The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imaginationby Mark Payne
How can literary imagination help us engage with the lives of other animals? The question represents one of the liveliest areas of inquiry in the humanities, and Mark Payne seeks to answer it by exploring the relationship between human beings and other animals in writings from antiquity to the present. Ranging from ancient Greek poets to modernists like Ezra Pound
How can literary imagination help us engage with the lives of other animals? The question represents one of the liveliest areas of inquiry in the humanities, and Mark Payne seeks to answer it by exploring the relationship between human beings and other animals in writings from antiquity to the present. Ranging from ancient Greek poets to modernists like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Payne considers how writers have used verse to communicate the experience of animal suffering, created analogies between human and animal societies, and imagined the kind of knowledge that would be possible if human beings could see themselves as animals see them.
The Animal Part also makes substantial contributions to the emerging discourse of the posthumanities. Payne offers detailed accounts of the tenuousness of the idea of the human in ancient literature and philosophy and then goes on to argue that close reading must remain a central practice of literary study if posthumanism is to articulate its own prehistory. For it is only through fine-grained literary interpretation that we can recover the poetic thinking about animals that has always existed alongside philosophical constructions of the human. In sum, The Animal Part marks a breakthrough in animal studies and offers a significant contribution to comparative poetics.
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The Animal PartHUMAN AND OTHER ANIMALS IN THE POETIC IMAGINATION
By Mark Payne
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Beast in Pain
Abjection and Aggression in Archilochus and William Carlos Williams
When charmed by the beauty of that viper, did it never occur to you to change personalities with him? to feel what it was to be a snake? to glide unsuspected in grass? to sting, to kill at a touch; your whole beautiful body one iridescent scabbard of death? -Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man
In this chapter I want to look at assertions of emotional continuity between human beings and other animals, particularly in the areas of aggression and wounding, as they appear in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the Greek iambic poets whose work he saw as analogous to his own. In order to do so, I want to begin in a place that may seem surprising, namely, Wordsworth's preface to the Lyrical Ballads and the relationship between emotion and poetic expression that is articulated there. For Wordsworth's familiar claim about the nature of poetry-that it is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings"-requires psychic chemistry whose formulas are helpful in understanding the states of abjection from which the poetry of Williams and his Greek predecessors emerges.
In order to write poetry, Wordsworth argues, a poet must gather inert emotion in his tranquil soul, where it is to be contemplated by him, "till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced." Once this emotion exists in the poet's mind, composition can begin, and it is in the mood created by the revivification of past feeling that his work is carried to its end. Wordsworth thinks this is an enjoyable process and that the poet must take care to communicate to his reader the pleasure he takes in his passions along with the passions themselves, whatever those passions happen to be. The poet requires only a reader whose mind is "sound and vigorous" in order to communicate to him the same pleasure in his feelings as he himself has taken.
The poet, then, as Wordsworth imagines him, has the power to arrest his affective metabolism and to reenergize feelings that would otherwise pass out of his being by dwelling upon them. Indeed, bringing dormant emotion back to life is the psychic labor his work entails, and transmission of this emotion to others is the end he means his work to achieve. Caveat in the formulation is the hope that the reader will be strong enough to handle what the poet has given him to experience. For Wordsworth discusses neither the kinds of emotion that go into poetry beyond his assertion that they must all be made enjoyable nor the long term effects upon the poet of treating his soul as a kind of crucible in which dead feeling is brought back to life by contemplation.
In the case of the ancient poetry of aggression, we do have a brief indication of the psychic consequences of the labor it entails from the perspective of Pindar, who, in his second Pythian Ode, distances his own work from it:
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[I have looked from a distance at Archilochus the abuser fattening himself on heavy worded hatreds, and helpless for the most part.] (P. 2.54- 56)
Archilochus, as Pindar sees him, has bloated himself with his hatred: "fattening" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is a word used in animal husbandry that suggests the unnatural swelling of an animal's body and the lengthy procedures required to induce it. However, while the fattening of an animal equips it for the service it is to perform, Archilochus's force-feeding of himself results in a state of incapacity or helplessness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the opposite of the ability or power ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Pindar elsewhere claims for his own work. Finally, Pindar presents himself as a wary spectator of Archilochus's misery, as if his aggressive display were too dangerous, or too disgusting, to approach.
Other ancient authors also point to a link between aggression and exhibitionism in Archilochus. Dio Chrysostom claims that, in his hostility to others, the poet "first of all abuses himself" (Orations 33.11-12), Origen that he used his poetic gifts to put on show a character that is licentious and impure (Against Celsus 3.25), and Plutarch that, in the unseemly and unrestrained things he says about women, he makes a spectacle, or an example, of himself (On Curiosity 10.520a-b). The lengthiest treatment of the topic is found in Aelian, who tells us that Critias, the sophist and relative of Plato, blamed the poet because he "spoke very badly of himself," listing all the shameful things we would not know about him if he had not told us himself. By showing us why he became an object of hatred to those around him, Archilochus, Critias concludes, "was not a good witness on his own behalf" (Historical Miscellanies 10.12).
