How to be Human

The UK edition of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesDSC04754 [Serpent’s Tail, 2014] starts with two or three pages of quotations from the quite properly rhapsodic press reviews. One of them is from Reader’s Digest, and describes the book as “a full-on exploration of what makes human beings human.” The description (only a fragment, after all) is favourably meant, and it must contain some truth because it’s somewhat true of just about every really ambitious novel, and this novel certainly is not only ambitious but also brilliantly successful. All the same, in this case it’s almost the opposite of true.

The point is that Karen Joy Fowler’s story of a cross-species relationship deliberately subverts that sort of human special-pleading. We get the religious version of it when the narrator of the story, Rosemary, is a little girl and mourning a lost fellow-primate: her grandmother well-meaningly tells her, “You just remember you were the one made in God’s image”. The girl’s distress, physiologically felt and evidenced as it is, simply refutes that claim to a difference in kind. In fact it’s a distress that endures far into adulthood and is still there in nearly the last words of the book: “You’d need to have been in my body to understand that” [my italics here and elsewhere]. This is Darwinism as experienced fact.

But then there’s the more up-to-date scientific way of trying to keep the non-human others in their place. For instance, new research tends to show that, quite contrary to earlier assumptions, “humans are much more imitative than the other apes” – but of course, adds Rosemary, there’s “some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior … I forget exactly what that reason is. You’ll have to read the papers.” She summarises the point later on: “It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique – our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language – some other species comes along to snatch it away.” This would be comical – and the book is at times a hilarious comedy – if only science hadn’t been relying on this slippery idea of human difference to justify its pitiless exploitation of even our closest surviving relatives. As it is, the book is also a tragedy, as any book which looks honestly at our modern relations with other animals has to be.

Some animals recognise themselves in a mirror; it’s one of those species-differentiating tests which help to keep life in its proper ranks. What we really need, says Rosemary’s ALF brother, is a sort of “reverse mirror test”, one that will “identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects.” Nothing in this book is carelessly written. When Rosemary is discharged from police custody later on (she has quite a lot to do with the police, her brother even more so), she brings an insect out from the interrogation room with her, and lays it in the grass outside. That room, she feels, should be “nobody’s home”. She thinks of her brother when she does this, wishing to please his presiding spirit (he is mostly absent, address unknown). But of course the action has a supra-personal meaning. As the great philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself is ended.” The book is about one instance of that tragic division, and the attempt to undo it, or at least to come to terms with it.

As for the title: “we’re completely beside ourselves” is the lovely expression that Rosemary’s mother likes to use when family high jinks reach a certain pitch of excitement. Gradually, with the help of that interpolated word “all”, we come to see its larger and more profoundly beautiful Darwinian meaning. This, then, is what being human means: not preening ourselves on our supposed peerlessness, but knowingly and unreservedly joining the animal collective. And we humans ought to bring good with us, for we can, and there are tonic instances of such good in this book. But until we really do make that word “ourselves” mean in practice what the title means by it, it’s certain that we’ll mainly go on bringing what the brother rightly calls “fathomless misery” to the others.

This may all sound very unhappy. Certainly it is that, but the book is also a fascinating story, witty and jaunty in the telling, shrewd and compassionate about humans (and interested in them). It’s also purposeful. Near the end, the author tells a fairy story of two daughters, the elder cast under a spell by a wicked king. The king dies, but the spell persists:

The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up.

So rise up already.

But really to understand this fairy story, you need to read the whole book. It’s well worth doing.

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