Nelljean Rice (nrice@coastal.edu)

Coastal Carolina University

Southeastern Medieval Association, October 2006

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

Of the Ouroboros, Autophagia, and 9/11

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth/Which is already flesh, fur and faeces. . .

These lines by T.Ss Eliot occur in “East Coker,” number two of his Four Quartets. They say much about our panel’s remarks today in our search for elusive humanity. Panelists have found the humane in a “foodie,” a “blood-ie,” a pathogen, a parrot, and on the planet of the apes.  Yet when I read the title of this year’s SEMA conference ["Beginnings and Endings"], all I can think of is a worm—a big worm, granted—one of mythology’s oldest and biggest: the ouroboros. “East Coker’s” famous first line, “In my beginning is my end” conjures the ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, slaying itself, bringing itself back to life, fertilizing itself, and giving birth to itself, endlessly redeeming. Plato describes this creature as the first living thing in the universe, perfect in its form and function. He even calls it a man, a perfect man who supplies himself with all his needs. Except language. Because, if Ouroboros could talk, it’d be talking through a mouthful of shit! Well, we won’t follow up on that analogy for the BABEL proceedings.

What if we take the serpent as an analogy for language? Or for life, or for the universe? Then we enter the realm of cognitive science in which an organism is a unit to the extent that its conduct results in the maintenance of its basic circularity (Maturana & Varela, Autopoesis and Cognition: Realization of the Living). Or, as Eileen Joy says, [where] “the body is the prison of the body.” And where we all eat our words. That’s all we’ll be able to eat if Ouroboros, theWordPress commentary weblog is correct in its description of autophagy, which scientists such as Alessio Donati and Ettore Bergamini deem essential for good health.

On the Benefits of Eating Myself (In my end is my beginning)

Cells turn over old proteins and clean up cellular detritus to keep themselves healthy. What is not-self degrading is dying, so autophagy is the only defense against the vulnerability to age-related diseases like cancer. Autophagy is stimulated by extreme dietary restrictions. When we get old, this process slows down, creating the potential for a “garbage catastrophe” (Alexei Terman). Ouroboros the serpent is us, eating ourselves to stay alive, sucking up all our crap and cleaning it into health. Or not.

9/11: Garbage Catastrophe?

I’ve recently read “Varieties of Imagination and Nothingness in the Global Village” by John H. Simpson (Canadian Journal of Sociology) in which he ponders the rush to aesthetic reactions to 9/11. He quotes Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German avant-garde composer, who states that the attack on the World Trade Center was the most amazing work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos, rehearsed for years and years, and then executed (pardon the pun) with the artists’ death. Stockhausen continues that the destruction of the twin towers is the kind of “going beyond the limits of human existence” to which all artists aspire. This “work of art” left detritus—a lot of it human, but all so melded together by chaotic force that it’s truly cyborgian, man and machine fossilized by a “big bang.”  And where is it? It’s been dumped in sites all over New York—the outskirts of JFK, scrap yards, and, ironically, at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. On this day, barely a month after the 5th anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to propose a memento mori in the medieval tradition, to show our humanity—let’s gather all that broken cyborg stuff and pile it up as high as it can go on the site of the towers. We’ll call it the Cosmic Ouroboros, we’ll light fires, eat organ meats, drink blood, let our fur grow, and, like Robert Olen Butler’s parrot, say, “Holy Shit. It’s You.”