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Extensions of vision: The representation of non-human points of view
From Papers on Language and Literature, 10/1/02 by Burns, Allan

Thinking of what the world looks like to a frog, Loren Eiseley writes, in his classic The Immense Jourey, that "the most enormous extension of vision of which life is capable" is "the projection of itself into other lives" (46). Such difficult extensions of vision form the very basis of the work of writers who have composed narratives from a non-human point of view-narratives that for simplicity's sake maybe called "realistic animal stories" (with the implicit understanding, of course, that humans are animals also). This largely neglected literature might well one day attract the interest of literary critics, both for the techniques the writers have used to represent the minds of animals and for the ways in which its representations prefigure current post-behaviorist scientific interest in animal consciousness. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives helped to keep alive a serious and ultimately ethical interest in the workings of animal minds, in what amounts to a kind of significant counter-statement to some of the dominant intellectual trends of the twentieth century.

The realistic animal story has a lengthy pre-history that dates back at least to the fables attributed to Aesop and undoubtedly further back to the oral tales of pre-literate societies. The grounding of the modern realistic stories in scientific natural history, however, differentiates them not only from the tales of the past, but also from a parallel modern tradition of overtly anthropomorphic representation that extends from Black Beauty and the Jungle Books to Animal Farm, The Wind in the Willows, Donald Duck, and Babe. Like film, calculus, and non-Euclidean geometry, the realistic animal story was invented simultaneously and independently by different hands: Charles Dudley Warner's "A-Hunting of the Deer" and Ernest Thompson Seton's "The Drummer on Snowshoes" both appeared before the reading public in April of 1887. Seton and fellow Canadian writer Charles G. D. Roberts developed the form into a distinct literary genre. Seton's 1898 collection Wild Animals I Have Known (featuring the famous story of "Lobo, the King of Currumpaw") popularized the genre, which was defined by Roberts in the introduction to his important 1902 collection Kindred of the Wild as "a psychological romance constructed on a framework of natural science" (24). The animal story, like the contemporaneous naturalistic novel of Zola and his various epigones, could, at least in theory, ground all its narrative events in observation, probability, and fact.

Roberts doubted that the genre would evolve much beyond the point to which he and Seton had taken it. Later writers, however, such as Henry Williamson, Rachel Carson, and Sally Carrighar, attained greater naturalistic accuracy and more consistently avoided anthropomorphizing their subjects. One would not catch Carson, for instance, freely translating, as Seton did, "from rabbit into English" (78). Narrative events in Seton's work that test a skeptical reader's credulity are fairly easy to catalog: in one story, a fox, consciously intending to break the trail of its scent, escapes from persecuting dogs by riding on the back of a sheep (Wild Animals 184); later, the same fox, desperate not to have its cub grow up in captivity, deliberately feeds the cub poisoned bait. Roberts, too, sometimes grafted his natural history onto allegorical figures like the crafty fox. In the story "The Moonlight Trails" he makes a very interesting effort to represent the incomprehension of rabbits witnessing their kin caught in snares (47), but in the same story, a fox sniffs a trail "with an interest not untinged with scorn" (39) and later is "conscious of having scored against his human rivals in the hunt" (48). While it is not impossible that a fox experiences something roughly equivalent to these linguistic formulations, Roberts is operating somewhat precariously at the anthropomorphic end of the spectrum of possible interpretations of animal thought and behavior. His successors tended to be more circumspect. Henry Williamson, for instance, rewrote his classic Tarka the Otter (1927) seventeen times in an effort to authenticate his representation and to excise all anthropomorphic tendencies from his text (13). If Seton and Roberts may appear a bit unwary by comparison with Williamson and others, neither of them went so far as their most notorious American counterpart, William J. Long, who described how a woodcock assisted the mending of its broken leg with a homemade splint. Obviously, the genre's credibility has been better served by those willing to entertain less improbable interpretations of observable phenomena.

