Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Critical Anthropomorphism after #MeToo: Reading The Friend

Sigrid Nunez’s 2018 novel The Friend reveals the tension between anthropomorphism defined as naïve or arrogant projection and anthropomorphism as a critical intervention with stakes for intimacy, mourning, and anti-violence. Through close readings of The Friend and Coetzee’s Disgrace, which Nunez’s novel evokes, this essay argues for a critical anthropomorphism and shows, with Nunez, how it can become a means of relating non-violently to others in their differences, including the dead, animals, and women.

[End Page 30]

Anthropomorphism, the projection of human affect and capacity onto nonhuman animals, concepts, acts, and objects is commonly understood as an error. Across texts and contexts, modern and postmodern, anthropomorphism appears not only as a form of magical thinking, but also as a symptom of anthropocentrism, a rejection of pluralism, and the failure to appreciate nonhuman difference. It is the sticky residue of an exclusionary humanism. It is often violent in its foreclosures, but also dull-witted and a bit silly in its expansionism, papering over gaps in knowledge and knowability with unconscious assumptions and quaint attributions.

As a result, the critique of anthropomorphism is widespread, and agreement that it is a mistake is a rare site of consensus across disciplines and methods—humanist and posthumanist. Much posthumanist thought takes as its project the formation of a more ethical understanding of the world that displaces human centrality by seeking to account for “how forests think (Eduardo Kohn), asking whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to robots, algorithms, coral reefs, or apes (Alexandra Huneeus), or describing new assemblages that are planetary in scale (Rosi Braidotti).1Within literary theory and criticism, Paul de Man’s brief reading of Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Baudelaire in the 1980s has remained formative in establishing the error and seduction of anthropomorphism as a literary device that substitutes fixity (the human as a referent) for indeterminacy (ongoing substitution).2

Following on de Man in an effort to account for key facets of the emerging field of animal studies, Mario Ortiz Robles asks about the animal condition as an example of this indeterminacy or trope. Addressing all non-human animals, as if they could report back on their condition, and addressing none of them by virtue of the address, which assumes that an answer would come in a human language, Ortiz Robles asks: “What is it like to be a trope?”3 An answer to this question of the character of being and the experience of language would require the projection of voice and mind, turning an animal into that which we could properly hear and understand. The silence that fills its place instead reveals a mute substitutability that allows for factory farming, domestication, and other forms of human manipulation. The questions “What is it like to be a trope?” and “What is it like to have to answer this question through a projection that simultaneously exposes and fills a silence?” show, once again, that as a way of making sense of animals, anthropomorphism “falls short,”4 is “questionable,”5 remains of a piece with the violent and the absurd.6 In this way, Ortiz Robles continues the tradition of seeing in anthropomorphism a resilient error.

Yet is it possible that our conservative approach to anthropomorphism and our valorization of trope, at least since de Man’s reading of Nietzsche, is the error? Maybe the persistent desire to expunge anthropomorphism from our discourse is not only absurd—leading to rhetorical gymnastics, evasions, and a certain degree of shame—but simply unnecessary. Maybe it is just as misguided a project of rigorous self-consciousness as is its obverse, leading to omissions and misreadings that are anything but self-aware. One reason for this congenital failure is that even as anthropomorphism is disparaged, it also is often understood ahistorically as indistinguishable from human language itself. The animal behaviorist J.S. Kennedy has suggested that anthropomorphism is even “built into” human consciousness and part of our evolutionary make-up.7 For Kennedy, [End Page 31] the problem of anthropomorphism, which is also the problem of all speaking about animals, is that it introduces sloppiness and error. It is a form of misprision, but one that is increasingly difficult (and, Kennedy worries, even impossible) to extract without putting an end to the very trait that many have understood to differentiate humans from animals in the first place: language itself.

Further, as silly and banal as familiar anthropomorphism seems to be—a feature of juvenile literature, heavy-handed allegory, and middling aesthetics—, its persistence and the discomfort it causes suggest that there is more at stake than mediocre art and anthropocentric arrogance. From the perspective of science, it appears that the attribution of consciousness to animals (which is also an unconscious effect of any representation of animals, as Kennedy shows in a range of examples) is incompatible with causal methods and science itself. This suggests that only when we forego representation in language might we be free from betraying the difference between conscious and nonconscious forms of life.

Kennedy’s argument repeats, in a different key, the question that de Man raised in his study of anthropomorphism in the lyric: the question “whether linguistic structures and epistemological claims can be presumed to be compatible.”8 Put another way, it raises the question of whether science remains antithetical to discourse, whether the very method that allows for evidence-based knowledge of the nonhuman (or that which cannot speak) is limited by any effort to communicate or exchange that knowledge (becoming that which cannot speak). The embarrassment, from the perspective of knowledge or science, is that anthropomorphism is the limit of accurate communication about science. This is another variation of de Man’s concern with linguistic and epistemological claims, which in turn is a variation of Nietzsche’s discussion of teleology as the source of human understanding and knowledge. Kennedy’s account of anthropomorphism brings together two antithetical descriptions of non-consciousness: (1) non-consciousness as manifest in language, because the appearance of anthropomorphism in language is not a conscious act, and (2) non-consciousness as the absence of language, because language is understood as the domain of conscious (human) beings. Taken together, these two observations lead us to ask whether, when we disparage anthropomorphism, when we consider it shameful and misguided, we are addressing a problem of language that science cannot overcome.

