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Being a Beast

Charles Foster

Pretending to be other creatures is a very human game. "Beyond the entertainment afforded by the efforts of the authors, is there much to learn here?"

Being a Beast by Charles Foster

GoatMan: How I took a holiday from being human by Thomas Thwaites

WHO hasn’t wondered what life would be like as a (non-human) animal – flying, leaping, burrowing and doing all manner of everyday things that feral animals do? Such conjectures are universal. But who would actually go so far as to attempt to “become” a specific animal? Two new books, GoatMan and Being a Beast, offer engaging answers to this last question, even if they never quite manage to get to grips with the substance of what it is like to be another kind of creature.

Both volumes veer into the territory of the classic essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel, who asked in 1974 "What is it like to be a bat?" He concluded that the core of the problem was consciousness. In the end, the consciousness of the bat would be inaccessible to us, no matter what measures we took to put ourselves in its place.

"It will not help," he writes, "to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic." Such measures would only enable one to behave as a bat seems to behave; what it is to be a bat would be another matter altogether.

These books take a different view - or at least try to sidestep the problem. Recounting how, after winning a grant from the Wellcome Trust, he prepared to live like a goat, Thwaites is childishly defiant: "Well screw you, Nagel! I’m going to try anyway." Meanwhile Foster - a traveller who sees himself in a tradition of nature writing - takes on some of the behaviours of badgers, urban foxes, otters, red deer and swifts. He takes Nagel's suggestion for a new phenomenology to describe animal worlds as a cue for poesy or a vague reorientation of language.

The projects described by each writer consist of fairly limited attempts to behave like certain animals. In terms of value for money, then, the reader can choose: at roughly the same length, one book reveals very little about one species, the other reveals very little about five species.

Foster's approach is, in some ways, allied to recent work in animal studies – a burgeoning field in the humanities - in the way it takes a tissue of human perspectives as its starting point and tries to transcend them. Foster camps out in a badger sett in Wales with his 8-year-old son, and prostrates himself in east London so as to gain a fox's-eye view. Following an introductory chapter, the book is organised sequentially around highly personalised discussions of his five chosen species.

Thwaites's approach in GoatMan (out in May) is more focused. Originally wanting to live as an elephant, he takes the advice of a Scandinavian shaman and tries to 'become' a goat. His chapters are devoted to Soul, Mind, Body, Guts and Goat Life.

Despite the liberal use of irony and bathos, as well as a generally jokey tone in both books, Thwaites’s descriptions of his consultations with experts do threaten to illuminate the world of a non-human animal. In particular, his attempts - and initial failures - to replicate goat physiology are probably the most rewarding passages of either book.

Blood will out

Still, the reader is left wondering whether, beyond the entertainment afforded by the efforts of the authors, there is much to learn here. After the elaborate build-up in GoatMan, not to mention the enticing cover image – like the book, both comical and intriguing – it is disappointing that Thwaites seems to spend so little time among his chosen species. (He does, however, find a way to eat grass.) Foster, by contrast, has a friend bring meals to him in the badger sett.

Inevitably, the reader is going to feel short-changed. It is as if both of these projects had involved the authors “becoming” me and, out of all my characteristics, had chosen drinking tea as more representative than my enduring the Northern Line, suffering athlete’s foot, carrying the consequences of an inability to afford a dental bridge, etc.

Nevertheless, we can now confirm who would go so far as to try to find out what it is like to be a non-human animal – and that is the gentleman explorer, alive and kicking with his gentility intact.

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