The Animal Touch — by Mubashir Karim

Feb 4, 2021

While evaluating the writings of various philosophers and theorists like Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway, Mubashir Karim presents an extensive paper that considers the central role that animals play in celebrated works of literature and film. From Chekhov’s “Misery,” Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi’s “The Cow,” Maile Meloy’s “Travis B.” among others, to film adaptations by Dariush Mehrjui and Kelly Reichardt, the Kashmiri academic traces the connections between stories and films where animals find a prominent place. The resulting study weaves multiple theoretical, critical and philosophical formulations by leading thinkers on the subject of animals. Karim brings in his own observations and interpretations to present a world of fiction and film where animals humanize humans further or retrieve their humanity by entering their plane of existence to create greater depth within it.

There’s a moving scene at the end of Chekhov’s short story titled “Misery”—perhaps one of the finest in literature—where the protagonist blabbers away his misfortune, his miseries by talking to his marethe only listener in the entire world who would empathize the terrible grief of losing his only son. Chekhov writes:

"Are you munching?" Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. "There, munch away, munch away.... Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay.... Yes, ... I have grown too old to drive.... My son ought to be driving, not I. . . . He was a real cabman.... He ought to have lived...."

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:

"That's how it is, old girl.... Kuzma Ionitch is gone.... He said good-by to me.... He went and died for no reason.... Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt.... And all at once that same little colt went and died.... You'd be sorry, wouldn't you? . . ."

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.[1]

While the mare munches on, Iona goes on about his state of affairs, hunger ridden and in a destitute condition. The power of the story is such that we, as readers, eventually become Iona’s mare in a human form. A good reader munches on the story as Iona’s ramblings echo in our heads, reminding us of grief, imminent death and companionship. For a moment we forget the horse as Ponge’s “impatience nostralized”,[2] as it usually is associated with speed and strength, and instead imagine it as the lone listeneror, to put in other words, as ‘patience earized’. The animal, in the story, becomes a symbol of listening, a listener, a supporting character who would listen carefully, attentively and would not judge. The horse becomes someone who, in all the world, would be the only one who could understand the miseries, the pain and the state of the heart of what it is to be human in our downtrodden state—elucidating the connection of one species with the other at the expense of grief.

In connection, one is also reminded of the takeover of one species by the other and the resulting dramaturgical consequences in a story like The Cow”, written by the Iranian writer Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi.[3] In the story, adapted into a classic 1969 movie (Gaav) by Dariush Mehrjui, the protagonist Hassan, after learning about his cow’s death, turns into one himself. The idea that his cow is no more in the world strikes so absurd to Hassan that he, like the cow itself, starts eating hay, mooing and in fact starts living in the stable at large. “I am not Hassan”, he proclaims, while munching the hay in the stable in ragged clothes and in a deteriorating condition, “I’m his cow”.[4] In his animal-like condition he identifies his friends as Bolouris, the staunch enemies of his village, and in a moving scene implores Hassan, as his own self, to save his cow from them. At the end of the film, his friends are seen taking him to the hospital, tethered with a rope like a cow. When Hassan resists to budge any further, one of his friends starts frantically beating him and calling him an animal repeatedly. The story, rather than showcasing a propensity towards becoming comic at any time, garners this enormous power to move us from our ‘human condition’ of normality towards this absent/repressed animality within us and in doing so turns itself into one of the most humane story ever told. In fact, Hassan’s metamorphosis into an animal is just a prelude to the stories around himhis transformation stands as a test for other people’s display and demonstration of their human nature. The story, the villagers and the setting seize to be Iranian as the character transforms himself into this other species and questions the validity of humanity in all of us and our treatment of domesticated animals.

Stills from Dariush Mehrjui's 1969 film adaption of Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi' story, Gaav (translated "The Cow")

Animals can always be found grazing in the textual grasslands of writers and philosophers. From Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and Heidegger to Lewis Carroll and Haruki Murakami, animals have recurrently been used as tropes to further the argument on human existence. In fact, if we take a cursory glance over fairy tales around the world and the moral stories they offer, we soon begin to recognize more animals than humans therein. In other words, the importance and the place that was prescribed to animals once in texts, seems now, to have become relegated to certain lower beings in contrast to humans. In films as well as in novels, animals are, more or less, portrayed only as tools, commodities for the benefit of human practiceswars, transportation, etc. and rarely as symbols. A wide range of popular movies come to mind, that use animals as nothing but mere props for certain commercial practices. Or for that matter show caring for the animals solely for their utilitylike their usage by police, army and certain other departments for unearthing clues in the crime scenes.

