copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Adam Smith points out, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that, President Bill Clinton’s claim to “feel your pain” notwithstanding, people can know only their own feelings. To the extent that an individual empathizes and sympathizes with another, he or she does so only vicariously, by imaginatively putting him- or herself in the other’s place. The ability to identify with other people, only if imaginatively, creates a sense of community as a “fellow-feeling” develops, which allows people to regard others as their kith and kin. Occasionally (and usually to their regret) people project their own feelings onto animals, including bears, gorillas, and lions, regarding them as their fellows as well. Something of such a fellow-feeling between humans and animals may be evident in the half-human, half-animal hybrid creatures of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Indian mythologies.
When an animal attacks, without warning, as wild animals are wont to do, people who have invested the animals with personalities similar to their own are sometimes at a loss to account for the beasts’ apparent betrayal. Other times, such individuals make an attempt to psychoanalyze the animal, as a female diver did after the whale she was petting, gripping her leg in its mouth, dove to a depth of approximately fifty feet before releasing her, and, short on oxygen, she barely made it back to the surface of the water. The whale, she believed, was annoyed at her for her invading its personal space. In past times, animals have even been condemned and executed for the “crimes” they committed against individuals, and in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab stalks the great white whale that bit off his leg.
It may be that people prefer anthropomorphism to the truth that animals are not people and, therefore, do not aspire, believe, doubt, feel, imagine, or think as people do. Although animals are definitely sentient and may be capable of limited cognition, including the ability to experience emotions to a degree, they are obviously not as sophisticated as even a young child in their ability to engage in complex, prolonged cognitive processes. Most animals do not have opposable thumbs, of course, which is a serious handicap, no doubt, in using (or even manufacturing) tools, but there are many other obstacles to their creation, maintaining, and developing art, science, and the other accoutrements of culture. No matter how fond one may be of one’s goldfish, hamster, guinea pig, rat, snake, canary, cat, dog, pot-bellied pig, or horse, the animal is not going to write a symphony to rival one by Johann Sebastian Bach, devise an invention to rival Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb, or put one of their own on the moon.
Animals are not human. By nature--even by definition--they are other-than-human, the closest approximation that we have to the extraterrestrial biological entities of science fiction and horror, as alien as the great gelatinous mass of The Blob or H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. We cannot put ourselves in their places, because they are not the same as we; they are not our equals in consciousness, memory, cognition, imagination, emotion, or any other mental process. In short, they are as William Butler Yeats describes the “rough beast” that, in “The Second Coming,” “slouches. . . towards Bethlehem to be born,” its “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun.” Anyone who has ever studied the eye of a rattlesnake, an eagle, or a tiger knows the gaze that Yeats describes. It is unnerving precisely because of its inhumanity. The eyes, for men and women, may be “mirrors of the soul,” but animals have no souls to mirror, which is the very reason that their “blank and pitiless” stare is horrible and terrifying to us. Their gaze proves, to the intuition, if not to reason, that the animal is other-than-human and that it may be dangerous. There is no “fellow-feeling” between a man or a woman and a serpent, a hawk, or a lion for the simple reason that there cannot be. Therefore, beasts are dreadful.
Poets know this, as Yeats’ description of his poem’s “rough beast” shows. Emily Dickinson knows, too, the alien nature of the animal, as her poem about the “narrow fellow in the grass” whose presence leaves her “zero at the bone” shows. D. H. Lawrence also knows the alien nature of the serpent, as his poem, “The Snake,” indicates. Steve Irwin believed that he knew animals, although he was never sentimental enough to suppose that they feel as he felt or think as he thought. He loved the beasts of the field and the forest, the air and the sea, but, the moment he was careless, he paid with his life, a stingray’s barb through his heart, and Roy, of the Las Vegas magic act billed as “Sigfried and Roy,” was mauled by the white tiger that the duo used in their act, despite his love for the great cat.
It is the otherness of animals' nature that compels horror writers to use them--or parts of them, such as their fangs, their claws, their scales, their wings, their impervious hides, to describe monsters. By assigning animal characteristics to human beings, such writers reverse the process of which Smith writes, causing readers to alienate themselves from the monster who is too unlike them, fanged and clawed as these monsters are, to allow identification and sympathy. There can be no fondness, no fellow-feeling, no trust between the human and the other-than-human, because whatever is inaccessible to the imagination is beyond empathy. This is true despite the fact that some people--the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers and Adolph Hitlers and Saddam Husseins among us--are worse than any lion, tiger, or bear, oh, my. Therefore, in science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, readers may continue to expect such monsters as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the ape-like mutants of “The Lurking Fear,” the gigantic spider of It and The Lord of the Rings, and the human-animal-alien hybrids of the thousands of horror stories, in print and on film, that have been are, and are to come.
Since the days of Job, when God asked his loyal servant whether he’d considered Leviathan and his ways, such has been the nature of the beast.