Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeNuméros593 - Les rencontres de l’humain et...Loren Eiseley's Ethical Approach ...

3 - Les rencontres de l’humain et du non humain dans la littérature de voyage / Human and Nonhuman Encounters in the Fiction of Travel

Loren Eiseley's Ethical Approach Towards Animals in Cross-Species Encounters

Qianqian Cheng
p. 205-223


Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) est connu à la fois comme archéologue, anthropologue, éducateur, philosophe, poète ou bien encore auteur d'études en sciences naturelles. Il a remis en cause les thèses sur la science, la nature et l'homme qui avaient cours à son époque. Son œuvre à base de prose et de poèmes réunit les sciences et les humanités, anticipant le concept actuel d'humanités environnementales. Il mit au point de nouveaux angles de vue permettant d'appréhender l'univers et la place de l'homo-sapiens en son sein, en adoptant notamment le point de vue des animaux. A travers ses écrits, il préconise l'amour et le respect de la nature et des créatures vivantes. Il encourage la compréhension inter-espèces en présentant son "devenir-animal" lors de ses rencontres avec d'autres animaux.
Cet article analyse différents travaux d'Eiseley et notamment la façon dont il amène ses lecteurs à s'interroger sur l'humanité en s'intéressant à la violence dans la nature et la mort des non humains. Il y est également question de la manière dont il a anticipé d'une certaine façon la notion d'espèces de compagnie établie par Donna Haraway des années plus tard. L'objectif de l'auteur est avant tout de mettre en avant l'approche philosophique et éthique d'Eiseley envers les animaux, une approche pouvant certainement amener ses lecteurs à réviser leur point de vue anthropocentrique concernant la nature et ses habitants.

Top of page

Full text

  • 1 By saying that "man fell from the grace of instinct into a confused and troubled cultural realm bey (...)
  • 2 FT=The Firmament of Time.

1An exceptional mid-twentieth century American scientist, who has been also variously titled as archaeologist, anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, Loren Eiseley devoted his life to his writings that ranged from scientific articles to poetry. His works present ground-breaking reflections about the relationships between humans and more-than-humans. Eiseley develops an environmental ethics toward nature and its other-than-human inhabitants based on his perception of humanity's potential for violence and kindness. This leads to his questioning of man's kinship with other species. Eiseley sees the cruelty of the natural world in his records of the deaths of animals; however, his observations also disclose another form of cruelty—the unnatural violence to other life forms caused by humans. A philosophical poet as well as a philosopher of science, he meditates on the necessity for sympathy for all living things. In Eiseley's view, having fallen out of nature,1 man has become "a very terrible and cunning beast" (FT2 156). In dividing themselves from other forms of animal life that figure as types of alterity, modern men imprison themselves in the terms that constitute them as human. Armed with the insights of his anthropological studies, Eiseley also questions whether language is a uniquely human cultural specialty and believes in the possibility of finding inter-species modes of understanding, which echoes the fact that indigenous peoples' cultures do not necessarily exclude the notion that animals speak a common language like humans.

  • 3 LN=The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley.
  • 4 NA=Notes of an Alchemist (poetry).

2Eiseley encourages people to move beyond the boundary that language establishes between humans and animals, thereby extending their knowledge of the lives of animals as well as themselves. His willingness to align himself with wildlife and the natural world and his efforts to think like animals accord with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's theory about becoming-animal. Eiseley's interest in man's potential for metamorphosis does not only come from his poetic imagination; he also sympathizes with animals and finds in that cross-species emotion the basis of an ethical approach to life forms. For him, "the love that transcends the boundaries of species was the highest spiritual expression he knew" (LN3 80). In his poem, "Magic" (1972), Eiseley states that "I / love forms beyond my own / and regret the borders between us" (NA4 65). While observing the philosophical ideas about becoming-animal in Eiseley's writings, the following questions cannot be avoided: are the creatures that inspire the writer's animal becomings real, or are they just the product of his imagination? Drawing on Donna Haraway's discussion of companion species, I aim to show the seriousness of Eiseley's becoming-animal as well as the ethical stance towards animal life implicit in his suggestions. Eiseley applies anthropomorphism in his writings; however, I try to defend this supposedly unscientific position by exploring his theory about writing for other-than-himself and giving voice to other animals.

Violence and death in animals

  • 5 UU=The Unexpected Universe.
  • 6 NC=The Night Country.

