In the mid-twentieth century, an American poet named Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, at once cute and profound, called “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”. What’s remarkable about this poem is how deftly the poet enters into the mind of his subject – the rabbit contemplating existence at the end of the day, when ‘nothing is left except light on your fur’ and the grass is ‘full of yourself’. The rabbit’s peaceful narcissism is lovely, and not unlike the day’s-end meditations of its fellow biped – the equally solipsistic human. When watching the sun set over distant mountains, when dipping feet into cold river-water, it’s easy to regard (or peacefully not regard) the whole universe as our own, a theater for individual identity, a mirror of our own faces. Someone with a mystical inclination might think that the Garden of Eden was never lost, that it only scattered over time and space, and that, around the next bend of the trail, the garden ‘full of yourself’ is waiting to be found – where every falling leaf and darting squirrel is only your reflection, the object to your subject, waiting patiently to be named.
In any case, certain thinkers of the Western tradition have found a special joy in ‘re-naming’ creation, exercising an artistic and scientific power over the natural world. From the Physics of Aristotle to Jorge Luis Borges’s Manual de Zoologia Fantastica, writers have been creating taxonomies – whether natural, philosophical, or religious – that further the Judeo-Christian original, when God tasked and gifted Adam with the responsibility of naming the various animals.
My research project focuses on one such version of this project, which was especially popular in twelfth-century Europe: the so-called ‘second-family bestiary’. There are nearly forty extant second-family bestiaries today, mostly from France and England, which illustrate and categorize a selection of animals from the Physiologus, while tempering the allegory of their descriptions with (relatively) empirical passages found in Isidore’s Etymologies. Importantly, most of these bestiaries begin with a textual account (often accompanied by many beautiful illustrations) of the Judeo-Christian creation, and Adam’s subsequent naming, of the natural world. I argue that the texts and illustrations of these entries represent a philosophical problem at the heart of the bestiary – indeed, at the heart of any project which seeks to name and order the known universe. Namely, these entries represent the narcissism of the garden; the lion and the elephant, instead of becoming their own subjects, become the object of a human subject. They are both depicted in terms of their relationship to people, and for this reason they become an ‘other’.
Such a post-humanist concern might appear trivial; after all, we can’t ask every medieval bestiarist to possess the poetic or philosophical capacities to step into the minds of their lions and elephants as Wallace Stevens did for his rabbit. However, a study of these depictions and the illustrated relationships shed light on how, exactly, these animals were meant to be read by a human audience – as distinctly ‘other’: indefinable and somewhat alien beasts which cannot be entirely understood or tamed. Having used these entries to approach a definition of the ‘other’, I then argue that the lion and the elephant also represent a more powerful and deep-seated caesura, as representations of the geographical ‘other’. For not only were these bestiaries aimed at humans, but they were aimed at some very specific humans, as the heavily Christian and European details make clear. Certain details in the texts and illustrations of these entries define the animals not only in terms of their relationship to humans, but to Western humans, as well.
In this way, the divisions between animal and human, and between East and West, both find representation in the polyvalent images of the lion and the elephant. These animals, then, are layered images, hybrids of hybridity, if you will, in which rifts and caesurae going in many different directions come together, to form a multi-dimensional map of imagined European distinctions. The project then proves that these images communicate subversive truths that ultimately deconstruct the many cultural boundary-lines as imagined by twelfth-century inhabitants of Britain.