An Impulse to Break Open Cages: the Life and Works of Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller’s Ape, Brigid Brophy’s first novel, was published in 1953 when she was in her mid-twenties. The setting is London Zoo, where humans and the world’s other animals come artificially face to face, and the book is all about that encounter, in particular the wrongs of it, not just of zoos, but of that whole power relationship which zoos make visible, also audible and smellable (“an odour shabby, seedy, somehow disgraceful: the smell of the caged animals.”). Wrongs, because humans, so far from having any special claim to the world, are themselves just another species participating in the great zoo of life. And the book presents them zoologically from the first, dispassionately noting their “characteristic calls”, “high degree of social organisation” and “courting rites”, none of it especially pleasing.

The hero of the novel – a professor of zoology and therefore well-placed to appreciate all this – is there to study the “courting rites” of the two Hackenfeller’s Apes. But when he learns that Percy (some “facetious spirit” having given the male ape this name) has been marked down as test passenger in a forthcoming space-shot, he rebels. Finding no support from his university, or from the press, or even at an anti-vivisection charity (these efforts are referred to as “field work in the habitat of Mankind”), he devises “an act of liberation” for Percy. It’s also an emblematic action, a model, in the professor’s imagination, for a comprehensive “exodus of the animals” from their confinements. That would cause havoc, certainly, “but he doubted if they would destroy as much as Man did.” Then his dream enlarges; he imagines breaking open prisons, even leading the damned out of Dante’s inferno, “up from their sunless circles to carry the gates by storm”. He pictures with exhilaration “the liberated march of elephant, petty thief and damned soul.”

Of course things don’t turn out quite as he plans. I’ll say a little more about that later.

Hackenfeller’s Ape won the Cheltenham Literary Prize in 1954 (Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net came second). Brigid Brophy went on to write several more novels, two plays, book-length studies of Mozart, of the artist Aubrey Beardsley, and of the novelist Ronald Firbank, a huge Freudian analysis of the human will to destroy (Black Ship to Hell, 1962), and countless essays and reviews. Something of that vision of general liberation is there in all that she wrote. In fact, in her writings and in her public life she was one of the makers of the 1960s and of the liberationist thinking which was the period’s ideological legacy.

She called herself “an impartial Lefty”, meaning impartial as to species, and it was especially in the case of the animals that Brigid Brophy was a maker of that era. Her Sunday Times article of October 1965, titled ‘The Rights of Animals’, effectively founded the modern animal rights movement (the article’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in this blog: see notes below). From it can be traced the revolutionary book Animals, Men and Morals (“we want to change the world”, said Patrick Corbett in its ‘Postscript’). To that book Brophy contributed a chapter mainly about vivisection, arguing – and she was a ferociously rational arguer – for a “Declaration of Independence on Behalf of the other Animals”, on the model of the human-centred one of 1776. The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Peter Singer, who then wrote his own book, the text that came to define the movement (more of that in a minute): Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and has been in print ever since.

And now at last there is a book about Brigid Brophy herself, giving proper attention to all the various contributions she made to the intellectual culture of her times. Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is a collection of essays by academics, fellow-writers, and fellow-campaigners, with lastly a moving account by her daughter, Kate Levey, of Brophy cover 2the awful ordeal of Brophy’s last years with multiple sclerosis. Kate Levey believes that her mother has been not so much neglected since her death, as judged unpalatable and alien to our present “huge retreat from progress”.

That’s a view which Gary Francione confirms in his contribution, titled ‘”Il faut que je vive”: Brigid Brophy and Animal Rights’. The quotation from Voltaire is one that Brophy herself used in Animal, Men and Morals, to summarise her claim for the primacy of the “right to stay alive.” In Voltaire’s story, the famously sardonic come-back is “Je n’en vois pas la necessité” (‘I don’t see the necessity of it’). But to make that reply, as our own species does to the life-wishes of all the others, is to speak as a “tyrant”. That’s a characteristically political key word in Brophy’s animal rights lexicon. It summarizes here the way we arrogate to ourselves the right to put a value, or very often no value, on lives which can only properly be evaluated from the inside, by the animals living them. And we know that these animals do indeed value their lives, that to live means (except sometimes for humans) to wish and try to go on living. The motivations of pleasure and pain are in fact there to help this primary urge succeed. Life, then, is the essential and “self-evident” right, as that 1776 Declaration acknowledged.

Francione shows that the great Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarian ethics, did likewise deplore the tyranny (he used that word) of men over animals, on account of the suffering that it entailed. But because his ethical system was a matter of counting pleasures and pains only, Bentham saw no essential wrong in killing animals, provided the pain of it was minimized, since the humans “are so much the better for it” (here one can’t help picturing this overweight man at his dinner table).

So humans do effectively own the other animals and can dispose of their lives, provided always that the animals’ “interests” in happiness, while alive, are properly recognized. This is the line of thinking that Peter Singer used in Animal Liberation and has held to ever since. It is, says Francione (with some over-statement, I think), only “a more progressive version of the welfarist position”. He calls it “neo-welfarist” or “happy exploitation”. The epithet “father of the animal rights movement”, sometimes used for Peter Singer, is therefore inapt (as Singer himself would happily acknowledge), because he does not argue in terms of rights at all. Brigid Brophy did, and Francione ends wistfully by saying that “animals would have been so much better off with a movement that had one parent – a mother – Brigid Brophy.”

