Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals
I live on the edge of a temperate rainforest. In the city the daylight hours are filled with noise, and at night things fade into silence. In the rainforest everything is reversed. During the day the forest is as silent as the grave. At night it erupts with noise.
There are tiny discordant conversations high in the trees. A cluster of voices can carry a lament for hours. Things chatter and scrabble. Even labelling these noises, as flying foxes, owls or wallabies, seems like a tenuous thing. In actual fact, it’s impossible to know what is talking to what and it’s all weird. It’s like listening to a multitude of inhuman languages emanating from an alien landscape in the Dungeon Dimensions.
In this kind of environment one’s relationships with animals becomes a very different proposition from owning a pet. Wild animals are unmistakably Other, and seem to be continually engaged in a rich and complex and unseen life of which we see or hear only a surface impression. When we think of wild animals we tend to construct images of them as potential pets, as though they could have the relationship with us that our favourite dog has; Whales as the Labradors of the ocean. But really we have no idea what animals think of us.
Anna Krien has written about our complicated and unutterably strange and brutal relationships with animals in the latest Quarterly Essay titled Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals. Krien is the kind of writer I could probably never be. It’s not merely a question of a lack of talent but also that I just wouldn’t have the energy to produce the driven prose that she does. When I picked up Us and Them I had a vague memory of Krien’s name popping up in the world of prizewinners somewhere. She won something for her long investigative essay Into the Woods, which is an eloquent demonstration that successive Tasmanian governments have been little more than a front for logging companies. As a piece of writing, Into the Woods is fairly amazing in parts, not least because of Krien’s relentless analytical prose. She often finds, or puts, herself in some pretty mad situations, and I found myself waiting (almost pleading) for a Hunter S Thompson-style outburst, a burst of insanity to relieve the tension that Krien creates with her forensic attention to detail and to narrative. The closest I felt I got was when Krien reveals that she has a collection of weird tattoos which she keeps hidden. It’s as if the madness is there alright, but only briefly revealed, all the better to conceal it.
Oddly enough, just as I was finishing this post, and after I’d written the above paragraph, I read somewhere that the writer Amanda Lohrey had called Krien ‘Australia’s young female Hunter S Thompson’, a bizarre claim that’s probably not helpful. Apart from the fact that its hard to imagine Krien driving a convertible at high speed across the desert, delusional and screaming at bats, the suppressed craziness in Krien’s prose has yet to find its way of making itself visible. Thompson wrote as if he were mad. To write just like Thompson one might have to actually be mad.
Anyway since I read Into the Woods Krien’s name seems to pop up everywhere, often in various ‘Best Of’ compilations, which makes her sound a bit like whoever sang ‘Eye of the Tiger’. There’s a few video interviews of her around the place, and she has a website as well. Despite Krien’s sometime representation of herself as a hapless adventurer, the interviews show someone extremely lucid, watchful even, discreetly concealing a mind like a steel trap. I’d no more get into a debate with Anna Krien than I would fry my own hand for breakfast. I suspect that not only would I lose the argument, but I’d not even know I’d been mercilessly dispatched. Or how.
Anna Krien can turn out some wonderful and illuminating images in her writing, to offset her iron-disciplined prose. And sometimes the success of an entire page can turn on her use of an image. I started to feel throughout Into the Woods that Krien’s often distraught images were a way of conveying what her analytical style couldn’t otherwise allow itself to: her own distress at the devastation of the Tasmanian forests, the mass slaughter of wildlife and whatever other existential concerns were occupying her during her mad time in Tasmania.
Anyway, that’s all by way of creating something of a context. After Into the Woods my expectations for Krien’s Quarterly Essay were pretty high. What to my eye appears to have happened in the interval between Into the Woods and Us and Them is that Krien has achieved something of a shift in the way in which she writes and frames and produces her ideas. Into the Woods has a lot going for it as I hope I’ve made clear, but next to Us and Them it looks almost clunky in parts, as if you can see under the bonnet a bit, the patched up radiator and the bodgy rust jobs. I wondered what Krien’s take on this change might be. She refers to herself in Us and Them as ‘a wordsmith’, a dorky term that writers sometimes use to decry their own ability or convince themselves that they are people who just use craftsman-like words (as if they were literary equivalents of Ricky Swallow) rather than images, metaphors, signifiers or ideas. Anyway, Krien’s use of the term made me wonder what she was using it for in understanding her own work.
Us and Them ventures into territory that Krien seems to thrive in, areas of messy politics and of high conflict, where terrible damage is being done to the various organisms and beings that inhabit the planet. Us and Them is about the human relationship with animals, and the fraught ethical and political choices we make when we engage with the universe of animals. Thinking about animals and how we use them (and we do use them) is a fizzing minefield of booby traps. Krien shifts and fakes her way through it with some aplomb. In fact it looks to me as if one of her achievements is to make us look at her (and our) vulnerability, while she spins out this sometimes beautiful exercise in writing with that unceasing discipline she showed in Into the Woods.