3Nature can show its violent or indifferent side to man and other animals: "sleeping in the heart of nature" involves "violence and unpredictability" (UU5 98). Eiseley's essay, "One Night's Dying" (1997) is an important example of these themes: it is usually at night or in darkness when he gains insights about humanity and animality. He reveals how "common humanity" (NC6 171) helps him endure his father's death, and how he extends his insights to death in men and non-humans. In this essay, Eiseley records a death describing how an injured "wild duck" allows itself to be engulfed by the sea tides. He witnesses the duck waddling seaward:

The sea continues to fall heavily. The duck dives awkwardly, but with long knowledge and instinctive skill, under the fall of the first two inshore waves. I see its head working seaward. A long green roller, far taller than my head, rises and crashes forward. The black head of the waterlogged duck disappears. This is the way wild things die, without question, without knowledge of mercy in the universe, knowing only themselves and their own pathway to the end. I wonder, walking farther up the beach, if the man who shot that bird will die as well. (NC 173)

4This episode shows, in Eiseley's words, "the elemental cruelty of the natural world" (NC 173). The force of the sea wave is so great that it breaks everything in its path: "no shell is ever found unbroken …. Wood is riven into splinters; the bones of seamen and of sea lions are pounded equally into white and shining sand" (NC 173). However, the injured duck seems to choose its death, "[its] own pathway to the end," by being taken by the "long green roller," maybe because it knows that its injury won't let him survive anyway. This episode shows two forces conspiring to bring about the death of the duck. There is a difference between wildlife dying in the natural way (by violence of the sea) and dying because of human intervention (by gun-shot). Through Eiseley's tone, we can sense his disgust at the man who wounds the duck. He wonders whether the hunter is capable of dying with as much dignity as the duck does. Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin suggest in their essay "Oscar, Derrida's Cat, and Other Knowing Animals" (2011): "when it comes to confronting death, one of the most basic facts of existence, we are defenseless or in a position scarcely more favorable than animals" (Harding and Martin 4).

5Perhaps, as Eiseley suggests here, animals know better than us about death; perhaps humans are even less prepared to face death than animals. Though the duck's death might appear like suicide to human eyes, Eiseley says the duck shows "the way wild things die." He comments: "This is the chaos before man came, before sages imbued with pity walked the earth" (NC 173). When man is not engaged, there is no question of mercy or empathy. It is only his presence as a pitying "sage" that brings feelings into play. Eiseley suggests that it is the wild duck's instinct to know that its time has come and to surrender to the sea. The bird seems to offer a lesson to the naturalist-philosopher and his readers. His humanity makes him pity the bird, but that feeling might be colored by his fear of his own death.

6In the poem "From Us Without Singing" (1972), Eiseley expresses his meditation on man's mortality. The decomposition of a dead bird in his yard makes Eiseley reflect on the passage "from the body to this death" of both bird and man:

all the ugly innocent necessary work of nature
is carried on by beetles, ants, blowflies—
all those immediate molecular transpositions
that ensure
the endless procession of pine needles, new eggs,
new birds and in their turn
new deaths. (NA 51)

7Death in nature has less to do with finality than with transformation. The dead body becomes a resource for life and then, once again, succumbs to death. This transformation from death to life to a new death, in its natural way, is "ugly" but "innocent," however, the speaker "resent[s] the slow / disarticulation of this summer bird" (NA 51). His bitter feeling of futility before death suggests fatality in the natural world. A literary scholar of Loren Eiseley, and co-editor of Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley, Tom Lynch points out that "the poem is not just about the bird but the poet as well: 'I am bound like this bird / to my own carcass, I / love this year's light, / the music in his, my mind'" (29-32). In these lines, Lynch sees the poet engaged in a struggle "between his appreciation for the cycle of life and his emotional desire to resist the inevitable transposition of his own molecules and hence the extinction of his own identity and consciousness" (Lynch 132-133). The speaker values the bird's singing as an echo of the poetic voice and, by extension, of his own thoughts. Seeing the decomposition of the bird's body, he cannot help wondering "where thought goes / in the turning wheel and where enters / the touched hand at midnight" (NA 52). This existential meditation on the life cycle does not bring consolation, for the speaker knows he will not return as the individual he presently is: "reentering the wheel of existence is no comfort" (NA 52). This idea corresponds to the Buddhist Bhavachakra, the Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming that symbolizes the cycle of life, death, rebirth, and suffering that adepts want to escape altogether. Lynch explains, "Eiseley rejects the consolation of his own culture's religious tradition, that he, unlike the bird, has an immortal soul, a discrete consciousness that will transcend life's terrible cycles. He likewise avoids the easy consolation that being dissolved into something impersonal yet cosmically vast is any compensation for the loss of one's own loved and loving individual identity" (Lynch 133). Eiseley recognizes the fragility of the human body and the irreversibility of time.

Compassion and humanity

  • 7 AKA=Another Kind of Autumn (poetry).

