From the Same Nothing

Meg Shevenock
June 28, 2015
Comments 2

(part 2 of 2)

To do a little dovetail with my last post: what follows is more about animal-human relationships against a backdrop of giant unknowingness.

Earlier this month, I read an intensely wonderful article in the current issue of Harper’s by the writer John Crowley called “Easy Chair,” whose premise is essentially the very thing I have been lately trying to get at: there is one deep way humans and all other animals differ, and that is in our conscious knowledge of mortality. We are even further divided Crowley writes, by the fact that, “We are also the only animals who know that everything else that lives will die, too.” So while we all come from the same nothing, we are born into a deep divergence between awareness and ignorance of what we will lose, which is, eventually, everything—at least in an earthly sense. Namely, we will lose the people and animals we love. Crowley is careful to distinguish that animals can fear and sense danger, and that they can also mourn the loss of their companions, but he stresses that they do not live knowing such losses lay in perpetual wait. He writes:

An animal pursued by a predator is certainly aware of threat, danger and extremity, and expends all its energies and wits to avoid capture, but it doesn’t know death is imminent even when it’s seized. This knowledge unique to us shapes our relations with nonhuman species as much as it shapes our sense of ourselves.

In this regard, ignorance is bliss. Ultimately, however, the part of Crowley’s article that struck me the most relates back to those generic pink shoes I had already written about, prior to reading “The Easy Chair.” Crowley, noting John Clute’s laws from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, launches into a beautiful discussion of animals in fables and fairy tales, highlighting a distinction between clothed and unclothed creatures, wherein the latter, less anthropomorphized in their “nakedness,” can or do die. On the other hand, the clothed creatures are more human: they talk, carry umbrellas, their feelings get hurt, and so on, therefore, they do not die:

…Talking animals in clothes can’t die. This is not because they are incapable of imagining death, as real animals are, but because their hats and shirts and petticoats somehow create for them an Eden in which self-awareness and speech exist but death does not. It’s an odd inversion of the Eden in the Hebrew Bible, a place defined not only by the absence of death but also by the absence of clothes, which enter the world at the same time as death and with something of the same import.

Relatedly, I thought about Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, whose life is at risk in tandem with the loss of his signature blue jacket. Even in childhood I felt distinctly that the images of a “naked” rabbit looked so much more like a real rabbit, subject to real laws of mortality. Jacketless as he flees Mr. McGregor, Peter suddenly becomes just a rabbit, not a Peter, which is to say, for an instant, his vulnerability grows terribly bright. Death seems almost possible, but then—we know the laws of such tales, can rest assured that his apron-clad mother worries at home. He will be saved.

Crowley writes:

Were I to imagine instead (as I sometimes do) a world free of the certainty of death, I think I’d chose the one I first entered long ago, where a variety of animals in a variety of clothes converse and learn, where our friends chase and are chased but never caught.

This paragraph hits me hard— “Chased but never caught.” Who wouldn’t want to stay in this world where a pair of specific shoes somehow seems to guarantees our permanency, given, for better or worse, we are known by them? We pick out the clothing we wear each day until one day, we don’t— and we live with this knowledge that “one day” we won’t.

Arriving at this kind of thought, I usually call my dog, who, like any animal, is the ultimate present-tense companion. She likes to put her head on my chest and hear my present heart. For this, I owe her eternal gratitude.



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