Amherst Reads – Lindsay Stern’s “The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel”

Amherst Reads – Lindsay Stern’s “The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel”

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Hi, my name is Adam Sitze. I teach in the Department of law, jurisprudence and social
thought at Amherst College. And today we’ll be talking
with Lindsay Stern, whose book The Study of Animal
Languages will be released tomorrow, February 19th, 2019. Welcome Lindsay and congratulations
on a phenomenal book. Thank you. Why don’t we start by just having
you talk a little bit about the book, um, and uh, the process of writing it and, how that happened. It’s hard to say exactly where
a creative project starts, but it was an afternoon when I walked into the office of Professor Alexander George
who teaches analytic philosophy here. And um, he is notorious for keeping a gimmick
lie detector on his file cabinet. This device would flash either green or
red in response to surrounding noise. And the afternoon that I
walked into his office, it was flashing red and it was
a spring afternoon in April. No one was talking, but the window was open and it was picking
up the melody of bird and declaring that the bird was lying. So that image kind of lodged as
like a co on in my mind almost, um, both because of the mystery it raised
about what these sounds that we tend to tune out as jibberish might actually mean. And as I started reading
about the scientific attempt
to know them and to code them the absurdity of thinking that we
could ever translate them into English. And out of that question that
began as a kind of intellectual, um, goad character’s formed and um, and I found that fiction, um, presented the kind of most fluid, dynamic risky in some ways
medium to explore the question. Let’s talk a little bit
about some of the characters. Um, so you have, um, a number of, you have a family. I think it’s safe to say you have, um, it, the, the novel is narrated by an analytic
philosopher named Ivan link who’s 47 years old. Um, it takes place. Would it be fair to say over several days, um, um, I guess in the late winter or early, early spring, right. Ivan is married to a, I guess she’s an ornithologist
and improved Bam. And her father’s name is Franklin. Um, um, talk a little bit about how these
characters came to you and maybe about why they came to as a, uh, as vessels for the
exploration of the problem of, of Birdsong and truth and falsity. This often happens. I’m told that the very first scene of the
book was a marriage scene between Peru and Ivan involving a catastrophic
toast delivered by her brother. And it was a booster rocket. So the book totally outgrew it. And in the final version they elope. So it was both omitted literally. And as a plot point, I was incredibly fortunate to get this
crazy fellowship called the Watson where you have to leave the United States for
a year and pursue a project of your own design. And mine was to teach a combination of
philosophy and creative writing at a few English speaking orphanages and to spend
the other half of the year writing the first draft of a novel
that became this one. But my first leg, um, I had, um, basically in a semi cliched way. I see now declared that I was going to
go to Paris and live for free in this bookstore and write the first
draft over a month’s time. And so it was the Hubris of youth. It’s just a word of mouth thing. But if you’re interested in writing, you can go there. It’s an open secret and you just show up
with some bags and you take the rest of that, they won’t have you. But um, if they have spots you can sleep
for free in it until so haunted. Needless to say, the novel did not come. And instead I had, um, I made pages and pages and pages of notes, um, that were vital, but they were, um, many of them were, um, they were kind of raw ideas and they
didn’t find a home in an essay form or a monograph for him. And I knew that they were kind of, um, fomenting the novel I wanted to write, but not really participating in that
novel because they had no characters to belong to or to matter too. And then I went to Cambodia and I was
living in this guest house called Tattoo. And I was incredibly fortunate to meet
one of my best friends there and to be able to connect with some of the most
amazing people through my teaching that I’ve ever met, who challenged me to think in ways that
I hadn’t really encountered as part of my formal education. And something about that environment. Um, combined with the relief of having left
Paris I think enabled me to relax in such a way that the characters started
finding their way on the page and they started finding their way
on the page through scenes. Um, and that’s when I realized that it
was probably going to look more like a dramatic project as opposed to a stream
of consciousness or a full dramatic monologue. Which character came to you first or?, okay. Perhaps you’re saying in the scene that
you wrote about the catastrophic toast, was it a number of characters
that came to at the same time? It was always an Ivan’s voice. Um, partly because I was so intrigued by just
the first person point of view and how the voice of the ego, um, occludes and reveals what’s the
forces that are producing it. And when you have a character speaking, it’s presupposed that there’s an address
c and there’s a paradox and first person books to that who
is this person addressing? Especially if they don’t
acknowledge the address. See, um, but there is a constructiveness about it. Um, so that the kind of falsity of that
intrigued me and felt like a more fertile medium to explore the mind. Then for whatever reason, given that this, this project I knew was going to deal
with the codes of the mind and the sense of language being like that, um, it felt like an appropriate thing to do. So. So I guess given that
Ivan came first and then, um, and then pru speaking to him at
that deleted scenes and her brother, um, and Frank’s father-in-law arrives, he, his voice now opens the book. Like he didn’t show up until, I think the third chapter
of the first draft. And it was almost like this just person
came onto the page and I knew that he was bringing energy and that’s what told
me that he belonged in the beginning because he kind of woke Ivan up to me as
a character before he and Pru had been very static and their conversations had
been even more stilted than they are. Um, and still did in a way that wasn’t
masking the kind of dilemmas that they’re dealing with in their marriage. Um, it just, the writing wasn’t alive yet and
it was frank who brought that. So this is a novel that ends with
