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The allure of animal nature

Discussed in this essay:

Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, by Alexandra Horowitz. Scribner. 368 pages. $27.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human, by Thomas Thwaites. Princeton Architectural Press. 208 pages. $24.95.

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, by Charles Foster. Metropolitan Books. 256 pages. $28.

Thirty years ago, I lost my sense of smell. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself transformed into a creature with only four senses. Rather, that part of the sensate world fell away slowly and almost imperceptibly, until at last it was gone. My beak is as prominent as ever, but it is only the shell of its former self, a Potemkin nose.

At first, I found my anosmia, as the few doctors who study this phenomenon call it, disconcerting and terribly sad. Now that I was dumb to flavor, eating became a chore. The tang of desire no longer leaped off my wife’s neck. After a rain, the wet earth stayed mute; without its musk, the garden stood silent. I missed the scent of my friends’ houses, the aroma of asphalt and gasoline rising off a parking lot on a hot summer day, the astringency of snow. I longed for memories kindled by madeleines. I felt diminished; I had shrunk, and with me my world.

Illustration of a manticore, 1658, by Edward Topsell, collected in Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art, which will be published in March by the University of Chicago Press and the British Library

Illustration of a manticore, 1658, by Edward Topsell, collected in Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art, which will be published in March by the University of Chicago Press and the British Library

I consulted a doctor. This being the 1980s, he was sure I had destroyed my olfactory epithelium with cocaine. I explained that I did not like the drug anywhere near enough to abuse my nose with it, but he wanted to see for himself. So he inserted a camera on a flexible tube up a nostril and into the back of my mouth. We followed the camera on the monitor as it passed through my intact nasal passages and into my throat, unimpeded by polyps or any other obstruction that could prevent odor molecules from making their way to my brain (which an MRI, ordered to rule out tumors, revealed to be normal). The doctor reviewed these non-findings, told me that there were no other known causes to look for, and sent me on my way with a shrug.

I didn’t give up right away. I took zinc and other supplements. I shot cortisone up my nose. I let an acupuncturist bewhisker my face with her needles. I even tried, for the first (and last) time in my life, positive thinking, telling myself each morning that I would definitely smell the coffee beans I was about to grind. Nothing worked. To this day I remain largely oblivious to scent, though the loss has receded, as losses will. I recall the absence only at moments: when I need to borrow a working nose to distinguish gasoline from water, say, or when I read yet another foodie manifesto and thank my lucky stars I am immune to that affliction.

Had my misfortune occurred a century earlier, I might have presented myself at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was chalking up unexplained losses of bodily function to a neurological disorder he was calling hysteria. I’m not sure that a paralyzed nose would have elicited his interest as easily as the paralyzed legs of his patients, or that he would have tried to hypnotize me out of my condition as he did them, but I like to think my complaint would have intrigued one of his students, an Austrian doctor named Sigmund Freud. He was soon to discard Charcot’s neurological explanations of these mysteries in favor of psychological ones, and later, toward the end of his career, to augment those reasons with cultural theories — one of which puts my malady in a new light.

“The diminution of the olfactory stimuli,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), “seems . . . to be a consequence of man’s raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait.” Chief among those stimuli was the scent of estrus, which, once our snouts were no longer at the level of one another’s nether regions, was no longer adequate (or necessary) to get the reproductive job done. The eyes could go where the nose could not, however. “From that point,” Freud continued,

the chain of events would have proceeded through the devaluation of olfactory stimuli . . . to the time when the visual stimuli were paramount and the genitals became visible, and thence to the continuity of sexual excitation, the founding of the family and so to the threshold of human civilization.

When I first encountered these words, as a college student in possession of all my senses, I was simply excited to hear an august figure uncover the shaky footings of civilization. Now, however, the passage conjures up a different frisson, a glimpse of redemption for my compromised state. After all, if the dulling of olfaction signals the advent of civilization, then what about its wholesale loss? Is the apotheosis of civilization in fact the postolfactory person, invulnerable to skunked dogs, rotting garbage, and all the other stink of the world?

Not so fast, buddy, Alexandra Horowitz would surely say. Scent, she argues in Being a Dog, shows us the way “to return to that perhaps more primal . . . state of knowledge about ourselves and the world that we have forgotten in a culture wrought of technology and lab tests.” It’s a path Horowitz herself is eager to travel — and on more than two feet. “If being upright, nose too far from the ground, is what keeps us from smelling,” she declares, “why, I’d go on all fours.” The book is an account of her journey, and of the optimism that fuels it.

With Freud, Horowitz holds that culture mutilates instinct; against him, she thinks that the wound can be healed, and that smelling is the key — that we can reawaken our slumbering schnozzes and regain the life we have lost. After all, she says, “humans have fine noses. But most of us simply don’t bother to smell.”

