by: Mark Kirschbaum on January 26th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
The old frog leaps
Into the silent pool
Everyone from childhood is familiar with the story line of the Ten Plagues. We are familiar with them from childhood because they are almost amusing. God smites the fierce Egyptian people not with Godzilla and King Kong, but with bugs, hail, and frogs. Frogs! At any rate, it is hard to envision just what kind of ‘plague’ throwing frogs around might be. Other than some minor damage to agriculture, they aren’t particularly pesky little fellas. So our goal is to discover what other meanings may be inherent in this plague of frogs.
Before thinking about the relationship between animals and plagues, perhaps it might be valuable to the relationship between animals and us, or the concept of animality, in general. The initial impulse would be to try find the Freudian frog, situate frog symbolism in some sort of psychoanalytic way. The frog would follow the the horse in the manner of Freud’s Little Hans case; the reaction of the child to the mistreatment and death of the horse would be understood as ‘really’ referring to underlying drives. Or the wolf, in the Wolfman case, which wasn’t about wolves at all but about castration. Thus we would have to find some neurotic process which could be adequately symbolized by a frog. In the classical psychoanalytic viewpoint, then, interpreting the frog would be interpreting some signified process or drive in man, but would have very little to do with the actual frog or ‘frogness’.
Deleuze and Guattari offer an alternative reading in these cases. They argue that there is a more immediate relation to animality that is more than just a signifier for an unconscious drive. Here is their dissension from Freud:
‘The horses blinders are the father’s eyeglasses, the black around its mouth is his moustache, its kicks are the parents’ ‘lovemaking’. Not one word about Hans’s relation to the street, on how the street was forbidden to him, on what it is for a child to see the spectacle ‘a horse is proud, a blinded horse pulls, a horse falls, a horse is whipped” Psychoanalysis has no feeling for unnatural participations’
Deleuze and Guattari postulate that the relationship to animals is that of an ‘assemblage’, that is, a structuralist construct whereby aspects of animal behaviour are abstracted and incorporated into the individuals being. Their language is wonderful and thus hard to summarize, a summary would sound something like: the individual’s abstract machine (abstract here being a verb, that is, the person unconstructs the actual thing observed and takes from it certain structures and relations) reconstructing for themselves a Body Without Organs, these new behaviours would become lines of flight, deterritorializations. This appropriation they call the ‘becoming-animal’. When an actor barks like a dog, he is not metamorphosizing into a dog, or trying to, rather, he is taking on to himself an abstracted characteristic of dogs. This process is identical to other becomings, such as the ‘becoming-woman’. Images and stereotypes of what woman means are what are assumed by the individual who ‘becomes-woman’. Becoming woman is not imitating this entity or even transforming oneself into it… The child does not become the adult any more than the girl becomes a woman; the girl is the becoming-woman of each sex, just at the child is the becoming-young of every age…
This analysis leads in several interesting directions, for example, they point out that these becomings tend to be of minorities, there is less becoming-man than there is becoming-woman, or becoming-Black or becoming-Jew. These becomings, since they are by nature acts of reterritorialization, tend to relate to ‘minoritarian’ processes. Thus:
Even blacks, as the Black Panthers said, must become blacks. Even women must become-women. Even Jews must become-Jewish (it certainly takes more than a state)… A Jew beomes Jewish, but in the becoming-Jewish of the non-Jew. A becoming-minoritarian exists only by virtue of a deterritorialized medium and subject that are like its elements… there is no medium of becoming except as a deterritorialized variable of a minority…
In other words, ‘assemblages’, that is, abstracted stereotypical behaviour, are what are derived from animals, minorities, other ‘outsider’ elements presented to society. What we will argue in this shiur, using the plague of frogs and locusts as test cases, is that the plagues, aside from their role in ‘punishing’ Egypt, are also laden with alternate assemblages, from which the becoming-liberated slaves could abstract new conceptions for freedom.
Let us begin by looking at the midrashim regarding the frogs. I can argue that the frogs symbolize potential deterritorializations and lines of flight by utilizing the well known but otherwise odd Midrash also quoted in the Talmud:
‘The frog (single tense) arose and covered Egypt’: R. Akiva taught that it was one frog that split into millions, R. Elazar B. Azarya taught that it was one frog who whistled for the others to join him…
More appropriate to this kind of midrashic liberation theory is the Zohar’s spin on this splitting chaos, in which it is not in their arrival that they split in all directions, in lines and ‘rhizomes’ not expected by the oppressor. In the Zohar, every time an Egyptian tried to kill a frog by striking it, it would break up into many more frogs hopping in every direction. The message of this Midrash, in our approach, then, is that the frogs signify a ripping apart of the accepted norms of the unjust society, suggesting this movement away from order.
Another abstracted behavior, which the Midrash identifies as acting as specifically acting as a normative lesson, is the frogs willingness to risk their lives for the sake of the cause :
‘They will enter you and your people’: They would enter people’s abdomen with all their food. They would go into the bread dough and keep it from rising. Hanania Mishael and Azariah took a lesson in martyrdom from the frogs, who chose freely to jump into the ovens, even though they knew they would die.
