The Animal Point of View

15. 3. 2017

Eric Baratay, Le point de vue animal. Une autre version de l’histoire [“The animal point of view. Another version of the story “], SEUIL Edition

Almost all“Others” already have their version of history. Women took care of it themselves when they started to write “herstory,” kept in a revisionist spirit, and there are many texts about the victims of history’s mainstream told from a postcolonial perspective. Only animals do not yet have anything like that. To wait until they make it with their own, excuse le mot, paw, would be futile (although who knows, humpback whales, for example, have developed an intriguing system of diversified songs, and in fact you can increasingly often hear about a peculiar language of animals), so it is just as well that the French historian and essayist Eric Baratay did it for them. The Animal Point of View is a comprehensive review, in which the author takes upon himself the burden of freeing history from the anthropocentric vision. Becoming a spokesman for animals, he is trying to look at watershed events through their eyes.

“A living animal,” says the author, “cannot remain a blank spot of history.”The history of civilization, he argues, is after all also the story of living creatures other than man, equally interesting and complex, and often—importantly—more painful. Baratay is absolutely convinced that animals have to be inserted in history, for they are an inalienable part of it. “History, as construed by human communities, is always told like an adventure which involves exclusively humans. […] In fact also the animal side of history is epic, turbulent, full of contrasts, often bloody, sometimes peaceful and occasionally comical. It has been written with flesh and blood, feelings and emotions, fear, pain, pleasure, violence inflicted on them and a sense of closeness. It directly affects humans to such an extent that it is increasingly shaping human history. So it is by no means anecdotal or secondary, and fully deserves the attention of those historians who care about history in all its complexity and variety.”

Baratay does care. Therefore, he takes a close look at special moments of history, where the fate of humans was strongly intertwined with the fate of animals, such as World War I or rapid economic growth after World War II, resulting, for example, in the development of industrial methods of animal breeding. Baratay is of course more interested in certain animal species due to their involvement in human matters. Piranhas and pygmy hedgehogs preoccupy him less than cows, horses, bulls and dogs.

The author proposes an even broader categorization. He is after all a historian and it can be felt in the book. His writing is systematic and ordered. He breaks animals into five basic groups: dairy cows, horses, animals recruited for war, domesticated animals and those taking part in corridas. All of them suffer, their fate is far from perfect; mainly due to the fact that it has been designed by men.

Women cannot compare with Shakespeare and cats do not go to heaven—claimed scholars from the times of Virginia Woolf, lampooned by the famous writer. Similarly-minded scholars in various eras almost measure animals with a ruler, deciding how they should look and what they should do in order to please humans and serve them well. Baratay describes, for example, how dragging animals into human history resulted in modifications of their size, weight and morphology, meant at adapting the creatures to specific wishes and functions ascribed to them. For example, Norman dairy cows breed evolved over the years from bony and angular through fuller specimens to those achieving geometric regularity, with the forehead squeezed between protruding eye sockets and assuming the shape of a rectangle—a feature of perfect beauty (!). Corrida bulls have ever shorter legs and increasingly long necks, which of course finds its bullfighting justification—it makes the job of the bullfighter easier and the spectacle more attractive. Companion dogs change with the vagaries of fashion in a particular epoch—in some periods box cord poodles are “produced” and in other eras woolly ones are more in demand. Sheepdogs are elevated and shortened depending on the function ascribed to them. People interfere in the appearance of horses depending on whether they have to help humans in farming land or to take part in races.

But appearance is a trifling matter (even though wrongly “manufactured” animals experience pain, for example connected with lameness or difficulties with breathing), according to the French historian animals are the true “proletarians of history” due to the uses they have been put to. Perhaps the most excruciating, as well as the best-known publication describing the terrible condition of animals reduced to the role of slaves, which people use according to their whims, was the work Animal Liberation of the famous Australian ethical scholar Peter Singer, published in the 1970s. Compared to it, Baratay’s book is only a tart appetizer, but still necessary, for it makes us aware yet another time that the ”Lord of Creation” is making a bold use of his overlordship, disregarding the well-being of the creatures under his power. Baratay writes about the development of the dairy industry and the centuries-long role played in it by cows, the history of transport, and the participation of horses in the process of industrialization or wars generated by humans, who are more than happy to use their animal pariahs on the battlefield.

