Blurring Boundaries between Animal and Human: Animalhuman Rights in "Juan Darien" by Horacio Quiroga
Gunnels, Bridgette W., Romance Notes
THE title of this study suggests multiple questions, ontological as well as moral and ethical. Before blurring any boundaries between what has historically and scientifically been a neat, dyadic relationship, I must explore exactly what are the differences between human beings and animals, and at what moments do each of the entities cross over or blend, becoming hybrid beings possessing shared qualities. And moreover, does the manner in which human beings define themselves have a direct relation to the extension of rights? How do we define ourselves, if not in direct comparison to something we are not?
Theorists and philosophers alike from Descartes to Derrida have problematized this 'question of the animal' to such degrees that any discussion here would not even begin to scratch the surface of this most storied of topics. In short, by insisting on defining ourselves in terms of what we are not, we have installed a world of dichotomous beings and non-beings, humans and animals, subjects and objects, selves and Others who constantly battle for that coveted 50-yard line seat at the center of all things intellectual: who comes first? Nature or culture? Center or periphery?
This note briefly makes use of the historical conversations between leagues of others before me regarding the essence of human and animal and how these differ. It also uses as a cornerstone the basic conclusions of recent animal rights theorists as well as those ecocritics who would ponder the issues of nature and culture (or, as Donna Haraway puts it, naturecultures). While using the short story "Juan Darien" by Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga as a naturalcultural allegory, this essay situates recent thoughts on animal rights with the ideas of ecocritics who seek to destabilize dichotomous relationships (namely that of nature and culture). This note takes on a natural reading of "Juan Darien" by questioning the notion of 'civilization' on one level, while at the same time presenting readers with serious ethical breaches against a human being (Juan Darien the boy) on another, all leading to the culmination of this macabre tale in which the sacrifice of a tiger/boy leads to the physical, spiritual and emotional death of a village and a loss of innocence on an unprecedented scale.
As I interpret it, both human and animal rights are seriously contravened in Quiroga's story, and yet this tale offers more than a surface interpretation of animal rights or welfare. It leads readers to question their own humanity as well as animality, blurring the boundaries that have historically differentiated humans from animals. Although this piece could be read as a metaphorical tool that teaches the consequences of colonization and deculturation in Latin American cultures, a simpler (but by the same token more complex) reading of Quiroga's work shows it as a fictional illustration of how easily the limits that humans draw between themselves and the animal world can be compromised (and questioned) to a point where one being crosses into another, taking on characteristics, both physical and metaphorical, that would belie the 'true nature' of each.
Although cursory mention of the conclusions of Derrida, Wittgenstein, Bentham, and Freud are important to the theoretical foundation of this note, ecocritical points of view from Donna Haraway as well as animals rights thinkers Cary Wolfe and Peter Singer, are important for setting the stage of the nature/culture debate and its place in the creation of cultural artifacts (i.e.-literature). First, however, is a brief summary of "Juan Darien" to illustrate why it is such an appropriate vehicle for inspiring a different approach to the way we consider our relationships with animals.
Quiroga tells the story of a young mother who loses her only child to a virus epidemic in the village. She is disconsolate until the night that a baby tiger wanders into her garden. She takes the animal in and gives him shelter and love. …