In form as well as content the animal story developed in sophistication from its earliest phase. Seton and Roberts typically adhered to a narrative formula that virtually requires each story end with the central animal's death. Of the eight stories in Wild Animals l Have Known, six definitely end with the protagonist's death, one-the story of the fox who killed its cub-ends in ambiguity, with a strong hint of suicide (!), and only one protagonist, a cottontail rabbit, indubitably manages to survive its tale. Even Williamson followed the typical formula in Tarka the Otter, which, Eroica-like, expanded the "classic" narrative scheme of Seton and Roberts in an unprecedented manner. The novel-- length story begins with a prelude focusing on the lives of Tarka's parents; Tarka is born and reared, then forced to make his own way after his mother, in an appropriate yet distressing moment, loses interest in him. The stark nature of his life from that point forward may be indicated by the titles of the book's two parts: "The First Year" and "The Last Year." Readers who, perhaps misled by the "cute" title, come to Tarka expecting a jolly children's story may be unprepared for the density and violence of the narrative. In one not wholly atypical sequence covering a mere two pages, Tarka and his mate bite through the neck of a swan and successfully defend the swan's corpse from both an Arctic owl and a ravenous fox, only to lose it to an equally famished badger, whose presence leads a marshman to set two cattle dogs upon all concerned; the badger, for his part, sends both dogs running back to their master on three legs (109-10). The novel concludes in similar dramatic and violent fashion with the dying Tarka drowning the greatest foe of the otters, a hound fittingly named Deadlock (217). Nature, in Williamson's story, is indeed red in both tooth and claw.

Seton had taken such endings for granted: in the preface to his second major collection, Lives of the Hunted (1901), he wrote, "There is only one way to make an animal's history un-tragic, and that is to stop before the last chapter" (11). A variant type of ending that Roberts employed in such stories as "The Lord of the Air" was a moment of triumph, in this case, an eagle's escape from captivity. More subtle variants were later introduced by Carson and particularly Carrighar, who structures her stories not around an entire life, but rather a day in the life. Why an animal story should have to end with death is no more reasonable or obvious than why a story about humans should have to end with death. Ending a narrative about humans with a central character's death is a possibility that has been richly explored by tragedians and fiction writers, but one does not feel that a last chapter has been omitted simply because Poldy and Molly Bloom are alive at the end of Ulysses. The escape from the almost mandatory death conclusion of the animal story was actually an escape from the anthropocentric reductiveness of a literal and limited interpretation of Darwinian struggle; itwas also an escape into richer fictional possibilities and fresh tonalities and forms.

The early writers were often drawn to tell stories about the biggest, fastest, most exceptional, unusual, and charismatic species and members of species. This impulse to exalt the obviously great, however, was quickly supplanted by a less sensational and more democratic impulse to focus on average representatives of a species. Seton's Lobo and Silverspot are, respectively, exceedingly unusual representatives of the wolf and crow species, whereas Williamson's Tarka is presented as a reasonably average otter. At the same time one sees a shift from unusual to typical representatives of a species, one also sees a movement away from the teeming gallery of portraits of bears, moose, foxes, wolves, panthers, eagles, and hawks. Such virtuostic forays as Sally Carrighar's in One Day at Teton Marsh1 into the lives of a mosquito, a leech, and a snail provide telling examples of the direction the more innovative animal narratives took.

