During moments before thought translates into language, I recognize perhaps a truer, more immediate sense of my animal nature. In my relationships to other animals, I find these nonverbal states not only more readily happen, but are necessary for any exchange to take place. We may talk to animals, but in silent presence, where a different style of exchange takes place, a sense of oneself as one among many, in an enlivened, embodied world, can perhaps give us the felt experience of mutual participation in the sacredness of the world.
There’s a lot of human chatter now days about the state and fate of our world, and specifically, the influence of humans on the environment – conflicts between cultures, religions, etc. We are, it seems, beginning to see and fear the harm whose cause is doubtless our own. As it is recognizably a human cause, we look to ourselves to correct course. Whether the correction needed is seen as psychological, political, internal or external, if we are the problem, and we are superior, we must be the ones to find the solution.
But, even as far as this is true, in what ways can the source of a problem become the solution? What needs to happen? It’s not like we haven’t been aware of our dilemma for thousands of years. It seems we can’t self-correct!
James Hillman reminds us to reconsider the notion that the cosmos is not a man-made affair:
The mechanistic (indirect) theory of perception so essential to modern epistemology and cosmology of course guarantees an anthropocentric universe. Only humans are conscious. Animals have less memory, less stored knowledge, less mediating reason, less subjective interiority. Have they interiority at all? And unless they have this interior subjectivity, they cannot claim consciousness. The mediating subjective factors necessary to our human definition are the very same factors required by the indirect theory of perception. Dismantle the radio signals and the code system — all the intervening variables — and we shall find we have junked as well our notion of consciousness as an interior mediating process. For it is this definition of consciousness that has maintained through centuries from Stoic philosophy and Roman law through Christian dogma and European rationalism that animals are nonsentient, irrational, unconscious, and inferior. This condemnation of their consciousness assures our human superiority, allowing us to ignore “their inarticulate wisdom, their certainty, their unhesitating achievement”
We might also ask, if we go back far enough, who were we prior to this current state of affairs of assumed human superiority? What brought us from being one among many within a world we inhabit, to being and feeling separate and distinctly apart? Is it that very distinction, and the ability to make distinctions that becomes too much of a good thing, and so, culminating into a fatal flaw? Is the fate of humanity tied to a consensual perception which now grossly separates itself from non-human animals to the point of possibly extinguishing it all? Does our power over the animals along with our self-appointed management over nature truly protect, or does it make us even more vulnerable?
I venture the idea that a cosmology with soul gives special attention to animals. I propose that any acceptable new cosmology will have to receive approval from the animal kingdom.
Hillman reminds us that our relationship to animals in many cultures, times and places, very much carries with it the experience of communication with the divine. Divine in this sense being both an immanent and super natural presence of invisible powers. In this sense, animals are not simply food or predators, but carriers of messages from invisible worlds to ours. Besides the more familiar biblical story of Noah, the ark, and God’s directive to save the animals, Hillman mentions the correlation between Plato’s dodecahedron, ‘…used by the creative maker for the “whole.” ‘
Following upon the geometric shapes for fire, water, air, and earth, there is a fifth, the most comprehensive figure which has, says Plato, “a pattern of animal figures thereon.” [ 7] It reminds of another passage in Plato (Republic 589c) where he presents “the symbolic image of the soul” as a multitudinous, many-headed beast with a ring of heads tame and wild.
And here, Hillman notes Plato giving the animals their share of the cosmic power:
Let us consider this twelve-sided animal-headed image seriously indeed, although seriously does not mean literally. Rather, we may imagine this final and essential image of Plato’s cosmology — strange, unexpected, obscure as it may be — to be awarding animal-being cosmic superiority.
The vulnerability of a past prior to the introduction of technologies that increasingly separated us from other animals, we may fail to remember what drew our ancestors to both fear and envy, but also to eventually gather greater insight and reflection from the animals that share existence with us. It’s as if we humans, by separating ourselves from them, traded off our animal sensibility for an ever increasing capacity for reflective distance. And so began the long journey: negotiating territory and relationships not only with the other animals, but with the natural state of the environment. Through time and technology, we have become less willing to tolerate the inherent conditions of life on planet earth. Each so-called advancement, while giving us an edge over other creatures, left us without the necessity of getting along.
