Thinking Pig

11 Jan

Pig

Stories of animal transformation abound in myths and folktales across the world. The theme is one that pervades Greek and Celtic mythologies, to take just two examples, and traditionally takes two forms: the ability of a god or sorcerer or shaman to wilfully transform him/herself into an animal; and the punitive transformation of people into animals for some misdeed or crime.

In a reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis we might argue – as Nabokov does in his lecture notes on the book – that before the actual transformation, Gregor Samsa already lived like an insect, always scuttling about and kowtowing to greater pressures such as familial guilt and responsibility as well as a servile sense of duty to his job. Just as bugs mooch about, busying themselves yet at the same time achieving nothing, Gregor scuttles through his day, occasionally running across another insect and eating morsels as he finds them.

But what of the broader, mythical background to the notion of metamorphosis? In The Odyssey we encounter Proteus and Circe. Proteus changes forms several times throughout the poem: lion, serpent, leopard and pig, and ultimately is the character responsible for guiding Odysseus home. Circe’s ability to transform Odysseus’ crew into pigs might be regarded as the forerunner of countless tales of human-animal metamorphosis.

A powerful motif running though both Irish and Welsh mythic literature is that of shape-shifting  . . . In the Welsh narratives, shape-shifting is generally presented as punitive rather than voluntary: a few episodes revolve around the transformation of people into animals because of some misdemeanour. Thus in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, Twrch Trwyth – an enchanted boar – is the object of one of Culhwch’s quests to win the hand of Olwen. When questioned as to the origin of his misfortune, Trwch Trwyth replied that God blighted him with boar-shape as punishment for his evil ways. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are turned into three successive pairs of beasts (deer, wolves and swine) because of their conspiracy to rape King Math’s virgin footholder Goewin (Math needs a footholder – obviously – because he will die if his feet are not held in the lap of a virgin).

The pig seems a popular incarnation for errant humans. In Christian symbology they represent venality and the sins of the flesh. But there is more. In Edmund Leach’s famous paper on animal categories and verbal abuse, we are reminded that what we eat is often analogous to whom we are normally expected to sleep with: for instance we don’t – in British culture – tend to eat dogs, and – analogously, according to Leach – we disapprove of incest. We do however eat domestic farm animals (pigs, sheep, chickens etc), which are bred for human consumption, a class of animal that Leach correlates to an intermediate rank of sociability: people whom one might meet socially, within a circle of acquaintances, and who serve as potential sexual partners. By extension, claims Leach, we don’t, as a rule, sleep with complete strangers (questionable, but let’s stick with the theory for a minute) – and accordingly we do not habitually eat exotic animals such as lions and crocodiles and elephants and emus (availability is an issue there, which kind of upsets the theory, but let’s not be pernickety). Leach’s thesis could be summarised in less scholarly terms as the edibility : fuckability theory.

Having just read Marie Darriussecq’s Pig Tales, the English translation of a book originally published in French in 1996 as Truismes, I will concede that pigs are not regarded favourably. The protagonist of this excellent short novel has the misfortune to find herself metamorphosing into a sow and there is little she can do about it. She puts on weight in all the wrong places, her skin turns tough and bristles of hair sprout abundantly. She starts eating flowers and develops a love of raw potatoes. She grows a third nipple, then a full set of six teats. She grunts and squeals uncontrollably and eventually finds it more comfortable to go about on all fours. Darriuessecq’s book is hilarious and filthy and thought-provoking, tackling big themes such as consciousness, gender roles and the objectification of the female body, but it would be a shame to encumber it with too much interpretation. Sometimes a novel can be read like a dream (or a nightmare) and just taken for what it is: a woman morphing into a pig (just as her lover morphs into a wolf). The concept itself is enough to travel with: just think pig. Relax. Lie back in your sty. Make a bacon sandwich. Read a book, why don’t you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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