Returning to translating Leconte de Lisle, especially his animal poems, has reaffirmed my growing belief that the bad press given to anthropomorphism arises from a ‘modern’ tendency to separate the animal off from the human. On the positive side, this gives animals the autonomy and self-identification they deserve and any notions of liberty should encompass. Animal rights necessarily require the human to be able to allow, compensate for, and respect difference between themselves and other creatures that occupy the planet. Through this we are able to perceive that what benefits us might not benefit a different ‘species’.
However, built into this very same perception is a degree of removal from personal and collective empathy with the plight of animals that ‘excuses’ the prioritising of the human condition over that of the animal. If we are unable to identify with the ‘feelings’ and sensations, never mind the ideas, of a given animal, then we are more able not to apply the natural justice we would necessarily offer a fellow human. I increasingly believe that anthropomorphics that are motivated by a desire to empathise with the ‘state of being animal’ are largely ways of extending these rights across ‘species’.
Ironically, the attribution of human traits to animals allows for the perception of difference by creating a familiar, even a level playing field. As the very useful Burns poem goes, ‘see ourselves as others see us’, and vice versa. Allow that animals’ eyes (or senses), are relative in their perceptions to ours. Allow they feel as we feel, allow that pain is pain, and pleasure is pleasure and so on. And if one requires a mirror for this to be the case, then that’s a step in the right direction.
Or even more indirectly, if we need to see the animal as a form of ourselves ‘wearing a mask’, and no matter how distorting that mask, that behind the unusual features we might roughly equate to our own, are the same needs, desires, and range of emotions and conceptualisations, then so be it. Whatever allows the bridge to be created, the ‘other’ to be dissolved.
Of course, ‘the other’ is not necessarily an undesirable state for some. To be seen as outside, different, even ‘less than’, might be considerably better than being part of or equated with. Difference is intactness and agency. But if difference is used by those empowered to oppress and demean, it can never be ‘right’.
I have also been thinking about these issues in the context of the ‘close encounter’ I had with a short-beaked echidna on the block last week. A young echidna, probably just ‘free’ of its parental bonds, was establishing territory around the great granites in the north-west corner. I watched it (with Tracy and Tim), explore, hide, curl up in a cleft between boulders. This was around sunset and it was very active — digging over ground around and under rocks, searching for termites.
We walked back down along the track to the house, but a short while later, I went back up, out of curious compulsion. I usually just leave things be, and I did so here, but I did go and look in between the rocks. I crouched. The echidna was in a coiled and curled position, quills bristling. And then it stretched and emerged. It moved towards me, sniffed the ground around my feet with its sensitive tubular snout, examined me with its tiny eyes, circumnavigated me, then proceeded to dig at the ground for termites. I stayed as still as possible. Eventually it ambled back into its cleft, and I discreetly removed myself.
Over the years, I have written many echidna poems, often through the lens of Derridean notions of metaphor. But this was quite different. I wrote a poem. I struggled to avoid equating the echidna’s emotions and actions with mine, or any correlative to mine. And I succeeded reasonably well, though underneath the moment you map an ‘encounter’ you are imposing human understanding about the processes behind ‘engagement’.
But since writing that poem and since working on de Lisle, I’ve been thinking that maybe I should write a more directly anthropomorphic take on the interaction. That is, give the echidna human traits and feelings, the better to understand my own motivation for writing the poem, and even more so for strongly believing it, as a creature, is no different from myself in terms of the rights it should have, the respect it should have, and the empowerment it should have. I almost said ‘it deserves’, and stopped myself, but maybe that’s the point. It does ‘deserve’ and because I am clearly in the empowered position (we share space, of course, but in truth I have far more control over the dispensation of that space), maybe I need to be frank and declare this position. My conscience prevents me from doing so because I know it’s wrong.
But in the twists and ambiguities of a poem, these contradictions, this conflict between how one feels it should be and how it really is, can be articulated without one position preventing awareness of the other. The poem that uses expressions attributing human feeling and, say, features, to an animal, can also illustrate the problems behind doing this.
Anthropomorphism can become generative and liberating in the sense that one gives away one’s platform of authority by expressing the belief that equality is implicit in the relationship, but that in reality there are few grounds for it to exist. It doesn’t surprise me that many of those I’ve read and met who are so rigidly opposed to the anthropomorphic, to pathetic fallacy, are those who either have the most conflicted views over the use of animals for human benefit, or are in fact the most indifferent to the conditions of animals outside their ‘use’ to humans, either as food, medicine, clothing, or pets.
Note: the photo was taken when the echidna was in the ball position. It was also taken from a distance. The echidna was not disturbed nor directly intruded upon. Its territory now covers acres across the block. Its lines of foraging take in areas around the house, especially the outcrop just above us.