In The Lives of Animals the literary Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee repeats the question posed by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel: “What is it like to be a bat?”The American scholar claimed that it is impossible to penetrate the mind of an animal. For Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee’s protagonist, and also perhaps his alter ego, the matter looks different. She scorns Nagel, claiming that it is possible. For there are no limits to sympathetic imagination, you can easily empathize with the bat, leopard or jaguar, it is enough just to imagine their existence, to enter their experience. But there are also theories saying that the special emotional equipment which makes it possible to empathize with other creatures and care about their fate—whether they are people or titmice—is simply contained in some genetic packages and not in other ones. This would explain why many of us are in fact helpless when confronted with the question about being a bat. Baratay himself perhaps knows what it is like, and this is why he is not attempting to reach philosophical heights, he is not trying to “be” a dog or a horse, he is just trying to come closer. Every time, when he describes the hardships of animal life and the violence which has been inflicted on them, he attempts to capture what may be hiding behind their accelerated breath or dilated pupils. He departs from the mechanical, engineering approach contained in such words as “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “task,” aiming towards a perspective full of compassion and understanding.

What are the feelings of a cow separated from its calf and enclosed in a small compartment? Or, a more drastic example, what is bullfighting like? From the human side it often is (!) an idea of necessary violence perceived as a part of human nature, a pleasure born from the alarming beauty of death, a rejection of oppressive morality. From the animal side it is pain and death, void of any ”alarming beauty.” Unless we regard as such the blade of a lance piercing the body, broken ribs, lung punctures. Baratay of course describes this “spectacle” from such a perspective. And how does the military service of dogs look like? When we look at it through the eyes of a dog, as the Frenchman tries, we will have two drag carts weighing as much as 150 kg, suffer from serious diseases, feel fear, experience separation from the owner and finally die from shrapnel or from exhaustion.

Perhaps unintentionally, Baratay’s little book illustrates how much falsehood is hidden in our language. Animals are its great historical victims. It is difficult to think in personal terms about something which has been reduced to udders, about the way of holding the tail or the necessity of possessing a narrow snout complying with the specifications for the “perfect breed.” The Frenchman rejects this animal breeding gibberish. He opposes the thankfully no longer very popular view, stemming from Descartes, that animals are automata devoid of feelings and ability to think. Writing from the “animal point of view,” he focuses on emotions, feelings and reactions of animals, he shows a community—also of suffering.

A great merit of this book is that it does not try to blackmail the reader, it does not raise the specter of hell before those who do not want to compose their menu only of tofu and lettuce leaf, it does not incite us to attack laboratories were experiments on animals are performed or some other spectacular actions. Baratay’s proposition is clear, but also comprehensive, profound and demanding a much more serious ideological rethink than just replacing hamburgers with beetroot burgers. According to Baratay we have to stop looking and thinking from the perspective of the navel of the world we regard ourselves as, we must reject the caste approach and grant other living creatures, from outside the human species, the right to be actors in the world. In other words, we must move away from anthropocentrism and the obsession of building barricades between man and animal. We must get rid of the discourse of domination.

Does this vision have a chance of materializing? Baratay—and the author of this text too—want to believe that it does. In a world where—of course alongside with a number of evils perpetrated against animals—a dolphin becomes a “nonhuman person” in India, scientists and activists involved in the “Great Apes Project” work on granting primates the rights to life, liberty and prohibition of torture, and developing a cheap method of producing artificial hamburgers is a matter of time—in such a world a glimmer of optimism is warranted. “The recent scientific re-evaluation of animals,” writes Baratay, “their growing closeness with man which this entails—to such an extent that the English language magazine Man publishes articles about the life of chimpanzees—must lead to granting them, especially the species with which humans interact with, a place among Others. This is, of course, not to suggest that these groups have the same nature, but to emphasize that their agency was denied, that their abilities were diminished.” In fact, life is constantly providing us with other examples giving cause for enthusiasm. Baratay cites them in his book as well. “I tell you, it is the foulest wickedness that animals are dragged into war,” wrote Erich Maria Remarque in his novel All Quiet On the Western Front, but this war also triggered in people the understanding of the enormity of the sacrifices required of animals. In 1916 a guard dog was awarded the badge of a scout, in 1918 all military kennels posted a letter praising messenger dogs, and also pigeons were rewarded for their hard front-line work at transporting messages! Also horses serving in mines have been paid the respects due to them. After the last two were lifted to the surface—in 1969 and 1976—many articles on their history have been written and funds are collected in order to provide these animals with peaceful retirement.

Nevertheless, the effects of animal lives on people are still poorly described. It is a great shame that we do not have narratives written by the interested parties and we will rather not live to see them. On the other hand… in one of his great texts J.M. Coetzee wrote that it was not entirely true that animals could not speak. In moments important for themselves they can talk to humans in a peculiar and mysterious way. Perhaps in this case they lent their a voice to Baratay?

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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