19 January, 2007

The Bat

I have said already that there is no member of the animal series with worse luck in its designation than the flying mammal; that people first gave it the generic name of Bald-Mouse [Fr. chauve-souris], an absurd name, seeing that the fabled animal that it apparently designates is neither a mouse nor bald; —and that science has succeeded no better with its latest label of chiroptera (winged hands), as the locomotive organs of the beast in question are neither hands nor wings. Vespertiliones and Anthropomorphs communicate no more or less about them.

I have said that although science wants at all costs to honour this anomaly with a Greek or a Latin name, she should create for it a composite substantive that corresponds to its natural qualities, something like bird-breast, for instance, or hairy bird, flying quadruped, mammiptera.

Choose, if you will, mammiptera, and let us agree, moreover, that of all the bizarreries of the last creation, the. . . bat. . . was without contradiction the most difficult to name; and that I would have feared to affright my young readerettes by restoring to him his true name.

For the bat is an emblem of death.

And a single name suits him, that of Bugbear or Satanist, which some passional1 zoologists have given to the Storm-Petrel.

Those little skilled in the art of divining nature's rebuses, those who know how difficult it is to make mutes speak, will take my word for it when I assert that I was forced to spend ten years in close contact with the Bat, with a great effort of insistence and perseverance, before I was able loosen its teeth and acquire a full confession of its turpitude. It spoke to me for a long time on this matter. And truly I do not know, given the nature of its confidences, if I would not do better to keep them to myself than to make them public. It is enough to give one gooseflesh, the very idea of the ill-fated consequences of indiscretion among the weak.

The question of the Bat is a question of the afterlife, a question that smacks of heresy [Fr. qui sent la fagot]. . .

All is mystery, darkness, and imposture in this transitional series, in all these moulds2 of the ambiguous, branded at the edge of the abnormal, the hideous and the fantastic.

Is it the black spirit of the abyss? Satan's ensign? The gaunt and livid phantom born of hell-terrors at the bedside of the moribund? The spectre with the frightful laugh, raised from tombs at dusk to return at dawn? The false skeletons, soaring in silent flight in the regions of Erebus? It is all these at once, and still another thing.

It is the image of death in limbic societies, the image of the dolorous transition, the nightmare of terrified imaginations.

The Bat, like the spectre, inhabits sombre caves, sombre caves and the trunks of dead trees, black caverns and the cracks in old walls, from which it departs at that hazy hour preceding night. Suspended from the vaults of sepulchral grottoes during the day, it imitates the utter immobility of the deceased in his coffin. The hairy membranes that sustain it in the air serve as a model for all the mortuary hangings that decorate the chambers of tombs.

Half bird, half quadruped, it is the transition from an inferior life to a superior life. But what sort of superior life? That is the question.3 Listen patiently as I explain all.

The Bat is one of those rare species to enjoy the privilege of inspiring mortal antipathies at first sight, and to effect swoons among those of a nervous disposition. It shares this sad ability with the Toad, emblem of the beggar; with the spider, emblem of the shopkeeper; and with the viper, emblem of perfidy. Now, remark well this observation: the Bat is an innocent beast!!! That is the word of the enigma.

The Bat is an innocent beast, and more than innocent, useful; it continues the service of the Swallow, whose work is interrupted by nightfall. The Bat wages war on all the insects and nocturnal vermins that afflict man and his fruit trees.

— But surely, although this hideous creature, which enjoys a supreme ugliness, and indeed a supreme faculty of repulsion, is but an innocent animal, and even a useful one—surely our fear of death, of that too too disquieting transition, is not merely an atrocious sort of joke?

— An atrocious joke, if you would call it that; a mystification prolonged infinitely too long, —by the aid of which miserable impostors have odiously exploited credulous men, profiting from their ignorance to frighten them, to affect their minds with the idea of a wicked God, to propagate the dogma of eternal pain, to practise the flight to Purgatory. Fortunately, all this is revealed in daylight (analogy). The Bat, with which the phoney obscurantists had collaborated in their tenebrous conspiracies, might not have betrayed them, but then another of their accomplices would have spilled the beans.

The Bat is a chimera, a monstrous being, impossible, symbolising only the chimera, a nocturnal sprite [Fr. farfadet] representing exclusively the phantoms of sick imaginations, the progeny of brains calcined by asceticism, by fasting and by solitary meditations. The Bat is imposture made beast, just as M. de Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, was imposture made man.

The character of universal anomaly4 and of monstrosity which is observed in the Bat's structure, in those bizarre sensory inversions by which the villainous beast listens with its nose and sees with its ears, can be explained as a corruption of ideas, and as the intellectual irregularities that this fantastic form is designed to symbolise. Moreover, it can be proven that the Bat has only ever represented a false death, by the fact that the true Death is noseless [Fr. camarde], whereas the Bat has an exaggerated nose that sometimes descends down to its breast, like an elephant's trunk.