From an ethical point of view, however, the many interesting and significant differences between the work of early and later practitioners of the animal tale are less significant than the basic underlying similarities that amount to a sustained, implicit critique of mechanistic and behaviorist accounts of the lives of animals. The desire to reconcile science and artistry remained the genre's central goal throughout its development; in addition, such specific literary techniques as the characterization of protagonists and the rendering of point of view remained virtually unchanged even as the genre became increasingly more refined and sophisticated. Both Seton and Roberts employed the enduring convention of naming wild animals, and both also hit upon the basic "solution" for rendering animal consciousness by using a limited third-person point of view. Characterization in animal stories depends on explicit individuation. One obvious way of starting to achieve it, which is probably necessary if not by itself sufficient, is by giving animals a proper name; thus, we have Seton's Krag the ram, Roberts's Hushwing the owl, Carson's Scomber the mackerel, and so forth. This convention of naming wild animals has been defended not only by writers of wild animal narratives, but also by influential scientists, such as Jane Goodall, who writes, "Some scientists feel that animals should be labeled by numbers-that to name them is anthropomorphic-but I have always been interested in the differences between individuals, and a name is not only more individual than a number but also far easier to remember" (47). Even the most sophisticated writers of animal stories continued to employ names in order to highlight individuality, although they often found ways to make the names seem somewhat less anthropomorphic and arbitrary. Carson, for instance, often turns the Latin taxonomic designation of the animal's genus into a proper name, as in the case of "Rynchops" the black skimmer.2 Carrighar hit upon the simpler solution of capitalizing the animal's common name and preceding it with a definite article: thus, "the Weasel," "the Lizard," and so forth.

The basic difficulty of the animal story genre, as the whole business of naming suggests, is to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of anthropomorphism-which uncritically imputes a human-like consciousness to animals-and anthropocentrism-which presumptuously denies consciousness to other animals. First-person animal narratives, such as Black Beauty, are overtly anthropomorphic fantasies and cannot operate within or even congruent to the framework of natural science. Conversely, an objectively maintained third-person point of view that focuses exclusively on exterior action and rigorously excludes any hint of interiority would correspond with an anthropocentric or behaviorist position. The limited third-person point of view almost invariably employed by Seton, Roberts, and their heirs arises directly from adherence to an intermediate position between these extremes, one that is both wary yet commonsensical, non-dogmatic, and open to possibilities. This point of view mediates the animal's experience and conveys its purposiveness and emotional states, without suggesting that the animal itself relies on language or a symbolic understanding of its environment. Limited third-person also allows readers to glimpse the world through the sensory apparatus of different species. For example, in one section of Carrighar's innovative first volume, One Day on Beetle Rock,3 the world is represented through the ears of a deer mouse, which cannot hear low tones, such as the hoots of great horned owls. The mouse's world becomes that much more vivid and terrifying to a reader who is not simply told but shown what it is like not to be able to detect the most obvious manifestation of the mouse's deadliest predator.

Limited third-person narrators come in many subtle varieties, and it is important to note that the writers of animal stories do not typically employ a Jamesian "central intelligence," rigorously focused on the thought and perception of the protagonist, but rather a looser point of view that ranges freely from the central figure to take in the bustling activities of entire ecosystems-a context that enriches a reader's understanding of the individual life at the center of each narrative. One important variation on this technique occurs in OneDay on Beetle Rock. In the book's interlocking narratives, single events are frequently narrated multiple times from the points ofview of different animals, often with extreme variations in the focus and amount of detail; the book is almost a naturalistic equivalent of The Ring and the Book or Rashomon.

The experiences of individual minds in the act of thinking, perceiving, and feeling are of paramount importance to all the writers of animal stories. Robert Murphy's particularly complex novel-length portrait in The Peregrine Falcon4 provides a telling example. The narrative's protagonist, Varda (named in evident homage after Williamson's Tarka) experiences a wide range of emotional states, from feelings of wonder, joy, and excitement to those of mischief and revenge. Murphy's representations are credible and possible, but how defensible are they against skeptical criticism? Rachel Carson has rather guardedly defended the imputation of emotional states to animals as follows: "I have spoken of a fish 'fearing' his enemies. . . not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened. With the fish, the response is primarily physical" rather than psychological (qtd. in Brooks 34). Even if Carson's point is an appropriate one to make about a fish, a fish is not a falcon, or for that matter a bear or a chimpanzee.

