Susan Pyke reviews Ardea: A Philosophical Novella and Without Animals Life Is Not Worth Living by Freya Mathews

Freya Mathews, Ardea: a Philosophical Novella. Earth, Milky Way: punctum books, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0615845562

Freya Mathews, Without Animals Life is not Worth Living. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-17604 0926

 

Susan Pyke

 

Philosophical Porkies and Truths: a review of Freya Mathews’ Without Animals Life is Not Worth Living and Ardea

Mathews is a philosopher with a poet’s voice, and the two books reviewed here are full of her unmistakeable delicate exact turns of phrase and the caring heartbeat of her thinking. Such caring can come with a cost. As Mathews reminds her readers, not so many generations ago ‘care’ was a word used to describe ‘depression’ (Ardea vi). While describing melancholy in these clinical terms can be problematic, there is a clear and bleak lament in these two works that is shaped by Mathews’ ethos of care. Perhaps no other response is possible for people, like Mathews, who are acutely aware of the human-wrought damage that is changing this shared world. Mathews’ work shows a determination to live with a commitment to do no further ecological harm. Such decisions are an important element of the sweeping changes needed at this historical juncture.

Mathews often stretches the academic genre by bringing her personal stories and lyrical voice into her analysis. Both methods effectively feature in Without Animals Life is not Worth Living. She takes a step further with Ardea: a Philosophical Novella, moving into the realm of fiction. These works can be read as two very different ghost stories, one raising the spectre of a squalling pig and the other divining an angelic heron.

Without Animals Life is Not Worth Living resounds with Mathews characteristic care. This small book consists of a series of short reflections with a central entertaining and instructive story of a life-giving gift that Mathews could not refuse. To attempt to house a pig is an unexpected and curious venture and the ensuing mud and flesh and noise is visceral in Mathews’ writing.

The memorable Pookie enters with a roar, hosted by Deborah Bird Rose’s graceful preface. This witty and evocative story of Pookie, ‘queen of her universe’, intimately sketches Mathews’ relationship with the jellybean-loving Pookie, who is most content when ‘sifting’ her way through ‘chocolate-crumble soil’ (19). Pookie’s refusal to recognise patterns of human sovereignty is, for Mathews, part of her ‘charm’ and it is also the point of this book, highlighting the shocking irony of Pookie’s refusal to submit (24). At any time she could be ‘dispatched’ (19). As Jacques Derrida might put it, Pookie is a beast who is has no choice but to respond (2009). Her reign is unrecognisable to most humans.

Mathews pokes gentle fun at her own idealistic and misconceived expectations of snuggling on the couch with her miniature pig. She experiences very little of the two-way companionship she anticipated, Pookie is ‘reticent on this point’ (17). This human / porcine relationship becomes increasingly fraught as Pookie’s loud squeal and bulk and ‘death-dealing skull’ move this increasingly large and always hungry pig outside Mathews’ realm of control (23). Mathews does not dodge the fact that this semi-domesticated pig is trapped, no matter her small slice of sun. Her determined escape attempts must end badly.

This story might not be a tragedy, but it is in no way a happy-ever-after and Mathews evaluates her part in this foray into pig-keeping without mercy, depicting herself as joining the unwritten ‘pre-modern faces’ of this world’s human history, a physiognomy that positions her ancestrally as part of the development of the modern industrial agricultural complex that is a major contributor to climate change (15). Mathews underlines the horrors of nonhuman animal use in her deft and conflicted explanations around the masterly decisions she must make about Pookie’s diet and enclosure.

Pookie’s inevitable transfer to an inner-city farm does not go well at first. She suffers a brooding melancholy until there is a change of guard in her alternative home and she is attended to by a carer who believes in animal souls. Only then does she recover her hair and her ‘swagger’ (29). She appears to be happier still when Mathews finds her a home in the country with a farmer who is, with the interpolated readers, ‘one of us’, an ‘animal nut’ (30). Pet owners might recognise themselves suffering similar conflicts as they shift between the role of master and companion with the animals they have brought into their own lives. Current social structures do not provide easy answers for better human relations with other animal species, as the story of Pookie clearly shows.

