The Chronicle Review

Our Animals, Ourselves

Jason Holley for The Chronicle Review

November 27, 2011

When I was very small I lived on a defunct chicken farm. There was a house with a yard, and these together took up half an acre. To the north there was a long, thin chicken coop, empty of chickens, and behind it lay the back pasture, which occupied one acre. Perpendicular to this, to the west, there was the side pasture. Steers dwelled in the back pasture, ate hay, shat, sculpted odd forms on the salt lick (until we had them shot and butchered). As far as I know, these were actually existing steers. But the side pasture was inhabited, I imagined for a long time, by a fox. When I went there by day, I felt I was entering upon its territory; and when I lay in bed at night, I was certain it was out there, in its burrow, dwelling. It lived there like a human in a home, and was as real as any neighbor—except that I had myself brought it into existence, likely by projecting it out of a picture in a book.

The fox did not need to exist in order to function in my imagined community, one which must be judged no more or less real than that of, say, Indonesians, or of humanity. It was enough that there be foxes at all, or creatures that fit that description, in order for me to conjure community with the imaginary fox in the side pasture. And it was no mere puerile phantasm that caused me to imagine this community, either. It was rather my thinking upon my own humanity, a condition which until very recently remained, over the course of an entire human life, embedded within a larger community of beings.

These days, we are expected to grow out of that sort of thinking well before puberty. Our adult humanity consists in cutting off ties of community with animals, ceasing, as Lévi-Strauss put it, to think with them. When on occasion adults begin again to think about animals, if not with them, it is to assess whether animals deserve the status of rights-bearers. Animal rights, should there be such things, are now thought to flow from neurophysiological features and behavioral aptitudes: recognizing oneself in the mirror, running through mazes, stacking blocks to reach a banana.

But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well. Morality doubled up its effort to preserve a distinction that seemed to be slipping away. Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. "They don't have syntax, so we can eat them," is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity.

Before and after Darwin, the specter of the animal in man has been compensated by a hierarchical scheme that separates our angelic nature from our merely circumstantial, and hopefully temporary, beastly one. And we find more or less the same separation in medieval Christian theology, Romantic nature poetry, or current cognitive science: All of it aims to distinguish the merely animal in us from the properly human. Thus Thoreau, widely lauded as a friend of the animals, cannot refrain from invoking animality as something to be overcome: "Men think that it is essential," he writes, "that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride 30 miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain." What the author of Walden misses is that men might be living like baboons not because they are failing at something or other, but because they are, in fact, primates. Thoreau can't help invoking the obscene and filthy beasts that have, since classical antiquity, formed a convenient contrast to everything we aspire to be.

The best evidence suggests that this hatred of animals—there's no other word for it, really—is a feature of only certain kinds of society, though societies of this kind have dominated for so long that the hatred now appears universal. Until the decisive human victory over other predatorial megafauna several thousand years ago, and the subsequent domestication of certain large animals, the agricultural revolution, the consequent stratification of society into a class involved with food production and another, smaller class that traded in texts and values: Until these complex developments were well under way, human beings lived in a single community with animals, a community that included animals as actors and as persons.

In that world, animals and human beings made up a single socio-natural reality. They killed one another, yes, but this killing had nothing in common with the industrial slaughter of domestic animals we practice today: Then, unlike now, animals were killed not because they were excluded from the community, but because they were key members of it. Animals gave themselves for the sake of the continual regeneration of the social and natural order, and in return were revered and treated as kin.

As human beings abandoned community for domination, thinking with animals became a matter of symbolism. Bears showed up on coats of arms, for example, not because the warriors who fought behind these shields were fighting as bears, as magically transformed ursine warriors. They were fighting behind the bear shield simply because that's what their clan chose, as today one might choose Tasmanian Devil mudflaps for one's truck. It was an ornament, a mere symbol.

Or was it? The eminent medieval historian Michel Pastoureau's recent book, The Bear: History of a Fallen King (Harvard University Press), is motivated by a conviction that the symbolic is never merely symbolic, that when mythological elements are transformed into literary motifs, or totems into coats of arms, this does not mean that the old way of looking at things is entirely forgotten. Accordingly, Pastoureau believes that animals continued to shape our view of social reality well into what I have been calling the era of domination.

