by Boria Sax
President, Nature in Legend and Story
We often describe poetic inspiration as a sort of possession, using a metaphor borrowed from archaic religious experience. Inspiration resembles, in structure if not necessarily in intensity, a shamanic trance, whereby an individual leaves his body to enter another world. A shaman is a mediator between human society and a realm of spirits where the distinction between different forms of life generally falls into relative insignificance. On some level, this is generally true of the poet, who often leads us into a hallucinatory sort of world. Even today, we constantly use words such as “magic” and “enchantment” to describe poetic activity. Plato, for one, considered poetry a sort of divine madness.
While storytelling in oral traditions may go back almost indefinitely,
the written word created new modes of organizing experience. The beginnings
of literature are in
the earliest urban settings of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Cities created a sharper division between the human environment within the walls and the natural world beyond them, which eventually became abstracted to form our concepts of “civilization” and “nature.” The shamanistic practices of tribal societies began to give way to more formalized creeds, officiated over by priesthoods. Literature may well have begun as a response to a spiritual crisis that accompanied these changes. It involves continual probing of the role, value and purpose of human life. This questioning is most painful and intense in tragedy, which is traditionally considered the most exalted form. After a conventionalized celebration of humankind, Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks, “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” In this sense, a tragedy like “Hamlet,” although it focuses on human beings, is not anthropocentric. The crisis that is depicted places our humanistic perspective
momentarily in abeyance, as we seem to merge in the primal unity of all life.
The questioning in comedy and related genres is far more gentle and gradual, yet our laughter is also a response to the tension generated by insecurity. The plots of comedy are full of confusion and disguise, an uncertainly which implicitly extends to our role as human beings. The weaver Bottom, in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is given the head of an ass and treated as a god, in one night of universal confusion. There is also literature that directly focuses at least as much on animals on human beings, thus taking the reader directly outside the horizon of both comedy and tragedy. In his fables, the legendary Aesop shows us a world filled with archaic magic, as well as violence and terror. The situations, however, are abstracted to a geometric sort of simplicity, then overlaid with morals, making them seem the most rationalistic literature in the world. Similarly, the Brothers Grimm use their tales to smuggle such tales into the cozy environment of the nursery. Other masterpieces of this highly venerable tradition include the Hindu Panchatantra, the late medieval Chinese Journey to the West and Melville’s Moby Dick.
All of these genres of literature live largely from the tension between
the human and natural worlds. This is why social constructivism bypasses
the power of
literature almost entirely. The conventions on which literature is based are indeed socially constructed. Nevertheless, literature, at its most moving, suspends the
distinction between humanity and nature, thus placing in question the entire edifice of human civilization. Literature and the arts can either strengthen or subvert the
social order, but they do not allow us to take this order for granted.
This brings us to anthrozoology, which we may define as the study of
human-animal relations. Since animals are the primary point of reference,
in relation to which
we define humanity, the discipline involves continuous questioning of our identity as human beings. We must, in other words, ask ourselves, “What is an animal?”
Simultaneously, we must also ask, “What is humankind?” To address these questions, we need to probe assumptions that subtly permeate the patterns and rhythms of our daily lives. Simply by posing these questions, anthrozoology brings us a little closer to the shamanistic world at the beginning of literature. Like poets, scientists have distancing devices that enable them to confront this world without being overwhelmed by it. These include specialized terminologies and all of the elaborate conventions with accompany presenting of scientific papers. While both science and literature are subject to increasing specialization, it is important from scholarly communities to explore the broader cultural implications of intellectual work.
A symbiosis of scientific and literary work is not by any means unique.
Psychoanalysis, feminism and ecology, for example, are all at once areas
study and cultural movements. There is an especially noteworthy convergence of purpose between anthrozoology and literature. We still need, however, to develop
concepts and the critical vocabulary to do justice to the relation of literature to the natural world. This is part of our work in NILAS (Nature in Legend and Story), where we are investigating the relationship between different forms of life, as represented in literature and folklore. We are currently building bibliographies of literature that centers on animals and plants. In addition, we have ongoing discussions of this literature on our listserver, which is part of the h-net series. We also publish a newsletter and sponsor public programs.