the last word of the novel is begin. Um, and so maybe it makes sense to begin with. The last character that you formulated, Franklin Franklin is, um, he’s a vegetarian. He’s a really compelling character. It would make sense to me why he
would bring to the novel or kind of interruptive energy, almost a prophetic energy. At one point. His daughter prude says, you think you prophetic, but in fact you’re just a provocateur. I think it’s safe to say either he has a
mental illness or he’s diagnosed with a mental illness. Um, and throughout the novel there is a kind
of sub plot about him taking his pills or not, or being dosed perhaps
even against his will, um, uh, when he’s hospitalized
after particularly manic episodes. So talk a little bit about, um, what Franklin personifies and maybe say
something about how you’re exploring the limits of DSM four or the limits of
psychology or the limits of psychiatry, uh, through the character
of frank or Franklin. So the DSM, the diagnostic and
statistical manual of psyche, psychological disorders. I remember encountering, um, the recent, the most recent addition back when I
was doing the first draft and I was so struck by the fact that, um, according to this other study, um, most people will qualify for some disorder
in the manual that’s codified in the manual over the course of their life. And that figure fluctuated a little bit. Sometimes it’s a little bit under 50%, but details aside that the
irony of that to be normal, you’re insane and, and vice versa felt to me
like I’m a little bit of a
reductio ad absurdum of our current thinking about the mind, I guess. I mean, I remember also as part
of writing the essay, I read a lot of the scientific
literature on bird song and there was one particular study that came out in 2011
and it was widely reported in the popular press, um, with headlines like scientists discovered
the birds tweet using grammar and that they have, um, that there’s some evidence that they might
have syntax which trumps gay famously defined as the hallmark of
human language and thought. Um, although the, the relationship between the
two has been hotly contested. I guess. I thought I was just reading these studies
and I just thought on the one level we’re saying this, but on the other hand it would seem, one would have to be psychotic
to hear bird song and, and really feel the
presence of a language. Um, so I guess it was kind
of in that margin that, um, frank started to come into being, I guess. I mean he’s somebody who is
hyper tuned to the world and to, um, the majesty of everyday objects and
that part of him announces itself in his manic episodes. I guess through him. I was trying to think
through why it is that, that point of view, that kind of heightened
attunement to things is, um, unsustainable and potentially damaging. Of course it’s, it’s in him, I mean everyone would
experience it differently, but those were some of the, um, my own preoccupations that that fed him. It does seem that frank is
pitched perfectly between, um, hearing things, um, and having manic episodes. So at one point he’s in the aquarium, uh, with his granddaughter and his son in
Law and he confronts the attendant, um, about why the sharks and the, uh, the various aquatic animals are being
held captive for how long they’re being held, held captive and so forth. And he takes a metallic
umbrella and smashes, okay. The window to the tank trying to, it’s not clear from the, from the narration. What he’s trying to do, perhaps liberate the animals. Um, um, um, perhaps, um, destroy the, the world in which incarcerated animals
would be objects of entertainment. It’s not clear in the episode. He claims not to be hearing things, but to be hearing things. He’s really carefully, he’s so attuned that he, he, he says that they speak to me in the
same way that music speaks to me. I’m directly affected by it. And uh, in the same way that at
the outset of the novel, he’s saying, well, sometimes when you walk
into grand central station, you just, everything’s signifies
everything as a matter. Everything is talking
to me at the same time. But then I guess my question would
be how he then relates to Ivan, the analytic philosopher who
narrates the novel in large or it’s, it’s told from his, his first person perspective. He seems to have trouble hearing things
in a particular part of the interest in part of the skill. I think in the power of the narrative
is how Ivan actually can’t hear the many messages that are, that are coming at him. So if, if frank here’s too much, maybe Ivan can’t hear enough, tell me a little bit about the
relationship between Franklin and Ivan. They do come to share
something at the end. They have in common that all their life, they’ve been waiting for something. The novel opens with this beautiful
phrase all my life I’ve been waiting for something. Um, and I found out that what I’ve been
waiting for is just more waiting. Frank opens the, the novel in those terms. Um, but tell me a little bit about how, how you imagine this relationship
between frank and and I’ve and, and about how listening
in particular or hearing, uh, figures into that relationship. I mean, part of what I was trying to explore
was what’s at work in this word animal, um, that at least in the law, um, needs the thing, um, animals other than humans are
property and the u s and mean. I think there’s a little
bit of madness in that. And I mean, we know from the history of law that
that same violence has been inflicted on the human members of the human community. So I guess, I mean, what frank does is, is, um, is crazy and it’s also
wounding potentially to the
person he cares most for. But um, at the same time it was
important to me that he, um, articulate some of the lunacy
in that structure where, um, one walks through a museum that
participates in the illusion that law participates in, that the beings with whom we share so
much evolutionary history and within we can even make contact controversially
would be relegated to um, non persons who are non sentient entities. See, language starts breaking down
when you think about animals. And that’s why I found them. So fascinating. There is a quick anecdote
that I encountered in a book
by Alain Corbin who is a historian of bells. Um, and for of course that I’m in. And it’s just a wonderful anecdote and
I think it will help me answer your question about frank and I then, um, in the mid 18 hundreds in this southern
French village called love bruise, there was a civil war that erupted
over whether to ring the Bell Tower and thunderstorms. Have the town argued that you should
ring the bell because it would ward the thunder off and the other half of the
town I’d give that it would have the opposite consequences and would
