An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Here are four animals:


His small Umbrella quaintly halved

Describing in the Air

An Arc alike inscrutable

Elate Philosopher.


This animal which, like a ship’s anchor,

first casts off in the void,

In order to — even upside down — maintain

itself there suddenly


Spacefarers past living planetfall

on our ever-dive in bloom crystal:

when about our self kin selves appear,

slowing, rubber to pulp, we slack from spear…


Queer, with your thin wings and streaming legs,

How you sail like a heron, or a dull clot of air,

A nothingness.

All of these poems concern animals, whether mammal, insect or fish. Some of them may be easier to identify than others. The first is a bat, by Emily Dickinson; the second a spider, by Francis Ponge; the third, a cuttlefish, by Les Murray; and last but not least, a mosquito, by D.H. Lawrence. Everything we hope to explore here, apropos the question of animals and literature, might be illustrated on the basis of these four brief extracts. We say ’literature’ but we need in fact to be wary: all of these examples are poems. Indeed there is, we want to suggest, something special about the relationship between poetry and animals, something that takes us, perhaps, to the very heart of what we mean by terms such as the ’poetic’, ’poetic language’ and even ’poem’. And this can in turn, we will argue, illuminate in a more general way what we call literature.

This might sound like a merely aesthetic exercise confined to looking at how a few poets write about little creatures, furry or otherwise, but our topic is of course far larger. The world is currently challenged, not only by terrible poverty, injustice and inequality, and by environmental degradation and climate change, but also by the widespread and massive destruction of so-called ’wildlife’ habitats, the rapid disappearance of countless different animal species and the threat of many more extinctions to come. These challenges are all interrelated in different and highly complex ways, but at their core is the violence of what is called anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism has to do with how humans think and act as if ’man’ (in Heidegger’s phrase) were ’the lord of the earth’, going around ’everywhere and always encounter[ing] only himself’ (Heidegger 1977, 27). As we try to argue elsewhere in this book (in ’Me’ and ’Eco’, in particular), the human is not at the centre of the world, however much we humans might imagine or presume to behave otherwise. In many ways, no doubt, the implications and consequences of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) are still sinking in. So too, perhaps, is the gender-biased presumptuousness of referring to humanity as ’man’. The crisis here is obviously not just one of language and naming — although that, as we shall see, is perhaps more significant than might be supposed. Nor is it only of concern to those who regard themselves as ’green’ or ’feminist’. Like the question of environmentalism that we discuss in ’Eco’, the question of animals and animality watches over us all, every moment. The latter indeed may be still watching, literally, after the end of humanity.

In calling this chapter ’Animals’ and opening with a few brief examples of poems about animals, we have perhaps already managed to give the impression that there are animals (bats, spiders, cuttlefish and mosquitoes) on the one hand, and humans (poets) on the other. And yet humans are animals, after all: an ’animal’ is fundamentally simply ’a living creature’ (OED, sense 1a), a word deriving from the Latin anima, ’breath’. So what happens when humans write about other animals? We know that Dickinson’s poem is about a bat because it opens with the words, ’The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings —’ (Poem 1575). But the four-line stanza we have quoted is in fact extraordinarily difficult to pin down, on account of its imaginative and syntactic complexity. The verse in question seems to evoke the bat’s wings and the movement they trace in the air. The lines appear to constitute a sentence, but there is no main verb. We are compelled to take the present participle ’describing’ as the main verb, but we are still left with the conundrum of ’alike’ and the strangeness of ’elate’ as an adjective (meaning ’lifted’, ’raised’, ’exalted’, ’inspired’). The four-line sentence notably lacks all punctuation: it is as if the words and phrases themselves were batting about, this way and that, unpredictable and, indeed, like an animal, inscrutable. A provoking rapport emerges here between the poem and the bat. You cannot pin down the lines anymore than you could the creature described. It is perhaps no coincidence that in a famous essay in which he tries to pin down consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel should choose to reflect on the question of what it is like to be a bat (Nagel 1974). Inscrutability is a feature of these lines of poetry as it is of the line or lines of the ’Arc’ that ’the Bat’ itself describes. For Dickinson’s bat, after all, is himself a sort of poet or writer: ’Describing in the Air / An Arc alike inscrutable / Elate Philosopher.’

