the other animals
What are authors currently going through? For the Passa Porta Festival we asked seven writers from different countries to respond to this question with a new text. Their contributions have inspired us in compiling the festival programme.
The French novelist and psychoanalyst Marie Darrieussecq became known with her debut novel Pig Tales (1997, orig. Truismes, 1996) and in 2013 received the Prix Médicis for Men (orig. Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes). In Our Life in the Woods (2019), she explores whether it is still possible for humans to go 'back to nature'.
In 'The other animals', the text she wrote specially for the Passa Porta Festival, here in a translation by Linda Coverdale, Darrieussecq already announces her next book. Pas dormir (No sleep) will be published by P.O.L. in September 2021. A sleepless night which has a lot to do with the present and future environmental crises... A text to discover and interpreted by the actress
Annette Gatta from our studio in the Beursschouwburg.
We need new narratives. We need new sentences, and a new way to use words. Perhaps then we will see the world differently. Writing, for example, We are on this planet with the other animals. This “other,” says the philosopher Baptiste Morizot in Manières d’être vivant (Ways of Being Alive), is a “discreet grammatical revolution,” “a tiny little adjective (…) that is yet enough to reformulate both a logic of difference and a basic commonality.” Although humankind may well use other animals as objects or food, it is itself a collection of animals, human ones. So: writing, for example, Sixty-eight percent of the other vertebrates have vanished since 1970. Or this: Is it really possible to eat the other animals?
In 1751, in his article for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the naturalist Daubenton struggles to define animal. He refers to Descartes, for whom only mankind possesses reason, whereas animals resemble machines. “They sleep and we are awake,” he writes, this wakefulness being synonymous with awareness/self-awareness. Daubenton sketches a complete gradation between plants and the “animals like us,” a whole continuum among “beings more or less profoundly asleep.” But he notes that mankind sleeps as well, is even at times “an automaton.” Daubenton, who wrote his article intending to classify, concludes it much perturbed by the absence of any distinct demarcation between man and animal.
Also, the other animals have eyes, other eyes. Open eyes, eyes that watch. “Animals participate in the world,” observes the writer and poet Jean-Christophe Bailly in Le versant animal (The Animal Side). “We participate in the world with them, at the same time they do.” When I was little, I was amazed that dogs conversed so well with us. How is it, I wondered, that they blink and look away when we stare too hard at them? How do they know that those are our eyes? They might look at, say, our noses, chins, feet ... yet they know where to find us ... And those encounters at a bend in the road: the rabbit, the roe-deer, sometimes the fox, staring into one another’s eyes, a shared moment of startlement—not the same kind, not symmetrical, perhaps, but two gazes plumbing each other ...
Wild animals, stars, and dreams have a point in common: they exist. And another point in common: we do our best to forget them. Dreams exist in us. Stars exist above us. Wild animals exist alongside us. But we forget them because our productivity would decline if we took seriously the reality of dreams, the reality of stars, the reality of wild animals—and if we were also to stop repressing them (the dreams), eating them (the animals), forgetting them (the stars, that fact that we are standing on a medium-sized planet in an immense universe that rolls on without us). These three domains (life in the wild, the unconscious, and the stars above) exist in the same way: without us.
As I write this, while the beacon of the Eiffel Tower glides like a lighthouse beam over the roof, a pangolin explores its patch of forest, far away, in a meandering section of the Congo. In this very moment. At the same time. In the simultaneity of this medium-sized planet, the pangolin deploys its own zone, invents it, indexes it, surveys it, digs into it, furrows it, sees it, smells it; I like to think that it reads it in its own way; then, that it curls up in its nest and dreams.
And in the courtyard of my building, close by me, a pipistrelle tracks with its radar the zigzags of a moth.
The pangolin is the most poached animal in the world. It shares with the tiger and the rhinoceros the dismal privilege of having been endowed, through some superstitions of Chinese medicine, with the power to perk up droopy penises. In this case, with its “medicinal” scales. Twelve tons of pangolin scales were seized in 2017 on a Chinese freighter.
Twelve tons of scales: how many pangolins?
There remain, at this moment on Earth, about a thousand mountain gorillas. A gorilla’s hand is a trophy, they are made into ashtrays.
Two thousand ashtrays.
