sets in motion divergent approaches to nonhuman subjective experience and investment in the world. These opposing treatments of species then underwrite adverse conclusions about human epistemological certainty. Montaigne’s “Apologie” deliberatively embraces the distinctness of animal perception and subjectivity as a compelling likelihood that requires us to accept the incompleteness of human perception and so asks us to see claims for human cognitive authority as false. Contrarily, Descartes’s Discourse dismisses the prospect of nonhuman subjectivity as a kind of heresy against a new orthodoxy that will affirm freestanding human sufficiency to determine truths.
Despite recurring commonplaces about the unreasonableness of “brutes,” as we have seen, a variegated spectrum of psychic possibilities readily appeared for beasts, despite the bar later set so forcefully against nonhuman thought in the Discourse. Descartes’s incoherent trial logic concerning animal capacities (affirming that they can have no thoughts because they have failed to convey them to us) represents not just the eth-ico-political intervention already considered in the introduction but also a refusal to entertain the classic epistemological problem of “other minds” methodologically. Descartes’s antidote to skeptical doubt in general thus also cancels a former power that cross-species comparisons had to qualify human claims, a power vividly on display in Gelli’s La Circe and wielded (p.184) also by Montaigne. Although some aspects of this debate are familiar (especially on the Cartesian side), attention to the argumentative details will suggest how pointed the exchange on human fallibility is between these writers—and just how much distinct ideas about species inform it. Returning briefly to the deficiencies of human sensation that night’s “rustie dungeon” makes evident, this part of the chapter ends by considering how Descartes and Montaigne handle human blindness and thinking in the dark.
With the species dimensions of the Montaigne/Descartes dispute over knowledge as background, the chapter turns to William Baldwin’s nocturnal thriller, Beware the Cat (composed around 1553 and published in 1570). Beware the Cat describes an epistemological “experiment” played out in the vocabularies of natural history and with the paraphernalia of quasi-medical remedies for human sensory limits. The “experiment” involves the elaborate concoction of mind-altering substances and prosthetic devices that radically enhance limping human faculties. This sensory supplement enables the cognitively assisted user to take in riveting scenes of the nightlife of cats—scenes that, in turn, demonstrate a feline empire extending from London rooftops to Ireland and beyond. The chapter ends by returning to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from the nonhuman and nocturnal perspective it conjures) to suggest the stakes of Shakespeare’s own qualifying approach to the pretensions of humanity and his imagining of divergent sovereignties when he makes night an alternative, nonhuman empire. Perhaps the most consequential doubt later dispelled by Cartesianism is humankind’s ethical and epistemological doubt about itself. But if the Enlightenment sunsets this particular vantage point for the critique of things human, it has only followed “as the night the day” that in a brave new world we would doubt it again, as modern biopower and its erosion of the discourse of rights, on the one hand, and nanotechnology and genetic informatics, on the other, stand a superseded model of “the human” on its once-vaunted head.
Contingencies of Kind: “Who Knowes?”
When Montaigne’s “Apologie” and Descartes’s Discourse take on certitude in human knowledge, they make certain inquiries and assumptions about the proper proceeding in any trial of truth. Embedded in this inquiry we find a far-reaching problem about what and when we are willing to suppose. Sixty-odd years separate the two writers, and their differences on the prospect of human certainty index an extraordinary transition in (p.185) European cosmography.12 Montaigne reckons human certitude impossible. Descartes outlines a protocol for validating it, a protocol that he further proposes to be universal among humans: “The power of judging well and of distinguishing the true from the false… is naturally equal in all men.”13 Montaigne was known for avowing that the differences among men could be greater than the difference between certain men and certain beasts), and Descartes specifically refutes Montaigne on this point: “Montaigne and Charron have said that there is more difference between man and man than between man and beast.”14 Descartes supports instead a wholly human grid of reference. Of reason, he asserts that because “it alone makes us men and distinguishes us from beasts, I prefer to believe that it exists whole and entire in each of us, and… that there are differences of degree only between accidents, but not at all between forms or natures of individuals of the same species” (2). The consequences for the grid of political and cross-creaturely reference are vast: either man and animals can be compared in one capacious table, or they must be divided as irreducibly different. We have already seen Bruno Latour describe this severance (p.186) at the heart of the modern constitution, with science as the place for objects and politics as the domain of subjects.15
Montaigne condemns how man “selecteth and separateth himselfe from out the ranke of other creatures… his fellow-brethren and compeers” (399), calling it “foolish-hardiness and self-presuming obstinacie” to “sequester our selves from their condition and societie” (432). As we have seen in the introduction, he uses spectacularly cosmopolitical language to bring man back among “the generall throng” (406) and imagines a collaborative community of knowledge. In contrast, Descartes proposes perhaps the most severely consequential formulation of an ontological barrier between human and animal ever to have been conceived. Comparative examination of the prudence of their arguments raises more questions than it answers. If strictures against non sequitur reasoning and unargued assertion hold sway, by standards of persuasive demonstration Montaigne makes the better case. Yet his essay is barely known, while the Cartesian motto “I think therefore I am” has proved to be staggeringly durable. In terms of the pivotal importance of animals to both essays (not to mention the dramatic consequences of this debate about animal life for animals), what we can say is that the Cartesian beast-machine doctrine served human convenience and desires for certitude well—though it failed to serve “science” in the neutral sense of an inquiry into horizons for truth concerning nonhuman mental phenomena.
Montaigne announces his goal (”my purpose is to crush, and trample… this humane pride and fiercenesse under foot, to make them feele the emptinesse, vacuitie, and no worth of man”), scouring a human perspective from his language by using the third person to refer to it (395). Toward the end of his long inquiry, he makes it clear he responds to the unwarranted grandiosity of the claims of human knowledge when he concludes that “the senses… are our maisters…, [that] science begins by them and in them is resolved…, [that they] are the beginning and end of humane knowledge,” and that therefore “the uncertaintie of our senses yeelds what ever they produce, also uncertain” (531, 545). In this entirely anti-Cartesian perspective, the “silly weapons of reason” (395) cannot overcome the sensory vagaries on which they depend. Montaigne instead asserts that there is no defensible distinction between what we call “senses” and “reason.” Human knowledge is unremittingly corporeal; human reason is a sublunary, (p.187) worldly art, subject to all the infirmities of matter. This Montaigne calls an “extreame difficultie” (534), but he accepts and even relishes this aspect of human estate. There is, in other words, no worldly end run around the mediating force of the particular and limited perceptual set supplied by the human senses.
Descartes lists the very diversities of opinion Montaigne had invoked to prove the limits of human knowledge as a justification to rid himself of all the existing prejudices composed by others and start afresh. He outlines a technique for “conducting one’s reason well and… seeking truth in the sciences” (1). He argues that whether in contexts of philosophy or human customs “there is nothing… about which there is not some dispute, and consequently nothing that is not doubtful”; he concludes that “considering how many opinions there can be about the very same matter… without there ever being the possibility of more than one opinion being true, I deemed everything that was merely probable to be well-nigh false” (5). Indeed, the “mere fact of the diversity that exists” among human opinions, customs, and institutions “suffices to assure one” of their “imperfec-tions” (8). Against the backdrop of a radical doubt that holds everything in suspense, Descartes elaborates self-reflexive rules he deems sufficient to govern his proceeding; “the first was never to accept anything as true that I did not plainly know to be such” (11). The demotion of the “merely probable,” of course, will have consequences for thinking across kinds, because the subjective experience of others, as such, cannot be “plainly” known without mediation, inference, or imagination.
By the standard of the plainly known, “I think, therefore I am” presents itself, famously, as the limit point for doubt. In this context, what was “well-nigh false” becomes absolutely so: Descartes rejects “as absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt.” He states, “But immediately afterward I noticed that… it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple” (18; italics in original). By putting the world in doubt, a confirmable self arises: “From the fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it followed very evidently and very certainly that I existed” (18; italics added). Against Montaigne, Descartes asserts the radical incorporeality of knowledge: “I could pretend that I had no body and that there was no world nor any place where I was[;] I could not pretend, on that account, that I did not exist at all” (18). Mind-body (p.188) dualism flows directly: “I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which is simply to think, and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place nor depends on any material thing. Thus this ‘I,’ that is to say, the soul through which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is even easier to know than the body, and even if there were no body at all, it would not cease to be all that it is” (19; italics added). Where Montaigne found “extreame difficultie,” Descartes suggests a relatively easy path. Leaving the “extravagant suppositions of the skeptics” behind “without scruple,” Descartes’s own scheme of suppositions radiates from this literally ego-anchored center. From the beachhead on truth that the self provides, he writes, “I considered in general what is needed for a proposition to be true and certain, for since I had just found one of them that I knew to be such, I thought I ought to know in what this certitude consists” (19). By these suppositional means, Descartes posits a domain of reason exempt from the vagaries of sense impressions. Those who imagine “it is difficult to know this” suffer from a failure to “lift their minds above sensible things,” and Descartes specifically includes among these failed thinkers anyone who subscribes to Montaigne’s account of the senses. He refers to this account as the “maxim in the schools that there is nothing in the understanding that has not first been in the senses,” and he refutes this maxim by asserting, “It is nevertheless certain that the ideas of God and the soul have never been” in the senses at all (21). The body and its sensory limits disposed of, Descartes advances his argument confidently. As he had previously opined, “Since God has given each of us some light to distinguish the true from the false, I would not have believed I ought to rest content for a single moment with the opinions of others” (16). One knows truth when one apprehends it by the lights of (God-given) reason.
