Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Meanest Thing That Feels": Anthropomorphizing Animals in Romanticism

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Meanest Thing That Feels": Anthropomorphizing Animals in Romanticism

Article excerpt

Theorizing an understanding of the "Other" has been a major impetus of philosophy and literary criticism this century, especially over the past several decades. Even a casual survey of such writing (think of Levinas, Derrida and Foucault), though, reveals that the concept of the Other is commonly assumed to include only the human, the foreignness of other individuals, races or cultures. Outside of explicitly environmentalist writing, and perhaps, indirectly, Heidegger's writing on "Being" (which need not be specifically human), the Otherness of the natural world in general, and animals in particular, has been overlooked. While those who write on environmental and animal rights issues often make use of the ethical and political implications of abstract and human-centered notions of otherness, there is no real scholarly dialogue between those with ecological concerns and those who speak for (or as) excluded or oppressed voices within political or literary realms.

The importance of establishing such a dialogue can especially be seen in the scholarship on Romanticism. That Romanticism explored alterity in a profound and original way used be an article of faith for scholars of the field. One way or another, it was felt, Romantic poets and artists uncovered and made known forms of otherness within nature, society and consciousness itself. For at least the past fifteen years, however, this easy generalization has been challenged by feminist and new historicist critics. Both argue that the alterity supposedly uncovered by writers of the period (nature in Wordsworth and Shelley's "Epipsychidion" being nearly paradigmatic examples) is in most cases an idealized projection of the writer's ego; worse yet, they argue, the apparent otherness of women, the working classes, ethnicity and material social forces is only further obscured, driven deeper into alterity as it were, by Romanticism's foregrounding of the all-knowing, visionary consciousness of its white male authors. It has become very nearly a given of recent criticism of Romanticism that it has feminized nature so that it may be characterized as both nurturing and infinitely malleable, a body or entity whose creative powers may be usurped even as it is literally inscribed by male desire. As a necessary feature of this move, it is argued, women are "naturalized," made a part of the landscape and so assumed to be part of an otherness which, finally, denies them the possibility of becoming self-possessing subjects. Feminist environmentalists like Carolyn Merchant have demonstrated that this association is not so much a feature of Romanticism as it is a characteristic of Western male thought. Yet it is fair, I think, to say that Romanticism represents a peculiar climax of these ideas, because it is a period in which the idea of nature comes under intense scrutiny.

While the revisionist view of Romanticism's reification of self and its mystification of nature is not exactly in danger of becoming a new hegemony yet, I would like to complicate it by exploring a little-studied area of concern within the Romantic period. It seems to me that representations of animals in Romantic art and poetry reveal a profound interest in a genuine otherness in nature (the sentience of animals) which potentially stands outside the nature/femininity equation as understood by feminist critics of Romanticism. That is, femininity is far less different from masculine consciousness than the kinds of "being" Romantic writers and painters found in animals, which afforded them an explicit means of exploring their own being in terms of species rather than covertly through gender. This interest, furthermore, anticipates the efforts of contemporary environmentalism to de-center our view of the world, to place human beings firmly within, rather than outside or on top of, nature--with nature here being understood as a complex and interdependent web of living beings.

My argument begins with the realization that the act of representing animal life is, like most acts of representation, a phenomenon whose real complications we ignore. …

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