Us and Them begins with an expression of vulnerability, and doesn’t let up through 25,000 words. Vulnerability sets the atmosphere I think, as in four short pieces (Killing, Testing, Hunting, Other Beings) Krien wades into the bloody, brutal and often sadistic world of human treatment of animals. I’m not going to take you through the various ethical arguments that Krien plots her way through, or even the bits that I didn’t understand or just couldn’t follow. After all, you can read Us and Them for yourself, and the next issue of Quarterly Essay will no doubt feature a slew of replies taking Krien’s work apart for her.
But part of the thesis of Us and Them is one that Krien explored in Into the Woods: human beings are rapidly killing every other species on the planet. While there might be a range of ways to understand that politically, Krien seems particularly intrigued by the role of hate, or what appears to be hate. That appearance of hate is what I wanted to get my head around and I wanted Anna Krien to get her head around it for me. Maybe her next major thing will be called On Hate. It’s the spoken to but unexplored subject in both Into the Woods and Us and Them, and while I appreciated Krien’s sterling efforts to come to grips with the moral complexities of both the struggle over Tasmania’s forests and the industrial killing of animals, going backward and forward between moral positions and various thumbnail-sketched characters sometimes seemed like too much labour.
Just by the by, I was struck by Krien’s exploration of the idea that animals can experience what we might think of as mental illness – depression, anxiety, the effects of trauma and so on. Personally, I think it’s probably true, and it’s an idea that takes the otherness of animals, allows them their otherness and still builds a connection between us and them. I thought of the Declaration of Rights of Cetaceans that describes whales and dolphins as ‘non-human persons’. But why stop at whales?
Years ago, I remember seeing an elephant at Adelaide Zoo that spent day after day standing in one spot rocking from side to side, as though it were developing autistic symptoms. Just up the road from me lives a dog that is probably entering its last months of life. The dog has been badly treated and neglected over the years and is often lonely, I think. It’s terribly difficult to make friends with. No matter how hard I try, it can’t seem to shake a habit of fear and hopelessness now a decade and a half old. The other day I found it asleep on my back porch. It was too deaf to notice me walking around it. When it did eventually wake up and notice me, it got to its feet with difficulty and started to slink away. I’m not someone who would naturally try and have a conversation with a dog. But I said to my surprise, ‘I won’t bother you. You can stay here all day.’ I went back into the house and when I checked later, it was lying on the porch again looking at me with one eye as I pottered about. So maybe we’re making progress. Both of us.
Krien frames her central question in Us and Them as ‘How much injustice are we prepared to live with?’ It’s a great question I think on many fronts as it can be taken several ways. Obviously I want to live with no injustice. But like compassionate capitalism it’s something of a problematic idea. I’m irrevocably compromised by the system of economics and power politics my life is embedded in. So, what would it mean to try and carry out a just act?
For me, Krien is at her best when she speaks of her own experience, her own vulnerability and understanding. And for me, she’s most difficult as an investigative reporter funnelling vast amounts of information toward the reader in some kind of digestible form. It’s not that she didn’t make it digestible, it’s more that I wanted to stay with her experience, not just because I found it more interesting, but also because she writes about it so well, better than when she’s thumbnail-sketching people and being investigative I think.
After Utoya I found it impossible to listen to the Swedish group Hellsongs brilliant cover of Metallica’s dumb, ‘Seek and Destroy’. A bunch of sweet-faced blonde Scandinavians crooning about hunting down human prey just became too much, even allowing for irony. Likewise, Krien’s essay inserts a break in all the reasonable types of reason we try and use to convince ourselves why we shouldn’t eat animals. We are as the sequence of Krien’s titles implies killing, testing and hunting other beings. There’s something visceral in trying to gain an understanding of that and that’s where the power of Krien’s writing lies.
As I said earlier I’d probably have some anxiety about debating Anna Krien, but I still considered finishing this review with a question. Krien says of herself in thinking her way through the writing of Us and Them, ‘Don’t finish with a question. Throw the punch’. I’m a pretty lame punch thrower myself but an obsessive asker of questions. It’s a major failing, but it’s all I’ve got. I had a question about something Krien said about hunting, which I didn’t understand. In the end I decided to just sit with it. The question that is. For someone who dreams of throwing punches, Anna Krien asks a lot of questions. She’s a terrific writer, and if she can cope with all the prizes and wordsmithing and comparisons to Hunter S Thompson, her future work will pack quite a punch.