actually entice the storms. And so they came to blows. Some people were wounded and died. And finally the mayor issue to, to create saying, we’re not going to ring the bells. It’s too much of a risk. A few weeks later, a thunderstorm came and half the term
fled to the bell tower and started clanging it with all their mind, which is of course the last place you
want to be in the thunderstorm as we now know. But of course, I think what’s so resonant about the story
is the fact that both factions agreed on the relevant claim, which is that the bell tower could
choreograph the actions of the Skype. And so I think in their ways, um, frank and Ivan, this was initially called the
philosopher and the mad man. And to me they’re
dialectic in their kind of, um, strife and their eventual, um, harmony, um, governed the movement of the book. And I was interested in the
ways that on the one hand, they’re just, they can’t stand each other and they, they orient themselves toward the
world in incommensurable ways, but they’re both, um, they both have this kind of, in my mind, tragic ambition for language and what it
can do and how it can make things clear if only one good, um, say it. But there are attempts to do so, um, kind of drive them out of the human community. And so in that sense, I think they’re a little
bit analogous to the, the Belle story, um, in the sense that they, um, they share more than they realize. And so if, if frag errs on the side of hearing
beings immediately and with his body and Arizona side of what it takes to Xrs, this idea that you can hear or
communicate immediately with, with beings who are, who with whom we share the earth, um, and at that it’s strange as him, certainly from his daughter approved
who confronts him later in the novel, but also from, yeah, indeed the entire legal law abiding
community because he’s detained after this attack. Let’s talk a little bit maybe about
Ivan and about the way in which Ivan Air Errors. MMM. I’m struck first of all that I then
lost his father at an early age. Um, and so Ivan, as somebody who, over the course of the novel, again, he’s the person who’s ego
structures the narration. And so what we know largely
is from his standards. MMM. That last seems first of all to, to determine, or at least to kind of prepare the
conditions under which he then has a, what might be called a crisis
later in the novel where, um, mounting rage and resentment and a, um, perhaps a sense of loss, just overcome him in ways
that he doesn’t understand. Um, and I’m curious first
of all about how that, how his loss of his father at an early
age plays into his relationship with his father in law. Um, but I also would like to return to
this point about analytic philosophy. He’s an analytic philosopher. He’s, he’s written a phd thesis
on a particular problem, which I’m hoping you’ll, he’ll describe, um, a philosophic problem. And he is really clear about the
fact that animals do not talk. Um, he has a fight with Prue later
in the novel in which he, he says that frankly, frankly and forthrightly. Um, in fact he uses the phrase
the study of animal languages. He puts it in quotes early in the novels. So He seems to disagree
with the title of the novel. He seems to think that
animals don’t have language. But talk a little bit about if frank errs
on the side of communicating directly with beings. Let’s talk a little bit
about Ivan and about his, um, what about his commitment to language, his, his commitment to maybe even meaning, um, and about how that allowed you or how
that gave you the occasion to, to, to, to create a kind of maybe
unreliable narrator. Yes. I then objects to the
phase animal language, which many scientists and especially
linguists would also object to. And that actually gave
me pause about the title. Um, because superego, luckily I was anticipating them. They’re dismissiveness the reason that
they object to it as I think much more interesting than their objection. And it has to do with this distinction
between communication and language, which to me is fascinating in that. So traditionally communication refers
to the exchange of information and language to that activity that we
participate in that no other beings can. And the dictionary definition is, is a topology because it
includes us in the definition. It’s what humans do to communicate. So there’s a kind of paradox bound up
with even asking whether other beings have language. I think that’s exactly why, um, these two people felt, Fused to me in some way. Um, Frank and Ivan, the analytic philosopher and the madman
who potentially becomes the philosopher and vice versa depending
on how one responds to it. But, um, I mean, I’ve been someone who, who is trying to talk to beings and he, he can’t, he can’t even really talk to his own wife. I mean, that’s part of what I was
interested in exploring the, The impulse to take the intimacy of
consciousness as a problem to solve using syllogism or mathematics. Um, which is how analytic
philosophers sometimes treat
the problem of solipsism no matter what evidence you
may have at other beings, think and feel their sensations and their
thoughts will never belong to you in the way that yours belonged to you. But for Ivan, it’s really painful, partly probably because of his history. Um, and that’s partly why I think frank can speak to him in a
way that others can’t, that what frank says riles him so much so that he, um, unconsciously helps catalyze Franks
breakdowns in ways he doesn’t understand, but then his wife points out. So, yeah, he’s, um, he’s someone who I think, um, I mean in order to kind of deal with the
world and deal with the chaos of life resorts to, um, strategies end up exacerbating that chaos. And one strategy that he
has just intellectually is
the use of a monograph that he publishes to solve
the Getty or problem, which you mentioned. But that is the idea that, um, it’s a challenge to the view
that knowledge is justified, true belief. And it, um, it derives from a brilliant
paper published in the
1960s by a philosopher named Edmund Giddier. And in it, he presents a few very brief thought
experiments that show that that theory, um, breaks down in certain circumstances
so you can have a true belief and cite evidence for it and therefore
you’d seem to have a justified, true belief. But he gives us cases in which there’s
no connection between your evidence and the truth, and it just happens to be the case that
you had thought that they were connected until to Ivan. This is an incredibly
troubling problem because he’s, it’s important to him, um, that he know why he knows
something if he knows it. Um, which I think is a peculiar
way of seeing the world. Um, but one that I’ve found compelling, hence my majoring in analytics team. So, um, but anyway, so that, that was one of the most fun parts just
