Monthly Archives: July 2012

Animals are hard to write — between the Scylla of kitsch and the Charybdis of triviality, the creature-in-itself is lost. This must be because of their essential otherness: in literary terms, they aren’t characters. My cats ogle the lemurs that occasionally traverse our garden in their troupes with an intentness that reminds me of the human passion for sport. In ethological terms, the killer instinct is brought out by any furry or winged creature small enough that may pass, but such an objective explanation says nothing about what it is like for them to be so fascinated. The analogy with a quite different fascination of our own is compelling because of the way it combines intensity with a certain playfulness, even though the object belongs in a social dimension with no feline equivalent; it is also attractive because I myself find it difficult to be carried away by sport, and the emotions it can arouse show our own kind in what could well be considered a bestial light. So just where a Verfremdungseffekt allows one to see humanity from a different angle, as it were from the outside, a kinship with another species fleetingly appears, even if it is only a generic one: desire as its own end, perhaps. This in turn reminded me of Thomas Nagel‘s famous Kantian essay on What is it like to be a bat, in which he argues that because we are limited by the sensory experience of our own organs as the framework within which to reflect on the nature of perception as such, it makes no sense to try and imagine our way into that of a creature with radically different equipment. Returning to the question of animals in fiction, on this basis, any successful portrayal would need to respect the deep otherness of its object, whose subjectivity could at most be hinted and its very existence guessed at; such a figure would inevitably be marginal to the action seen as the interplay of characters. One brilliant example is the dog Baleia in Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas Secas. Beyond that, narrated animals are the vehicle of human projections, and so just a mirror for the characters of their owners. The only examples I can think of are bad writing lacking all irony, but it could be done well. However the problem at hand is the potential for animals to appear in fiction in their own right, even if they cannot do so as characters; and except in passing, that has scarecely been attempted.

George Herbert Mead wrote about the emergence of self in interaction, seeing the seeds of it in the quarrels of dogs, which however don’t quite get there. I’m not sure whether Mead does either, but that is a question for another post. Also, Wikipedia tells me I have misremembered the central thrust of Nagel’s essay (I was just tidying up my post and putting in the hyperlinks when there was a powercut) yet if memory serves he does also make there the point I refer to — perhaps just as an easier analogy to his real argument (if Wikipedia is to be believed) about physicalism. Those who live in cities without libraries depend on Wikipedia, and though it is a poor substitute, it is a crutch.