Peter Beagle Interview — Day Two

Welcome to Day Two of the Peter Beagle Interview! Peter Beagle, as you probably know, is one of the leading literary lights of our generation....

Joy  |  Oct 28th 2006


Why Humans Dehumanize Animals

Peter Beagle

Welcome to Day Two of the Peter Beagle Interview! Peter Beagle, as you probably know, is one of the leading literary lights of our generation. If you haven’t read one of his marvelous works, like The Last Unicorn, then treat yourself and get a copy soon!

If you haven’t read Day One of the interview which ran yesterday here on the blog then you might want to take a moment and catch up there first before reading on. We left the interview yesterday when Peter had mentioned that humans tend to ascribe behaviors we don’t like to non-human species. Today he talks more about that and the differences between how dogs and cats relate to humans.

Joy: What does that say about humans, that we take a species like the gorilla, and ascribe these kinds of horrific behaviors to them when there really aren’t?

Peter S. Beagle: As a form of scapegoating, we do it to other people constantly. The whole point of war is to dehumanize the enemy. You can’t kill somebody otherwise. At least its much harder. It’s a clich, of course, this human dehumanizing another that’s why we do it. Yeah, gorillas are family groups, and they don’t necessarily bond with other groups, but they can share turf. And they almost never fight each other except under extreme provocation. And most of them, you know the whole business of the monster pounding his chest and baring his fangs, its all bluff, of course its bluff, its what they do. As creatures, there’s much gentleness about them. T. H. White, in The Once and Future King, has a vision of evolution which is geared to a clock, the 12 or 24 hour clock, showing the evolution of the world, then eventually life coming to it. Arthur’s watching this, its a vision Merlin’s giving to him and at the very last, finally comes man. And there are literally seconds to go on this clock. And hes just there long enough to look around, blink, size things up, make a slingshot, put a rock in it and kill his brother. God knows what White thought of human beings as a species. Arthur, at the very end, in The Book of Merlin which is not included in The Once and Future King, it was published separately, and is really quite wonderful Arthur is taken once again underground, to spend a little time with animals, as he always has. The creatures who have suffered the most from mans onslaughts are the ones who defend man against Merlin, who has just had it with human beings. Just cuts loose and rants about his disgust with humanity. And its the animals, a great dog, a goat, a badger, an owl, a snake, all arguing fervently on behalf of man. Always had a feeling they were doing it to make Arthur feel better. Hes at the end of his life, knows hes going to die, and frankly doesnt care.

JW: That its to make Arthur feel better, what does that say about the animals?

Tamsin cover

PSB: Its a curious thing but, there are times when dogs and cats who have lived with us the longest seem to sense when we are sad, and will do something they don’t have to do. I would expect it from dogs, who spend so long trying to figure out what it is that human beings want. Cats don’t have to. Cats mostly don’t give a damn. But I’ve known cats to sense when I, or one of my family members was sad, hurt, depressed, and just come to be with them. I cant give you much but my presence, and that’s got to count for something because I’m a cat.

JW: What does that say to you, that these dogs and cats will give you what they can?

PSB: For some reason we’ve been bonding with them for a long time, and we’ve domesticated dogs from wolves, whose motives were simply you know, there’s a lot more food here, all you have to do is not bite them. All you have to do is to keep other animals out, because you’re protecting your source of food now. All right, what does it hurt if you snuggle up with them a little bit at night, its cold, you do it with your own pack anyway.” Wolves transferred the pack mentality to human beings. I think that’s how it began with dogs. Cats are another matter. I think that’s why I like cats, no matter how close and affectionate and friendly you are, a cat is a cat.

JW: What can we learn from that? That the mystery remains?

PSB: Well it should, mystery is very important.

JW: In what way?

PSB: Human beings think that they can know everything. That even if they don’t know it now, the knowledge is within reach. A cat, to me, has always stood for that knowledge that dances a little out of reach. I always find that very encouraging.

JW: Encouraging? In what way?

