Humans, Parasites, and Other Vermin

Jess Keiser
Tufts University

Animal studies, particularly animal studies with a historicist bent, hasn’t had much time for vermin: insects, rats, toads, and other creeping things. Instead, as Lucinda Cole notes in her smart and provocative new book, Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740 (Michigan, 2016), the field has focused largely on “charismatic megafauna” like higher mammals (6). Moreover, when vermin appear at all in the pages of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature and its criticism, they are represented not as they actually are—massing swarms endowed with dangerous, uncanny agency—but as they are taken to be in more idealized fantasies. Consider, as Cole does, the oddness of encountering a single, easily manageable flea like the lovers in John Donne’s canonical vermin poem. Nevertheless, as Cole also notes, vermin are ideal subjects for animal studies and scholarship engaged in post-humanist inquiry more generally. Since vermin persist in a state of ontological instability (the term often denominates bugs, but it can apply just as readily to packs of dogs and even parasitical human beings), and since they cross all manner of boundaries, crawling beneath clothes, transferring blood and contagion amidst distinct bodies, overrunning property and propriety, these swarming, “imperfect creatures” trouble human exceptionalism and blur species boundaries—precisely the goal of much work in animal studies.

Animal studies’ curious neglect of a subject, like vermin, that appears vitally important to its concerns and self-identity, like the deconstruction of human singularity and superiority, will not be a surprise to readers of Cole’s book. As she illustrates, it was ever thus with vermin. Her work is a careful, lucid, richly researched, and smartly argued examination of “the paradoxical logic of the parasite: vermin must be banished from biological, economic, and theological systems, and yet they remain essential to their constitution” (22). In a series of chapters on everything from early modern theater and curiously well-footnoted plague poems to debates about witchcraft and rabies, Cole unfurls this paradox, demonstrating how it drives and shapes early modern and Enlightenment culture. Vermin, Cole shows, operate as a constitutive absence for this culture. They haunt its margins and suffer as its scapegoats, only to return, like a stubborn infestation, precisely when we imagine they’ve been eradicated. Vermin become, that is, the uncanny origin of disruptions in bodies both physical and political, the key to unlocking the mechanisms of the nervous system, and figurative stand-in for a culture’s parasitical economies.

First, a note about the book’s subtitle. As she states there, Cole considers literature and the “sciences of life” from 1600 to 1740. Although readers might worry about the breadth of Cole’s archive—the dates take her from William Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays to Daniel Defoe’s later work—the period is chosen cannily. The book is structured around a fault line: the scientific revolution, whose key figures and texts preoccupy the center of her study. Following Bruno Latour and Michel Serres, Cole reads science and modernity as forces entangled in a process of purification.1 For Latour especially, modernity is nothing more than an attempt to carve up what is in fact a seamless world of human and non-human actors. Hence, according to Latour, any effort to cordon off human from animal, or culture from nature, will simply produce more virulent hybrids as a result. In terms of vermin, this will mean that efforts, both figurative and literal, to separate these creatures from more perfect beings, like the human and its companion species, results only in their further insinuation. In terms of the book’s structure, Cole has arrayed her argument across different periods of history—periods whose distinctness can be marked by their relative comfort with, or uneasiness of, the entanglement of human and inhuman worlds.

