Disturbing the Human in Thylias Moss’ “There Will Be Animals” (1990)
Thylias Moss’ “There Will Be Animals” (1990) frustrates the reader’s desire for critical mastery, just as the natural world forever frustrates the desire of the human species to master it. On the one hand, the poem follows a strange logic that defamiliarizes our everyday notions of “humanity” and “animality,” thus critiquing our human-centered approach to the world. On the other hand, its combination of unrhymed couplets, anthropomorphisms, and unexpected shifts in imagery defy routine critiques of anthropocentrism advanced by animal rights advocates. This imbalance, this disharmony, refuses an easy and comfortable shift to an animal-centered or eco-centric worldview. Instead, the poem presses against the limits of human understanding and leaves the animal’s mysterious otherness intact.
The poem’s first half moves through a series of “lessons” that various animals will teach humans. It opens with a simple, yet puzzling declaration about the future: “There will be animals to teach us / what we can’t teach ourselves” (l. 1-2). Challenging humanity’s autodidacticism, its arrogant attempt to teach and save itself, the speaker suggests that animals know lessons humans can never learn alone, that they possess knowledge about life and the natural world that remains concealed to humans. Not always benign, some of these lessons amount to an uprising of the natural and animal worlds against humans. A baboon “paints his mandrill face for the war being waged / against his jungle” (l. 4-5), implying that animals will avenge both the slower, long-term effects of deforestation and the more direct consequences of the damage wrought on nature in human wars, as “jungle” alludes to the jungles annihilated by napalm in the Vietnam War. The pedagogical method is clear: the mandrill baboon will “teach” humans not to mess with his jungle.
Instead of dying out and becoming extinct, the egrets fight back by gradually evolving in order to evade human exploitation: “There will be egrets in a few thousand years / who will have evolved without plumes so we cannot take them” (l. 6-7). Here, the exploitation of the animal produces real effects in the history of evolution, as the speaker applies a Panglossian logic that reverses Darwin’s anti-teleological theory (i.e. the nose was made to hold one’s eyeglasses, egrets lose their plumes so they can no longer be used by humans). As with the baboon, the egrets’ “lesson” teaches against humanity’s destructive urges.
Rounding off these moments of animal pedagogy, the speaker tells us in her prophetic vision that ewes will teach us generosity, while macaws the importance of speaking the truth. The single line “There will be penguins keeping alive Hollywood’s golden era” disrupts the pattern of couplets (l. 14). It conjures up the absurd image of penguins in the director’s chair, coaching the tuxedoed (“penguinized”) Cary Grant to act out a screwball comedy gag. This comic effect deflates the importance humans (and specifically Americans) attribute to Hollywood and its frequently self-indulgent honoring of the “great films,” for surely the show must go on, so to speak, even if humans can’t. At this point, the poem’s critique depends on a teleological view of evolutionary history, as it envisions a messianic moment when animals overcome their supposed mastery by humans and become almost superhuman. The chaparral cock ironically embodies this evolution, for because it is “unconcerned with shortcuts,” it will “outdistance man”: a superhuman animal prevails against all-too-human humans (l. 15-16). Humans no longer stand alone at the apex of evolutionary progress.
Echoing these same themes in his book The Open: Man and Animal (1995), Giorgio Agamben calls the long intellectual tradition that simultaneously divides and articulates humans and animals an “anthropological machine” that ultimately condemns humans to the destructive quest for dominion over both nature and their own “animality.” Beginning with passages from Isaiah that inspired medieval artists’ depictions of a messianic banquet of humans with animal heads, Agamben traces the historical thread of a Judeo-Christian eschatological vision in which “the relations between animals and men will take a new form, and that man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature” (3). Such a reconciliation plays out to some degree in Moss’ poem. The various animals—the egrets, the ewes, the mackerel—will not mimic the human desire for mastery. Instead, they will teach humans how to live “superhumanly” with humility, generosity, and continuity—virtues that embrace the freedom and danger of what Rilke calls the “Open,” or the experience of the natural world as it truly is, an experience unavailable to us because we fear its danger.
In a twist that threatens to unravel the poem’s anti-anthropocentrism, the final two stanzas produce a disturbing, messianic image of Holocaust victims reborn from animals. The final image invokes a scene from the Grimms’ fairy tale, “Little Red Cap”:
Then once and for all
we will know it is no illusion:
The lion lying with the lamb, the grandmother
and Little Red Riding Hood
walking out of a wolf named Dachau (l. 30-35).
The Brothers Grimm version of “Little Red Cap” reinforced the German paranoia of symbolically ambiguous wolves preying on innocent German peasant children, signified by the sexually curious girl in red who strays from the path to pick beautiful flowers. Thus, the choice of the “Little Red Cap” allusion seems to deconstruct from within the Nazi valorization of the preyed-upon, white German peasantry. German peasants and Holocaust victims are brought together when the speaker envisions Little Red Cap and her grandmother emerging from a wolf “named” as the concentration camp at Dachau. Seemingly against the poem’s previously anti-anthropocentric spirit, this final stanza metaphorizes Dachau as a sinister wolf that gobbles up entire generations of families, on the surface turning the “wolf”—the instinctual animal—into a coldly administered Nazi death camp, a twisted rationality unbecoming of animals’ more “rational” instincts.
Does the wolf metaphor rebuild the humanistic scaffolding that the rest of the poem has torn down? Does the poem’s first half not suggest that Nazism and death camps are anything but animal-like? Because of the poem’s previous deconstructive work, we can no longer read the wolf metaphor at face value, as though the poem has “forgotten” what has come before. Rather, it reads as a calculated reinstatement of the conventional distinction between the human and the animal, a reinstatement that now exposes the moralistic clichés about the “de-humanization” and “animality” wrought on the victims of the Holocaust. Moreover, in the Grimms’ version of “Little Red Cap,” the wolf is anthropomorphized as more human than wolf. Not only does the wolf speak like humans in order to deceive and impersonate Little Red Cap’s grandmother, but also early illustrated versions of the fairy tales portray the wolf standing upright on its hind legs, wearing ornate aristocratic garb. The wolf’s ontological status is clearly thrown into question: is it a wolf at all if it behaves so much like a human? Thus, the “wolf named Dachau” hunts and devours humans, not as a wolf obeying its nature, but as a wolf imitating the human will to destroy. However one reads these lines, the overall effect disturbs rather than assures.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1995. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Copyright © 2007 by John Claborn.