I thought perhaps we could begin with pronouns. Every use of ‘we’ rings alarm bells for me these days. Like it leaps right out at me, wrapped inside the scariest of scare quotes. Quotation is also something I wanted to ask you about.
In a 2017 House of Commons debate on animal welfare post-Brexit Michael Gove responds to an accusation of hypocrisy by reaching for the words of Walt Whitman: ‘I contain multitudes’, oozes Gove, temporarily forgetting the name of the poet whose lines he grabs. Can writers ever control where their words end up? I don’t know enough about Whitman to imagine what he might have made of it.
In his responses, Gove slides easily between a singular ‘I’ and a collective ‘we’ – a ‘we’ which itself shifts and slides. Sometimes Gove’s ‘we’ refers to Defra (of which he is Secretary of State); sometimes it refers to the Conservative Party; sometimes the Cabinet; sometimes the UK (as a nation? As a people?). Each time Gove’s we is a little different, each time the same. Is Gove speaking out on behalf of these ‘we’s or wriggling out of personal responsibility?
Every time I hear those Whitman lines now I think of Gove. It’s quite a curse, you know. So Gove was there, lurking, as I watched your talk, Do I Contradict Myselves?, the title of which reworks the same lines from Whitman. In the talk – as in your book, The Second Body, you mention the way a scientist oscillates between ‘I’ and ‘we’ because he works as part of a team of other scientists. So the question I really wanted to start with is: who is ‘we’ to you? In particular, I’m interested in your use of pronouns on p.60 of TSB:
‘I thought [ecologists] would show me how my life is integrated with the foxes which go through my bins, and not only with my human neighbours. To see the human in its own ecological niche is to see how the single body, living its life, has an influence on an ecosystem which we do not necessarily perceive.’
I’m fascinated by the way the text moves from the narratorial ‘I’, (i.e. you) through to a ‘we’ that seems to encompass all humans, indeed all life perhaps. Along the way the text pauses to refer to ‘the human in its own ecological niche’. Just for a moment, the human becomes an ‘it’, no longer a living subject but an object of (scientific) study. No longer an animal but a force? Just for a moment. Then the paragraph closes with a more distant ‘they’. This is a pronoun you come back to, via Eileen Myles, in your presentation, but here ‘they’ suggests a group (humans) that the narrator is not exactly a part of. ‘Humans do not see themselves as animals in their day to day lives’ Can we (that is, you, or I, or any of us?) speak of humans as ‘they’? And, maybe more importantly, can you/I/anyone really speak of/for all the bewildering diversity of human life in this little ‘we’? To me, the closing paragraphs of TSB suggest not …
My second question is about the lack of quotation marks in TSB. Is this a deliberate waiving (wavering?) of convention in order to echo the permeability of the individual? ‘I contain multitudes…’ or is there something else at play? Wikipedia tells me that usage of quotation marks only really crystallised in this way in the 17th c …
In TSB I love the way the borders between your thoughts and those of your subjects become difficult to fix, and yet there are still words and phrases that register as your own. Shakespeare gets his own paragraphs of course. Otherwise only ‘sloppy’ Stephen Greenblatt gets quarantined in italics.
My third question stems from your description of a kind of cognitive dissonance that allows butchers rigidly to distinguish between the living animal and the dead edible meat. ‘There is no confusion’, you quote one, I think. It reminds me of a moment in John Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals?’
‘The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal.’
How do you see this dualism? As something to accept? (‘Very well then I contradict myself’) or something to reject? Or is it never that simple?
PS The fountain pen works. It feels so strange in my hand.
Thank you for the letter, which I read on the 08.18 York to Newcastle on Wednesday. White owl above a frosty field on the way into Darlington.
I’ve always had feelings for the way people used to spell their names in different ways. (Shakespeare signed his name Shaksper, Shakspere + Shakspeare.) The way I choose to see this is as a sign of a more mobile and relaxed sense of self. Nowadays, the name is rigid and precious. If you spell my name wrong, I’ll get offended. (But this exchange would still be different if I asked you to address me as Dr Hildyard, or Day-Z.)
When I published my first book in 2013, I had no quotation marks in the ms, but the editor requested I put them back in place. People will just think you’ve made some errors, he said. Since then, it’s become more normal to let out the quotation marks, (as in TSB). I hope that the fading importance of quotation marks is a sign that readers are becoming more comfortable with the notion that reported speech always has a dodgy relationship with the speaker - coming as it always does through the author’s mind — and conversely, that the author’s words are always full of other peoples’ voices. But I still think that editor had his priorities right, in that context. You can have the most refined ideas in the world about your fully unpunctuated text, but to say that it doesn’t work for the reader is to say that it doesn’t work, full stop. In the book, demarcations are made from made for literary reasons - Shakespeare writes in poetry, so the line-breaks are important. When I use italics to indicate quotations from Greenblatt, Ferrante, Clark and a co-authored article from Nature, I needed to form those sentences in a way which clarified which words came from the other texts, because otherwise the subsequent literary analysis seemed to me to be confusing and therefore ungenerous toward the reader (it asked too much).
