Is There a Better Way to Tell the Story of Nonhuman Life?

Is There a Better Way to Tell the Story of Nonhuman Life?

Is There a Better Way to Tell the Story of Nonhuman Life?

Thalia Field’s Personhood challenges us to examine how human language has made it harder to care for the natural world.


In 1856, English art critic John Ruskin published the third volume of Modern Painters, which in the course of its roving aesthetic inquiry takes to task a commonplace literary convention: the personification of the natural world. According to Ruskin, describing flowers and oceans as if they are people is by no means an innocuous meaning-making device. Rather, the impulse emerges from the “pathetic fallacy,” in which “violent feelings…produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things.”

Ruskin expresses impatience for this sort of metaphor, and he scrutinizes one example after the next, assessing it for possible offense. Early in the chapter “Of the Pathetic Fallacy,” in which he discusses the literary feature, he introduces as a specimen the following line from Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke: “They rowed her in across the rolling foam—/ The cruel, crawling foam.” Then comes the verdict, which seems almost a diagnosis: “The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.” Unharnessed, overabundant pathos—this is the condition in which foam seems fiendish and a crocus seems “anything else than a plain crocus.”

Ruskin makes Victorian aesthetics awfully cranky, but his critical perspective turns on a historically mainstream conception of personhood: that it is, categorically, exclusive to humans. Simultaneously, Ruskin’s analysis insists that our emotions have a pesky tendency to make us unreliable narrators—that without rigorous self-government, personal feeling will preclude us from seeing the natural world as it actually exists.

Writer Thalia Field might agree that human emotions, in all their basic solipsism, muddy our comprehension of nonhuman life. And in her new book, Personhood, she examines how this misunderstanding, whether willful or unintended, distorts the stories we tell about the natural world, warping them into human-centric, hierarchical narratives. Personhood, it seems, bestows protagonistic relevance in a feral world of lesser beasts. But this self-aggrandizement, which Field presents as almost pathological in its tenacity, gravely impacts human ability to engage with flora and fauna—and, more specifically, to behave compassionately toward them. (Here Ruskin would likely nod his head, at least where nonhuman animals are concerned. He considered them our betters, and protested the gruesome Victorian practice of vivisection when it was introduced at Oxford in 1885.)

But as Field suggests in Personhood, traits that distinguish humankind from non-humankind do not—and should not—consecrate us as sole members of the titular category. In fact, she stoutly resists our species’s singular claim upon this term: After all, over the course of American history, most people, excluding straight white cisgender males, have at some point been legally denied the status of personhood. Despite the teasing gesture of Field’s title, Personhood is a book about humanity only insofar as it impugns our frailties and failures, expressing with mournful and unmerciful clarity their material impacts on the rest of the living world. And the greatest failure of all may be the enduring category of personhood, a rickety taxonomy propped up by humanity’s pompous, prejudiced hubris, and recklessly withheld from any entity whose sovereignty is inconvenient.

Personhood might aptly be characterized as experimental literature, bucking genre just as it denounces more existential categories. It is stubbornly promiscuous and distinctly theatrical: Each chapter, scaffolded by its own logic, borrows from dramatic dialogue, essay, and poetry. Field’s language is brash, biting, and by turns elegiac and accusatory. She indicts readers for our collective abuse of the natural world; she charges us with the urgent responsibility of mitigating the damage; and simultaneously, she mourns the mounting and inevitable losses.

This is a vigorous and often playful book, but an undercurrent of fury sharpens the contours of its jauntiness. Humanity, as rendered by Field, is something of a sick joke. A chapter titled, “Turns Before the Curtain” denounces scientific efforts to suppress the accretion of “invasive species”—and does so in the mode of absurdist vaudevillian drama. When feral swine trample onstage, wreaking havoc, the stage direction demands, “Arrest them!” It’s a silly response that coyly packs a punch, evoking as it does Personhood’s prevailing interest in the legal system’s unyielding regulation of nonhuman life. In her journeys from exotic bird sanctuaries to zoological parks, Field weaves a motif of imprisonment across the text, keenly exposing how carceral logic shapes the mistreatment of vulnerable creatures and the wider natural world. This lock-and-key ideology fosters delusions of virtue seemingly impervious to the evidence of humanity’s singular role in global devastation. If the world is ours to govern and plunder, and its creatures ours to bridle, humans can’t be stopped from behaving like executioners while fancying ourselves saviors.

But despite this inclination to frame environmental meddling as a hero’s journey, Personhood disabuses its readers of any such narrative fantasies, instead exposing our species as bumblesome, futilely obsessive, and chronically self-involved. And like Ruskin—who is winkingly invoked in the chapter “The Health of My Stream or the (Most) Pathetic Fallacy”—Field is most acidic when harpooning failures of language seemingly emanating from humanity’s egotism. The book’s first chapter, “Hi Adam!” (one of its strongest and most full-throated), depicts the cacophony of an exotic bird sanctuary, and the intimate yearnings of the birds themselves. These are bottomless, impossible desires that, as Field emphasizes, their human caretakers are ill-equipped to soothe or satisfy. For the birds, “the relief of [human company] becomes the horror of not having [it],” emotional turbulence resistant to any comfort born of the human mind.