In other words, implicit within the imagery of becoming-frog would be the willingness to sacrifice for ideals. A slave is a passive, acted-upon agent, only an individual with true control over their own activities can choose to surrender all for their beliefs.
A readily identifiable characteristic of the frog, which is a critical element of the redemptive quality of becoming-frog is their distinctive song. In Aramaic, for example, the frog is known as ‘akrookta’, which is clearly onomatopoetic. This song is given a poetic meaning in the Midrashim- the Tana Dvei Eliyahu Rabba, and the Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 150 claim that the song of the frog is a song to God, which they sing all day, hence their Hebrew name, tzefardea, which could be split as tzefar (daytime) deah (wisdom). At any rate, in our text here, we are told that after the Egyptians had had enough of the frogs, they cried out to Moshe to remove them, and his action is read by the Midrash as follows:
‘And Moshe cried out about the matter of the frogs’- the Hebrew phrase is ‘dvar hatzefardiim’, (which can be translated as)’the speech of the frogs’. The frogs jumped into the Egyptian’s bodies, and croaked within them.
The Maor V’Shemesh and the Mei Hashiloach take different views of what exactly was bothersome to the slave-exploiters about the frog’s croaking. The Maor V’shemesh, following the midrashim we quoted earlier, claims that the frogs, within the Egyptians bodies, sang songs of praise to God, and this was most hateful to a people countenancing slavery.
The Mei Hashiloach also notes the emacipatory quality of frog-speech. To put the Mei Hashiloach’s reading into context, I’d like to cite Baudrillard on the linkage between the silence of animals and their exploitation. Baudrillard notes that the sentimentalization of the image of ‘animal’ is linked to increasing exploitation of the animal; as an animal is less feared, and less sacred, and more readily exterminated, it becomes more silent. It is only when somehow the exploitation is not as smooth as planned that suddenly attention is paid. Baudrillard’s essay was sparked by a newspaper article detailing a veterinary conference dealing with the ‘psychological troubles (of the animals) that develop in industrial breeding farms’. In other words, the silence of the animals is only broken when the exploitation is no longer going as smoothly as planned. And this is true not only of animals:
In the end, the progression that the beast followed is not different from that of madness and childhood, of sex or negritude. A logic of exclusion… The convergence of processes of civilization is astounding. Animals, like the dead, and so many others, have followed this uninterrupted process of annexation through extermination, of making them present the confession of their disappearance. Making animals speak, as one has made the insane, children, sex (Foucault) speak. This is even deluded in regard to animals, whose principle of uncertainty, which they have caused to reside on men since the rupture in their alliance with men [that is, as religious and sacred symbols], resides in the fact that they do not speak…
The Mei Hashiloach hears the croaking of the frogs in the same manner. The slave holders did not hear the voices of their slaves, they would denigrate and slander them. The frogs, however, drowned out this discourse of exploitation, causing a silencing, of those who silence and dehumanize those they silence and enslave. This silencing of the language of oppression is an aspect of becoming-frog.
The Mei Hashiloach sees an aspect of this in the plague of Locusts, at the beginning of Perashat Bo. The plague of locusts, wreaked economic devastation inflicted upon the Egyptians, a punishment appropriate to the crime as the agricultural work undone would be that gained by the subjugation of the Israelites, as the Midrash notes. However, there was another message within the plague, that of ‘becoming-locust’. According to the Mei Hashiloach, the locust serves as a model for a progressive, liberated people. Having their societal goals so clearly appropriated by all in their flock, they need no king, no leader. The workers stand together, in unity, recognizing their mutual needs and as such need no king, no subjugation. This was a lesson, the Mei Hashiloach suggests, provided by the locusts for a people restructuring their priorities on the eve of liberation, an appropriate assemblage for a newly forming people.
It is interesting to note that in both of these plagues, it is pointed out that the plagues, the ravaging hordes of frogs and locusts, would be limited to the borders of Egypt. This, the Midrash claims, actually had a beneficial aspect- it led to peace. The Midrash states that the frogs and locusts brought about peace because all boundary disputes were suddenly resolvable. I would like to suggest, that this Midrash is in line with our observations regarding becoming-frog and becoming-locust. An inevitable comrade to exploitative tendencies within a society is a lust for expansionism, as history has shown us repeatedly in the twentieth century. Thus, the clear marking by the frogs and locusts, in an undeniable matter, of a country’s true boundaries, acts in an opposite manner to expansionist yearnings.
Thus we see how the plagues were not merely a form of punishment, or humorous torment of the Egyptians, but read properly, provide examples of processes necessary for universal freedom; we too, like Basho’s old frog, in the face of societal injustice, need to learn how to create a splash in the silent pool of tears.
(As a short afterword, the inevitable science comment. The old ‘scientific’ version, whereby, the plagues were really just a phenomenon of nature (or comets), so that after algae contaminated the water, which was mistaken for blood, the frogs exited the water and invaded Egypt is, apparently, not the experience of people who actually live in frog country. They say, down in the Bayou, that one of the indicators of water being contaminated is that the frogs, who are very fragile beings, disappear, because they die easily. They don’t attempt to escape landward, they simply die in the water and are not seen, which tips off the locals that something is wrong… )