One exception to these versions of anthropomorphism is Jack Halberstam’s account of revolutionary animals and cinematic animation as an intervention. Like Nietzsche, Halberstam begins by pointing out that “human exceptionalism comes in many forms. It might manifest as a simple belief in the uniqueness and centrality of humanness within a world shared with other kinds of life, but it might also show itself through gross and crude forms of anthropomorphism.”9 For Halberstam, however, this “egregious” anthropomorphism is not the only version available to us. Drawing upon possibilities of assembly and resistance that are not yet fully realized within the human world, Halberstam points to “the potential queerness of all allegorical narratives of animal sociality,” suggesting that they reflect a “creative anthropomorphism” that differs from the naïve kind because it [End Page 32] reflects “other forms of being, other forms of knowing, a world with different sites for justice and injustice, a mode of being where the emphasis falls less on money and work and competition and more on cooperation, trade, and sharing.”10 In other words, Halberstam suggests that anthropomorphic animations do not simply contain worlds considered too immature or too simple to be legitimate sources of possibility, but rather they expose possibilities of relationality and intervention that are not yet validated within dominant (human) culture. For Halberstam, then, anthropomorphism becomes a name for unrealized possibility rather than the foreclosures of impossibility.

Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning 2018 novel The Friend intervenes in these conversations through its exploration of magical thinking in the relationship between living and dead, human and animal, teacher and student. The novel considers whether substituting one fictional addressee for another is an accomplishment and whether self-consciousness as mere embarrassment can become self-consciousness as critical self-awareness in a time of ongoing violence. It raises the question of whether other relationships to anthropomorphism (and to the inevitable) are possible, and explores these alternatives in acts of working through the experience of mourning via detachment and reattachment. The dominant trope in this work is substitution (or trope itself). A shift in the novel from embarrassment to acceptance, from one form of self-consciousness to another, occurs in an unmarked substitution where change takes place at the level of the referent (the pronoun), not the word. While the novel’s addressee remains you, in the process of mourning, which coincides with the acceptance of anthropomorphism, the referent of you shifts from a dead writer to a living (dying, abandoned) dog.

As The Friend addresses the double sense of consciousness and self-consciousness as both subjectivity and embarrassment, it also moves between individual and collective modes of consciousness, or to follow that old thread: between the personal and the political. The silent conversion from you as resurrection (in an apostrophe to the dead) to you as anthropomorphism (in the animation of a living animal) leads me to ask what kind of understanding pronouns make possible in this novel and beyond its scope. This question is particularly urgent at a time when the international movement #MeToo, which also serves as a political and ethical context for the novel, has established the collective utterance of a first-person pronoun as the site of assembly and intervention. It opens up considerations about what kind of social reconfigurations we need in this moment, whether these rearrangements are mere substitutions, and whether substitution, which necessarily introduces difference, creates an opening in which new utterances and new relations might become possible. Finally, this constellation raises the question of [End Page 33] whether anthropomorphism, for all its embarrassment, might play an inexorable role in this rearrangement, and whether its continued repression and dismissal might hinder the imagination required of us.

Living with what Remains

The Friend is the first-person fictional account of a writer’s life after her teacher, mentor, one-time lover, and longtime friend commits suicide. However, the main event of the novel is not the suicide, which is barely described, never fully understood (there is no note), and in a strange twist even explored as a fiction within the fiction in the novel’s final act. Rather, the plot revolves around the question of how to live with a passive-aggressive inheritance: a 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo bequeathed to the narrator when the dead man’s widow refuses to keep it. How does it become you? The answer to this question is funny and devastating both. The novel’s metaphoric language is so flamboyant and its drama so mundane that the text hovers somewhere between comedy, tragedy, and romance. The unnamed narrator lives in a 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment that prohibits pets, and in a decision that is risky at best and suicidal at worst, she accepts the dog. This act seems less a choice than a symptom; less a decision than a compulsion; less a moment of hospitality than a pathology.

Living with such a massive animal seems idiotic. Given her building’s strict no-pet policy, the narrator risks getting evicted, which she evades by registering the dog as the emotional support animal he turns out to be. It also leaves her incapable of going anywhere. Who can leave a Great Dane with a friend for a long weekend? The dog is the elephant in the room, the figure of an open, yet unspeakable secret, even larger than an animal the size of an adult man bearing the name of a Greek God. The secret that Apollo’s appearance reanimates can be understood, in personal terms, as the narrator’s own impossible relationship with her mentor, a relationship that has left her stuck and lonely throughout her adult life while he proceeded to have three wives and countless affairs. At least this is what her therapist and friends observe. The structural or #MeToo-influenced interpretation of this relationship, which registers the ubiquity of workplace hierarchies and sexual misconduct, would understand their dynamic as harassment and its effect on her life as trauma. This version carries truth, but it does not exhaust the scene’s lasting ambivalence. Apollo archives this ambivalence. He reveals the enigmatic condition of not knowing how to mourn the end of a relationship that generates a response incommensurate with its informality. Apollo makes visible the immense burden of living with an attachment that is a source of humiliation, and an experience of humiliation (self-consciousness) that does not sever the ties that attach. His presence forces us, like the novel’s narrator, to come to terms with revelations of sexual misconduct and omnipresent inequality. He exposes their truth, but he also exposes the limits of institutional analyses and policies formed in their shadow.

The Friend is an allegory of reading uncomfortable remains. First, there is what remains when an experience of love is shared unequally between teachers and students (who too often have been asked to look after dogs, as so many current and former [End Page 34] graduate students can attest). Second, there is what remains of anthropomorphism in a novel that revolves around the figure of an animal, “Apollo,” in which man and god are consolidated. Bringing together institutional inequality and the problem of reading, Apollo is the remainder of an era that may or may not have come to an end, the effects of which have yet to be worked out. At the same time, he is the source of new relationship formations beyond shame and abuse, both in regard to institutional structures and methods of reading.

Youand Me

In the novel, Apollo’s late owner is depicted as a caricature of academic masculinity of a certain generation. The man, who is also the novel’s addressee and referred to only as “you,” married a student from his workshop (not the narrator). His wife’s career as a writer soon fizzled out even as his ascended. The reader learns that he went on to have affairs and one-night stands after every reading or lecture, rarely spending a night alone. He publicly defends George Steiner’s account of the erotics of the classroom; sees himself in J. M. Coetzee’s protagonist David Lurie; and only later, at fifty, when he seems to have lost his earlier physical appeal to younger women, he becomes a source of their power as they are said to enjoy “the thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees.”11 And then he kills himself.

