The Inhuman Sublime

In my page on Anthropomorphism I gave you three ways of thinking about poetic motives behind personification, which after all may seem like an unnecessary step for someone writing a poem. It’s natural for human beings to look around them and interpret their environment, but it isn’t necessarily true that the easiest way to do that is to populate the universe with human emotions and thoughts where none exist. Lyric poetry is a genre, by many accounts, designed for intimacy of expression, so projecting a poet’s human voice into an anthropomorphic mask is a bit of an odd choice when you consider that other human beings are readily available as personae.

So the three motivations for personification were

  1. to use animals as a foil to explore (and question) human actions,
  2. to illustrate the limits of human comprehension or understanding, and
  3. To imagine what life looks life when we are someone else, as if that were possible.

The first motive is relatively straightforward, and the other two are slightly more complex but still related to the first, for all three are based on the concept of humanism, the ultimate valuation of humanity and its products over other forms of life. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: the Humanities in college are based on the presumption that human beings are worthy of study, and we are! for the most part. But like most ideas, humanism can be taken to the extreme. If we automatically take it for granted that the needs and desires of human beings are always more important than those of other living things, or the ecosystem as a whole, we can shortsightedly blunder into situations in which human beings are indirectly physically hazarded.

In other words, if given a choice between the health and well-being of a person and that of a mosquito, a humanist would always choose the person, and I think all of us would agree the person is more important – or at least, I hope no one is going to arrest me the next time I kill a mosquito as it’s biting me. But how far would you take that distinction? What if we substitute a kitten for the mosquito? What if we weren’t talking about a life-or-death situation, but a situation of convenience? In environmentalist discourse, the automatic assumption that human beings are always licensed to do whatever they want with the environment is called “anthropocentrism,” and it has led indirectly to the extinction of many animal species, and fairly unsafe business and industrial practices like strip-mining or clear-cutting of rainforests, for the sake of maximizing profits rather than treating resources sustainably (this is what I implied when I said a matter of “convenience”). I do not mean to suggest that your Humanities professor is an advocate of clearcutting in Brazil. But I do wish to implicate the dominant paradigm with an extreme form of humanism: humanism unchecked by some understanding of human beings’ responsibilities to other living things and the environment as a whole.

This image is not captioned.

This image is not captioned.

The pathway to becoming a responsible steward of the environment, while still believing in the innate supremacy of those with consciousness over those who lack it, is sympathy, and personification is perhaps our best example of such fellow-feeling for animals. I am often torn between gratitude that a record exists of our collective attempts over time to imagine the plight of animals, and scorn for the hollow and self-serving ways that poets have done this over the years. For the attribution of human characteristics to animals is always ironic, because they are not human and animals only have human characteristics to the extent that human beings fictively ascribe human characteristics to animals. Sympathy only ever flows in one direction: we can consciously imagine what our pet dogs might be feeling, but they cannot conduct thought experiments and so have no clue what we might be thinking (note: Sympathy is very different than empathy, which is an emotion felt equally by two living things simultaneously, and which dogs and some other domesticated pets [not cats!!] have in abundance. Sympathy is a voluntary mental exercise, while empathy is irrational and reflexive).

Even if a poet tries to depict human traits in an animal as a means of praising it, the praise is really for the human trait at the expense of the animal. At the beginning of Marianne Moore’s awesomely weird poem “He ‘Digesteth Hard Yron’” for example, the speaker praises the ostrich which is the subject of the poem as a symbol of “justice.” If this is so, then it’s only a metaphor of human justice for the human observer; the ostrich has no way of acting as either a hero or a scoundrel – those terms only have meaning for those who can be punished for yielding to base desires or praised for achieving the standard of admirable behavior (e.g., people). Likewise, later on in the poem, the speaker notes that

