Course: The Literary Lives of Animals

HC 421H

Professor: Casey Shoop

“I often ask myself, just to see, who I am—and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example, the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment.”

Shortly before his death, philosopher Jacques Derrida turned to “the question of the animal,” and he posed that question in the reciprocal gaze of his house cat. We have all stood before the eyes of a non-human animal and wondered about the intimate meaning of that look, the only partially accessible worlds in those eyes as well as what they see in us. 

In recent years many different academic disciplines have begun to interrogate “the animal” with renewed interest, questioning not only the divide between humans and animals, but also the nature of animal consciousness and subjectivity, and the ethics and politics of animal life in relation to our own. Of course, literature and philosophy have long sought access to the lives of animals through the imagination. This course will explore the capacities and limits of literature to access the lives of our animal others. Conversely, we will also examine what these own cultural and historical representations tell us about ourselves in our very desire to project upon (or anthropomorphize) these animal others.

What does it mean to inhabit the mind of a non-human animal in literature? Is this pure speculative fancy or can we actually experience something of what it is like to be embodied in a completely different kind of species-being? What are the motives and meanings to which the inhabitation of non-human animals are put in literary history?

Possible authors include Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, J.R. Ackerley, Jack London, J.M. Coetzee, Yoko Tawada, among many others. We’ll also look at examples of children’s literature and contemporary film.

Secondary theoretical and philosophical texts will include works by Thomas Nagel, Kathleen Akins, Donna Harraway, Jacques Derrida, Peter Singer, Emmanuel Levinas, Nicole Shukin, Gordon Brittan, among many others.