The Subversion of the Human-Animal Hierarchy in The Familiar and Disgrace

In Danielewski’s The Familiar and Coetze’s Disgrace, we see the subversion of the animal-human relationship play out through the experiences of central characters. Both David Lurie and Astair, whether they openly admit it or not, can be seen as perpetuating this sort of rigid order through their assumptions of what an animal is and is not. Lurie, soon after he arrives at Lucy’s farm, tells his daughter that “as for animals, by all means let us be kind to them. But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals” (74). While he claims that this order of humans is not necessarily higher, “just different,” it feels rather clear from the pandering condescension of his tone in this passage that he truly feels otherwise. He continues, saying that “if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution,” more or less refuting his own statement on the relative equality of the two orders; would we not feel guilty for rearing humans in the deplorable conditions of modern corporate farms? By rejecting the notion of human guilt in regards to the way we treat animals, he is either taking an extremely callous position towards suffering or acknowledging that animals are not, in fact, on the same level as humans in his eyes. Yet, his position seems to change as the novel continues, perhaps first evidenced in the scene in which Lurie moves the goats waiting to be slaughtered to a grassier patch of land so that they can eat, and again later when he builds a relationship with the injured dog at the animal clinic. While the extent of his transformation is somewhat ambiguous by the novel’s conclusion, the fact that “he no longer has difficulty in calling [what he gives the dogs] by its proper name: love,” suggests a new sympathy for animals in Lurie and an acknowledgement of their ability to experience complex ‘human’ emotions (219).

While Astair’s transformation may be less apparent, her views towards animals are illuminated by her desire for a dog and the juxtaposition of this desire with Xanther’s pure love for the kitten. Astair “just envied (envies?) how easy dogs made saying hello to a stranger (seem(!)). A dog would get her out of the house… [and] out of her head” (442). Here we see that Astair’s desire for a dog is not motivated by altruism or a legitimate want of companionship. Rather, she seems to view the dog simply as another accessory with which she could make her own life easier, seeing the animal as a being itself only to the extent to which it could improve her own life with no regard for how she could improve its life. Interestingly, both Astair and Lurie are academics and seem to view animals only in terms of abstractions rather than as real creatures; for both of them, any given animal seems to function more as an archetype of its species than an individual, perhaps reflecting the rather humanistic persuasion of academia which values intelligence most of all and thus relegates creatures seen as unintelligent to the sidelines of society. At first, Lurie even distances himself from the bleakness of his euthanasia work at the clinic through the German abstraction of “Lösung,” allowing him to shield himself from the reality of the situation to some extent behind a cold and emotionless concept (142). Only through hands-on experiences with the animals is he able to overcome the distance engendered by his abstractions as he learns that animals are not representative of the entirety of their species, but rather are individuals themselves in many ways. To some extent, then, both authors seem to be commenting on how abstractions can function as a sort of self-deception or cognitive dissonance which allows for the perpetuation of cruel practices towards animals; when animals are conceptualized as non-individualistic and unemotional, it is much easier to justify their suffering than if we legitimately choose to view them as distinct individuals with desires and even with the ability to love.

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