We are the only species that writes books. We are also the only species making decisions that affect all the others, so it isn’t surprising that a few of those books take the animals into account. As Alexander Cockburn points out in his preface to Sue Coe’s illustrated book of slaughterhouse journals, Dead Meat, God gives Adam dominion over the creatures of the earth, and sends him out to exploit them. In Western mythology, "man" rests halfway between the animals and the angels. Women, being lower than "man" on this great chain of being, are closer to nature, so can be employed as mediating figures. When men write about animals they represent science. Melville’s exhaustive information about whales came from slaughtering them; afterward, he turned them into metaphors. These days, alienated by all that technology, we need women to help bring us back in contact with "nature". In ways that sometimes critique this unfortunate mythology and sometimes participate, Sue Coe, Joy Williams, Stacey Levine, and Clarice Lispector have taken a hard look at our relationships with the other animals.
Animals are an endless source of fascination in the work of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Wilder creatures are occasionally used as mere metaphors, usually for Lispector’s own ferocity, but with her domesticated familiars it is their existential chicken-ness and cow-ness that presses on Clarice. Facing an animal is a moment tense with potential catastrophe--"Sometimes I tremble all over when I come into physical contact with animals or even so much as look at them." Lispector wants to understand the animals, but realizing that understanding itself is not an animal way of being, she searches for a more indirect route toward the suffering and pleasure of a cow.
The center of Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark is the hero’s face-off with the cows. After committing a crime, he’s making himself human again, but starting farther down the foodchain. Having first attained the consciousness of a plant, he’s ready to plunge ahead. But it isn’t through thought or analysis that such a transformation can take place, it’s through a kind of not-thinking. He slows himself down to the intolerable pace of a cow until he is accepted by the cows and until he is able to see the cowshed as a cow would see it--a warm and good place which pulsates like a beating heart.
Lispector’s work is full of characters who are fabulously "hypersensitive", even overwrought. An entire novel, The Passion According to G.H., involves a woman’s confrontation with a roach. The roach, who first appears on p. 39, provokes feelings of horror in G.H., with its "horrible, brute raw matter and dry plasma". Just six pages later, drawing on her secret, murderous reserves, she slams the closet door on it. She doesn’t succeed in killing the roach, but is thrown into a contemplative frenzy. She wants to find God in the white matter that begins oozing out on p. 54 and continues until p. 69. The roach is still alive, but suspended and partially crushed in the closet door, where it will remain until the book ends on p. 173. Facing the roach means reconciling herself to murder, to life consuming life in a fabulous, repulsive, and bland orgy. For G.H. this is hell, and it’s delightful. She has both a prehuman identity and a human face, and what’s necessary is to incorporate into herself that neutral animal core.
The most overwrought of all Lispector’s characters is the portrait of herself she offers in Selected Cronicas, a collection of her weekly columns for a Brazilian newspaper. Such free discussions of her thoughts and moods ("Not so long ago I experienced an anguished sense of loss" or "I woke up this morning in a rage") may be startling to American readers, who don’t expect the fundamental questions of existence to be raised in their morning newspaper. Selected Cronicas is required reading for Lispector fans, not only for her thought at its most intimate, but also for her photograph on the front cover. Clarice stares the reader down, just as G.H. stares down the roach: unflinching, fierce, and harried. Upon closer examination you’ll see that only one side of her face is well-lit and unrelenting. The other, partially in shadow, seems exhausted, even depressed. She has little or nothing to say about turtles. She finds turtles immoral. The repulsive aspects of living matter are always out there, waiting, whether as roach or the still-living, headless turtle her friend finds in a refrigerator. Wheezing like a lung. "How can one comprehend a turtle?" she asks. "How can one comprehend God?"
Strolling along the Avenida Copacabana, nurturing a unique feeling--that she herself is the mother of God--Lispector steps on a dead rat. "I am not the sort of person who needs to be reminded that there is blood in everything!" Animals are always in the same mysterious region as God. While she couldn’t kill a chicken herself, she’ll certainly continue to eat them. She’s afraid if she didn’t respect her own cruelty, she’d start devouring people instead. Ultimately, Lispector always says Yes. Her Catholic mysticism redeems the food chain.
The hell Lispector needs to plunge into is less abstract in the work of Sue Coe. If you found that cowshed of Lispector’s comforting, with its warm atmosphere of Christian piety, Coe brings you face-to-face with the industrial metamorhoses of the cowshed: the factory farm, the slaughterhouse. Lispector was raising chicks in her kitchen at Easter. These days, 250,000 hens can be confined in a single building, their eggs robotically collected. In Dead Meat, Coe’s book of sketches, paintings, and notes from a tour of such locales, hell is painted in all its visceral and grotesque horror. While the aim of both Dead Meat and Coe’s illustrated fairy tale Pit’s Letter is to be an indictment of an unacceptable moral situation, the moral position is complicated by the starkly beautiful horror of her artwork. As in the paintings of Bosch, hell has its fascinations, its strange attractions, and Pit’s Letter becomes a shamanic voyage by our canine hero into the underworld of human cruelty and lab experiments. It reads more like a scene from Poe or Kathy Acker than from Upton Sinclair. "I walked through past and future, rotten with killing, searching for some hope. Animals that were never meant to be, man-made monsters, sprouted like strange flowers from a singed landscape; lethal viruses multiplied and consumed the over-crowded population; air, water, earth poisoned; all the rich variety of life and history rendered null, fit only to be ground into profit..."
When Lispector sees a man walking a raccoon like a dog, she too sees a perversion of nature. She "sides with the victims of perverted love" but she beseeches the raccoon to pardon the man, before abandoning him. Coe’s Pit, faced with endless abuse, remains loyal, because this is a dog’s nature: to love. In this landscape of man-made monsters, it is easy to forget that domestication itself is a technology. There is good domestication and bad domestication. Sewing razor blades under the skin or pouring gunpowder in open wounds, to make a dog fierce, are bad domestication, but there’s always hope that our bad master will be transformed, through love, into a good master. Pit idealizes his man, even as he ends up at Eden Technologies, where his master and other scientists are trying to isolate the gene for empathy--to get rid of it. The dog itself, Coe implies, is the real repository of that empathy. Empathy is the trait to be retained and to emerge even stronger from the journey through the underworld. Unfortunately, Pit’s empathy seems less like a true compassion born of understanding, and more like a kind of training. Pit’s slavish devotion to his psychotic master is just that: slavish.
If Coe sentimentalizes the human relationship with dogs in her indictment of human cruelty, Stacey Levine presents domestication itself, and the very motivation to live with a domesticated species as suspect in the title story from her collection My Horse. Sizes, shapes, and ages are never quite what they should be in Levine’s work. Weird lumps of matter and oozings threaten to break out at any moment. The pet horse behaves more like a dog. It is whiny and diseased, "its flaccid skin hung in sagging folds". Still, it affords its owner subtle pleasures. "I rubbed him when I wanted; his skin was very warm, after all, and because of the dried rings and sores, a bristly rough effect was in fact achieved..."
The owner resents the beast its incomprehension, weakness, ingratitude, fear, and sickness, and Levine reveals the sadistic nature of "caring for" such a beast. "Indeed, when probed, his heels proved to be undersized and tender, full of bleeding scratches, not like hooves at all." The suffering of the creature exhausts and enrages its owner, who decides to stop feeding the horse, to force it to forage, show some initiative, and develop strength. The owner is surprised when the foraging has just that effect--the horse grows stronger, feeding on the petals that cover the neighborhood, and develops something that appears to be almost happiness.
But why do we domesticate animals and turn them into pets? Certainly not to make them stronger and more free, but to enjoy their dependence. The foraging is not difficult enough, the owner reasons, and so the horse is learning nothing. Evolution must involve struggle. And so the relationship itself evolves: clamps, pain, sadism, horror.
In her most recent novel The Quick and the Dead, and in her recent collection of essays Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, Joy Williams also deals with our evolving relationship to the animals. Relationship is perhaps too bland and homey a word for a dynamic that primarily involves us killing and torturing and them dying. Her recent essays will come as no surprise to Williams cultists, who saw the first outlines of her environmentalism in her Guide to the Florida Keys, a guidebook that reveals both the banal horror of existence and the relentless overdevelopment of a once fabulous state. Ill Nature is also a depressing and funny book. Don’t want to be reminded of all those turtles and dolphins caught up in shrimp nets, the transformation of Africa into a gigantic cow pasture, baboons getting their heads smashed in vices for the sake of science? Hell is again fleshed out, but without any of the lingering gothic beauty of Pit’s Letter. The cold, hard facts in this case are certainly cold and certainly hard.
In Selected Cronicas, Lispector says she doesn’t want to humanize animals, she wants to "animalize" herself. "Anthropomorphism" originally meant attributing human characteristics to God, Williams points out, but now this term is used to mean ascribing such things as intelligence, grieving, and awareness of death to the animals. We now know that we share the planet with formidable and complicated alien intelligences in the form of elephants, dolphins, whales, chimps, and wolves. Understanding them, however, hasn’t done a thing to save them.
While Lispector suggests that we have domesticated little boys, ourselves, and God, and Levine’s examination of the horse suggests a parent-child relationship as much as owner-pet, Williams explicitly goes after our relationship with the most common of domesticated animals: human children. In "The Case Against Babies" she examines the bizarre cultural importance ascribed to technologies of fertility in a drastically overpopulated world. For those who have noticed that even the doctors who want to clone human beings are justifying their outlandish project with those tragic "infertile couples", Williams offers a necessary dose of clear-headedness as she comes to the frightening conclusion that we keep producing babies because of our selfishness, sentimentality, and global death wish.
While speaking of chickens and eggs, Lispector easily strays into an esoteric and metaphorical discussion of human agents and the "goals" of biological evolution. Like Lispector, Williams is concerned with human evolution. But while for Lispector, her relationship with God involves an amoral enlargement of the human soul, for Williams it involves a strictly moral and intellectual enlargement, to be revealed and developed through our treatment of the animals. And what of the animals’ evolution? Is there hope they’ll become anything but extinct?
The answer is ambiguous in The Quick and the Dead. By putting the strident voice of her essays in the mouth of Alice, a delightful, but not always sympathetic teen, the ongoing decimation of other lifeforms is differently contextualized and complicated. Along with ghosts, jaded queens, and two other motherless girls, Alice wanders through a desert landscape where everything is dead, dying, stuffed. All these dead mothers may seem like a simple metaphor for our dying earth--like poor Candy, seven months pregnant with a stillborn she has to bring to term, who wants her specific situation understood globally--"The cycle has been broken, the web of life torn, dead world coming, et cetera..." says Alice. Candy keeps trying to get the media involved. "She has potent materials to work with," notes Alice, "but she lacks charisma."
In Williams’ final essay in Ill Nature, however, the metaphors evaporate. Williams discusses the death of her actual human mother. She leaves us with a sense of the uselessness of her writing, in the face of that death. Always present in Williams’ work is the nearness of death and a dark, barely redemptive sense of humor. She suggests that the utter boorishness with which we have depopulated the earth of our fellow species is hilarious. It is also the occasion for a grief so all-consuming that it can scarcely be borne.