Those other animals: A personal essay

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In naming, a friend once told me, we constrict. Capture, confine. Once: flying beast – color of the sea; trees; ashen coal. Now: Peacock; peafowl; peahen.

I think about that now as you and I drive back to Berkeley. We’re taking the long way along the coast, winding our way slowly through Malibu, Santa Barbara, Monterey. We stop at a lookout point somewhere in Big Sur in the early evening to pee, stretch our cramping legs and eat our food. The little turnout we’ve driven down sits above a cliff, and we take a small trail down to a dusty ledge where we crouch and watch the Pacific crash against the coast.

The ocean, I think, as we look out at the blue, is made better for having been named. In telling it to someone, in being able to tell it to someone, it becomes something more.

In a freshman seminar on the history of reason, we considered theories for the development of human language. We spent a lot of time with André Leroi-Gourhan’s “Memory and Rhythms,” in which Leroi-Gourhan investigates the origins of human technology.

“In animals,” he writes, “tool and gesture merge into a single organ, with the motor part and the active part forming an undivided whole.” Of course, here, by “animals,” he means those other animals. Those crabs and termites and apes.

He goes on: “In humans, the mobility of tools and language has determined the exteriorization of operational programs regarding the survival of the group.” The exteriorization of operational programs regarding the survival of the group – in simpler terms: we have removed from our bodies those tasks we must complete in order to survive. We have put them outside of ourselves.

The transition from animal to human is marked by the transition from tools that are a part of the body to tools that are external to it. The tools increase along axes of size and abstraction: rock, hammer, ship; church, state, creed. The communication of complex ideas through language makes the social cooperation required to build these external tools possible. I am excited by this and also warmed by the confession of language’s importance.

In June you and I attend a talk about finding existential hope amidst the pandemic. The panelists are each futurists (a word that makes me squirm and you perk up) in one way or another.

David Pearce speaks. He is a transhumanist, which means he advocates for the inclusion of technology in our species’ evolution. He talks about replacing all suffering with gradients of bliss by incorporating technology into our bodies and preselecting our children. He calls it our moral imperative. I balk at this, but you listen, assured, curious. Afterward, when you ask me why I’m so upset, I try unsuccessfully not to cry.

What of being human? George Eliot asks, “What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?” I accuse you of loving nothing.

She feels tugging at her the slow bellows of those who have lived and died, as she would say, naturally, as they were supposed to, as we all should. 

Later, my mom and I walk to the beach near my parents’ house. It’s damp and unusually cold, and the streets are green the whole way through. As we walk, we’re treated to a procession of trunks boasting yellowing ribbed bog moss and drooping, willowy cat-tail moss that waves after us as we pass it by.

My mother, the storyteller, has no interest in eternity. She prefers her heroes passed down to her in song, in prose, in family histories written on yellowing pages. She feels tugging at her the slow bellows of those who have lived and died, as she would say, naturally, as they were supposed to, as we all should. 

I quietly distrust you until July, when someone leaves a tired copy of “Finnegans Wake” on the kitchen table. Joyce’s novel ends as it begins, the last sentence filling in the gap left by the first, beginning meeting end.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs./ A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The mythologist Joseph Campbell proposed that the structure of Finnegans Wake can be found in the mythologies of peoples spanning across continents and thousands of years.

Our technological evolution traces the same routes drawn by the origin stories we whispered to each other thousands of years ago: leave, grow, return.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The commonality in narrative structure among stories told by disparate peoples throughout history is moving to me. Sunjata; Ramayana; Yamato. Leave, grow, return.

This helps me understand the ways in which you love.

I allow myself to consider that futurism and the technological evolution of humanity trace the same routes drawn by the origin stories we whispered to each other thousands and thousands of years ago: leave, grow, return. Once, ape. Then rock, then hammer, then ship; then church, then state, then creed. Now: technology returned back into us. Leave, grow, return.

Kat is the Weekender Deputy Editor. Contact Kat Blesie at [email protected]