She does bother, which is why Being a Dog finds her walking through Brooklyn with a British “multisensory” artist who compiles crowd-sourced urban “smell maps” by leading groups through various cities, urging them to open their noses at shop doors and street corners and dumpsters. Or kneeling to take a whiff of the tree her dog has just examined “with the precision of a watchmaker.” Or conditioning the “lost muscles of the nose” to flare her nostrils wide, the better to let the odors in. Or nosing out for the trace of her son’s hand on a book he has recently handled. Or visiting perfumers, wine tasters, a man who tracks animals by following their scent, and a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine who puts the nose back in diagnose, first determining if the patient’s “smell is off” and then trying to bring her back to her “good smells.”

Horowitz is also the author of Inside of a Dog, a popular phenomenology of canine consciousness; the head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College; and the owner of two dogs. She is, in short, an unabashed fan of Canis lupus familiaris — so much so that she seems to want not only to describe and explain dog olfaction but to come as close as she can, via a regimen of “committed sniffing,” to joining the species. “If my nose were astonishingly good,” she writes, “then I should in theory be able to experience some dogness.”

Horowitz does her best to inhabit the mind of the dog as it navigates by scent and to encourage her readers to do the same. Along the way, she provides scientific details (dogs have more than 200 million receptor cells in their nasal passages to our 6 million), elucidates the connection of smell to memory, reports on relevant historical curiosities (New York’s streets were laid out in a grid to allow for effective cross-ventilation of the city’s miasmas), cites writers from Kenneth Grahame to Lewis Thomas, and speculates on such philosophical matters as our dearth of vocabulary for scent. She manages this with humor and snap even as she is at last forced to abandon her cross-species aspirations. Whereas dogs are “quiet distillers of a world that we have stood up from and forgotten,” we, with our human minds, remain hopelessly manacled to civilization. “I will never smell as a dog does,” Horowitz concludes. “I accept it.”

Her attempt to come to terms with this failure is brief and anodyne. “It is dogs’ difference I celebrate,” she writes, as if it weren’t exactly that rift that she had set out to close. It’s probably not fair to complain that in resorting to a bromide about diversity, Horowitz is abandoning the questions she has raised and turning her attempt to retrieve something primal into a self-improvement junket. After all, the book is intended mostly as infotainment for dog lovers. She does complain, in passing, that her newfound ability to distinguish the various citrus fruits by their scent amounts to no more than a “great party trick,” but she doesn’t follow her disappointment into the thrill and frustration we experience when something lies just beyond our apprehension, beckoning and eluding in equal measure, leaving us with only our longing. Though perhaps you have to be odor-blind to detect the contours of this regret.

If Horowitz’s intentions in descending the great chain of being remain vague and muddled, Thomas Thwaites’s are as plain as the nose on your face, and would be familiar (if pathological) to Dr. Freud. “Wouldn’t it be nice to escape the constraints and expectations of not just your society, your culture, your personal history, but your very biology?” he asks at the outset of GoatMan. Horowitz would be pleased to know that this idea arose from an interaction with a dog. Thwaites was looking after his niece’s pooch, Noggin, at a particularly angsty time in his life, when a recent career success (he built a toaster from scratch, which somehow landed him a book, a miniseries, and a place in the Victoria and Albert Museum) was fading and he had no idea what to do next. Cogitating on his predicament, he observed that “to be human is to worry.” And what is it not to worry? “Look at Noggin,” he found himself musing. “I just don’t think Noggin worries.”

The makers of veterinary Prozac might disagree (as might Horowitz or anyone who actually owns a dog), but Thwaites doesn’t waste any time wondering whether animals really get anxious. He’s too busy scheming about how to “undo five million years of human evolution” and adapt his “bipedal anatomy to that of a quadruped,” hoping thereby to “escape the inevitable worries of personhood.” At first, he plans to emulate an elephant, but he soon realizes that those beasts seem to have some understanding of mortality, so “psychologically it mightn’t necessarily be all that rosy.” A shaman in Copenhagen helps him settle on a goat — but not before telling him that his idea is symptomatic of “an estrangement from nature that has reached completely idiotic extremes already.” If he insists on continuing this idiocy, she lectures him, he needs to decide whether he’s actually out “to bridge the gap, to feel like an animal,” or merely “trying to make a costume.”

