I’ve been reading Melanie Challenger’s book, How to Be an Animal, a wonderful reminder that we are embodied and that, despite all that is extraordinary about humanity, we are not separate from the rest of nature.
The poet Mary Oliver, summed this up in one of the finest lines of poetry, in ‘Wild Geese’:
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,
But how many of us do this?
Animal, not machine
Many of us live with the constant adjuncts of electronic devices. Those of us who work on screens a great deal, including many writers, can begin to imagine we are, at least some of the time, disembodied brains. Some of us (probably far too many of us) have experienced health services that compartmentalise us to our detriment. It is all too easy in a busy world where a lot of our life is performed ‘virtually’ to stop listening to the body. I certainly go through constant cycles of this and need frequent reminders that my body has wisdom. And as well as remembering to listen to our individual bodies, we also do well to remember that our human intelligence and ingenuity, as creative and wonderful as it is, doesn’t always make us the most exemplary or benevolent species on the planet.
Melanie Challenger’s book is a refreshing reminder of this, exploring how fragmented humanity often is from our animal nature and urging us to reconsider our niche on the earth while having more respect for other species and the planet itself. As she says,
Opening our eyes, we face the truth of what we are, a thinking and feeling colony of energy and matter wrapped in precious flesh that prickles when it’s cold or in love. We are a creature of organic substance and electricity that can be eaten, injured and dissipated back into the enigmatic physics of the universe. The truth is that being human is being animal. This is a difficult thing to admit if we are raised on a belief in our distinction.
Connected, not apart
This sense of ‘distinction’ is ancient. So many of us come from lineages that have insisted that the earth is the centre of the universe and that humans are the centre and apex of all life. And those who come from traditions that dissent from this story will still have been exposed to this dominating voice of exceptionalism. It’s a long time since our ancestors stopped thinking of themselves as wholly part of nature and slowly but surely began to see every other life as a resource expressly provided for themselves.
Each scientific or intellectual threat to our singular status has been followed by a fracturing of existing beliefs and renewed efforts to ground the basis of our separation from the rest of life. One solution was to redirect the emphasis on to becoming human. Solace could be found in the possibility that, as Thomas Huxley put it, we may be “from them” but we are not “of them.” This has been repeated in different forms ever since.
How we got to this fragmented state is a matter of endless debate. The extraordinary poet and Palaeolithic researcher, Clayton Eshleman believes that as soon as humanity became conscious of being conscious, we began to separate ourselves from other animals. Writing in Juniper Fuse he says:
Our tragedy is to search further and further back for a
common non-racial trunk in which the animal is not separated out of the human, while we destroy the turf on which we actually stand.
Embodied, not disembodied intelligence
For Eshleman, our intelligence, ingenuity and creativity is both our gift and our weakness. Challenger focusses more on the present effects of our bid for separation and the directions it is currently taking:
… now we’re told that everything should make way for humankind’s greatest invention: artificial intelligence. … In this cult of freedom, nothing much is said of the consequences for the eight million or so species that live alongside us. Little is said for the passing of all the intelligence found in flesh and bone, feather and fang.
This intelligence of ‘flesh and bone, feather and fang.’ marries with the growing research on consciousness as a function not only, probably not even primarily, of brain but of body.
It’s only when we forget that our conscious experience is a feature of our bodies that we stumble when we see it at work… That our subjective consciousness is a physical phenomenon that can be interrupted by everything from diet and disease to depression only reaffirms that we are an animal […] Consciousness is just a convenient word that stands for a global function that emerges from but extends beyond our immediate anatomy. The person we build our lives around is a consequence of the body…
That consciousness is bodily, down to the first utterances of language from which we began to story our sense of self, is brilliantly evoked in Eshleman’s poem, ‘Silence Raving’, of which these are the third and fourth stanzas:
They poured their foreheads into the coals and corrals
zigzagged about in the night air—
the animals led in crossed
a massive vulva incised before the gate,
the power that came up from it was paradise, the power
the Cro-Magnons bequeathed to us:
to make an altar of our throats.
The first words were mixed with animal fat,
wounded men tried to say who did it.
The group was the rim of a to-be-invented wheel,
their speech was spokes, looping over,
around, the hub of the fire, its silk of us,
its burn of them, bop we dip, you dip,
we dip to you, you will dip to us, Dionysus
the plopping, pooling words, stirred
by the lyre gaps between the peaks of flame,
water to fire, us to them.
Meaning, not immortality
While Eshleman talks about our consciousness of consciousness as fundamental to our untethering of animal body from mind, Challenger points to our consciousness of death as also motivating the separation. Humans are not the only species to mourn our dead, but we seem to be more aware of our mortality and that we do not have ‘world and time enough’.
We’ve become the conundrum of an animal that doesn’t want an animal’s body. […] Other animals don’t have to justify themselves to themselves. But humans seek what might give their lives a meaning that no other animal possesses. If we don’t belong to the rest of nature, its dangers can’t reach us.
But of course the dangers of being bodies can and does reach us because we are as animal as the next species as well as having ancestors in plants and even rocks (the calcium of our bones, the material of our teeth…). This doesn’t make our lives meaningless—far from it. But this meaning is inseparable from the meaning of all life.
To let the soft animals of our bodies love what they love requires a different story. One in which we recognise multiple consciousnesses. One in which we recognise that our whole conception of ourselves as individuals is partial, that we are not simply individuals but holobionts—assemblages of host and the many other species living in or around us. So much so that even where we begin and end in this ecology of symbiosis is a topic of debate.
As writers we have always have the opportunity to be part of writing a different story and we can do it in so many ways. In the forthcoming edition of Kith Review a range of writers have taken the theme of embodiment in so many innovative directions. A writer I’m currently working with writes literary erotica that is politically engaged, challenges colonialist and racist assumptions, advocates for disability justice and does all of this in exquisite prose without a hint o didacticism. And I work with many other non-fiction writers, memoirists novelists, short story writers and poets whose senses are acutely attuned to the soft animal of the body.
What is unassailably true is that humanity cannot survive without the planet we inhabit and the richness of life that makes this planet inhabitable. We are connected. We thrive together or perish together.
Here’s to writing and living the soft animal of our bodies.