The narrator stands just outside, if not above, all of this as she addresses her narrative to him, uttering sentences after his death that could not be spoken while he was alive:

Our relationship was a somewhat unusual one, not always easy for others to grasp. I never asked, and so never knew, what you told any of your wives about us. . . . You and I were closest when you were between wives, periods that never lasted long, because you were, to an almost pathological degree, incapable of being alone. . . . A pause here to confess, not without shame: I never heard the news that you’d fallen in love without experiencing a pang, nor could I suppress a surge of joy each time I heard that you were breaking up with someone.12

In a bruising account, the narrator recalls that they once had sex, but he then “pronounced it a mistake for us to be more than friends,” a response that “mortified” the narrator, leading her to avoid him through fake—and, later, real—illness.13

His aggression reemerges in the assumption that the narrator would adopt the dog he leaves behind; that she would take on the extravagant responsibility that not even his widow wants to bear. His (former) wives participate in this aggression: “Holy shit!,” says Wife One of the three, “I can’t believe they dumped a monster like that on you. No wonder no one wants him.”14 And Wife Three persuades the narrator that he wanted her to do this—to take his demanding and unsettling legacy (“a monster,” with the full resonance of its etymology as exposure) so that she—the widow—would not have to deal with it. Presumably, the narrator could have said no to Wife Three, who ventriloquizes her dead husband’s wishes, and, presumably, she could have rejected Apollo, but nothing in the novel suggests that this is a possibility, for a life [End Page 35] is understood to be at stake. In this sense, the dilemma is not unlike the earlier situation when he suggested that they should have sex and, as she recalls it, “I don’t think it ever occurred to either of us that I might refuse.”15 So as repulsive and familiar as this “dead white man” is (and that is how he is jokingly referred to at least once in the novel—a figure, a type), the disparaging description does not account for the actual experience of his former student, which continues to be powerful, unrealized, and unresolved. She describes herself as “lucky”: “I had suffered, but unlike the others I never got my heart broken. (Didn’t you? a therapist once goaded me. . . . Nor was the therapist the only one to wonder if it hadn’t been a factor in my remaining single all these years.)”16 To recall Colin Dayan’s account of dogs as humans’ companions, the narrator and Apollo are both “things of great attachment that can be cast off,”17 but so too is the dead white man.

To recount this situation again: In the novel, what remains after death is a massive, suffering, yet unspeaking animal that fits neither in the home of the dead nor the apartment of the living. Like its new owner, it is a creature in inexpressible pain, even understood to be in mourning. But, unlike her (and unlike almost all other characters in the novel), he actually has a name.18 This account of what remains after death, of caring for and falling in love with these remains, both living and dead, dog and man; this narrative of wanting to become the new object of their love, however uncomfortable and disruptive, is also an account of embarrassment. It is a drama of substitution and standing-in-for, a drama of the difficulty of reading and meaning-making that ensues. It is the embarrassment experienced not only in human relationships with animals, but also in the complex, unconscious relationship that we continue to have to “dead white men,” and the difficulty of dealing with the remainders of these sticky attachments in the era of #MeToo. The violence at issue is often subtle and psychological, compromising the distinctions between individual agency and structural inequality. The novel enters into this gray zone within our contemporary condition. Yet, its focus is not the violation of agency in the harassment of students, which is barely mentioned, but rather its after effects: the loss of certain possibilities of cross-generational intimacy in the relationships between teachers and students, and the pressure this limitation brings to bear on questions of mourning and figuration.19

In the novel, two sources of shame, both brought on by this new framework and its foreclosures, are awkwardly bound up with one another: the mourning for a man whom some would call a dog, and the belief that a dog is capable of mourning like a man.20 [End Page 36] Ambivalent mourning and a loss that is at once overwhelming in its power and vague in its definition are entangled with shame about the reliance on anthropomorphism. Both share a single figure, Apollo, who brings into contact and triangulates two apparently unrelated structures: asymmetrical relationships in academia after #MeToo and the difficulty of accounting for human-animal relationships, also in academic contexts, after humanist and posthumanist critiques of anthropomorphism. In Apollo, we are confronted with the need to develop new forms of relationality and methods of reading in the face of shame. We also encounter the question of whether the seemingly new is just an illusion, the substitution of one unfulfillment for another.

Mention and Use

Three times in the novel, the narrator mentions anthropomorphism “by name,” and each time she admits her embarrassment. The first mention is general and anecdotal. The other two are parenthetical remarks, instances of self-consciousness where the narrator pauses to name and reflect upon her own speech. Approaching these moments in the order they appear in the text will allow me to show how the narrator’s perception of anthropomorphism develops over time and how the correction that takes place in the novel is not in the expulsion of anthropomorphism from speech, but the development of a different relation to it. This is a transformation that has broader implications for our understanding of survival within a culture that has not fully addressed or expunged (or even understood) its violence. While this resonates with Halberstam’s “creative anthropomorphism” and the effort to establish other possibilities of recognition and relation, the freedom to which it aspires is far less celebratory.

The first mention of anthropomorphism in The Friend occurs when the narrator, having now adopted Apollo, takes him to a veterinarian whose defining trait is not how he cares for animals, but how he addresses women. He is “the sort of man who speaks to women as if they are idiots and to older women as if they are deaf idiots.”21She goes on to narrate their exchange:

When I tell him that Apollo never plays with other dogs, not even at the dog park, he says, Well, he’s not so young anymore, is he? I’m sure you don’t run and jump around the way you used to, either.

He shrugs when he hears the whole story. People throw pets out all the time, he says. It’s the dogs who’d die for the owners, not vice versa. . . . Doesn’t the divorce rate tell us just how much the loyalty of a human being is worth? he says in a tone I find disquieting.