Transspecies or mere transvestite: for Thwaites, the decision is easy. He goes the whole hog, reckoning that if he walks on all fours, zaps the executive function out of his brain (temporarily, and with the help of a magnet-wielding doctor), and figures out how to digest grass, he will eventually experience some goatness. I’ll spare you the details of his exertions; just imagine Hugh Grant bumbling amiably through the offices of neuroscientists, veterinarians, and prosthetists, thence to goat sanctuaries and dissection labs, and finally to the Swiss Alps, where he plans to cross, as a goat, into Italy. There — clad in a black-and-white waterproof suit, his extremities strapped to high-tech, cloven-hoofed legs, a bell around his neck, a sack with an ersatz rumen strapped to his chest to receive chewed grass and hold it for later reconsumption, and a helmet on his head — Thwaites manages to hook up with some real goats (not like that: he scheduled his trip to avoid the mating season and any awkward propositions) and, at least according to a farmer who witnessed the event, to leap across the species divide: “Accepted,” Thwaites exults, “by goat herd and goatherd.”

Thwaites is cagey about whether or not he succeeds in crossing into Italy, which leaves the reader to conclude that he did not, that the discomfort of hobbling on his peg legs, the impossibility of digesting grass, and the prospect of a warm bed led him to cut the journey short. But he surely reached his real goal: respite from his between-gigs anxiety, which the grant that funded his exertions, along with the subsequent book contract, must have provided more directly than any amount of humanity-vacating metamorphosis ever could.

GoatMan provides an excellent example of what an author sometimes resorts to when his or her life fails to provide material of sufficient interest (to a publisher, I mean). You go out and do something outlandish, you navigate the stations of whatever cross you’ve decided to bear, and then you write about it. Sweeten it with anecdote, leaven it with humor, bake in some history or science, and ice it with what you’ve learned about yourself. It’s enough of a thing to have a name: stunt journalism.

But there are stunts and there are stunts. And then there is Charles Foster, who, when he titles his book Being a Beast, really means it. As in, living in a burrow like a badger, grazing the forest floor like a deer, eating worms and stalking prey, and shivering in the cold, crawling in the dark, and otherwise depriving himself of human civilization for extended periods. “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing,” Foster writes, and to gain that knowledge he lies for an hour in a stream as mayflies fill his mouth and eyes, or confronts a cop in his den amid the garbage bins of London’s East End. “I’m trying to be a fox,” he explains. (“Bugger off home,” the bobby tells him.)

Taking up the zoo-ontological questions promised in his book’s title, Foster defines an animal as a “rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists.” A human represents the same thing, “but a more stilted, stammering conversation.” In order “to have a more articulate talk with the land,” he decides he must overcome the forces that have created those impediments — not just our tendency to live in houses and wear clothes but the vocabulary and syntax that frame our understanding of nature and our relationship to it. Foster notes that our conversations about nature tend to go in one of two directions, the scientific or the literary. Neither is up to the task, he argues: the one claims too much distance from the human mind, with its tendency to shape perception to its own needs and predilections; the other doesn’t seek enough.

Foster views science as incommensurate to what he regards as the miracle of consciousness, whose electrochemistry can perhaps be understood but whose existence simply cannot. “It is one thing to describe which areas of a badger’s brain light up on a functional MRI scanner,” he writes. “It is quite another to paint a picture of the whole wood as it appears to the badger.” It’s not that Foster thinks science is irrelevant to the conversation; he is a veterinarian, after all, and seems glad to detail such matters as the anatomy of otters’ whiskers. But he doesn’t like the fact that when rhesus macaques refrain from eating if pressing the feeding bar will shock another monkey, scientists are reluctant to see this as evidence of a complex inner life, preferring explanations that draw on evolutionary theory — “muttering ‘reciprocal altruism’ or ‘kin selection’ ” — or, even worse, on the “sole and tyrannous metaphor used by mainstream behaviorists . . . the computer.” Rather than stammering its way through matters it cannot understand and denying animals their consciousnesses, science should just shut up. “Where consciousness is present,” he insists, it “can be explored only by novelists and poets.”

But don’t look for conversation to roll off their tongues either. Foster cites what he calls the “two sins” of “traditional nature writing: anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism.” We describe nature from the view our upright posture gives us, or we infuse it with our qualities. “I have tried to avoid both of these sins, and of course I have failed.” Indeed, Foster sins compulsively. The plunging of an oystercatcher’s beak as the flock searches for lugworms “is like nothing in human experience so much as sex.” Badgers, he believes, almost certainly use adjectives (since they have to “describe the world to themselves”), but they have “other, and probably better, things to do with [their minds] than the industry of metaphor.” Otters are caricatures of capitalist subjects, “too consumed by their desire to have anything to spare for the construction of a self.” And foxes, Foster says, “are relational, empathic creatures.” Yet he remains unrepentant. “You can shout ‘Beatrix Potter’ as loudly as you like,” he proclaims. “I don’t care.”

