May 28, 2016

There are 2 serious books out right now about a man trying to live like a particular nonhuman animal.

These are nonfiction books, and they are being taken seriously. I read about them in Joshua Rothman's article in The New Yorker, "The Metamorphosis/What is it like to be an animal?"

Two men — Thomas Thwaites and Charles Foster — independently conceived of their projects. Thwaites, an artist, tried to be a goat and wrote about it in "GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human," and Foster, a veterinarian/lawyer/columnist, tried to be a fox and a badger and wrote about it in "Being a Beast."

These projects were entirely different from fictional efforts at inhabiting the existence of a nonhuman animal, such as Tolstoy's "Strider" (about a horse) and James Joyce's "Ulysses" (with a bit about a rat). As Rothman sums those up:
In these pastoral and sensual portrayals of the animal self, different critiques of the human self are embedded. For Tolstoy, the problem with people is that they’re marooned in their egos. The clearheaded directness of animals is a remedy for that self-obsession. For Joyce, the problem is that people are sleepy, numb, and incurious. We could learn, he thinks, from animals’ eager sensuality. Tolstoy’s animals teach us to be good; Joyce’s teach us to be alive.
What Thwaites and Foster were doing was different from that: They were using the animal not to understand humanity but as an escape from something they already believed about human beings. Thwaites finds "human personhood... stressful, absurd, and—worst of all—narcissistic" and wants to lose his ego. Foster finds human personhood dull and seeks a more vivid existence.

Rothman ends his essay like this:
There is an irony to these books: the more Thwaites and Foster try to change into animals, the more fully they become Thwaites and Foster. That’s not to say they never transform themselves... “Real, lasting change is possible,” Foster writes, “to our appetites, our fears, and our views,” and despite that change the self persists. This ability to endure through change is the miracle and mystery of selfhood. Rethinking who we are; dreaming up new ways of living; taking ourselves apart to build ourselves back up—for human beings, these activities are natural. They are our never-ending hunt.
That is, thinking beyond what is natural and trying being what you are not is even more human than continuing your conventional ways. A nonhuman animal would never even think of such a project, let alone attempt to execute it. And, that's why these projects are, on their own terms, incoherent. You're never less like a nonhuman animal than when you are trying to be a nonhuman animal. Only a human being would do such a thing.

40 comments:

John said...

If a man, with or without a penis, can pretend to be a woman and society is told STFU!!! YOU MUST ACCEPT THAT HE IS A WOMAN!!!! why would this be any different?

Seems like a mental disorder in either case.

I have no problem with either. Live and let live.

Provided that they don't pretend to have any claim on the pockets of other Americans.

John Henry

John said...

If we are going to accept that he is a goat (or dog or dragon or whatever) does that mean that someone, not govt but a specific person, must keep and care for them?

If they are just wandering around feral, what would be called homeless if human, does that mean that animal control will pick them up?

If they don't get adopted after X days in the shelter, do they get put down?

John Henry

Michael K said...

My father used to tell a joke about this. A man went to a psychiatrist and complained that he was behaving as a horse. He was eating hay for dinner and slept standing up in a barn. What could he do ?

The psychiatrist thought for a minute and began to write something. The man asked if it was a prescription for something that would cure him. No, the psychiatrist said, "It's a permit to crap in the street."

I was a boy when I heard that. Who could imagine it would come true ?

Rusty said...

He missed his chance in the gulags and concentration camps.
What a wonderfully advanced culture we live in where people can indulge in this horseshit.

Ann Althouse said...

"Seems like a mental disorder in either case."

That's very out of keeping with the material I developed in this post.

I wish you would think this through again!

Why not say it is central to human existence to question the condition within which you find yourself and to think of how to transform yourself into some version of what you are, some expression of inner longing, or some escape from what you've become critical of?

We are human, and not one of the other animals, the ones that accept everything as they find it and conceive of no ideas about how to escape it.

(I knew the topic of transgenderism would come up in the comments.)

Ann Althouse said...

"He missed his chance in the gulags and concentration camps. What a wonderfully advanced culture we live in where people can indulge in this horseshit."

That's right. When things get too comfortable, some of us will seek out discomforts.

Compare the post yesterday about the Chinese children who had to climb a 2,000+ foot ladder up a cliff to get home from school to the stories of American going off to climb Mount Everest.

hiawatha biscayne said...

"a permit to crap in the street." good one. i liked that.

David Begley said...