Montaigne draws on ancient and Christian traditions that deemed human knowledge vain in the absence of divine insight or grace, while Descartes charts a method that, though technically orthodox, renders God vestigial to the scheme. But in addition to this theological distinction, between them we see a further change concerning what makes a fair inference across the epistemological gap of species difference—a change with both ethical and methodological dimensions. Where considerations of probability govern in an environment of doubt, Montaigne’s sharp an-tihuman exceptionalism supposes the existence of other minds. In contrast, under the protocols he charts as foundational to human certainty, Descartes affirms absolutely the nonexistence of nonhuman minds. Both make animals a critical resource, but for Montaigne beasts give evidence against man’s epistemological presumption, while in Descartes’s account, (p.189) as we have seen, they appear only to testify against themselves—in a trial procedure that defines them in advance as mute, as we have seen in the introduction.
Descartes’s denial of animal subjective states still indelibly marks conventional vocabularies positing “the human/animal divide” in the humanities and philosophy, though its terms lack the same force where scientific research on animals aims to discover how to apprehend the array of their nonobvious capacities.16 When Descartes proceeds to entertain a more elaborate supposition than the earlier claim that he could easily and successfully “pretend” that he “had no body” (18), animals enter the picture. He imagines what would result if God had “formed the body of a man exactly like one of ours… without putting into it, at the start, any rational soul” (26; italics added). This virtual scientific experiment on hypothetical data transpires inside the mental laboratory of Descartes’s thinking “I” (19). He reports that “on examining the functions” of this hypothetical body, his virtual anatomy finds “precisely all those things that can be in us without our thinking about them”—the involuntary impulses to growth, movement, and sensation that had traditionally been allocated to Aristotle’s vegetative and sensitive souls (26). Here, Descartes conjures beasts to perform their binary burden as necessary counterpoints to human mindedness and to exemplify what no-mind is (in the Western sense of that idea). He glosses the set of functions found “in” the hypothetical but examinable body as matching “all the same features in which one can say that animals lacking reason resemble us” (26)17 Embedding the assumption that animals lack reason violates Descartes’s stated method of rejecting as false or prejudicial hearsay whatever cannot be known plainly and directly.18 As we have seen, the cognitive bubble of cogito ergo sum (p.190) by definition can offer no “plain” or “direct” way to know anything about animal minds. Nor can it provide a hand-, foot-, tooth-, or claw-hold by which the question of other minds (human or animal) or their capacities (whether alike or different) might be entertained.19
Mind/body dualism, riding in on this assumption about an absolute difference between man and beast, defines only human estate: the body that constitutes just half of this uniquely hybrid human equals the un-mixed entirety of nonhuman animal life. The human bodily vehicle and the integral animal alike are governed solely by sensory data and instinctual programming or what Descartes repeatedly terms “the disposition of their organs” (26, 32). By the “addition” of an immortal soul that Descartes supposes, divine authority backs the attribution of reason to humankind. Pressed by the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, Descartes would clarify that he did not deny animals sensation.20 Rather, his doctrine exiles sensation from the picture of what constitutes mind, cogitation, thought, and soul and, by making animals all body and no mind, excludes them from participation in knowledge of the world. Descartes’s project instead promotes the radical sufficiency of an exclusively human perspective.
Montaigne rebuts in advance many of the methodological details central to Descartes’s proceeding. The refrain of the “Apologie”—“How do I know?”—adapts its interrogative from the Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus, whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism greatly influenced the Essais21 But Montaigne also phrases his question in another way, one that acknowledges and incorporates the epistemological problem of other minds, asking, (p.191) “Who knowes?” This is not simply a matter of deciding among variant human opinions (wise or ignorant, young or old, blind or sighted, awake or dreaming, sick or healthy, French or German—all variables he details). It concerns thinking about thinking across species. Posed across kinds, “Who knowes?” complicates the question “How do I know?” because the idea that other creatures know by different means makes visible the possibility that human means might be inadequate and the probability that human means yield only a partial and even provincial vision of the world. “When I am playing with my Cat,” Montaigne muses (in the passage discussed in chapter 2), “who knowes whether she have more sport in dallying with me, than I have in gaming with her?… If I have my houre to begin or to refuse, so hath she hers” (399; italics added). Montaigne widens the horizon for divergences of subjective experience and investment. Quarreling in advance with the way Descartes draws his conclusions, he asks pointedly methodological questions: “How knoweth [man] by the vertue of his understanding the inward and secret motions of beasts? By what comparison from them to us doth he conclude the brutishnesse, he ascribeth unto them?” (399). Questioning the how of human knowledge and judging its comparative practices, analogical failures, and prejudicial leaps, Montaigne pressures the legitimacy of human reason and its habitual conclusions.
Considering the “excellency beasts have over us” in many of “their workes” (the order of bees, the judgment of swallows, the spider’s design— all examples drawn from the natural history tradition), he asks whether human reference of animal abilities to the programmings of instinct is logical or equitable. Because we see that “even in our grosest workes… our minde employeth the uttermost of her skill and forces… why should we not thinke as much of them? Wherefore doe we attribute the workes, which excell what ever we can performe, either by nature or by art, unto a kinde of unknowne, naturall, and servile inclination?” (402). Montaigne directly challenges the intellectual and methodological warrants for Descartes’s proposition that “the fact that [animals] do something better than we do does not prove they have any intelligence… but rather it proves that they have no intelligence at all, and that it is nature that acts in them” just like a “clock composed exclusively of wheels and springs” (33)22 At stake is not only the measure of a fair proof but also the intersubjective (p.192) presumptions we set about it, including who bears its burden in a controversy between minds.
Montaigne calls for an ethical administration of interpretation in the contexts of uncertainty. He questions the fundamental rationality of human denials of “deliberation, fore-thought, and conclusion” or “knowledge, consent, or discourse” on behalf of other creatures in the absence of certain knowledge; “why say wee not likewise that that is science, and prudence in them?” (402, 415, 409; italics added). Likelihood, he argues, runs in their favor. “There is no likelyhood… the beasts doe the very same things by a naturall inclination and forced genuitie, which we doe of our owne freewill and industrie.” Instead, employing a more reviewable structure of inference and conclusion than Descartes later would use and insisting that our conclusions must heel to the constraints of probability, he urges, “Of the very same effects we must conclude alike faculties; and by the richest effects infer the noblest faculties, and consequently acknowledge, that the same discourse and way, we hold of working, the very same, or perhaps some other better, do beasts hold” (406–7; italics added). Indeed, in the expansive revisions of the Essais, both “and by the richest effects infer the noblest faculties” and that last rigorous supposition—“or perhaps some other better”—were insertions in the 1595 edition that escalated Montaigne’s 1576 point about fair reasoning.23 His commentary, like Descartes’s, concerns a “method of seeking truth” and a protocol for good inferences, but he requires that species be understood as deeply coloring such truths as are perceived.
Montaigne refuses to privilege a human perspective ideologically. But what is also critically important is that Montaigne constantly questions what makes a good inference methodologically. Entering the arena of comparative sensation, he states that his “first consideration” is to question “whether man be provided with all naturall senses, or no” (532). Given his observation (concurring with Plutarch and Gelli) that diverse creatures “live an entire and perfect life, some without sight, and some without (p.193) hearing,” he asks again, “Who knoweth whether we also want either one, two, three, or many senses more?… If we want any one, our discourse cannot discover the want or defect thereof” (532; italics added). “Perfection” and completeness normally register the higher developmental attainment attributed to males over “defective” females and humans over lower-order creatures in Aristotelian biology. Montaigne’s rhetorical intervention, to give animals the benefit of the force of the concept, scatters the traditional hierarchy, in Puck’s words, like “choughs… rising and cawing at the gun’s report” (3.2.21).
Sight, smell, and taste are not commensurate among humans or consistent over time for one person; from asking what a plenary set of senses might include, Montaigne launches a cross-species consideration of just those senses of which we are aware. Because perception of color was said to vary among humans, especially under circumstances of jaundice or a blood condition said to redden the viewed world, “What know we whether [those humours] are predominant and ordinarie in beasts?” (541). If you squint, he argues, objects “seeme longer and outstretched”—“many beasts have their eye as winking” as this, and that may mean that “this length is then happily the true forme of that [observed] body” (541). Noting that the properties of sound are affected if the normal passages of our hearing are disturbed or blocked, he concludes, “Such beasts as have hairie eares, or that in lieu of an eare have but a little hole, doe not by consequence heare that we heare” (542). Even among shared faculties of sensation, then, we find variability. Whose perception is correct? Who knows? “It is not said,” he answers, “that the essence of things, hath reference to man alone. Hardnesse, whitenesse, depth and sharpnesse,… concern the knowledge of beasts as well as ours” (541). A pan-species dilemma of judgment arises.
Treating the matter of poisonous bodily fluids between man and snakes (based on the proverbial wisdom that human saliva kills certain snakes), Montaigne poses a further dilemma, asking, “What qualities shall we give unto spettle, either according to us, or according to the Serpent? By which two senses shall we verifie its true essence?” He reports also of Indian fish in Pliny that “to us are poison, and we bane to them;… now… is man or the Sea-hare poison? Whom shall we beleeve, either the fish of man, or the man of fish?” (541). This view of incommensurate, even adverse sensory determinations triggers the problem already considered concerning what assemblage of subjects might be capable of bringing them into one frame. But Montaigne also goes further, wondering about occult properties such as magnetism that were termed “secret” by Renaissance natural historians. As he speculates, “Is it not likely there should be sensitive (p.194) faculties… able to judge and perceive them?” (533). Daily observance of familiar creatures provides some evidence of this likelihood:
It is happily some particular sense that… teacheth a Hen… to fear a Hawke, and not a Goose or a Peacocke, farre greater birds: That warneth yong chickins of this hostile qualitie which the Cat hath against them, and not to distrust a Dogge: to strut and arme themselves against the mewing of the one (in some sort a flattering and milde voice) and not against the barking of the other (a snarling and quarrelous voice). (534)
Something legible to some sense that exceeds our perception may act to guide these animals; certainly we cannot prove or know that it does not. While Montaigne’s de-perfected mankind patches together truths “by the consultation and concurrence of our five senses” (542–43), perhaps “there was required the accord and consent of eight or ten senses” before any truth may warrant the name (534). Montaigne thus highlights problems for any truth-seeking method that constrains itself to specifically human capacities—as Descartes’s method wholly and explicitly does.24
I stress here comparative matters of cognition and method, having already discussed the political dimensions of this debate in the introduction. But Montaigne’s conjuring of a collective body to engage in collaborative science makes the range of observed and potential capacities across species necessary to any ultimate or assured claim; it makes truth the business of an engaged cosmopolitical negotiation rather than human self-sufficiency. Diverse embodied perspectives must be conferred in his vision of a conference on truth designed to assemble all the sensory data collected across kinds. “If the senses be our first Judges, it is not ours that must only be called to counsell: For, in this facultie, beasts have as much (or more) right than we” (540). For all man’s claims to extraordinary competence as a paragon, Montaigne’s compromised man must welcome beasts as fellow researchers who sometimes have superior skills.