Carson's cautious defense, formulated to keep her work respectable in the eyes of behaviorist colleagues, raises some interesting questions about artifice and the ability of the genre to transcend a purely anthropocentric perspective. Do these narratives, despite their authors' best intentions, ultimately serve to remind us that we are "trapped" within a linguistic perspective that creates for us a sense of reality far removed from that of other animals? Can any narrative representation of another species' viewpoint be more than a sophisticated Aesop's fable? Current research on the origin of language and on animal consciousness tends to nudge us away from purely skeptical responses to these questions and toward at least a provisional willingness to accept the veracity of emotional states and thinking represented in the more rigorously composed animal narratives. Since it is notoriously difficult to ascertain much about the inner lives of animals, such narratives necessarily depend upon imaginative extrapolations, analogies, anecdotes, and, ultimately, leaps of faith-the more so, since the most significant stories were written before the research breakthroughs in the field of animal intelligence that began in the late 1960s.

A century ago Charles G. D. Roberts asserted that "when instinct and coincidence had done all that could be asked of them, there remained a great unaccounted-for body of facts; and men were forced at last to accept the proposition that, within their varying limitations, animals can and do reason" (23). Recently, Donald Griffin, the scientist who discovered that bats use sonar and one of the world's leading researchers on animal consciousness, wrote that the "assumption of a human monopoly on conscious thinking becomes more and more difficult to defend as we learn about the ingenuity of animals in coping with problems in their normal lives" (47). After a century of observation, research, and experimentation, more and more scientists are coming around to a version of Roberts's position, which is the position upon which the credibility of the wild animal narrative depends. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that credibility has been under assault, directly by scientists and indirectly by humanists.

Ralph Lutts has written a fascinating and detailed account of the so-called "nature fakers" controversy that erupted in the early portion of the twentieth century. The works of writers of animal narratives, such as Seton, Roberts, and William J. Long, were called into question by such prominent figures as John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt. Burroughs, who remained a dogmatic proponent of instinct as the source of all animal behavior, as opposed to conscious learning (Lutts 67), subscribed to a position that Griffin refers to as "antimentalism" (11). The definitive modern theorization of this Aristotelian and Cartesian position is the behaviorist orthodoxy to which most scientists adhered until fairly recently. The pervasive bias fostered by this position is evident from the example of linguists who have attempted to redefine "language" in order to exclude chimpanzees, who communicate with sign language, and from that of certain ethologists and psychologists whom Griffin describes as being "actively uninterested in the possibility of animal consciousness" (23). In addition to the obvious behaviorist biases of the scientific community, during the same period dissimilar but parallel biases have characterized the thinking of humanists, who too often have adopted a totalizing view of human language. The so-called "prison house" view of language, characteristic of both philosophy and literary theory in their post-structuralist phases, can be viewed as part of an anthropocentric ideology that, perhaps unintentionally, reinforces already pervasive "antimentalist" biases by suggesting that thought depends wholly upon language and is, therefore, the exclusive property of human beings. In such accounts, the biological dimension of thought is not even considered; the emphasis falls exclusively on the most crucial of cultural artifacts, language, as if it could be abstracted from human biology and from the genetic similarities between humans and other animals.

Without an interest in the minds of other animals, empathy cannot exist. Without empathy, ethics cannot exist. Griffin provides the central ethical justification for entertaining the possibility of animal consciousness:

Many of the objections to investigation of animal thoughts and feelings seem to be based on a sort of "species solipsism." It may be logically impossible to disprove the proposition that all other animals are thoughtless robots, but we can escape from this paralytic dilemma by relying on the same criteria of reasonable plausibility that lead us to accept the reality of consciousness in other people. (28)

