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If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part One

Last month, my partner and I visited the San Diego Zoo, where our shtick was assigning various corporate titles to the lizards and snakes based on how they carried themselves within their glass cubicles. A favorite iguana squatted in the extreme upper corner of his enclosure and peered down at his feeder rodents with an expression of mixed insecurity and self-congratulation. It wasn't hard to picture him staring out at the audience, à la The Office, saying, "Yes, I would agree that my employees really look up to me."

Animals, like metaphors, become neutral vessels for our social fantasies. You don't have the guts to stand up to your boss in real life, but that humble snake-necked turtle, properly ventriloquized, speaks with the flippancy you always imagined was inside of you. Through such fantasies, we project ourselves onto nature so often that we teach our elementary schoolers the word for it: personification. But why, of all the species of metaphor out there, must we honor personification with its own label? Why not plantification or extractor fan–ification? In this series of posts, I want to share with you a few stories that ask these very questions.

In "If Wishes Were Horses," author Amy Bonnaffons imagines Atalanta Ranch, a colony on an island in Florida inhabited by women who have undergone an irreversible and little-understood hormone therapy. Its purpose? It turns women into horses. The story is narrated by a woman who decides to become one of Atalanta Ranch's next residents. Having grown restless and dissatisfied with the narrow range of human experience, she takes a daily injection ("discovered by Janus Belacek, a Hungarian doctor") that will slowly transform her body. As the process takes hold, the narrator finds her chronic ennui sharpening into a perfect animal fury. Meanwhile, Serena, the narrator's roommate and perhaps partner, attempts to become pregnant via IVF. The story begins by aligning their transformations, but as the roommates come closer to realizing their respective dreams, the two clash. Serena fills the living room with Amazon boxes—baby supplies—and an uncontrollable fury overtakes the narrator, who unleashes a blizzard of kicks and all but destroys the house with her budding hooves. "I'm going to leave now," she says, caught in her rage's aftermath. (The story was performed on This American Life. Hear the story here; to read a transcript, click "Share a clip." An expanded version will appear in Bonnaffons's forthcoming anthology, The Wrong Heaven.)

Here's my take: Bonnaffons's story reconfigures the relationship between humans and animals by pairing personification on the textual level with so-called "equinification" on the narrative level. At first, when the narrator is undecided over whether to become a horse herself, her interactions with the residents of Atalanta Ranch suggest a conventional understanding of the human-animal dichotomy. On her first visit to the ranch, the narrator sleeps with a fellow prospective resident, a woman-turned-horse appears in the inn's window:

Later, embarrassed, we turned away from each other. Just then I sensed movement behind the window. I got up stark naked and pulled aside the curtain. One of the horses was standing right outside, staring in with her dark liquid eyes. I felt the bed creak behind me then heard Kathy gasp. She saw it too. The horse gave a deep, slow nod. Then she turned and disappeared into the night.

Though the narrator's description of the horse is mechanical ("a deep, slow nod") its subtext brims with human emotion. That's personification, by definition. But wait—is that horse really a horse, or just a woman "trapped" deep within a horse's body? The way we answer reflects our literary orientation. If we think of the soul as a fixed entity living inside of us, the horse/​woman question dissolves into semantics: the critter in the window is a horse in the flesh and a woman in the soul. For now, that's how the narrator appears to think; in the horse's expression, she reads approval and introspection (not, say, the confusion or disinterest we might expect of a real horse witnessing lesbian sex). But this moment of interspecies/​interpersonal communication also anticipates the narrator's transformation across the story's arc. As the narrator comes to resemble the horse on the other side of the glass, Bonnaffons suggests that equinification encompasses her soul and body alike. In order to maintain this claim—that the residents of Atalanta Ranch truly become horses—Bonnaffons must guide her narrator to abandon the Cartesian framework expressed above. Conceptually speaking, she needs to tangle up her soul and body. How do you entangle such abstract concepts? Through language.

