Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Rampaging Hordes of Mink Wish Roger Scruton Harm
Gathering some thoughts on animality in Beckett, I find myself reading Randy Malamud’s Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, an unusual book, in the sense that most academic critics would not interrupt their thoughts on animal poetry (composed by, rather than about animals, you understand) to give you their email addresses, and request you send them any examples you’ve encountered (I’m presuming he’s already seen the above example from icanhascheezburger...). There is also a lengthy description of his son’s experiences at ‘bug camp’, and of a trumpet-playing elephant. But I digress. Malamud frequently finds himself in the position of preaching a state of virtuous ignorance, I find. Are you reading this blog in Scandinavia? If not, then the chances are the view through your window does not include any reindeer. And careful not to go in search of one in the nearest zoo either! ‘I believe strongly’, he writes of Marianne Moore’s ‘Rigorists’, that ‘Moore feels, as I do, that Brooklynites like herself are simply not meant to be in immediate proximity to reindeer, and that we do them (and ourselves and our art) a disservice when we glibly traipse through their habitats, or imprison them within our own, for the purposes of observing them or representing them aesthetically.’ (Since he mentions Brookyln, I can’t help thinking that world’s-single-most-boring-woman, Eilis from Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn, which I read during 24 hours of enforced captivity in Dublin Airport the other day, would strongly agree about the undesirability of reindeer around the place in Brooklyn: I mean, whatever would Father Flood say, not to mention her landlady Mrs Kehoe say, eh? What would they SAY? Are reindeer even CATHOLIC?!) No, those ‘vast herds’ belong in the ‘altogether elsewhere’ Auden imagined for them in ‘The Fall of Rome’, leaving us to contemplate them from afar, but in a state of virtuous ignorance. For such an ardent admirer of Moore’s work (as am I), he would seem to skirt round the small, or not so small, problem from his point of view of her delight in zoos. But maybe that’s a debate for another time.
I was only too happy to see Malamud attack the tedious Mary Oliver, who may not want to skin and eat the animals she likes at, but seems, to me at least, every bit as determined to subjugate the animals she looks at to her entirely anthropocentric sublime (‘If an animal lives in the forest or river, and a poet like Oliver does not see it, does it make a noise? Yes, but we wouldn’t know it from her poetry’). But here’s a conceptual brick wall he finds himself contemplating more than once. If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein said, we would still not be able to understand it. ‘The more we know them’, John Berger has said of animals, ‘the further away they are.’ So when Malamud devotes a chapter to ‘Mesoamerican Spirituality and Animal Co-Essences’ he has to remind himself, a couple of times, that the coyote or the rabbit no more cares about our certified-sensitive indigenous ecopoetic posturings than it does about some piece of lazy schlock by Mary Oliver. All the animal wants is for us to leave it alone. Which is what makes Marianne Moore’s formulation, in a review of Wallace Stevens’ Ideas of Order, so striking: ‘poetry’, she says, ‘is an unintelligible unmistakable vernacular like the language of animals.’ An animal poem does not get any extra points for saying Love the animals! Care for them!, which is one reason at least why the arch-carnivore Ted Hughes is the astonishing animal poet he is. The animal poem is engaged in an exercise in non-relational art, writing for and about a subject from which it should expect neither understanding nor approval. And this is an entirely praiseworthy thing to do. In fact, I can hardly think of a better basis for writing something, anything.
Poetry is a non-relational art.
Elsewhere, I have enjoyed reading Roger Scruton’s latest attempt to grapple with the concept of animal rights in a TLS review of Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters. I think of Scruton as a Jeremy Clarkson with a taste for Wagner, and down the years, in between, I presume, throttling Down’s Syndrome babies to death with his bare hands, he has resorted to the argument that animals cannot have rights, as they don’t have any responsibilities either (a less amusing variant, perhaps, of Mark Twain’s crack about animal rights meaning ‘Votes for shrimp’). Recalling, in a passage on fur-farming, John Stuart Mill’s argument that ‘the coercion of the criminal law can be justified only in order to prevent us from harming others, and never in order to force our compliance to a moral code’ he then wonders ‘what happened to the argument for decriminalization of homosexuality, despite widespread moral outrage’, meaning what, I wonder. Gay people should not be persecuted because right-wing Christian types (like Roger Scruton) find them distasteful, therefore people who want to skin mink should not be prevented from doing so either, despite my, em, distaste for them? ‘He is right to want to protect animals from people. But people also need to be protected from people’. At which point he has begun to sound like Sarah Palin, who likes to remind us that if God didn’t want us to eat animals he wouldn’t have made them out of food. Dangerous things too, mink. I mean, remember what that kind-of-a-mink, an otter did to Terry Nutkins’ finger. And what of the pine marten, ‘the most nasty, vicious bird you have ever seen’, as former Westmeath Fine Gael councillor Michael Newman recently described it. So be careful in the barn, Roger, and keep the shotgun loaded at all times.
Finally, for factoid-hunters, does anyone know the personal connection (well, almost) between Beckett’s Watt and Roger Scruton? Answer in the comments stream.