I remember a pangolin nest, in Campo Ma’an National Park, in the southern forest of Cameroon, in 2013. The nest was a rather large area of earth carefully turned over, mixed with twigs. The pangolin comes out only at night and is hard to see, but not hard to trap, alas. The next day, in a Bagheli village (“pygmy” is considered a pejorative term), a pangolin was hanging: was it the occupant of the nest? I don’t know. The creature hung by its tail from a front porch roof, for sale and ready to roast, because in this village it was valued for its meat. I was fascinated by this pangolin, which was completely unrolled like a length of sticky tape covered in scales and almost as tall as I was. That bare belly, smooth and shiny, those enormous claws, that muzzle so trusting and betrayed … The creatures of Star Wars cannot hold a candle to the imaginative forms of mammals.
In 2001, Henri Nleme, the Bagheli representative for Campo Ma’an, had this to say: “Do you know why there are no more animals in the forest? If you do, tell me why. Me, all I know is that if the animals are fleeing from the forest, it is because there are people who cut down the fruit trees they need to feed themselves. Before, there was only one road to Campo. Even I, I could not go to Campo, there was nothing but forests. There were all kinds of animals: elephants, gorillas, and so many other species. Now that people have begun to exploit the forest, all the trees have been destroyed, there is a lot of noise, there are people who hunt with firearms—and the animals have disappeared. Now, it is just a deserted place. It is those using guns that have killed the most animals. We, we use only nets, dogs, and assegai spears. Nyabisen is the only place where one still finds animals. On the other bank of the Ntem, they do not let us hunt. If we are obliged to hunt around the houses, what can we catch? I do not understand why they tell us to stop hunting. What will we do to survive?
For a while it was thought that the coronavirus had reached man via the pangolin. The pangolins’ revenge! Unintentional and chilling. In the animal section of a market in Wuhan, where it had no business being, a pangolin had supposedly come in contact with a bat. A sign of the times, these encounters, as morbid “as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table." Thus spake Lautréamont, poet, patron saint of the French surrealist movement, and champion detector of catastrophes. Transmissions take place from dead animal to dead animal, in a kind of barbarous creativity. The pandemic has ushered wild animals along with it even into our lockdowns.
As for the real existence of dreams—real, but in a different way—it is by listening to the shamans of the Runa people in the Amazon that Eduardo Kohn, thinker of the forest, understands that “dreams are not commentaries on the world; they take place in it.” The nocturnal, dreamlike encounter of the hunter with the domestic animal prepares the diurnal encounter with the wild animal. Between the pig of the dream and the peccary of the forest, the passage is metaphorical. One animal is put in place of another through contiguity and the associations of words. The Runa people’s interpretation of dreams is not far from that of Freud. Of course, the shamans take paths more forested than the streets of Vienna. The Runa also interpret the dreams of animals, and take the dreams of their dogs especially seriously. For the Runa, who have a trans-species language, “dreams reflect a widespread Amazonian way of seeing human and nonhuman sociality as continuous with each other.” (How Forests Think)
Well, this continuity is not the monopoly of the Runa or the Bagheli, those peoples whom we easily consider as “others.” All our Western civilization is nourished by the fluidity between animals and ourselves, but we have undervalued and disparaged this knowledge, leaving it to our poets. Consider Lautréamont (not to mention Homer or Ovid) to see how animals allow us to metamorphose or switch bodies when we take them seriously.
And the books we read to our children are full of bears, tigers, and lions. Our children fall asleep thinking of the other animals. We raise them with and against the other animals, as if it were vital from their birth to make clear to them that we are different, different and superior. We grant thought and speech to the other animals, but by rigging them out in our humanity. We make monsters of them, or stuffed toys. And for as long as possible we hide from our children that their sleeping companions are “threatened with extinction.” The oncoming absence of the tigers and polar bears. The massacre of the elephants and honeybees, but also of the bumblebees and earthworms and all those creatures not in our storybook tales, or our heraldry, or in the direct path of our rapacity. “Threatened with extinction” is a misleading expression inherited from the 1980s. We must speak, like Derrida in his last seminar, of what is “total war against the animals."
The war is here, the war against animals, the war against “killables.” Because the line of demarcation passes not so much between us and the other animals as between the “killable” and the “non-killable,” according to the division discerned by Donna Haraway in her essay A Cyborg Manifesto. This war has produced such a mass of carcasses that only four thousand tigers are now left in the wild, and five thousand in zoos. Twenty thousand lions “in the wild,” most of them in game parks.
The chicken is the most common bird on the planet. The pig is as amiable as the dog. The octopus knows how to use tools. Fish feel pain.
