What is the relationship between literature and ecology? How does literature express, explore, and define our perceptions of the ways in which humans and animals are bound together in the world they inhabit? Anne Simon explains some insights from her research on animals and animality in twentieth and twenty-first century literature.
Lucile Schmid: How do you think literature and ecology can inspire, or become interwoven with, one another?
Anne Simon: For a long time, a prevailing opinion in the West considered the world in its opposition or confrontation to the human subject – regarded as gifted with a language that would extricate it from nature. Thankfully, this assumption was countered or undermined by numerous authors who emphasised the intertwinement of humans with animals, plants, or nature in general: whether it be Montaigne, Rousseau the ‘solitary walker’, the Romantics, a figure of ethology in the field such as Jean-Henri Fabre in the 19th century, or writers and poets attuned to our ways of intermingling with the world, of course.
The term ‘ecology’ itself bears a first, very stimulating, answer. Indeed, it refers in its first part to ‘oikos’ – the habitat, the heritage, the household (through which, in Ancient Greece, numerous beings would have passed, not all of them human or not all citizens: dormice, rats, cats, women, children, slaves…), and in its second part to ‘logos’: discourse, knowledge. Thus, there is an ecological knowledge that can be carried, discovered or even invented by language – particularly if that language conjoins with the ‘mythos’, the fable or narrative. In a very well-known phrase, Hölderlin wrote that human beings dwell poetically on the earth. Literature speaks to us about the world and our way of inhabiting it; even writers who think they are able to retreat into an ivory tower, who wish not to ‘be in it’, are still in it, and advance a point of view, even if it is just the affirmation of a withdrawal.
Literature, in the broadest sense, includes magical incantation, song, prayer, philosophical invention when its concepts or its interpretations are delved into by language, thus literature is the quintessential location or ‘oikos’ of human language. So, it is no accident if, historically, certain individuals whom we regard today as figureheads of ecology (I’m thinking for example of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold or Romain Gary) have ‘moved’, through literary language, from the chronicle to the novel.
You played a pioneering role in the introduction of a zoopoetics in France, particularly through the ‘Animots’ programme. Could you tell us more about this term ‘zoopoetics’?
We can gain some insight by deconstructing the term. ‘Zôon’ in Greek refers to that which is animated in general, to beings capable of movement, sometimes incorruptible as in the case of gods, demons, and celestial bodies. Within this category of animated and living beings, I include plants, which we mistakenly believe are immobile, while in fact our individual relation to time does not allow us to grasp their own particular form of temporality, which is collective and spans multi-century or cyclical periods of time. I would even tend to include minerals, elements, and the planet itself as a large organism, but that would lead us too far away from your question…
When it comes to the Greek poïein contained in the term, this points to a kind of literary creation that is a kind of ‘doing’, an action. In turn, I like to think it also points towards the fact that beasts themselves are kinds of poets who write life straight onto the world, between the earth, air, trees and, currents… “You were the first numerical figures of written language, the first stenotype of thought and of the epitaphs in the very first skies contemplated by the inescapably illiterate man,” exclaimed Ramon Gomez de la Serna, in the first of his Letters to the Swallows and to Myself.
Your works demonstrate how present animals are in literature.
The presence of animals leads us to what I call a poetics of living beings: organisms (vertebrates as human animals, but also less centralised, less individualised life forms) deploy, when they travel across the territories they invest, gestures and manners of moving that are unique to them. Certain animals thus have vital tempos that are extremely slow or, on the contrary, that are so fast they are confounding for a human, to the point of becoming very difficult to transpose – as illustrated with much humour by Charles Foster in Being a Beast. An owl has an entirely different existential intensity to a swallow. Animals ‘formalise’ the world in that they give it forms by writing themselves onto it, writing their lives onto it.