Someone once told me that many vets tend to be irritable because their profession exposes them to a particularly wide swath of human silliness—much of it no doubt in the form of anthropomorphism. I remember one who rolled his eyes when I said that my cat purred all the time so he must be happy. Purring is just a noise they make, it does not mean they’re happy, he snapped. [End Page 37]

This one tells me bluntly that although Apollo is in pretty good shape for his age he won’t be long-lived. And given his arthritis, he says, believe me he wouldn’t want to be. Whatever you do, don’t let him gain weight. . . .

He has no trouble believing that the dog is in mourning for his previous owner and that his emotions have been exacerbated by too many changes to his environment (How would you feel? He asks roughly as if this were a thought I would never have arrived at by myself).22

The narrator frames the doctor’s statements—judgements about her age and stamina, and more generally about asymmetric relationships between animals and their owners as well as loyalty and devotion between romantic partners—in terms of his chauvinism and irritability. She understands his opinion not only as the position of an individual but that of a type: he is a certain kind of man. The stereotyping also extends to his profession. He is a veterinarian, and while he asks her to indulge in a form of empathic cross-species analogy, he also reminds her of a previous doctor who dismissed her identification with her animals. Both men seem to undermine her interpretation of animal experience: one by rolling his eyes, the other by shrugging, one in claiming similarity, the other in registering difference. The two seem to have opposite responses to the projection of human feelings onto nonhuman animals.

Apollo’s vet responds to the narrator’s description of his sociality and loyalty by analogizing humans and dogs. First, he urges the narrator to recognize the similarities between herself and Apollo; then he points to the differences between Apollo (and dogs in general) and his human owners, at least one of whom we know was divorced twice and then abandoned his third wife and the dog by committing suicide. Finally, he seems convinced that Apollo is in mourning.

The anecdote that vets are cranky because humans anthropomorphize their pets, projecting onto them emotions rather than instincts, does not align at all with what this vet tells her. The account of anthropomorphism in this instance is merely a false projection or cliché. For this vet, humans are disappointing not because they anthropomorphize and not because anthropomorphism is silly. Rather, they disappoint by avoiding projection and by failing to identify with animals. It is not analogy, but the refusal to analogize, that leads them to misapprehend animals’ situations and their own. This is the humanist’s double bind in which a narrow set of more or less limited possibilities of identity and identification interfere with more expansive, sometimes fictional, forms of relation. Or, framed as a question that has preoccupied philosophers at least since René Descartes: is there a proper type of relation between humans and animals or only different varieties of improper ones?

Further evidence of this limitation appears in an encounter with the basic units of linguistic reference—pronouns—in the final sentences of the chapter. The chapter concludes with the narrator running into a neighbor who projects human feelings onto the dog. The narrator swiftly corrects this “reading” of Apollo, turning a statement that imputes fictional (or anthropomorphic) cause to animal behavior into a mere description of the [End Page 38] knowable. “He missed you, the woman who lives in the apartment above mine says. Coming home from school, I ran into her at the elevator. Meaning: Apollo is howling again.”23

The narrator understands the claim, “he missed you,” behaviorally rather than affectively. In so doing, she reverses the neighbor’s anthropomorphic interpretation of the scene, only to stumble upon another challenge to interpretation. “Howling means missing” (the neighbor’s interpretation) is reversed and translated into “missing means howling” (the narrator’s reading). Yet, the narrator also understands that the problem with the neighbor’s statement is ultimately not its anthropomorphism, but rather her use of pronouns—a problem of reference that runs throughout the book, confusing not only subject and object, but also past and present. This is also what takes place earlier in the novel when Wife One says to her friend, “I can’t believe they dumped a monster like that on you.” In other words, the narrator understands howling to mean “I miss you,” just like the neighbor does. But she recognizes “you” not as herself, the neighbor’s addressee, but as the dead man (“you”), the narrator’s addressee. Her loss and experience of mourning shuts down successful reference. In order to read the exchange with her neighbor correctly, to get at its meaning, it is not enough to substitute howling for missing, or missing for howling, as the two women do. Rather, it requires her (and us) to hear “you” not as a pronoun used to refer to an addressee, but as a mention, as the name of a character “you” for whom the narrator is standing in. This transposition is far from a heroic stance against anthropomorphic silliness. Rather, the narrator ends the chapter by taking the problem of mourning and reference a step further, admitting her desire to become Apollo’s object of love, a different version of the desire that she felt each time “you” (the man) fell in love with another woman. She concludes: “He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.”24 While the neighbor perceived her (the narrator), not him (the dead man) as the object of Apollo’s love and understands the howling as addressed to her (as you), the narrator recognizes this relationship as a wish, figured as an imperative, rather than a fact. The dyad He/You needs to become He/Me, a dyad that was never realized between the narrator and the dead man. What is at stake is not a change at the level of the word or sentence, but at the level of its referent and its meaning. What does this mean for anthropomorphism?

From Embarrassment to Disgrace

When anthropomorphism again is named in the following chapter, it is in the context of a sustained reflection on animal suffering and the various ways in which humans respond to and cause pain. The vicious examples are anecdotal and fictional, drawn from the newspaper and from different novels, and include animal breeding, extermination, the wartime abuse of animals, and pet euthanasia. These themes converge in a reflection on the Hungarian film White God which “was inspired partly by the novel Disgrace.”25 This is not the first time Coetzee’s Disgrace emerges as the novel’s intertext: “One of your—our—favorite books, by one of our favorite writers,” the narrator announces early on, establishing a connection between her addressee and the other novel’s main character.26 The analogy seems [End Page 39] to lift Disgrace from its historical context and distance it from related controversies (about apartheid, autobiography, forgiveness, and the structure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), rendering it merely a novel about a man’s asymmetric relationships to his female students and abandoned dogs.