For instance, Cole begins the first chapter of Imperfect Creatures, “Rats, Witches, Miasma, and Early Modern Theories of Contagion,” by plunging us into an entirely impure period. In a chapter ranging over Jacobean drama, animal etchings, and treatises on witchcraft, she reminds us that early modern thinkers wrote against the background of what scholars now identify as “The Little Ice Age,” a period “characterized by a general cooling” and hence “climatological instability” (24). Particularly in early seventeenth-century England and Europe, the Little Ice Age produced a series of calamities: “famine, serial epidemics, bread riots, and chaos” (24). More troubling still, the precise nature and cause of these disruptions remained obscure to early modern thinkers (bereft as they were of modern climatological science). Explanations often wavered between the theological (e.g., God punishing atheists and blasphemers) and the natural (proto-scientific theories of contagion), but more often partaking in both registers. Cole points out that Jean Bodin, in On the Demon-Mania of Witches (1580), was happy to draw a line from blasphemy and atheism to plague, famine, and the proliferation of “evil spirits.” (27). Whatever the precise cause of these calamities, early modern minds were certain that vermin—in this case, rats as well as women taken to be witches—were somehow involved, since the mere presence of such creatures seemed to correlate with disease and destruction. Cole contends that, insofar as vermin persisted in the interstices of knowledge and clothing, they came to “embody mysterious forms of contagion” (30). In other words, they brought together both theological and natural explanations of plague. Thanks to “their slippery natures,” Cole notes that vermin “move easily between the medical and religious imaginaries, yoking what, for us, appear to be very different worlds” (30). In this respect, vermin become a means of capturing, however fitfully, a hugely complex and world-shattering event like the climactic shifts of the Little Ice Age.

Chapter 2, “Swarming Things,” stages the clash between the aforementioned different worlds more forcefully. Its main concern is seventeenth-century English interpretations of Biblical plagues, particularly the plagues of frogs and locusts visited upon Pharaoh in Exodus. Reading these accounts, and drawing connections and correlations to the political and natural state of their own time, early modern thinkers were once again faced with a series of seemingly intractable questions—questions that made it difficult to separate nature from culture, environment from politics, and senseless contagion from divine wrath. Cole works through these questions by focusing on the work of two poets, George Wither and Abraham Cowley. Although near contemporaries, Wither and Cowley seemingly inhabited different epistemological universes when it came to worrying over the problems of plague and vermin. Wither, in Cole’s rendering, is more in tune with the views of earlier thinkers. As Cole notes, Wither’s poetry flits between natural and sociopolitical registers, thereby “yoking as many discourses as possible” (64): “Religious, medical, and agricultural histories (along with specific farming and medical practices) provide a common frame of reference for a dark, even apocalyptic vision” (64). Cowley, an early advocate for the Royal Society, takes a different approach. Where Wither sees a dense confusion of natural and cultural forces, Cowley, in keeping with the “purifying” character of modern science, tends to find consistency and control. By appending a long critical metacommentary to this plague poetry, “Cowley attempts to control a cacophony of exegetical debates about the extent of God’s power, natural laws, and relationships between humans and other animals” (67). In other words, where others find uncertainty—or, more precisely, a meaningful mangle of nature, culture, and God—the scientifically minded poet sees an opportunity to gloss away confusion through naturalistic explanation.

The proto-scientific themes Cole tracks throughout the beginning of her book finally become explicit in chapter 3, “Observe the Frog,” which focuses on the work of neurophysiologist Thomas Willis and on The Virtuoso (1676), Thomas Shadwell’s legendary send-up of early natural philosophy. Willis is particularly interesting for Cole since his work demonstrates the curious push-and-pull inherent in Enlightenment science. On the one hand, Willis’s neuro-anatomy collapses the distinction between human and animal bodies. Willis shows that the differences between the nervous systems of a human being, a higher mammal, and a mere insect are one of degree rather than kind. Humans have more complex nervous systems than their verminous cousins but, fundamentally, they are composed of the same substance. On the other hand, this insight left Willis forced to account for what he perceived as forms of human exceptionalism. His solution, curiously enough, was to claim that humans were creatures endowed with two souls: a God-given incorporeal soul and a corporeal or bodily soul essentially coextensive with the neurochemical reactions happening within the brain. The latter soul, Cole explains, produces “a proliferation of impulses and thoughts that frequently, if not characteristically, are figured in animal form” (97). The corporeal soul is home to “animal spirits,” a swarm of unthinking particles that continually vex the human just like the rats, frogs, and insects Cole surveys elsewhere. It is left to the rational soul to somehow manage this unruly internal force and thereby to produce the culture, art, and science that is the real mark of the human (at least for Willis). In this respect, Cole points out that Shadwell’s The Virtuoso isn’t only an attack on early science but, more particularly, an attack on efforts to separate human from animal. After all, the play finds Nicholas Gimcrack—that paragon of scientific curiosity and hence, according to Willis, humanity—swimming with frogs and other vermin. As Cole explains, “The Virtuoso satirizes the self-defeating delusion that the rational soul governs corporeal desire through repeated, often jarring, incongruities between characters’ pretenses to what Willis calls ‘The Sciences and the Liberal Arts’—as proof of a ‘Superior Soul’—and their comic identifications with horses, dogs, lobsters, cockroaches, frogs, maggots, flies, and mites” (107).

