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Animal Studies & Rilke’s “Black Cat”

“An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?”
–Jacques Derrida

In today’s print issue of the New York Times, there’s an article called “Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall.”  According to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the emergent field of “animal studies” encompasses “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.”  Reading the article made me think back to a debate I had last spring with a former colleague about the validity and value of animal studies.  My colleague had thought that animal studies was bogus interdisciplinarity, a distraction from the pure pursuit of literary learning while I was trying to entertain notions of how animal studies could enrich our reading and understanding of literature.  I had followed up my comments to him with an informal email that included a reading of Rilke’s famous poem “Black Cat.”  This is the poem (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation) from the marvelous book New Poems:

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

And here is what I wrote about the last stanza:

I’m just wondering out loud here now but isn’t this ending as much about interspecies awareness as it is about specularity and metaphor? Or can we say something productive of the fact that the human, the insect, and the feline are being triangulated by what Richards calls the tenor, vehicle, and ground? Here it seems like this epiphanic “shock” is more than what Barbara Herrnstein Smith is calling the “ontological thrill of the animal” (the term is from her book Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human)– it’s about the awareness of another being (a prehistoric fly) by way of a defamiliarized (or rather figured or metaphorized) reflection of the self. And it is an “awakening” of sorts of the “you” by way of an imagined awakening of the cat (“as if awakened”). It seems to me that this epiphany (if we can borrow from Joyce) or this “spot of time” (if we can borrow from Wordsworth) is all about imagining the human as a speck (like the insect) within the long continuum of geologic time; one might call this the “prehistorical sublime.” I am not quite sure what “animal studies” actually is but I would like to imagine that its horizon can be amenable to and enrich the cursory analysis that I’m trying to do here… any thoughts?

My colleague declined to answer, but I was wondering what you all think about what is not quite a field, a field that is in its “prehistoric” state.  Looking back at the Rilke passage again I’m struck how the cat becomes almost a “fossil record” of gazes–the cat as a wondrously absorptive archive of pelt, a languorous and infinite repository for one: “She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen / into her, so that, like an audience, / she can look them over, menacing and sullen, / and curl to sleep with them.”

5 thoughts on “Animal Studies & Rilke’s “Black Cat”

  1. Hi, Michael,

    Well, I have to say, it’s hard to respond to you because, for me, it’s hard to parse exactly what you’re saying. On the safest ground I can find, I don’t think the ending has much do to with interspecies recognition, which is not terribly miraculous or rare–it’s why deer run from wolves, why wolves chase deer, why birds pounce on worms, etc. As for tenor, et al, I don’t think they are being used to triangulate; I’m not quite sure the meaning you have in mind for triangulate, but human, insect, and cat it seems are not being used as metaphors … they’re not referring to something else far as I can tell, so there wouldn’t be vehicle, tenor, ground a la Richardson. I’m not at all clear on the ontological thrill of the animal, so I can’t comment there, but a human as a speck in the long continuum of geologic time sees about right. But maybe also an element of helplessness … “you see yourself suspended” … or trapped, as of course, insects are in amber. A hint of the sinister seems to be there.

    1. Hi Vince: I’m not saying that “human, insect, and cat” are “being used as metaphors.” I’m saying that they are interesting players in Rilke’s ending metaphor: “you see yourself, tiny, / inside the golden amber of her eyeballs /
      suspended, like a prehistoric fly.”

      To me, Richards’ account of metaphor seems to be straightforward, though the matter of the ground is always an issue of interpretation. The human that is being addressed (the “you”) is the tenor while the “prehistoric fly” is the vehicle. The ground is that both are “tiny”–like the contracted pupil of a cat (see the image above). It’s really a remarkable figure. I read this “tininess”–and I think this is what you are calling “a hint of the sinister”–as a contraction or diminishment of human subjectivity–a kind of humility in a real and imagined confrontation with different animal beings. To me, interspecies recognition is terribly important: it’s the first step perhaps in making humans aware that they aren’t the most privileged species on earth. Surely many of them act that way.

      1. No disagreement there … except for interspecies recognition as a way of making humans aware that they aren’t the most privilged species on Earth. I think we probably are–not by heavenly mandate; we just have it the cushiest. But that’s no reason to behave badly! Tis wonderful to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant–something like that from Measure for Measure. I also don’t think we have the slightest difficulty recognizing what is not us; the problem is, we use it as an excuse to kill or hitch to a plow or beat or skin, etc. what is not us. We recognize other races, let alone species, with the same results. We recognize people of the same race, speaking the same language, who merely have a different BRAND of the same religion (I’m thinking of Croats [Catholic] & Serbs [Eastern orthodox]) with lamentable results. What I’m saying is that recognition isn’t the problem. I remember a public service ad with kids comparing their arms–yellow, red, brown, white–and the voiceover concluding, we’re ALL the same color, just different shades–so really, we’re all the same! Let’s be good to each other! I thought this was a bit sinister because it implied if a purple arm had been in there, we would have a valid excuse to treat its owner badly. I wasn’t surprised when that little blunder disappeared from the air waves rather quickly. Anyway … just a few thoughts.

        1. Sorry for the lag in response time, Vince. I agree that “I…don’t think we have the slightest difficulty recognizing what is not us,” but if we are killing or hitching or beating then that is not true recognition.

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