Dickinson’s has a strikingly self-reflexive dimension: it can be read, among other things, as a poem about the poetic, about writing, and more particularly about writing (itself) as act or event, doing or making. (We might helpfully recall here the etymology of ’poetry’, from the ancient Greek poiein, to do or make.) The lines from Ponge’s poem ’The New Spider’ are up to something similar: the very syntax, slipping and interconnectedness of the lines seems to cast forth the impression of a spider weaving: ’In order to — even upside down — maintain / itself there suddenly’. (Another etymology comes to mind here: the word ’text’ derives from the Latin textere, to weave.) Likewise, Murray’s strangely beautiful, ghostlike poem ’Cuttlefish’ concludes with an image of writing in the ink of cuttlefish culture: ’leaving, of our culture, an ectoplasm of ink’. (Murray is here alluding to ’sepia’, another name for cuttlefish. The sepia of sepia photography and water-colour paint is indeed, literally, a product of cuttlefish. The earliest photographs were writings not just in light but in cuttlefish ink.)

Lawrence’s ’The Mosquito’ is in some ways the most surreptitious in its self-reflexivity. It differs from the other poems discussed here in that it addresses the animal itself. It is characterized by a sort of bantering, questioning, conversational tone, opening with the words: ’When did you start your tricks, / Monsieur?’ Everyone knows that mosquitoes are not French (the word ’mosquito’ is in fact originally Spanish, but mosquitoes have an annoying lack of respect for national or linguistic borders): the poem’s opening address is at once comical and indicative of the tricksiness of Lawrence’s language. Likewise the ’clot’: ’dull clot of air’ is marvellously suggestive of the almost imperceptible, ghostly character of the creature addressed. At the same time it evokes the image of a blood-clot. ’Clot’, in other words, is self-reflexive, a subtle projection on to this blood-sucking creature of precisely what, later in the poem, it does to the speaker. It sucks ’live blood, / My blood’, the poet reports. It becomes a ’winged blood-drop’. Already, from the beginning, the play in the sounds of ’monsieur’ and ’mosquito’ intimates that this is a poem working explicitly at the level of the signifier, with the arbitrariness of language. ’Monsieur’ has no more natural or logical a relation to the creature in question than does ’mosquito’ itself. Lawrence’s poem is a wonderfully funny account of the sort of enraged anthropomorphic telepathy a mosquito can indeed inspire: ’I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air / Having read my thoughts against you’. The poem, it transpires, is about the poet becoming a mosquito in turn: ’Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?’ And it concludes, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, with the death of the addressee, the mosquito squished: ’Queer, what a dim dark smudge you have disappeared into!’

In a sense, then, each poem is not only about an animal, but also aspires to be a sort of animal. Each would be an ’animal poem’. In a certain imaginative register (as if), the poem inscribes itself in the world of the creature described. It would be a true ’animal poem’: it would like to be, but of course it cannot. It would like to be telepathic, it would like not only to communicate with but to speak on behalf of the animal, as an animal, from the animal’s point of view. But this would be a kind of anthropomorphism, in other words a fantasy or projection. In truth, what all of the poems sharply convey is a sense of the impossibility of finding the right words, of adequately describing, of putting in language what a specific animal is like, what is entailed in an encounter with this particular creature (bat, spider, cuttlefish, mosquito). For how on earth do you — should you — describe a non-human animal? How can you say what it is like to be one? The English language is stuffed (as a taxidermist might say) with figurative references to animals. Just spinning off a few examples can make us sound faintly poetic: quiet as a mouse, sweating like a pig, slow as a tortoise, a bear hug, sick as a parrot, crow’s feet, pigeon-toed, the elephant in the room, rabbit in headlights, dead as a dodo, going the whole hog, can of worms, dark horse, lion’s share, crocodile tears, snake in the grass, wolf in sheep’s clothing, sly as a fox, happy as a clam, bullish, lousy, waspish, hare-brained, headless chicken, water off a duck’s back, eyes like a hawk, frog in your throat, you can lead a horse to water, whale of a time, loan sharks, lying toad, swansong, running around like a blue-arsed fly, being badgered, beavering away, bee in your bonnet, cat got your tongue, completely batty … And then there’s a whole slanderous canine sub-lexicon for man’s so-called best friend: dog’s breakfast, dog-eared, a sly dog, dog eat dog, shaggy dog, dogging, go to the dogs, hair of the dog, work like a dog, dog days, and so on. The list of animal idioms is as long as the queue for Noah’s ark. We are forever comparing ourselves to other animals. These idioms seem to affirm the implicit violence of our relations with other animals: many of the examples just given involve a negative figuration of the animal and all seem to involve a kind of easy anthropomorphism. But in the very gesture of such appropriation these idioms also register the otherness of these creatures.