The Bat openly admits its complicity in the work of Obscurantism; for sixty centuries it has been the devoutest auxiliary of Superstition, for the simple reason that its natural sympathies are for the friends of darkness, and that light offends it, and that it cannot see a lit candle without feeling the need to blow it out. In turn, I admit that I could not make a crime of the poor beast's sympathies. He who resembles himself, comes together. The Bat only lets itself crawl during the day; it neither flies nor walks; soldiers of this kind cannot serve in the regiment of progress.

But then, veritably, there is for the systematic obscurantism of the Bats, as for that of the Bear, no longer such an ardent friend of the light—there is an attenuating circumstance of extreme gravity.

To the ignorant I must explain that the childhood of the worlds was a good time for Bats, just as the childhood of a man is a good time for Werewolves and Boogiemen. The closer one is to the birth of the animal world, the higher the Bat's place on the scale of the world's animality.

It ruled the world that preceded ours; antediluvian history tells us that it was once one of the highest moulds of animality. From its high position in those distant times, the Bat has yet retained a glorious sign. It has its breast in the same place as the Sphinx; it is this that gives it an anthropomorphic quality, that is to say the build of a human figure. An anthropomorphic religion is one constructed by human hands, whose God naturally resembles he that made him: To objectivize the I and raise it to the absolute is the eternal marotte of human folly, red-white-hot with pride. As for the atheist, the atheist above all adores an anthropomorphic God in a single person, who has the name of Holback [sic], or Henri Heine.

It is proven, therefore, that in the fine days of the Creation before last, the domain of the air belonged in all sovereignty to two or three gigantic Bats, types of aerial ships whose membraneous sails measured ten or twelve metres across; and that these powerfully-built Bats—which today's savants call pterodactyls so as not to repeat the word chiroptera, which means exactly the same thing—shared with the Bear the benefits of an unchallenged tyranny. I let myself say that there were, among these hairy birds, these hideous vampires, those who hesitated not to draw from a poor Megatherium, or a poor sleepy Dinotherium, half a hectolitre of blood. If one would believe our explorers' tales, this habit of sucking a man's blood during his sleep has been carefully transmitted from the pterodactyls of yore to the chiroptera of today.

I am not an apologist for tyrants, nor for vampires; but I do have some sympathy for deposed powers; from those who have lost everything in a revolution, I do not require any affection for the new order of things. In all times and on all worlds, the pretenders, that is to say the deposed (the Bear and the Bat), have lent a hand to the obscurantists, or to put it bluntly, the Jesuits; in all times, pretenders and priests have banded together to halt progress. The pretenders' interest in this coalition is very clear; before moving a chariot retrograde, one must bring it to a halt. The tactics of the priest and royalist parties in our revolutions.

The question that smacks of heresy. . . 5

It is certain that it is the Bat who has helped most to ingrain, in the imagination of credulous mortals, the more or less fabulous myths of the Hippogriff, the Griffon, the Dragon, the Chimera; that it is the Bat who, in a word, has served as a model for all those birds of four feet and jaws, to whom the ancient world was accustomed to entrust its treasures. The Roc of Arabic legend is not an Eagle, but in fact a Bat. A bird which is only a bird, no matter how great, and which has only two feet and feathers, could never inspire the same terror as the most innocent Bat. The bugbear's physique demands imperiously the union of claws, wings and jaws. The Devil of Catholic legend, both apostolic and Roman, the Christian Devil, who has tampered so much with souls, and caused so much good land to be given by testament to the priests, the Christian Devil is himself only a very happy counterfeit of the Bat, and on his forehead can be seen the two horns of the ancient satyr, there only to disguise the plagiary. The Devil who crosses the backdrop of the Opéra during the third act of Robert has membraneous wings and toes adorned with claws like a Bat. All the invocations of the sorcerors of infernal dramas have as their first results the appearance upon the stage of frightful pterodactyls, who open their wings in time to the music. All the principal figures in that great epic of Callot, the Temptation of Saint Anthony, were copied from an original that one can admire in any cabinet of natural history, in the gallery of pictures of the Bat family. Show a painter the hairstyles of his most outlandish demons, their most eccentric ears and their most expansive noses, and I assert that the Rhinolophus, the Long-Eared Bat and the Flying Rat will still make him denounce the copyist's timidity. The tradition of the Vampire, who leaves his tomb during the night in order to suck the blood of young girls, is the tradition of the Bat. The Jesuit's tricorne, the Monk's cowl, these are the pieces of the Bat's uniform.

