Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Werewolf as Mobius Strip, or Becoming Bisclavret

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Werewolf as Mobius Strip, or Becoming Bisclavret

Article excerpt

To gloss the story of Bisclavret (1) is to wrestle with the intractable silence of bodies and the eloquent ways in which they can be made to speak. Within the corpus of Marie de France's Lais--an enigmatically cohesive compilation, organized around unstated principles, unified on a stylistic level by the expert use of purposive lacunae and ambiguously expressive images and objects (Combarieu; Warren)--the text is remarkable for its insistence upon the act of reading as a vocalization, literally a giving-voice. Bisclavret's narrative rhythm is set by the series of interpretations to which the werewolf's awkwardly double body is subjected, so that his own legible substance tends to merge with that of the lai (Freeman; Gertz 402); the hero's identity is intertwined with, and in an important sense is, the meaning ascribed to the text. For his part, the werewolf never utters a word after the fateful revelation of his beastly secret sets the plot in motion. Like the other characters, the reader is left with the task of lending a tongue to the voiceless body, of speaking for the beste mue ("dumb animal") (2) who cannot articulate his own identity as that other, exceptional beast, the animal rationale, until others find in his apparently feral flesh a surprisingly domesticable text governed and constituted by language's socializing law.

If, however, this is really how Bisclavret figures the act of reading, then the conspicuous metaliterary dimension of the lai provides the pretext for a certain authorial sleight of hand. Rather than enframing a story offered up as an object lesson in interpretation, Marie's overt account of what glossing entails functions poetically and ideologically within the economy of the narrative. The paradigm of reading as decoding, as speaking for the mute body (of the narrative or of its beastly protagonist) in order to bring a concealed truth to the surface of language, exposes one meaning so that the poem can impose another. This cryptographic model of the interpretive process fits within a more expansive hermeneutic program that produces new meaningful "surfaces" rather than revealing preexisting hidden depths. (3) It does so, moreover, in a manner that quietly insists on the paramount importance of attending to particulars. The lai manipulates the tendency of both characters and readers to overestimate the extent to which an individual can ever be identified with a category, and to (mis)take such identification for total equivalence. Precisely where it generates fantasies of perfect belonging predicated on the reduction of identity's complex field of plural, imbricated affiliations to rigid dichotomies that invite absolute distinctions, Bisclavret shows how right understanding grows out of the recognition that the specific is irreducible to the general case, the individual problematically--and productively--resistant to perfect subsumption within the classificatory abstractions of species or group identities, biological, grammatical, and social.

Speaking for the bisclavret, the wolf endowed with "sen d'ume" ("human understanding," v. 154), (4) involves assuming that his "semblance de beste" ("animal appearance," v. 286) is indeed only skin-deep, that he essentially is and always has been nothing but a man--and a superlatively handsome, courtly, noble man at that. His humanity is his interiority, his true self; the slavering monster is only the illusion Christian doctrine saw in it (Harf-Lancner), a kind of costume that happens to be particularly hard to remove, like the pelt that the werewolf in Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica peels back to reveal the human face and limbs beneath (79-84). It would seem that, once his wife's betrayal traps the bisclavret in lupine form, Marie slyly invites us to pass over the fact that her hero has undergone innumerable transformations from man to wolf and back again. His struggle to bring his outer shape into visible harmony with the inner man--a struggle in which we are all the more invested because we are, through the narrator, its sole privileged witnesses until the end of the poem--is represented as an effort to restore a stable, idyllic status quo temporarily disrupted by female perfidy. …

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