Pastoureau's choice of research focus was widely dismissed as childish when he took it up in the 1970s: It is children who pay attention to Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear, the French historical establishment declaimed. Adults should turn their attention to adult matters—which is to say human matters. The bear accordingly grew plush, diminutive, and migrated to the crib in the form of the teddy bear. This destination serves as the end point of Pastoureau's study, and while this chapter of the bear's social history is not nearly as interesting as its medieval incarnation (or its Paleolithic one), it does serve to illustrate how far the king of European beasts has fallen.

Falling, humiliation, abasement: This is the story Pastoureau wants to tell, of a creature that was, in pre-Christian Europe, an exalted double of the human warrior; that in the high Middle Ages was displaced by the lion as the king of beasts; and that by the modern period was best known as a broken, muzzled circus curiosity. By the 14th century, the bear would be "forced to obey not saints or heroes but a mere jongleur or a vulgar animal showman with a monkey on his shoulders or hares popping out of his clothing." Yet throughout its fall into dishonor, Pastoureau believes, the bear remained one of us: Even when it is abased, we see not some poor creature; we see what could easily be our own fate as well.

That we see ourselves in the bear in a way we would not in, say, a spider, is a result of what is often called anthropomorphism. It's important to distinguish between a relatively wide and a relatively narrow sense of this concept. Broadly speaking, traditional societies were inclined to anthropomorphize all animals, to the extent that they attributed intentions and interests to spiders, fish, deer, etc. But pre-modern Europeans, according to Pastoureau, anthropomorphized the bear in a narrower sense: It really was given the "form of man," construed as a special kind of man, as a creature not just with ursine interests of its own, comparable to arachnid interests, ichthyoid interests, and so on, but with distinctly human interests.

These interests extended right down to the choice of mates, which for male bears were, ideally, human women. As the ultimate mark of kinship, such couplings were thought to be perfectly fertile. Half-bear offspring were held to be particularly virile and heroic, and for this reason bears often show up in royal lineages. The 12th-century Gesta Danorum casually notes that the Danish king is descended from a bear, an observation that is repeated as late as the 16th century in the work of Olaus Magnus. This is not mythology, but straightforward genealogy, and there is no indication that it was doubted by the authors who promulgated it.

While a human male cannot couple with a she-bear, there is another way a human might end up with an ursine mother: adoption. A she-bear not only takes care of an abandoned human infant by bringing it food, but also nurses it with her milk and, most importantly, licks it, literally, into shape. It is this licking that was believed to transform cubs from mere unformed masses of hair—what in the Aristotelian zoological tradition would have been called moles—into proper beings. Milk-giving and licking are nearly as powerful a means of transmitting kinship as sperm (in many cultures, two children who drink milk from the same wet nurse are considered siblings), and it is in this way that a human can have a bear as either a mother or a father.

Another way is through magical transformation, perhaps by drinking the blood of a bear, or by covering oneself in a bear's hide. Many will know already of the Scandinavian Berserkers, literally, the "bear shirts," who "went into battle imitating the gait and the groans of the bear." Pastoureau notes that according to some sources, the Berserkers "ate human flesh; still others [report that] they were metamorphosed into bears in the course of a magical-religious ceremony in which cries, chants, dances, potions, and drugs brought them to a state of frenetic excitement, as though they were possessed."

Until the 10th century, European men from the North Sea to the Pyrenees transformed themselves into bears to enhance their experience of sex and violence. The end of the bear's hibernation in early February was marked by "songs, dances, games, and ursine masquerades." Many tales also tell of bears—not just lads dressed as bears—falling in love with women, kidnapping them, raping them, and forcing them to live as wives.

The virility and violence so strongly associated with the bear made it suspicious to the church. By the high Middle Ages the ecclesiastical authorities had succeeded in deposing it, reducing it to a pathetic circus performer. At the same time, the church succeeded in enthroning the lion in the bear's former position in heraldry and more broadly in the medieval symbolic imagination. The lion was a safe choice as king of the beasts in large part because it was entirely extinct in Europe. It was no longer phenomenally salient in the daily lives of European folk, indeed hadn't been for millennia, and so there could be no threat of dangerous effects from consuming its parts, from wearing its hide, or from having sex with it or as it. No young man could think to transform himself into a lion in order to ravage a village girl. "The foreign lion," Pastoureau writes, "preferred by the medieval Church, gradually drove [the bear] off, demonstrating that ... cultural history always wins out over natural history. Or, more precisely, ... natural history is simply one branch of cultural history."