Mathews’ critical concern revolves around the environmental and ethical damage caused by using animals as a food source. Her argument is that for this harmful behaviour to change, humans need a ‘degree of contact with non-human life to awaken their ecological sensibilities’ (44). Mathews draws these conclusions not only from her life with Pookie, but also from her childhood, where human and nonhuman ‘psyches could touch and pervade each other’ (46). Yet, as she points out, living in even the most idyllic agricultural environment is to be part of ‘unabashed slaughter and brutality’ (47). One solution Mathews brings to this conflict is a suggestion that nonhuman animals might ‘earn a living’ through a process of ‘self-surrender to domestication’ (43). Such thinking is not without precedent. Rose has shown how such two-way encounters have worked in the context of Australia’s first people and dingos (2013). Yet, as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue, for most of this world’s population, thinking through ways to make these encounters equitable is a challenge (2011). Dinesh Widiwel has offered an intermediate step, where humans might, at least, for a short while, instigate a truce in what he calls the ‘war’ against nonhuman animals (2015). Such a truce would involve the attentive listening that Mathews embodies in her writing.

Mathews has long argued that attending to the more-than-human allows new possibilities to emerge that are less centred on human needs and more relevant to the needs of all the species that share this earth. Here she calls for a ‘naturalisation’, where nonhuman animals are readily accommodated in human-designed habitats (42). She is not alone in this suggestion. Accommodating pigs may be difficult in contemporary urban environments but multispecies architecture is at least opening new possibilities for human / nonhuman co-habitations (Hensel, 2003). This more inclusive thinking offers opportunities for human and nonhuman animals to co-exist in more welcoming ways and, by Mathews’ argument, allows nonhuman animals to solicit the attention needed to put an end to their industrial exploitation by humans.

Pookie is not a creature to be relegated to the margins and she remains highly visible in Mathews’ philosophical contentions, underlining Mathews’ argument that human / nonhuman relations can foster ‘human empathy’ for all animals, domesticated or not, through their ‘unique personalities’ (39). Evocative writing such as this offers a powerful way to bring these personalities to a broader audience. Pookie is memorable, and while her story is unlikely to create a growth industry in pet pigs, it most certainly gives the porcine species the singularity that Vinciane Despret suggests is required for better human understandings of nonhuman others (2011). Pookie died three weeks after Mathews completed her story, but she haunts the story that Mathews tells, together with the innumerable members of her species that have been pitilessly silenced through human lack of care.

In Mathews’ fictionalised Ardea, sovereignty takes on a different inference. The narrative opens with a depiction of an ambitious and sleazy academic, Marcel, who sells his soul (his Ardea, her heron companion and his freedom) for Mirielle, the ‘Queen of Sheba’, who must be ‘kept’, no matter the ‘cost’ (50). The truths to this fiction are laid out in an erudite introductory section, where Mathews provides the necessary context for this ‘philosophical novella’. Mathews extends Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s telling of the Faustian story of human hubris and greed to suggest contemporary Western modes of living are akin to the excesses of Faust. She includes Goethe in this trajectory, living, as he did, with a ‘ferocious energy on a grand scale’ (vi). The way many of the richer people in this world live with a similar rapaciousness, gives Mathews’ story its genesis and its force.

Readers might well partially identify with the aptly named Marcel, who is muted by his heritage and dependant on his hands to communicate with the world. He is damagingly human. In the finale, when he holds a bloodied heron, immortality, excised from a dying world, Marcel is ‘irrevocably shifted’, far too late (67). This echoes the slow steps of global environmental policy, that is led by votes that focus on the immediacies of life. Marcus is too slow to see past his own desires to what it might mean to let go of the beauty of the world.