8If something could compensate for man's mortality in Eiseley's thought, it would be the concern he can show for others, especially for other animals. He elaborates this idea throughout his writings, but there is one poem that stands out—"The Hider's World" (1977). The speaker in the poem remembers an event that happened in his "callous evil youth" (AKA7 45), when he encounters a bird in the reeds that he decides not to shoot. As an old scholar later in life, he meditates "now that [his life] is ending," asking himself:

   … what was the
in me? To love, and conceal it all of my life
like the bittern
trying to be a reed? (AKA 46)

9He identifies himself with the bird in his memory and says both are "hiders"—the bittern hides in the reeds to avoid man's gunshot, and from youth onwards the "old scholar" spends his whole life concealing his love for other animals. At the end of the poem, though, the speaker seems to have found his purpose and feels confident about his choice:

… someday
they will find
an old coat in the city, somebody wearing it who loved
everything in hiding and being
just itself. The man will be drenched and muddy and
will certainly
be disposed of, as long ago it had been my intention with the bittern
on the day I lost my youth and laid the rifle
quietly aside for the sake of hiders. That, I think,
has been my purpose, a hider's world. (AKA 47)

10The image of himself as an old man is not very glorious. He imagines himself "drenched and muddy," blending into the environment like the bird. He doesn't give his life any more value than he gave the bird, when he was just a "callous evil youth," for he supposes that he will simply "be disposed of," without any ceremony. Nevertheless, he draws comfort from the fact that he understands his mission as a "hider"—to love everything.

11The value-accorded compassion can be found elsewhere in Eiseley's work. In his poem "The Horse in College Hall" (1972), Eiseley says, "I think it is our object / not to be cruel" (NA 102). This idea that a man should be kind to all beings is manifested in Eiseley's essay "One Night's Dying." In this episode the speaker is confined in the airport corridor and sees a man clumsily approaching him. He says that that man smells of death, and this whiff of mortality comes to suggest not only the end of an individual life but also the finality of humanity. A feeling of eeriness emanates from the speaker's reflection at the end of the anecdote:

... then this strange thing happened, which I do not mean physically and cannot explain. The man entered me. From that moment I saw him no more. For a moment I was contorted within his shape, and then out of his body—our bodies, rather—there arose some inexplicable sweetness of union, some understanding between spirit and body which I had never before experienced. Was it I, the joints and pulleys only, who desired this peace so much? (NC 177-178)

12In his book Faith in the Distance: The Wisdom of Loren Eiseley, David Lavery sees this scene as depicting "this magical moment of inward seeing [in which] Eiseley fulfills the ultimate longing: the longing of spirit to reunite with matter and the body […]. Afterwards, he feels himself 'released'; the burden, the source of perpetual longing, which both his ontogeny and phylogeny had seemingly placed upon his eyes" (Lavery 13). Eiseley is speaking of a very powerful form of empathy—the capacity we have to feel with others. "This peace" that Eiseley talks about refers to the relief and feeling of goodness in humanity that comes from showing empathy to others. He quotes from Saint Paul's well-known exhortation to love from First Corinthians: "Beareth all things, believeth all things" (NC 176). The Epistle continues, "Love never faileth" (I Corinthians 13:8), but Eiseley continues in a different vein: "believe, believe. It is thus that one day and the next are welded together, that one night's dying becomes tomorrow's birth" (NC 178). "Bear[ing] all things," even death, can become the purpose of humanity so that one life can be completed as part of a process in which suffering and dying leads to rebirth.

13Though Eiseley urges that the object of human life, when viewed from the perspective of mortality, is not to be cruel or indifferent to living beings, including our own kind, but to foster kindness in humanity and to cherish all life forms, he is not unaware that man's capacity for violence is stronger than his potential for peace. The violence in human nature leads man to see non-humans from a utilitarian view. Therefore, there is a need to examine how we divide ourselves from our brotherhood with other animals, through the violence projected onto other life forms.

Authority and the boundary of language

  • 8 IP=The Invisible Pyramid.

14Eiseley states that "language implies boundaries" (IP8 31), but he makes an effort to extend man's view of the natural world beyond the threshold of language. An illustrative example of how language locks man into an anthropocentric point of view has to do with humans' naming animals. A philosophical discussion about defining animals evolves from Eiseley's story about when he drives alone at midnight in a thick forest and senses that a creature is accompanying him: "From weary consciousness of an animal I grew slowly aware that the being caught momentarily in my flickering headlights was as much a shapeshifter as the wolf in a folk tale. It was not an animal; it was a gliding, leaping mythology" (UU 202). In this narration, obviously Eiseley uses words to prove his idea that man's animal and human qualities are not opposed or even distinct. Being caught in this encounter, Eiseley admits: "I was lost, but I understood the forest. The blood that ran in me was not urban. I almost said not human. It had come from other times and a far place" (UU 202). Eiseley reproduces in readers the uncanny sensations that the encounter produced when he hints that his blood is almost not human. He links his reaction to distant prehistoric times and places and, with a shocking effect, suggests that humans retain part of their animal past physically or biologically. He responds to the "being caught […] in [the] flickering headlights" of his car with a tension that derives from an animal's consciousness, and by contrast he describes the mysterious creature not as an animal but a myth. The roles of human and animal expected by readers get switched here. Although he finally sees something that he defines as "an absurdly spotted dog of dubious affinities," the speaker refuses to settle for the conventional perception that goes along with the word "dog." He asserts that "the dog was, in actuality, an illusory succession of forms finally, but momentarily, frozen into the shape 'dog' by me. A word, no more […]. A nerve net and the lens of an eye had created us" (UU 203). "The dog" is just a word, a name, and the real being accompanying the speaker is more multiple than the entity man defines as "dog." Once the fixed form of "dog" is attached to the live creature, a limit is also placed on a being who, in the speaker's eyes, possesses the capability to undergo various transformations.

