"You Are Not Beppo": Elizabeth Bishop's Animals and Negotiation of Identity

Article excerpt

To rethink the animal is to rethink the human. This tenet, supported by an interdisciplinary consideration of animal/human relations, informs an examination of how the representation of animals in Elizabeth Bishop's writings contributes to a "taxonomy of selfhood" and a "neotenous" imagination sympathetic to difference.

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To rethink the animal is to rethink the human. Another tenet of myriad implications asserted by philosophers, art critics, sociologists, biologists, and ethologists is that animals are like and unlike us (Midgley 1; Berger 2; Franklin 9): like us enough to be useful in experimentation for human benefit, unlike us enough to deflect concern on their behalf; like us in sentience and will-to-be; unlike us, many assume, in lack of intellect and moral agency. Cultural and literary practices often reinstate such hierarchies of animals' coexistence with the human, representing them as totemic scapegoats; amoral creatures of sensation and sexuality; a lower order to be dominated, sacrificed, destroyed, consumed, petted, and ignored. In these paradigms, the animal defines the human by antithesis, as "other," the beast to be conquered by enlightened civilization. Rethinking the potential of the animal thus means rethinking mindedness and physicality, domination and ethics, otherness and identity; it involves, as philosopher Mary Midgley explains, "concepts of childhood and maturity, and the human race's general view of itself in relation to the physical universe" (7).

Questions of likeness and unlikeness, paradigms of identity, and relations to others and the physical world pervade the writings of Elizabeth Bishop, frequently through the guise of imagined creatures and common animals: "The Man-Moth," "The Fish," "The Armadillo," "Sandpiper," "Pink Dog," and "The Moose." (1) Viewed through recent philosophical, environmental, and ethological considerations of the human/animal connection, Bishop's works reveal that hierarchical concepts of animal-as-less are deeply embedded. Anthropocentric assumptions underlie her apparently sympathetic depictions, particularly when identification with an animal conveys a destabilized abject self, as outlined in the theories of Julia Kristeva. On the other hand, the writings express spontaneous attraction to animals. Then the reassuring presence of birds, dogs, chickens, and cows contributes to a "taxonomy of selfhood," as described by ecologist Paul Shepard. These animal passages suggest the presence of a literary form of "neoteny." In biology, neoteny means the retention of juvenile traits into maturity, including mental plasticity and curiosity; in a broad sense, neotenous beings retain openness to the unfamiliar--a characteristic conveyed by Bishop's childlike response to distinctive creatures. It is animals' seemingly dual nature--the lowly beast and the marvellous playmate--that informs a construction of self that reconciles the abject and appealing, the physical and psychic, and the childish and mature. The "animal," in Bishop's writing and in contemporary thought, inspires perceptions of the "other" that allow for sympathetic connection in the face of difference.

Identity" is difficult to fathom with a writer initially known for discretion and objective description, who shied away from literary cliques and grandstanding, whose later writings and biographies disclose a figure lonely, suffering, and sickly. Bishop scholars have noted her troubled sense of self, which emerges in the poetry through resistance to a dominant "I," ambivalence to female presences, and "closeting" of sexual desires (Zona 69; Goldensohn 46; Diehl 101; Paton 206). While her reticence may be refreshingly free of self-indulgent ego, it can also veil insecurity and distress (Merrin 2). Marilyn Lombardi connects the poet's struggles with asthma, alcoholism, and lesbianism to a private habit of "self-recrimination": "her detailed confessions of weakness [in unpublished writings] reveal a morbid streak to her imagination that is judiciously suppressed in her public persona" (6). …