NONFICTION: Where are the Wild Things?

Devin Johnston, Creaturely and Other Essays (Turtle Point Press, 2009)

Are there postmodern animals? Devin Johnston’s Creaturely suggests there are. He implicitly makes this claim in a collection of carefully honed essays that reflect on the fauna and (in one case) flora he encounters walking the streets and parks of St. Louis.

In most accounts, a key trait of postmodern art is pastiche. Distinct from parody, in which the artist evinces strong feelings toward the material he or she is playing with, pastiche is simply an emotionally neutral use of fragments and themes borrowed from other art. You may think animals are incapable of this, but note Johnston’s discussion of the vocal habits of the starling, which, “like its cousin the mynah bird, improvises [on] a pastiche of motifs drawn from life. Apparently, an adult starling may collect sixty or more motifs from which to pick and choose. These snippets are altered, rearranged, and spliced into an explosive sequence.”

My comment hints the book tends to anthropomorphize the animal world, but, on the contrary, a leading theme is that their world is shaped in a way we can never know. Our feathered friends, for instance, see things differently. “As opposed to our trichromatic vision (red, green, and blue), birds have a fourth dimension to sight. Their colors are not simply refinements of our own but include hues entirely unknown to us, such as the secondary hues that result from mixing spectral lights of red or green with ultraviolet.” Johnston’s philosophical basis is found in the ideas of the early 20th century German zoologist Jacob von Uexkull, who argued against the fallacy that holds “a belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and one time for all living things.”

As we saw with birds, though, each animal inhabits a distinctive world, carved out by its species-unique canting of its sensorium. Johnston makes the point most earthily when he looks at the smelling ability of dogs, speculating on what they learn from sniffing traces of urine on a fireplug.

And speculate is all we can do. In the end, the author puts forward a bracing theory of partial empathy. While most observers can, if not sympathize with, at least get an understanding of what motivates many far-out human actors, such as suicides or multiple personalities, it would take a much greater empathetic leap, nearly an impossible one, to imagine the world picture of a higher-level animal. It would entail not only thinking about one’s own instincts, but preparing oneself for the leap by becoming familiar with the sensory equipment, behavior patterns and object choices of a given species. Johnston’s searching book of thought-probes goes a way toward allowing the reader the grounding that would allow her or him to make such emphatic contacts in connection with the animals, from owls to squirrels to mice, over which he ponders.

More sadly, from my own point of view, in the course of reading I was trapped by a more downbeat thought, which was simply: Each time another animal becomes extinct, a special and irretrievable way of looking at the world is gone. Perhaps, the more people that read this book, the more this absence would be poignantly felt.


Jim Feast