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A Bridge to Somewhere

April 22, 2015

(part one, part two, part three)

In regards to my work bridging our response to real animals and representations of animals in literature and film, a discussant pressed the point that some animal representations are purely symbolic, they are unattached to actual animal bodies and, therefore, how we think or feel animal symbols doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how animals are mis/treated in the world. The fallacy of this statement should be evident as should be the connection to thinking about actual and literary sexual violence. If one wants to take the position that sometimes animals are purely symbolic or metaphoric, than where does our understanding of what the symbol or the metaphor means come from? Take William Blake’s “The Tyger;” all of the poet’s work is considered heavily symbolic and this poem, in particular, has been used in discussions of the interrelated symbolic-real animal discussion before (see J.M. Coetzee’s Lives of Animals).

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Most likely, but not definitively, Blake never saw an actual tiger. But at the time he was writing Songs of Experience (1794), the British were starting to increase their presence in India prior to a major colonial assault and had already, for some time, been a forceful presence in other parts of Asia. There were accounts of tigers and the meeting of tigers real and imaginary by British explorers, traders, and colonialists. The understanding of what “tiger” means in Blake’s poem is still attached to an experience of, however tenuous or removed, real tigers. It is not a poem about a flying spaghetti monster (although it is certainly about God), we understand something more than the resonance of the words, because even without direct experience, we know something of tigers in the world, even if our understanding of tiger has changed in the last three centuries (now we attach endangered, hunted, illegal poaching, conservation of a charismatic species, etc. to the meaning of tiger).

This holds true for another British poet who has written some poems that use animals as vehicles for flights of fancy: Ted Hughes. Hughes’ salmon and trout poems in his collection, River (1983), also are deeply indebted to the poet’s experience with the fish species and even though the bodies of the animals in the text convey more than the animal bodies in the river, both are needed to bring a reader to a place beyond the text in a book. The reader has to be open to a connection beyond the symbolic to engage in the affective resonance of the words that Hughes’ has chosen, to feel that this collection is a “biocentric hymn to the regenerative powers of watercourses and aquatic creatures.” The reader could decide that the fish are only symbols and remain violently closed off from the world and Hughes’ own environmentalism, but this seems to counter everything that the poet has offered of himself and the world that influenced him, the world that he loves.

Through the dew’s mist, the oak’s mass

Comes plunging, tossing dark antlers.

Then a shattering

Of the river’s hole, where something leaps out –

An upside-down, buried heaven

Snarls, moon-mouthed, and shivers.

(From “Night Arrival of Sea-Trout”)

I add this long digression to the discussion of sexual violence in northern literature to show how textual metaphor is never isolated from the world. We understand metaphors and symbols, because we live in the world, have experiences, process information from diverse sources, and have layers of memory and knowledge that help us understand the meaning of what we read in a text and the meaning of everyday encounters in the world. These overlaps influence each other, and can enrich our worldliness. So can sexual violence in literature and film be purely thematic? In postcolonial literature, is it always just about what imperial powers have done to the identity of those they colonize? In Indigenous literature, is sexual violence always what has been done to native bodies in the name of civilization? In much of the South African literature I’ve read written by white, mainly English descended, authors, the authors try to keep rape and sexual violence purely thematic. It is an action against a single body that is a metonymy for the action of an aggressive foreign body to the local cultural body. Rape and sexual violence in northern literature (by white and Indigenous, male and female authors), is not so easily distanced, in part because of the nearness of the actions (for myself and other northerners), the (comparably recent) history of colonization and settlement, and the contemporary reality of the urgency of the crisis. It is so much easier to make something ugly beautiful when it does not touch you and the people you love directly. It is much easier to insist on the literary distance of metaphor, symbol, trope, allegory, etc. than to feel the reality of the pain of others. And then do something about it.

In the same discussion in which the person insisted on the value of the metaphoric reading of animals, another person took issue with my use of the word “trauma” to describe the contemporary reality of native lives and how one might read certain texts as efforts to deal with the loss of population (due to disease), autonomy (due to foreign powers selling your home to other foreign powers), and identity (forbidding native languages, the removal to residential schools). Apparently, it is “passé” in academic circles to talk about trauma in relation to historical conditions that are written into contemporary texts. I will continue to talk about the trauma of these violences against native and female bodies until someone starts listening to me. I will not be silent about how all of these factors—our silence on the ongoing trauma of living in the worlds and words controlled by the perpetrators of these violences—because it is no longer the academic fad to talk about these issues, to make people uncomfortable, to make them feel that words and symbols have a liveliness that connects authors and readers, plotlines and historical events, characters and the lives of real people. I follow the indomitable Vigdis Gunnarsdatter and her prescient, determined creator Sigrid Undset in speaking to these discussants: my will is as strong as yours.

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