By the late Middle Ages the lion, while non-native and physically absent, had become "a part of daily life" for average Europeans, which "raises a question for the historian about the aptness of the now familiar opposition between 'native' and 'exotic' animals. For feudal societies, the lion was not really an exotic animal, even though it had not been native to Europe for several millennia. The lion could be seen every day and everywhere, represented on a great many monuments, objects, precious fabrics, and works of art." Established for millennia as king of the beasts in literate Asian and Middle Eastern traditions, the lion was easy to import as a symbol, particularly in the era of the Crusades, as Jerusalem came again to be conceptualized as the center of the world. What better title to show up there with than "Lion-Hearted"?

For the most part, the church was successful in dethroning the bear, but one senses that the shift in symbolism had at least something to do with ecological history as well as the history of ideas. Today, the bear is more or less extinct in France (and England, and the Low Countries), other than in parts of the Alps and the Pyrenees. The worship of the bear seems to have diminished in rough correspondence to its geographical disappearance over the centuries. (The lion could be maintained as king without being geographically present, but only by a top-down campaign.)

Today Romania has by far the highest concentration of bears in Europe (thanks in part to Nicolae Ceausescu's promotion of bear fertility—a policy derived entirely from his personal interest in accumulating hunting trophies), and is also the place you are most likely to see vestiges of the jocum cum urso (now evolved into the Latinate jocul ursului, or "game of the bear") that was already on the decline in France by the ninth century.

To "play the bear" is to allow one's animal nature to come to the surface. On the standard interpretation of Christian anthropology, this is a nature that, while ineradicable, must be kept in submission. Yet Pastoureau argues that even within the Christian tradition there was a double movement: Our own animality was to be detested, yet animals, as testimony of God's majestic creation, were nonetheless to be revered. St. Paul and the earliest church leaders tended to see animals as worthy of love, but it was above all Augustine who established the general sentiment of zoophobia that would predominate in the centuries to come. For Augustine, both difference from humans as well as similarity to humans seemed sufficient ground to deem animals diabolical. Bears, for example, were particularly troubling because they, so it was thought, copulated face to face, just like humans. For Augustine, "who was continually asserting that man and beast could in no way be confused with one another, that human and animal nature were completely different, this was a scandal, a crime, a transgression of the order intended by the Creator, something truly diabolical: 'ursus est diabolus.'"

Cicero quotes a line from the poet Ennius: Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis: 'How like us is the ugly beast, the ape.' In fact, this is just one instance of a general rule concerning human perception of what are sometimes called higher animals, and when Ennius was writing, the worst had not yet begun for the other primates. As Pastoureau comments, the major monotheist religions "do not like animals that nature and culture have declared to be 'cousins' or 'relatives' of man. The pig"—about which Pastoureau has written a separate study, Le cochon: histoire d'un cousin mal aimé—"was a victim of this in biblical Antiquity. The bear suffered in turn in the heart of the Christian Middle Ages. And the great apes suffered the same fate a few centuries later. It has never been a good idea to resemble human beings too closely."

On July 26, 2011, The Independent reported that "A mystery animal which has been attacking sheep in the Vosges since April has been identified by a remote-control camera as a wolf." In the 18th century such a mystery could not be so easily dispelled, and when a series of attacks took place in the Gévaudan region of France in the 1760s, mostly on peasant girls, rumors began to fly. The simplest explanations were generally passed over in favor of ones involving supernatural forces, implausibly large creatures, or anatomically impossible hybrids. By the time the killing came to an end in the winter of 1765, a full-fledged legend had been born, one that would give rise to generations of amateur sleuths, and even, in 1889, to a Roman Catholic demonological treatise on the supposed monster.

Jay M. Smith's recent book, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (Harvard University Press), like Pastoureau's work on the bear, concerns a fierce European animal, but in any more profound sense the two books have little in common. Smith's subject is the human reaction to a mysterious specter. Pastoureau's by contrast is very much a known commodity, and even when it is not precisely known, even when the facts about it are all a bit off, it is nonetheless conceived as a familiar, as a neighbor.

