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Animal Dreams: How Humans Think and Write About Animals

A consideration of our views and attitudes toward other species and ourselves.

Key points

  • A new book chips away at the self-serving denials and falsehoods we have about animals.
  • The book 'Animal Dreams' looks at the predicament of other animals in the culture of human animals.
  • Our domination and use of non-human animals is a deep wound in the human psyche.

A few months ago, I posted an interview with award-winning author David Brooks, one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual, and versatile writers, about his book called The Grass Library: Essays, and now I'm pleased to post this interview with David about his new book called Animal Dreams, a collection of essays about how humans think, dream and write about other species.1 A trailer about these thought-provoking essays can be seen here. David's book is a wonderful companion to Melanie Challengers' book How to Be Animal. Here's what he had to say about how private and public conversations about animals reflect older and deeper attitudes to our own and other species and what questions we must ask to move these conversations forward,

Why did you write Animal Dreams?

A friend and I once talked of writing a collection of essays about the animal in Australian literature. That never happened. I started writing essays. He didn’t, for various reasons. And the essays I wrote began to range more widely. I was asked, by a journal of contemporary philosophy, to write about veganism: I was asked by another journal to write about the animal in philosophy; I was asked by another to write about writing about animals, per se. And through this process certain understandings were reached, ideas came about the Animal in mind, about the predicament of other animals in the culture of human animals. And at some point, I realised it had happened, a book, a thing in itself, strangely more than the sum of its parts.

Source: University of Sydney Press, used with permission
Source: University of Sydney Press, used with permission

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I’ve spent a good deal of my life teaching literature, at various universities. Mostly Australian literature. And when I wasn’t teaching it I was writing it. For much of that time, I’d been rather blind to animals. In some ways—rather deep ways—I’m concerned, in this and other books, with examining and attempting to undo my own role in our culture’s repression and occlusion of the animal, with trying to explain my blindness to myself. For the last decade, I’ve lived with rescued sheep and other animals in the mountains outside Sydney, writing full-time, mainly about and for non-human animals. I have a writing room in the middle of a paddock. The sheep visit me.

Who is your intended audience?

Animal Dreams might seem, initially, a rather Australian work, but I think it has a wider audience. I figure my own previous blindness is hardly unique. I’m hoping the understandings I’ve come to about the sources and processes of that blindness, might help others think through theirs, and understand better the blindness around us. A friend, a major literary and animal rights theorist in her own right, says everyone should read this book. I don’t think that’s likely, but we’ll see.

What are some of the topics you weave into the text and what are some of your major messages?

A reviewer of The Grass Library said that like the philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida, I "chip away at the self-serving denials and falsehoods with which we think and write animals out of, rather than into, being." The description applies to Animal Dreams just as well. Each of the essays in the book does or tries to do, some of that chipping away. In some, it’s in the area of poetry or fiction (not exclusively Australian: there are essays on Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, etc.), in the attempt to demonstrate how we might read resistantly, to reveal the ways non-human animals have been oppressed by or occluded in our literature, and how we might work to undo the techniques of that oppression. In others it’s looking at some major contemporary philosophers, to reveal the oppressions and occlusions of the animal in their work.

Other essays look at the depth of psychology of this oppression. I argue that our attempt to remove ourselves from the animal, our domination and use of non-human animals, is a deep wound in our psyche, a wound we’ve covered with various kinds of excuses like scar tissue and that it’s only through addressing this wound directly—attempting to repair our relationship with non-human animals, and with the animal in ourselves—that we can salve it. And of course, other essays have been stimulated by events in the world around me. In Australia, we have a terrible relationship with our wildlife. This relationship is reflected in and sustained by public policy. I look at that policy. There are essays on compassionate conservation and against "conservation killing," for example, or on the predicament of kangaroos in the Australian mind. But all of these, too, are related by this work of undoing as I’ve come to call it.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

Most works on non-human animals and what we might loosely call "animal theory" are monographs, or are anthologies of essays by various hands. This is a set of essays on the one hand. They range widely but they’re unified by and allow the development of certain key ideas: that of the Wound, as I’ve just said, or of this immense work of undoing. And of course, it’s also marked by that Australian component and has that flavour.

Are you hopeful things will change for the better as people (re)connect with other animals based on some of what you've written?

Guardedly, but yes, of course: that’s why I write. The ideas I develop in these essays have been immensely helpful to me in explaining to myself some difficult and troublesome things about the world and about myself. I write about them in the hope they might help others. Even if I’ve got things hopelessly wrong (I don’t think so), it might help others get them right.

What are some of your current projects?

A few years ago, looking at various projects I’d embarked upon, I thought I was writing an ‘animal’ trilogy. There’d be Derrida’s Breakfast, then The Grass Library, then Animal Dreams. Now I’m thinking it’ll be a sestet at least. I’ve just finished Turin, a small collection of meditations on how we approach the animals about and within us. Then, I hope, there’ll be a suite of four or five essays about the persecution of kangaroos. After that who knows? The ‘problem’ of the Animal—of our relations to the other animals about us—is immense, and urgent. I don’t at this point see any end to it, or to writing about it. Essays, for me, are a way of finding, of discovering. There are few things so effective in showing you what you don’t know about something than the process of writing about it.

References

Notes

1) The book's description reads: Animal Dreams collects David Brooks’ thought-provoking essays about how humans think, dream and write about other species. Brooks examines how animals have featured in Australian and international literature and culture, from ‘The Man from Snowy River’ to Rainer Maria Rilke and The Turin Horse, to live-animal exports, veganism, and the culling of native and non-native species. In his piercing, elegant, widely celebrated style, he considers how private and public conversations about animals reflect older and deeper attitudes to our own and other species, and what questions we must ask to move these conversations forward, in what he calls ‘the immense work of undoing’. For readers interested in animal welfare, conservation, and the relationship between humans and other species, Animal Dreams will be an essential, richly rewarding companion.

Bekoff, Marc. How to Be Animal: The Case Against Human Exceptionalism. (A new book explains why we should embrace the fact that we are animals.)

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