And whenever night falls, the animals surely do have superior powers—and for the night’s duration. As a final point on this controversy between Montaigne and Descartes, I cannot omit brief mention of what use they make of conventional metaphors connecting light, darkness, vision, and blindness to a discourse about human knowledge. We have already (p.195) seen Descartes refer to the “light” of reason. Early in the Discourse (before he begins referring to his insights as easily reached), he speaks of moving carefully, “like a man who walks alone in the dark,” resolving to “go so slowly and use so much circumspection… that, if I advanced only very slightly, at least I would… keep myself from falling” (10). Linking the danger of limited senses in the dark with that most important criterion of human exceptionalism, upright posture, Descartes seems to regard night as a general image for the basic conditions of human inquiry. At night, he might fall down. By the end of the Discourse, though, his imagery shifts away from the general night blindness of all humans to an image of “actual” blindness. Descartes’s blind man represents Aristotelians, school-men, and “very mediocre” minds—his adversaries.25 In insisting on specialized vocabularies of the university tradition, he opines, “They seem to me like a blind man who, in order to fight against someone who is sighted, had made his opponent go into the depths of some very dark cellar.” Against these adversaries, he imagines his own enterprise “as if I were to open some windows and make some daylight enter that cellar” (39–40). For Descartes, darkness and its oppression of human powers stem from an artificially constrained scenario (the cellar), suggesting a blameworthy, even bad-faith failure on the part of (some, or most) individuals instead of representing a universal condition for the inquiring human mind.
Montaigne handles these metaphors quite differently; for him, we humans are all thrashing around in the dark. Arguing from the proposition that someone blind from birth cannot know what the sight he lacks is like, he draws conclusions for the overall human condition from that kind of blindness: “Therefore ought we not to take assurance that our mind is contented and satisfied with those [senses] we have, seeing it hath not wherewith to feele her owne malady, and perceive her imperfection” or to “discover the… defect” (532)26 The case of blindness is far less exceptional (p.196) than it may seem, especially considering the severity of impaired human vision in the early modern night. In a typically rich anecdote, the essayist describes an example from his experience. “I have seene a Gentleman of a good house, borne blind,” he writes, whose use of sighted vocabulary (that a child is “a goodly thing to see” or that the “Sunne shines cleare”) strikes Montaigne for the epistemological gap it indicates. He expands, “Give him a ball, he… strikes it away with his racket; in a piece he shutes at ran-dome; and is well pleased with what his men tell him, be [the shot] high or wide” (533). The comparative implications for human knowledge are staggering, as Montaigne leverages the image of a gun-happy blind person taking aim at random targets to ask, again, “Who knowes whether mankind commit as great a folly, for want of some sense, and that by this default, the greater part of the visage of things be concealed from us? Who knowes… whether the divers effects of beasts, which exceed our capacity, are produced by the facultie of some sense that we want? And whether some of them, have by that meane a fuller and more perfect life then [sic] ours?” (533; italics added). For Montaigne, the case of blindness presents a cautionary tale for humanity about the undetectability of our sensory ignorances; for Descartes it serves as a charge against adversaries self-imprisoned in the “rustie dungeon” of sense impressions.
While Montaigne understands the senses “to be the extreame bounds of our perceiving,” Descartes circumscribes their vulnerability by subor-dinating them to the exclusively human governance of reason or the rational soul, which harbors its own protocol concerning what is “plainly” true. Humans, then, have universally available access to the totality of truth in a Cartesian system; animals have no relation to the concept. In the dispute about animal “science” and the stakeholdership of beasts in knowledge of the world, Montaigne’s zoographic critique of human sufficiency and his claim that “the essence of things… hardnesse, whitenesse, depth and sharpnesse… concern the knowledge of beasts as well as ours” stand as the precise targets of Cartesian intervention (541). The controversy highlights the interface between political interestedness and status as a subject of knowledge. In the same rising grid by which humans would be compared exclusively to themselves that Traub has described, all humans are deemed to have like access to reason (whether they use it or not), and nonhumans have no relevance to inquiry, nor can they claim (p.197) a place at the table where knowledge is to be corrected and conferred, as Montaigne proposes we would need them to do. In asserting the radical sufficiency of humans to truth, then, Descartes also constitutes humankind’s private and monopoly relation to it.
Glancing ahead to the seventeenth-century progress of this enterprise in human self-confidence, we see how advances in lens making—the telescope and microscope—appear to prop up the “panoptical man” long theorized in exceptionalist accounts of humanity, as discussed in chapter 2. But a major treatise such as Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies (1665) indexes almost as much resistance by creatures and the material world to human dominion as it sounds any successful human conquest. Although the opening lines of the preface celebrate technology as “the great Prerogative of Mankind above other Creatures” and man’s “peculiar priviledge” over them, Hooke’s agenda for the Royal Society’s work consistently portrays humankind as weak and error prone, a creature rife with infirmities. He speaks of “rectifying the operations of the Sense” and pursuing sensory “defects” in order to “understand how to supply them, and by what assistances we may inlarge their power” so that “our command over things [may] be establisht.”27 He stresses “watchfulness over the failings and an inlargement of the dominion, of the Senses” (iii). Concerned mainly with magnification, he laments how “not having a full sensation of the Object, we must be very lame and imperfect in our conceptions about it” (ii). Indeed, prosthetic language abounds: “We” can succeed “by addition of… artificial Instruments”; this “we” can “supply… [the senses’] infirmities with Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural” (i, iii). At the heart of a brief for the grand technological knowledge projects of the Royal Society, we still find a lingering vision of man as unaccommodated; he is an insufficient animal, an unready species that must be outfitted with prosthetic additions to pursue the animal perfection that eludes him.
Like many other scientists, Hooke conceptualizes this enterprise as a restoration of Edenic knowledge and original cosmic “dominion,” remediating the extensive intellectual damage caused by the Fall (i, vii–viii). As a result, his discourse still powerfully reflects the animal comparisons so important to earlier modes of zoographic critique that had tried to measure animal sovereignties and “happiness.” In Hooke, though, what was once (p.198) comparison has evolved into a rivalry or competition. He makes continuing note of how human senses remain in “many particulars much outdone by those of other Creatures” (ii). Citing an animal ability that had been widely celebrated across the natural-historical literature, he urges that by means of “mechanical contrivances” humans might “also judge (as other Creatures seem to do) what is wholsome, what poison; and in a word… the specific properties of Bodies” (ix). Even for the weaker faculty of smell, Hooke sets high goals: “Who knowes, but that the Industry of man… may find out wayes of improving this sense to as great a degree of perfection as it is in any Animal, and perhaps yet higher” (xi). How high? Invoking a capacity known only as a property pertaining to other creatures, Hooke comically calls the human inability to fly a “Defect.” Yet he readily imagines that once we supplement “the want of strength in humane muscles” it will be nothing less than “easie to make twenty contrivances to perform the office of Wings” (xvi). No thought of Icarus’s fate in such an animal-imitating experiment dampens Hooke’s dream of the perfections ahead for mankind. Hooke’s perspective, then, equivocates. On the one hand, he promotes a vision of humanity as the proud possessor of sovereign, makerly power (to create scientific inventions, to instrumentalize matter, and to command the planet). But on the other hand, he still reflects a self-doubting vision that totes up human powers to find them lacking—a vision of man as imperfect, comparatively deficient, and as much in need of supplements as King Lear’s man had been.
Baldwin’s Beware the Cat: Assisted Cognition Reveals Feline Empire!
