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Animal Metaphor and the Unmaking of the Human: Darwin, Modernism, and Contemporary Environmental Ethics


My dissertation, Animal Metaphor and the Unmaking of the Human: Darwin, Modernism, and Contemporary Environmental Ethics, explores the linguistic innovations devised to reimagine the human/animal divide in the aftermath of the “Darwinian trauma.” My project scribes a wide arc from the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) to contemporary fiction and poetry, but I focus on the formal experiments of Modernism, with an emphasis on new uses of metaphor. I analyze a strain of literary works that trouble ideas of “form” in two different but intimately connected ways: a critique of literary form that rejects linear narratives, centralized human characters, and stable referential frameworks; and a critique of bodily form that undermines the ontological grounds of species difference. In these works, the animal metaphor becomes a key locus for bringing into relation human and animal bodies stripped of the logic undergirding the formal consistency of each. This literary interrogation of anthropocentric language, logic, and “form” begins, in my account, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but reaches its fullest expression in the Modernist period, in which Joyce, Kafka, and Woolf, among others, developed knowledge-disabling modes of language that further the critique of species difference.

Since the human has been made through language, the rationale for human transcendence can also be destabilized through language. After an introductory chapter in which I trace a philosophical tradition (starting with Spinoza) that rejects the Cartesian idealization of consciousness, I turn to The Origin of Species, in which Darwin transforms metaphor from an abstract comparison between discrete entities into a medium of inter-permeative relation between species. I read Carroll’s Alice books (1865, 1872) as engagements with Darwinian theory that anticipate Modernist linguistic innovation through the use of figurative language, particularly the pun and portmanteau word, that enters into recombinatory play with the world it describes. Both the “Circe” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and one of its major influences, Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), develop Carroll’s troubling of bodily and literary form, as I discuss in my third chapter. Flaubert’s The Temptation conceives of the human, in Darwinian terms, as merely one possible developmental outcome amidst a near-infinite series of forms. Conversely, in “Circe,” Joyce uses metaphor to dissolve Bloom’s capacity for self-possession into a sea of animal otherness.

Whereas Carroll, Flaubert, and Joyce celebrate the collapse of species difference, Kafka and Woolf view the dissolution into animal otherness as a prelude to the end of the human species. For Kafka, the metaphorical becoming-animal is not merely an escape from the social system, but also a confrontation with the condition of abjection proper to nonhuman life. In “The Burrow” and “Investigations of a Dog,” the subject of Chapter Three, Kafka theorizes a world in which the human self is completely irrelevant and meaningless vis-à-vis these stories’ nonhuman narrators, who are constantly subjected to the threat of death that arises not from human predation, but from an unknowable agency of the external world within which human agency is encompassed. Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) situates this bodily precariousness amidst the outbreak of World War II. For Woolf, however, the potential end of the human species is not just a source of dread, but also an opening to the emergence of nonhuman lifeforms with new modes of apprehending the world. My final chapter surveys contemporary fiction and poetry to examine how literature now responds to literary Modernism’s preoccupation with species difference and language. I discuss the recent turn to the practical ethics of the human-animal relation among novelists such as Margaret Atwood and Benjamin Hale, and explore works of contemporary poetry, specifically Anne Waldman’s Manatee/Humanity (2009), Lydia Davis’s The Cows (2011), and Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle (2014), that strive to integrate ethics with linguistic experimentation.

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