as a fiction writer to kind of show how his life ends up and acting that problem. And He, um, but do not try to do
so in a schematic way. But, um, he of course has evidence
that has marriage is failing. It is, but his evidence bears no relationship
to that fact even though he’s just published what he thinks is
a solution to the problem. And I just want to read that chapter
from chapter 17 where he describes his solution to the Getty or problem. Um, because it involves, uh, something else that I’d
wanted to ask you about or, or, or some, some simply to remark upon my solution
to the Getty or problem rests on a thought experiment to the question, how can we really know anything if we
cannot rule out the possibility that our knowledge might be true? Simply by chance, I pose the following case. An archer draws his bow in a thunderstorm, aiming it at a passing hawk. Though his technique is poor, the wind carries his Arrow to the bird, which falls dead. Um, one of the things I
admired about the novel, especially on second read
is just how subtly you, you show us that our, our speech, um, are idioms. Uh, when, when I, when I’m flapping my hands, when I’m talking or when I
call somebody a bird brain or, um, when I see that students flock to a or or, um, that someone has batty ideas, I think you do a really splendid idea
just demonstrating how fully birds in habit, just the, the, are ordinary speech in just the
same way it seems to me that frank, at one point, he in a party, he stands up on a, on a table and starts ranting about how
the products of cows are everywhere in our life. And there are kind of absent presence. And I thought even Ivan’s not aware of it, but there are birds and, and the killing of the killing of
a bird is internal to his solution, uh, to this philosophic problem. Um, in a way that seems
antithetical to the way that, uh, his, his wife thinks about birds, which I know we need to get to. So I just wanted to remark upon that, but this might be a good time to talk a
little bit about their marriage because the giddier problem and particularly, um, the inflection of it that involves
inaccurate beliefs that actually lead to, um, write conclusions seems to structure
a pivotal moment in the novel where, um, I, Ivan rushes to, um, a bookstore and maybe you can, um, maybe you can tell us what, what happens next. I mean, many people will have read the, the novel, but, um, is this a spoiler alert? Are we supposed to be doing this? Actually ed and my books in mind. Okay. Cause you just use
scaffolding of places in mind. Doesn’t have to, but um, no, but yes, he, so he misreads um, um, the voice of a friend of
his wife who had called her, um, and thinks that they’re having an affair
and bolts into the bookstore where he’s giving a reading and confronts him. And at this point, people who have encountered him will
know that he’s a pain and his voice is so saddled with his attempts
to tamp himself down. And even the writing of the first half
of first third of the book was a strain at times because of that. And at this point, it started to write itself a
little bit earlier than this, but once he starts breaking down, it just, I just had to observe really, it didn’t feel like writing because
he felt like he was finally, his Libido was fried, so to speak, even though he’s destroying his life. Um, and so the language itself, his point of view in that sense, um, it’s, um, it’s free and he is himself finally, but it’s too late because it’s
happening at the wrong time. And, um, it’s as a result of a misunderstanding. I mean, it felt to me like he was having
a slow motion kind of catharsis. Colm Toibin wants to find, um, a novel as the change and I’m going to
get this little wrong and he spoke it out loud, um, at a reading. But, um, the change and the character’s personality
prompted by a loss that does not understand. Um, I think something gets unlocked. It’s tragic comically. Um, because, um, it ruins the material aspects of his life. But, um, to me it’s, it’s wonderful what happens to him. He’s, he’s finally starts to live. He cries for the first time. Right. Um, he had talked about his
inability to cry earlier. Um, he hasn’t cried in years. He says, and then finally after
this Cathartic moment, he, he’s, he’s able to cry. And in a way he reaches the, the madmen and the philosopher reach
agreement on a definition of philosophy. And, and up till that point, they, they hadn’t, they hadn’t, they hadn’t agreed at all. In fact, frank seems scornful almost of at
times of of what it is that Ivan does. But, um, I just want to read from the, um, from the last pages here where Ivan
and Frank are together and in Frank’s department in, in Vermont. It’s funny I say this is, I’ve been talking, I’ve been alive for almost half a century
and I don’t know the first thing about anything. All men, frank slept slaps his knees, knee rousing Cornelia, who is his cat? I used to think I trail off. I used to think life would go like this. You get bashed around a bit, fuck up, lose people and in the process
figure out what really matters. But now he sips from my water glass. It’s Ivan still talking. It’s more like figuring out that your
life was never even about you to begin with. You’re not the hero. You’re just someone in the cast. I’ll be damned. Frank says you’re starting
to sound like a philosopher. So it’s almost as though that
catharsis and then as I said, the last word of the novel is, is begin. And so that Catharsis in some way
brings him into maybe alignment, better attunement, perhaps with, with frank. He himself becomes frank and the adject
title since he began speaking frankly or kind of candidly to people in, in alarming, disturbing ways to his colleagues. But it’s almost as if the ability
to speak the truth in this novel, both in Frank and in Ivan
are incommensurable with the
procedures that a college has or uh, for regulating true statements, uh, tenure among them or true false, um, machines, um, inside or outside offices as well. Is there, this is a novel about a mirror certainly, and I want to get back to that, but it’s also a novel about
speaking the truth and node. Nobody being able to to hear it. He finally becomes a philosopher work. His father in law says you’re finally
beginning to sound like a philosopher at the very moment when he’s
lost his job as a philosopher. Pru also speaks the truth in a way
that seems to ruin her tenure case. So what does this novel saying in
each of these three characters are, seems to be an impulse in each of them
to speak the truth and an inability on the part of let’s say, the academy. Um, to hear them. I think you’re, I think you’re picking up on
something I was trying to explore. Um, absolutely. Which is what, um, the institutionalization of an