But it is not just about the other animals, it’s about us all, about our global future as animals on this planet. And one must really love the Sistine Chapel and the Great Pyramid of Kheops and the sound of Coltrane and the brushstroke of Shitao and all of literature to continue to love humanity.
What will we lose, when the last orang-outan is dead? A way of being. A certain relationship to the trees, the soil, the sky. Remarkable hands: another body language, another contact. Another laughter as well, which is not at all the nature of man, but a normal reaction in a primate. Along with a gaze.
What we will have lost as well is their invitation. To ask ourselves who they are ... and thus ask ourselves who we are. This movement towards them uplifts and enlarges us. Creates space in us.
The last Tasmanian tiger died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. Only his stripes were tigerine. He was a marsupial mammal resembling a dog, slender, with a strong jaw and slightly sloping hindquarters. This tiger and its cousin the “devil” bear the name of Tasmania, a superb island at the end of the world that was also the land of a complete genocide: there are no surviving Tasmanian Aborigines. The tiger’s stripes are their orphaned shadows.
The thylacine, to use a formal name, has left behind a few photos and a thirty-second snippet of newsreel. The black-and-white images give it a slightly jerky motion, as in Chaplin’s Modern Times. The film is silent. Bark, howl, yelp? We will never hear its voice, the soundtrack is lost. The last Tasmanian tiger paced around in circles for all the slaughtered animals. He stands shivering in our memory for those unknown to us even in their absence.
This feeling, both weighty and diffuse, is the “heavy heart” of which the philosopher and essayist Élisabeth de Fontenay speaks in The Silence of the Beasts; it is the “mourning for another species” evoked by the ecologist Aldo Leopold. It is the “great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal” that possesses the heroine of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.
This mourning is phenomenal. Something inside us has died “from not having come to grips with it.” And it is a mourning that was belittled and mocked for a long time. Championing the protection of whales at the École Normale Supérieure in the early 1990s was not for the faint of heart. You had to get up early indeed to insist that birdies were important. Human relations—relations among humans—trumped everything else: what we call the economy, culture, politics, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity. As for our protesting against the eating of other animals, we were few and poorly understood. We could not manage to make clear that concern for what is human did not preclude concern for the non-human, and that the programmed destruction of wild animals impacted us as well, as a species. We lacked conceptual tools and left ourselves wide open to accusations of sentimentalism and anthropomorphism.
To make humans killable, one need simply animalize them. Which makes them enslavable as well. The animal stereotype is ideologically quite useful for displacing the frontier between the killable and the non-killable, as well as the line between the free and the non-free. Although the great texts of Isaac B. Singer on animals are not yet translated in France, or meagerly at best, he does defend vegetarianism by declaring that “there is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers à la Hitler and concentration camps à la Stalin,” and notes that in relation to animals, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” In the 1980s and ’90s, and even later, this discourse was generally inaudible, and not just in France.
In The Silence of the Beasts (1998), Élisabeth de Fontenay was the first to dare to compare—carefully—what passed for incomparable in our Cartesian country: human suffering and animal suffering, the human abattoir and the animal abattoir. Since then there have been the necessary shock videos of the French animal rights organization L214, among others, but it is as if making us aware of our common animality/animal community required a violent assault on human thought, which we hold superior to all others.
By amputating our lives from other lives, however, by removing their modes of body language and varieties of intelligence from our lives, we will soon shrink our world. We have killed off more than the famous and oft-ridiculed dodo through our actions. Our animal alphabet has also lost, since 2006, the freshwater dolphin of the Yangtze River. Grey’s wallaby, a little two-toned kangaroo, was hunted down to the last one in the 1930s. The Canary Islands Oystercatcher suffered the same fate in the 1940s. The Caribbean monk seal went extinct in the 1950s. The Mexican grizzly bear, in the 1960s: adiós. The Round Island burrowing boa of Mauritius, 1970s, kaput. Soon the right whales in the bay of Biscay, the Indonesian deer-pigs, the Ganges gavial, the Saharan cheetah, the Amur leopard, the Californian red wolf, the Muriqui monkey of the Northern Amazon, the okapi of the Ituri rainforest in the DRC, the hawksbill turtle and still more living and unique creatures will go missing.
And the bestiary of our books is shrinking, and the soundtrack of our nights is fading, and we no longer know—stunned, distraught—what we have lost.
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale