- Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century by Heather Keenleyside
As her book’s title implies, Heather Keenleyside contends that animals are people just like us. She unsettles and redefines both the person (and other life forms) and personification (and other rhetorical figures and literary genres). Working within the recent animal turn in scholarship, Keenleyside discovers in the eighteenth century not “triumphal human exceptionalism” but rather its own animal turn—a development in which literary knowledge must supplement science “in apprehending animal life” (7) and in which poets, novelists, and satirists presented a “capacious vision of a . . . multispecies society” (18) and a “domestic sphere” that “housed more than human beings” (21). Keenleyside argues against the view that modernity marginalized animals at the same time as fabulous, literary animals proliferated. In the works that she considers, real animals suffering under human tyranny cannot be readily distinguished from animal emblems embodying human qualities. Denying that in the fable the animal figure disappears before an exclusive application to human concerns, she revises the conventional literary history in which, in the development leading to Romanticism, the abstractions of fable are superseded by particularized, carefully observed, representations of animals.
Keenleyside argues that the real nature of animals and humans cannot be separated from the conventional forms through which eighteenth-century authors bring creatures into being. Form is not externally imposed on resistant humans, animals, or natural environments. Figures and forms are not ornamental but constitutive. There is no (natural) animal as such—and no person either—prior to (cultural) figuration. The literary figure on which Keenleyside concentrates is personification, which she defines as the “operation of distributing personhood” (2) and also of restoring what Erasmus Darwin terms an “original animality” (qtd. 3). In the latter sense, personification is “the figure of animation” (33), instead of the figure of abstraction that was rehabilitated by such mid-twentieth-century critics as Bertrand Bronson and Earl Wasserman. Restoration of animality/animation became necessary because of Descartes’s reduction of animals to machines. In a Lockean context, in which personhood depends on the possession of consciousness at the same time as there is a lack of external evidence for consciousness, the “leap from empirical evidence” entailed in the recognition of other minds “is construed as personification” (79). By discussing philosophers alongside literary authors, Keenleyside illuminates the conceptual dimension of literary figures and forms.
The book’s chapters, which offer detailed and original interpretations of canonical literary works, are all structured on the pairing of “a form of life and a literary form or genre” (17). Keenleyside’s complex argument about Gulliver’s Travels addresses the central problem of Swift’s satire: the tendency (conventionally named “pride”) to exclude oneself from a general satire on man. Ironically, the mark of human exceptionalism—what distinguishes human beings from other animals—is the “logic of exception” (123), the individual’s demand that he or she be regarded as an exception to the human species in general. In her chapter on children’s literature, Keenleyside argues that the Lockean tradition conflates “the conventions of animal fable with the realism of the novel or life narrative” (169), [End Page 455] while Locke himself “thinks that fable might serve to combine moral and natural-historical lessons” (170). This dual aim results in the generic hybrid embodied in the title of Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories (241n9). Arguing against John Barrell’s Marxist reading of James Thomson’s The Seasons, Keenleyside explains the “taxonomical operation” involved in periphrastic poetic diction, which is composed of a vague noun, such as people, and a clarifying adjective like finny or plumy. When Thomson classifies “all kinds of beings as people,” he makes that term one “of relation rather than being, of sociality rather than individual essence” (30). Keenleyside’s emphasis on relationality over individuality no doubt reveals ideological and ethical commitments; still, criticism that has focused on domination and subordination or on complicity in imperialism seems tangential to her concerns.