attempt to speak the truth or, or discovered the truth that
one could say the academy is, um, participates in the muffling of that. Um, and, um, but to me, I mean, you could accuse any institution
of any variety of things. But to me, what, what has such pathos in the, in the sense of the institution
of the university is that it, um, it wants to move beyond those limits. Um, and I mean in a class that, um, helped sew the seeds of this book, which you taught Plato in the poets, we read the whole sweep of Plato’s
works from the Apparatchik dialogues to, um, the later works culminating in the laws. And one argument that you
introduced us to was the view that, um, Plato, even in his love of his mentor, Socrates, Plato who introduced Socrates is
truth to us today put to death, um, figuratively Socrates. Um, in the later works and his pivot away
from the form of speech and the gentle undoing that Socrates encouraged and
anyone he encountered on the street into the kind of system building that
no longer had a place for Socrates, all in the name of love and all
in the name of his protagonist. Um, and I just thought, I just thought that was a beautiful and, um, heartbreaking tragedy in itself. Um, that transcends any particular work, but that’s structures, that’s sequence. I never thought of this or of of kind
of wanting to write a campus novel or a kind of comedy about academe, I guess because it came from a place, um, uh, maybe in genuis place of love for the
academy and love for an institution that unabashedly tries to learn for the sake
of learning and discover for the sake of discovering as opposed to
becoming a knowledge factory. I mean, as Socrates teaches us to love
something doesn’t mean to, um, cow to it and praise it constantly. Um, and yeah, I think that those were the
kind of institutions and um, what they, how they try and fail to honor the
attempt to seek truth with absolutely. On my mind, let’s talk about Peru
because Peru is involved. It seems to me in that exact dilemma, Pru is the daughter of frank and, um, has been invited to give up a
prestigious speech at the college. We’re both Ivan and then Peru teach. She studied critical theory, um, which Ivan hates and she works on, she, she works on the study
of animal languages. She herself is that her mother is the child
of Holocaust survivors. So there’s a kind of sense about, there’s a sense in which lost determines, um, her, her life has as well. But I want to talk about her, her speech. So the novel is structured in, it has three parts and in the first
part Ivan goes to pick up frank and, and they’re preparing for the, um, preparing for the speech and um, it, and part one ends with the speech itself. And then part two deals with the
immediate aftermath of that speech, a party in particular. And then part three is what
we’ve already talked about. It’s Ivan’s Cathartic kind of in a way, his release and his new beginning, but in a way the
destruction of his material, um, life as a philosopher. But let’s talk about Pru. Pru gives a speech where she
makes some really profound claims. Um, and in some way it’s related
to the way that her father, a vegetarian, um, thinks about animals. But in a way it’s dealing
with her love of her own, her own her own discipline. I want to read, um, some of the passages that are
really just barbed here and um, talk about them as a kind of example
of let’s say Socratic critique. She talks about two experiments. The first experiment, and I’m quoting here from a speech she
gives in and viewers need to imagine a very August, uh, ceremony. The president’s there, the Dean is there. All the students are there, there are members, the public, um, it’s a, it’s a really wonderful occasion
and so all eyes are on her. She’s wearing a set of pearls that
occupy Ivan’s attention because she, he doesn’t recognize them and he thinks
they’ve been given to her from by somebody else. And she, this is what she says. The first experiment represents, um, that second dimension of Science, basic research conducted for the sole
purpose of furthering knowledge about the animal question. It demonstrates that voles, like humans have voices, that the appearance, silence between them is actually seeding
with sounds because the experiment basically shows that voles
that are companions in some
way behave differently in stress situations then
voles who are solitary. And so, um, the experiment she’s describing indicates
that animals essentially vols in particular have modes of communication
that escape our ability to understand them. Um, I mean the first thing I
have to say is that silence, seeding with sound sounds
like a description of the
field that this novel is able to observe. It seems like one of the v one of the
conclusions that I came away with as a reader is that part of the vocation of
the novel it is to actually perceive this field of silence, seething with sound in a way
that it’s protagonists can’t, not from a God’s eye perspective, but from a firm perspective. That’s neither philosophy nor bio
linguistics nor the kind of prophetic, a kind of almost arrogance of
somebody who immediately understands, um, animals. And so to me, the study of animal languages equally
pertains to the languages that take place between, you know, Peru and Peru and Ivan. But in any case, so I’m taking together the experience, the experiment, teach, uh, experiments, teaches a third less obvious
and more important lesson. That lesson will be my subject today. It’s not about voles. Proof says, but about the life sciences. And it may have already occurred
to you how you might be wondering, can this same field of inquiry
interpret the same animal, the Vole as both a being with a voice
and simultaneously a proxy for Human Flesh? And I left out, um, that essentially the voles
had been experienced, experimented on in, in other ways. Why Moreover, does it, it status the vols status has a human
proxy not prevent us from torturing it. The answer she says is
that the life sciences or
pathological year after year in paper after paper, we biologists interpret other animals
as two contradictory phenomenon, subjects of their own worlds
and objects to mutilate. Um, this is a really profound criticism of
the way that the life sciences treat animals. And to me it’s mirrored by the inability
of the analytic philosopher in the story, Ivan to think clearly
about animal languages or, or rather his, his idea of clarity prevents him from
acknowledging that there is something like an animal language. Tell me a little bit about what
she’s after in this speech. She’s, she in a response to a question. She claims that this is out of love, that she’s making this critique
of the life sciences out of love. Is she a reliable