The book has one other essay about Brigid Brophy as animal advocate. It’s written by the long-time activist Kim Stallwood, and its main theme is angling, that most unapproachable of animal abuses. Brophy gave the inaugural address as patron of the newly-founded Council for the Prevention of Cruelty by Angling (CPCA) in 1981. I’m glad that Stallwood quotes plentifully from this address, for it shows not just the argument but the wit and combative force of this remarkable personality. And two points in particular she insists on in this speech, as she always did. The first is that we should waste no time comparing and contrasting varieties of maltreatment. Fishing was not a special case as a ‘sport’ or tradition; it was simply one part of the “feudal, indeed fascist, fantasy” of human entitlement in the world, which had to be confronted by a “pro-animals-in-general movement”.

The second point is that we ourselves will be the better for it, as we certainly aren’t, pace Bentham, for eating animals (Brophy herself had been a vegetarian since 1954, and went vegan in 1980). Note that Brigid Brophy never spoke of animals with the sort of facetious condescension which the professor of zoology detects in that name ‘Percy’. She therefore meant it when she envisioned “a civilized country for humans and fish to live in on terms of reciprocal non-aggression”: if there’s a witty incongruity somewhere in that, it’s exactly a reminder that we are abusing lives which were never a threat to ourselves. As later published in CPCA’s newsletter, Brophy’s speech at its inauguration was given the title ‘A Felicitous Day for Fish’ (which Stallwood uses for his chapter title too). But at the end, Brophy adds that the day “is also a felicitous day for humans”. In Hackenfeller’s Ape, the liberating of Percy goes disastrously wrong, and may mean ruin for the professor, but he’s – unsentimentally, unemphatically – a better man, on better terms with himself, at the end of the story. If his “act of liberation” were indeed made general, then we too would be saved.

As Kim Stallwood shows, the CPCA and its successors have had little success, so that his chapter, like Francione’s, involves some sense of disappointment. But that’s not the effect of the two chapters as a whole, still less of the whole book, which puts together a portrait of a brilliant creative force and intellectual warrior (she tells daughter Kate that she has “fought all my life for one thing or another”), a woman undefeated except finally by the cruel disease. And although her animal advocacy is here timetabled into the two chapters, it was never merely one topic among others to her. It was as much part of her awareness as animals are part of the world.

By way of illustration, one especially diverting chapter of the book gives an account of the art form that she and the poet Maureen Duffy invented (a distinctly 60s thing to do): they called it Prop Art, they wrote a ‘[Woman]ifesto’ for it, and in 1969 they held an exhibition of 55 works which they had created to demonstrate it. Prop Art used ready-made objects to form novel and persuasive images. One of the exhibits (it’s pictured in the book) consisted of a polystyrene head, from Peter Jones’s department store, set on a dinner plate with an onion in its mouth, a carrot on its crown, and other vegetable trimmings, all on a plate with carving knife and other utensils at the ready. The title was ‘Tête d’Homme Garnie’. As the exhibition’s press release noted, it may be a “horrific” image, but then “if you think liking the taste of meat justifies killing and eating animals, why not humans too?”

Or finally there’s the essay (not actually discussed in the book) which Brophy was invited to write for a volume published in 1988 by the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. It was Goldfinchone of the latest things which she wrote, an account of the painting by Carel Fabritius of a goldfinch. The painting was not then quite as celebrated as it has since become; the gallery’s own website now rather absurdly calls it “the most famous little bird in the history of art”. The suggestion is that the picture was done as a trompe l’oeil, so that, hung high on a wall, “it must have looked like a real little bird.” And indeed such birds “were often kept as pets in the seventeenth century” (the painting is dated 1654). Brigid Brophy provides her own scholarly reconstruction of the setting and purpose of this “deeply enigmatic” painting. She does not use, for the bird, that pet-minded word ‘little’; she says “small”, or “about the size of a goldfinch in real life”. And she argues that there was indeed a real-life goldfinch being imaged. Therefore the painting ought to be called a ‘portrait’, just as Titian’s painting of an unknown man in a similar or equivalent pose, part of the collection in London’s National Gallery (to whose director, Michael Levey, Brigid Brophy was married), is called a portrait. This is, then, a portrait of an unknown bird. It makes a difference to call it that. And then Brophy writes,

About the status of the bird that Fabritius depicted there is no puzzle. He is a captive and a slave. Probably some human claims to own him.

Thereafter, as she makes her art-historical study of the picture, she keeps this essential truth before us: she speaks of the “slave bird”, the “solitary captive goldfinch”, the “abused bird”. Finally the art-object itself seems to be conspiring in the careless cruelty which has been the theme of her essay, and we are left pondering “the existence, once, of a captive bird and the existence, now, of the image of the bird looking out from the picture that imprisons it.”

This was a woman who detested and fought arbitrary captivities of all kinds all her life, but especially those that have characterized human relations with the other animals. It’s time indeed to recall what we owe to her, and to enjoy and celebrate her creative intelligence and pioneering courage.

 

Notes and references:

Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is edited by Richard Canning and Gerri Kimber, and was published in May 2020 by Edinburgh University Press (264 pp., £80). The book arises from a conference held at the University of Northampton on that anniversary date October 2015.

Quotations from Hackenfeller’s Ape, first published in 1953, are taken from the 1979 edition published by Alison and Busby, including the title of this post, which comes from p.81. There is also a Virago edition, 1991.

‘The Rights of Animals’ was first published in the Sunday Times in October 1965; the 50th anniversary of its publication is observed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/brigid-brophy/  The essay was re-printed, with some additional observations, in Reads (Sphere Books, 1989). Reads also includes the piece ‘Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius’. There are other collections of the essays and reviews, and they’re well worth finding. Brophy’s reviews were highlights in the arts journals of her time.

Brigid Brophy’s chapter in Animals, Men and Morals (Gollancz, 1971) was titled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’.

Jeremy Bentham is quoted from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Justice, 1780, footnote to p.309 (but I’m not positive that this is accurate; it may be the 1789 edition).