Our octopuses, ourselves

There are many qualities to the octopus that render it strange, or weird, to a human mind: its cold, slippery body. Its excess of creepy tentacles. Its dissonant, almost chimerical structure. Its aloof intelligence. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science fiction and horror writers fixed upon the figure of the octopus as the ultimate expression of eldritch dread. Cthulhu sprouted from the hallucinatory imagination of HP Lovecraft, and attacks by giant cephalopods became a staple of the maritime adventure novel. In an essay on the teratology of Weird horror, novelist and literary critic China Mièville links the historical emergence of the genre, around about the fin-de-siècle, to a growing sense of nihilism in the face of an oncoming crisis. To the writers of the Weird, writes Mièville, this formless being with an inexplicable surfeit of limbs was a reflection of the  ‘chaotic, amoral, [and] anthropoperipheral universe’ they found themselves in.

We find ourselves facing our own kind of crisis in 2020, one that hardly even has to be named. In a 2016 essay for Overland, Rachel Fetherston wrote of the need for a greater ecological presence in Australian fiction, arguing that building a sense of empathy for the lives of other beings is vital if we are to halt the destructive trajectory we find ourselves on. And in recent years, ecological fiction – especially climate fiction – has gained immense traction. Richard Powers won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Overstory, an elegiac ode to trees and their history, and Alice Robinson was awarded the Readings Prize that same year for her climate dystopia The Glad Shout.

But whereas humans have long felt an empathetic connection with, say, the tree (consider The Lord of the Rings, for example, or The Vegetarian), the same cannot be said of the octopus. In his book Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith explains that the common ancestor between humans and cephalopods lies so far back in our evolutionary family tree that it is ‘probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.’ Though the octopus exhibits a level of intelligence comparable to many vertebrates, the structure of its nervous system is radically different. Because its neurons are distributed unevenly throughout its head and limbs, with the tentacles possessing a degree of agency separate to the brain, Godfrey-Smith suggests that the octopus might in fact experience itself as a ‘hybrid’, as simultaneously self and other. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that the fin-de-siècle writers associated the tentacle with primordial horrors too inexplicable to comprehend. The octopus’ eyes have been observed to uncannily resemble a human’s, and yet the subjectivity that lies behind them eludes any human likeness.

The recent debut novel by Tasmanian author Erin Hortle, The Octopus and I, is an especially fascinating exercise in ecological fiction, for Hortle structures her novel around this exact alien consciousness. Set in the community of Eaglehawk Neck, the isthmus that connects the Tasman and Forestier peninsulas, the novel tells the story of Lucy, a woman recovering from cancer who is grappling with her changed body in the wake of her mastectomy and breast augmentation. After a strange, otherworldly encounter with an octopus, Lucy becomes fixated on the creatures that live on the shore around the isthmus, to the point of risking her life to save one, and begins thereafter to tattoo its form on her scarred body. Although the book is primarily about Lucy, its point of view is never static; it wanders between first-person and third-person limited, between Lucy, her partner Jem, their neighbours around the Neck, an octopus, a mutton-bird, a seal. These shifts in perspective are a common device in ecological fiction, which ultimately aims to displace humans from our assumed spot at the centre of the universe, and to collapse the boundary between a human and nonhuman consciousness. Hortle’s nature writing is consistently beautiful, her adjectives clanging together in unexpected harmonies, her landscapes tactile and perpetually in motion.

However, the existential threat posed by the climate crisis is always looming – from scarcity of the fruits that top a pavlova to the growing realisation that the Neck itself is in jeopardy from rising sea levels. Jem, with whom Lucy first fell in love in part because of his ‘impulsive environmentalism’, is a local abalone diver whose livelihood is dwindling; Lucy herself works in devil conservation, witnessing firsthand the challenges in protecting endangered species from the finality of extinction. Her impulse to put herself in danger to save an octopus, however, stems from a different primal instinct. It is not solely, or not even mostly, borne of a desire to protect it as a species – for as Jem points out, it is one of the few that will likely survive, even prosper, with ocean warming.

