- The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination by Mark Payne
Payne likes animals and feels a rapport with them. He begins by recounting how he saw a beaver hesitating to come ashore at a campground where he was relaxing on a folding chair while drinking beer, and he reflects that the beaver “is an animal pursuing his distinctive occupations; I too am one. His activity is not a symbol or image of mine, it is a behavior we share” (2). Another time, as a child, he was shooting animals in a wheat field when a fox ran into his sights and stared at him; this eye-to-eye contact froze his finger on the trigger, though he “had shot plenty of animals before” (3).
These experiences motivated further reflections on the mysterious communication between human beings and other living creatures (and even mountains and stones), as recorded in literary and philosophical works. Payne discusses Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am” (on his shame at being seen naked by his cat); Thomas Nagel on why we cannot know what it is to be a bat (Payne is not convinced); poems by Carl Rakosi and William Carlos Williams about lobsters; the violent animal imagery of Archilochus and Hipponax; Flaubert’s fable about St. Julien’s obsessive need to kill animals; Milton’s Satan; Gerard Manley Hopkins, for whom one way “to imagine what satisfying human labor would look and feel like is to observe what animals do when left to their own devices” (74); Ezra Pound, who, imprisoned in Pisa, “discovers his own catastrophe in a solitary ant” (74); Aristotle’s observations that the tongues of birds can produce articulate sounds (though surely Aristotle would not have allowed that such utterance “amounts to a genuine conversational exchange,” 86); Aristophanes’ Birds, which suggests to Payne a form of social organization that is more satisfying “than the political existence on which human beings pride themselves” (98); Ishmael’s sympathetic engagement with the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick; Céline’s Rigadoon (“Like the metrical experiments of Hipponax and William Carlos Williams, his prose rhythms are an attempt to communicate anthropological truth as somatic event,” 106); Semonides’ burlesque on wives (“Despite appearances to the contrary, the female difference the poem imagines as non-humanness [End Page 288] must be understood to involve some ongoing reenchantment of the appetitive bond between the married couple,” 119); Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“its easy pictorialism invites projection, only to reveal such projections as laughably ill-founded” ; perhaps, but do the transformed animals really “gain a new knowledge of their limitations” ?); the Halieutica ascribed to Ovid, with its echoes of Epicureanism (“animals lack a concept of death, even though their bodies and behavior are designed to avoid it,” 132); Oppian’s Cynegetica, which discriminates the cries of animals from the meanings people assign them more rigorously, I think, than Payne allows, and whose “intertextual reenactments,” according to Payne, “are of such super-canonical moments of epic and tragedy that an edgy sentimentality results from them that cannot help but provoke meta-reflection on analogy itself” (136); H. P. Lovecraft’s fantasy about human beings being transformed into ancestral fish, which Payne sees as “continuous with the divinely initiated metamorphosis stories of pagan literature” (143); and much more.
If the above catalogue seems a bit jumpy, it is not unlike the book. Payne’s four chapters take up “aggression as a mode of cathexis to other animals,” “human aggression directed to them” (23), how animals live in social groups, and metamorphoses of humans into animal form. The epilogue affirms: “There are good reasons for thinking that new regimes of desire are coming to occupy the contact zone between human beings and other animals. . . . When human beings no longer understand their encounters with other animals as a meeting between nature and culture, how will they experience them?” (145). I have no idea, but I would have liked to see...