I think the University of Wisconsin Law School should invite lawyer Charles Foster to give a guest lecture. Preferable the day before the Michigan game.

Jason said...

Why not say it is central to human existence to question the condition within which you find yourself and to think of how to transform yourself into some version of what you are, some expression of inner longing, or some escape from what you've become critical of?

Because when applied to a man trying to live like a goat, that's stupid.

It's far more en pointe to skewer the obvious parallel fecking delusions regarding transgenderism.

Gahrie said...

Rethinking who we are; dreaming up new ways of living; taking ourselves apart to build ourselves back up—for human beings, these activities are natural. They are our never-ending hunt.

First world problems.......

Carol said...

When I was 4 I wanted to be a cat. They could jump high and creep around at night, got petted, got fed. Even then I had trouble sleeping, but they could do it any time. They had it made. I pretended to be a cat for a day or so.

...gee, this all seems rather childish in adults.

Gahrie said...

Why not say it is central to human existence to question the condition within which you find yourself and to think of how to transform yourself into some version of what you are, some expression of inner longing, or some escape from what you've become critical of?

Because it isn't.

This type of behavior is an indulgence granted by our civilization's success and our high personal standards of living.

Gahrie said...

We are human, and not one of the other animals, the ones that accept everything as they find it and conceive of no ideas about how to escape it.

So you don't understand animals as well as humans? Animals never escape from their cages? Animals never change their environment?

mockturtle said...

I just knew that bestiality would be the next accepted perversion.

buwaya puti said...

Animals go nuts too.
Also, animal species develop specializations that are unique to themselves, that don't necessarily aid survival of the individual or the species, especially around mating competition. And animal species go extinct, sometimes when their specializations prove impediments to survival.
It is hubris to think that humanity can't go extinct.
Modernity and its effect on the human animal nature is evidently a threat to survival, as we see. The odd, survival-threatening behavior by a few mad people is just a visible edge of the phenomenon.

JCCamp said...

I find the concept of trying to be an animal - in the sense of these two essays - fatuous and contrived. Crawling around in the woods and trying to stalk prey? Give me a break. Why not lobotomize yourself, remove the higher functions, revert to semi-autonomous functions alone? Isn't that idea already explored in fiction?

Isn't self-awareness, introspection, something that defines higher existence? Dolphin? Primates? So these two decided to be, respectively, a goat and a badger? How would you separate your humanity from the engine of eating, defecating and sleeping of the average predator? A goat? There's an app for that, by the way. Goat Simulator.

And AA's point is well taken. Leopard...spots.

Jason said...

Meanwhile, in The Guardian,

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/25/secret-life-of-the-human-pups-the-men-who-live-as-dogs?CMP=share_btn_tw

Grab your camera, Meade!

Fernandinande said...

For Joyce, the problem is that people are sleepy, numb, and incurious. We could learn, he thinks, from animals’ eager sensuality.

I'd like to slowly but eagerly wander around, eating weeds and bark all day long, day after day, year after year. Either that or eagerly sleep in a muddy hole under a rock and eat eager sensual bugs.

buwaya puti said...

I would like to wallow in warm water waiting to ambush prey in an explosion of violence. But that sort of thing is frowned on these days.

Ann Althouse said...

As for that dog thing, Jason, I saw it and passed on blogging it a few days ago. Seemed more like a sexual fetish, but I didn't really read it. Just noticed the bondage aspect and thought it was too tawdry to look into.

Howard said...

Wild Animus
The goatman thing was done 10+ years ago. They were giving this book out for free all over the Bay Area. It's a vanity novel by a minor valley venture capitalist...

buwaya puti, you might like this.. it's a dark story that ends on a mountain in the Wrangells. It's mostly a clunky, amateur book... but the ideas about the virtues of wildness are presented reasonably well. It was free and I got my money's worth

Ann Althouse said...

"Why not lobotomize yourself, remove the higher functions, revert to semi-autonomous functions alone?"

Then you couldn't write a book about it.

2 men wrote books. The books are written about in The New Yorker. That's plenty of reason why.

buwaya puti said...

These things are ultimately all sexual fetishes, some are just more explicitly so. And moreover they are fads, fashions. People copy each other obsessions and adopt them.
There are good reasons to have a stable set of religio-cultural norms adapted for community survival, and evidently this is especially necessary when there isn't the discipline of scarcity. Without them individuals are highly prone to go off on a hyperbolic path and attract others to take the same, into dead ends.

buwaya puti said...