15On this topic, Jacques Derrida extends the discussion in talking about the naming of the animals from the Bible story in which "God gives Ish alone the freedom to name animals," "summon[ing] them in order to 'subject' … them to man's command, in order to place them under man's 'authority'" (Derrida 386). At the very first creation of living beings, animals are made subject to man's order. In receiving their names from man animals are "deprived of language, one loses the power to name, to name oneself, indeed to respond to one's name. (As if man didn't also receive his name and his names!)" (Derrida 388). Through different stories, one personal and one biblical, Eiseley and Derrida reveal how humans project limitations onto animals, viewing nature from their restricted or even biased points of view. Like Derrida, Eiseley thinks that man's assumption of dominance in giving animals names separates him from the natural world.

16As people became more alienated from close contact with their environment, their belief systems changed along with their ways of life: "Christian man in the West strove to escape this lingering illusion that the primitives had projected upon nature. Intent upon the destiny of his own soul, and increasingly urban, man drew back from too great intimacy with the natural, its fertility and its orgiastic attractions" (IP 143). In Eiseley's eyes this detachment gives man a form of power but also makes him miserable: "What was gained intellectually was a monotheistic reign of law by a single deity so that man no longer saw distinct and powerful spirits in every tree or running brook. His animal confreres slunk like pariahs soulless from his presence. They no longer spoke, their influence upon man was broken; the way was unconsciously being prepared for the rise of modern science" (IP 143-144). American philosopher and cultural ecologist, David Abram relates how, in some Indian legends, animals bring language to humans. Besides speaking the same language as man, they also have the power to shift between man and animal. As Eiseley says, "Animals talk, they carry messages, they may be supernaturals" (IP 111). Observing both Abram and Eiseley's writings about such Indian cultures, we can see that though they deal with the supernatural, these indigenous people's tales have significance for our experience of the world: they not only plainly indicate the continuity between animal language and human language, pointing to an evolutionary biological vocal system, but they also allow modern people to imagine a more fluid borderline between themselves and other animals. Eiseley argues that there is a reason why talking animals do not hold a similar position in technologically advanced civilizations to the one they have in indigenous people's cultures. First, the domination of Western Christianity removes the divine from the natural world; second, modern science completes the process of demystification by making nature the ground of detached investigation. Both systems stem from changes in man's attitude to the natural world; from "close interdependence with his first world" (IP 143) modern men "withdraw from or recast nature" (IP 144). Correspondingly, while man changes the view of his own place among other life forms, he gets a different view of the animals surrounding him too—from talking confreres with rationality and souls to silent and soulless beasts.

Border-crossing and becoming-animal

17In Eiseley's eyes, modern man, with his anthropocentric view of nature, inhabits a solitary world. That lost contact with nature is what causes man's ultimate loneliness. Conversely, the reconnection with nature may offer humans the opportunity to find release from the self-imposed limitations of being human. To imagine the natural world from a different angle as an animal sees it is a good way to decenter man's anthropocentric worldview; and to achieve this Eiseley tells his uncanny experiences of becoming-animal.

18Anecdotes featuring animals in Eiseley's essays and poems illustrate the ways he finds to enter the world of becoming-animal. In his poem "The Changelings" (1972), Eiseley envisions himself as a changeling of coyotes, foxes or wolves. Being a changeling involves a transformation (both physical and mental) that mobilizes the potentiality of a human to become many others. He blurs the boundary between human language and animal utterances by saying:

on some rain-lashed night
a voice that barks
brief syllables
may be
at last my own. (NA 22)

  • 9 These quotations are from the 1988 interview "L'abécédaire De Gilles Deleuze" with Claire Parnet.