Hooke’s Micrographia delivered a series of perspectives that had previously been not only invisible but also unsupposed. His visual investigation of the smallest thing (a point) by means of a needle’s tip and of the sharpest thing (the straight line of a razor’s edge) altered these once miniscule forms into dense, craggy landscapes. As he puts the effects of this, “By means of telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence, there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding” (iv). These new world discoveries required only the supplement of “Optical Glasses,” first beginning to be developed in Zeeland the 1590s. But fantasies of assisted cognition and sensory “helps,” of course, predate this. Before there were optical glasses, other aids offered themselves to the inquiring mind—oil of fox, distillation of hedgehog, and (p.199) a mash of animal ears and tongues applied directly to the human head, for example.28
William Baldwin’s 1570 A Marvelous Hystory intitulede, Beware the Cat has mainly interested scholars for its early and innovative place in the history of English prose fiction and for its contributions to religious controversy on the Protestant side. With its vituperous language against “privy masses,” its overt complaint about the hearsay dimension of oral communication, and its allegorical attack on aspects of church doctrine that were mere “human” traditions, it offers vivid anti-Catholic diatribe.29 At times, though, its allegories resist interpretive taming because of the text’s large and diverse feline population. When we treat the cats as allegorical figures (as clearly to a good extent it is intended we should), cats and their elaborate rituals represent those traditions of the Catholic Church said to lack a scriptural basis; in this sense, they themselves (and anyone who believes in this account of them too) suggest the credulity toward “hearsay” so reviled by Protestant propagandists. On the other hand, the text’s bursting realistic detail invites us to take its cats to indicate cats literally, recalling Derrida’s “a real cat [and not] the figure of a cat.”30 As Karen Raber puts it, we find both a deployment of cat figures “to pillory Catholicism” and overwhelming testimony to “the material fact that cats are… everywhere.”31 Citing Ovid, Topsell records that the cat was associated with spying and was considered “a watchful and wary beast” in (p.200) Greece and Egypt; he elaborates that “her eyes glister above measure… and in the night they can barely be endured, for their flaming aspect.” At one time, he says, “cats were all wild, but afterward they retired to houses.”32 Thus the cat’s special gaze and its liminality enable it to spy on humans sneaking around in dark corners—whether recusant Catholics or bawds and hypocrites of unspecified denomination—to enormous critical effect. As a result, although cats seem to stand for Catholicism allegorically, what one character will call “natural cats” also make it their nightly business to police recusancy alongside other human errancies. Baldwin’s cats catch both vice and mice.
Baldwin embeds his story in dizzying layers of reportage. A Baldwin-like anonymous narrator recounts tales told one night in London by a showily pedantic and unreliable speaker, Master Streamer, who in turn reports further matter from more distant contexts. This tour de force in narrative framing grounds the text’s importance to developments in prose fiction.33 The epistle dedicatory outlines how “Baldwin” has divided Streamer’s “Oration” into “three parts, and set the argument before them and an instruction after them, with such notes as might be gathered thereof, so making it booklike.”34 With such devices, along with a poem to the reader, Beware the Cat heavily moralizes the oration’s contents. The poem admonishes us that “the Cat gan tell,” warning that whoever might “now boast” needs to “beware” that “the Cat will him disclose” (1–2). The “Exhortation” proposes that despite the Baldwin-like narrator’s original doubt of the proposition, Streamer’s oration has “proved that cats do understand us and mark our secret doings,” incorporating that classic trope of persuasion, the resistant character successfully convinced. It also urges us again to “take profit” from the tale and “so live, both openly and privily that neither our own cat, admitted to all secrets, be able to declare (p.201) aught of us to the world save what is laudable and honest; nor the Devil’s cat, which will we or nill we seeth… all our ill doings, have ought to lay against us afore the face of God” (54). The liminal cat of house and street (a kind of familiar, yet distinctly not “the Devil’s cat”) operates as a night agent, a spy among, and witness against, humans. Even more than the owl in Shakespeare and Nashe, Baldwin’s marginal commentary warns that “cats are admitted to all secrets” (38).
Relations across species prove pivotal to the narrative; questions of kind even provide a somewhat clearer structuring force than the (presumably prioritized) religious allegory does. Baldwin’s reference to “Christmas communications” in the epistle dedicatory suggests an interpretive frame of carnival and gives us notice that folly speaks, but the same letter also stresses the “instruction” that can be gleaned from it and advises the reader again to “learn to Beware the Cat” (3–4). As with Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, sometimes quotation marks mock the speech they enclose, but not always. Opening the story, the Baldwin-like narrator describes how, “at Christmas last,” he was at court working with the master of the king’s pastimes “about setting forth certain interludes” (5)35 At night, “it pleased Master Ferrers to make me his bedfellow, and on a pallet cast upon the rushes of his own chamber to lodge Master Willot and Master Streamer, the one his Astronomer, the other his Divine.” Under these auspicious circumstances, “we used nightly at our lodging to talk of sundry things.” Cutting to the chase, we immediately learn that “on a night (which I think was the twenty-eight of December)… there fell a controversy between Master Streamer, who with Master Willot had already slept his first sleep, and me, that was newly come unto bed.” The controversy? “Whether birds and beasts had reason” (5). This perennial pre-Cartesian topic—a scene of differentiation to which conversation repeatedly turns—never lacked for a brace of partisans, not only contra, but also pro.
Creaturely decorum in literary and professional contexts precipitates their debate. The king’s players were rehearsing “a play of Aesop’s Crow.”36 The narrator proposes that while in a tale it is “sufferable to imagine and tell of something by [beasts] spoken or reasonably done,” he finds it unex-ampled in performance because it is “uncomely… to bring them in lively (p.202) personages to speak, do, reason, and allege authorities out of authors” (5).
But Streamer, “being more divine in this point than [the narrator] was ware of, held the contrary part, affirming that beasts and fowls had reason, and that as much as men, yea, and in some points more” (6). Even the cadence of Streamer’s reported assertion—squeezing in a last supposition about the prospect of animal superiority in some things—marks his source as the “happy beast” tradition of Plutarch’s dialogues and natural-historical literature generally. The list of particulars duly follows. Streamer, “for proof of his assertion declared many things,” including “elephants that walked upon cords, hedgehogs that knew always what weather would come, foxes and dogs that after they had been abroad all night killing geese and sheep would come home in the morning and put their necks into their collars, parrots that bewailed their keeper’s deaths, swallows that with celandine open their young ones’ eyes, and an hundred things more” (6)37 The innocent narrator responds with the conventional reply that these things stem from instinct and represent “natural kindly actions” and not reason, and he alleges for proof the “authority of most grave and learned philosophers,” who remain unnamed (6).
In a rich compression of the negotiations between traditional learning and experiential (or “experimental”) approaches that first began in the contexts of fifteenth-century anatomical learning, Streamer—like Descartes later—asserts that argument by authorities has only the limited value of hearsay compared to direct knowledge. Of reasoning animals, he says, “I know what I know,… not only… by hearsay… but by what I myself have proved.” His interlocutors are all ears when he announces that “I have heard them and understand them… as well as I understand you” (6). This bold assertion sets Ferrers laughing, but the narrator becomes more circumspect. Recalling having read something “in Albertus’ works,” he reflects that there might be more to this subject than meets the eye (”there might be somewhat more than I did know”), and he presses for details. Streamer—on the condition his auditors make no interruption—agrees to tell “a story of one piece of mine own experimenting as should… put you out of doubt concerning this matter” (6). The doubt-resolving “story” of an “experiment” ensues.
Propped up in bed, Streamer tells of his attentions to certain cats who gathered outside the window of a room where he once lodged. Having been kept awake nightly by their noise, when “sitting by the fire with certain of (p.203) the house,” he complains of “what a wawling the cats had made there the night before from ten o’clock till one.” By this introduction, he continues, “we fell in communication of cats,… some affirming as I do now (but I was against it then), that they had understanding” (11). By this fireside, one servant offers his story of having been addressed at night by a cat on the road in Kankwood, who advised him to commend her to his own cat and pass on the news that “Grimalkin is dead.” When the servant arrived home and reported the event, likewise “sitting by the fire with his wife and his household,” to their surprise their house cat overhears of Grimal-kin’s fate, speaks to them, and then “went her way and was never seen after.” This episode demonstrates how “cats carry news,” a topic of later marvel in the conversation (14).
The Kankwood anecdote causes another man to speak up with a tale he never credited before, but which on reflection appeared to be a part of the same Grimalkin story. The men confer about dates and agree that both accounts are about forty years old. The second tale relates events in Ireland (a natural locus for the incredible): one night “we fell in talk (as we have done now) of strange adventures, and of cats” (12). The speaker’s elaborate narrative purports to tell of the death of Grimalkin, a sequence including more speaking cats (and one scary cat in particular with a creepily bottomless appetite). Here, “a well-learned” man in the company intervenes to clarify: “There is in cats, as in all other kinds of beasts, a certain reason and language whereby they understand one another. But, as touching this, Grimalkin I take rather to be an hagat or a witch than a cat” (16). This leads to talk of transubstantiation and metamorphosis, with extended speculation about whether they involve an actual material change in the body, movement of souls between bodies, or simply tricks played on deceivable human senses (because ointments and certain candles can easily hoodwink “the right conception of the eye” ). Witchcraft also yields a chance to attack the pope: “Natural cats that were not so wise have had [Grimalkin, as witch] and her race in reverence among them… like as we silly fools… reverenced the Pope” (20). But the still-doubting Streamer seizes on the reference to “natural cats” to return the discussion to them, querying the speaker again about their wit and comprehension.
Here things take a scholarly turn. The “learned” interlocutor gives Streamer a bookish and nuanced answer:
There is no kind of sensible creatures but have reason and understand-ing; whereby, in their kind, each understandeth other and do therein in some points so excel that the consideration thereof moved Pythagoras (p.204) (as you know) to believe and affirm that after death men’s souls went into beasts and beasts’ souls into men, and every one according to his desert in his former body. And although his opinion be fond and false, yet that which drew him thereto is evident and true—and that is the wit and reason of diverse beasts, and again the dull, beastly, brutish ignorance of diverse men. (21)
Baldwin’s marginal gloss to this passage asserts simply that “some beasts are wiser than men.” While distancing himself from Pythagoras, the speaker distinguishes the doctrine of transmigration from its underlying basis in species-comparative wit and wisdom, revealing his own reading in the “happy beast” tradition of Plutarch and others.
