Logo The Fabulist

Literary Animals

Photograph of a black cat taken at night
  • By Joshua Cohen
  • Fable
  • Issue 2

Writers are people too—this is what damns them. Or darns them. Or sends them to heck. Fug them—this was how American literature expressed itself after the obscenities of the Holocaust and later H-bombs. We live as history, so if we write, even if we fictionalize, we write history too, often in minstrel dialect, or with women who have no lines to speak of. I went to college convinced the first novel ever written was Don Quixote (1605). I left college having read around in Asia: the Chinese Si Da Ming Zhu (Ming and Qing Dynasties), the Japanese Genji Monogatari (Heian Period), whose author wasn’t just female, but “a concubine.” My sister read Twain in an edition abridged for children, in which no one drinks, and Tom and Huck have quit smoking.

Today, the political metamorphosis of the novel ranges in every extreme: as some novelists debate gender and racial parity, while others let businesses sponsor their plots, to point at which all their characters drive Lexuses (Lexii?). It frequently seems as if only one wrong remains to be righted—because it’s not regarded as wrong: The use, or abuse, of the literary animal.

This, of course, is a matter as hoary as Rucio, Sancho Panza’s donkey, and Rocinante, Quixote’s spavined horse, combined—as old as the Bible, immediately older than misogyny and racism. After all, it was a serpent that was responsible for the fall of Eve, and so the fall of humanity, in Genesis. Rather, it wasn’t just any garden-variety snake, but a talking snake, a talking walking snake, which we rewarded for its surrogacy by mutilation: we forked its tongue and severed its legs and so forced it to hiss and crawl through dust, and blamed our massacre on God, Whom we kept shapeless and nameless and unaccountable. Ten generations after this, Creationdom was destroyed in a Flood, yet all the animals were rescued. Even the serpents. The ark must’ve been a floating laboratory of inbreeding, as the two of each kind were tamed, until the waters receded to let their spawn be domesticated. Then Ham uncovered the inbreeding of his father, Noah, and was punished by having the skin of his spawn irredeemably blackened. Ham’s descendants became the animals to men and the men to animals, a middle caste of chattel to till the fields. Salvation was a punishment too. Salvation was another enslavement.

Consider Fable #150 by that slave called Aesop: The lion spares the mouse's life and the mouse returns the favor and springs the lion by gnawing at the hunter's net. Now, consider the same scenario but with the animals' roles assumed by men, or even women: The behavior might be more, not less, of a shock. Allegories and parables are genres for censored cultures, and with greater democracy devolve into mere art. Bears and whales not to mention dogs and cats have been rendered endangered if not extinct—imaginatively, that is. We’ve so humanized them—burdened them with consciousness, and even, paradoxically, with conscience—that they’ve been exhausted as symbols. In this, we’ve proved ourselves the cruelest of creatures, because cruel to every creature. It is we who belong in the bestiaries. We’ve imposed our languages on species (Ovid, Orwell), which speak only to condemn us for every other violence. We’ve usurped their bodies (Apuleius, Kafka), but treat that violation as collateral. We’ve even made our gods turn into bulls before raping, then to solace the victims turned them into trees.