The Oldie

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello Charles Foster

- CHARLES FOSTER

Animals Strike Curious Poses By Elena Passarello Jonathan Cape £12.99 Oldie price £11.56 inc p&p

Modern nature writing in English generally falls into one or more of four overlappin­g classes.

There are the sermoniser­s, who thunder apocalypti­cally about the consequenc­es of our alienation from the natural world; the redeemed, who have thrown off their suits, sold their BMWS, and gone to a wood; there to find, epiphanica­lly, the ground of their being. There are the lyrical sensitives, who go to the wood, say how lovely it is, and write longingly and despairing­ly about the loss of Eden, the lost possibilit­y of talking meaningful­ly to daisies, and about their own echoing dispossess­ion. And there are the colonials, who use the wood as a stage on which to make their own speeches, and use the creatures of the wood as props.

They all have in common interconne­ctedness: the notion that we are part of the natural world; defined by it; dependent on it; caught up together, whether we like it or not, in an ecstatic or resentful dance. The sermoniser­s say that we’ve forgotten it; the redeemed that they’ve tasted it; the sensitives that they hope one day to be overwhelme­d by it; and the colonials? Well, they pay lip service to it, because they’re nature writers, aren’t they, and nature writers are into interconne­ctedness.

There is almost never any serious attempt to expound interconne­ctedness. It’s apparently enough to drop the name and to say that it’s important. Interconne­ctedness is a badge, showing that your heart is in the right place. The critics tend not to point this out. That’s because all serious critics, being basically decent people, are on the same side as the nature writers – against Monsanto, the loggers, and the oil men. There’s a war on, and the reviewers are on the right side. To be as searchingl­y critical of nature writers as of, say, romantic novelists, would be to help the

enemy. So the nature writers get away with a lot: they are rarely cross-examined or made to define their terms. Flabby, vacuous prose is saleable – as long as it’s about the Great Outdoors.

Into this lazy, dreamy, sanctimoni­ous world of nature writing bounces Elena Passarello. She’s just what we need, and just what many of us don’t want. Animals Strike Curious Poses is a collection of seventeen essays about the nature of the human-animal bond – and thus (scarily and excitingly) about the nature of humans.

A mammoth in the Siberian permafrost shows us that we’re ruled by animal images: ‘We feel the pull of them before we know to name them, or how to even fully see them. It is as if they are always waiting, crude sketches of themselves, in the recesses of our bodies.’ That’s the foundation of Passarello’s argument. And the book is an argument – not, as it may seem, a whimsical assembly of stories, arranged chronologi­cally from 39,000 years ago (the mammoth) to 2015 (Cecil the lion, gunned down by the dentist). It is the argument that boundaries between beings are porous and, if the pores close up, the beings shrivel. It is best made by the Wolf of Gubbio (humanised by St Francis) and Vogel Staar, the starling which (no, who) was one of Mozart’s music tutors. There are many crucial footnotes to this basic argument. Many of them are here.

This is no arid thesis. Passarello is sassy but tender; smart, angry, and wondering. She takes nothing at face value, which is as exhausting as a proper book should be. And, like every book sufficient­ly ambitious to be worth reading, it is not perfect. There are occasional irritating formulatio­ns: ‘A posse comitatus of men and dogs’ is a phrase the world would be best without. And it was a mistake for Passarello to complete Christophe­r Smart’s poem to his cat Jeoffry. It’s the sort of idea that sounds better in theory than it is in reality. Passarello’s version is clever but empty.

Passarello uses the first person in only one of the essays – an essay on unicorns. And here she is at her best. The essay is really a re-evaluation of Plato’s epistemolo­gy (the notion of anamnesis – knowing by unforgetti­ng) and an attempt to explain, by tunnelling into her past, what happens to her when she looks at animals and what happens to us when we allow animals to appraise us. ‘Come here, Elena Marie,’ says a goat with a deformed horn. ‘Look into my eyes. Can you ever believe all the ways you and I were made for each other?’

This urgent and uncomforta­ble question runs throughout this profound and profoundly unsettling book. The more you don’t want to read the book, the more you need to do so.

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