I seem to spend a lot of time standing at bus stops in remote locations, waiting for a bus that may or may not come. Though this might not appeal to my students who seem to think I should be driving the latest Audi (at least) by now, it does give me time to think, especially about the natural world, and its latest incarnation as ecology.
In this state of gently juxtaposed boredom and expectation, my brain, if viewed in cartoonish cross section, would likely appear something like a tangle of psychical tumbleweed, swivelling around inside the socket of my skull; getting snared in unlikely places— aimless yet serene— a focussed, almost meditative kind of daydream.
This state of mind, thoughts idling along like the engine of a stationary vehicle, rarely lasts for long. Interruption is inevitable, whether it be from the bus finally arriving, or something more… unexpected. In day-to-day life the idea of being ‘interrupted’ has a fairly bad press. I try to talk to a friend about something and they interrupt me. I try to pull a few sheets of paper, or finish off some kind of project, then someone knocks on the door, or my phone goes off. The classic example of agonisingly irritating interruption being Coleridge’s ‘Person from Porlock’, the one who interrupted him at length, preventing him from completing the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ in its entirety.
And yet, not all interruptions are for the worst. In order to change someone’s mind, it is necessary to interrupt their accustomed chain of thought. Constantly revisited and reinforced by the person— both by themselves and various factors, it takes a definite, shift, break, or even dislocation in order to create space for a new way of thinking to emerge. Such interruptions are the gateway into sudden changes of heart— analogous to waking from a dream, or waking one day to find that everything appears new. I think of Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’— the life of the hero Gregor, being so abruptly interrupted, so different from his accustomed existence— his waking up— a horrific initiation onto the brink of the uncanny, into a whole new, defamiliarised sense of being.
Stood at the bus stop, I did not turn into a beetle. I did, however, meet with a singularly strange encounter. Idling away the time, suddenly I felt a tug at the plastic bag full of shopping I was carrying. I looked down to see a large, scrawny dog fox, muzzle deep in the carrier bag. The rusty orange against the tarmac appeared unnaturally vivid. He was so close, I could see the patches of bare skin between the fur he had moulted. We locked eyes and there was a brief pause. The pause seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time— the kind you’d associate with silently praying for someone to leave. After what felt like minutes, although it was as little as a second, the fox trotted off across the road.
I can imagine the way the farm workers in a pub back in Suffolk I sometimes visit might react to this: kick it, hit it with a bit of 2×4, shoot the bastard, etc, etc. The alarmist cries of city-folk encountering increasingly bold urban foxes also come to mind, as well as my own experience running for a bus at 4am through Peckham Rye, seeing fairly chilled looking foxes wherever I turned. Ted Hughes’ thought fox comes up like a paternal ghoul and ‘Fox in Socks’ although I never remember reading this particular Dr Seuss book.
Yet the most arresting thing for me was at the scene of the encounter. I am familiar with foxes biting into rubbish bags, but not into bags I am carrying. For a brief second I almost dropped the bag with revulsion, as if the touch of the fox’s teeth had transfigured it into pure garbage— in the same way the touch of a fly might make food inedible. Then I noticed the saliva it had left round the tear in the bag. At this point I wish I could have managed to say something insightful, but despite my best efforts, all I could manage was a stuttered: ‘Oh.’
Wondering if that really had just happened, I checked the hole in the bag again. Still very much a hole and still very much dribble covered. For a second I felt infinitely small, and then a slow, nauseating current of shame crept up around my ankles like an incoming tide.
Despite the fox’s exit, I still felt luridly aware of his presence. The creature’s animal gaze had lingered, and made a deep impression, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to work out. Reaching home, I went to my usual sources, and found that (unsurprisingly) Jean-Paul Sartre has much to say on the subject of otherness, as well as the concept of the gaze.