narrator in that instance? Or help us understand why is she, why she makes this
speech in the first place when she makes that, my understanding was that she, there’s nothing in it that
you would want to disavow. Um, and I think that remains pretty much true, um, over the few days that
the novel takes place, but it’s, um, as they hope will shine through in certain ways. It’s, um, I mean it’s the, it’s the only, it was important to me to have
one chapter that was just pure, unadulterated speech. Um, and it’s not in quotation marks either. Um, so, but then to kind of explore how it is
I’m not hurt or hurt selectively and ramifies through people in
different ways and gets taken up, um, for different purposes. And that the whole thing is in a
way her own speech act of saying I’m claustrophobic in my
marriage and in my career. Um, but that’s not something that she
is clear to her when she says it. I think that it’s coming from a genuine
place and that anyone who takes a look at the literature on
animals and animal models, I think we’ll detect, um, a puzzling fact, which is that they, um, in science they call it basic
research versus applied research. So basic research conducted just for
the sake of learning about other worlds, animal minds, et Cetera, um, animal communication systems
and applied research conducted, funded by the pharmaceutical industry, conducted to develop drugs, um, in the animal that then impact how we
think and how we navigate the world. I think what she’s reacting to, um, in a hyperbolic way is this, um, dissonance and you could say, um, unbridgeable a best between treating the
animal as a human proxy for developing the drugs that’ll keep us sane and
treating it as this kind of alien to just explore. And, um, so, um, I think she’s, um, I think she’s kind of
responding to that feeling of, um, feeling like there’s something that
we’re doing and that we keep doing partly out of inertia and partly because it’s, um, it’s just how we’ve
done things in the past. It was important to me that
she be saying something, um, for which one could make some
kind of argument that she, that there’d be something
legible in what she was saying, but that it also, um, beef. So freighted as it clearly is with the
kind of crisis she’s going through and that like, Ivan, she doesn’t really understand, um, the kind of difficulties
that she deals with, which explained why she’s spending
her life with this person, with whom she’s clearly terribly matched. Back to your point about frank and
Ivan bees are two people who are both passionately interested
in language and yet, unlike in the bell example, they’re just, there’s nothing uniting. They seem to have an affinity but they
could not be more estranged and they seem to be both looking for a
bird’s eye view of things, him and his sense of a totalizing picture
her and her sense of a bird’s actual point of view. Um, but that circle can be squared. In that case, it’s quite striking. The three characters that
we’ve all talked about, each miss the mark, they, they each, um, ms recognize the speech of, of animals. They’re passionately invested in
each case and in the question. Um, but in some way the novel stages, uh, a series of misty mist
encounters would that, um, so she’s trying, she’s struggling with the
contradiction internal to, to the life sciences. Ivan just totally forecloses on
the question and really needs to, in order for his own, uh, philosophic study of language to remain
coherent and frank proposes to have immediate communication with animals. So what is the novel teaching us about
what it means to be with animals? You know, we’re, we’re faced with a mass
extinction of animals. This is going on during our lifetime. Um, and we are in a moment where there’s a
massive factory farming of birds and, um, um, on an on an ongoing basis. So the novel is definitely
saying something or we’re
engaging in this question. Yeah, it’s, it’s a question that haunts me. Um, and I mean we’re all, I think if you want to
think about complicity, animals, um, present a really fertile
point of departure for that. I mean, we’re sitting on chairs that
are made from their bodies. So there’s no, there’s no opportunity really to, um, to live in such a way that, um, you’re not making use of instrumentalizing them
participating in suffering in some way. So, and that’s, I think what frank reacts to. Um, but I think, I mean, what, what I think is almost most interesting
about the animal question is this fiction that it often invokes that B, these are these other interesting
beings like almost like aliens and Oh, we should keep them around so that maybe
we can learn more from them or enjoy touring there preserves. Um, which is an almost, I mean, colonial kind of spirit. And, um, whereas I think, I mean the real, I think the real question is, is the human animal and, and how we’ve gotten to this vertiginous
place of having conquered the earth and realizing that we’re going
to be the only act in town. There’s a great Richard Wilbert poem about
this called advice to a prophet where he asks in his, in his gentle yet subtly subversive way
where we will find ourselves once all of the, the ways that we’ve understood ourselves, the bird brains, the bagginess, the flocking animals, and fuse not only our world physically, but also our language. And, um, I think that bodes poorly for how we
will relate to each other and ourselves once they’re gone. So what I find compelling about, about thinking with animals is, is, um, the kind of absurdity and comedy and
horror that it brings home about how we’re relating to ourselves and what we’ve, what we’ve been doing
here so far from kind of, um, recruiting interesting
tidbits in the way that, um, popular science journalism does. I mean in useful ways, but in ways that if, when one sense of the is limited to that, um, participates in the illusion that, that they are not about us
and what we’re doing it that. So, so I think that’s why
this wound up as a story. But humans, let’s talk about forgiveness a little bit. Um, because, um, it seems to me the one way that Pru is able to think about, uh, the relationship to animals and what it
means to be with animals right now is, is proposed to her by a novelist who, whose name is Dalton field. Is that right? Um, who seems to have interesting ideas about
what it means to be in a marriage or at least in the love
relationship and what it means. Um, so think about the problems that
she’s thinking about in her lecture. I’m going to read a passage
where he intervenes in the
question and answer after her, her let her her lecture. We’ve already had one person’s
storm out by this point. Um, Jeremiah would an ornithologist
who champion Pru’s application, uh, leaves and he’ll late or