It is striking, for example, that when Lawrence is trying to describe a mosquito, he resorts to a simile involving another animal (’like a heron’), then to a kind of oxymoron (’clot of air’), and finally to a blank absence of all image or resemblance (’A nothingness’). Correspondingly, Ponge turns to a nautical metaphor to evoke the spider as it casts off ’like a ship’s anchor’ into the air. In the case of the lines from Dickinson and Murray, the explicit marker of figurative language, the ’like’ (or ’as’), is tacit or omitted: the bat’s wings are (like) a ’small Umbrella quaintly halved’, the bat is (like) a ’philosopher’; the cuttlefish are (like) ’spacefarers’, their bodies are (like) ’rubber’, ’pulp’ and ’spear’. The elision of such markers, however, merely accentuates the extravagance or fancifulness of the descriptions. Dickinson’s language is anthropomorphic, but in a quirky, defamiliarizing way. The figuration of the bat as a sort of neat and pleasant gentleman (’His small Umbrella quaintly halved’) entails unsettling undersides. Murray’s poem on the other hand crucially depends on its title. Without the word ’Cuttlefish’ at the top of the page we could hardly be expected to surmise who or what is the subject of the fantastical, science-fictional phrases: ’Spacefarers past living planetfall / on our ever-dive in bloom crystal’. (’Planetfall’, as the OED informs us, is originally a mid-twentieth-century word for ’[a] landing on a planet after a journey through space’.) We are so immersed in a language of strange compounds and juxtapositions (’ever-dive’, ’bloom crystal’), in a fluid syntax that seems to let odd phrases float by (’past living’, ’in bloom’) while unsettling any easy identification of parts of speech (is ’bloom’ an adjective, ’pulp’ a verb, ’spear’ a noun?), that we may not even notice on first reading that these are rhyming couplets. These opening lines are rendered even more bizarre, perhaps, by the poet’s anthropomorphic strategy of speaking in a cuttlefish royal ’we’ (’our ever-dive’, ’our self’, ’we slack’). Perplexed (but also delighted), we may well find ourselves asking: ’We’? What is this? What is this poem or poet like? The most powerful poems about animals are those that disorient us, leave the reader stranded, up in the air, underground or underwater, breathtaken. Murray’s ’Cuttlefish’ appears in a volume that is suggestively entitled Translations from the Natural World: all animal poems are ’translations’, we might say, but without access to an original. In a sense they are all works of science fiction or strangely ’elate’ philosophy.

There is a growing body of critical and theoretical work (sometimes referred to as ’animal studies’) concerned with ’the question of the animal’ as the basis for what Matthew Calarco, in his book Zoographies, has called ’new social movements that are seeking to develop a postliberal, posthumanist approach to politics’ (Calarco 2008, 6). Debate concerning ’the question of the animal’ is, so to speak, a real hornet’s nest. Do animals have rights, as Peter Singer (1990) and Tom Regan (1983), among others, have argued? Don’t lots of species of animal exhibit characteristics that are often said to define the human, such as use of tools, language, altruism, play, inventiveness, suffering, mourning and so on? Is it true, as Aristotle suggested, that ’no animal laughs save Man’ (Aristotle 2001, 69)? Is it the case that animals don’t die but merely ’perish’, as Heidegger suggested (see Heidegger 1962, 291; Heidegger 2001, 176)? Or, conversely, should we not suppose that, as Gilles Deleuze puts it, ’contrary to the spiritualist prejudice, it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense or premonition of death’ (Deleuze 1998, 2)? Should we feel OK about eating other animals? Can battery-farming be justified? What about some of the other barbaric ways in which non-human animals are treated and killed? What gives us the right to make these decisions? Calarco himself is one of many who argue emphatically that ’the human-animal distinction can no longer and ought no longer to be maintained’ (3). There are, however, good reasons for being cautious about such an assertion. A woman is not a spider (despite her appearance in Marvel Comics), any more than a man is a bat (despite numerous impersonations, from Bram Stoker to Christian Bale’s ’dark knight’). Questioning and indeed seeking to dismantle or deconstruct anthropocentrism, in philosophy as in everyday life, is one thing; but dropping or claiming to drop distinctions altogether is something else.