Language is not something outside of or beyond the world, even if poetic or prophetic language, capable of incredible interpretations and of turning in on itself, and so on, is a specificity born out of a long evolution of humans; but it remains natural. In reality, this language is so because humans frequented other forms of life, according to numerous paleoanthropologists, philosophers, and observers (such as Bernie Krause, Paul Shepard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty or David Abram). The capacity to be able to conceive of nature, our own condition, or the structures of our language, does not take us out of nature, as has often been argued. That would be another denial that we exist within nature, and nature exists within us, it would be to disregard the relations of entanglement, of intersection, of conflicts, and also of curiosity which bring us together – who among us has never been approached by a cat or a robin redbreast drawn by a fascination with the human voice and gestures?
Writers are marvellous, and of course did not wait for the 21st century and ecology to put on the ‘animal optical lens’ (to use Proust’s formulation). It was simply that researchers did not have the right frames to slip in this lens and see the texts more clearly, which only provide answers to the questions… which they are asked. Of course, there are a large number of animal characters in stories, fables, and poems; these animals often have allegorical, symbolic or didactic functions, for example in Memoirs of a Donkey by the Countess de Ségur, which speaks to us less of an animal presence than that of a child to be educated, and even over-educated.
In the same way, literary satire often employs animal comparisons – I’m thinking of Proust who compares an old man living in the Saint-Germain suburb to a “vibratile larva”, or a female member of the La Rochefoucauld to a “large sea fish” with a monstrous jaw… Zoopoetics is interested in this hybridity because the temptation of, and attempt at, animal metamorphosis is undoubtedly as old as the hominoid. I think that, even before becoming homo sapiens, we were haunted by the crossover, which serves as a reminder that we share a common world and that we originate from identical cells. The living world and human language are not in opposition to one another, nor is language a simple rework or a simple expression of the former. Think of Kafka’s The Burrow, the last story he wrote but that he never finished, and which is taken charge of by a creature on the border between a burrowing animal and a man: digging a hole, a refuge, is also burrowing into language, and making a refuge out of it when a threat, whether psychological or historical, becomes uncontrollable and overwhelming.
This taste for metamorphoses among writers testifies to an animal relationship to oneself, to a consciousness of our belonging to a long evolutionary chain which situates humans as living beings among living beings, not as exceptions… A great many writers cross a further threshold, offering animal self-portraits of themselves, that can be whimsical or sometimes highly disturbing. Proust thus described his narrator, or himself as a writer, as a chicken crowing “cock-a-doodle-doo” after having produced a page, as an owl “that sees a little clearly only in the darkness” and can thus decipher the social world or the depths of the psyche, or lastly as a burrowing wasp that feeds its larvae with living prey, and Proust then refers back to his own books which he never ceases to nourish, to cherish, to protect… This primitive cruelty of the relation to writing is fascinating.
In the United States, ‘Animal Studies’ has been established with a campaigning approach, but you were in a different state of mind when you initiated a ‘French-style’ zoopoetic approach. How do you see the potential of the relationship between literary study and more political or activist concerns?
Animal Studies has a long history in the Anglo-Saxon and North American areas, and its most ‘visible’ source lies in the 1970s with the rising ecological awareness that followed, for example, the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. But in fact, its roots go even deeper, owing to a plural, sometimes conflicted, American history arising both from the settlers or European pioneers, as well as from Native Americans, a history that is also linked to a geographical and cultural relationship to nature that is very different from that of ‘old Europe’.
The activist perspective is entirely legitimate and moreover I feel that, through my own investment in the objects of my research and my concern with promoting zoopoetics, I also engage myself in support of it. An activist approach is only problematic, at least when it comes to scientific and philosophical matters, if its focus is too narrow, or if the lens is tinted with a particular colour. This constricted focus can be useful in terms of immediate action, but the thinking (and thus the action that follows and the society we want to promote) does not necessarily benefit from drawing insurmountable lines of fracture or issuing anathemas against this or that way of writing, sometimes in a way that is anachronistic.
To be an activist in research means not to be stuck in a cultural delusion which, under the guise of the protection of animals or the ‘preservation of nature’ (whereas nature is in fact itself the power of evolving and surging ahead), still often places the Western human as the central point of reference and at the frontier of the world. Those who claim that animals have a ‘proto-culture’ or a ‘proto-language’ enshrine our way of being in the world as the criterion against which all the rest are to be measured; in the same way, while constantly referring to ‘non-human animals’ to talk about beasts does enable us to suggest that humans are also animals, it also places humans at the absolute centre of the circle of living beings. Certain beasts have cultures and languages that are close to our own, others have entirely different ones, or even don’t have any at all (but what do we know…) such as bacteria or mites, so we need to ask the questions differently, as they always presuppose an answer in their own terms.
