Matthew Goulish

Nextness and Generosity – the flight of the loon

Forest animals make routine appearances in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as incidental and accidental companions, their presences like revelatory glimpses into the author’s inner life, philosophy, or ethic, externalized and made visible. The episode with the loon in the chapter titled Brute Neighbors puts this woodland poetics to the test. Thoreau in his boat performs an extended experiment, attempting to parallel the movements of a loon as it flies across the lake or dives under the water. How long will it stay submerged? Where will it surface? The bird’s unpredictability and laughing call mocks the author’s attempt to replicate its thinking by way of anticipating its flight. Is the bird moving erratically to avoid the human presence? Does the experiment influence the results? Thoreau’s use of the word “neighbor” in the chapter title aligns the animals with the humans who dwell near his solitary cabin. He distinguishes the closest of these by coining the term nextness to define the quality a shared property line. Is the loon the nearest (or next) of his animal neighbors? Is nextness the territory in which the assimilation of the ethical self into a community, a public, is first enacted? Thoreau’s life in the woods at least in part constitutes a retreat into a meditative state for the formation of an ethic, which then informs his encounters with humans, while his encounters with animals seem to play a role in the formative retreat, the “life in the woods.” J. M. Coeztee’s fiction parallels this work in its persistent imagining of what an ethical self might look like, and what the entrance of such a self into a human community might provoke. His fiction often takes the form of a thought experiment performed on the page in which the author is fictionalized and distanced into the nearest possible neighbor, as a self clarified in an ethical sense – the autobiographical writing that refers to himself in the third person; the alter-ego of Elizabeth Costello. Coetzee has crafted the strategy of fiction that is puzzlingly close to reality, as if to ask: What might I become if I were not a recluse, and what effect might my becoming have? In Youth, the author sees himself as a trap-door spider, continually retreating into his hole and closing the door, guarded, and guarding his thoughts, which seem too radical to speak. The same narrator sees himself as a king when on a bicycle, freed and infinitely mobile and self-empowered. It is this innocent freedom that the novel Broken Man obliterates, imagining the body paralyzed in a bicycle accident – the beloved mobility removed during its enactment – and forced into confronting immobility. Into this state, Elizabeth Costello makes an appearance. What does her presence signify in relation to stillness, or retreat? If Coetzee’s project is to imagine the limits and effects of the ethical life, what limits (of subjectivity) do they imply? Another novelist, Richard Powers, in his latest work Generosity – an enhancement, imagines a debate on the ethics of genetic enhancement between a thinly fictionalized Coetzee and a genomicist who has isolated the gene for “happiness,” a debate which the writer definitively loses. Coetzee’s experiments, like Thoreau’s before him, seem engaged with ideas of subjectivity, the animal, ethics, and community, that are deeply inflected by Reformation theological notions and Protestant monastic values; of iconoclasm, of destroying in order to build. Strangely, the Catholic poet/filmmaker Robert Bresson rendered his most memorable personal saint as a donkey named Balthazar, just as in her latest work of fiction, Fannie Howe narrates the deific life of a stray dog in the first person. Rather than estranging their authors from human community, as Elizabeth Costello becomes estranged by equating animal and human slaughter, these works appear to enact a different sort of performative thought experiment – one perhaps more philosophical than ethical – if we consider Deleuze’s distinction between the two: ethics asks how one should live, while philosophy asks how one might live. Perhaps it is a question of possibility rather than correction, the indirect ethic of the question rather than the direct injunction of the declaration. To what extent must the performance of the experiment, whether actual or virtual, in the form of movement, of flight-line or trajectory, isolate the thinker from the neighbors? Or is the notion of isolation, the formula of separation from and return to the social, itself a suspect and damaging ethic? I recall the anecdote of Saint Teresa of Avila voraciously dining on quail on offer by the host. When one of her followers objected, horrified by her behavior as an avowed vegetarian, her simple reply was: When it’s time to abstain, abstain. When it’s time to eat quail, eat quail! By way of conclusion, rather than proposals or answers, I will offer only an image, one that considers the role of the animal in the self-image of the human; that of Black Jack, the coal black Morgan–American Quarter Horse cross who performed the role of “the riderless horse” in more than 1,000 Armed Forces Full Honors Funerals, walking, and often misbehaving, in the processions, with boots reversed in stirrups. At his death in 1976, after a 29-year military career, Black Jack’s remains were themselves given a Full Military Honors funeral, and buried on Summerall Field, Fort Myer, Virginia. The animal bears the absent human into death. Might the animal usher the human into life as well, through its insistent and difficult presence, it nextness? Might we consider the human-animal relation in its nextness to the human-human relation, and all relations not as things made, but as things in the making?

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