19The "voice that barks / brief syllables," is, in my interpretation, polysemous. As a coyote child living in human world, the speaker may give up human speech and bark. The eerie setting of a "rain-lashed night" even evokes stories of werewolves. As a human yearning toward the animal world, the speaker's voice has the rough bark of an animal in his effort to express his half-human thoughts. The poem's short lines that cut the syntax into brief phrases or even single words work to produce this impression. In this stanza, the poem brings human speech and animal sound together to reduce difference between the two. The distinction between human and animal language becomes blurred. In this way, Eiseley proposes his perception of becoming-animal— "a voice […] barks" so as to think like animals. His efforts to write for or think like animals accord with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's theory of "deterritorialization, " a process of moving beyond cultural boundaries that Deleuze compares to Herman Melville's formulation "outlandish."9

  • 10 ST=The Star Thrower.

20A man's becoming animal is a form of "deterritorialization," in which he participates in the animal world or lets it affect him; or in other words, he crosses the borderline between species and leaves his own world to enter the animal's territory. This is what Eiseley does in his writings. He extends man's view of animal life beyond the threshold of language and physical differences. In his essay "The Long Loneliness" (1978), in which he acknowledges that water is a barrier between man and porpoise, Eiseley encourages people to escape from their own bodies and imagine entering a dolphin's body, but keeping their human intelligence. In sacrificing human hands for a porpoise's flipper and putting aside the physical differences between the body of a porpoise and that of a man, both shaped by similar evolutionary impulses, man would have to discount equating tool-using (which privileges human hands) with intelligence. Eiseley emphasizes the qualities that man and dolphin share by saying "The porpoise is a mammal. He shares with us an ancient way of birth and affectionate motherhood" (ST10 39). Eiseley uses "he" for a porpoise, which clearly expresses his intention of blurring the boundary between man and animal. This fantasy of escaping the human body and becoming an animal is a form of "deterritorialization."

21What's more, Eiseley disturbs the anthropocentric point of view of the whole biosphere. He declares his passion for other forms of life and his desire to cross the borderline between them in his poem "The Last Days" (1972):

Sometimes I think of defecting:
I have begun to hear
trees in the night;
I wander around too much
and need replacements.
Animals are beginning to look better
than my own kind;
I request transfer.
Sometimes I think they are talking.
My cat is talking
but I don't quite hear.
I should not have read Heraclitus: seditious literature.
Transfer is advisable. (NA 82)

22Lynch explains that in this poem, Eiseley "reflects on the widespread notion that humans are engaged in a war against nature," and "if such a war is in fact in progress, Eiseley is unsure of his loyalties and considers the possibility of 'defecting,' because 'animals are beginning to look better / than my own kind'" (Lynch 135-136). The speaker uses a term familiar from the Cold War—"defecting"—to speak about his urge to cross over. In a punning metaphor that uses the terms for a job change—"need replacements" and "request transfer"—he indicates his longing to pass the borderlines between his own species and other animals. Moreover, when he wonders about the possibility of metamorphosis—"Perhaps it is my eyes in the night / or is it my face / that is slowing changing?" (NA 82)—he could be referring to the changes brought on by aging, but given his desire to defect he seems to be changing into the form of another animal.

Reality of becoming-animal

23Imagination plays an important role in Eiseley's becoming-animal in his writing. He considers "entering a dolphin's body," thus becoming-dolphin, or he envisions himself as a changeling of coyotes and "barks" as a coyote child. The question to consider is what Eiseley's fascination with these animal states means. Is it simply the whimsy or the posing of an imaginative writer? In their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari emphasize the seriousness of becomings-animal:

Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real […]. What is real is the becoming itself […]. The becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not; and the becoming-other of the animal is real, even if that something other it becomes is not. (Deleuze and Guattari 238)

  • 11 IJ=The Immense Journey.

24On the one hand, when Eiseley talks about animal transformation, he blends both fancy and reality. In the earlier anecdote in which Eiseley insists that the mysterious creature accompanying his night drive in the forest is not a "spotted dog" (UU 203) but a shapeshifter, his writing enters the realm of the fantastic. The creature can be a symbol that refers to evolving forms of life, to the environment, or to man's relationship with the natural order. On the other hand, Eiseley's interest in metamorphosis comes from something more than just a poetic interest in the possibilities of metaphor. Eiseley is impressed by the transformation of animals in reality too; as he mentions a woolly bear caterpillar's pupating as "some tremendous transformation, but about this he knows as little as I" (IJ11 196). The caterpillar is undergoing a transformation or a becoming (in its literal sense), which in Eiseley's eyes is "tremendous" and mysterious. Eiseley is this kind of man who tries to see the magic of life especially the transformation in life forms.

25Another example about reality of becoming-animal is found in the poem, "The Old Ones" (1972), where Eiseley writes of the "animals in [him]":

          … when I stroll in the forest.
I hesitate before a large dragonfly, I step
like a cat in the night, I have felt something
lift along my neck
when a wolf howls. (NA 36)

26Lynch reveals that "such passages illustrate how our instincts tie us to our animal kin, revealing our mosaic status. And it further implies that many of the poetic metaphors we employ ('I step / like a cat in the night') are perhaps not just flights of fancy, but intimations of our evolutionary past that serve to write us back into the animal realm." (Lynch 141) Here Lynch brings together the two threads in Eiseley's writing—the linguistic aspect, the employment of poetic license, and the anthropological aspect, the meditation on man's evolution. He insists on the scientific foundation of the becoming-animal in Eiseley's writings.