The wolf has had a very different history in Europe than the bear, as Pastoureau himself notes. "Fear of the wolf," he writes, "a major factor in peasant sensibility, is linked to crisis periods (climatic, agricultural, social), not to times of economic prosperity or demographic expansion. It was not accidental that the story of the beast of the Gévaudan took place in the France of the 18th not the 13th century. In the French countryside in the feudal period, people feared the Devil, dragons, the Wild Hunt, and night hunting, but not really the wolf." Smith's book is indeed that of an 18th-century specialist seeking to reveal through microhistory the hopes and fears of the Gévaudan peasants.

In doing a microhistory of the events behind a folk legend, Smith has taken on an extremely difficult task. He is interested in an occurrence that has long been mired in amateur cryptozoological lore, but wishes to treat it in terms of the "cultural and psychological depths" of the 18th-century French villagers. Smith aims to "shift attention away from the beast itself." Occasionally, this new approach leads Smith to write as though he were trying to impress a tenure committee or a grant-making organization: "I examine all the available sources in close detail in order to break through the ossified discourses that have long surrounded the beast's tale," and so on.

That is not entirely fair to the discoursers. Some local French Web sites dedicated to the beast are amateurish indeed, but there is nothing at all ossified about them: They are lively and amusing. Now I too have little patience with cryptozoology, though I admit I am an adept of what might be called metacryptozoology: reflection upon the reasons why people need to imagine there are more creatures out there than there in fact are. I assume that the beast of the Gévaudan was just a very hungry wolf. But why it is that species are multiplied in the human imagination beyond strict necessity remains an interesting question, and a universal one that extends far beyond the Gévaudan in the 18th century.

In general, one senses that Smith, unlike Pastoureau, is not all that interested in winning for animals their own history. Smith is interested in the "popular beliefs, scientific thought, religious tensions, media markets, aristocratic culture," and so on, of human beings, and animals real and imagined occasionally enter into this. Pastoureau, by contrast, has written a history of a symbiosis. I personally would like to see a treatment of the wolf comparable to Pastoureau's of the bear: one that takes seriously the proposition that the beast of the Gévaudan and the people of the Gévaudan have a shared history, rather than the former simply being an imposition upon the latter, which afterward echoes within their distinctly human cultural and psychological depths.

When I was little, I went camping with a friend who liked to freak everyone out. He told a story of a man who had been hiking, and came upon a zone of friable rock. When trying to climb across it, he slipped right through, and landed in an underground cavern. He was pulled out after some hours or days, but what was in fact retrieved was no longer the camper who fell in, but only a mute, blubbering madman. He had seen something down there. I asked my friend what it was. My friend didn't know. No one knows, he added ominously.

I assumed that the man must have witnessed some sort of blending of the human and animal worlds, a blending you are not supposed to see: not one that is simply "gross," as we might have said back then, but rather one that cannot be espied without the basic order of the universe collapsing.

What could that have been? Bears and humans copulating? Bears and humans feasting together on less fortunate humans? No, I found I could think all of this, and come out more or less all right. It must have been something far worse, a secret ursine transformation, a "becoming animal," so to speak, in which everything that Augustine and his successors sought to keep in check comes erupting uncontrollably to the surface, not out of any intentional invocation, such as the Berserkers performed, but out of a complete loss of human self-mastery. This is, I take it, a very deep human fear, certainly deep enough to freak out a 10-year-old.

The fear of the beast in the secret cavern—the bear that would animalize the soul of any human being who happened into its lair—exists side by side and in tension with my imagined community of the gentle fox in his burrow in the side pasture. The hairy beast in the cavern, the bear that does unspeakable things to the maiden it abducts, the wolf that dresses up as a grandmother in order to eat/rape Little Red Riding Hood: These are the ne plus ultra of enmity, the very opposite of community.

Traditionally, hunters offered up incantations and sacrifices, and took other such measures to keep the community as extensive and stable as possible, to extend it to the other top carnivores as well as to the gentle beings, without forgoing bloodshed in order to do this. It was a community not defined by species, and not based upon a social contract that precludes killing. Killing resulted in eating, and thus in absorbing the other's powers: perhaps in the end a more profound form of community than living and letting live. This is the sort of community human beings once co-inhabited with bears and wolves, before these hairy cousins of ours were assimilated to the Devil.

Justin E.H. Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at Concordia University, in Montreal, is author of Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (Princeton University Press, 2011). He is at work on a book about human nature and human difference.