     This bird watches his chicks with

a maternal concentration-and he’s

been mothering the eggs

at night six weeks–his legs

their only weapon of defense

which, of course, is quite progressive gender politics – but no, wait, it’s absurd to talk about a feminist ostrich. They don’t even have consciousness, much less ideology and constructed identities. ACTUALLY (and here I’m springing some historical context on you, the kind I wouldn’t ever expect you to produce on an exam), if you consider that this poem was published in the Partisan Review in fall of 1941, during WWII, there’s a way of seeing the ostrich as a figure for Allied soldiers in the conflict, who put themselves purposely in the line of fire to protect the vulnerable and the weak, and whose heroism is not tied to their personal survival: the last stanza talks about an Asian ruler who ordered many eggs on a whim for an omelet, and so some ostriches must have failed in their protective duties (which is the same thing as saying they would only relinquish those eggs over their dead bodies: the ultimate sacrifice!). But if you then reconsider the title (an early naturalist’s mistaken assessment of the ostrich’s diet), it’s not really all that far from the colloquial expression “eat hot lead,” and the metaphorical link between heroic ostrich and heroic soldier is a little easier to grasp.

Even when poets are praising animals, their act of inclusive comparison is simultaneously an act of disruptive contrast. But by that same logic, any personification devoted to making a sharp distinction between the lives of animals and the lives of humans may also bleed into similitude. Take Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper,” for example, which has at least one instance of personification in every one of its lines. The poem ironically depicts the speaker’s observation of a sandpiper, a beach bird that spends its time running in and out of the surf on many Atlantic beaches (it’s a cousin of the freshwater plover, which I’m more familiar with since I grew up in the Great Lakes region, but which I thought I’d mention in case you’re more familiar with that bird – same method, slightly different species). Here it is in full:

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

As she gazes at the bird, the speaker imagines the ocean must be “roaring” to the tiny bird (although conspicuously not as loudly to her); but the bird seems nonchalant (“he takes [it] for granted”); the force of the water must seem an earthquake to the bird, but instead of fleeing he runs parallel to the ocean, seeming fastidiously “finical” and “awkward,” and then the very telling appositive “a student of Blake,” which I don’t need to remind you the bird is incapable of having read.

As the poem continues the speaker continuously inserts comparisons only she is capable of (the bird would not know what the hissing of fat sounds like, and his feet would not appear brittle to himself). Only a tiny animal would have his entire universe reduced to a mist as the wave crashes in (“the world is a mist”), and he is not confused by the oscillation of blinding surf and ultra-clear sand grains. The speaker’s attempt to imagine the sandpiper’s perspective is so complete, that is, that when she pities him and declares the sandpiper “obsessed” by his preoccupation with the multicolored grains in the last stanza, it is hard not to suppose that the speaker is obsessed as well; the poem ends with a catalogue of the “The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray / mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.” Imagine how different this poem would have been if she cropped that stanza back at “he is obsessed!” or added, “I took my beach towel with me back to my / Subaru and drove into the sunset.” Identification has led to sympathy, and in this case the observation of a bird who appears obsessed to its human observer has led to a mini-obsession on her part.

But if you are a thorough-going humanist, (or I suppose even if you are not) you will always find it hard to stop being yourself and to become someone else; thinking about what it would be like to stop being you is not the same thing as projecting yourself into animals that will conveniently not care too much when you imaginatively possess them. There’s nothing especially pernicious or morally wrong about imagining the lives of animals; but it’s a trap to think that it’s possible to do so without doing some damage to the autonomy of other life. And I might here insert a fourth motivation behind personification: we simply can’t help ourselves.

That is, sometimes it must be the unintentional result of sympathetic inhabitation of inhuman perspectives that, being human, we don’t have any earthly conception how to actually inhabit. So we imagine animals as people. But in doing so, we still run up against the other, the inhuman, which is a scary thing even when you seem to be operating under a controlled situation where the human being in the picture has all the power and should be in no danger whatsoever—after all, while animals may be strong and some are potentially violent, we have pretty good brains that can allow us to anticipate and protect against their strength and animalism. The sublime moment of terror and ecstasy, in other words, arises not from the mixture of beauty and fear as animals are beheld, but from the suspicion that not as much separates us from them as we would like to think. In that small glimpse of the inhuman lies terrific dread, and it accounts for the sublime moment at the end of “Sandpiper” – just thinking about the sandpiper’s repetitive existence drags the speaker into a glimpse of unending obsession, the kind that cannot be shrugged off and which goes on forever. Scary, scary stuff. But a fear of the speaker’s own making, at the end of the day.

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