This well-read commentator does adduce “daily experience” as evidence for communication among birds and beasts, but he also adds an anecdote about a bishop of Alexandria who found means to understand animal speech.38 What sets Streamer down the path to experimentation is his reference to “magic natural” as a way “to subtiliate his sensible powers, either by purging his brain by dry drinks and fumes, or else to augment the brains of his power perceptible by other natural medicines” (21). Streamer evinces the desire still driving Hooke almost a century later: a desire for “subtiliated” and remediated or artificially enhanced senses. Instead of outfitting himself with an optical glass, the lore at hand directs Streamer instead toward self-dosing with “natural medicines.”39 Not yet an experimental regime that tortures the target object to force it to yield up its truths (by application of pressure or the vacuum of the air pump, or heat, or the vivisecting knife), this experiential science instead alters the (p.205) investigator by medicating him as an observing subject. This science, in other words, strives to repair or enhance the faculties of a dysfunctional cogito, taking human subjective weakness as the obstacle to knowledge rather than any particular resistance in the object itself. The first part of his oration ends with Streamer heading to bed, where he “could think of nothing else” (22).
Back in his room, however, he realizes the cats have assembled again outside. Part 2 opens with Streamer’s increasing attentiveness, noting first that cats “have sundry voices” and display an order not unlike music, with such a “bass” and “treble” that “it might be counted a double diapason” (23). He approaches the window to observe their gestures, a form of language Montaigne had celebrated: “There is no motion nor jesture that doth not speake, and speakes in a language very easie… to be under-stood: nay which is more, it is a language common and publike to all.”40 Interpreting the “common and publike” language of the scene, Streamer exclaims, “I promise you it was a thing worth the marking to see what countenances, what becks, yea and what order was among them,” and the marginal gloss affirms the legibility of gestures, noting that “cats keep order among themselves” and that “cats make courtesy with their tails and necks” (like courtiers) (23). Overwhelmed by curiosity, Streamer “could not sleep of all that night, but lay devising by what means [he] might learn to understand them” (24). Suddenly remembering something he “read in Albertus Magnus’ works” about how “to understand birds’ voices,” he seeks the book. Citing the Latin text of Liber secretorum de virtutibus herbarum, lapidum, et animalium (ca. 1486)—a text falsely attributed to Albertus—Streamer records his joy at finding the recipe (”Lord how glad I was” )41 His night reading leads to a sense of purpose: “When I had thoroughly marked the medicine,… I devised thereby how to make a philter for to serve my purpose” (24). Better science through medicine. Streamer’s glib unconcern with the origin of the medicine as a recipe for understanding birds will be compounded as he supplements and modifies it freely into more convenient terms. The ripe slapstick of his experiment in mental refinement does not prepare the reader for the consequential account he will give of the alternate, feline jurisdiction his dosings make visible.
The sparse instructions direct Streamer to take two companions on Simon (p.206) and Jude’s Day “with hounds into a certain wood, and the first beast that thou meetest take, and prepare with the heart of a fox.” The specified day being too far off and hunting being troublesome, Streamer concludes that the likeliest animal to meet would be a hedgehog (”one of the planetical beasts, and therefore good in magic” (25) (figs. 4.2 and 4.3). Heading for St. Johns Wood, he meets some hunters and procures an already-flayed fox from them—plus a hare for good measure. He himself kills a hedgehog he finds sitting cozily in its den (”in a hole of the earth by the root of an hollow (p.207) tree… with a bushel of crabs [apples] about him”)42 Then he hurries back to his laboratory-abattoir-kitchen, killing a kite by happenstance on the way and keeping it to supply extra ingredients (”to make up the mess”) for the “medicine” (26). In the cascading series of surplus bodies for this gallimaufry of kinds, at the last minute a servant shows up with a flayed cat to boot, and the wildly improvised ritual preparations begin.43
After unskinning the “urchin” (hedgehog), Streamer puts its flesh, along with white wine, rosemary, and neat’s tongue, in a vessel to boil, collecting “the water that distilled from it” (27)44 Separately he beats together in a mortar segments of the cat’s liver, spleen, and kidney; its whole heart; the fox’s heart; the hare’s brain; the kite’s stomach; and the hedgehog’s kidneys—a concoction he bakes on a stone as “a cake.” A second set of diverse parts is “pounded together,” and that Streamer places in a cloth hung over a basin in the sun, “out of which dropped within four hours after about half a pint of oil very fair and clear” (28). As dinner, Streamer eats the boiled hedgehog with the “cake” and drinks the “distillation of the urchin’s broth,” all of which make him very sleepy. After a nap, he awakes, and from the mouth and nose he “purged exceedingly such… matters as I never saw before,” leaving his head and body “in exceeding good temper” and his brain “marvelously well-purged” (28). So clarified, Streamer’s perceptual apparatus awaits two contingencies: the preparation of further sensory aids and the coming of night.
To understand animal language, Streamer next applies concoctions made of their organs of communication to his own cleansed organs of perception. Their ears and tongues and his head will converge and comingle in a transfer of properties pertinent to understanding. Grinding the dismembered ears of his fodder animals into a jelly and folding in “rue, fennel, (p.208) lowache, and leek blades,” he stuffs two “pillows” with the mixture, fries them in “good olive oil,” and (logically enough) affixes the pillows to his ears (he later ties them with “a kercher about my head” ). Taking the tongues of the same group, he soaks them in wine, mortars them with an ounce of “new cat’s dung,” and adds mustard seed, garlic, and pepper (29). With this brew, he makes certain tablets. Supping on the remainder of his dinner after the afternoon’s labors, in a sordid spoof of religious ritual Streamer anoints his head with the wine and oil. Well dosed and toting his “presciencial pills” (one for each nostril and one set above and one set below his tongue), he sets out for his perch overlooking the roof to complete the experiment he has prepared.
The “presciencial pills” work all too well. Streamer finds it almost impossible to parse the noises that flood his ears: “The sound of them altogether was so disordered and monstrous that I could discern no one from the other, save only the harmony of the moving of the spheres” (31). The marginal note points out that “the poetical fury came upon him,” and Streamer gives a rumbling inventory of sounds:
Barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wawling of cats, rumbling of rats, gaggling of geese, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, crowing of cocks, sewing of socks, cackling of hens, scabbling of pens, peeping of mice, trulling of dice, curling of frogs, and toads in the bogs, chirking of crickets, shutting of wickets, shriking of owls, flittering of fowls, routing of knaves, snorting of slaves, farting of churls, fizzling of girls, with many things else. (32)
When the nearby bells of St. Botolph’s then ring in his tenderized ears, Streamer is completely undone. But he gathers himself, adjusts to the volume, and settles in with the moon “to harken to the cats” (36), who reassemble at their appointed hour. Feline orderliness strikes him again, with the assembly doing “their ‘beisance as they did the night before” to the large gray cat presiding. But this time, when the gray cat speaks, Streamer understands him “as well as if he had spoken English.” The cats’ commission reveals an entire feline empire operating across and despite human borders, from London, to Ireland, to Caithness.
Topsell had recorded that “some have thought that [cats] have a peculiar intelligible language among themselves” (83). What Streamer witnesses through the looking glass of his window is a legal inquiry into charges against one “Mouse-slayer,” who ably defends herself over several (p.209) nights’ convenings. He learns a series of details that sketch out a partly alien, partly parallel cat culture. They have their own oaths (swearing “by the tail of the Great Bear”) and their own time (referring to “the fifth hour of our night”); their monarch rules by both “inheritance and our free election”; and a perversely feline “law for adultery” forbids females from refusing “any males not exceeding the number of ten in a night” (though common-law adjudication had established an exception that applied in Mouse-slayer’s case) (36, 37, 47; italics added)45 Similar to the assize courts of Baldwin’s England, the feline commission convenes periodically at different locations, and in this instance they will adjourn till the next convening in Caithness (51). Baldwin imagines this parallel universe of political organization, obviously, by extrapolating from human forms and inverting them—his vision of feline empire recalls the inversive imaginary that frames witchcraft lore, but instead of the gendered reversal of power evident there, a dispensation between species is at stake.
As we have seen in responses to Pliny’s conception of man as nudus in nuda terra, human nakedness marks that species’s insufficiency as an animal, suggesting for man a unique underprovisioning as nature’s orphan. In the night world of Beware the Cat, humans duly play their parts in a largely naked condition. Montaigne had charged in his own critical examination of man that “he must be stripped into his shirt” (436), and Mouse-slayer’s third night of testimony leaves many people in precisely this condition. While living in the household of a widowed gentlewoman, Mouse-slayer discovers that she is not only a secret votary of the cult of Mary but also a destroyer of youth: she “got her living by boarding young gentlemen, for whom she kept always fair wenches in store,” and once “she had soaked from young gentlemen all they had,” they turned to theft, and she would launder the proceeds (40). In one particular case, the religious widow/brothel keeper goes to extreme lengths to trick an “innocent woman, otherwise invincible,… to commit whoredom” in order to satisfy one lodger. This young (married) woman begs to take Mouse-slayer, and so the cat circulates to yet another household. While Mouse-slayer defends herself against the charges from “a law for adultery among cats,” the young woman persists in secret meetings with the widow’s lodger. (p.210) Events—and nakedness—in this household supply the details of Mouse-slayer’s report as a witness as well as her opportunities as a night agent for pouncing on human transgression.
