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Kári Driscoll , Columbia University, German Languages & Literatures

The Poetics of Animality: Animals, Metaphor, and Mimesis in the Literature of Modernity

My research examines the place and function of animals in the works of writers such as Franz Kafka, Luigi Pirandello, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the composer Richard Wagner, the artist Franz Marc and the biologist Jakob von Uexküll. I focus on the complex relationship between animals and poetic language which obtains in the Western literary tradition and which, I argue, finds its perhaps most radical iteration at the turn of the 20th Century. In short: around 1900 something changed in the way animals were represented in literature, art and philosophy. I seek to account for this change by locating these texts within a tradition of what I refer to as the poetics of animality—a tradition that, I argue, underwent a profound transformation in this period, which represents a turning point in mankind’s relationship to animals in a number of different yet interconnected ways. The industrialization and mass urbanization of European society that had occurred over the previous century meant that humans were now suddenly divorced from animal life in their everyday existence like never before. The establishment of the modern zoological garden and the rise in popularity of domestic pet-keeping may be seen as attempts to compensate for this, even as they serve as indicators of radically new parameters for human–animal interaction. At the same time, developments in the natural sciences—most importantly Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution—coupled with Nietzsche’s thoroughgoing critique of metaphysical anthropocentrism and Freud’s mapping of the human subconscious, gave rise to a newly animalized conception of the human. This growing awareness of man’s animal nature did not, however, bring man closer to other animals; on the contrary, paradoxical as it may seem, it actually led to a greater perceived distance to the rest of the animal world. The French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille expressed this paradox succinctly when he wrote: “The animal opens before me a depth that attracts me and is familiar to me. In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own. It is also that which is farthest removed from me, that which deserves the name depth, which means precisely that which is unfathomable to me.” Moreover, Bataille continues, this familiar yet unfathomable depth opens up the space of poetry. This is a notion which dovetails with the author and critic John Berger’s provocative suggestion that “the first metaphor was animal.” This, he argues, is because the structure of the human–animal relation is itself always inherently metaphorical in that the similarities highlight the differences. The implication, then, is that the poetic imagination and the problem of representation have always on some level been bound up with the figure of the animal. Thus, the ‘poetics of animality’ which I identify in the authors I am studying is in some ways a gesture toward the origin of poetry and figurative language as such. That literature around 1900 was uncommonly preoccupied with language and the (im)possibility of expression is well established in the scholarly discourse on modernism; what I am proposing is that this crisis of language is inextricably linked to and informed by an attendant critical moment in man’s relationship to the animal.