In his lectures on animalslater published in a book as The Animal that Therefore I amJacques Derrida takes the hierarchal notion of rational humans/irrational animals as one of his central arguments. He is interested in the interstitial spaceand what governs itbetween the animal and the human. “The animal is not a rational being”, he contests, “since it is deprived of the I think’ that is the condition for understanding and reason”.[5] The animal is all too frequently downplayed against the human as a secondary being, deprived of the ability to reason with the humans. Or as Marie-Louise Mallet puts it:

Even when that tradition defines the human as zōon logon echon or as rational animal, as an “animal” therefore, but one endowed with reason, it has always in fact opposed us to all the rest of animal kind, going so far as to erase all animality in us and, conversely, to define the animal, in an essentially negative way, as deprived of whatever is presumed to be “proper” to the human…[6]

Derrida’s concern with the limits of what is considered proper to human and improper to animal is what governs the text. Although Donna Haraway in her book When Species Meet criticizes Derrida for missing the quintessential epistemological understanding of animals, she praises him for his effort in shedding light on the different nuances of the human/animal dichotomy. In regard to this observation, she writes:

He identified the key question as being not whether the cat could “speak” but whether it is possible to know what respond means and how to distinguish a response from a reaction, for human beings as well as for anyone else.[7]

Haraway further appreciates Derrida for being able to understand how “actual animals look back at actual human beings” for he “knew there is no nudity among animals”.[8] However, she criticizes him, she criticizes his lack of curiosity regarding the internal thoughts or feelings of the animal. In relation to this, she proposes, the element of touch as a primary principle of meeting with other species. What happens when I touch an animal?as a point of inquiry becomes a central thesis to her book. The element of proximity with the species by sharing one’s flesh with the other and what happens then becomes central to her thesis. On such a sequence of ideas, she elaborates the following:

My premise is that touch ramifies and shapes accountability. Accountability, caring for, being affected, and entering into responsibility are not ethical abstractions; these mundane, prosaic things are the result of having truck with each other. Touch does not make one small; it peppers its partners with attachment sites for world making. Touch, regard, looking back, becoming with—all these make us responsible in unpredictable ways for which worlds take shape. In touch and regard, partners willy nilly are in the miscegenous mud that infuses our bodies with all that brought that contact into being. Touch and regard have consequences.[9]

This notion of touch, this acknowledgement of the other, through caressing, through a fleshy meeting of the species is something that becomes central to Iona’s act of speaking with the mare as well. In that story this touch comes forward in the form of a speech, of rambling in language through the tongue. “Through touching”, writes a critic, “living creatures inherit each other’s histories in the flesh and in logic”.[10] The flesh of the language multiplies, thereupon reaching the flesh of the reader to convey something in a visceral manner and in the higher order of thingsgrief.

All these things, in varied ways, are at work in Maile Meloy’s poignant story entitled Travis, B.originally published in The New Yorker in 2002.[11] Meloy’s story deals with a physically disabled, polio-recuperated boy, Chet Moran, who works on a ranch tending horses and feeding cows in Montana. One night while taking the car out, and in search of some company, he finds himself sitting in a classroom where the students are “about his parents’ age.” He develops intimacy with the teacher, Travis B. a girl who was “thin . . . and looked tired and nervous” and happens to be young lawyer. As the story progresses, we come to know of the struggle that Travis has had to undergoprimary among them distance—given that it takes her nine and a half hours to reach the place and then back. Throughout the story, she seems preoccupied, worried, and anxious with the distance. In order to revitalize herself before she gets back on the road, she eats at a café that Chet shows her and it is here that they start talking and share some moments. In an attempt to impress her, one night Chet brings the horse along, and once the class is over, he gives Travis a ride to the diner. While taking her back to her car he kisses her on her hand and cheek, quite eager she would reciprocate. Rather, the next week he finds that the teacher has been replaced by a local one. Unnerved and notwithstanding the distance, he drives six hundred miles west to Missoula to meet Travis in person. After finding her whereabouts from different people, when, at last, he does locate her, the meeting seems awkward and quite out of place. “I came to see you”, says Chet. “I’d already asked for a replacement, because of the drive” replies Travis ending the conversation by nodding her head when Chet declares, “I don’t mean any harm”. To make the situation less awkward, he adds, "I have to go feed now""I just knew that if I didn't start driving I wasn't going to see you again, and I didn't want that. That's all."