As Cole’s chapter on Willis demonstrates, efforts at separating human from vermin often lead paradoxically to their confusion: the nervous system becomes populated with swarms of animal spirits, scientists swim with frogs. As odd as it may seem, a similar confusion applies to other animal life, with certain more “perfect” and companionable creatures sometimes sliding into the category of vermin and parasite. In her fourth chapter, “Libertine Biopolitics,” Cole points out that dogs enjoy a similarly fraught status in the period’s cultural imaginary. They are both “singular objects of affections”—think of Belinda’s lapdog, Shock—and “dangerous populations” that can “easily become scavenging or threatening packs” (111). To complicate matters still further, for libertine thinkers set on exposing humanity’s basest instincts, dogs become “abjected surrogates for humans in dystopian version of pastoral or civic order” (112). Cole shows that John Wilmot, Lord Rochester, in particular, continually compares the violent, lascivious, pack-like behavior of the men and women roaming through St. James’s Park, or attempting to climb the social hierarchy of Restoration England, to dogs.

Turning to Defoe’s Crusoe novels, Cole’s fifth and final chapter, “What Happened to the Rats?,” continues this examination of the human being as itself a kind of parasite. Building on John Bender’s argument that Defoe’s Crusoe novels are “apparitional” insofar as they swap out the uncertainties and ruptures of real life for a fantasy of harmony and wholeness, Cole contends that we can locate the precise vectors of Defoe’s island fantasy in its lack of rats.2 Although rats nearly gnawed Alexander Selkirk—Crusoe’s real-life counterpart—to death, they are curiously absent from Defoe’s imagined island. “Defoe ‘exorcises’ the ‘pestiferous’ rates,” Cole writes, “and populates Crusoe’s island with more perfect, more domesticable creatures: goats, a dog, cats, parrots, and human indigenes. … The island’s imagined environment is not an open, dynamic ecosystem but a closed, zoomorphic world in which Crusoe hunts, gathers, farms, and stores under metaphysically secure conditions” (145). With rats evacuated from the island, the humans and animals that remain become analogues for those seemingly most perfect of creatures: bees. When Crusoe returns to his island after abandoning it at the conclusion of the first volume in Defoe’s trilogy, he finds that the men he has left behind have organized themselves like a hive of bees. Because bees appear to persist in a state of harmony, given their “ability to convert natural resources, nonviolently, into food that sustains, rather than destroys the hive,” Cole argues that they “are not so much anti-vermin as non-vermin” (166). Although, as she also goes on to note, even a beehive sometimes “promotes a sacrificial economy,” as useless, luxuriating drones are killed by their queen. In other words, even bees, like the humans who would emulate them, produce their own vermin.

It seems to me that Cole’s important book will be hard to ignore. To that end, it will also make the heretofore invisible “imperfect creatures” of early modern and Enlightenment culture hard to ignore in turn. Cole has demonstrated definitively, through careful research, innovative readings of canonical texts, and deft interdisciplinary inquiry that vermin are at the heart of the early modern imaginary, poised as it is between “pre-modern” entanglements and scientific culture’s always partial attempts at purification and delineation. And like the vermin upon which it focuses, Cole’s book crosses boundaries even as it redefines them. Scholars not only in animal studies but in the history of science, ecology, and literature will need to absorb and contend with its claims.

NOTES 1 See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), and Michel Serres, The Parasite (Minneapolis, 2007).

2 See John Bender, Ends of Enlightenment (Stanford, 2012).