The narrator takes some time early in the novel to establish the comparison between Coetzee’s protagonist and her addressee: “David Lurie: same age, same job, same proclivities. Same crisis. At the beginning of the novel he describes what he sees as the older man’s inescapable fate. . . . But you were luckier than Professor Lurie. You never knew disgrace. Embarrassment, often. Sometimes shame. But never true, irremediable disgrace.”27 And the narrator acknowledges that her friend was not ignorant of this analogy: “This is a book that you read with your skin.”28 To “read with your skin” is a curious figure, evocative and unconventional, particularly in the context of Disgrace’s relation to apartheid—but is this account of reading readable? It raises the question of epidermal conceptions of race and its taxonomies, but also evokes other idioms—getting “under one’s skin,” having “skin in the game,” or making one’s “skin crawl.” It is a figure of extreme intimacy to the point of discomfort in the confusion of membranes and porosity, and total physical engagement and absorption. If we read this as an instance of radical and complete identification, rather than one of ambiguity and figural substitutions, we are led to see the only analogy as the one between David Lurie and The Friend’s unnamed narrator.

However, the meaningful analogy is not only between Lurie and “you,” the Lurie-like male writer who kills himself rather than suffer or change, and whose context is not South Africa. His condition is not the impossibility of surviving apartheid in South Africa without remaining thoroughly disfigured by it, either as a violent actor or a violated victim. He is not like Lurie, for whom all that remains is history and crisis, evident in confessional and legal institutions that are simply inadequate in the face of past or present extreme violence. The Friend’s drama of gender, subjectivity, and writing is what allows us to miss this other connection. Put another way, the primary issue linking Disgrace and The Friend is not merely masculinity, but survival: the question of how any of us can live properly in a time of political and cultural change that is urgent, painful, and incomplete. How will we live in a world that is in the middle of a process of reconfiguration, a world in which violent institutions are undergoing much-needed transformations, when the pace of institutional transformation does not align with the transformations of affect, mourning, affiliation, and narrative? In this way, it is not the [End Page 40] power imbalance between older male professors and their younger female students that brings the novels together, but the demands of meaning-making and mourning when loss is inextricably personal and political. The challenge registered in both novels is how to recognize violence when the law and its processes, even if progressive, remain a weak and insufficient framework in which mourning cannot be hurriedly turned into accomplishment. In this context, it becomes clear that in The Friend, the figure of Lurie (who is not Coetzee) is not only “you,” but also “I” (who is not Nunez).29

The second time that the narrator reveals her embarrassment about anthropomorphism occurs when she tries to help the abandoned dog to live (rather than to help it die, as is the case in Disgrace, where Lurie’s daughter Lucy euthanizes pets). The narrator turns to music, which ties Apollo to the dead dogs in the other texts: “In White God, right before a dog is put to death, it is placed in a room with a TV showing the old Tom and Jerry cartoon The Cat Concerto, in which Tom plays Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.”30 And in Disgrace, Lurie carries to its death the last of the abandoned dogs, “the one who likes music, the one who, given half a chance, would already have lolloped after his comrades into the clinic building.”31

Struggling to find a song that Apollo will “like,” the narrator runs through her playlist.

What kind of music? Cheerful? Mellow? Fast, or slow? The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2? How about some Schubert? (Oh, maybe not Schubert, whose pen, in the words of Arvo Pärt, was fifty percent ink, fifty percent tears.) How about Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew? (I know this is all moronically anthropomorphic, but sometimes that is the form love takes.)

I play him Miles Davis. I play him Bach and Arvo Pärt. I play him Prince, Adele, and Frank Sinatra. And Mozart, lots of Mozart.

None of which appears to affect him at all. I don’t think he’s listening. If he is, I don’t think he cares.32

While this moment is entangled with the political and personal violence of both White God and Disgrace, the narrator pauses to love Apollo, to imagine his preferences and seek to ensure his comfort. However, she does not address him in the way she addresses “you.” Instead, she asks general questions, as much of herself as of no one in particular. While she withholds direct address (apostrophe), which is still reserved for the novel’s addressee, she also interrupts herself to disparage her own anthropomorphism. In this moment, when she describes her method as moronic, she reveals the shame she feels in expressing love this way and in treating Apollo in the mode of as if. As if he is in mourning, as if music would ameliorate his pain, and as if he were to understand the genres, composers, musicians, and organizing principles. What distinguishes anthropomorphism in the narrator’s examples from other forms of figural relation is the absence of address. It is projection without the assumption of a possible response, without the attribution of voice (or what Barbara Johnson calls “ventriloquism”33). This is what separates it, in the novel, from her address to a dead man, and what differentiates a being assumed to produce discourse even after death (the addressee of [End Page 41] apostrophe) from a being that only exists within discourse (Apollo)—or, to recall Mario Ortiz Robles’ question, a being that will never answer the question: “What is it like to be a trope?”

Upon realizing that music—whatever the genre—will not be able to end or even touch Apollo’s mourning, the narrator brings up once again Disgrace, specifically, a moment soon after Lurie’s arrival in the Eastern Cape, when he addresses one of the abandoned dogs in his daughter’s care. In a scene of intense identification, he enters the dog’s cage, “tickles her behind the ears. ‘Abandoned, are we?’ he murmurs.’”34 If the question is ambiguous, the pronoun makes the analogy clear. The first-person plural pronoun, used in a paternalistic mode in place of you (the same mode used by Apollo’s vet), here functions literally but also rhetorically. The lack of response is conditioned by the ventriloquism assumed in the (rhetorical) question. The dog, even when addressed, can say nothing, and its role as addressee is suspended in this moment of identification. Lucy sharply responds, “Making friends?”, and then goes on to describe the animal: “Poor old Katy, she’s in mourning. No one wants her and she knows it. . . . They do us the honour of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.”35 When the narrator in Nunez’s novel cites Coetzee here, she introduces a rich set of references from within and beyond the novel: the vet who described so many animals abandoned by their owners; Lurie’s namesake Lucy, the one who “seemed a thing that could not feel the touch of human years;”36 and the novel’s own framing concept of friendship. Yet all of these are also examples for the ambiguity of anthropomorphism: The narrator misunderstands the vet as calling for less, rather than more, anthropomorphism; and, despite what Lucy says about humans’ treatment of dogs, Apollo is treated as a being with needs of its own, rather than as a thing. As a result, the narrator sees herself as guilty of treating him too much like a man in her effort to see him as something other than a thing. For Donna Haraway, this kind of asymmetry (which I call anthropomorphism) is a form of ethical response. As Haraway explains, Lurie’s relationship with Katy, and his willingness to euthanize her in the end, reveals a form of honesty and love within asymmetry that Haraway identifies as more powerful and ethical than the total rejection of unequally shared power.37

