- Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal
In Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal, Carrie Rohman reevaluates modernist literature as a complex interplay between human and animal subjectivities. Modernism emerges as a “privileged site for the discursive consideration of animality” (27) as it gradually blurs the traditional differences between humans and animals, long considered as irremediably distinct. Reading a selection of modernist authors in conjunction with both modern and postmodern theory, Rohman stalks the human subject of literary modernism and denudes it as animal through and through.
In the opening chapter, “The Animal Among Others,” Rohman wastes little time in promoting the significance of the interdisciplinary field of animal studies for modernist studies. Situating the focus of animality within modernism’s otherwise humanist discourses, Rohman maintains “my aim is not only to recast the modernist subject with reference to animality, but also to situate several major ideological discourses within the period in relation to the species problematic” (12). Drawing from Darwinism, Freudian psychoanalysis, postcolonial criticism, linguistic formalism, and continental philosophy, Rohman highlights how the threats to humanist assumptions, and their concomitant ideologies, are laced with animalist and speciesist undertones. From the first to last chapter, the book is staged as a gradual intensification, and eventual hybridization, of the human and animal categories, as exemplified by some of the better known characters in literature. The theory-oriented opening prepares the [End Page 642] stage for the later readings by highlighting the crises brought about by the inefficacy of Enlightenment rationalism and its idealization of the human subject. The subject of animality threatens to undermine human reason, and possibly human culture along with it.
In “Imperialism and Disavowal,” the second chapter, Rohman appeals to T. S. Eliot’s “Sweeney” poems, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in order to expose how animals threaten, but do not yet defeat, the sovereignty of the Western human subject. Colonialist discourses are still found to propagate racial, gender, and class differences by appealing to speciesist apologetics, such that one finds the instantiation of primitivist barbs in order to suppress the growing anxiety over humanity’s place in the great chain of being. Rohman describes how the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution and, later, Freud’s theory of the unconscious so unsettled the previously unquestioned superiority of cultured humanity that modernist literature reacted with “the animalizing of disenfranchised groups and the concomitant humanizing of imperialist power” (29). Of particular note is how the example of animalizing marginalized groups spills over into the “linguistic becoming-animal” (39) of language itself. As Rohman puts it, the link between the animalization of humans—be it through Darwinian evolution or the Freudian unconscious—and the modernist fragmentation of language into primal, infantile speech enacts “the eruption of animality through the eruption of language: modernist literature is the first to do that” (40).
While the second chapter demonstrates the repression of animality as a last gasp of rational humanism, the third chapter, “Facing the Animal,” looks to H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Croquet Player, and Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, because they “either recognize that humans and animals are ontologically similar or acknowledge the confrontation with animals as one of radical alterity that fundamentally unsettles the ‘human’ itself” (64). In both of Wells’s works we witness how the attempt to rid and purify the human self from its animal other is not just “an impossible fantasy” (68) but in fact the opposite: the very reinforcement of humanity’s animal origins. For Rohman, in short, we discover in these works “a return of repressed animality” (80) and not its successful abjection. With Lawrence’s poems, we begin to see the impossibility and subsequent rejection of mastering the animal other as evocative of his overall animal “antiepistemology.”
The fourth chapter, “Recuperating the Animal,” emphasizes Lawrence’s Women in Love and St. Mawr because they, in particular, evoke a radical inversion of values that begins to privilege animality over that of human life. Within these works...