Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Gentleeye suggested in a comment on my last post but one: “As far as I know, no other animal species manifests a behaviour anything like suicide.” That interested me. At the time, I could not think of any sensible instances to challenge her proposition. But now it seems to me that any animal in a cage can feel absurdity. If it has not been domesticated but has been used to roam across vast spaces, it may lose the will to live. It paces back and forth psychotically. It may pine and die. It may refuse to reproduce. For decades zoos tried to get pandas to mate, and failed. When you lose the will to live, your immune system is weakened and you fail to take care of yourself properly. Widowers for example often don’t outlive their wives very long. Despair and recklessness, as I have personally observed, can hasten death, and are close cousins to suicide proper.
As humans, we can find ourselves locked in a cage, just like any zoo animal. What bars, what padlock am I talking about? They are no different to those which pen the zoo animal (except for being metaphorical bars and padlocks). They are whatever prevents me from the exercise of my true nature. I may be in a cage from birth. I might be free during childhood, or a part of it, and then trapped. The chances are that I will reconcile myself to this diminished freedom, and deny the constraints, professing no knowledge of the world beyond. That is what we call adaptation, or in some instances “education”.
So Gentleeye goes on to say that suicide “is connected with consciousness, specifically with having a view of ‘what life is’ and not liking the conclusion, which may be idiosyncratic. More than ‘not liking’, in fact, rather, finding it intolerable enough to take action to end it.”
Book of the Week. The author describes being present at the birth of a lamb. It’s a breech birth. One leg is out and the farmer’s son is pulling on it to help the rest to emerge. She speculates on the ewe’s consciousness: “Did she know she was giving birth? Maybe, if she’d done it before. Assuming sheep remember what happened to them the year before, and they can relate it to what is happening now. Two imponderables. But what would knowing she was giving birth mean to a sheep? And if this was her first pregnancy, she couldn’t know.” The book is called What I don’t know about animals, and the extracts I’ve heard are designed to point out the impossibility of knowing what another species thinks. She is sceptical too as to whether we can know what another of our own species thinks.
I shall play philosopher here and ask “How do I know what I think?” It’s a surprisingly interesting question. Actually it implies another question: “Do I know what I think?” For me, the answer for most of my life has been “No,” and might be still. Certainly, I have not known if I was really in love. I have not known what I liked and didn’t like, or what I wanted to do. There is a name for this malady: lack of clear-sightedness. All I know is that I have more clear-sightedness than once I had.
I know that the author’s words about the ewe, as quoted above, are absurd, and probably intended to be so. But from this absurdity we can question more sensibly what we mean by consciousness. I belong to the class of mammals. Like other animals, I have intelligence enough to survive. Too much, perhaps, but then human life is very very complicated.
I think it is absurd to say that humans differ from the other animals in that we have consciousness and they don’t. That’s because I don’t think we know about the inner life of other animals. I think this is Jenny Diski’s point.
Camus would like to persuade us that absurdity is our friend, a better tool than hope for reconciling ourselves to life on earth.
I contend that mood is more important than any thought-content. More important even than hope or meaning.
I heard on the radio that dementia patients become much happier when they have an animal to look after; when they can be carers themselves, rather than recipients of care. I imagine that in advanced dementia, hope and meaning shrivel away, but there is still mood.
Photo Lambing, 1978: James Ravilious. Click on the photo for source.
Posted by Vincent at 2:47 pm