By M. Payne
Chicago (2015) p/b 164pp £17.50 (ISBN 9780226272320)
The Animal Part, first published in 2010, is part of classicists’ growing commitment to ‘post-humanism’, a body of theory that critiques understandings of culture and the world which place human beings at their centre without giving due consideration to animals and the environment.
In the book’s introduction, P. includes two examples of personal experiences that have influenced his commitment to this movement: first, he describes a sighting of a beaver during a camping trip to Michigan in July 2006, before recalling a childhood memory of being unable to kill a fox during a shooting trip on his grandfather’s farm after he had locked eyes with the animal and perceived a form of understanding between himself and the creature. With detours through Jacques Derrida and David Foster Wallace, what follows is a powerful and very individual exploration of how ancient and modern authors have used the relationship between humans and animals as a central part of their art-works.
The four chapters each explore four different ways in which humans and animals can relate to each other. The first chapter examines examples of ‘cathexis’, the creation of strong emotional connections, between humans and animals through a comparison of Archilochus and Hipponax with the modern American poet William Carlos Williams. The second chapter (the only one not to include an extended analysis of classical literature) looks at literary evocations of human aggression against animals, focusing on Gustave Flaubert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ezra Pound. Chapter three treats the human desire to communicate with animals and become part of their communities and offers a close reading of Aristophanes’s Birds, while chapter four dwells mainly on Ovid and his epic the Metamorphoses as an example of the fantasy of changing between human and animal states.
P.displays his wide-reading and his strong imagination throughout this brief bright book; and while it may not sit easily as within the regular classical curriculum, it would be an excellent text to recommend to advanced students as a (well-priced) encouragement to be imaginative in their study of ancient texts. Indeed, teachers at all levels should find themselves inspired by P.’s example to take risks with the comparative material they use to relate the texts of antiquity to modern concerns.
Adam Lecznar—University of Bristol