Montaigne had observed that “when I consider man all naked (yea, be it in that sex, which seemeth to have… the greatest share of eye-pleasing beautie) and view his defects, his naturall subjection, and manifold imperfections; I finde we have had much more reason to hide and cover our nakedness, than any creature else” (430), and Mouse-slayer’s account supplies evidence for this verdict. In the first episode, Mouse-slayer is the victim of a malicious prank: “An ungracious fellow… took four walnut shells and filled them full of soft pitch, and put them on my feet” (47). When Mouse-slayer becomes active again “at night when they were all in bed,” the clattering of walnut shoes overhead induces pure hysteria downstairs and drives the humans of the house to decide the devil is loose among them. Panicking, the “master and all the rest… ran naked as they were into the street” (48). The whole neighborhood is roused in like disarray, watching as an old priest is dispensed to outface the devil with “candle-light… and holy-water.” Thinking she sees the gear for a “privy mass,” Mouse-slayer runs toward the priest and his followers, and this new terror collapses them all backward like dominoes in a tumble of human bodies all dropped on the ground. Mouse-slayer then runs “among them where they lay on heaps (49). With the first priest’s burning candle falling into “another priest’s breech” (who in the chaos had been busy “conjuring” the maid) and with “the old priest… so tumbled among them that his face lay upon a boy’s bare arse”—a boy who “for fear had beshit himself” and the priest’s face too—this naked, many-legged, and prostrate human pile has little to commend and much to condemn in it. And while the cat auditors all laugh at this tableau of tangled bare limbs and excrement, the human characters extract and upright themselves from the heap, pledge themselves to secrecy, “and for shame departed” (49).
The second installment of human disgrace concerns the ongoing adultery of Mouse-slayer’s new mistress. When the husband returns home unexpectedly, and the lover has “no leisure to pluck up his hose, but with them about his legs ran into a corner behind a painted cloth and there stood as still as a mouse” (50; italics added), events unfold in their inevitable way. In this cat-and-mouse game, the cat as agent of a retributive justice “all to-pawed him with [her] claws upon his bare legs and buttocks” (through which the lover remains stoically silent). When the mistress tries to induce the cat from behind the arras with a bit of “meat,” Mouse-slayer, (p.211) “minding another thing,… suddenly… leaped up and caught him by the genitals with [her] teeth.” When the man finally screamed, in this early modern script for the very anxiety shadowing Derrida’s encounter, the master discovers a “barearst gentleman” strangling a cat “with his stones in [her] mouth” (50–51). In this challenging scene of exposure, from a species standpoint, we might identify with the lover (or one of the other humans), but from a gender or moral standpoint, we might not. Who knowes?
Two other cats Streamer overhears will shortly characterize this highly sexualized but nonerotic content from the third night’s testimony as “nothing in comparison” (52) to the nights Streamer heard only as “wawling.” On the first night, one says, Mouse-slayer described her first years with five different “masters: a priest, a baker, a lawyer, a broker, and a butcher; all whose privy deceits… she declared” (51). The next night she described her middle years, when “she had seven masters: a bishop, a knight, a pothecary, a goldsmith, an usurer, an alchemist, and a lord; whose cruelty, study, craft, cunning, niggishness, folly, waste, and oppression she declared” (52). Mouse-slayer’s comprehensive perspective, then, passes critical judgment on a ranging cross section of humankind, with each specimen after another displaying some further depravity, hypocrisy, or hidden meanness of spirit. While Mouse-slayer defeats a charge of sexual misconduct and defends her “loyalty and obedience to all good laws” (51), the humankind she surveys fares far worse. For all the spleen it directs at Catholicism and all the doubt with which it surrounds Streamer’s account, Beware the Cat also delivers a jagged critique of humankind as depraved, a critique leveraged from the perspective of the cats who roam among us, watching but unobserved. On the basis of the body of evidence adduced in the course of this feline investigative commission, it is humankind, not primarily Mouse-slayer, who is on trial. The verdict finds us, on balance, to be a “bare-arst” bunch.
Streamer’s discourse ends with another religious perversion, this time of the epistemological verses from Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. The passage—so familiar from Bottom’s garbled variation—sets religious limits on human cognition, distinguishing “the wisedome of this world” from “spirituall things” known through faith: “As it is written, the thinges which eye hath not seene, neither eare hath heard,… are, which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Parodying this warning against the human sensory authority so aggrandized by “the princes of this world” (1 Cor. 2:6, 8), Streamer promises his auditors that—as incredible as his tale has been—“I will tell you other things which these eyes of (p.212) mine have seen and these ears of mine have heard ,… so far passing this, that all which I have said now shall in comparison… be nothing at all” (53; italics added). Within the human domains of Christianity, Streamer’s assertion registers as gross impiety, bootstrapping human wisdom and reason into a quasi-Cartesian authority that Paul’s dispensation—or Montaigne’s reading—would utterly deny. But one open question lingers, and it concerns Streamer’s “humanity” for these purposes. We have already seen the sovereign perspectives that Montaigne is prepared to accord nonhumans, most especially his cat. When Streamer joins the rooftop cats in their laughter at “heaped” human folly, the marginal note informs us of a further, unnerving detail: “The author laughed in a cat’s voice” (49). Perhaps a cat has the last laugh, as human knowledge attends not only to the limits of “this world” but also to its own limitation by the knowledges of those others who also lay eyes on it. When Streamer’s tale ends, “every man shut up his shop windows, which the foresaid talk kept open two hours longer than they should have been” (53). Bedtime, time to close up (the eyes of) the human shop—it is this creaturely protocol that Midsummer’s Athenians transgress to their “peril.”
Where the Vile Things Rule: A Midsummer Night
As Peter Quince organizes his players to put on an interlude for Theseus’s “wedding day at night,” he exchanges lines with Bottom about his aptness for the suicidal lover’s part. Celebrating his power to move an audience in this role, Bottom warns, “If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes” (1.2.19–20; italics added). This is a good cue in a play where—among humans, at least—the notorious weakness of night vision will exponen-tialize the general vulnerability of the eyes to desire, misimpression, and even foul play, engendering a night of sensory and cognitive disarray for the Athenians who violate jurisdictional principles limiting human sovereignty to daylight hours. Indeed, when Titania hails him as wise, Bottom corrects her: “Not so, neither; but if I had wit enough to get out of this wood, I’d have enough to serve my own turn” (3.1.135–37). We have passed from “bare-arst” humanity of Streamer’s bold impiety to Bottom, who with his ass-head experience not only gets the point of Corinthians right but even develops the theme by means of the garbled synesthesia of his report: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was” (4.1.208–11). The extensive attention to failures (p.213) of human judgment in the play—and the human characters’ insufficient “wit to get out of this wood”—sharply contrast the play’s tracking of effective agencies for those creatures to whom night belongs and who either hold sway there or operate freely in its domain. In this sense, Midsummer persistently sets human shortcomings against a night world replete with sovereign, creaturely life, a world with no rest or leisure to entertain human fantasies of a Cartesian empire absolu.
“Night-rule” recurringly transforms existing space for a time by infusing it with new actors. In its domain we find—besides fairies, elves, and spirits—a sprawling census of what Streamer would call “natural” animals and the play calls “live creature[s]” (2.1.172): lions, bears, wolves, bulls, meddling monkeys, busy apes, bats, owls, spotted snakes, thorny hedgehogs, newts, blindworms, weaving spiders, long-legged spinners, beetles black, snails, lynxes, wildcats, leopards, boars with bristled hair, crawling serpents, humble-bees, glowworms, and adders. This is not even to list the host of animal comparisons or emblems in the play. Nor does it include the bird-naming inventory of Bottom’s song, sung to prove—of all things—that he is not afraid of the dark when his compatriots scatter at the sight of his shaggy new head (3.1.109–23). If many of these creatures seem dangerous or scary, it only marks a particularly human perspective making its characterizations in the dark. Theseus famously stumps for human reason in act 5 when he professes that such threats are imaginary: “In the night,” he suggests (from the relative security of daylight), “how easy is a bush supposed a bear!” (5.1.21–22). Trying to rationalize the night imperially from the daytime safety of human sovereignty, all he manages is to make a claim that does not pertain at night—as the entire midsection of the play has just demonstrated, during which he and Athenian power itself have slept. Theseus’s rational overconfidence here neglects the caveat night means for sovereign human reason, as the real threat of night creatures is reiterated over and over again in the play. The action of Oberon’s love potion incorporates the random developments of whatever “next live creature” comes along (2.1.172); he elaborates how whatever “next thing” Titania sees will overwhelm her with sensations of love, “be it… lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, /… meddling monkey, or… busy ape” (2.1.179–81). These formulations stress the element of surprise encounters with a host of creatures in the woods, night encounters the Athenians fear. Indeed, when the play’s “rude mechanicals” (3.2.9) repeatedly return to discussions of how to manage the fearsomeness of the lion’s part, we can see it not only as a failure to grasp theatrical suspensions of disbelief but also as (p.214) the mark of a time when large mammals posed greater threats to humans. The extensive concern with the nonhuman operations of night power index Shakespeare’s willingness to notice the temporal and creaturely limits of human authority.
When Lysander and Hermia ring the poetic changes on love’s fleeting-ness, one of their comparisons likens it to the transience of human knowledge; human powers of comprehension set the standard for failure. Even successful loves, they complain, are cut off by circumstances and so rendered as
- brief as the lightning in the collied night
- That in a spleen unfolds both heaven and earth,
- And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
- The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
- So quick bright things come to confusion.
Here a flash of light overcomes “collied night” to “unfold” or reveal the world, but so fleetingly that human perception lags and fails. The greedy “jaws of darkness” snatch us back from comprehension and deliver us to confusion even before we can say we have seen something. Night makes Athenian senses “weak” (3.2.27). “Dark night,” says Hermia, “from the eye his function takes” (3.2.177). Indeed, Puck’s core business is to “mislead night wanderers” with false fire (2.1.39). The lovers come up with delightfully absurd compensatory theories of illumination. Helena imagines Demetrius’s “eyes are lodestars” (1.1.183), and so she proposes, “It is not night when I do see your face” (2.1.221). Lysander boldly denies Hermia, saying, “Fair Helena… more engilds the night / Than all yon fiery oes [stars] and eyes of light” (3.2.187–88). These traditional poetic comparisons typically illustrate lovers’ madness, but here they also spoof human reason; they liken love and reason in a critique of the powers of the human mind.
