Part Spaniel, Part Canine Puzzle: Anthropomorphism in Woolf's Flush and Auster's Timbuktu

By Ittner, Jutta | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Part Spaniel, Part Canine Puzzle: Anthropomorphism in Woolf's Flush and Auster's Timbuktu


Ittner, Jutta, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


An exploration of traditional and "new" literary anthropomorphism and the fascination, problems, and limitations of imagining "being animal," this essay presents a contrasting analysis of canine constructs and their complex narrative fabrics of human and animal lives and consciousnesses.

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In Paul Auster's novel Timbuktu, two children in love with a mangy old stray are told that the dog "is not a person, he's a dog, and dogs don't ask questions" (139). But the children know better, and so does the reader. Indeed, Auster's canine protagonist not only has a lot of questions about the world; he also finds it "odd that he should be thinking about these things" (31). Mr. Bones, "part spaniel, part canine puzzle" (5) in multiple senses, joins a vast menagerie of philosophizing animals in today's literature. He also raises the question of what makes animal protagonists so popular despite the disdain of literary critics for adult anthropomorphic fiction. Writing from the animal perspective tends to be dismissed as a trivial enterprise, and, as in the case of Virginia Woolf's Flush: A Biography, its result generally meets with critical neglect (Caughie 143; Beer 102). Many important writers have nevertheless chosen to venture into the field of animal consciousness, despite their own reservations. Woolf, anticipating that her reviewers would find Flush only "charming" (Diary 181), pre-empted their criticism by calling it a "freak [...] to let my brain cool" from her intense experimental work on The Waves (Letters 161-62). Flush was indeed originally conceived as a joke and a quick way to sell a novel at a time when publishers were wary of her innovative work (Caughie 149). The writing process took her more than two years, because "in even so slight a book [...] greater concerns" arose (Lewis 308). These concerns were, I suspect, deeper than the "complex and conflicted aesthetics" that today's readers find in the novel (Caughie 154). As one critic recognizes, Flush can be called a joke "only in the deep psychological sense, as unconscious truth-telling" (Squier 124). Although some Woolf critics have come to reassess Flush, the many facets of anthropomorphic bias surface again in the critical reception of Timbuktu. One reviewer dismisses the book that took Auster five years to complete (Interview II) as the "[marginal] result of a writer's holiday," at the same time critiquing the author's proclivity for "the utterly bewildering nature of human experience" and calling the novel too dark for a children's book and too whimsical and slim for an adult novel (Tayler 22). The reception of Auster's and Woolf's canine biographies ranges from the delight and fascination of many readers to the critics' disdain, which suggests that imagining the world as perceived through animal eyes is inevitably a complex and controversial undertaking.

Are these fictional representations of the animal mind just harmless testimonies to the curiosity and playfulness that the animals' Otherness evokes in us? Are they reflections of a deep, if unconscious, yearning for contact with the unknowable, or cheap exploitations of our need not to feel separate from the animated universe? The popularity of animal representations--in whatever form they appear--may spring from a genuine interest in deepening our understanding of the Other. However, as recent cinematic explorations of animal alterity suggest, even real animal encounters grant insights not so much into animalness as into the human condition. The documentary Grizzly Man, as filmed by Timothy Treadwell and mediated by Werner Herzog, demonstrates how the human interest in animals can be fuelled by a self-centred curiosity about how we might be perceived by the animal, no matter how much we "love" animals. To put it more pointedly, our interest may be fuelled by the narcissistic desire to have our superiority mirrored back to us by creatures that lack the capacities for which we pride ourselves.

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