Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs
In <em>The Bible and Posthumanism</em> (2014), edited by Jennifer Koosed.
Publisher: Society of Biblical Literature
Jacques Derrida despairs of finding animals among philosophers. “Thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis” (2008, 7; cf. 40). The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. Guided by Derrida’s intuition about poetic discourse, this essay takes its beginning in an ancient piece of erotic poetry in which animal metaphor features prominently—Solomon’s Song of Songs. This book’s place in the canon was a puzzle and perplexity for many Jewish and Christian thinkers, but rather than label it lewd or unspiritual and ignore it altogether, many early Christian authors employed an elaborate theological exegesis to lay bare a narrative of love between God and God’s creatures hidden in the erotic movements of the Song of Songs. The fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa penned one such engagement with this enigmatic text in the form of fifteen homilies (hereafter GNO).1 The presence of animals all through the Song, and thus all through Gregory’s homiletic commentary, provides an opportunity to examine the conceptual interrelation of divinity, humanity, and animality. This essay, then, ventures a reading of Gregory’s Homilies on the Song of Songs alongside Derrida’s Animal that Therefore I Am in an attempt to locate Gregory relative to the trajectory of an “immense disavowal” of animals that Derrida traces from Descartes to Levinas. Derrida names this disavowal as the production of a concept, “the human,” by means of a stark contrast with another concept, “the animal”—an enormous, falsely homogenous, bounded set, capturing millions of different species in a single term. Thinking with Derrida, I argue that Gregory’s discourse on animality remains irresolvably conflicted. Although he labors toward it, Gregory’s theology cannot finally abide a categorical distinction between humanity and animality. The theological anthropology informing Gregory’s anagogical exegesis of the Song of Songs “short circuits” so that human animality is necessary to reach the deepest meaning of Scripture and the summits of spiritual ascent, despite Gregory’s more explicit claims that spiritual transformation entails the transcendence of humanity beyond animality. Animality remains integral to Gregory’s reading of the Song of Songs, not simply because of the pervasive animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but on account of his understanding of theological exegesis and the role of desire in spiritual progress. This essay will proceed in three sections: First, I will describe Gregory’s unique conception the practice of anagogical exegesis, and the cosmological/anthropological framework which provides the exigency for such an approach to Scripture. Second, to examine Gregory’s exegesis in action in relation to the human-animal distinction, I will analyze Gregory’s exegetical approach to the complex of nakedness, shame, modesty, and clothing—which traditionally serves as one “cut” dividing humans from other animals, and which also features prominently in Derrida’s text. Third, I will follow the trajectories of animal desire, contemplative knowledge, and spiritual transformation as they intersect in the Song and Gregory’s homiletic commentary upon it.