Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Animal Characters

Bruce Boehrer's book Animal Characters deals with, you guessed it, how animals are characterized in the early modern period. By doing this, he also deals with the notion of human character, positing that animal characters in early modern literature were a way of creating and developing distinctions between humans and animals.

He begins by discussing what a "character" is. Are characters, as Elizabeth Fowler says, "social persons" with overlapping "legal, civic, corporate, economic, kinship, and literary" identities? Are characters basic types representative of certain virtues, vices, traits, etc., as Aristotle might class them--a catalogue of observations about a certain type of object or creature? Can animals only be characters inasmuch as they remind us of humans? Or are animals denied "characterhood" altogether because, as Descartes would say, they cannot think and have "no mental powers whatsoever"--no memory, no agency, no reason.

These questions might be applied to the distinction between human and animal, as well; what makes humans humans, and not merely an animal called homo sapiens. According to Boehrer, these questions of character, and the ensuing ways in which character is used and portrayed in literature, are answers to these questions. As he traces it, the history of character began to privilege interiority in the 18th century, an interiority which we know that we as individuals possess, which we have substantial evidence that other humans possess, and which we have very few clues as to whether animals possess it. Around the same time, animals lost subjectivity in literature and, instead of being admired, began to be degraded.

Boehrer uses a pre-Cartesian (pre-cogito, pre-interiority) model of literary character and proceeds to create character studies for several different animals. The hauler: the horse, which signals backward to feudal and chivalric associations, the knight, the warrior, the Hotspur, and forwards to the man of leisure, the "effete ninny" that has the disposable wealth to keep a horse for hunting and riding, the French dauphin who writes sonnets to his horse. Or, if we read Milton, the horses that pull the chariots of God, beings spiritual in nature and utterly un-animal.

The companion: the parrot, which reminds us of rich people trading in on the exotic nature of their pet only to receive its connotations of parroting and empty-headedness (especially associated with Catholic elite and clergy, and "the mindlessness of prayer in ancient languages and set forms" (20).) Or the cat, also associated with Catholicism in the practice of cat-torture, because cats were believed to be agents of the devil. This practice continued in Protestantism, not because cats were associated with demonic forces anymore but merely to underline the superstition and stupidity of Catholics.

The food: the turkey, a New World bird who takes the place of the large roasting fowl at the grand banquet, but whose ease of breeding and cheap cost eventually makes it available for lower-class people as well. And the sheep, who is associated with Christ, with saved Christians, with the pastoral mode, and with "emergent literatures of animal husbandry and georgic nationalism" (21), and, of course, discourses about Lent and abstinence (as we see in Middleton's Chaste Maid).

A review by Kent Steel is here.

I wonder where we are today, especially as the Internet culture adores animals, especially animals doing human things. What does this mean? Is this a step backwards, condescending towards animals and only granting them worth when they act like us, or forwards, towards allowing them rights, subjectivity, a place in society?