Being a Beast is one of the oddest and most beautiful books I’ve read this summer. It’s by Charles Foster, an Oxford fellow and veterinarian with an interest in acupuncture, and it tells the story of his attempt to live as various animals.
Gimmicky though it may sound, Foster’s endeavor is an earnest one. Over the course of the book, Foster tries to live like a swift by parachuting through the air (“Huh,” you say); like a red deer by fleeing from hounds (“…Huh.”); like an urban fox by sleeping in a backyard in London’s East End and eating garbage (“…Huh?”); and like a badger by living in a hole in a hill with his 8-year-old son and eating earthworms (“Huh.”)
Foster is vague on what, exactly, drives him to go to such lengths to live as an animal. He gestures at the idea that doing so is a universal human drive on the basis of Adam naming the animals in Genesis, and he mentions “the conviction that they [wild animals] knew something that I didn’t and that I, for unexamined reasons, needed to know.”
The clearest examination of these reasons comes in the otter chapter, when Foster, depressed at the winter weather, finds himself lacking the drive to continue his project. It’s not the physical discomfort of the cold that’s getting to him — he deals with plenty of other discomfort over the course of the book — it’s his existential despair at winter itself and the apparent deadness of the land. (And anyway, he doesn’t particularly like otters, which he thinks of as mindless killing machines on speed.)
The passage that ensues is a thoughtful analysis of how radical empathy can create a sense of self — and how depression erodes that sense:
Knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering ever more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them — or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed. It’s like sitting in the Bodleian Library, besieged by email, my brain bruised to spam and uselessness by the attrition of all the daily littlenesses. The cold of the moor does that to me, too. The littlenesses have to stop before my brain can come out of spasm and grasp things again. The sun has to come back before there’s any chance of empathy, or even half-decent observation, on the riverbank. …
A depressed shaman, hunter, or naturalist can’t work at all. A gray soul, apparently, can’t penetrate that thin veil between the species. I don’t understand the metaphysics. But it seems that you have be sufficiently I to be another, and depression erodes the I below the critical point. Perhaps, for a human, being an animal is just an extreme mode of empathy — no different in kind from what you need to be a decent lover or father or colleague. When you’re depressed, you might simply be nursing that injured I too obsessively to have the energy or attention necessary for empathy. Our nursing strategies are radically misconceived. They all tend to be based on the disastrous misconception that if you give your self away there will be less of you. In fact, of course (as we know when the sun shines) the very opposite is true.
Foster’s belief that by living as an animal he is exercising his ability to empathize, and that by empathizing he is developing his ability to live as himself, is the most fascinating part of Being a Beast to me. It suggests that living as an animal is, fundamentally, an attempt to live more fully as a human.