And yet, in thrall, as it is, to the pathetic fallacy, our capacity for thinking about nonhuman creatures is hobbled by projection. Be it “cruel, crawling foam” or the chatter of a loquacious parrot, when the natural world makes an impression on us, humans are inclined to figure our astonishment in terms of likeness—imagining personhood where we would typically deny it. Field writes, “Entering the sanctuary, you’re shocked at the birds’ sheer charisma, imbued with what is lamely called personality.” “Personality” is both a limiting and a conceited assignation, she implies, especially when it comes to nonhumans. Here, its usage indicates a banal sort of elevation, as if a nonhuman creature’s most agreeable qualities offer a pale imitation of normative human standards. Field instead suggests that person-centric terminology—personality, personhood—is elementally insufficient, that it stymies language in its capacity for representation, which is, she emphasizes, already grievously limited in the first place.

If human language is ill-fitting as a means of communing, so too are human shelters. Dedicated to “the captive wild,” Personhood defies the widely held notion that sometimes animals live more contentedly in human contexts—that we can, at last, reach some kind of mutually beneficial, close coexistence. “No wild animal, under any circumstance, can find a home in a human place,” Field writes. At moments like these, Personhood seems not so much to castigate human failure in our efforts to establish common ground with wild animals, but rather, to mourn the impossibility of achieving anything better. No amount of diligent study or care, Field argues, would illuminate a righteous path toward animal/human compatibility. Only hubris convinces us of our endemic relevance to nonhuman creatures. A parrot kept as a pet or housed in a sanctuary will pine for their human companion, but then it is imprisonment that confines them to these lonely conditions.

For, as long as we conceive of nonhuman animals on our prejudiced terms, evaluating their ontological proximity to “personhood,” we cannot possibly infer their actual needs. (Perhaps, first and foremost, we must unlearn the assumption that they need us.) The chapter “Happy/That You Have a Body (The Mirror Test)” presents the case of Happy the Elephant, who has been held at the Bronx Zoo for 40 years in a solitary enclosure “not larger than a few times her body length,” and whose freedom depends on a court of law granting her the status of personhood. According to court documents, the attorney petitioning in Happy’s favor argues that “being a person and being a human being are not synonymous…. [The 1972 case of Byrn v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp.] made clear that personhood is an issue not of biology, but it has to be a matter of public policy.” It wouldn’t be an unprecedented decision, as Field notes. In 2016, an Argentine court ruled that a chimpanzee must be released from the zoo, on the basis of her “nonhuman person[hood].” New Zealand’s Whanganui River has been named a legal person in order to safeguard its health, as have the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India.

Are these legal designations of personhood also forms of Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy? Perhaps. Ultimately, fallacy might be baked into the category’s conceptual texture: Whenever we apply personhood to nonhuman entities, we are thinking not so much about them as we are about ourselves. Personification can make for a greedy, needy kind of metaphor, one implicitly demanding that the rest of the natural world facilitate our species’ self-realization. If these symbolic flights constitute “[false] impressions,” Ruskin was right to censure as he did.

In the case of Happy the elephant, and her fellow nonhuman petitioners, the metaphor of personhood is further distended and utterly disembodied—and perhaps, in our present social arrangement, a court of law is where the term is most useful, so long as it can be wielded capaciously to ensure nonhuman sovereignty. Happy may yet benefit from the term’s potential efficacy: in May, the New York State Court of Appeals agreed to hear her habeas corpus case, despite its previous dismissal by over two dozen judges from lower state courts. Meanwhile, Field by no means disputes Happy’s right to freedom—on the contrary, she is vigorously arguing for it—but she insinuates, too, how the hubris of human language has shored up a pernicious social ideology, one condemning wild animals to imprisonment, and landscapes to rank exploitation.

“The Health of My Stream or the (Most) Pathetic Fallacy” nudges at the same argument by lampooning a strain of nature writing that is, above all, a personal narrative. If Ruskin got the joke, he might chuckle; otherwise, he’d gouge out his eyes. A river is “panicked,” a vineyard “cheerful”; the narrator seeks out “happy fish” in a river that “breathes and rumbles and laughs.” Field makes her point, through this deluge of stilted, cloying modifiers: Writing so beholden to the pathetic fallacy obscures, rather than reveals, the natural world. Indeed, what Personhood seems to insist upon—what it never allows its readers to forget—is that beyond expressing the condition of homo sapiens, human language is a meager feast, offering paltry materials for unselfish reflection. When we believe we’re looking beyond ourselves, beyond the familiarity of our own flesh, we are only gazing at another mirror. And yet a question nags, as Personhood closes: If we are so hopelessly, pathetically entangled in the language of pathetic fallacy, what literary potential remains available to us? One cannot bear witness to a suffering world if our words only inevitably lead us back to ourselves.

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