I have this image in my head of a brick wall. You know that, at some minute resolution, it’s comprised of minute chains or clusters. Visibly, if I am to pour a glass of water through a brick, much of the water will come out through the bottom. In some valuable sense the apparent impenetrable and singular solidity of a brick wall is a matter of scale or perspective. And yet in normal life, this considered apprehension of the physical object all seems a bit fancy, if somebody is smashing my face against the wall.
That’s the way I feel about some philosophy and theory. I think it’s true and necessary, but sometimes out-of-its-depth in real life, and this is why idealism about terminology, wherein no utterance is acceptable unless it has already had its permit issued, makes me queasy. Possibly it has to do with coming from a farming family, or growing up in the north, or even being a woman – I don’t have a very sophisticated psychological explanation – but do I find the pragmatic, But-will-it-put-dinner-on-the-table kind of questions matter to me more than I would like. So, even though I’ve spent the last five years working with people who are breaking down these boundaries (of gender, race, species, mind/body), and even though I believe that those boundaries will go, I still see a value in working with (for e.g.) the idea of the human, not only because humans exist in the minds of other humans, but also because the idea of a human is, in many contexts, sensible and useful.
I hope this answers your question about the butchers, and helps to explain why I want to defend the WE: because I sometimes feel like a we, and I reckon other people do too, and it’s also been sensible and useful at times. I’m glad you raise it tho because I’ve been having this argument with my husband for over a decade. He hates people including him in their WE - it makes him balk.I like to tell him that this fear of becoming a ‘we’ is felt more strongly in people who have little experience of being substituted, overlooked or replaced…people who are used to their own triumphant individuality, who are not accustomed to seeing themselves as a member of a community. So, for me, using a ‘we’ always feels mischievous: I dare you to disagree with me. Say something back.
It was also my husband who showed me the WS Graham quote which Denise Riley places in Say Something Back, (Do not think you have to say /Anything back. But you do/ Say something back which I /Hear by the way I speak to you.) It was a revelation to me in that I’d always thought of speaking at somebody as something oppressive rather than constructive. Those lines seem to describe speaking as an ambivalent and difficult thing - attempting to sound out another being who may or may not be present, or willing, or capable of speaking the same language.
Libel aside, I don’t mind if somebody else writes from my perspective, even though I don’t think I would like it. I don’t mind because… How would they get it right, how wrong, and what would that say about them - and us - and what would it be like for them to have a little of somebody else inside them? There are never enough voices. I don’t believe in patrolling pronoun borders or restricting the possibilities of movement through language. The crucial question is, who gets to reply? — For me, the matter is not to restrict the ‘we’ by trying to fix it down, or about placing limits on the speaker, but about mobilizing the possibilities for response. Obviously this means thinking about speaking with the dispossessed and underprivilieged - the global voiceless, both in the sense of those who are deprived of voices by structures of power, and also the nonhuman and others who actually can’t talk. This is why we need careful and attentive readings like yours of Gove’s speech, which shows the moves he’s making on literally everybody.
I’m also suspicious of the way escaping a ‘we’ tends to make a godlike ‘I’. That passage you mention in TSB, addressing whether a human might be able to perceive its every effect on an ecosystem, is a good example of where there are limits. To say that an individual human could be capable of perceiving the unimaginably multiple and complex minutiae of its impact on an ecosystem – from all-species’ perspectives, from micro-millisecond to epoch - is hubristic, and incorrect. We don’t need to promote humans to gods right now, and we don’t need to respect human individual difference by pretending it is all-seeing. Individual difference is not so fragile, nor are humans. My own personal idealism leads me to want to love that – to love the we because it pens me in with other people with whom I don’t see I to I. Let’s say there is somebody I really don’t like. Let’s call him Mickey. A ‘we’ is scary and exacting when it invites me or commands me to accommodate myself to Mickey, because the truth is that we already live in the same place. The idea of unconditional love is brutal when you think what it means loving.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of The Learned Pig.
Daisy Hildyard is from North Yorkshire. Her novel Hunters in the Snow won the Somerset Maugham Award and an honorarium at the USA National Book Awards. Her latest book The Second Body is an essay about humans and other animals in the Anthropocene.