After this debacle, Chet in wanting to hear her say something, to touch her, leaves the scene to go back to the ranch where his animals, hungry and starving, are waiting for him. Back there, he wonders whether he has sown the seed of his relationship with Travis but knows in his heart that nothing of that sort will happen. This becomes evident in the narration as Meloy writes the following:

She lived in another world from him . . . Her world had lawyers, downtowns, and mountains in it. His world had horses that had woken up hungry, and cows waiting in the snow, and it was going to be ten hours before he could get back to get them fed.

This inability to connect with a human being, with a person is something to be kept in mind while reading the story, for it is here that the story matures into another dimension, into a mystic one. A point where the lack of understanding, of intimacy within the specie leads the character to go back physically as well as metaphorically to another oneto animals, for solace and company.

In relation to this, Meloy writes:

In the barn, he talked to the horses, and kept close to their hind legs when he moved behind them. They were sensible horses, immune to surprise, but he had left them without water all day.

Probably, like Iona in Anton Chekhov’s short story, the ranch with its animals would be the only proper place for him to connect to. This disabled boy’s adventures with the broken horses, since his childhood, thus appears as the only means of establishing communication with the outside world. His conversation with the horses, from one specie to other, as he finds them immune to surprise” and sensible” needs to be read in connection to his broken relationship with humans—as both contrast and juxtaposition can be evaluated in these two relationships. This is further emphasized in another passage from the story where Meloy writes:

He cleaned the tack for the team, and curried the horses until they gleamed and stamped, watching him, suspicious of what he intended. He dosed the calves that needed it with medicine, but mostly they were fine, and went bawling back to their mothers, who waited outside the barn. He wondered if the cows had an idea of their calf, with his habits and smells. Did they worry, or did they just wait for the next thing to happen?  

This insistence on his part to wonder whether the animals share the same logic of relationships among themselves, as to whether they worry or possess any concept of children, takes his character into another realm where his caring and compassion for the animals, depicts him as less of a ranch boy and cowboy, and more into a morally grounded being. The helplessness on the part of the animals that require to be taken care of becomes for this character a necessary daily chore to forget or perhaps to correct his fragmented state.

In the story, if there is a moment when both the characters feel close to each other, touch each other, feel each other’s warmth, it is only through the animal—with the horse ride as an avenue for such a momentary connection. Symbolically, it is through the presence of this alternative specie, that a connection between these two broken participants could take place. Communication, through touch and sight, made possible through someone who cannot communicate in human termshuman characters healed through animality. This meeting of the species, through their inability to communicate within one another, becomes an essential point, in the shape of an animal, to turn them more human or to humanize them further. This could particularly be seen in the character of Chet rather than Travis, who, as has already been mentioned, belongs to a world quite opposite to animal one.

In fact, it is in this broken state, of travelling such lengthy distances for the sake of a job so far from her home, that Chet finds Travis in, as a “beast of burden” with whom he finds some degree of proximity. One can read the story as one where Chet is allured to help, to assist, to find, to talk, to touch and to speak to Travis, who seems to be at the lowest point in her life. The state of brokenness on Travis’ part encourages Chet, in part at least, to share his own brokenness with her. It is in his realization of her broken state that he finds the opportunity to communicate with her. It is this awareness to come to terms with her broken state that leads him to travel an extra mile for her as well as for himself. However, he soon finds that what he had perceived as a way of healing himself, or Travis, is nothing but a futile enterprise. He realizes that human connection for him, in all its forms, and least of all communication, is not possible in the parking lot scene. It is because of this realization in the lack of communication that the first thing that comes to his mind are animals and the familiarity they offer. He wastes no time to go back to that species that he is comfortable in communicating withto the specie that is always ready to listen to him. As such, with nothing else that he can communicate, he says, “I have to go feed now”.

When Travis finds him waiting in the parking lot, the first thing that she utters is: “I thought I was in the wrong place”. This assertion on her part to communicate to the person who has travelled such a long a distance makes Chet an outsider. In fact, it is by the act of travelling, that Chet understands that the Travis of Chet’s place and Travis of Missoula are two different beings. While as this one is highly aware of her surroundings and anxious about somebody’s presence in her world, the Travis of Chet’s world would ride the horse with him and be at ease. It is at this confrontational scene that Chet understands the discrepancies that lie between his world and hers. The distance between the two, materially and symbolically, is, as the story metaphorically states, “pretty bad”something that is arduous, impossible and demands immediate replacement by someone who is locally placed, in Chet’s case, the horses and cows he tends to.