Instead, the octopus holds resonance for Lucy because it reminds her of herself, rightly or wrongly, because the octopus is so essentially, persistently weird. It seems entirely natural – inevitable, even – that Lucy, who at the beginning of the novel is experiencing herself as a hybridised self/other, inhabiting a body that both is and isn’t hers, should fix upon the alien, abject form of the octopus as the most accurate expression of how she feels about herself. Her cancer meant not only the loss of her breasts but also her fertility, and the memory of watching herself morph into an unrecognisable being – ‘a creature with scars instead of breasts, a hairless body: delicate, translucent skin and bloody gums’ – is still very fresh in her mind. This sense of bodily disconnect is only exacerbated by the reactions of those around her to her newly augmented breasts: men leer, women ask how they feel and if they float. ‘It wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence,’ Lucy tells us. ‘It was as if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.’

The octopus proves to be characteristically slippery as metaphor. As Lucy begins to tattoo its form on her body, weaving its ink into her scars, it ceases to be quite so abject in her eyes, instead offering her something else: a fluid, amorphous, adaptive experience of embodiment, one that embraces rather than rejects its own weirdness. (Not so for Jem, who finds herself dreading ‘the warmth of Lucy’s octopus embrace’ and rages, as his relationship breaks down, at ‘those fucking octopuses.’) Yet, even after her implants have been removed, leaving her chest flat and scarred, Lucy admits to her psychologist that her body doesn’t feel right, exactly – but then what does it even mean to feel right, or natural, in your skin? What meaning does ‘natural’ still hold in the Anthropocene, when we are all scarred already, having already irrevocably modified both our futures and our environments beyond repair?

It’s a testament to Hortle’s skilful metaphorical plotting that the layers of meaning attached to the octopus never seem contrived. And perhaps her novel is a good omen; it bodes well for our capacities for empathy, on an individual level. But in another sense, The Octopus and I bears witness to a phenomenon that the philosopher Timothy Morton describes in his book Dark Ecology. Ecological awareness is ‘weird’, Morton writes: weird because one knows oneself as a singular individual who is not, in any meaningful sense, responsible for the crisis they are witnessing, and yet to be human is be ‘also part of an entity that is now a geophysical force on a planetary scale.’

This feeling runs deep in Lucy and Jem, who struggle with their ecological ethics throughout the novel in different ways. Jem, who inherited his licence from his ‘greenie’ parents, still prefers to see abalone diving as a romantically primitive, hunter-gatherer pastime, despite the industry being on the verge of collapse due to ocean warming and overfishing. And at one point in the narrative, Lucy asks her neighbours Flo and Harry to take her mutton-birding, unable to admit to herself ‘the narcissistic truth: that the octopuses, with their grossly female and alien bodies, somehow resonate with her and her sense of self in a way that the concept of a baby bird, or even a bird family unit, simply doesn’t.’ Neither of them is without hypocrisy, but whereas Lucy tends to selectively rationalise, Jem follows his gut instinct and emotional responses. Towards the novel’s close, his fury at the carelessness and cruelty he sees around him results in a terrible tragedy; the final pages of her narration have Lucy frantically thinking Don’t think about it don’t think about it don’t think about it.

Perhaps we must think about it. Perhaps we must become reconciled to the fact that, as much as we would like to see ourselves as part of nature, to look at a tree and see it as one of us, the fact remains that to entire ecosystems it is we who are the octopus. We are Cthulhu, the primordial horror and existential threat. Perhaps it hardly matters if we see the actions of others as separate from ourselves or an extension thereof. The octopus does not always see its own tentacles as part of itself, but it is a singular being and lives or dies as one.


Image by Masaaki Komori

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  1. Perhaps we must think about it. Perhaps we must become reconciled to the fact that, as much as we would like to see ourselves as part of nature, to look at a tree and see it as one of us, the fact remains that to entire ecosystems it is we who are the octopus.
    Dear Georgia, I can’t agree more,we are just a part of the nature, instead of the owner of it. All those animals in the 2020 bushfire!

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