Even the lovers’ boldest metaphors cannot sustain human powers under the corrosive dark of night. As Demetrius puts it bluntly, for Helena to “trust the opportunity of night” is to misjudge risk (2.1.217). Lysander notices that Hermia has become “faint with wandering in the wood,” and because they have lost their way, they must lie down to sleep, as Puck observes, “on the dank and dirty ground” (2.2.41, 81). When Puck reports to Oberon on the mishaps of Bottom’s midnight rehearsal, he says that (p.215)
- their sense thus weak…
- Made senseless things to do them wrong,
- For briars and thorns at their apparel snatch.
Oberon asks Puck to prevent the now-roused Lysander and Demetrius from fighting by adding another layer of darkness, putting out the moon and stars:
- Robin, overcast the night;
- The starry welkin cover thou anon
- With drooping fog as black as Acheron,
so that the rivals will be led further “astray” (3.2.355–58). In this pursuit, first Lysander’s agency fails him—“fallen am I in a dark, uneven way”— and he cedes upright posture to lie down and await daylight’s return (3.2.417). Then Demetrius gives up and adopts a horizontal posture that looks like death: “Faintness constraineth me / To measure out my length on this cold bed” (4.1.428–29). Helena too yields to the sovereignty of the dark, complaining of the “weary… long and tedious night” and lying down to wait for daylight, while Hermia too collapses:
- Never so weary, never so in woe,
- Bedabbled with the dew, and torn with briers,
- I can no further crawl, no further go;
- My legs can keep no pace with my desires.
- (4.1.431, 442–45)
In every case, upright status gives way to a prone lapse in consciousness in the play’s systematic enforcement of human limits on the Athenian youth. Deceived by a human sense-apparatus that does not work at night, misled by creatures who do work at night, and finally stripped of the human privilege of a vertical condition, Midsummer’s Athenians make a case study of human sensory and cognitive weakness—in as pointed a thought experiment as Montaigne’s or Descartes’s.
Scattered and solitary; faint, flattened, and unconscious on a cold, wet, forest floor; exposed to all comers—Shakespeare’s Athenians, as Demetrius had acknowledged, are left “to the mercy of wild beasts” (2.1.228). In Oberon’s words, “Be it ounce or cat or bear, / Pard, or boar with bristled (p.216) hair,” whatever fearsome “vile thing” might come upon them will determine their fate (2.2.30–34). Wild beasts, vile things: in a kind of double vision, whatever is vile—in daylight—is base, cheap, despicable, or unworthy of regard. But applied to beasts, “vile” referred to dangerous or destructive animals, and we may think of this as a good nighttime definition.46 The “vile things” of Midsummer are most worthy of regard—in the precise contexts where we cannot see, in a real dilemma of human perception, a dilemma that overreaching confidence in “weapons of reason” cannot address.
The lark sounds, the sun rises, and the lovers are restored, not to truth or Cartesian certitude but only to what Oberon has specified as their “wonted” or accustomed vision (3.2.369). In a compounding of errant human thought (rather than a correction of it), the hoodwinked Athenians will “think no more of this night’s accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (4.1.67–68). The transition between two authorities, though, is choreographed with precision in a tableau of transferred power. When Puck announces, “Fairy King, attend and mark: / I do hear the morning lark,” Oberon and Titania take their cue. The stage direction, “Exeunt. Wind horn. Enter Theseus and all his train,” describes the stage action as neatly as the proverbial heralding of a transition between sovereigns: “The King is dead; long live the king.” As is their wont, the human entourage thinks morning has a special relation to the harmony of the spheres, as they mark the “vaward of the day” with speculation about the music (”one mutual cry”) of Theseus’s dogs released in the western valley (4.1.102–17). But when the court stumbles on the sleeping lovers, Theseus delivers a rude awakening by summoning the huntsmen’s horns to rouse them. As the stage direction remarks, “They all start up”; when they kneel down to him, he raises them back to upright posture with “I pray you all, stand up” (4.1.137.s.d., 140). Demetrius testifies that the night’s events have been governed by “I wot not… what power / (But by some power it is)” (4.1.163–64). As Bottom’s variation on Corinthians explains, it is not for humankind to say. Observing the creaturely decorum of separate spheres and human limitedness, he opines, “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what” (4.1.204–6).
And then, at day’s end, regimes change again. Night arrives. Noting that they have stayed up too late and observing proprieties of jurisdictional alternation, Theseus announces, “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve. / Lovers, to bed, ‘tis almost fairy time” (5.1.339–40). In (p.217) this concession, Theseus actually cedes the human authority he has so notoriously represented in our commentaries on the play, acknowledging that there are limits to its jurisdictional scope. “Fairy time” supersedes it, “as the night the day.” They all leave the stage. Then Puck returns, singing of the duly periodic restoration of night’s black agents:
- Now the hungry lion roars,
- And the wolf behowls the moon;
- Whilst the heavy ploughman snores.
Then Oberon and Titania return “with all their train” (5.1.380.s.d.), and their “night-rule” glows with benignity—for now, at least. While Descartes proselytizes for an empire absolu, defending human preeminence against Montaigne’s charge of “imaginarie sovereignty,” Shakespeare imagines a vivid alternative regime of “night-rule” and dramatizes it as a nonhuman empire. Given the temporal limitations on such cognitive powers as undergird human sovereignty, Shakespeare suggests that in the presiding dark of the night we “Athenians” should rest those weak eyes, lie low in our beds—and let the vile things rule.
(1) . Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, “Because the Night,” 1978 (italics added).
(2) . Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York: Dover, 1999), 1–2.
(3) . “To-night” appears five times in King Lear; the other phrases appear at 3.1.12 and 3.2.43. Macbeth refers to “to-night” ten times; Romeo and Juliet fifteen; and Othello twenty.
(4) . Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna (London: Walter Dight, 1612), 182. This last line is taken from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1.7.6), and the emblem refers to Statius’s Latin verse, Nulli penetrabilis astro / Lucus iners (thick grove, penetrable by no star) (”Thebaid X,” lines 85–86).
(5) . Peacham, Minerva Britanna, 182.
(6) . Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night, Or A Discourse of Apparitions (London: John Danter, 1594), sigs. B1v, B2r (subsequent references appear in the text). Nashe’s text appears as a parodic counterpart to George Chapman’s strained piece of esoterica, The Shadow of Night—sometimes taken to express the views of a group of intellectuals surrounding Walter Raleigh, dubbed later “the School of Night” (from Shakespeare’s spoof of such elite preoccupations, Love’s Labours Lost [4.3.250]). The classic treat- ment proposing this is M. C. Bradbrook’s The School of Night: A Study in the Literary Relations of Sir Walter Ralegh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936); the counterargument appears in Ernst Strathmann, Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951). Though this group is unlikely to have been very formal, Raleigh’s associates did include investigators into abstruse mathematics and new doctrines in astronomy, and period documents include a motivated Jesuit’s allegation that Raleigh headed a “school of atheism” (see Raleigh Trevelyan, Sir Walter Raleigh [New York: Macmillan, 2002], 191). Instead of stressing the disabling effects of darkness on humans, Chapman’s Neoplatonist verse celebrates human intellectual capacity by embracing a melancholic vision of nocturnal inspiration: “No pen can any thing eternall wright / That is not steept in humour of the Night.” The Shadow of Night: containing two poeticall hymnes (London: Richard Field, 1594).
(7) . Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, ed. Susan Gubar (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005 ), 89.
(8) . The first published edition of the play (1600) conjoins the words as “nightrule.” The hyphen appears in the second quarto (published in 1619, but dated 1600), which the First Folio follows. A Midsommer nights dreame (London: James Roberts, 1600 ), sig. D2v.
(9) . For a superb recent account of this metamorphic generativity across categories of being or kind in the play (and of the play as representative of the challenges posed by theater as a creative engine within Elizabethan culture), see Henry Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix (London: Continuum, 2007). Turner argues that the play likens theater to a laboratory and poesy to experimental science and so provokes “a radical re-questioning of… humanism and the categories of life upon which it depended by splicing across as many categories as possible: human and inhuman, natural and artificial, male and female, small and large, organic and inorganic” (98, 102). Within this larger field of a general or universal hybridity, my situation of the play considers its capture of a stance from which human “powers” (including poetic, or makerly, power) are circumscribed as human—rather than celebrated as powers. In this sense, the play’s zoographic or comparative dimension keeps notions of the specifically human alive for critique (demonstrating its relation to a larger folly or vanitas tradition that looks askance at human claims).
(10) . For an account of early modern understandings of the Fall as the historical collapse of a prior, perfect form of human cognition and of seventeenth-century science as an explicit effort to redeem humankind from the cognitive weakness of this fallen state, see Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). This general argument—and a more focused concern for its consequences—first appeared in Carolyn Merchant’s groundbreaking The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980).
(11) . Skepticism takes many shapes; here I explore Montaigne’s attempt to derive ethical imperatives responsive to unresolvable doubt. By knowledge, I refer to scientia’s historical arc as an art of knowing that will become a “method” with Descartes.
(12) . Counterimagining a modernity if Montaigne, rather than Descartes, had set the terms for it, Stephen Toulmin’s bracing account considers this historical passage as a decline, a fall from open-mindedness into a regime of rationality he usefully characterizes as rigidly abstract and insistently grid oriented in its visions and desires. See Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). For a reading that contextualizes and scrutinizes Descartes’s thought for its internal resistances and caveats to subjective individualism (while acknowledging the cultural impact of a blunter reading among “people in the western street”), see Timothy Reiss, Mirages of the Selfe: Patterns of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 469–87. Reiss calls the cogito a “passage technique” rather than a doctrine as such (470). I am grateful to Julian Yates for this reference.