It is easy enough to connect Critias's position with Pindar's as implied praise of aristocratic reserve. What is more difficult to understand is why such unrestrained self-expression is claimed to be a form of incapacity. In the same poem in which he refers to Archilochus, Pindar connects his own work-praise-with the work of the judges of the underworld who, like him, have to formulate and articulate correct judgments about the human beings it is their task to consider. Pindar calls the fruit of Rhadamanthys' mind "blameless" or "blame-free" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); while passing judgment may mean condemning, it does not entail the psychic conditions involved in blameful aggression, and Rhadamanthys does not "delight his spirit with the falsehoods that please the minds of slanderers" (P. 2.73- 75).
Approval and condemnation, as Pindar sees them, are complementary; they map onto praise and criticism-the speech acts in which these verdicts may be elaborated at greater length-but they belong to a different area of psychic life than flattery and abuse, which only seem to resemble them. The latter are insubstantial and ineffective forms of positivity and negativity that cannot disclose anything real about their objects because they originate in affective states not judgments. The speech of abusers is imagined as the outcome and manifestation of a trauma: in attempting to measure other men, and even the gods, by their own standards, they "pierce their own hearts with a painful wound before they attain what they have cunningly devised in their minds" (P. 2.91-92). In an ideal community their speech carries no conviction because its members understand that it is born of feeling not judgment. Even if abusers have the spirit of a fox, they get nothing from their cunning; they are an incapable, self-defeating evil no one bothers to contend with-an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-and they can accomplish nothing for themselves (2.73-78).
As Pindar sees it, one consequence of narcissistic wounds-the interruption of solipsistic grandiosity by sounder judgment-is an affective state that renders the victim incapable of responding to them effectively. Abusive speech merely displays the wound its speaker cannot acknowledge as such, and is incapable of producing conviction in the speaker or his audience. Because the abuser's speech is ineffective, it is endless, and he distends himself with hatred he cannot discharge. This is the structure of abjection, a negative version of responsibility in which the self is constantly alive to the claims of others but can only respond to them with aggressive denials.
For ancient critics of his poetry, Archilochus is claimed by his own wounded response to others to the extent that he loses control over his own powers of signification and makes himself into a spectacle instead. He is therefore rightly compared to an animal that manifests its feelings in bodily display without self-regulation. Archilochus himself, as one might expect, has a rather different understanding of the relationship between animality and self-expression that appears in his work. In a well-known fragment, he contrasts the cunning of the fox that "knows many tricks," with the single-minded behavior of the hedgehog that knows "one big one" (frag. 201 West), and, in other poems, he identifies himself with both sides of this contrast. He echoes the defensive aggression of the hedgehog in an assertion of his own power to wound-"I know one big thing, how to repay one who has harmed me with astounding pains" (frag. 126 West)-and, in an extended animal fable, he identifies his own cunning with that of the fox.
The animal fable in which this identification appears dramatizes Archilochus's relations with Lycambes, a person who had promised his daughter to the poet in marriage but later reneged on their agreement (frag. 172-81 West). In the Aesopic version of the fable (1 Perry), a fox and an eagle become friends, thinking that their association will be of mutual benefit. One day when the fox is out hunting, however, the eagle steals its cubs and feeds them to its young. Since the eagle's nest is beyond its reach, the fox is unable to take revenge immediately, but curses the eagle instead, and this curse proves effective: meat the eagle takes from a sacrificial altar sets its nest on fire, and its unfledged off spring fall to the ground, where the fox eats what is left of them.
The fragments of Archilochus's version tell a story of victimization, powerlessness, and hate. The eagle scorns the fox; from his vantage point of lofty superiority, he looks on complacently as his erstwhile ally is consumed by his apparently hopeless desire for revenge, and will not deign to engage him in open combat. Archilochus stresses the horror of the eagle's "unlovely feast" and the grief it causes the fox as a parent (frag. 175, 179 West). Unable to find an outlet for his pain in physical aggression, the fox turns to trickery, calling upon Zeus, to whom "the hubris and the justice of both men and animals are a concern" (frag. 177 West), and he is finally able to satisfy his wounded feelings by mocking the eagle for the burns he suffers in the attempt to rescue his children.
