‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Talking animals

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Bob today about the coding of holocaust victims as animals in testimony and literary representation (*clears throat* as you do). It's a fascinating, if grim, topic. We start with the simple Nazi rhetoric of dehumanising your subjects as 'vermin', 'rats', 'pigs and dogs' and the like, in order to make it easier for your soldiers to murder them, and also to shore up the larger edifice of your genocidal plan. This is more complicated than it might seem at first, because different animal terms have different valences: (1) kittens and pupppies are cute, and you don't want to kill them; (2) lions and eagles are magnificent and you may not want to kill them, you may only want to admire them; but then again (2a) you may indeed want to kill them to prove what a manly Übermench-y warrior-hunter you are; (3) pigs, cows and lambs are definitely killworthy because they are tasty and therefore valuable; and (4) vermin, cockroaches and viruses are eminently killworthy not because they are valuable or because killing them will be productive of any positive good (like bacon or sirloin steaks), but for reasons of hygiene and the prevention of disease. So of these four categories, Nazi tend to characterize Jews as the latter kind of animals (obviously), except when they stray, as it were, in their discourse up into the penultimate category and describe them with reference to farm animals. Because sometimes you strive to annihilate Jews, turn them into literal puffs of smoke; but sometimes you aim to exploit them for their gold teeth, and to turn their hair into sweaters for your submariners and their skin into lampshades. I don't know if this idiom strays even higher up as it were (whether, say, Tarantino's 'The Bear Jew!' has any historical grounding behind it. Given that film's cavalier relationship to historical reality I'm guessing ... not).

The holocaust, of course, is a kind of limit case for this kind of thing; and one reason Bob and I were chatting is because one of his PhD students happens to be looking into the crossover between this sort of thing on the one hand and animal rights discourses on the other. So: animal rights activists very often compare the industrial slaughter of farm animals to the holocaust, as a rhetorical way of stressing the (as they would see it) enormity of the former via the inarguable horror of the latter. And there are plenty of key cultural texts outside the specific 'animal rights' movement that explore the one circumstance via the other: for Coetzee, for instance, cruelty to animals, or more specifically disregard of animals' capacity for suffering, articulates a direct connection with Nazi-style atrocity. Spiegelman's Maus comes at it from the other side, as it were; and runs the risk (as several commentators note) of bedding-in the Nazi persecution of the Jews as in some sense 'natural'. We don't blame cats for killing mice, after all; it's what they do. This speaks to a larger problematic, I think. I've known several quite radical vegetarians and vegans for whom meat killed for human consumption is always murder. They still buy meat, though; because their pet cats can't subsist on beansprouts. They love their cats! Indeed, their relationship with their cats is amongst other things an iteration of their broader love for and sense of duty of care towards 'the animal kingdom' as a whole. But rather cruelly, you might think, Mother Nature refuses to play along, and no breed of vegan cat has evolved.

The holocaust, though, is a particular example of a larger case. War as a whole involves persuading a large quantity of young men to kill other young men, something the majority of them would really rather not do, actually. One way of enabling this 'killing' mindset is by troping the enemy as beasts; because it's easier to kill an animal than it is to kill a human. This sort of thing:



Or indeed, this, from a later war:



The problem here is precisely that animals have associations both clean and unclean. Sometimes animals make us think 'ugh! kill!', but sometimes they make us think 'ah! cuddle!'. Young soldiers have only recently grown beyond the phase when they find it actually easier to empathise with animals than with people (hence the preponderance of talking animals in children's literature, and the ubiquity of stuffed toy animals in children's bedrooms). Animals are devices for mediating empathy in the very young, which makes them slippery signifiers when what you're trying to do is egg people on to a killing spree. It might backfire (Wilfred Owen turns the beast trope back onto his own side, with an emphasis precisely on youth: 'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns').

This in turn leads me to ponder the representation of talking animals in the immediate postwar period. In Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) it can only be animals that allegorise the rise of totalitarian power, because the great war which has just passed was the war against bestial totalitarian power (DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE! STOP THIS MONSTER!). And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith's great soul-shaking fear of rats is much more than just a rational sense of the unhygenic nature of those animals, or a reasonable sense that it would be horrible were a rat to bite him on the face. It is the psychic embodiment of the same structuring anti-Semitism that puts the Jew Goldstein at the heart of the official 'two-minute hate'. Smith's hated of vermin is a pure distillation of psychic life in a state radically predicated upon an anti-Semitism so profound and all encompassing it no longer even has to name the Jew as human, or indeed name him at all. (Bob wasn't entirely persuaded by this, mind you).

But then I started thinking about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, another book written soon after WW2 about the complex valences of talking animals, as heroic creatures who must sacrificed to an even more heroic and Über aim; and as useful and functional creatures; and also as vermin and uncleanness; also, of course, a book-series strung between one Great War at the beginning and a second Great War at the end. The Jews in this series are not animals, interestingly, but instead are the non-Aslanic (that is, the abjected from the nature of Aslan) dwarfs.

And then I thought of a second text about talking animals: the movie series Planet of the Apes (1968-74). This text, of course, is about a different racial problematic (US African Americans rather than European Jews) and was produced quite a bit later. But then I had this thought: the first movie introduces this strange world; the second movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes, only two years later, returns us to this imagined world in order to destroy it utterly -- the nuclear doomsday device is ignited in the final scene of the movie and the Earth is obliterated, humans, talking animals and all. (The later sequels are pushed to the exigency of travelling back in time to avoid this narrative dead-end). But this is also true of the Narnia books! No sooner have we been introduced to Narnia in the first book, and specifically within the few years it takes the children to grow from young kids to edge-of-aduthood teenagers, we arrive at The Last Battle and the whole imagined world is apocalyptically destroyed. (It's a few years for the kids but many centuries inside Narnia, of course; but I don't think that contradicts my point). It is almost as if there's a buried logic at work: in the postwar period -- imagine a world in which animals can talk and think like us. Alright? Well, such a world is on the very edge of total destruction; it has ushered-in its own end times; bye-bye. Why might that be, I wonder?

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