Ultimately, these concerns about too much or too little anthropomorphism, seeing animals as too human or too thing-like, are concerns about self-consciousness and self-criticism. It is a question not of you but of me and we. In an essay on “Amorphism, Mechanomorphism, and Anthropomorphism,” the philosopher Emanuela Cenami Spada emphasizes perpetual critique as the only adequate response to anthropomorphism. “Anthropomorphism,” she writes, “is the name we give to a mistake . . . and we cannot know in advance when we are making that mistake.”38 She goes on to suggest that the “only available ‘cure’ to anthropomorphism is the continuous critique of our working definitions,” that is, the ongoing, belated recognition of error and a renewal of self-consciousness.39 In many ways this seems to be the dialectical approach that The Friend takes up: the use of anthropomorphism, followed by its explicit mention, which is a site of embarrassment, pathologization, and renewed vigilance. The process seems [End Page 42] unending. However, a strange thing happens toward the end of Nunez’s novel, where the achievement of mourning seems to coincide with the acceptance of anthropomorphism as a permanent condition. In Cenami Spada’s argument, this acceptance should simply generate more critique. Yet in The Friend it becomes something different and more: the acceptance of anthropomorphism creates an opening in our thinking about questions of difference, asymmetry, and substitution. The relationship between the narrator and Apollo has begun to change, and with it the relation to you, to loss, and to survival.

This shift occurs in two phases. Firstly, Apollo now becomes the narrator’s love object. Secondly, the second-person address in the novel momentarily falls away, reflecting only mentioned speech signified by italics (“Why won’t you play?40), rather than the novel’s primary mode up to this point: direct discourse. This happens at the very moment when it seems as if the narrator’s desire for the dog to love her is replaced by her desire for the dog to love another of its kind. This projection of desire leads the narrator to mention anthropomorphism one final time. It is still embarrassing and still in parentheses, but the narrator’s relationship to shame has changed: “(Anthropomorphism, I’ve decided, is inescapable, and though I might try to hide it I no longer fight it).”41 This is an affective rearrangement that changes everything and nothing. The inevitability, error, and acceptance of anthropomorphism are now conjoined.

This change is marked by the novel’s recovery of a second-person addressee, which is now not the dead man, but the aging dog. Her speech is no longer represented in italics, as if a mere thought rather than a speech act. Apollo becomes “you,” and the ex-lover becomes “him”: “Even now I still can’t say for certain whether or not I was in love with him.”42 When Apollo becomes “you” when she says: “I see the sun has knocked you out. . . . Maybe I should get you some water,” he also loses his name: “I want to call your name, but the word dies in my throat.”43 In this moment, he loses part of his life and animation, and she sees him neither as a man nor as a dog, but as a thing, “as if you were no more than a giant rock lying in the grass.”44 This final substitution also is the turn that evokes an entire apparatus of mourning, substitution, and memorialization. He stands in the grass like the gravestone of his unnamed former owner and like the anticipatory monument to his own imminent death. And at this moment, his name, like that of his former owner, becomes lodged in the narrator’s throat, unpronounceable and buried, in what the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok would call a “crypt.”45 Further, it is at this moment—in which anthropomorphism has become apostrophe, in which “he” becomes “you,” in which “I” becomes “me,” in which the name becomes unspeakable, in which the dog becomes a rock, and in which the narrator loses her addressee—that a new site of critical engagement opens.

Critical Anthropomorphism

While there may be a general consensus about the problems with anthropomorphism in its usual forms and an assumption that they are ancient and even intrinsic,46Kellie Robertson has sought to situate this position within the history of humanism. In an extensive [End Page 43] account of nature in the middle ages, Robertson distinguishes between the “early modern silencing of Nature’s human voice” and the more radical vision manifest in the work of prehumanists who were not bothered by anthropomorphism and instead engaged in what she calls “bivalent impersonation.”47 In her account, anthropomorphism and embarrassment about anthropomorphism emerge as effects of modernity, revealing a limitation of thought and relationality that obscures critical possibilities, both past and present. Robertson’s “enlightened” prehumanists do not share modernity’s anxiety about anthropomorphism’s silliness and the perception of anthropomorphism as a threat. They don’t worry that anthropomorphism gets in the way of reason, undermines science, and exposes the limits of human superiority in the very moment it appears to do the opposite. Furthermore, as Robertson points out, “for medieval popular and academic writers, anthropomorphic personification was a useful form of critique rather than just description or representation.”48 Kennedy, with whom I began this essay and who is anything but prehumanist in his approach to science, doesn’t go this far, but he does accept that not all anthropomorphism is equally harmful. He attempts to thread this needle, taxonomically, by distinguishing between different kinds of anthropomorphism, including “neoanthropomorphism,” the self-conscious use of anthropomorphism that he considers a danger to science, and “mock anthropomorphism,” which is a consciously fictive (if not satirical) stance, designed to generate hypotheses.49 In other words, he understands that for all of its naivete and error, anthropomorphism can also be a critical stance, a “mock” or ironic mode, one that undoes any terra firma. Thus, he is also quick to acknowledge that “it is often hard to tell whether an author’s anthropomorphic language is of the mock or the genuine variety, or unthinkingly ambiguous.”50 It seems that the only solution is to expunge anthropomorphism from scientific discourse, but this move is one that he admits is untenable, especially when it comes to animals. Kennedy writes:

