If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
I am animal and so are you, but where do we start and end, and could we, ever, converse as equals amongst other animals? It is as much a question about Us as about Them. As early as the sixteenth century, the curious and open-minded philosopher Montaigne considered the possibility of shared world views, famously musing ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’. More recently fellow thinker Jacques Derrida playfully described feeling exposed before the gaze of his cat, ‘this irreplaceable living being’ who, entering the bathroom, sees him naked. Perhaps this proximity with domestic animals creates an illusion. Is communication impossible or is there, as Montaigne believed, ‘a certain commerce, between them and us’ that recognises ‘the resemblance there is in all living things’?
The borderland of our being has long been traversed. Aboriginal peoples across the world maintain a fluidity between human and animal cultures, given form through oral history and shamanic practice, whereas the Enlightenment view of nature that persists today is one of dualism, difference and hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is open to question.
Writer John Berger lamented that man and animal regard each other across a ‘narrow abyss of non-comprehension’ our paths having long diverged. But, for Derrida, it’s not an empty void, but one filled with ‘being’, a ‘spark in the place of nothingness’. He maintains that there are many differences between all animals, different differences rather than a binary difference.
Perhaps the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who studied the interaction of living organisms and thus established the field of biosemiotics, can shed some light on our relative differences. His 1934 theory of the ‘Umwelt’, or surrounding world, proposes individual understanding as a bubble of existence, in a realm of ‘subjective universes’ composed of each animal’s reality, and limited by its own experiences. So my understanding of another animal may not be its ‘truth’ at all; all beings are ‘other’. I think we only notice these bubbles when they sometimes bump up against each other; the zoo visitor who contrives to hug a panda only to be mauled, is, I suppose, an extreme example of these misaligned universes.
The painter Francis Bacon who signally trod feral paths in search of instinctive or momentary glimpses of other selves, (human and otherwise), once said ‘I tried to make the shadows as much there as the image’. These interstices between ourselves and others are sometimes illuminated, reminding us of our differences but also the complex and interwoven nature of our relationships.
A mistaken identity
Relaxing in meadow grass, at the sanctuary, the white she-wolf looks to me like a large and densely furred dog, pink tongue hanging out, quite at ease in the evening sunshine. The humans behind the fence are excited to take her photo, get up close. Hands flat to the netting of the secondary fence, they babble and jostle for viewing space to see this languorous exhibit. I wonder why: they must have seen plenty of similar looking dogs. It must be the novelty created by the division of the fence, the border between tame and wild, known and unknowable. Then something shifts.
Behind me in the crowd a toddler falls and gives a sudden, sharp cry of alarm and distress, and the wolf is transformed for flickering seconds. Senses sharpen to the vibrations of the world, ears snap forward, her golden eyes widen, nostrils flare. She is keen and all her instincts are in play. She is present and alive.
Indoors at the visitor centre I’m listening to a talk on wolf behaviours, when, as the evening outside grows dusky, a call starts up, from which direction it’s hard to say. My hairs prickle a little as the undulating howl is passed from one to another until it circles the timber hut, as if detached from its source. I feel a primitive thrill; this is what it means to be alive: a connection. It’s more impressive than the sight of a wolf, more immersive, more alien, but an old familiarity all the same. Ice age peoples believed that when water fowl moved from water to land and sky they were crossing lower, middle and upper worlds, and in doing so, transgressing boundaries not open to others. Is that what accounts for this visceral flush? The possibility of transformation? The wolf call takes flight separately from its earth-bound maker and soars freely in the night air.
Outside, at the enclosures, a member of staff encourages us to howl to our fellow animals. Sheepishly we begin, self-conscious, aware of the inadequacy of our own wild calls and the palpable expectation of the assembled pack. They though, are in no doubt about the exchange, and acknowledge our attempts with an ululating chorus of excited cries and howls. Darkness falls like a contagion, and en masse, we converse.
On being not consequential to the gaze
At the zoo I regard the lioness. In return she barely regards me at all. Rather she looks through me as if the chain-link fence were a solid wall rendering my presence inconsequential and me as substantial as a passing ghost. This apparent ennui is tempered by my sensation of a brief but finely calculated assessment on her part; at this range I’m neither threat nor food. The limitations of the cage are the only obstacle to a carnivorous, more one-sided encounter. I’ve been measured like this before by large and wary dogs but never so finitely rebuffed. It is a glance at once discreet and dismissive. And for myself, an egocentric surprise at being reduced to such basic terms, unsettled to have briefly crossed a border from observer to observed.
I return to Wittgenstein and Montaigne and acknowledge, with some dissatisfaction, my own anthropocentric prejudice. When a connection comes on another’s terms, the levelling overturns a hierarchy I didn’t think I ascribed to. Artists and philosophers alike, follow traces to inhabit a skin other than the one we’re in, but are little wiser as to the intersections between ourselves and others, human or non-human.
Older worlds – animal ancestors, shapeshifters, wild children and other transgressors, are safest contained by stories in contemporary culture. Blurred boundaries are chaotic and tantalisingly open to subversion. Even writer and ‘mythographer’ Marina Warner, well versed in human/animal interchange in fairy tales, is not immune to cultural discomfit when faced with aberrant roles. She relates the true story of the huntsman and his wife who reared an orphan bear cub (recounted by the 1921 book Wild Brother). Warner attests to her shock at seeing a photograph of the woman suckling her own child and a bear cub, together: ‘it is startling and feels uncomfortable, even prurient to look at a woman feeding a bear cub, as if she and he belonged to a common species’. This unexpected crossing highlights both a dichotomy and a prohibition. Even in intimacy animals remain vexing. Different differences are less about degree than of meaning; the significance of animal others remains greater to us than them.
Image credits (from top):
1. Louise Pallister, Wolf, monotype, 2014
2. Louise Pallister, Presence, mixed media drawing, 2013
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.