As the years go by, more and more I see the wisdom of the Church in establishing the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
This was considered a bit of an embarrassing anachronism even when I was a child, but life, subsequent events and a study of history have made me reconsider.
The spread of ideas is a mysterious thing. Some ideas pop up and are ignored, and for no reason (though, probably, endlessly rationalized) pop up again and establish a huge following. I am drawn to the conclusion (granted that this is colored by my cultural and religious frame of reference) that this mysterious ecology of shared ideas is not some artifact of chaos, but follows a malevolent logic, or rather direction.
Suspecting Satanic influence is not a fashionable idea, these days, but I will go there.

mikee said...

When I can get the two authors to respond to pheromones from cockroaches or whatever critters they chose to emulate, then we can have a discussion. In pheromones. About bus stuff.

mikee said...

Damn autocorrect. About bug stuff. With pheromones. Like bugs do.

n.n said...

Dreams of a Simain Derivative, or, alternatively, Dreams of a Dodo Dynasty.

buwaya puti said...

The other way to look at the expanding rate of personal dysfunction, which on the face of it is paradoxical in a society with no scarcity, is that this is a natural result of such a situation. Man the animal was not meant to live like this, and so we get these results.
I just saw this mentioned by a commenter at Vox Popoli, which recalled it to my notice, the experiments by John Calhoun, who created "mouse utopias", looking for the long term effects of a zero scarcity environment. Very interesting, very much worth looking it up. Essentially, dozens of generations of mice were permitted to breed freely with no resource limits. Their social behaviors progressively degenerated until they were effectively unable to breed or raise young, and the result was extermination, in the presence of unlimited food. Some people interpreted this as the result of crowding, but in fact there wasn't much crowding in mouse terms.
One can argue that man isn't a mouse, but that may be giving man too much credit.

Anglelyne said...

buwaya puti: These things are ultimately all sexual fetishes, some are just more explicitly so.

Bingo.

The human sex drive is very easily canalized, i.e. fetishized. This explains a lot about modern life (and the subject matter of clickbait).

Anglelyne said...

buwaya: ...the experiments by John Calhoun...

Second that recommendation. I seem to recall his work being much more widely known (as in popular, middle-brow familiarity) back in the day.

Jason said...

Seemed more like a sexual fetish, but I didn't really read it.

Bingo. Just like cross dressing.

Now, if these people actually were delusional enough to believe they were actually dogs -- to the extent of surgically altering their bodies -- would you believe them?

Howard said...

It's quite obvious that our ancestors were using adversity as a crutch to hold up human's delicate psyche. Now we have sports, hunting, fishing, gambling, traveling, road raging, comment trolling...

buwaya puti said...

Howard, you are correct.
Humans just display more interesting behavior than mice while going to their doom.
The end will be the same, though.
The last fat, neurotic, ignorant beast will still die, sustained by the machines.

Ann Althouse said...

"Now, if these people actually were delusional enough to believe they were actually dogs -- to the extent of surgically altering their bodies -- would you believe them?"

I don't think believing is the issue. Even understanding is unnecessary, other than the underground of freedom and expression.

Ann Althouse said...

Underground is autocorrect.

Tried to write understanding.

JCCamp said...

Rothman used 'incoherent.' I thought fatuous captured it better, because I think the effort was not just a failure, but also knowingly feigned from the start. The essay was needlessly long. One could just have easily have said "Rubbish. Use in your cat's litter box or regift to that haughty brother-in-law every family seems to have." I found the entire premise of both (books) to be irritating.

buwaya puti said...

These people trying to "be themselves" seem much like Calhoun's subset of rats, the "beautiful ones", who isolated themselves from the failing mass, along with the other like-minded rats, and spent their time in obsessive grooming. However, they didn't breed either and died out with the rest.

tola'at sfarim said...

Zoe lofgren thinks youre a Bigot
Ann Althouse said...
As for that dog thing, Jason, I saw it and passed on blogging it a few days ago. Seemed more like a sexual fetish, but I didn't really read it. Just noticed the bondage aspect and thought it was too tawdry to look into.

JAORE said...

.... we needed the eggs.

An OLD punchline.

Jason said...

I don't think believing is the issue. Even understanding is unnecessary, other than the underground of freedom and expression.

Would you support suing a sole proprietor family business owner into bankruptcy not believing in and playing along with their delusion?