An­i­mals Strike Cu­ri­ous Poses by Elena Pas­sarello Charles Fos­ter

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - 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.

‘My hus­band was bound to show up even­tu­ally’

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