Lily Gladstone as Jamie in the movie performing her usual activities religiously in the ranch. Image source: Stage 6 Films/Kelly Reichardt

Rarely does it happen that a movie based on a literary piece improves or enriches the original text—that the visual language of a film enhances our understanding of the original text. Kelly Reichardt’s movie Certain Women (2016)[13] based on Maile Meloy’s stories is one such example. Not only does it visually portray the travails of suburban people in a beautiful manner, it also successfully improves upon the text by taking certain liberties with it. Filmed in grainy 16mm cinematography, the movie seems less shot and more witnessed by the viewer/participant. The triptych of the stories about certain women penetrates the bodily canvas of its viewers by showcasing the ordinary routines of characters caught in an extraordinary moment in their lives. Even though the movie takes three of Meloy’s stories, the above-mentioned story forms, for me, one of the best adapted ones for the screen.

Stills from Certain Women (2016), directed by Kelly Reichardt. Image source: Stage 6 Films/Kelly Reichardt.

Of all the minor changes that the story transitions into from the original text to the screen, the seminal one would be the change of the character of Chet from a male to a female figure. This helps the director to not only problematize the original text but include within the frame the “people who don’t have a safety net”[14] and live “on the fringes”.[15] Throughout her independent, minimalistic oeuvre, Reichardt’s cinema is populated by characters who seem minuscule against the terrifying, gigantic sparse landscapes. This examination of people living in harsh, difficult circumstances is also quite evident in the last segment of the story. With the change from the male to the female character, from the story’s Chet Moran to film’s Jamie, the story gets transformed in the mind of the reader/viewer. Reading Meloy’s original story as an innocent love affair between a boy and a girl, the movie version problematizes the text by bringing the issue of gender and female proximity into the fore. Most of the times, as is usual with Reichardt’s movies, the camera lingers on the landscape with a character or characters doing their ordinary daily chores, as they try to navigate through their lives. In regard to this, Reichardt herself states: “I enjoy filming the process of things, like daily choresfiguring out how to cook a loaf of bread in the ground.”[16] In the film version, the camera performs two things beautifully: 1) most of the time, the camera lingers on Jamie’s ranch as she goes through her usual activities of feeding the horses, cleaning and making sure they roam around, and 2) at least thrice, the door of the stable is slid to reveal the vast mountains in the background, pointing yet again at the theme of a gendered protagonist living in a ranch cabin in the midst of a harsh winter. Taken together, these two aspects convey the sense of banality of usual life as well as the dangers and the risks therein. As an adaptation of Meloy’s story, this segment of the movie is fraught with most of the thematic concerns dear to Reichardt movies, as Elena Gorfinkel explains:

Her films trace the trajectory of these precarious travellers circuitous or arrested journeys, as well as the effective slackness of their suspended agency, their, ‘stuckness,’ non-productivity, and inability to progress within the harsh demands of an exhausting, social, material world. Landscape and physical detail work in her films to index or to unravel the already frayed bonds that draw people together and apart, in impoverishment and in rituals of the everyday, in relations of dependency and debt.[17]

This element becomes visible in the segment of the movie where the landscape and the distance between people and homes act as a pivot on which the story rests. Together with this, Reichardt’s inclusion of a woman character in place of a male one further reinforces Reichardt’s domain of showcasing the female self in the midst of the western landscape that usually “privileges masculine heroism as a key trope for the formulation of American Identity.”[18] Jamie’s employment as a rancher in a town where the character is involved in “a traditionally male job”[19] could be read, on Reichardt’s part, as showcasing the doubly marginalized in connection with the American landscape. The two female charactersone trying to risk herself by going the extra mile for someone who doesn’t belong there and the other coming to this part of the land to save herself from “loans coming due[21]together with certain personal injunctions from Reichardt’s “overarching theme of loss and isolation”[22] add more meaning to this segment. The extraordinary performances by Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart add another layer to this segment. In the movie, the parking scene between Travis and Jamie, ends with Jamie’s comment where she says, “I have to go feed now. Animals will be wondering where I'm at.”[23] Just as in the story, in the movie version the protagonist comes to understand that the level of commitment and the need to communicate that they have displayed by driving all the way is not met by the other and at once are reminded of their connection with animals and the way they associates with the horses and cows. Although in the movie version, while riding with Travis on the horse, there is no element of kissing and touching, it is through her performance that the actor displays the infatuation she feels for the other. Although in contrast to the story, the movie version makes less usage of the tension between animals and humans, it nonetheless uses the extensive frames with animals in them to propose what the text of the story conveys in words. Both the film and text use equine language to put forth the feeling that grief, proximity, touch and connection surpasses human limits.

