Dirty animals, clean animals

In Totemism, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote: “natural species are chosen not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’”. The use of an animal as a metaphor is, of course, not arbitrary. If a dog, for example, is used as a representation of fidelity – a venerable tradition, stretching back to the depiction of the faithful Argos in the Odyssey – this will be because real, flesh-and-blood dogs have acquired a suitable reputation. However, once reality has made this necessary contribution, animals are potent vehicles of metaphor because they are – perhaps ironically for those who think of them as dirty animals – clean: clean in the manner of a tabula rasa; clean in a way a human can never really be. A human is never just a human. A human is a man or woman, happy or sad, successful or not, a son or a daughter or an orphan. A human loves someone, or has someone who loves her, or perhaps not. A human cries during sad movies, or maybe he does not. And when the details are not supplied, we tend to fill them in ourselves. That is why the screen adaptation of a favourite book can be such a disappointment: I didn’t imagine her like that! If a human serves as a vehicle of metaphor, the force of that metaphor can be easily dented by these multiple directional possibilities in which this vehicle might be pulled. Unless we are dealing in caricature, humans are never simply what they are. For most humans, however, an animal is always just an animal, and as such a blank canvas in a way a human cannot be.

Many of the stories in which animals feature as metaphors are simultaneously stories that are about us. In books where the animal is a central character, this is usually made explicit. In books where animals appear in more marginal roles, the message often lurks tacitly. Stories about, or involving, animals are made up of both text and what we might think of as dark text: an invisible body of assumptions and implications that hold the text together. The text is what a story says. The dark text is what that story does not. How much of a story is text and how much is dark text varies from one story to another. But in the dark text of a story about an animal, we usually find ourselves staring back out of the shadows.

Consider the wolf, for example, presented, in stories too numerous to recount, as a representation of evil incarnate. What big teeth you have, grandma! Actually, the unbridled savagery of wolves is, we now know, a lie. They are profoundly social animals, make gentle and conscientious parents, and look after injured pack mates. How did the wolf come to go proxy for the diabolical? It’s not so much because they eat us: documented – rather than rumoured – attacks on humans are few and far between. Rather, it is largely because of an unfortunate but tenacious tendency that the wolf has to compete with us – mano a lobo. In a nutshell, they like to eat many of the same things we like to eat. We humans are doing just fine, of course. But, nevertheless, we begrudge any and all competition, no matter how minor. Thus, we arrive at the dark text of the wolf tale: we humans are selfish, grasping and entitled. The tales are resentful propaganda spun by a thuggish species engaged in an unending turf war on any and all competitors.

Qualities such as courage, fidelity and nobility are what are sometimes called second-order goods – things that are good but which require something bad in order to exist. Happiness, for example, might be a first-order good and, if so, unhappiness or suffering would be the corresponding first-order evil. A second-order good can only exist in a world where there is first-order evil. There would be no place for courage, fidelity or nobility in a world where everyone was always, inescapably, happy. When an animal is represented as brave, faithful or noble, this makes sense only against a context of suffering – and it is humans who, often, supply the requisite context. Some or other human has, in some or other way, fallen short, morally speaking. Most tales about the virtue of an animal are simultaneously tales about our lack of this virtue.

In the simplest case, we fall short, morally speaking, in the way we treat the animal. Think, for example, of White Fang – the fidelity of a dog, and a tendency to savagery being the result of his brutalization by humans rather than his part-wolf ancestry. But also, in more complex cases, it is because we fall short in our dealings with each other. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the central female character, Teresa, comes to understand that she loves her dying dog, Karenin, with a purity she could never replicate in her feelings for her human companion, Tomas. Tomas has certain bad habits, most notably cheating on Teresa whenever the opportunity arises – behaviour that he is unable to even conceptualize as expressing a lack of fidelity. If we think of love as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt recommends – as an involuntary, inalienable, identification with the interests of another – then Teresa’s love for Karenin may not be more intense than her love for Tomas, but it is purer: she can identify with the interests of Karenin in a way she never could with Tomas.

Writing about animals – certainly, when they are used as metaphors or representations – is simply writing about humans that is carried on by other means. In the dark text of the writing we find, crawling diffidently out from between the lines, facts we would be unable to see if our focus was always, inescapably, on ourselves. These facts collectively tell a story about us and it is, often, less than flattering.

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