Rather than blurring the line between ’animal’ and ’human’ we should attend to differences. In his remarkable work The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida explores the idea that, perhaps more effectively than anything else in the world, the ’question of the animal’ prompts us to think about ’the wholly other’ (Derrida 2008, 11). In a startling moment the eminent French philosopher recalls being naked in the bathroom with his cat. (We say ’his cat’ in order to simplify matters. In fact, like every cat-lover, Derrida knows that no one can truly own a cat because, as he says, ’A pussycat never belongs’ [7].) He is talking about that ’strange moment’ when, ’before even wanting it or knowing it myself, I am passively presented to it as naked, I am seen and seen naked, before even seeing myself seen by a cat’, seen by that ’wholly other they call “animal”, for example “cat”’ (11). As Derrida points out, the shame that we humans tend to feel at being naked is not something that other animals (seem to) experience. But it is something that we share, according to biblical tradition, with Adam (the father of all humanity and the man that named all other animals). For human animals, there seems to be something fundamental about being naked, to which other animals do not respond. Entirely at odds with any sentimental or anthropomorphic appropriation of the cat, Derrida, naked before it, summarizes: ’Thinking perhaps begins there’ (29). In this way he seeks to elaborate on the notion that every living creature constitutes what he calls an ’unsubstitutable singularity’ (9). It is a question of this cat, in Derrida’s bathroom, not just any old cat. Indeed, in his terms, there is no such thing as ’any old cat’. Every cat is other, and every other is wholly other. This sense of the unsubstitutable singularity of any and every animal, he contends, is especially evident in poetry. And this is one of the ways of distinguishing poetry from philosophy. As Derrida puts it: ’[T]hinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry…. [This] is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of’ (7).

Walt Whitman writes, in ’Song of Myself’: ’I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, / I stand and look at them long and long’ (’Song of Myself’, section 32). But these lines tell only half the story: it is also and perhaps more significantly a question about what happens when the animal looks back, or just looks, at us, in plain day or (imperceptibly perhaps) at night. Poetry, we have suggested, is especially in sympathy with the otherness of animals and with the notion of unsubstitutable singularity. As Ted Hughes puts it, in the context of a discussion of the experience of composing a poem: ’[T]he poem is a new species of creature, a new specimen of the life outside your own’ (Hughes 1967, 17). Every poem would be a different creature, looking at its author and each of its readers in a unique way, bespeaking a being unlike any other poem or any other kind of text. This is perhaps what poetic originality or genius entails (no pun intended).

The association that Derrida makes between poetry and animals might lead us to the supposition that the more poetic a novel, short story or play is, the more likely we are to find animals pervading and haunting it. We could consider, for example, Shakespeare (for whose animals a supplementary volume of the Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory would be required), Herman Melville (author of that whale of a book, Moby-Dick), Franz Kafka or Elizabeth Bowen. Let us just briefly recall one or two instances from the last two of these writers. One of Kafka’s greatest short fictions, ’The Burrow’ (written in 1923), begins with the following immortal sentence: ’I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful’ (Kafka 1992, 325). The narrator is, apparently, a burrowing animal: thinking, to recall Derrida’s formulation, perhaps begins there. We never discover quite what size or indeed what species this burrowing creature is, but we are drawn nonetheless into the fascination and strangeness of a kind of poetic, imperceptible place. As Deleuze and Guattari nicely observe in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986): ’Kafka is fascinated by everything that is small. If he doesn’t seem to like children that is because they are caught in an irreversible becoming-big; the animal kingdom, in contrast, involves smallness and imperceptibility’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 37). Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, does not so much write from the point of view of animals, as let animals roam, flap around, animate and haunt her writing. Just two of very many instances from her novel Friends and Relations (1931) may suffice. A car departs from a country railway station with avian effects: ’Then his Aunt Janet drove off rapidly; water went up in wings from some deep puddles’ (65). And, a little later, a hot summer day in a local market town is evoked through a sort of soundless feline music: ’A cat’s yawn gave the note of the afternoon. Pavements sleepily glared; over the butcher’s a piano played in its sleep’ (80). (That last example leaves us not only with the subtle enchantment of a cat’s yawn, but also the easily missed rawness of ’the butcher’s’.)