Animals differ from one another, and we human animals are different from other animals; these differences should give rise to life, rather than death. Acting as if these differences did not exist amounts to robbing humans of precisely that which constitutes their humanity: their capacity to construct themselves with otherness, and from it. I’m thinking of the back cover of The Roots of Heaven and of the Letter to an Elephant, in which Romain Gary explains that our only path to becoming humans (because we aren’t yet), is by making space for this “margin” made up of a herd of elephants, a margin that is “cumbersome” and tenacious, and which prevents us from falling into the human “amongst ourselves”, whose devastating effects we know.
It’s important to understand that looking at literary forms, at deconstructions of poetic language, at the birth of a literary genre such as that of the agri-food novel as I do through my work, isn’t about being outside of the political and the ethical. It is in fact to be at the heart of these, since language bears the best as well as the worst, it is our environment just as much as an atmosphere with oxygen… Describing the docking of live pigs’ tails as ‘piglet care’, that’s political; obliging a human being to inseminate hundreds of turkeys, that’s political. Stories such as Scenes from the Life of the Future by Georges Duhamel, 180 jours (180 Days) by Isabelle Sorente, What Do Reindeer Do after Christmas by Olivia Rosenthal, La part animale (The Animal Part) by Yves Bichet or Règne animal (Animal Kingdom) by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, among many others, are interesting because they connect industrial farming to a corruption of language or of human-beast interactions.
It is through ideas that we destroy the planet or that we live within it and of it: these ideas that are made up of language trigger actions and underpin policies. Reflecting, with literature, about how we treat beasts and how we talk about them, or not prejudging what writers tell us, whether we agree with them or not, is an ethical endeavour. In fact, I often refer to ‘zoopoethics’…
What do you think about the initiative of awarding a prize for the best ecological novel, which seeks to give prominence to ecology in the realm of fiction? Isn’t this also what has guided the approach of Animots?
Yes, the Animots programme, which brought together researchers from the French, North-American and Anglo-Saxon academic fields, committed itself to shifting the traditional types of inquiry, notably by exploring new corpuses of texts to be studied. I love fables, tales, stories dedicated to sublime nature, the great animal stories, but they needed to be completed by other works that are ‘animal’ in a subtler way, or by authors who had been side-lined by very anthropocentric criticism, such as Pergaud, Genevoix, Colette, Georges Duhamel, Pierre Gascar… It was also about, as I said, seeking out within authors who are very often studied something different than what is usually studied; there are many animals in the fictional and philosophical works of Sartre, for example, and Duras wrote an extraordinary text about the fly in Writing… We need to be wary of the ideologically constructed corpus, which steers us towards moral prescriptions that would lead us to overlook texts in which animality is more diffuse, in which human-beast relations are violent, in other words to select politically correct works and sweep under the carpet those which also deal with animality, but not in the way we wish.
Larvae, ants, termites, flies, and mosquitos in the work of Albert Cohen, wasps and mites in that of Proust, the lizard in that of Béatrix Beck, beetles in that of Henrietta Rose-Innès or Svetlana Alexievitch, lice in that of Leïb Rochman, cockroaches in that of Clarisse Lispector, Kafka or Antoine Volodine tell us a great deal about the world, human beings, their violence, their ethics, and about history. Literary animality is eminently political, whether we feel solicitude and attention towards beasts (not only vertebrates or even mammals), or whether we consider the role of animality in human societies – and one should mention the animalisation which enables the exclusion of certain human groups from society – to legitimise the exterminatory violence directed against them, which is also an object of study, and a tragic one, in zoopoetics.
There are countless beasts in life; at a time when the planet is in peril, literature has become their ark.
This interview is an extract and was originally published at prixduromandecologie.fr.