(13) . René Descartes, The Discourse on Method, trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998 ), 1. Subsequent page references appear in the text. See also Valerie Traub, “The Nature of Norms in Early Modern England: Anatomy, Cartography, King Lear ,” South Central Review 26, nos. 1 and 2 (2009): 42–81.
(14) . Michel de Montaigne, “The Apologie for Raymond Sebond,” in The Essayes of Montaigne: John Florio’s Translation, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (New York: Modern Library, 1934), 412; subsequent page references appear in the text. René Descartes, “Letter to the Marquess of Newcastle” (23 November 1646), in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 276. Pierre Charron was a friend and follower of Montaigne, narrowing the essayist’s own Pyrrhonian motto, Que sçay-je? (discussed below) into the firmer, quasi-academic skepticism of Je ne sçay in his De la sagesse [Of wisdom] (Bordeaux, France: Simone Millanges, 1601).
(15) . Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 27–29.
(16) . A random glance at any Science Times section of the New York Times shows that emerging research continually resets the horizon of our suppositions about animal faculties.
(17) . In La Circe, Gelli gives this exact idea some dramatic irony by putting it into the mouth of the unteachably human Ulysses, who answers the elephant’s question about why, if human capacities are so superior, there is so much vice and error among them. As discussed in chapter 3, Ulysses’s blame shifting allots all human failures to the animal part in us, faulting “those partes of nature: that we have without reason, together and in common with you: and not those by which we are men” (”The tenth Dialogue,” in Giovanni Battista Gelli, Circes of John Baptista Gello, Florentine, trans. Henry Iden [London, 1557–58]).
(18) . Descartes calls notions in favor of an animal mind a childhood bias: “To no prejudice are we all more habituated than that which has persuaded us from earliest childhood that living animals think.” “Letter to Henry More” (5 February 1649), in Leonora Cohen, “Descartes and Henry More on the Beast-Machine: A Translation of Their Correspondence,” Annals of Science 1, no. 1 (1936): 51.
(19) . Cartesian method exemplifies what Agamben characterizes as a human maneu-ver: the substitution of one creature’s limited umwelt (our own) for an objective world or umgebung. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004 ), 40(discussing twentieth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s distinctions).
(20) . Descartes, “Letter to Henry More,” 53.
(21) . See Ann Hartle, “Montaigne and Skepticism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, ed. Ullrich Langer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 183–206, and Luciano Floridi, Sextus Empiricus:The Transmission and Recovery of Pyrrhonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 48. In a discussion of the politics of skepticism, John Laursen refers to Montaigne’s “politics of human fallibility,” a phrase that dovetails with the cosmopolitical frames at issue in this book (John Christian Laursen, The Politics of Skepticism in the Ancients, Montaigne, Hume, and Kant [Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1992], 94).
(22) . Nashe’s earlier vision of clockwork was less sanguine about its perfections. He likens the melancholy brain to “a clocke tyde downe with too heavie weights or plum-mets; which as it cannot chuse but monstrously goe a square, or not goe at all: so must our braines of necessitie be either monstrously distracted, or utterly destroyed thereby” (Terrors of the Night, C3r). While Descartes’s image of bodies, and therefore of animals as such, as clocks and robots imagined mechanical functioning as perfect invariability, Nashe’s clock-brain suffers “monstrous” disorders—of a perfectly humoral kind.
(23) . This posthumous edition was edited by Montaigne’s fille d’alliance, Marie de Gour-nay, based on the handwritten markup of the Essais he left at his death. The additions read, “Et de plus riches effects des facultez plus riches” and “ou quelqu’autre meilleure.” Les essais de Michel de Montaigne: Édition conforme au texte de l’exemplaire de Bordeaux, ed. Pierre Villey (Lausanne, Switzerland: La Guilde du Livre, 1965 ), 460nn5, 8.
(24) . In asserting this last point, I follow the line of thought that takes the second demonstration of the Discourse (concerning the existence of God) as derivative from the initial claim that an (individual, human) “I” exists.
(25) . If we consider La Circe’s Ulysses as a proto-Descartes who is ironized in dramatic dialogue, we see that his use of the blindness trope likewise tries to disable his (animal) adversaries. When the Elephant disputes that there is any sustainable difference between sensitive and intellective soul, Ulysses asserts that the Elephant can have no opinion about intellection: “Thou knowest that it apperteyneth not to the blynde, to geve judgement of colours” (Elephant’s dialogue, La Circe).
(26) . Gelli’s animals repeatedly stress this insight, which poses core problems for Cartesian self-determinings of truth. For example, the Lion argues that “evilles of the minde” are undetectable to that mind (unlike physical illness to the body): “He who by them is greved, can make no right judgement of himselfe, the evil being in that parte, to which the judgement apperteyneth. And for thys cause, folishnes is the gretest evill our braines of necessitie be either monstrously distracted, or utterly destroyed thereby” (Terrors of the Night, C3r). While Descartes’s image of bodies, and therefore of animals as such, as clocks and robots imagined mechanical functioning as perfect invariability, Nashe’s clock-brain suffers “monstrous” disorders—of a perfectly humoral kind. that can chaunce to man. For asmuch as he that hath it, never knoeth it: and knowing it not, never seketh… any remedy to unburden him selfe thereof” (Lion’s dialogue, La Circe).
(27) . Robert Hooke, Micrographia, or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses (London: John Martin and James Allestry, 1665), preface, i (my pagination; subsequent page references appear in the text).
(28) . For the perfect ordinariness of conceiving these substances as medicinal, see William Brockbank, “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia,” Medical History 8 (1964): 3.
(29) . Though the modern edition of Beware the Cat calls it “the first English novel,” it is notoriously elusive in genre terms. For an account of its anti-Catholic satire, see John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).For discussion of Baldwin’s treatment of hearsay, oral tradition, gender, and the status of print, see Clair Kinney, “Clamorous Voices, Incontinent Fictions: Orality, Oratory, and Gender in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat ,” in Oral Traditions and Gender in Early Modern Literary Texts, ed. Mary Ellen Lamb and Karen Bamford (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 195–207. For a rich argument that Streamer’s activities illustrate Baldwin’s sense of the “dangers of individuation” (in contexts of communities of reading), see Joshua Phillips, English Fictions of Communal Identity, 1485–1603 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 84.
(30) . Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 6.
(31) . Karen Raber, “How to Do Things with Animals: Thoughts on the Early Modern Cat,” in Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare, ed. Thomas Hallock, Ivo Kamps, and Karen Raber (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 97–98. Raber’s ranging essay provides analysis not only of cats in early modernity but also of larger questions about their liminality to animal studies to date.
(32) . Edward Topsell, Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607), 80–81.
(33) . Beware the Cat is also an important precursor for eighteenth-century “it-narratives,” insofar as circulating objects—or animals—travel a route very much like Mouse-slayer’s below, discovering human misconduct everywhere they go. See Mark Blackwell, ed., The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2007).
(34) . William Baldwin, Beware the Cat: The First English Novel, ed. William Ringler and Michael Flachmann (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1988), 3. Subsequent page references appear in the text.
(35) . George Ferrers, master of the king’s pastimes in 1551–52 and in 1552–53, later collaborated with Baldwin in writing A Mirror for Magistrates; Ringler relays details of Baldwin’s time at court, indicating that the night in question was 28 December 1552. The other figures appear to be fictional (Baldwin, Beware the Cat, 57–58).
(36) . There is no record of the existence of such a play (alas).
(37) . On hedgehogs and the weather, see Montaigne, “Apologie,” 415, and Topsell (noting Aristotle), Historie, 219.
(38) . “Sitting at dinner… among his friends, he harkened diligently to a sparrow that came fleeing and chirping to other that were about the house, and smiled… to hear her. And when one of the company desired to know why he smiled, he said, ‘At the sparrow’s tale. For she telleth them… that in the highway… a sack of wheat is even now fallen off a horseback… and therefore biddeth them to come thither for dinner.’ And when the guests… sent to prove the truth, they found it even so as he had told them” (21).
(39) . For a discussion of seventeenth-century habits of scientific self-dosing by Hooke (who detailed these activities extensively in his diaries) and others, where medical trials involving ingestion of experimental substances and purgation were conducted on the body of the experimenter himself, see Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, the Man Who Measured London (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 214–46. See also Lisa Jardine, “Textual Therapies: Dosing the Ailing Subject” (paper presented at the English Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, September 2000).
(40) . Montaigne argued further that body language is not only legible across kinds but also a more natural human language than speech itself (”Apologie,” 401).
(41) . See Ringler’s discussion of sources in Baldwin, Beware the Cat, 64.
(42) . Topsell describes the hedgehog’s habit of “gather[ing] fruit” and “laying it up against Winter”; when the “Hedge-hog… findeth apples or grapes… he rowleth himself upon them, untill he have filled all his prickles, and then carryeth the home to his den” (Historie, 217).
(43) . On roasting and skinning (and on the abuse below when a cat is shod in walnut shells) as part of a larger early modern habit of cat persecution, see Bruce Boehrer, “Gammer Gurton’s Cat of Sorrows,” English Literary Renaissance 39, no. 2 (2009): 267–89.
(44) . Topsell recounts similar kinds of diversely medicinal hedgehog concoctions, including a recipe attributed to Albertus Magnus: “If the right eye of a Hedge-hog be fryed with the oil of Alderne or Linseed” and used as “an eye-salve,” it enables one to “see as well in the dark as the light” (Historie, 219–20). See also John Johnston, A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts (Amsterdam, 1678 [Dutch version, 1652]), 91.
(45) . This is the statute that Mouse-slayer is accused of violating (by refusing the crude attentions of one Catch-rat), a “transgression” that enhances her credibility in human terms; the judicial exception to the rule nevertheless disallowed rape. For the extensive engagement of gender in Beware the Cat, see Kinney, “Clamorous Voices.”
(46) . Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “vile.”