write an email saying, I can’t, um, basically support your 10
year any more after this. Um, you have John Sawyer of professor of
linguistics who poses an extremely sharp question that she doesn’t entirely, um, respond to, but it’s in response to her, his question that she says, I love my field, which had prompted my question
about Socrates earlier, but he raises a question and I’ve been
by this point is already a little bit on the verge of a kind of, I like jealousy towards, um, Dalton. He’s beginning to nurse
a sense of kind of, um, um, sense that there’s something
going on between Dalton and, and Pru. Um, and I’m just gonna read Dalton’s question. Um, Dalton, by the way, is for viewers who haven’t read the book. Dalton is author of a novel called, forgive me, not so that will be relevant. A shuffling is the microphone is passed. I think it’s magnificent. The question or booms, your implication that we’re
not the wiser animals, but the demented ones that insanity
not wisdom explains their dominance and quote Dalton, this is Ivan Talking Dalton. His legs are crossed. One arm draped across the
back of the neighboring seed, probably occupied by someone
who doesn’t even know. Not Homo Sapiens, but homo in from them. He adds. Why else would we evangelize the earth? Give me a fucking break. I think as I closed my eyes, Quinn whispers queen is a colleague. Quinn whispers. He’s great. This is Dalton again. You’ve raised the question of what other
animals might say to us if we would listen. He continues. What I wonder would you say to them? Ah, prove smiles. Mischievously good question. I don’t know. Forgive me the reference to his book
titled Prompts or ripple of warm laughter from the in the know. Fair enough. He says I could break his knees. And of course, I guess maybe it’s inaccurate to say
that the jealousy is still forming cause the jealousy is perfectly
pronounced at that point. But it seems to me that, um, forgiveness, um, that’s really the last word of her. Her lecture is, um, you know, he says, what, what, what, what might, what do I wonder would
you say to the animals, forgive us. It strikes me that that’s related to a
passage that Ivan reads from Dalton’s novel, right in the moment when he’s about to
really kind of go over the edge and right as their, as their marriage is breaking up. And what I’m driving at or why this
occurs to me is that it strikes me if, if humans are the measure of
all things and therefore if the, if the proposition of kind of modern
civilization is that everything rolls revolves around humanity, that’s a profoundly lonely, um, argument. So it’s, so it’s, I’m just going to read this passage. This is from, from Dalton. Um, Dalton fields novel. Forgive me, not in this, this happens right before
Pru and Ivan break up. And I’m going to ask you
about forgiveness in, in, in a love relationship and
also forgiveness in what
it means for the animals to forgive. That’s what I want to
read this passage first. Um, essentially Dalton is writing a passage, um, about, um, lovers and he, he’s basically saying it’s no one’s
fault that both of them are so lonely. It was possible. Now I’m quoting from his novel. It is possible. This loneliness was a condition of the
altered love that awaited them later in life. They would feel for each other a new and
quiet warmth she imagined consisting in there having acknowledged their failure
to disclose themselves to one another and forgiving it. So I want to read that
again because it’s really, that seems to be a really, um, emblematic statement, particularly given what Peru and Ivan
then later say in the novel when they are essentially realizing that they’re going
to dissolve their marriage and go their separate ways because it seems to me
that they don’t forgive themselves. They would feel for each other a new and
quiet warmth she imagined consisting in there having acknowledged their failure
to disclose themselves to one another and forgiven it, forgiven that failure
to disclose themselves. So I guess, what does this knowledge, what does this novel teaching us
about the role of forgiveness? It’s in your, I should say you’re the
author of two to two books. Um, forgiveness also figures into the 2012
not novel that you wrote town of town of shadows. So what you’re hearing is not talking my
premeditated ideas that got fleshed out here, but really my thinking with you on this. But I think, um, I mean there’s a book that came out called
love and the anthropocene a couple of years ago by bonding at Sam and the
philosopher Dale Jamieson and end it. They ask, um, what, um, the Anthropocene, the, the transformation of, um, uh, well the emergence of humans as
a geologic force on the planet. Um, but with that, the kind of transformation
of the natural world, an artifice, um, will do to our ability to relate
to each other and to love. And they invoke an idea
from I Iris Murdoch about, about, um, mature love being love, um, that or really any love I guess, um, as honoring the autonomy
of the loved object. So they’re asking Ken one
develop a relationship, a healthy relation to something that, um, is a projection. Um, so I mean, probably not wager so, but, um, no, I mean I think that, yeah, it’s just, yeah, I mean it’s just, I think it’s the kind of thing that
it’s just so staggering when you try to think about like if there
were an interspecies un, like how we would fare. And there is, there was this really wonderful thinker, philosopher named Anthony Weston, who has written about the seeming
paradox that the safer we get, the more frightened we become. Um, um, and I think there’s a
corollary in the forgiveness, guilt, MMM mmm. Anthropocene situation of kind of MMM. Sort of the, the more we acknowledge, mmm, the kind of harm we’re doing and
the wonders that nature holds. And the more that science, this thing that in the west famously
kind of disavowed its relationship to nature and declared other beings ghost. Plus machines is now rediscovering terms like sentience and consciousness
in them and publishing them in their scientific papers. Even as we acknowledge that
there’s this kind of feeling, there’s this inner shrinking. I think from what it would mean to
actually think that because if we actually thought that and we actually treated
other beings as sentient or as persons as some have argued, we should, that would be I think devastating for us. Um, because then our entire history would
show up to us in a very different way. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. I mean, you can think about the
recent ruling in India. The judge declared all, um, nonhumans persons, which had implications
for humans of course, but I think the legal
term is in local Prentice. So I want to return to this