One of the major historical values of the animal story is the way it asserted this idea of "reasonable plausibility" against the ageold notion that animals are without consciousness and against some of the major intellectual trends of the twentieth century. The position that they and current researchers on animal consciousness advocate de-mystifies language by positing something that the German ethologist Otto Koehler calls "wordless thinking" (Griffin 204). Instead of constituting an absolute barrier between human consciousness and animal minds, language may well simply be one sophisticated manifestation of a larger trans-species continuum of thought. Such a position is supported by Roger Fouts, world-renowned chimpanzee researcher, who has recently posited a gestural, pre-human origin for language itself (192-98). If Koehler and Fouts are correct, then discreet attempts to formulate or paraphrase animal thoughts in human language, as both the writers of animal stories and scientists like Goodall (130) and Griffin (92) have done, can be seen as useful efforts to understand the minds of other species rather than merely as deluded anthropomorphisms. The position of the writers of animal stories and the contemporary students of animal consciousness resembles that of Kafka's Red Peter from the story "A Report to an Academy," who says, "Of course what I felt then as an ape I can represent now only in human terms, and therefore I misrepresent it, but although I cannot reach back to the truth of the old ape life, there is no doubt that it lies somewhere in the direction I have indicated" (253).

Animal stories attempt to indicate a direction-or imagine a reality-that is difficult to reach directly. They attempt to transcend the brutal theoretical rigor of a position that says we should treat what we cannot be absolutely sure of as if it does not exist. The imagination, ethics, and, ultimately, logic itself demand a less reductive view. The rational case for the validity of the animal story rests on the Darwinian knowledge that the difference between human and animal psychology is one of degree rather than kind. Current research into animal consciousness and current understanding of brain structure corroborates this knowledge. Griffin, for instance, argues that

Unless our understanding of neurophysiology undergoes a major revolution through the discovery of specialized "consciousness neurons" or biochemical substances uniquely linked to conscious thinking, we must assume that the essential difference between central nervous systems that do and do not enable conscious thought are at the level of interactive organization rather than at the cellular level. (126)

Marc Hauser, author of the recently published Wild Minds, supplies a suggestive example of the similarities between the brain structures of humans and other animals when he notes that "many of the behavioral problems dogs experience can be treated with the same type of pharmacological drugs that work on human psychiatric disorders" (10-11).

Seton had claimed in the early days of the animal story that "we and the beasts are kin. Man has nothing that the animals have not at least a vestige of ' (Wild Animals 11). Around the same time, Roberts wrote that "The animal story, as we now have it, is a potent emancipator. It frees us for a little from the world of shop-worn utilities, and from the mean tenement of self of which we do well to grow weary" (29). Animal narratives, at their imaginative best, are not invitations to anthropomorphic sentimentality, but rather literary extensions of natural history and a potentially potent ethical force. By imagining the minds and lives of other animals, the writer of such a narrative extends the concept of Keatsian "negative capability" in a remarkable way and attempts to draw the reader beyond impoverished and stereotypical views of animals toward a recognition of the possible-and we must now say probable-- complexity and fullness of other lives.

1New York: Knopf, 1947.

2 Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

3New York: Knopf, 1944.

4New York: Avon Books, 1963.


Brooks, Paul. Rachel Carson at Work: The House of Life. Boston: G. K Hall & Co., 1985.

Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. New York: Random House, 1957. Fouts, Roger. Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. New York: Avon Books, 1997.

Goodall, Jane. In the Shadow of Man. New York: Houghton Company, 1971. Griffin, Donald R. Animal Thinking. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. Hauser, Marc D. Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

Kafka, Franz. "A Report to an Academy." The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. 250-259.

Lutts, Ralph H. The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1990.

Roberts, Charles G. D. The Kindred of the Wild. Boston: The Page Company Publishers, 1902.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. Lives of the Hunted. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901.

-. Wild Animals I Have Known. New York: Schocken Books, 1898. Williamson, Henry. Tarka the Otter. New York: Avon Books, 1967.

ALLAN BURNS is the Director of Publications for the American Birding Association. He earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Penn State and has published widely in the fields ofEnglish and American literature. He served as the guest editor of PLL in 2001.

Copyright Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Fall 2002
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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