on What I Don’t Know About Animals, non-fiction by Jenny Diski (Yale University Press)

It was the habit of Jacques Derrida’s cat to follow the philosopher into the bathroom. The door would close behind cat and naked man. Then the cat would stare up at the philosopher’s genitals.

DiskiDerrida.jpegApparently Derrida’s cat was very much like Jenny Diski’s cat Bunty, insofar as Derrida and Diski share certain notions on observing and being observed by the animals sharing their living space. “Derrida supposes the cat looks at his genitals; I suppose the cat looks to have the door opened,” she writes. “Neither of us can be sure what the cat supposes. We can’t even be sure that while she looks, she is waiting. Waiting is what we would be doing if we were a cat sitting, looking at a person, in front of a closed door that we will go out of when it is opened. But the cat is opaque to our human interpretation of her behaviour.”

What Jenny Diski doesn’t know about animals could fill a book, in this case, her delightfully prickly and commonsensible What I Don’t Know About Animals. Her unknowingness of the otherness -- and our exploitation -- of animals are immutable and obvious aspects of human/animal relations as she so humanly portrays them. Animals are so otherly that all of our thinking and agonizing about them reflects only us, not them. We wanted the world on our terms, right? But our terms are all that we may have. Our view is compulsively and compulsorily human. And Diski’s view is contentious, a response to certain moralizing attitudes.

DiskCover.jpgWhat I Don’t Know About Animals is anchored in personal narrative and essayistic reportage, stories of common exposure to animals, beginning with the stuffed, the storied, the Disney animated, those caught on hidden camera and televised, and the zoo-displayed. Diski’s brisk, assertive and often punchy address freshens the familiar into the newly witnessed. Through a lifetime, she has seen that we use animals to explain as much as to feed ourselves:

“We presume that it’s easier for children to grasp the nature of the species they belong to through the medium of other species, as if indirection works better on young minds … It may also be that adults see their babies and toddlers as beings more akin to the animal world. The task is to bring them slowly into the human fold. Certainly, we give them teddy bears and bunny rabbits before we give them dolls.”

She ships out to an Earthwatch expedition in Kenya for “considered watching” of elephants. “To be ignored by animals in their own territory is an indescribable honour,” she writes. “Actually so is being ignored by my cat at home.” When a young male elephant refuses to share a waterhole with his siblings, his mother bellows and whacks him out of the way with her trunk. Diski says, “It was impossible not to see this episode in precisely the human, familial way I have narrated it … in an anthropomorphic light.”

DiskiColor.jpegBut why does Diski see this attitude as problematic? She explains: “Anthropomorphism always worries me. That remaking of otherness as a replication of self – visually, morally or allegorically. The ‘cuteness’ that we see in animals, which has nothing to do with them but only with the onlooker, distresses me. I observe my own automatic humanising assumptions toward the young of other species, the ‘feelings’ which I suppose when I see an animal in pain or alone or dying, and try to keep it under control. I dislike and disapprove of the colonising aspect of finding easy connection with animals, which at the same time aching for it and identifying it in my relations with animals. The balance of the effect is always ‘They are somewhat like me,’ rather than ‘I am somewhat like them.’ We deny dignity and selfhood, whatever that might be to whatever creature it is, by making sentimental assumptions about why, what or how an animal is experiencing. Animals are not there for us to relate to, I want to insist grimly when folk coo or laugh at their behaviour, but it’s what we (and I) want to do most with animals, as well, of course, as eat them and utilise their fur and skin and other parts for our clothing, accessories, scent, cosmetics and medicines.”

The animal rights debate may be more thoroughly spelled out in other volumes, such as in the point/counterpoint arguments by philosophers Carl Cohen and Tom Regan in The Animal Rights Debate. But Diski’s discerning narrative speaks from a recognizable position on the ground – and her voice, comic or annoyed or avid for observation, is a powerful, engaging force.

DiskiLambing.jpegDiski goes on to visit a clinic where people are treated for delusional parasitosis (extreme fear of insects). She considers neoteny, the retention of fetal appearance after babies are born and how we “melt over neotenized features” we think we see in certain animals. She notes that the lamb may be a traditional metaphor for Jesus, but it’s also what Jesus had for his last supper. And to try to flush unwanted sympathies from her system, she attends lambing season at an English farm in a chapter titled “The Death of Lunch.”

DiskiHorse.jpgJust as I was finishing Diski’s book,
a relevant article appeared in the New York Times.
When funding for federal inspection of horse slaughter was eliminated in 2006, Congress effectively ended the sale of horse meat in the United States. Covering the consequences of that move, A.G. Sulzberger reported that this year some 140,000 horses will be shipped to Mexico for slaughter. American horse breeders “are now forced to pay hundreds of dollars to euthanize and dispose of unwanted horses when they used to receive about that much to sell them to slaughterhouses.” One horse trainer said, “You see a lot of malnourished and abandoned horses that probably would have been humanely slaughtered before,” and a New York chef who has cooked horsemeat remarked, “It’s hypocritical to allow these horses to be slaughtered anyway up in Canada or Mexico and not allow people here to get the income or serve the meat.” Animals rights groups dismiss these arguments as both absurd and immoral.

Diski tells a similar story about an animal at a local school:

“In September 2009 a lamb called Marcus was sent to be slaughtered. Marcus had been hand-reared by the pupils on their small farm at their primary school in Kent. A TV personality, hearing about the plan, offered to buy him; animal welfare-campaigners complained … The school council, comprising 14 seven-to-eleven-year-olds, voted 13:1 to send Marcus to the abattoir rather than keeping him. PETA sent a letter to Ms Chapman [head teacher] asking for the farm programme to be stopped.”

But the teachers and students maintained their stance. Diski concluded that Ms. Chapman’s students “will be among the few who know where their food is coming from, and be in a position to make an informed choice about whether to eat it themselves. I can’t think of a better way to introduce them to ‘humanity, compassion, respect and understanding’” [quoting from PETA’s letter of grievance].

About Temple Grandin’s methods to reduce animal anxiety in slaughterhouses, Diski says, “It’s a sort of con trick, because we are eventually, or even imminently, going to kill them, which all animals are instinctively against when it comes to it, but it’s a kind and thoughtful, as well as economically efficient, con trick.” (Grandin has endorsed Diski’s book.) She excoriates the “moral superiority and self-righteousness” of animal welfare advocates like Vicki Hearne.

These excerpts may typify Diski’s perspective on the animal rights debate, but her book is polemical only on its outer leaves, not its heart. She has more in common with writers like John Berger than with any polemicist.

DiskiCat.jpg“The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary,” writes John Berger in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” “He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. The animal scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension. The man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension. And this is so wherever he looks. He is always looking across ignorance and fear. And so, when he is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him … The animal has secrets which are specifically addressed to man.”

“I am exceptionally partial to both the live and dead pig,” quips Diski. But then, about insects she says, “I am suffused with remorse at the numbers I have caused to be killed, and I live contentedly with a spider who has taken up residence in a corner of the kitchen window.” Diski’s book succeeds so brilliantly because the very human secret of her own behavior persists as complex and unresolved. “Our existence on this planet is a problem,” she concludes, “but it isn’t a problem to be solved.”

[Published September 20, 2011. 320 pages, $26.00 hardcover]