question of forgiveness. Forgiveness is on the one on the table in the novel. Dalton field proposes it as the mode
of the relation that we should adopt towards the animal kingdom. And it’s hard to know where the proof is, joking or not when she says, forgive me. But forgiveness is also on the table in
the relationship between Prue and Ivan. That’s not just any relationship. That’s a relationship that is in some way, I think, allegorical of a college in that she’s
from the natural sciences and he’s from the Department of philosophy and
arguably from the humanities. Um, and so what holds for them and their
marriage is in some way allegorical of how a college relates to itself. But I want to read this
passage again and then I just, um, want to kind of go to Ivan and
prove at the end of the novel. So Dalton says in a, in a, I guess in a relationship in which, um, loneliness has been mitigated. There’s something like a forgiveness
for the failure of each to disclose themselves to another, which is a really interesting
way of thinking about love, I think. So that’s what Dalton says. They disagree over Dalton at that point. And then at, at two 15 later in the, in the novel, Prue and Ivan are talking to each other. And this is right after
Ivan’s have this whole crisis. He’s had a catharsis. He’s, you know, cried for the first time in a long time. Um, and she has just said, I’m going to take this fellowship. And she’s basically leaving, um, and implicitly leaving him. Um, so they’re in the center for pathology, which she helped found. She gaze is up into the
branches were a pair of finches, are, are picking at each other. I’ve been so lonely with you. She says, I take her free hand stroking
the back of it with my thumb, but it stays limp. I’ve been lonely too. I say. And then they, they go on to talk about their marriage. Do they forgive each other at the, at the end here? And, and that’s why they go their
separate ways or do they, do they not forgive each other
for not disclosing themselves? And um, and that’s why they go
their separate ways. I think that part of what
they were dealing with, at least my sense is anger
toward themselves at having
misunderstood themselves to such an extent that they tether their
lives to a person who is clearly not right for them. And so I think there’s
forgiveness going on here, but it’s also sort of forgiveness
of themselves because it’s a, um, and that’s what enables them to kind of
just speak to each other for the first time. There is something that drew them
together that they don’t understand, but that the dissonance is such that, um, um, it’s just too costly. Um, so I think, and that’s what I think was made it
especially sad for me to go through it in the writing process was sort of realizing
that they hadn’t reached a relation to themselves, that they were able to, um, to kind of share their lives with another
person because I’m the one that will, they’re not a good match, but that’s a little bit of a cop out
answer because I think both of them really struggle with, with their relationships
with themselves and that, that inhibits them from forming a robust
kind of mutual understanding with the partner from forming a
partnership in general. So, um, so in a way for me, um, and it’s a relationship that
I think ironically I guess
cause Frank’s the cr the crazy person, but to me he has a much more healthy
relationship to himself than either one of them do. He’s not superego. It concerns about, um, success, professional success
don’t really torment him, um, because he’s so tormented by other things. Um, but what I think the marriage teaches
them and why it’s ultimately I think wonderful that they were married is
that they realize this about themselves, that they had kind of been cramped in
themselves and that they’re now in a place where they can kind of Sally
forth in a more authentic mode. They both say at the end in various ways. What were we thinking? What was I thinking for the first time? These two people who, whose job is to know, seem to come into self knowledge and it’s interesting. Then they wouldn’t necessarily even
know whether they were disclosing or not because they don’t have
that self knowledge, I think. And I think especially because they
do have witnesses and the sense of the birds, but there’s of course
in a Beth there that, that, um, has been there throughout, but now they’re literally there, um, in this shrine to the
attempt to know another mind, um, failing to disclose themselves, but still reaching I think a more
healthy relation to themselves. Um, and therefore it like to
their ability to really, um, moving forward. What do we shift a little, talk a little bit more generally
about the process of writing and, um, and, um, and how you imagine the reader. What do you hope that
readers take from your book? I mean, I guess I could only hope
that they would feel, um, as I felt finishing it, which was, um, freer to approach old
questions in new ways. I’m sure some viewers written watching this
will our themselves aspiring writers. What advice do you have
for aspiring writers? Well, cultivate rejections. Get enough as a, as a teacher of mine, once I’d get enough that you can wallpaper
at least a bathroom with them because if you don’t, you’re really not doing
yourself a service. Um, um, yeah, you just, I mean you’d do it because you have to, it’s a crazy thing to do. It’s a form of controlled psychosis. So, um, but it’s also, I mean, if you want to do it, you know that it’s the most thrilling
thing you’ll ever experience when you’re doing it. Um, and when it’s flowing. Um, so I would say, um, just if you have to do it, then organize your, your life in such a way that you can do
it and that you can cultivate that as opposed to kind of getting cowed by
how difficult it is to be a capital w writer. Um, I think laboratories started as, um, appendages of museums where
alchemists would smelt iron for me. It’s always been helpful to think about
fiction writing and writing of any kind of creatively in that
way as something that, um, something that sustains you. But that is a little bit off center, um, in a way that peripheral vision can be, um, enable you to see more. So I would say just, um, I would say be a little suspicious of
advice because it’s usually just nostalgic disguise as someone has said, um, who I forget, but, um, yeah, just do it if you have to. Well, on that note, I think I want to congratulate you again, your novel, the Study of animal languages that
comes out tomorrow on Viking press, no less. Um, it’s been a great pleasure to speak with
you today and I look forward to reading your next one. It’s been a joy. Thank you so much.

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