We habitually resort to anthropomorphic metaphors also when we describe the complex behavior of inanimate systems such as the weather or computers, but there is little danger that we shall take the analogies literally. This use of mock anthropomorphism runs no risk of being mistaken for genuine anthropomorphism. Mock anthropomorphizing about whole-animal behavior itself is crucially different. It does run that risk.51

While in 1992, Kennedy’s examples might have seemed of minor importance, today they reveal two contexts in which questions of consciousness, interconnectedness, adequate representation, and new ethical demands are intricately intertwined as borderline cases for anthropomorphism: climate change and artificial intelligence. In the era of Siri and Alexa and of anthropogenic climate change, the risks of anthropomorphizing (or not anthropomorphizing) climate phenomena and machines, or reversely, the need to think the relation between humans and machines and humans and climate, is among the most urgent issues of our time.52 The problem, perhaps, is not one of literality but of confusion, confusion between nonhuman and human interventions; natural and human histories; artificial and “real” intelligences; but also habit and affect; love and something else. Robertson reminds us that there are forms of inquiry and knowledge that precede the distinctions [End Page 44] between scientific fact and magical thinking, and that anthropomorphism is one name for these relations. While anthropomorphism carries with it an “ethical danger,” that is, the risk of exclusion, the denial of voices, and misrepresentation of differences, it also is an opening, exposing “the incoherency or instability” of conventions and modeling “a bivalent impersonation that makes available for criticism cultural assumptions about where the human ends and where nature starts.”53 In The Friend, the narrator’s ultimate willingness to live with anthropomorphism raises the question of how she will engage with other asymmetrical relationships and introduces a model that may have large-scale implications for our times. Anthropomorphism in the novel names not only the narrator’s relationship to Apollo but also represents a broader logic of projection in relationships between teachers and students, the dead and the living, life and death, gods and things (the list goes on).

In her essay on “Reading J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace during the Harvey Weinstein Trial” in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino recalls that the human addressee of Nunez’s novel is a representative of the type of Lurian men to which Weinstein also belongs: the kind of “man who frets about the overreach of #MeToo while demonstrating the tenacity of the attitudes that make such a movement necessary.” Tolentino reads Coetzee’s novel as a work that attempts to stage a symmetry within asymmetrical constellations, such as a teacher raping a student, the apartheid system, or violence against the white perpetrators (or beneficiaries) of apartheid. Tolentino closes her essay by evoking David Lurie’s admission that he can project himself into the role of violent rapist, even in the position of the men who attacked him and raped his daughter, but that he is unsure that he has “it in him to be the woman.”54

Nunez reminds us over and again that anthropomorphism evokes not merely the distinction between being an animal and being a god, but the reality of being a woman who is situated in relation to gods and animals and men. In The Friend, the narrator discovers that anthropomorphism is not only a figure to be abandoned like a dog in its naïve failures of recognition, but rather an act through which asymmetry can be recast and reworked. This revelation also provides a template that makes it possible to overcome Lurie’s limitation, the unattainability of the female perspective, which he shares with so many others, including Weinstein. This limitation is the male inability to project oneself into the position of woman, but also the entitlement that allows men to project themselves onto and in her. When Lurie identifies “woman” as the limit of substitution (a limit that for him is more absolute than a difference of species or race), he leaves open possibilities for violence. The Friend intervenes in this system not by putting an end to substitution and projection, but by expanding its reach and by accepting anthropomorphism as a way of engaging with the world.

The Friend—which refers both to a dog and a man—addresses a you that produces a me. The novel leads us to ask the simple question of whether turning Apollo into the narrator’s addressee might be a mere substitution, the replacement of one non-reciprocating object with another, of one death with another, and of one friend with another. If the substitution seems banal, it also reflects an alternative conception of anthropomorphism, one that sees it as a site of “incoherency or instability” (Robertson)55 rather than fixity and dumb arrogance [End Page 45] (de Man),56 and the grounds for its acceptance. Can anthropomorphism do more than reify a set of violent asymmetries? Can it be, as it is here, a moment in which an expanded structure of substitution is also a model of resistance? “You” can be anyone or anything, living or dead. The substitutions archived here are at once complete and imperceptible, which the novel reflects when it concludes with a substitution that is also a repetition: “Oh, my friend, my friend!57 Uttered twice, with no difference, the simple repetition no longer names “you” as its addressee, but rather establishes a new scene of possession (my friend) and new ambiguity of reading. Here it is not “O,” the familiar sign of an apostrophe, but rather “Oh,” the expression of a sigh, an acknowledgement, an acceptance.58 The repetition leaves in question which addressee is invoked as the friend, whether there is or can be more than one, and what the limits of friendship are. It shows how ambiguous reference, shame, embarrassment, and mourning all come to be absorbed into the idea of friendship.

Anthropomorphism in the novel reveals that projection might be a critical tool in the face of inequality. The transformation of anthropomorphism from a name for fixity (the human taken as a given) to substitution (where nothing is assumed) allows for a new addressee in the same words. It also leaves open the question of whether there is merely a repetition or whether there has been an actual rearrangement within relations and within judgement; whether there is or can be mourning; and whether these relations are the same or whether they differ. This is knowledge that the novel, ultimately, withholds. It is the uncertainty that reading exposes and from which another self-consciousness emerges: one that is critical, but not merely embarrassed. How we align knowledge and language, how we perceive and register change, how we imagine new possibilities of more equal relations without the assumptions of identity and sameness, and how we accept that an embarrassing trope might be the condition of a more ethical stance, remains the challenge that The Friend archives. [End Page 46]

Sara Guyer

Sara Guyer is Dorothy P. Draheim Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Romanticism after Auschwitz (Stanford, 2007) and Reading with John Clare (Fordham, 2015) and editor of Lit Z. She is directing the 2020 World Humanities Report.