27A discussion of the reality of becoming-animal cannot fail to consider the opinion of a contemporary theorist of the relations between science and animals, Donna Haraway. She claims that Deleuze and Guattari are not dealing with real animals. In "The Status of Animality in Deleuze's Thought" (2011), Alain Beaulieu argues that "Haraway counters 'becoming-animal' with a 'becoming with animals.' This can occur, for instance, by inviting her pet to share a meal at the table, by exchanging emotions with it or by letting a chicken freely wander around the kitchen. For Haraway, to develop such a relationship with animals is not the sign of Oedipal regression but, on the contrary, an indication of our capacity to overcome anthropomorphism by learning how to live in a post-human environment" (Beaulieu 80). Indeed in Haraway's consideration of companion species, she insists on the real relationships that humans develop with animals. She criticizes how Deleuze and Guattari show "horror at the ordinariness of flesh" (Haraway 30) in which "ordinariness of flesh" may refer to human flesh as well as non-human flesh or to both mixed together.

28Haraway's term "companion species" takes in all the organisms, macro and micro that share our lives and make up our bodies. Elaborating on that notion Haraway explains that she finds it to be: "less a category than a pointer to an ongoing 'becoming with,' to be a much richer web to inhabit than any of the posthumanisms on display after (or in reference to) the ever-deferred demise of man" (Haraway 16). A man's body and life are so mixed with other organisms that he is actually "becoming-with" these "companion species." Eiseley's animal poem the "The Old Ones" illustrates this perception. He begins the poem with his thoughts on the gods in the minds of men in the time of past: "The old gods are mosaics, nahuales, tricksters in all cultures, / laughing at man, at themselves, flinging the penis to / become a snake" (NA 36). Lynch says Eiseley "finds the human-animal mosaic gods more appropriate because, as evolution teaches, and as DNA studies have since confirmed, we are in fact complex mosaics of all that has come before us" (Lynch 140). In affirming the idea that the human body contains various other life forms existing in the biosphere, Eiseley somehow anticipates Haraway's notion of "companion species" that man lives with and becomes with.

29Another example can be found in Eiseley's essay "Big Eyes and Small Eyes" (1997). The speaker has already hiked the whole day in a mountain; however, with the coming night, he "had chosen a bad pathway" and "was high up on a clifflike eminence" and has no choice but to climb down. However, the "descent in the dark was dangerous" (NC 42), and he gets into trouble when he is stuck in the middle of the mountain—below him are two huge watch dogs barking at him and the way back to the summit is impossible. What happens next is quite surprising:

I tried to choose a moment when they seemed tired from their own great bellowing exertions. In a pause I vaulted down onto their own level from the wall. I said something in a voice I tried to keep confident and friendly. I held one arm over my throat and stood stock-still. They came up to me warily, but one made a small woofing sound in his throat and I could see the motion of his tail in the dark. Seeing this, I dropped one hand on his head and the other on the other beast whose jaws had closed with surprising gentleness about my ankle. I stood there for long minutes talking and side-thumping and trying all the dog language I knew. (NC 43)

  • 12 DC=Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It.
  • 13 Eiseley speaks of Darwin as "a master artist […] [who] entered sympathetically into life." And offe (...)

30The important thing the speaker does, which finally saves his life is to go down to the level of the dogs, talking to them in a friendly way, putting out his hands to touch them—all efforts in trying to communicate with the seemingly savage beasts. He uses a language of gesture as well as his human voice, "side-thumping and trying all the dog language I knew." He recognizes that dogs have ways of interacting that are as effective as human language. Eiseley then offers his reflection on what creates this favorable outcome for the speaker by extending his discussion to Greek mythology. He wonders whether the dogs he meets "are the dogs of Cerberus, the hoarse-voiced, much feared guardian of Darkness, actually abysmally lonely and friendly creatures" (NC 43). In this comparison between the fierce dogs of the mine property and those of Cerberus, "Darkness" is capitalized and refers not only to the darkness of night but also to death—the eternal sleep without light. With surprising effects, Eiseley speaks of the two dogs that could tear him up as "lonely and friendly creatures." It seems that he chooses to see the friendly side of animals even when they are potentially wild. The important thing here is that he is happy that his talking and touching gets a response from the dogs. Since he does not intend to harm them, they do not hurt him. There is a mutual need for companionship. The speaker shows his affection for these animals who have helped him master his fear. The meeting has somehow prepared him for his final meeting with mortality: "I may meet their like again. It will be all one in that place, light and dark, big and small eyes, and the true demon will not fear his brother from another element. No. I think now the great dogs will know me. At least I shall put out my hand and speak" (NC 44). Though the watch dogs remind Eiseley of their mythic ancestors guarding the gates of the underworld, he sees his entry into the other world in an original way, rewriting the Greek myth. Rather than finding them terrifying, he imagines the dogs to be friendly. Indeed he imagines a paradise where all animals will be together, wild and tame, inhabitants of both "light and dark," possessors of both "big and small eyes." Eiseley's vision of a future when we are "all one," echoes Darwin's perception that "we may be all melted together" (DC12 352).13 In imagining humans and other species as "all one" and in seeing a dog as "his brother from another element" (NC 44), Eiseley again anticipates Haraway's ideas about companion species.

Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism

31We can say that Eiseley writes in the place of other-than-humans, which inevitably projects a predicament for him: is this rather a manifestation of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being), or is it an attempt to escape from anthropocentrism? Can humans put themselves in the place of animals? Can humans look at the animals' worlds without reflecting on our own?

32First of all, I need to borrow words from Eiseley to defend him. Eiseley explains the element that promoted the invention of the important evolution theory: "It has been man's curiosity about himself, extended to the origins of the world around him, that has led to the discovery of the evolutionary process" (DC 337). Man examines himself with interest, and this helps him to approach other worlds around him. So in one sense, Eiseley's technique of becoming-animal or thinking like an animal can be seen as the proof that, first and foremost, he is interested in human beings or humanity and that he then extends this curiosity to more-than-human life forms.

33Second, Eiseley writes in the place of other animals; thus he becomes the voice for many things. As an introduction to the second part of the collection of Eiseley's notes, "The Sorcerer in the Wood" (1987), his friend and editor Kenneth Heuer reminisced that Eiseley "once wrote indirectly on a scrap of paper:

I am powerfully influenced by locale and, being geologically trained, a locale which may be projected vertically in time. My mind is stuffed with stray teeth, mammoth bones, and the lost trails of Indians and pioneers ... I write because all these things haunt me and because, in that sense, I am the voice of things other than myself. (LN 79-80)

34This note refers to the remnants of the past that Eiseley the anthropologist recovers and interprets, but it can just as easily be transposed to Eiseley the naturalist. Eiseley's writing for animals—his being the “voice of things other than [him]self” is not anthropomorphism but a becoming-animal. His mind is “stuffed with” other life-forms.

35The expression “voices of things other than myself” resonates with Eiseley's philosophy that “man could contain more than himself. ” As Eiseley argues, “Among these many appearances that flew, or swam in the waters or wavered momentarily into being, man alone possessed that unique ability” (FT 176). Eiseley cultivates his sensations beyond the purely visual, so that he can express the voices of many things. Moreover, he believes this capacity is unique to man, since man alone has the potential to project himself into other states. This meditation is elaborated in a story Eiseley tells, in which the speaker intervenes in a fight between a mother bird and a snake whose appetite is aroused by the bird's eggs. The speaker says:

When I separated the serpent from the bird and released them in that wild upland, it was not for knowledge; not for anything I had learned in science. Instead, I contained, to put it simply, the serpent and the bird. I would always contain them. I was no longer one of the contending vapors; I had embraced them in my own substance and, in some insubstantial way, reconciled them […]. I had transcended feather and scale and gone beyond them into another sphere of reality. I was trying to give birth to a different self. (FT 177-178)

36Here Eiseley expresses his idea of achieving self-transcendence by going beyond the boundaries between humans and other animals. In the attention he pays to other species, a man can contain different forms of beings (a bird with feathers or a serpent with scales). It seems that a new humanity is thus born—a new “self”a modern man who tests out his becoming-animal.

37In conclusion, throughout his work, Eiseley seeks to understand the relationship between man and other animals. Animals promise to reveal things that human beings have forgotten about themselves, or knowledge that they have lost on the way to becoming human. In the anthropocentric view, language is only connected to humans, for man names and defines animals, which, in Eiseley's view, restricts the multiple possibilities of live creatures to what we think animals are. In Eiseley's eyes, language is not the barrier, and physical appearance is not the threshold; he enters the world of becoming-animal through his sympathy with other animals. So, in this sense, Eiseley's becoming-animal is real even though the writer's creative powers or imagination function greatly in these becomings. Sprinkling mythic anecdotes of encountering other animals in his writing, Eiseley seems less pragmatic than Haraway who emphasizes that becoming-animal has to do with real animals. She emphasizes how our human body shares and lives with other organisms in the biosphere. At the same time, Eiseley's ecological point of view that the human body contains various other life forms existing in the biosphere somehow anticipates Haraway's theory of companion species. Both Eiseley and Haraway's writings about animals contribute to change man's anthropocentric view of non-humans.