PSB: Well, I know anyway, at least I have a good notion, of how much I don’t know, and how much I never will know. Seeing it encompassed in something that looks back at me, you know, with great serious yellow eyes and says about that tuna fish, you’re not gonna finish it?”

JW: How does that make you feel, that you can see it encompassed that way?

PSB: Its a kind of security for me. There’s a story of mine just published this year, told by one of the women in The Innkeepers Song, an old black woman named Lal, who has long since retired, if you like, from being the mercenary she was. Shes gone back to do what she always was supposed to do, gotten derailed from by being kidnapped and sold as a child: she is living in a desert hut, telling stories and training a young girl to tell them after her. And at the end of a story, she tells to her listener, Made you wise then? Perhaps not? Well, let me tell you what I know about wisdom. Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know and celebrating it. I’m paraphrasing, but its a nice passage. And its, you know, what Lal has to tell. It has to do with a creature I made up, one shes always hated as a group, because of their way of raping your memories.

JW: Tell me about that.

PSB: Its called a chandail. Chandail are sea creatures. There are a lot of legends about them, a lot of stories. They’re ugly, except when they’re beautiful sometimes they look beautiful. But they’re like a cross between an octopus and a centipede and a few other things thrown in. And they have a way of bringing your memories to 3-dimensional life and surrounding you with people who must be there, they’re so real, but they’re not there. They’re not. And to someone like Lal, who still has nightmares once in a while from her childhood, this is very painful: she lost her family, never saw them again, and here she is, a young girl working on a ship for the first time, a fishing boat, when she encounters the chandail following the ships, sending those memories. She just about breaks down. She knows that they aren’t real, but they feel real, like she could touch them purely 3-dimensional. The ships captain, a woman, tells Lal to get used to them, they all had to, either that or you don’t fish these grounds. The captain explains to Lal that for the chandail our minds are like playrooms, like an attic or a nursery. They don’t mean any harm, they just do that. And Lal, even though she eventually learns to control her reaction, hates them. Absolutely. And yet later in life she finds herself trying to nurse one back to health, and being given the gift of its only vision more than a vision of the childhood playmate, Bismaya, who sold her into slavery. The two of them actually get to speak to each other. And Lal realizes what the hell was I thinking of, what, to have you haunt my dreams all these years?” She also finds out why it happened. Did you do it for the money? What could it have been close as we were?” And Bismaya confesses It was your eyes, Lal. Always, all our lives, you’d had these beautiful golden eyes. I couldn’t stand it. I’ve got these muddy brown eyes, I had to face them every day and to see you every day cause wed play together. And I had to get rid of you.”

JW: Earlier you were telling me that with a cat you can look in those eyes, and see those gold eyes how is this like Lal and Bismaya? How are we like Bismaya, with those gold eyes?

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche

PSB: Oh, there are times when I envy cats enormously. I had an office cat for 15 years, named Gully Jimson, after Joyce Careys main character in The Horses Mouth. Mr. Jimson kept me company. Not only did he keep me company, but he would come and find me if I wasn’t in the office, and make me go there. He did this for 15 years. He could come and go through the window, but I had to be there working he liked to know where I was. It was home base. And sometimes wed just sit, and look at each other, and Id talk to him. There was a way in which wed talk: cats have a wide vocabulary of sounds. In a lot of ways he was my role model. He had a way of being superior to everything: this is not happening, I am superior to it.” Whether it was a trip to the vet, or an illness, or the office ferret, whom he hated. He simply rose above it, in the literal sense, he could leap onto my desk, and the ferret couldn’t climb.

JW: Whats good about that? And what would lead him to be your role model, that he can rise above things like this, even the office ferret?

PSB: Because like anybody else I spend so much of my time tangled up with small irritating problems. But they’re real, they’re everyday, and so on. I always admired and envied Gully because he could just soar above it. Of course, he always knew the food would be there. But he was, without question, the aristocrat of this incredible family of cats I had. He knew he was the aristocrat. It was his air that I purely envied. You know I’ll never be that superior to my surroundings.

Join us tomorrow for Part Three of the Peter Beagle Interview!