Jack Halberstam’s new book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (Duke 2020) opens with a delightful reading of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are and ends with a (too-brief) survey of Kate Bush’s 1985 album, Hounds of Love. These are weird cultural productions that have been loved into celebrated domestication precisely because of their seductive wildness. In between discussing them, Halberstam romps through a number of masculinist modernist texts (T. S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Wilde, T. H. White) in a manner that quickens and condenses a similar process of cultural domestication: he lassoes whatever wildness they contain and ropes and ties it for academic consumption. Indeed, to switch metaphors, Halberstam seems to read these texts primarily for the jazzy-queer new terms he can cut from them, and thereby set the conceptual hemlines for this year’s academic ‘season.’*
I will leave the details of that critique to others. The part of Halberstam’s romp through the “bewilderment of wildness” that truly caught me up short, however, is when he posits the analogy between pet owning and slavery (123). It is a strange argument, powerful in its shock effect but impotent in pointing readers to the pay-off of this shock because it evokes more questions than Halberstam addresses, much less answers, and because, to me, the upshot is something like a suspicion that Halberstam writes against pets and pet-owning from something like ressentiment rather than trans-species care.
I read Halberstam over the same week that I listened to the audiobook of Olga Tokarczuk’s fabulous novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009; translated from Polish to English in 2018). The novel is a gorgeous tapestry of murder mystery, rural life, witticism, and insights on human language and human behavior, all spooled around a kooky older woman, Janina, a vegetarian astrologist in the remote Kotlina Kłodzka area of Southeastern Poland, very near the border with Czechoslovakia. Janina hates her name and tends to be equally deprecatory about the given names of others. Resonant with her astrological attempts to find a fated truth about an individual’s life in constellations and planetary movements that supersede an individual’s choice or control, Janina prefers to refer to the people in her world by nicknames that emerge directly from her observations of them and their lives. Her only year-round neighbors in her tiny hamlet, most of the homes of which are summer homes for otherwise distant city-dwellers, are men she calls Oddball and Big Foot, for instance; and without explanation, she calls her good friend and former student, a man who shares Janina’s obsession with William Blake, “Dizzy”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she muses (and I paraphrase here), if we each had as many names as the people in our lives? Wouldn’t it be wonderful—or wild, we might say—if our very identities were not singularized and categorized by our names, from state identity papers to one’s intimate friends and lovers?
Janina’s curt impatience with the inadequacy and unfeelingness of human culture contrasts sharply with her lush descriptions of the non-human world, especially animals, but also grasses, ice and mud, mushrooms, insects, and trees. Slowly, the reader comes to realize how deep, open, vulnerable, and genuine are Janina’s feelings for and relationship to animals and how much she honors their non-human ways of being and perduring in their worlds that always only partially intersect with human worlds. Already in the book’s opening two pages, she asks in concern about Big Foot’s dog and then stops in stunned amazement at the deer outside Big Foot’s home:
“‘Look, Deer,’ I said in a raised whisper, grabbing him by the coat sleeve. ‘They’ve come so close to the house. Aren’t they afraid?”
The Deer were standing in the snow almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn’t fathom. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones. And in fact why only two? That time there had been at least four of them.
‘Go home,’ I said to the Deer, and started waving my arms. They twitched but didn’t move. They calmly stared after us, all the way to the front door. A shiver ran through me.” (1-2)
So much of what drives the novel is already here, right on the surface of these opening pages, as clear as deer tracks in the snow. But as Janina notes later in the book, “The psyche is our defense system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering” (225). In this passage, Tokarczuk–pulling on Blake ventriloquized through a kooky female astrologist whom no one heeds–sidles up closer to wildness and to the stakes of attending to it than anything in Halberstam’s book.
As Foucault argued so long ago in History of Madness, the “reason” that motors the human sciences emerges not from madness (which is just another of reason’s categories), but from unreason, déraison, those murky muttering swirling utterances and gestures that elude capture in the rational categories of the human sciences (please read Lynne Huffer on the importance of déraison). Our psyche is a defense system against this pervasive and polyvalent all-ness that falls away from human understanding faster than we reach out to coax it toward us. For Foucault, the task of the intellectual, the task of anyone who would refuse to give the final word to the suffering that constitutes “every tiny particle of the world” is a careful and laborious attentiveness to the limits of discourse. The task is to sense the frisson of unthoughts that cannot be domesticated, of the elsewise and otherwhere that are the leverage for subjective and social change, even while they lose that leverage when we actually pick them up as critical weapons.
Wildness is not there to be used or understood or neologized. Wildness is not there for us. Wildness undoes us, we who yet must remain domesticated and socialized. Wildness is sensed in the pulse of “rituals whose meaning we couldn’t fathom”, a pulse that is crucial not because we need to come to fathom it but precisely so that we can remember how much we will never fathom and, in opening ourselves to this ‘bewilderment’, live differently as animals. Part of opening ourselves to the shimmering frisson of a wildness indifferent to us is that we human animals might come to love and be loved by non-human animals, co-dwellers who only can be reduced to the name Pet, or to ownership, if one has never been remade by a relationship with a being one cannot fathom.
For Cricket, 2008-2020.
*I am indebted to the discussion of Halberstam’s book on January 16, 2021, with Dr.s Jill Ehnenn, Lauren Guilmette, Randall Johnson, Kristen Tapson, Gail Weiss, and soon to be Ph.D.’s Bo Eberle and Sierra Lawson. Thank you all—your wordprints are in this piece.