Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Dogdom: Nonhuman Others and the Othered Self in Kafka, Beckett, and Auster

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Dogdom: Nonhuman Others and the Othered Self in Kafka, Beckett, and Auster

Article excerpt

Anthropocentricism, in some sense, is logically unavoidable," the philosopher David Wood writes: "Any account we come up with of 'our' relation to 'animals' will be from 'our' point of view" (1999, 19-20). Descriptions and depictions of nonhuman animals, that is, will always be rooted in a human perspective and therefore prioritize the human, so that even the most empathic literary explorations of the lives of animals inevitably gravitate to the human self, as if all words must lead to home. Such unavoidable anthropocentrism thus necessarily involves a kind of life writing, which is to say, a human autobiographical gesture is necessarily inscribed in writing about nonhuman animals, or, to extend on Wood's pronouns, a human "I" remains implicit in "our" point of view, and the human thus invariably attends reading and writing seemingly intent on being attentive to other things. A writer renowned for his taciturnity regarding his own work, Samuel Beckett eloquently describes such reflexivity in a 1949 letter: "I who hardly ever talk about myself talk about little else" (2011, 141). Similarly, as writers attempt to represent nonhuman animals or take imaginative leaps to speak for them, these efforts are bound in measure to fail, not least owing to the lurking presence of anthropomorphism in the use of human language. In her introduction to the essay anthology Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing, Margo DeMello articulates the problem: "Because they don't speak our language, and we don't speak theirs, we cannot see, nor can we guess, what's in their mind" (2013, 5). This dilemma speaks to the limits of literary creativity and serves to expose the human ventriloquist behind the animal dummy.

The concept of the radically secretive, unrepresentable animal, inhabiting what German biologist Jakob von Uexkull labels "unknown and invisible worlds," is a familiar one (2010, 41). Less familiar, however, is the idea that literature's incongruity with animal worlds may open new possibilities when it comes to representing human life. As Karla Armbruster observes: "The notion that human language cannot capture the fullness of animal existence often carries the unstated assumption that it can capture humans' experience of the world" (2013, 26). Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Paul Auster are all skeptical of that assumption and each resorts to uncanny dehumanized creatures in their writing to subvert the privileging of human language. But in Kafka's 1922 story "Investigations of a Dog," the dog episodes in Beckett's 1955 novel Molloy, and Auster's 1999 novella Timbuktu, the epistemological and expressive poverty in reading and writing animals is itself implicated in human autobiographical reflections proper. In this essay, I examine experimental prose that challenges humanist assumptions about the reliability of self-reflection to contend that autobiographical deeds are beset by inimical challenges comparable to those encountered in reading and writing animals. In this line of twentieth-century writers, the disjunctions that mark the relationship between human and nonhuman animals to an extent also mark the relationship between self and writing. Indeed, I argue that, for Kafka, Beckett, and Auster, writing the self can involve writing the other in the same way that writing the other can involve writing the self.

It was not until literary modernism, Carrie Rohman argues, that animality proliferated in literature: "Traditional narratives do not register the eruption of animality through the eruption of language: modernist literature is the first to do that" (2009, 41). As modernity produces alienation from self and community, that is, modernism's interrogation of human identity leads to a fresh recognition and reassessment of nonhuman beings. As Oxana Timofeeva suggests, "Modernism establishes a kind of imaginary space, inhabited by and crossed by transitional, monstrous figures, in which human beings hardly recognize themselves. …

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