38Though anthropomorphism is a feature of Eiseley's writing style, his writings should not be seen as anthropocentrism. On the contrary, the liminal states of a man's becoming-animal manifest Eiseley' efforts to escape anthropocentrism. Even if it is only in the imagination, crossing man-made boundaries between species is a way to release the potential forces of transformation in humans and other animals. Eiseley encourages man to contain other forms of being in his imagination, to take the responsibility for and to love his real home, the earth, and his co-inhabitants, other animals.

Top of page


ABRAM, David, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World, New York: Vintage, 1997.

BEAULIEU, Alain, “The Status of Animality in Deleuze's ThoughtJournal for Critical Animal Studies, [Volume IX, Issue 1/2], 2011, 69-88.

DELEUZE, Gilles, and Claire PARNET, “L'abécédaire De Gilles Deleuze, Filmed by Pierre-André Boutang, Translation of the first part “A Comme Animal, by Dominique Hurth, 1988-1989.

DELEUZE, Gilles, and Félix GUATTARI, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987. 

DERRIDA, Jacques, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Critical Inquiry, [Volume 28, No. 2], 2002, 369-418.

EISELEY, Loren C., Another Kind of Autumn, New York: Scribner, 1977.

EISELEY, Loren C., Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, New York: Anchor, 1961.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Firmament of Time, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1999.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Immense Journey, New York: Random House, 1957.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Invisible Pyramid: A Humanist Account of the Space Age, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, Kenneth Heuer ed., Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Night Country, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1997.

EISELEY, Loren C., Notes of An Alchemist, New York: Scribner, 1972.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Star Thrower, New York: Times, 1978.

EISELEY, Loren C., The Unexpected Universe, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

HARAWAY, Donna J., When Species Meet, [Volume Posthumanities, 3], Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008.

HARDING, Wendy, and Jacky MARTIN, “Oscar, Derrida's Cat, and Other Knowing Animals, Transatlantica, 2012, 1-15.

Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc., <>

LAVERY, David, Faith in the Distance: Loren Eisely and the Evolutionary Imagination, Alabama: University of Alabama, 1986.

LYNCH, Tom, “'The Borders between Us': Loren Eiseley's Ecopoetic”, Artifacts and Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley, Tom Lynch and Susan N. Maher ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2012, 123-42.

Top of page


1 By saying that "man fell from the grace of instinct into a confused and troubled cultural realm beyond nature" (UU 136), Eiseley claims that humans have abandoned first nature to build their cultural world. "First nature" refers to the instinctive world of nature that humans have lost touch with. The term goes back to Marcus Tullius Cicero's distinction between wild and cultivated land in De natura deorum. Eiseley classifies the first world as "the life of the world we call natural," and he contrasts it to "the second visionary world evoked in the brain of man" (ST 150). This speculation can be attributed to his interpretation of Francis Bacon's "second world" that "could be drawn out of the natural by the sheer power of the human mind" (ST 150).

2 FT=The Firmament of Time.

3 LN=The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley.

4 NA=Notes of an Alchemist (poetry).

5 UU=The Unexpected Universe.

6 NC=The Night Country.

7 AKA=Another Kind of Autumn (poetry).

8 IP=The Invisible Pyramid.

9 These quotations are from the 1988 interview "L'abécédaire De Gilles Deleuze" with Claire Parnet.

10 ST=The Star Thrower.

11 IJ=The Immense Journey.

12 DC=Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It.

13 Eiseley speaks of Darwin as "a master artist […] [who] entered sympathetically into life." And offering evidence, like a dramatist, Eiseley describes this imaginary scene to his readers: "As a young man somewhere in the high-starred Andean night, or perhaps drinking alone at an island spring where wild birds who had never learned to fear man came down upon his shoulder, Charles Darwin saw a vision […]. None of his forerunners has left us such a message […]. None, it may be added, spoke with the pity which infuses these lines: "If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor—we may be all melted together" (DC 351-352).

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Qianqian Cheng, « Loren Eiseley's Ethical Approach Towards Animals in Cross-Species Encounters », Caliban, 59 | 2018, 205-223.

Electronic reference

Qianqian Cheng, « Loren Eiseley's Ethical Approach Towards Animals in Cross-Species Encounters », Caliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 27 February 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Qianqian Cheng

University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès
Qianqian CHENG studied for four and a half years at University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and accomplished the first thesis on American nature writer Loren Eiseley in France. She has published an essay in Miranda on Loren Eiseley’s anticipation of the Anthropocene (2016). After graduating with a PhD in English in 2017, she obtained a position as English lecturer at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, China. Her current research interest is ecocriticism in American and Chinese literature and she tries to impart these ideas to her students.

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search