At least Foster is not afraid, as Horowitz and Thwaites are, to look his failure in the eye. His business is as serious as his methods are extreme, and his sins are poignant. He hasn’t tried to figure out how a dog navigates the world for the sake of his own self-enhancement, or pranced about in a caprine costume as a distraction from career worries. “The universe I occupy is a creature of my own head. It is wholly unique to me,” he writes, and he is not so much boasting of his multitudes as he is lamenting the loneliness of his nutshell universe. His exertions have been a “true-love quest for otherness, which wants to know in the desperate hope of being known.” The flawed hero of Being a Beast is a man “inching . . . down the evolutionary tree,” seeking escape from self-containment. “I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and watersheds,” Foster writes, “trying to feel in touch with them — or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.”

Of course he has — not because he hasn’t managed to sufficiently cleanse his language of sentimentality about nature or to actually become a beast, but because he has not been able to bust the boundaries of his own noggin, to overcome the isolation to which we are all condemned by having minds that are aware of themselves. He’s cleansed his perceptions mightily, but the chinks of his cavern remain narrow, if a little wider than they were when he started. No matter how deep and probing his book is — and it is a terrific, beautiful read — it is the product of his inescapable mind. In the end, it’s not literary sin that he and these other writers cannot help but commit. It’s original sin.

From time to time, my prodigal sense returns without warning, sometimes at inopportune moments — as I walk through LaGuardia Airport on a Friday afternoon, for instance, its thick atmosphere of body odor, fast food, and kerosene like a punch in the face. But sometimes it shows up at exactly the right time, as I sit down to a meal or pass by a chimney exhaling woodsmoke, and I am torn between exulting at my good fortune and weeping at my loss. In such moments, it’s as if an entire world has abruptly and inexplicably exploded into being.

These visitations never last long — a day or two perhaps, just a few hours — and I try to make the most of them. I bury my nose in the coffee canister, eat a peach and then a plum simply to remember the difference, or take in a long, deep breath of my house, praying that somehow those molecules will take up residence as a memory to which I can return once my nose goes back to sleep, as a widowed husband might flip through a photo album to renew his memory of his wife. Of course, I fail — and for the same reasons that the authors of these books fail. Once the immediacy of the primal world is gone, it is gone. Nothing is going to bring it back, not muscle conditioning, not prostheses, not riverbed tramping, not prayer.

Trying to imagine his way into the life of a red deer, Charles Foster realizes that “they are at home in a way that I cannot be,” since “human localness is uterine, not geographical.” Once we’re born, we’re homeless, at the mercy of whatever culture into which we are thrust for a sense of belonging. There was a time, not too long ago, when the search for home led to heaven, up the ladder of being and into a world beyond suffering. Freud scorned that notion as a nursemaid’s lullaby, a distraction from the seriousness of our predicament — trapped between life and death, with only our flawed and fragile civilization to protect us from the worst of ourselves and of the universe. Whatever mutilations we inflict on ourselves, whatever anxieties we feel, however far we hold our noses above the ground, Freud insists, it is worth the losses. Without them, as Werner Herzog put it in the original German title of his film about the feral child Kaspar Hauser, it is every man for himself and God against all.

But that search can also lead downward. As civilization fails to provide sufficient balm against our loss, as its costs become unbearable for more and more of us, the world’s stink begins, by comparison, to smell like fresh air, and devolution begins to seem attractive — or at least attractive enough to inspire three books on the subject in the same publishing season, which, it is hard not to notice, was also an election season, one in which Americans cast off reason in favor of passion. In its terrifying aftermath, the yearning at the heart of these books for a return to instinct takes on a meaning, and an intensity, their authors could not have intended. Some people will step off the evolutionary ladder into a realm where they can ramble with dogs or goats or badgers, and claim that they’ve become more human in the bargain. But some may land where wild instincts rule. A dog, lest we forget, will gleefully rip your pet cat in two, a billy goat will fuck whatever doe he can get his hooves on, and a fox will eat all your chickens in a heartbeat and call it a perfect day. They will be remorseless for the pain they cause. But at least they can’t be accused of giving up on themselves or one another.

Primal nature may be out of reach, but it remains delicious, and nostalgia makes it even more so. This is perhaps hard to appreciate unless you spend lots of time with creatures who have better access to it than you — as these three authors set out to do, and as I do every day of my postolfactory life. I experience the loss of the sensory universe, even a fifth of it, as a grievous one, and the consolations promised by Freud — the protections afforded by self-restraint — are not automatic. They must be negotiated, and when the odds are overwhelming and the rewards meager, they can wither away or even, as we have lately seen, be surrendered voluntarily — not only by authors but by anyone pining for satisfactions long denied, for a wild world long gone.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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