I know all the crimes of the Bat, and I forgive it them, because a fault confessed is a fault half-forgiven.

I forgive the Bat its crimes, by dint of this religious motive, that the fear of death is one of the fatal conditions of existence in limbic societies, and that God has had to square the terrors of death with the miseries of life. Superstition, which will soon cease altogether, has had its necessity, just like evil. If we had no fear of death, we should all desire to go down into the earth, when life pleased us no longer.

But just as the first rays of the Sun, hearth of light and love, chase the spirits of darkness, the Owl and the Bat, from the reawakened atmosphere. . . so False Morals and Superstition, the idea of a wicked God, and Fear and Imposture, will flee a man's brain with the first flickers of the dawn of Harmony6, and the fearful nightmare of Hell will cease to weigh upon our dreams!

Insensible are those who complain that God has refused to our age a revelation of the things of another life. . . clearly, they know not that it pains those who are aware of the delights of the aromal7 life to remain here below!

The Bat, who lost so much in the last creation, is destined to disappear entirely at the beginning of the next.



(A thank-you to the polytropic Siganus Sutor for helping me with a few difficult points in the French.)

1. This chapter makes more explicit references to the theories and jargon of Charles Fourier; these need a little explaining. For instance, passionelle is a key term, referring to Fourier's idea of natural attraction in the animal world, a version of Aristotle's final cause. The Trésor provides this definition: "Attraction passionnelle. Penchant par lequel chaque être est attiré vers les autres et vers le but de sa passion dominante, antérieurement à la réflexion. Charles Fourier se considérait comme un nouveau Newton, pour avoir conçu l'attraction passionnelle comme le ressort fondamental de la vie sociale." Ceri Crossley ('Anglophobia and anti-Semitism: the case of Alphonse Toussenel (1803-1885)', online here) writes that Toussenel "rejected conventional forms of taxonomy and employed Fourier’s theory of the passions as his principle of classification. He argued that the science of analogy revealed that the cosmos was a meaningful unity bound together by a network of correspondences. Plants, animals and humans were all secretly linked. Everything was symbolic." The neo-mediaevalism of this attitude, reflected in Toussenel's revival of the bestiary genre, is clear.

2. The word 'mould' [moule] is also technical; as Toussenel writes in his volume on birds, "Les animaux de tous les règnes sont, à l’instar des minéraux et des plantes, des moules particuliers de la passion humaine"—in other words, animals are 'particular forms or moulds' of human passion.

3. In English in the original text; the reference is obvious.

4. 'Anomaly' being the classical antithesis of 'analogy', the key structure in the Fourierian universe.

5. A particularly intricate design; viewing the larger image is highly recommended. The object clutched in the demon's right hand is a rosary; in its left hand is, I believe, an aspergill.

6. As Crossley puts it, Toussenel "looked forward to the future age of Harmony, to a time when humans would collaborate peacefully and work productively in a society that allowed for the full expression of the passions. In Harmony, humankind would at last be reconciled with nature. The creatures that embodied human vices would disappear and new harmonious animals would be born." Compare Fourier's infamous doctrine, half ironic, that in the next age the seas would turn to a bituminous substance tasting like lemonade.

7. Fr. aromale: the Trésor gives this definition—"Mot forgé par Charles Fourier (1772-1837), fondateur de l'école phalanstérienne, et appliqué au système de distribution des aromes qui régissent les relations des astres."

For more: Toussenel on the Mole-Rat, and on the Ermine.


John B. said...

Now, mind, I don't know from French, but these translations have been great fun to read for their enthusiasm and how they expose the writer's prejudices. A Romantic bestiary, is what I keep thinking as I read them.

I've taken the liberty of linking to them in hopes that a few visitors to my place will find their way here.

Brett said...

In the Spanish, the word for bat is "murciélago," supposedly the only Spanish word that contains all five vowels.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, John! Yes, they are a sort of neo-mediaevalist bestiary. The more I discover of this period, the more apparent the mediaeval influence becomes to me. My wife studies mediaevalism in Victorian art and art-theory, but the recurrence is much more profound. In some respects, Toussenel reads a bit like a Reformer or a Lollard, denouncing the moral corruption of the Catholic Church (and the Jesuits, of course). But in his belief in a world dominated by parallels and analogies, he brings to mind Foucault's rather vague description of the pre-Baconian world in Les mots et les choses.

The word 'Romantic' would not have occurred to me; I wonder what exactly you mean by it. (A devilish thing to pin down, isn't it?) The utopian-socialist element is strongly Romantic, at least post-1800; is this what you're referring to? Or do you mean the word in a more Poe-ish sense?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Brett: interesting, I didn't know that. 'Sequoia' and 'cauliflower', in English.