Support for this research was provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

7. Kennedy, The New Anthropomorphism, 5. “I should clear the air straight away by affirming that it is emphatically not my purpose to persuade anyone that anthropomorphic discourse about animal behavior should be abandoned altogether. This is simply inconceivable for the foreseeable future. Indeed . . . anthropomorphic thinking about animal behavior is built into us. We could not abandon it even if we wished to. Besides, we do not wish to. It is dinned into us culturally from earliest childhood. It has presumably also been ‘pre-programmed’ into our hereditary make-up by natural selection, perhaps because it proved to be useful for predicting and controlling the behaviour of animals. It is therefore useful, incidentally, in scientific research on the adaptiveness of their behaviour” (4–5).

8. Johnson, Persons and Things, 190–91. Barbara Johnson’s expansion of that question as one in which “the question of gender cannot be located exclusively either in language (where the gender of pronouns, and often of nouns, is inherent in each language) or in the world” (190–91) is also relevant here. Recent efforts to uncouple gender from language, say in changing the use of pronouns, are designed to produce language without these “in-built” structures. This is an effort that proved particularly effective in English, where gender is largely limited to pronouns, rather than nouns and attendant verbs (Johnson, “Anthropomorphism in Lyric and Law,” 208).

14. Nunez, 121; emphasis my own.

18. Laura Kipnis has pointed out that apart from the dog, the only named person in the novel is the building’s superintendent who makes it possible for the narrator and Apollo to stay. The super’s name is Hector—yet another name from Greek mythology, but that of a prince and warrior rather than a god. Kipnis’s observation might not be entirely accurate, as there are students and other side characters who are given names, affirming that they are characters, rather than persons: “The problem with this story, a student I’ll call Carter says about a story by a student I’ll call Jane, is that the protagonist isn’t like a character in a story. She’s more like a person in real life” (Nunez, The Friend, 101). But Kipnis’s bigger point is that none of the individualized key characters are named (Kipnis, “You Old Dog!”). For another reflection on naming and anthropomorphism, see Paul de Man’s identification of the proper name as the limit of substitutability and that which distinguishes anthropomorphism from trope (De Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 241).

19. While there are clear examples of institutionalized violence beyond that committed by older men against younger women, in this essay I only take up the novel’s signature example.

20. There is a long history of using “dog” as a term of contempt, subhumanity, or reproach, particularly in literature. Examples are found in the works of William Shakespeare or Alfred Tennyson, but also in more recent texts, and this dismissal seems to lurk in The Friend as well. For a recent discussion of the history of “dog” as a term of reproach, specifically in the contemporary United States, see Isfahani-Hammond, “When Trump Calls Someone a Dog.”

29. For a discussion of Disgrace and self-writing focused on the centrality of reading, see Lalu, “Incomplete Histories,” 109–11. See also Elizabeth Anker’s chapter on Disgrace in Fictions of Dignity. For a more recent discussion of Coetzee’s novel that refers to The Friend and reflects on reading Disgrace while watching the Harvey Weinstein trials, see Tolentino, “Reading J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ During the Harvey Weinstein Trial.”

36. William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” (1800).

37. See Donna Haraway’s discussion of Lurie and what she calls “Sharing Suffering” in When Species Meet, 80–1.

52. See Huneeus’s discussion of these issues in the context of a new human rights (“Beyond the ‘Human’ in Human Rights”).

57. This is not a citation of Derrida’s (and Montaigne’s and Aristotle’s) “Oh my friends, there is no friend,” even as it rhymes. See Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, vii–ix.

58. See Culler, “Apostrophe,” for a definition of apostrophic invocation, and for a discussion of this distinction, see Johnson, “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion,” 29–30.

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernel, vol. 1. Edited and translated by Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Anker, Elizabeth. Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
Cenami Spada, Emanuela. “Amorphism, Mechanomorphism, and Anthropomorphism.” In Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals, edited by Robert W. Mitchell, Nicholas S. Thompson, and H. Lyn Miles, 37–49. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe.” Diacritics 7, no. 4 (1977), 59–69.
Dayan, Colin. With Dogs at the Edge of Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins. London: Verso, 1994.
Guthrie, S.E. “Anthropomorphism: A Definition and a Theory.” In Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals, edited by Robert W. Mitchell, Nicholas S. Thompson, and H. Lyn Miles, 50–58. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Huneeus, Alexandra. “Beyond the ‘Human’ in Human Rights: The Universal Declaration at 70.” Scientific American Blog Network, December 10, 2018.
Isfahani-Hammond, Alexandra. “When Trump Calls Someone a Dog, He’s Tapping Into Ugly History.” Blackvoicenews, December 18, 2019.
Johnson, Barbara. “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion.” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 29–47.
———. Persons and Things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Kennedy, J. S. The New Anthropomorphism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Kipnis, Laura. “You Old Dog!” The New York Review of Books, June 28, 2018.
Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Lalu, Premesh. “Incomplete Histories: Steve Biko, the Politics of Self-Writing, and the Apparatus of Reading.” Current Writing 16, no. 1 (2004): 107–26.
Mundruczó, Kornél. White Dog. The Chimney Pot/InterCom Zrt., 2014.
Nunez, Sigrid. The Friend. New York: Riverhead, 2018.
Ortiz Robles, Mario. Literature and Animal Studies. Oxford: Routledge, 2016.
Robertson, Kellie. Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Tolentino, Jia. “Reading J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ During the Harvey Weinstein Trial.” The New Yorker, February 14, 2020.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.