Whether it is Derrida’s exploration of the limits between the human and animal or Donna Haraway’s writings on the sense of touch, Meloy’s story and Reichardt’s film version combine all these elements that convey the deep isolation of humans and contrasts them with the presence of animals. The animals in all these textual and cinematic works act as living beings that make humans more human by helping them make a connection so that a state of brokenness, of destitution is to be confronted and redeemed. Animals here are not merely tools to help move the story forward to showcase the rationality of humans but as necessary beings without whom the story is not possible at all. In these works, animals help break the traditional binary of the human/animal and posit a way in-between, without saying anything yet maintaining a consistent centrality. They help in composing a site where human language fails to express the rawness of the situation, and their presence alone, assists the human characters in leading a life that while being solitary, is sane in and of itself. The animals through their necessary presence make humans like themselves, into thinking, silent, solitary, grief-bearing creatureslike Nietzsche’s Turin horse, that bears all the whippings and travails, but has the ability to turn the other specie mad, provided they are keen, sensitive, profound enough to understand the situation.

 

Endnotes

[1] Anton Chekhov. ‘The Misery’. Great Stories by Chekhov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2017. Print.

[2] Francis Ponge. ‘The Horse’. Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers. Trans. Beth Archer. Eds. Charles Simic and Mark Strand. New York: Ecco, 2008. Print.

[3] Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi. ‘The Cow’ in Mourners of Bayal: Short Stories. Trans. Edris Ranji. Ibex Publishers,2018. Print.

[4] The Cow (1969) movie script written by Dariush Mehrjui and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi.

[5] Jacques Derrida. The Animal that Therefore I am. Trans. David Wills. Ed. Marie-Louis Mallet. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

[6] Marie-Louis Mallet. ‘Foreword’. The Animal that Therefore I am. Trans. David Wills. Ed. Marie-Louis Mallet. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

[7] Donna J. Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print. 

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] Manuela Rossini, Donna J. Haraway’s When Species Meet, Volume 3 of Posthumanities, Ed. Cary Wolfe, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 

[11] Maile Meloy. Travis, B. The New Yorker. October 28, 2002.

[13] Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016)

[14] Kelly Reichardt. “Kelly Reichardt : My films are about people who don’t have a safety net” BFI interview. Can be accessed here

[15] Kelly Reichardt. “Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt explains independent philosophy.” Ellen Glover. December 6 2016. Can be read here here.

[16] Kelly Reichardt. “Kelly Reichardt on Her New Film Certain Women, the Joy of Writing in Oregon, and Why She Loves Working With Michelle Williams.” Interviewed by Stacey Wison Hunt. Vulture, New York. October, 15. 2016.

[17] Elena Gorfinkel. “Exhuasted Drift: Austerity, Dispossession and the Politics of Slow in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.” Slow Cinema. Eds. Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. Print.

[18] John Bruni. “Illusions of Individuality: Old Frontiers and New Forms in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016).” The Twenty-first Century Western: New Riders of the Cinematic Stage. Eds. Doughlas Brode and Shea T. Brode. New York: Lexington Books, 2020. Print.

[19] E Dawn Hall. ReFocus: The Films of Kelly Reichardt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Print.

[21] Certain Women Script/Screenplay by Kelly Reichardt.

[22] E Dawn Hall. ReFocus: The Films of Kelly Reichardt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Print.

[23] Certain Women Script/Screenplay by Kelly Reichardt.

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About the Contributor

Mubashir Karim was born in Srinagar, Kashmir and completed his Masters in English from the University of Kashmir. He went on to pursue his M.Phil and PhD from Jamia University. Mubashir is currently working as an assistant professor in the Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir. His work has been published in the Transnational Literature Journal, Café Dissensus and Muse India, among many others. He is a regular blogger at http://poiesismubashirkarim.blogspot.com/

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