Sunday, October 5, 2008

Becoming Animal

I fear the animals regard man as a being... seriously endangered by the loss of sound animal understanding...

I play with the words of Nietzsche. For something emerges which is hard to expose within the carefully crafted, academic works of other philosophers, but is not at all difficult to discover amidst the rhythms and rhymes of the poets. It makes repeated appearance in Blake and Coleridge, Whitman and Pesoa. It also appears in the poetic-prose of the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Herman Melville, and later in the diverse explorations of Gregory Bateson.

What is it that appears? Follow Nietzsche through a few of his poems.

First of all... he bemoans the clock.

Around my neck, on chains of hair,
The timepiece hangs – a sign of care.
For me the starry course is o’er
No sun and shadow as before,
No cockcrow summons at the door,
For nature tells the time no more?
Too many clocks her voice have drowned,
And droning law has dulled her

Nietzsche is not calling for a conservative movement here, not a return to simpler days when the cock crowed to wake the farmer, and the stars and moon told of the coming seasons. No! Nietzsche is, however, calling us to ourselves, to who we are, yet who we repeatedly deny that we are. Nietzsche is suggesting that we are not distinct from nature; we are inescapably connected to the animals, to the seasons, to the hedgerows, to the sun and the streams. If we do seem separated from all this, it is an artificial separation, yet it is also a violent division which leads nowhere but destruction. And the ways of this heartless separation – including the imposition of blind law, distinct from any connection to nature, and an insistance upon a spirit of submission -- he clearly despises.

I hate to follow and I hate to lead.
Obedience? No! And ruling? No indeed!...

I hate to guide myself, I hate the fray.
Like the wild beasts I’ll wander far afield....
Instead of obedience, he becomes a wild beast! Yes... he becomes! As Deleuze would say, Nietzsche becomes a Becoming Animal...

Not a return to nature. No... but a Becoming forward toward nature. There is no need for a return, for our yesterdays were no more connected to a real world of sun and sky, fish and frogs, weeds and insects, than is our today. There is nothing to return too, instead this is a Becoming.

We see this Becoming in the next poem, where Nietzsche becomes a serpent. Not a serpent in the tradition of Western thinking -- the evil, conniving snake which deceives first the gullible woman and then the weak man – and an obvious misogynist man at that. No, this serpent is what it is, it moves through the rocks and the grass, it sheds it skin, it Becomes into newness, and it eats the food the earth provides. This serpent is real. It is even vulnerable to the violences of the human hand and foot. No emblem of evil here! Nietzsche not only loves this animal, he himself, through the words of this poem, Becomes this animal. And, we also, if we are able to read without interest in the narrow violations of evaluation and judgment, become this serpent. We Become the Becoming animal...

My skin bursts, breaks for fresh rebirth,
And new desires come thronging:
Much I’ve devoured, yet for more earth
The serpent in me’s longing.
Twixt stone and grass I crawl once more,
Hungry, by crooked ways,
To eat the food I ate before,
Earth-fare all serpents praise.

It is in this place, the place of the Becoming animal, that the powers-at-be loose their grasp. It is, for Nietzsche, in Becoming serpent, or mouse, or dog, dragonfly or tiger that a freedom and a joy emerge. For in the world of the snake, there is no more sin, no more God, no more king or queen, no more dominance of governing authorities, no more underlings to govern... but there is the grass to crawl through, one’s skin to shed, a feast of the earth to eat. Nietzsche cared not to call for either rigid structure or chaos; he created a world antithetical to both the Nazi and the anarchist. But he did call for an awakening of the animal, the animal whose influence we cannot escape, the animal which could be the serpent or could be the dove, but the animal which we dare to Become.

How strange this all appears. So removed are we from the creatures we share this world with, from the very creatures we are and we can become, that such concepts seem strange and utterly bizarre. Yet, perhaps, never before in our history has the Becoming animal been so required within our lives. We destroy creatures and the worlds they move within not because we are hungry, not because we, like the tiger and the hawk, desire to hunt and eat, but because, on the contrary, we are separate, distinct, disconnected from almost everything living. Let us Become that spider, that fly, that migrating songbird, that salmon, that disappearing shark. Let us become the hawk, the owl, the worm. Let us become Nietzsche’s serpent, and in so doing, discover the beauty and power of Becoming not just animal, but also wonderfully human.

Friedrich Nietzsche (2006). The Gay Science. New York: Dover Publications.

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