In ‘Being and Nothingness’, he writes of the way an encounter with ‘the Other’ can affect us, how:
‘By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put into the position of passing judgement on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other’ (BN, p.246)
As I go through day to day life, I objectify a number of entities which lie outside of myself. In the case of trees, plants, and other so-called ‘inanimate’ objects, this objectification appears simple enough. It is when I encounter another lifeform that things become complicated. Watching the fox as it stands, looking at me, I become aware of a contest, a struggle between us. Even as I perceive him as the object of my gaze, I become simultaneously aware that I am also the object of his scrutiny. I feel like the fictional native who believed the camera stole a part of the soul. Feeling myself to be both objectifier and objectified, my casual, everyday solipsism that allows me to pass through the world unaccosted, is thoroughly interrupted. I realise that, in order to come closer to an understanding of how I am in the world, my only resort is to treat myself like an object, in the manner of the other who has stared me down with its inscrutable, all-pervading gaze. Suddenly, I am at the mercy of consciousness I can barely begin to comprehend. I experience a deep sense of unease— anxiety, even. In going among the inhabitants of the world, whether I wish it or not, I am inevitably remade in a new image— one not necessarily within my control. I am inevitably drawn into a vast, unconscious struggle, whether I want to be a part of it, or not.
But how is this connected with a fox taking a bite out of my Co-op bag? Well, to begin with, I have always been struck with the way Sartre (and other continental philosophers) use the word ‘Other’ in a way that can be applied to animals as well as other people. By its flexible range of applications, it avoids the pitfalls of anthropocentrism, and presents itself to me as an interesting way into discussing our coexistence with other creatures. The main questions I find myself asking are: how is the gaze of an animal different to the gaze of another human? Is it as important in our own self-formation? And ultimately— how do animals perceive us? In the case of the fox, I suspect myself to have appeared as a calculated risk— food versus possible injury. Reduced to this simple formula, I cannot help but feel somewhat deflated, and taken aback. In approaching me in the way it did, the fox (albeit unintentionally) momentarily caused me to experience the same objectification that is central to the way people approach nature. By interrupting the cosy lock-in of my daydreaming, the fox inadvertently made me realise this. And quickly, I began to see examples of such subversion elsewhere…
I recently re-read a short sequence of poems in Ruth Padel’s collection ‘The Soho Leopard’. Entitled ‘The King’s Cross Foxes’ it charts the lives of a group of foxes from birth to maturity— from being with ‘the curled C’ of their mother, to leaving for their own ‘contested strips / of shadow’. One poem from this sequence struck me especially. ‘Playtime’ describes the way ‘Dogfox brings toys for the kids’. These toys include:
hamburger cartons, sharp-
crackle crisp packets, toy stegosauruses, playdough.
Watch it: you’ll lose
whatever you leave out at night. A Flora Oil bottle,
perfect rattle with a pebble, for any toddler fox.
An arm from off a Barbie Doll. Knickers
From washing lines. Shoes.
(The Soho Leopard, P.26-27)
A mixture of rubbish, toys left outside, and even clothes are brought to the Fox cubs’ playtime. Although all these things have (or had) their human uses, they are now stealthily repurposed for another species’ use. The capitalised ‘Flora Oil’ and ‘Barbie Doll’ appear especially prominent, emphasising the discrepancy between their original (human-directed) use and their fate as a fox cub’s plaything. I am tempted even to suggest that the objects are metonymic of the human world they were originally made to be part of. It is as if, in playing with these brand names, these objects so much a part of our day-to-day lives, the foxes are playing with the human world itself, subverting and repurposing it to their own needs.
Upon writing the above, I feel it worth mentioning how sensitised my encounter made me to the almost unconscious struggle between humans and nature. While I cringe to be reminded, to be made to taste my inbuilt objectification of nature, much as I consciously struggle against it in my poetry, thought, and actions, I am also reminded of how nature remains inscrutable and abstract— silent even— in an unspoken show of creaturely civil disobedience. This disobedience is something I am thankful for— precisely the kind of interruption I believe that, we as a species, are so gravely in need of.