Hillman makes a crucial point that it is through relationship, and a cosmology which includes the animals, we are instructed through a direct mediation between the earthly and the divine:
The return of cosmology to the animal is not merely to invite “brute” palpable sensuousness into our thinking. The animal opens not only into the flesh of life but also toward the gods. According to fables, legends, myths, and rituals worldwide, animals impart to humans the secrets of the cosmos. They are our instructors in cosmology, that is, they mediate between the gods and humans; they have divine knowledge.
Divine knowledge, an intelligence beyond intellect and the power to rationalize, makes room for the intelligence that sees beauty, grace and the physical wonder of the other.
Although I am not proposing solutions here, enlarging the view of the long trail of human history, and seeing how language and technology influence our experience by continually exaggerating the sense of a separation from the animals, and from each other and the idea of anything outside or beyond the human realm. It cannot only be a matter of belief though, but of finding and allowing a place for the dynamics of relationship to become a vehicle for dissolving boundaries, walls, ideologies and fears that perpetuate a felt experience of separation that has plagued humanity for a very long time.
All quotes from: Hillman, James. Philosophical Intimations (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 8). Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.
8 thoughts on “Animalizing”
Sadly, human arrogance blinds us to a vast sweep of experience with other life here as much as it also limits us.
I am encouraged by one woman’s research into observable intelligence-learning-in plants. Too much for just a comment, but she was able to show, sans neurons or nervous system, plants-at least the ones she studied-learned in a measurable way. So much so closer to us, supposedly, is our animal brothers and sisters, and yet we keep the gulf in place. Aboriginal cultures have so much to tell the West if some of us could just listen. Very nice read.
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Thank you for that!
The ‘sense’ that you describe, I experience with plants sometimes, too.
It seems to me that one of the greatest jewels in the crown of civilized, progressive Humanity is the ability to imagine that problems can and do exist. Next to that jewel is the one that represents the imagination that humans cause these problems…and can find solutions.
The Universe prevails.
Thank you for sharing.
Hillman rightly describes our insufficient ideas regarding the relativity of consciousness, whether human or animal. The subjective accent necessarily centers on epistemology, thought, intellect, logic and science — in short: everything that supports our egotistical notions of superiority. From a natural angle, though, the human approach to life is manifestly insane, and our history plainly describes it. We love the animals we can work to our wills as projections of a repressed naturalness, but we fear the wilder emotional aspects we can’t control — compensations for a fragile and vulnerable ego-consciousness that seeks to convince itself that it’s own unconscious nature is inferior to its thought. The entire edifice of culture runs on the unconscious assumption that we know better than nature, contrary evidence notwithstanding. Just my two cents; thoughtful post, hope you’re doing well!
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“compensations for a fragile and vulnerable ego-consciousness that seeks to convince itself that it’s own unconscious nature is inferior to its thought.
Wow, this is a compelling way to look at our relationship between our dayworld awareness and the underlying unconscious realm. Thank you Evan. I am well, busier than I’d like to be! Likewise, hope you enjoyed the summer.
Amy, that link beautifully supports this post.
i have recently written about the world nomad games, thinking along similar lines, and just checked with the website re mongolia’s participation. they are not and i can not help but wonder WHY. perhaps the games are seen as a kind of abuse of the animals’ energies…perhaps they just cant stop their necessarily scheduled movements across the lands in synch with the seasons…i could see either as quite a valid perspective.
ptero9, as a person who maintains a listening and learning stance with creatures whilst trying not to anthropomorphise them, i appreciate the substance and the heart of this essay much.
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This is a great post, thanks for your insights… it brings to mind an article I read about a Mongolian tribe and their relationship with animals that seemed so much more than mere “companions” or “workers” Perhaps you would like it too… http://shareably.net/mongolia-reindeer-tribe/
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Thanks so much for the link! Wonderful to see the pictures and to know that the Dukha still embrace themselves as animals among animals. Unfortunately, it looks like the tribes are in trouble as outsiders interfere with their culture. So sad. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/mongolia/following-white-stagthe-dukha-and-their-struggle-s