Excerpt: 'After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions' by A. Marie Houser
A Pug dog, Henry Bernard Chalon, 1802
Why so much dog? the instructor asked in workshop. And here dog had seemed an uncontroversial choice for my story’s deuteragonist: I could have chosen a coelacanth, a calf, a gibbon. Or made the dog a protagonist. I had found myself less interested in “workshop realism,” which after all concerned itself so narrowly with human desire and need. But I didn’t say so. As a student those years ago, I resembled a surprised bird more than a young woman; my tongue could not answer.
Dogs have been our shadow and our concern for thousands of years—or we, theirs. The most obvious rejoinder, then, is this: nonhuman animals exist. “I speak to you of frogs,” the eponymous protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello announces. “Of frogs and of my belief or beliefs and of the relation between the former and the latter. Because they exist.”
Nonhuman worlds overlap, withdraw from, and overtake our own; they are our own. Dogs, of course, share our homes, but we are also mobile pillars of bacteria. Subterranean nematodes live miles deep within the earth, far from human ken; automobiles stop as goslings cross the road. Societies of cockroaches, waiting out daylight, breathe like accordions through the bellows of their tracheoles.
But the view from our literature has been bipedal, non-ultraviolet; it is often—quite literally—a view. We have taken sight to be the rhetorical locus of perception and cognition, and so employ it as our chief sense in mainstream literature. Our texts don’t often follow a scent as dogs would or seek a phenomenology of touch the way octopuses do. Or know a thing by the heat it generates, as the rattlesnake in Melanie Rae Thon’s gorgeous “Galaxies Beyond Violet” in this anthology does. Having “no wish to harm or strike,” the rattlesnake perceives a woman in the desert as “warm waves wafting into pits on his face, opening ion channels, triggering nerves to the optic tectum where vision refines heat to form a shivery field of radiant colors, an infrared thermal image: gold and orange, rimmed with turquoise.” In Thon’s galaxies, a snake is an animal beside another animal, rather than the serpent of theology, and the apotheosis of love is the honeybee: “I make myself in her image. . . . So lovingly she lands!” A literature without dog—a literature without snake and bee—means a whole bright (and scented) spectrum of stories is missing.
Why so much dog? Today I’d reply, “J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace.” I would describe the shift in David Lurie, the novel’s protagonist, from debased aesthete to a man who discovers moral salvage, if not salvation, through communion with dogs condemned to death. But we didn’t study a literature that concerned itself with nonhuman animals. Coetzee’s thematic triptych Disgrace, The Lives of Animals, and Elizabeth Costello had only recently appeared—ahead of the nonhuman-animal turn that would amplify their concerns. Arguably, they presaged that turn, giving full expression to themes that had skittered on the edge of academic and writing communities, yawing between their hostility and indifference.
It’s not widely known that prior to the Enlightenment, when human supremacism became focalized in a Cartesian conception of “Man”—uniquely rational, endlessly adaptive, and therefore language-producing, texts brimmed with nonhuman animals, who sometimes exerted preferences or thumped and honked out their own recalcitrance. Those bodies were there in the texts, and not merely as pre-Fordist conveyances of pelts, eggs, meat, gullets, oils, and innards, insensible to their own suffering. Michel de Montaigne writes in “An Apology for Raymond Sebond”: “For why shall a gosling not say thus: ‘All the parts of the universe have me in view: the earth serves for me to walk on, the sun to give me light, the stars to breathe their influences into me. . . . I am the darling of nature.’”
Forward to the nineteenth century, when representations of nonhumans as worlding beings became representations of those beings as subjected and abused. Then, writers made a literary case for nonhuman animals: Leo Tolstoy, for instance, whose “Kholstomer” details the sufferings of a horse, and Mark Twain, whose anti-vivisectionist “A Dog’s Tale” is surely an answer to the question why so much dog.
By the twentieth century, literature had come to treat nonhuman animals as supernumerary background players, transcendent tropes, and transitive objects to be acted upon. They were inert bodies that responded to stimuli or landed on the scene to illumine human drama. In fantasy literature, they appeared as therianthropic shapeshifters, and in children’s literature, as fur-vehicles for moral messages that, with few exceptions, centered duties and obligations towards humans. Other times, figurative animals received mention as consumables, hunted or “humanely” killed in back-to-the-land narratives.
In recent decades, the rank-and-file approach to the nonhuman animal has been the ranch-and-farm pastoral and the sacrificial sublime of primarily, but not exclusively, Western and Midwestern writers. They described the butchering of chickens and the parting of pastern from hoof as inevitable as the seasons: natural, dutiful, virtuous.
Their literature followed the genealogy of axiological developments. Out of an aesthetic appreciation of nature in the eighteenth century emerged ethics, or right action concerning the use of nature. In the United States, Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” would manage, among other things, “a food chain aimed to harmonize the wild and the tame in the joint interest of stability, productivity, and beauty.” So the wide-focus view of the pastoral, which prized certain tableaux—the wooly geometrics of bison bent over a hill—was reflected in concern not for the suffering individual, but for the transorganic, unsuffering whole: species, ecosystems, the planet. If animals were mourned, as “wild” or “feral” animals sometimes had been, they were mourned as synecdochic representatives for species threatened or devastated as part of a general environmental harm. I am aware of no such literature, for instance, that considers the perspective of a “meat animal,” as the narrator of David Brooks’s moving and sharply drawn short story “The Goat” does. The story’s namesake, who languishes tethered and abandoned in a yard, moves the narrator to wonder how he would feel, “alone for all that time”: “One day the woman there, and the dog, the cat, and the next all gone. No explanation.”
The recent burst of popular and literary attention to nonhuman animals has made the question why so much dog moot in one way: somewhere around one-hundred fiction titles published in 2016 contain the word “dog.” We also find a renewed appreciation of “the wild” in our poetry and fiction, which has come to recognize the lifeworlds of other beings. But if there is now so much dog, there is not so much coelacanth, calf, gibbon, babirusa, gecko, goat, and pig—the eaten, the unfamiliar, the unlovely.
This bibliopolitical regulation of the literary animal attends the biopolitical regulation of real-world animals. Whereas some dogs, cats, and other “petlike” animals are brought into our grace as honorary family members, so long as they make themselves amenable, billions of other animals are sequestered in laboratories, zoos, farms, and slaughterhouses: rabbits, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rats, turkeys, chickens, chimpanzees, marmosets, and such a panoply of hoof-footed, scaled, or wing-wending beings. Animal bodies—animal lives—have become the indelible but unseen, unfelt mark on who “we” are: ghost flesh against our flesh, passing unnoticed through our pores, mouths, ears, lungs, families, cities. They are oozed into cosmetics and chemicals; they are broken down into food.
Excerpted from After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions by A. Marie Houser, published by Faunary Press, 2017. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.