John Cowan said...

The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that wont Believe
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbelievers fright
--Blake, "Auguries of Innocence"

Conrad H. Roth said...

Lo! the Bat with leathern wing, Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Winking and blinking,
Like Dr Johnson.

--Blake, "An Island in the Moon"

John B. said...

I meant "Romantic" in that vague, gestural sort of way. To be a bit more specific, though, I was referring to its simultaneous prejudice toward organized religion (think Blake and Shelley) and its embrace of the "irrational" (Poe, yes, come to think of it, but I was thinking Rousseau, too).

Conrad H. Roth said...

"its embrace of the "irrational""

This is an interesting issue. Would Toussenel have seen his work as irrational? To us it seems crazy, but I suspect that T would have defended this as the highest form of reason. There must be an ironic element to the ideas here, but Fourier (for one) embedded some pretty sane ideas, and some surprising lateral insights, in his theories. For instance, in a commune, get the kids to do dirty work, because they love getting messy. F also coined the word 'feminism'.

What I'm saying is that T does not explicitly reject reason in the way that some of the German romantics did, or as did mystics in the Dionysian tradition. His statements are all built on a funny calculus of reasoned justification: the bat cannot be a symbol of true death, because it has a long nose. I think it is this re-appropriation of Reason that makes him so interesting to me.

A Little Thought said...

I think it is this re-appropriation of Reason that makes him so interesting to me.

Me too. This work reminds me of the bits and pieces I've read of Paracelsus.

His explanations sometimes appear from nowhere, and yet it's clear that explanations are very much what he's after.

Great stuff, Conrad.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, ALT, you spoil me.

Uke Xensen said...

The bat is one of the most common elements in Chinese decorative art, in which context it has a very different symbology. In the Chinese context, bats symbolize blessings. The word for "bat," fu, has the same sound as the word for "blessings" and the word for "riches."

In Chinese art the bat is usually shown upside down. This is because the word for "upside down," dao, sounds like the word for "arrived." So upside-down bats signify "blessings have arrived." This motif is common during Chinese New Year and is found on a great deal of Chinese decorative art.

Other motifs involving bats include the following:

pairs of bats = may you have double blessings

bats and clouds = may you have good fortune (clouds = fortune)

bats descending from the sky = blessings from heaven

red bats = vast blessings (red = vast)

five bats = the Five Blessings (old age, wealth, love of virtue health, peaceful death)

and many more. The best catalogue of these motifs is undoubtedly Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art by Terese Tse Bartholomew.

Joy In Life said...

The grey cells delight to visit here; they grow greyer with a sadness, for there are too few hours to read the Varieties...

Conrad H. Roth said...

Troppa magnanima, signorina; grazie.

Siganus Sutor said...

There might be many places on earth where these things happen, but I know of only three countries where people eat bats: Mauritius, Seychelles (which has been a part of Mauritius till the early twentieth century) and New Caledonia. All three in the southern hemisphere. As people there have their head upside down like any sleeping bat, maybe they became a bit crazy due to too high a blood pressure in the head. Because when you think about the common sense saying according to which you become what you eat, it's like inviting the devil to take your body and soul.

R2K said...

: )

And the spanish word for bat is, in english, a nice car.

Blue Genes said...

Thank you for this interesting entry. Just FYI, the French expression that you cite for "heresy" is "sentir le fagot," not "sentir la fagot." Probably just a typo but I thought such a skilled linguist as yourself might want to correct it.

Siganus Sutor said...

Some didn't dare say anything about the gender of fagot (at least not publicly). Those who were burned at the stake, these creatures — sometimes known as "witches" — in which the devil likes to be incarnated, they often were female, weren't they?

Incidentally, has someone here heard about places in whitch human beings — or nearly so — eat bats, this type 2 delicatessen?

Greta said...

Yeah that's what bats are all about, you think... I guess they are horrible, but as a scholar of post colonial studies, I ve seen their is a lot of construction regarding bats and their nature. So we are all scared of them... Ill omen pronounced, once you see them. Looks horrible to my mind, but that's what it has become.. This construction is dreadful!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Blue Genes: yes, you are quite right, I misread it; thanks for the correction.

Greta: I have nothing against bats myself; but Mr. Toussenel does seem to have had a problem with them.

New York Red said...

Interesting post.I am always fascinated by bat, the prince of darkness,,,somehow, bat or the idea of evil and vampaire were never part of Chinese culture.

yumen said...

"It is enough to give one gooseflesh, the very idea of the ill-fated consequences of indiscretion among the weak."

I couldn't agree more.

xensen said...

I mentioned the Chinese view of bats in a previous comment. For a different viewpoint, you might like to check out my recent post on the symbology of the bat for the ancient Maya