As Mathews’ decentralises the human in Without Animals Life is not Worth Living, so too does the titular Ardea. Like Marcel, she is an academic, a quintessential environmental ethics professor who lectures her students and readers with a wretchedly honest radical philosophy that pleads for a change to human / nonhuman relations. She neatly refuses the idea of human intelligence as superior to that of other species, asking her students, ‘why rank excellences’ when each ‘species has precisely the excellences required for its own needs’ (12). Just as Pookie is excellent at being a pig, so too are other creatures excellent at performing the requirements of their own species in singular ways. Ardea calls upon Plato, Spinoza, Kant and Schopenhauer, bringing their philosophies on dysfunctional human behaviour together to name anthropocentrism as the ‘root of evil itself’ (34). The necessary alternative, Ardea argues, is for humans to relinquish their long-held damaging assumption of central and necessary power, allowing recovery for the earth’s creatures suffering from the ongoing environmental degradation caused by humans.

The plot thickens as Mirielle outlines her money-making plan for a visionary city, run on tidal power, supplying itself with all the energy and water needed to live in human luxury. This instrumentality typifies the contemporary search for an elusive human-made silver bullet, ignoring the fact that the bloodsucker is the one holding the gun. The alert reader will be aware of the approaching conflict as Ardea takes the amorous Marcel to her retreat, through mangroves full of birdlife, so that he might understand what it is to connect to the nonhuman world. Marcel hones into Ardea, thinking of little but sex, but he does pay some attention to her description of a contentment that comes with taking time to ‘step into the song’ of the world (39). Mathews’ previous work has described this process through the neologism ontopoetics (2011). Ardea restates this concept, explaining the benefits of entering the ‘psychic interiority of the world itself’ as one might enter a choral voice (42). As they commune, they experience a divine visitation from a white heron, a representative of a species previously described as ‘the ubiquitous symbols of immortality’ (28). Their ontopoetic rapture is soon drowned out as the novella moves to its denouement. Ardea’s arcadia is revealed as the site for Mirielle’s development, and Mirielle is furious that Marcel has given the ‘iconic’ heron prior claim to the wetlands – the threat of its nesting must be ‘removed’ (50). There is a chilling truth in Mathews’ depiction of the leader of a shooting party, who claims that ‘we are all environmentalists now’; the plan to shoot the heron to pieces then celebrate with the purchased bodies of other humans is just another ‘cull’ (55). Self-interested solutions to climate change, that focus only on the continuation of the human species, are disastrously revealed in the bloodied waters of the estuary.

Mathews’ two works are haunting reads, modelling the fragile but tenacious attendance to the nonhuman world that is needed to sway the world’s political and climate trajectories from their destructive directions. Those who find stories stickier than philosophy will be marked by her words. Not everyone can manifest the unceasing hunger of a pig into their home or sing the flight of a white heron into their travels but they can host such creatures in their imagination. Such new tributaries of thought might open humans to living as one of many equally astounding, curious and attentive species.

 

Works cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I (The Seminars of Jacques Derrida). Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Despret, Vinciane. “The Becomings of Subjectivity in Animal Worlds.” Subjectivity 23:123-139, 2008.

Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hensel, Michael. Performance-Oriented Architecture: Rethinking Architectural Design and the Built Environment. Chichester: Wiley, 2013.

Mathews, Freya. “The World Hidden within the World: a Conversation on Ontopoetics.” The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy. 23:1 64-84, 2007.

Rose, Deborah Bird. Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Wadiwel, Dinesh. The War Against Animals. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

 

Susan Pyke teaches at the University of Melbourne with the School of Culture and Communications and the Office for Environmental Programs. Her most recent work can be found in Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). She was recently interviewed for the podcast Knowing Animals discussing her article on Alexis Wright and Emily Brontë, published in Otherness (2016). For more information on Susan’s publications see https://unimelb.academia.edu/SusanPyke. Susan also occasionally blogs (http://suehallpyke.com) and twitters (https://twitter.com/suehallpyke).

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