Animals, disasters, love: Book traces nonhuman voices in literature

One day in seminar, literature scholar Laura Brown imposed a limit on the discussion: for an entire class on Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” no one could mention a human character.

“We found that the book was full of other-than-human beings: objects, structures, spaces, natural phenomena,” said Brown, the John Wendell Anderson Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “We had to ask ourselves: what are these other-than-human beings and things doing in this book? Are they simply serving the human protagonists, simply advancing their plot? No, much more was happening, and we needed to know what and how."

Brown, whose recent research looks beyond “the singular, autonomous, rational, human protagonist,” finds that many other-than-human presences appear in literature – with a lot to say to human readers and scholars. In “The Counterhuman Imaginary: Earthquakes, Lapdogs, and Traveling Coinage in Eighteenth-Century Literature,” she traces ways the nonhuman – including weather, natural disasters, animals, even the concepts like love – offer an alternative realm which exceeds human understanding or order.

The College of Arts and Sciences spoke with Brown about the book.

Question: Why do humans claim special access into the experience of nonhumans (such as animals and the natural world) through imagination and art? What is the paradox at the heart of this claim?

Answer: In modern times, human-centered assumptions around reason, individualism, and science have been pervasive throughout human endeavor. But even before Enlightenment humanism, the felt power of the human work of art inevitably expresses the efficacy of human creativity, across all the realms of human representation.

Human beings cannot create as other-than-humans. Our engagement with those others—animals, objects, the environment—must emerge from our humanity, even when we seek to accord them power, autonomy, or even primacy.

Q: Why were “lapdog lyrics” written with beloved pets in the role of protagonist and “circulation narratives,” which tell the daily adventures of materials things like a gold coin or a corkscrew, trends in 18th century literature?

Both protagonists—the lapdog and the gold coin—engage, in other-than-human ways, with the rise of the novel, which is the major innovation of eighteenth-century English literary history or of literary modernity more broadly across the globe. In each case a significant local event in human social history—the sudden rise of petkeeping and the dramatic expansion of commerce and consumption—intersects with the contemporaneous creation in literature of the novelistic protagonist whose career and identity absorbs and obsesses the reader. The lapdog and the gold coin access some of this absorption, but they are also weird proxies for the human, in ways that point toward counterhuman opportunities or affects—like cross-species “love” or the melding of the material and the vital.

Q: The book devotes a chapter to literary responses to a 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon and killed about 100,000 people. How did this natural disaster shake human thought as well as the earth?

The Lisbon earthquake is distinctive for my book since it is not a thing or an animal, or a coin or a pot, where we might seek to identify a counterhuman effect in a singular entity. For the earthquake or the storm, my challenge is to discover traces of other-than-human vitality in the human engagement with the whole experience of the environment—which we might call the eco-other.

We can start with what seems most striking about the literary accounts of the Lisbon earthquake: the utter and even repetitious conventionality of the poetry that claims to describe this absolutely unprecedented human experience. After reading these poems, we’re tempted to ask: which is it? is it absolutely astounding? or is it a repetitious enumeration of conventional, interchangeable, melodramatic images? This repetition is the counterhuman significance of the earthquake: showing that an account of the earthquake’s significance is impossible for mere, simple, rational, autonomous human thought.

As Voltaire suggests in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” the platitudes of the earthquake poetry “prove . . . that philosophy is false and vain.” What is left, for the human representations of the earthquake, is a chaos of repetition, multiplicity, and discontinuity. And if we read the earthquake poems for their fall toward chaos, we might begin to feel the counterhuman vitality of the eco-other.

Q: Do you see powerful uses of “counterhuman imaginary” in art or criticism today?

Yes, my book is all about ways of discovering and then registering the “counterhuman imaginary” in literature in any historical period. The 18th century context is especially useful as a local test case, because this period is marked by a set of dynamic transformations or transitions in the social, cultural, philosophical, political, and economic history of humans.

When it impacts 18th century literature, this dynamism gives the activities of the human imagination a distinctive tension or ambivalence, which might well heighten our ability to infer the counterhuman pressure of that inaccessible realm of the other-than-human. These 18th century texts, I hope, will become especially illuminating models, as we humans design ways of feeling the impact of the other-than-human beyond or despite the potency of human creativity.

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Book cover: The Counterhuman imaginary