The fable is framed by a direct address to Lycambes in which Archilochus inflicts the humiliation of public interrogation upon him, asking why he thought he could get away with cheating him and inviting him to confess that he must have been out of his mind to try it, now that he can see himself as "a complete laughing stock to his fellow citizens" (frag. 172 West). The specular situation has been reversed, just as it was in the fable, with the comfortable, powerful observer now an object of public ridicule. A wounded person has used cunning and abusive speech to enlist a civic body in his triumph-the very scenario Pindar declared impossible-but the trick on which his success depends is not recorded in the fragments of the poem we have. To understand the nature of the vengeance it involved we must turn to the fragments of another poem, in which Archilochus describes the seduction of his intended bride's younger sister (frag. 196a West).
This poem must have begun by setting up the dramatic irony that informs the long fragment of it that we have, for the younger sister evidently does not recognize the poet and tells him that, if he is experiencing an urgent need for sex, she has a sister at home who is ready and eager for marriage. The poet replies that he can be satisfied with some kind of sexual contact other than intercourse and that he wants this from her, since her sister is "overripe," and the virginal bloom she once had is now gone. In addition, he claims, she is an evil-tempered, deceitful nymphomaniac who would make him a laughing stock to his neighbors if he were to marry her. He is afraid, he says, that if he is too eager in his desire for satisfaction, he will "give birth to blind and untimely off spring like the bitch in the story," and the girl, apparently unfazed by this tirade against her sister, acquiesces to a lesser form of sexual contact: he lays her down among flowers "like a fawn," and, taking hold of her breasts, ejaculates over her body.
The experience of connection to animal life stages the achievement of abject aggression. The predator's grasp of the fawn in the grass needs no comment, but commentators have attempted to emend away the striking image in which Archilochus compares himself to a pregnant dog, arguing that an adult male Greek could not refer to himself giving birth even in a metaphor. Archilochus is not referring literally to the birth of children, however, since he has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of marrying the older sister, which is the condition for intercourse with her, and is in the process of trying to get something other than this from the younger one. His fear that he may "give birth to blind and untimely off spring" appears at the end of his tirade against the older girl, which is presented as part of a dramatic dialogue with the younger, but before the successful seduction that rather surprisingly follows it, and which is told as retrospective narrative to an external audience. The expression of fear thus seems to be a kind of aside in which Archilochus jokingly imagines the possibility that, by abusing the older girl too vehemently within the poem, he may jeopardize the vengeance against her and her family that has taken the form of a deceptive seduction of her younger sister, and which must be an accomplished fact for the poem to be performed in the first place.
Archilochus's suggestion that he is in danger of becoming "a laughing stock to his neighbors" is a frame-breaking nod to the reversal of specularity vengeance demands. Knowingness is further signaled by a reference to animal fable within the narrative, as the poet compares himself to "the bitch in the story" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the one everyone knows about. Self-identification as the protagonist of an animal fable appears as a canceled possibility: the poet will not fail in his purposes like a dog that gives birth to abortive off spring. On the other hand, the image with which this assertion is made enacts the antisocial energies of abuse poetry, which makes a spectacle of what ought not to be made public. Images of animal maternity have an august epic pedigree as expressions of social and familial responsibility. Archilochus deforms them here to express the triumph of abjection's negative version of commitment while at the same time referring to the fable genre he himself employs on other occasions, within which animals are properly narrative subjects and not merely matter for comparison.
Archilochus offers a twofold answer to Pindar's critique of his animality. First, the connection to animal life that emerges from the unrestrained indulgence of his own feelings allows him to formulate precisely observed resemblances between human and animal behavior, particularly in situations of sex and violence, and this is a cognitive capacity his enemies would do well to be mindful of. In addition, the poet readily admits that these displays of aggression are continuous with those of other animals. We have seen the poet as fox, hedgehog, and dog, and he even compares himself on one occasion to an ant, warning a woman of the dire consequences of not granting him her sexual favors:
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[I know how to love the one who loves me, but also how to hate and harm my enemy as an ant.] (frag. 23.14-16 West)
The vehemence of the identification is striking. The poet does not claim "I know how to hate and harm like an ant," but, literally, "I, an ant, know how to hate and harm." The animal is in the nominative case and agrees with the subject of the sentence, which it follows emphatically, with the additional force of enjambment. Archilochus does not imagine ant being as the communal industry of the superorganism that, in the Aesopic fable (373 Perry), makes the ant a fitting contrast to the idly singing cicada. The ant is not, as it is for Aristotle, one of the political animals among whom "one activity is common to all" (History of Animals 1.1.488a8-13). If this ant ever belonged to a polis, he does so no longer, but comes "as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill," like Pound's "ego scriptor" (Canto LXXVI, 472).
Excerpted from The Animal Part by Mark Payne Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Mark Payne is professor in the Department of Classics and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction.
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