I would like to give an account of an experience I had during a stay in the Monts d’Azur reserve, in a new encounter for me with a certain animal world, and which I still cannot explain to myself. An encounter with a singular type of animal presence that paradoxically, but serenely, refers to an absence of man in himself, to something that makes us miss ourselves and in which perhaps originates a good part of the malaise that characterizes the human condition, and that would have to do more broadly with what Freud diagnosed as the “malaise in civilization.
We cannot know what “thinking” might mean for an animal, and even less relate it to human ways of thinking, because we do not really know what the animal feels, as Descartes said. For the human being, thinking corresponds to a mode of existence which engages all that it is, thinking takes part of the essence of the man to speak as the classical philosophy (we are “thinking substances”, still Descartes). But for the animal, the thought is perhaps only a particular modality of the action, a mode of relation to the environment marked by a multitude of small deviations modifying its perceptive worlds, as J. von Uexküll explains it (Milieu animal et milieu humain), by thus posing him new problems. In this sense, the man and the animal take part of the same genesis during which the psychic develops only from the moment when the vital functions are not enough any more to solve the problems posed to the living whose whole energy aims at ensuring conservation and reproduction.
It is possible that animals think, or, to avoid a term too heavy with multiple implications, that they can find themselves in psychic situations that lead them to produce acts of thought. There is thus no sense in wanting to demonstrate at all costs that animals “think” – in classical philosophy, the question is always taken up again to show, in fine, that there is an essential difference between man and animal, that is to say to define what is human in the human being. The question is that of the man but never that of his animality, the question is not stated to know of which animality is made the humanity.
As soon as one puts the question of the relations between the man and the animal, the terms in which we question always cover moral and metaphysical notions. But if we stick to the sciences of the living and to what the psychology of the behavior teaches us, to represent what are the psyche and the thought, all that we can assure is that nothing allows to exclude a priori the hypothesis that any being, from the moment when it is alive, can reach the thought and develop a complex psychic universe.
We don’t know what a body can do, said Spinoza. And in the same way, we cannot anticipate on what a being can do as soon as it is alive, on what it can do and with what it can enter in relation. In relation to the human soul, the metaphysical hypothesis (the term encompassing here what we classify as religious and mystical) of an animal soul, and even of a vegetable soul, refers to the idea of a common essence. There is no differential conception of the soul, but it is from the body and its functions that one can deduce differences between the ways of living of a soul according to whether it is incarnated in a human, animal or vegetable body. The question is thus not so much to know what distinguishes the man and the animal as what differentiates the psychic and the vital.
Philosophy begins with the Socratic act of founding the eminent dignity of man on the “anthropological difference”, by distinguishing intelligence and instinct and by opposing the vital principle of men to that of living beings (animals and plants). Socrates opposes the intelligence to the instinct, from Socrates the instinct is judged by the intelligence will say Nietzsche. In this lowering of the body to the profit of the soul, a humanism originates which is always valid for us and for which the man is an absolutely singular reality which is not comparable with any other in nature (the phusis). But from this difference in nature between the instinct of animals and human intelligence, a consequence follows, the effects of which we are still suffering because it has taken root in the depths of our ways of thinking: the animal will henceforth be considered through man insofar as human reality becomes the completed model of all forms of being. In Plato’s most “scientific” text, the Timaeus, we thus witness the creation of animal species according to a progressive degradation starting from man, as a kind of theory of evolution in reverse. And even in what one can call the Aristotelian “naturalism”, founded on the equivalence between the human, animal and vegetable functions, the man sharing with the animals the same type of sensoriality, imagination, memory if not even desire (the human species not being different in nature from the animal species), the difference remains in what makes the superiority of the man: the faculty of reasoning (to logistikon) and the capacity to choose freely (to prairésis), or capacity to opt for what is logically preferable.
It is precisely all this cultural assembly, on which rests as well the representation that we have of ourselves as our capacity to organize our relations with the world, which was literally deconstructed in the simple “exposure” of an animality returned to itself.
The “visit” of the animals on foot belongs to a register that still leaves us in this exteriority of humanity to animality, even if the regulated and respectful approach of the European bison or Przewalsky’s horses is worth as a “spectacle” whose emotional intensity seems to warn that it is something else than a simple zoography without grids or cages, as impressive as it can be for itself. It is a completely unexpected moment, the irruption of a kind of immanent scenography to the living, which will break into this mental device where the animal is always seen through the man. At dusk, one will discover the vast meadow that occupies a large part of the domain, occupied (in the strict sense of the term, that is to say both inhabited and disposed to an activity animating everything) by what appears to be the entire animal population of the domain, including the commensal species that have come down from the forest and the surrounding mountains. Bison and horses, big deer, wild boars, foxes, etc., all arranged, without apparent order, according to a mode of occupation and spatialization of the setting where the animal and the vegetable co-exist, exist one through the other, according to an enigmatic register of which to say that it represents an immemorial mode of belonging to a common world remains a vague approximation.
The enigma resides in the nature of the sensory register into which the simple sight of what is thus shown plunges us. A mixture of rapture and astonishment (these two types of sensations referring to the same way of being taken away from oneself) which is expressed in a type of emotionality too complex, or too unaccustomed, to be clearly described, but where the feeling of a deep inner peace seems to manifest in the same agreement the peaceful and the sorrow. That the spectacle of an animality returned to itself can thus inspire us peacefully a form of agreement with oneself is still conceivable. But remains this vague feeling of sorrow, of attrition almost (like the indefinable regret to have committed a fault for which one will have to pay) of which it is difficult to account. And which seems to plunge too deeply into the obscure depths that clear consciousness covers, to be only the somewhat ridiculous effect of a sentimentality in which we like to take refuge in order not to have to think.
I have no available theory to provide here. Except perhaps an indication given in a reflection made by one of the actors of the Mont d’Azur team saying simply: “this show is what our ancestors had daily under the eyes for tens of thousands of years. This is what they saw every day! As if, in this moment of plenitude appeared in hollow the emptiness without recourse of the landscapes which make our customary world today. This world in which humanity has produced itself by denying everything that was not it, starting with the wild animal and vegetable (from sylvus, which refers to the forest, antagonistic symbol of civilization), this world is an empty frame, with no other background than the vain reflections of our power, that is to say, of our capacity of destruction – whose agnostic madness can be measured by remembering that it is estimated that the number of wolves killed in the world today is in the order of several million (! ) the number of wolves killed by men in the northern hemisphere, from the Middle Ages until today.
A world whose emptiness is poignant to us only to refer to another emptiness for us deeper, to an absence in us, a lack. That of this animality from which our humanity diverged some 30.000 years ago, our animal part, our “becoming-animal” (G. Deleuze) present in us on the mode of the absence. There would undoubtedly be much to object to such an idea. But it seems to me difficult not to consider that a great part of the “savagery” that we produce in our relationship to the world (consumerist destruction), savagery also of man against man (war as a universal form of violence) and against himself (madness), does not find an abysmal origin in this inaugural act by which humanity has installed itself in itself by rejecting out of it the part of animality from which it comes. When a force is cut off from what it can, says Nietzsche, it turns against itself to act for its own annihilation. Men prefer to want nothing than to want nothing at all, Nietzsche calls this inversion of values “nihilism”, or the will to nothingness.
The stay at the Mont d’Azur reserve leaves open for everyone the possibility of living the properly “sensational” experience of a pace of life, at the crossroads of the “living” (in the sense of the organization of matter) and the “lived” (in the sense of the experience of human beings), for which nihilism would not be a fatality.
Jacques Deschamps (Desanti Institute, ENS of LYON)