Despite the pervasive or recurrent presence of animals in such works, it is as if, to borrow a formulation from Akira Mizuta Lippit, they ’exist in a state of perpetual vanishing’ (Lippit 2000, 1). They haunt these texts. It’s like the White Rabbit, or the Cheshire Cat, or so many other animals in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. It’s like the Ghost in Hamlet, momentarily evoked as a mole under the earth, or beneath the stage. ’Well said, old mole!’ exclaims Hamlet, but it has already shifted away: as he goes on to ask, ’Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?’ (1.5.170). Focusing attention on the appearances and disappearances of such animals (metaphorical or literal, fabulous or recognizable) can perhaps enable us to think differently not only about poetry but also about the ’poetic’ in literature more generally.

We conclude with another creature that has made ghostly appearances in literature across the ages, from Homer’s Iliad to Shakespeare’s Richard III (1.2.102) to Beckett’s Company, namely the hedgehog. Perhaps the best-known correlation between the hedgehog and a work of art is the one made by the German philosopher and poet Friedrich von Schlegel, who wrote, in 1798, regarding the literary or philosophical fragment: ’Like a little work of art, a fragment must be totally detached from the surrounding world and closed on itself like a hedgehog’ (quoted in Derrida 1995b, 302). In a wonderful little text called ’Che c’osè la poesia?’ (in English, ’What is poetry?’ or ’What is this thing called poetry?’), Derrida obliquely explores this and other figures, transforming these into a new way of thinking about the poetic in relation to the ’humble’ hedgehog (see Derrida 1995b, 288—99, 301—3). Derrida’s hedgehog is a figure for what it is that makes us love language, what makes us want to remember a poem or a phrase or even a feeling or experience, what makes us want to ’learn by heart’. A poem, he proposes, is ’that very thing that teaches the heart’ and even ’invents the heart’ (Derrida 1995b, 295). It is a kind of ghostly hedgehog that has nothing to do with ’literary poetry’ (297), with self-enclosed fragments or sonnets or epic poems. The hedgehog cannot be owned. It is a creature that attests to otherness, and above all perhaps to mortality and to the otherness of death that affects human and non-human animals alike. It is difficult to say whether Derrida’s little text is a work of philosophy or literary theory or poetry. Correspondingly, the poetic nature of this hedgehog cannot, he suggests, be confined to any genre, poetic, literary or otherwise.

Further reading

In accord with the logic of what we have argued in this chapter, perhaps the best place to pursue further reading is in the work of poets rather than critics or theorists: D.H. Lawrence, William Blake, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, Francis Ponge and so many others. And Kafka’s stories tell us as much about animals and literature, animals in literature, or animal literature, as any critical or theoretical writings. Literary works such as those we have been discussing in this chapter point towards a thinking in terms of what Deleuze and Guattari have called ’becoming animal’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1986; Deleuze and Guattari 2013, Chapter 10). Among the burgeoning growth of critical and theoretical material, there are in addition several especially stimulating books. For a short introductory account, Greg Garrard has a useful chapter on ’Animals’ in his book Ecocriticism (2004). Of a more demanding nature, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003), ed. Cary Wolfe, is an influential collection of poststructuralist, posthumanist interdisciplinary essays. Wolfe is also author of two valuable related studies, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanism (2003) and Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (2013). For other stimulating essay collections, see Knowing Animals (2007), eds. Lawrence Simmons and Philip Armstrong, and Cosmopolitan Animals (2015), eds, Kaori Nagai et al. For a very helpful study focusing on the early modern period, see Erica Fudge’s Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2002). For work in a more predominantly philosophical vein, see Animal Others: On Ethics, Ontology, and Animal Life (1999), ed. Peter H. Steeves, and Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (2008). Akira Mazuta Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (2000) is a compelling but challenging work that brilliantly explores the ’question of the animal’ across philosophy, science and psychoanalysis, as well as literature and cinema. Philip Armstrong’s What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (2008) looks at literary works from Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift to Will Self and J.M. Coetzee. Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008) is a rich and complex set of essays (originally dating from 1997) that forms an important point of reference in many of the aforementioned secondary works. See, too, his posthumously published The Beast and the Sovereign, vols. 1 and 2 (2009, 2011). For three collections of essays especially concerned with the elaboration of Derrida’s work in this area, see Derridanimals, a special issue of the Oxford Literary Review (2007), ed. Neil Badmington; Demenageries (2009), eds, Anne Berger and Marta Segarra; and The Animal Question in Deconstruction (2013), ed. Lynn Turner.