JS has a big line in companion animal research. He once helped a New York Times journalist overcome her pet co-dependency. His 1986 review is an excellent primer to the dilemma of domestication.
There’s a ton of history in this book. It builds up to the conflict in which we personally invest, with the tenderest of hearts, in certain species and not others. Check out the levels. There have been almighty animal gods, and we still revere non-humans in documentaries, wildlife safaris and ladybird on a dew dropped leaf screensavers. This could be a sort of worshipping by proxy. At the bottom of the pyramid are the animals we incorporate into our own cells. They arrive on the plate via a largely invisible chain of events. And in the middle, in the home and alive, are the animals we touch, feed, and talk to. Some say pet keeping is parenting by proxy.
So all three levels remove humans from nature. In this argument, keeping pets is as unnatural as keeping sows in oversmall pens.
This is where my thinking becomes increasingly circular and tormented.
Serpell’s message in this text is our moral anguish at our distance from nature. But it’s the distance from nature that has given us more moral latitude in the first place.
When we were dying in the jaws of animals, we didn’t have to feel so bad about killing them too. But things got complicated as we got more imaginative. There were animal totems, tabus, things you could and couldn’t do to another living being. Rituals you had to do to purify your carnist appetite. Lions STILL don’t do this when they’re ripping the near-term foetuses out of a warthog’s belly. (True story)
Where did the guilt come from? It was there since forever, and we outstride it somehow, but not indefinitely. We’re such adolescents.
Anyway, we domesticated things for use, suckled their young for kicks. Kids saw themselves mirrored and laughed. We liked the animals, especially the tame ones who stayed babylike and cute in the face.
And now we think about it all the more. We empathize, study the culture and needs of the beast in the bed, and we worry, and we wish we’d never stopped being an animal so we didn’t have to feel so torn in our age of biological destruction.
Subplot of a big story. This is the way it is, and it’s something to work with.
Great book. Thank you James.