Thursday, August 09, 2007


I'm just going to post this whole from the H-NILAS blog, since I didn't post yesterday. I'll follow up with comments later.

Review of Kuzniar, _Melancholia's Dog_; reviewed by Marion W. Copeland

Published by (August 2007)

Alice A. Kuzniar. _Melancholia's Dog: Reflections on Our Animal Kinship_. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 216 pp. Notes, works cited, index. $26.00(cloth), ISBN 978-0-2264-6578-4.
Reviewed for H-NILAS by Marion W. Copeland, Center for Animals and Public Policy, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Seriously, Now. . .

I requested a review copy of _Melancholia's Dog_, knowing NILAS members would be interested in a serious scholarly
attempt to deal with the dog in art and literature. Most of us have, like Kuzniar, been confronted by colleagues who, as she notes in the first lines of her introduction, believe "[t]he subject of dogs is ... unfit for serious scholarly
investigation" (p. 1). They assume that literature with dogs as characters--even as central symbols--is "sentimental, popular, and trivial," best suited for children or young adults, despite our assurances that, to the contrary, such literature "contemplate[s] and reassess[es] the human-canine relationship" (p. 1) and, perhaps even more crucial, teaches us "how to reassess these bonds" (p. 3). In response, Kuzniar determines "to expand the vocabulary and imagery with which we voice and picture our relation to the dog," without disparaging "the affective, immediate ties between man and the four-footed," "to inquire whether acknowledgement of
empathetic sensibilities might permit us to circumvent the condescension and cruelty that can often dominate relations with animals," and, last, but certainly not least, "to explore the philosophical, ethical, and imaginary connections and impasses between [human] self and other, between the human and the animal world" (p. 3).

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's review of _Melancholia's Dog_ comments that the study should "go a long way toward erasing "... the stigma [that] clearly exists at least in academic circles [against serious consideration of] the representation of the dog outside the confines of the lowbrow, popular media and arts."[1] I wish I agreed, because Kuzniar's intention to promote, in life as in art, "respect and attention to animals 'on their own terms,'" based less on assumed "alliances between man and beast" than "on the uniqueness of each animal life," is a wholly viable and admirable goal, one I believe is essential to any satisfying analysis of the animal in art and

The melancholy that gives her study its title arises from what finally seems to Kuzniar an inescapable dualism between human and animal--"the infinite separation between species" (p.177). After reading her study, I couldn't help feel that this
dualism is more a product of the culture story the author, like her doubting colleagues, has absorbed rather than something attested to by the texts she studies. I cannot help thinking that a defensive response to professional rejection
(and Freudian-fueled attempts to rise above it) underlies her findings, and explains why Kuzniar discovers sadness rather that joy at the heart of her study of "the vicissitudes of interspecies communication" (p. 3).

Most of the texts, written and visual, considered can support Kuzniar's recognition of the "empathetic sensibilities" that "permit us to circumvent the condescension and cruelty that can often dominate [human] relations with animals" (p. 3). For instance, in her insightful reading of J. M. Coetzee's _Disgrace_, she points out that the protagonist's vigil at the dogs' deaths "is an exercise outside of any economy of exchange, performed in a humility that is not born of self-chastisement or penance but out of humble affiliation with the unwanted" (p. 177). To clarify, she quotes the critic
Derek Attridge who believes Coetzee "strips away all the conventional justifications for kindness to animals--implying not that these are empty justifications but that they are part of the rational, humanist culture that doesn't get at the heart of the matter," and goes on to show how Coetzee establishes in _Disgrace_ that human shame at our own cruelty
"can serve as a point of identification and empathy, perhaps even for the expression of compassionate love," rather than melancholia's self-absorption (p. 179).

Despite that, Kuzniar's study as a whole veers away from such valuable insights to wallow in the anthropocentricity of a Freudian vision that has no room for the animal (seen as separate from the human) except as a somehow shameful power lurking in the dark recesses of the human mind, never quite successfully repressed but also never fully embraced. This explains why Kuzniar especially values art like Coetzee's in
which, though the nonhuman is an important and deeply mined ingredient, humans have the starring roles. Readers learn by mimesis, imitation of those most like ourselves instead of by "becoming [nonhuman] animal," thus learning about and valuing the other. Of course Coetzee is a master of his craft who has essential insights about the value of the animal. But when Kuzniar deals with other masters like Kafka, who actually cast nonhumans as their leading characters and shape their plots around the dramas and affective abilities of nonhumans which readers are meant to experience by "becoming animal," Kuzniar loses the positive thrust of her concluding chapter on Coetzee and can read the works only as examples of melancholia, convinced the inroads into the minds and hearts of nonhumans that seem to exist in art cannot be found in life.

While that perspective does not render Kuzniar's readings valueless (they certainly are not), it does leave at least this reader feeling that she is repressing the deeper reading of which she is capable, perhaps to reach an audience of doubting, anthropocentric colleagues rather than seasoned readers of animal literature. Such readers comprise a growing and evolving group, both inside and outside of the academy, and are demanding recognition of animal literature, as readers in the past have demanded recognition of other "genre" literatures--those of women and ethnic writers, for instance. The obvious difference, that nonhumans apparently cannot or
are not interested in speaking clearly to human audiences (or, more likely, that human audiences have not been conditioned to hear their voices), is a difference in kind, as all those whose contacts with nonhumans are intimate well know. In her
introduction, Kuzniar herself writes: "perhaps the question should be not 'do _they_ have language?' but 'do _we_ have adequate language to speak to them and about them?'" (p. 9).

Authors of what is being called animal literature have developed literary and artistic devices to communicate the "intersubjectivity between species" (p. 10). However, convinced of "the inadequacies of [human] language and representation," Kuzniar concludes that:

"The separation from other species, causing a yearning for
closeness and communion, becomes the subject of idealization
[rather than reality] in work after work I discuss and
transmutes into the desire to perfect a representation of it,
to particularize, circumscribe, nurture, and preserve one's
relationship to the dog in a language as comely as possible
[while author and reader alike remain convinced of] ... the
inadequacies of language and representation [to do so]" (p. 12).

The result--and hence the title and theme of Kuzniar's study--is negative: "the loneliness between man and beast," rather than the love and kinship between two species of animal, the human and the canine. Finally, perhaps Kuzniar's reader will find more interesting than the role of melancholia in animal literature itself just how close the parallel is between what she believes is our repression of nonhuman voices and Freudian repression of the id, and how both usher in the kind of guilt and melancholia that Kuzniar feels and, therefore, detects in many of the texts she reads.


[1]. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, "Eva's Ribs: A Review,"
_London Review of Books_, 22 February 2007, 30-31.

No comments: