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Couturier: anthropomorphism and estuary

April 7, 2009

Lisa Couturier brings the word anthropomorphism into her essay “A Banishment of Crows.” She writes there:

With a little empathy, a little anthropomorphism, you could imagine a bomb waking you, shattering the night, imagine the great growing of fear twisting through your muscles. Imagine the dread of fleeing into the peril of the great horned owl at your wingtip. ‘Anthropomorphism,’ wrties the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, ‘recognizes that humans and animals participate in a common world of signification. We can and do understand each other despite the arrogant philosophies that would preserve consciousness as an exclusively human property.

In the scientific world anthropomorphism is a crime. Condemned. Laughed at. If I commit any crimes during my life, let them be crimes of passion on behalf of the nonhuman world. My life is in need of such sin.

Couturier declares her interest in anthropomorphism, courts the condemnation of the scientific and religious world views that would preserve sharp boundaries between the human and nonhuman. Anthropomorphism has been critiqued and derided by some ecocritics as well: evidence of the dominion and domination of nature by humans.

Couturier’s definition (by way of the Hillman quotation) in terms of empathy, it seems to me, provides another, more subtle way to think of anthropomorphism. It is not simply viewing animals in human forms, with human traits and characteristics. Rather, anthropomorphism emphasizes relation across boundary, difference, distance. Anthropomorphism, then, is not merely about changing humans into animals, or animals into humans; it is about the identity that comes through change. This could bring to mind Emerson, Thoreau, and later Dillard. It is definitely a facet of Whitman’s interest in empathy.

Couturier cites Whitman’s poem “There was a child who went forth” in her first essay. Whitman, I wanted also to say, is present in her crafted use of the second person, her ‘you’ that bridges a very particular (singular) reader with a reader we all share. Whitman wanted this you to talk to everyone and someone; to relate to us even now, years later. For a relevant example, consider his own mediation upon the East River, his majestic shape-shifting and time-traveling, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”  And for a further reference, perhaps Whitman’s ultimate example of anthropmorphism is his poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” I think the kind of empathy Whitman inculcates in his writing is another version of what Emerson (Couturier cites this line, by the way) refers to in Nature as an ‘occult relation’ that humans have with the nonhuman (or as David Abram would put it, more-than-human) world. A relation that is there, just requires some imagining. And for Couturier, as for Whitman, a model for this understanding of the relation and the imagination of the natural world, not veiled or occulted, but recognized, is the imagination of a child. Notice how she turns again and again to the idea of childhood (and childish) fascination. 

I may be reaching here. If so it is a kind I imagine Couturier and Whitman, before her, to be interested in. The reach is that this somewhat poetic definition of anthropomorphism can be likened to the idea of an estuary. Couturier writes of two: the East River and the Hudson river estuary; the Potomac and the one we share, the Chesapeake. Estuary is a tidal region, a mixing and crossing of fresh and salt water, of river and ocean, of land and water. Whitman has his eye on the tides, the shore where sea meets land, human meets other. Might the tide be viewed as an empathy, a morphing, between the one and the other, the fixed and the fluid; every day, and again? I am thinking that I observe this tidal quality of Couturier’s writing, as with Whitman, in the movement of her writing and its lines.

Some of my initial thoughts. What about for your own writing, the project you are beginning to contemplate: are you interested in the sin of anthropomorphism?

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