What I Dont Know about Animals by Jenny DiskiJacques Derrida was disturbed by the way his cat was apparently mesmerised by the sight of his naked body in the bathroom: the situation filled the philosopher with a sense of an existence that refuses to be conceptualised. Jenny Diski, on the other hand, is convinced that it is simply that the cat wants to be let out: if a human closes a door, the cat will insist on being let through it.
Striking a cord with my own experience of living with my own cat, who likewise is totally transfixed, and almost disgusted by the sight of human nakedness, I was excited to read this book to discover what others thought of this phenomenon. Diski’s own experience comes from a cat called Bunty, who, just like my cat, refuses to let the human owner do any work- instead insists on meowing to be let in, and out, of doors for apparently no reason.
This book starts off fairly slowly – and it took my quite some time to try and decipher what the ‘point’ was, especially as Diski seems to speculate and never come to any conclusion. However, I was soon very much drawn into her style of writing and interested in her contradictory and confused musings on the nature of animals, and our relationships with them.
She starts by looking at her own childhood: a rescued baby bird, a family budgie, an endless supply of goldfish. Her recollections seem cold and matter-of-fact, There was something quite alarming about him (budgie) flying free, she said, but when he flew out of a window, never to return, she found herself unmoved: I may have cried, but I didnt really care.
Diski confronts our responsibilities to animals with a sense of conflict. She feels we should face honestly the ‘beingness’ of animals. The suffering we cause through abattoirs and battery farming is a stupefying crime. She finds it hard to ride horses as she could not bring herself to be the master over any animals, however, she faces the fact that she cannot give up meat: in fact, the more militant and self righteous make her more obstinate about her cravings for flesh.
Diski brings together opinions and experiences by established scientists, wildlife experts and philosophers in her journey to discover more about our relationships with animals; and their relationships with us. She asks difficult questions – such as is it right for the scientist to cut the heads of baby chicks in order to maybe one day discover a cure for Alzheimers; who gives us the right to be lords over the ‘beasts’?
The questions she asks are hard hitting and unanswerable, but certainly worth pondering. Her book is a good read; funny and warm, and with a darker edge. It is also a hard-hitting moral argument which lets nobody off the hook, not even its author. She questions the way we anthropomorphosize animals; whether we are able to stop seeing animals without seeing them through our own experiences; and whether it is indeed ‘right’ to do it. This is an interesting question considering that women and men don’t even communicate with the same language, and we are the same species. How are we supposed to know what a different species is thinking?
Diski’s best writing though certainly comes when she observes her own cat, Bunty. This is where I know exactly where she is coming from. I disagree with her assertion that cats cannot have facial expressions (I know exactly when my cat is playful, angry or desperate for a wee – and that is in her eyes, not just the manic swish of a tail), but I know exactly what she means when she says that although we assume animals cannot speak, they simply might be speaking a different language.
“Sometimes when I look at her she stares at me so intently that I really do expect her to finally say what she has to say. Or she is saying it….and simply looks at me thinking, ‘How stupid is this human…It’s hopeless trying to communicate with it.’”
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What I Don't Know About Animals
Jacques Derrida was transfixed by the way his cat was apparently transfixed by the sight of his naked body in the bathroom. The scene has a hold on Jenny Diski too. It's one of those images which, once even sketchily formed, will keep reappearing on one's inner screen. Perhaps that's why the cat kept coming back to stare. The situation filled the philosopher with a sense of "an existence that refuses to be conceptualised".
Alex's lip lifts as if to bite and she snatches her hand away. While she is riding Alex, Alex's stablemate Henry shies. His rider falls off. Startled, Henry gallops home dragging his rider, who is bruised but not badly hurt, and the one the instructor is sorry for is Henry. Diski walks into an idea like no one else and here is journeying into the dark continent of our relationship with animals.