On Animal Spirits


from Aesop’s Fables, illustrated by Milo Winter, 1919

by Jessica Sequeira

A few years ago all I had was a certain ambition and an understanding, more or less, of how things work in this world. I lived in the tiny room of a pension on B—– street. Funds were running low; I had to think of some way to galvanize my finances, quick. That’s when I decided to study animal spirits. Animal spirits are, like dark matter, a mysterious entity, insufficiently theorized yet responsible for what occurs in the universe. As space progressively disperses, it creates new physical structures at the cosmic level; analogously, there are shifts in mental architecture due to the movements of animal spirits. I am comfortable leaving the cosmos to others, yet isn’t it natural that I, a humble human scientist, am interested in these enigmatic forms? An animal spirit is an impetus with tangible effects, but it cannot be isolated in a petri dish or separated out in a laboratory.

As a result I found myself sitting in a café day after day, observing a number of very interesting phenomena. One of them was the powerful economic effect of motherhood. New mothers will do anything to please their children, promote their development, advance their cerebral and spiritual progress. Animal spirits lead them to make exuberant purchases of items others would unhesitatingly leave to one side. This was an important observation; that day I had eaten only a small three-peso baguette of bread and my observational sense was highly sharpened. As a good entrepreneur and expert in animal spirits, I decided to take advantage of my investigations, promoting primitive wooden toys in the Colegiales and Belgrano R neighborhoods.

“For thousands of years mankind has existed without the Internet,” I explained to new mothers. “Intelligence was primitive, linked to blackbirds, wild ducks and unlogged forests. Children ran free, learning to see connections between sky and earth through the organic process of trial and error. With wooden toys children will once again learn to view the world as a kind of complex origami, capable of attack from various angles.” The cheap wooden games I brought flew from my hands, purchased for triple or quadruple their worth. A few months later I returned to the café, disguised with beard. “Wooden games are linked to sub-development of the imagination,” I gravely informed the women. “Video games, on the other hand, accelerate neuronal development.” Contradictory message notwithstanding, the technological products were snapped up as quickly as I could remove them from my bag. Animal spirits… the man who investigates them will have no problem rapidly growing rich.

How to gain access to the secrets of animal spirits? I began by asking myself the following question: What is the absolute minimum one can think? If one gives the mind absolutely nothing to feed on, none of the usual culture on which it wastes time, what is the background noise it will begin to process? Will it start to come up with original ideas, pursue ideas to surprising conclusions, reach for almost forgotten memories and anecdotes?

What will happen when it is reduced to pure instinct? For some vibration will always exist, certain qualities or vestiges left when culture and science disappear. In that sense animal spirits are the opposite of something I might call the void, linked in Whiteheadian terms to “negative prehensions” — a grasped unity, a felt lack, the sensation something is missing or absence of some intangible brio.

Not all are convinced by this. A medical friend assures me that the heart is no more than a pump, and that everything about it can be broken down mathematically. Hospital rounds often take the form of a question posed to oneself: “If cardiac output is equal to mean arterial pressure divided by systemic vascular resistance, how would our management change on the basis of this measurement of pulmonary capillary wedge pressure as compared to right atrial pressure?” Similarly, he informs me that the most peaceful death possible involves terminal extubation, in which one goes into cardiac arrest and dies within minutes. The pronouncement is given following a death examination. You have to examine the pupils, ensure they’re fixed and dilated, test for corneal blink reflex, check pulses, and listen for the absence of heart and lung sounds. Death is defined by a lack of breath — ah, I could go on, but it’s all very mechanistic, details that miss the crux of the thing. Ladies and gentlemen, a return to first principles is elemental.

What is pertinent is that animal spirits can be manipulated. On the corner of the block where I live is a bakery called the Nueva Burdalesa. To buy a pastry there was never straightforward. First you had to take a ticket from the dispenser at the entrance; then you had to wait for your number to be called, while attempting to peer at the items on the other side of the glass through a thicket of arms and legs (the names of the little sandwiches were written in minuscule cursive font); then you’d twiddle your thumbs as your order was put through, your parcel of medialunas wrapped up with tape and paper by a young foreigner and slid into a bag printed with messages from the national syndicate of bakery workers; at long last you could make your way to the check-out on the other side of the room, an infinite distance at peak hours, to pay the bill and receive a printed receipt from the cashier…

All this is irrelevant, I know. I was distracted down this lane of thought since just this morning I passed the place, currently closed for reformas (not, as I heard a couple joke, ratas). Nor will it simply become a version of its previous self with liquor licence. Tables are being set up, new walls and ceiling constructed, floor tiles laid; in a word, the bakery now has aspirations to a café. The owner wants to create a more welcoming environment for purchases. If he were only to ask, the design ideas I might suggest!

The design of an interior is not the superficial practice it’s made out to be; the arrangement of items, the distribution of objects in space, the sensory stimuli (sounds, scents, artworks chosen to hang on the wall) can make it one of the most complex fields in existence, affecting how humans are formed, influenced, seduced, pleased, offended, flattered, persuaded, made to feel desire… here there are clear applications for marketing, and all this has to do with animal spirits.

I write these notes while seated on the sidewalk in the sunshine near the Club de Pescadores in Olivos, beneath an extremely blue sky. I can hear the wind, the metallic sound of the masts of boats clanging against one another, the clamour of an approaching train… water splashes up against the pier, where a few men stand calmly, casting their poles in the water without speaking. Are there animal spirits about today? It does not appear that the fish are biting. I don’t know much about these things, but the faces of the men when they return say everything. One of them, smart in a grey sweater and plaid shirt, winds up his cord, grips the bob with one hand, turns over the dangling hook with the other, palm face up, then looks — nothing! He gets into his maroon Renault Mégane and drives away. Ah, how elusive animal spirits can be!

Cover image by Doug Bowman

About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.