Like any writer who reads, Bonnaffons uses personification to convert animals into humans on the textual level. But on this story's narrative level, Bonnaffons's protagonist is converting her human body into a horse's, a transformation that has even stronger (anti)literary implications. Not only will the narrator lose her human body, but human thoughts, too, as Atalanta Ranch's disconcertingly frank pamphlet informs us: "Either you like the idea of shaking off your restraints and are willing to give up everything you know in the attempt to do so, or you're like most people, comforted by language, by clothing, by laws." Thus Bonnaffons positions language as a crutch, a "comfort" humans rely on because we are too fickle or materialistic to engage nature in its own terms. If language, rather than nature, is what produces the soul and body, then changes in our language effect changes in how we inhabit our physiology.

And vice-versa. That metafictional moment in the Atalanta Ranch pamphlet is an important catalyst: Bonnaffons uses the technology of equinification to speculate about what the world looks like from an animal's perspective. As the narrator transforms into a horse, her actions become aimless: "I was energized by aimless, volcanic fury." "I walked aimlessly." The point isn't that the narrator has lost her human discernment. On the contrary, such directionlessness liberates her. Certainly, the narrator's violence cuts her off from Serena and the human world, but the narrator also embraces the alternative language that begins to unfold within her equinified mind. In the final stage of her transformation, the narrator practices a mental poetry whose connection to nature rings truer, more "natural" than the wordy script of human thought:

My brain is not empty exactly. It's as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind. My rage has diminished, but I am neither contained nor calm. I feel many emotions now, but they don't quite fit the words I know. I would describe them mostly as variations of active receptivity, of alert acceptance. Somewhere soon, Serena will be teaching her children the words for things. This is a table. This is a chair. This is a horse. Meanwhile, my language is slowly departing, the words replaced by syllable and breath.

As personification encloses natural objects in the images and concepts we normally reserve for humans, "If Wishes Were Horses" attempts to encode a human consciousness, its rage and anxiety intact, into the embodied experience of a horse. Since Bonnaffons writes in language, it's necessarily only an attempt. In the universe of this story, we're led to believe that the narrator's consciousness hasn't been converted losslessly, but rather that it's adapted to her new body. As the pamphlet reads,

You will simultaneously be your human self and not be your human self when you become a horse. You will think the same thoughts, but in a horsey manner. Your personality will have the same attributes but horsily expressed. Your thoughts will take on a horsey cadence. Your feelings will pulse and throb with thick, horsey blood. We cannot guarantee that you will continue to inhabit your human identity in any recognizable way.

For some readers, the fact that Bonnaffons makes the horse's experience so palpable despite having "translated" her once-human-now-horse thoughts back into English might prove the salience of human language to repesent all sorts of alterities. I would maintain, however, that Bonnaffons places greatest emphasis on the narrator's self-conscious, postmodern anxiety about her transformation. Note how many qualifiers—"not empty exactly," "as though," "they don't quite," "I would describe"—appear in the above quote; such hedges are sparse elsewhere in the story. In Bonnaffons's ventriloquism, the narrator is able to reflect on the differences between herself as a horse and herself as a human, but if the changes the narrator described took place in "reality," she would lose not only her language, but also the language needed to describe her loss of language. In other words, there is no indelible "self" that transcends the horse narrator and the human narrator. That's how wide the gap is between human experience and animal experience.

It gets even more complicated. If we recognize the estrangement of Serena and the narrator as a metaphor for how language (as well as the actions that language rationalizes) restricts our social interaction, we can extract from "If Wishes Were Horses" a portable thesis about humanity and our fractured communities. The story wasn't really about horses and humans; it was about how we use the gestalten of personification and equinification (or generically, transformation) to reflect on humanity and our peculiar habits. This is the idea I was getting at with the reptiles in the zoo: animals and people may or may not "actually" be of the same kind, but by holding them at an ontological distance then inspecting their faces for traces of ours, we come to know ourselves as human(s).

We can project human personalities onto animal bodies because we recognize their mutual similarity; we find such comparisons amusing because we recognize their difference. As with any metaphor, personification's value comes from the tension between likeness and otherness. But what of this tension in the particular case of animals and humans—have we always looked at animals in this way? In my research on contemporary Korean nature poetry, I've been using similar conceptual language to look at how poets figure the relationship between humans and plants. As for humans and animals, let me defer to Cary Wolfe. This is from his 2009 PMLA review of an emergent genre of criticism called animal studies (thanks to Jon Kief for the reference):

Indeed, recent and emerging scholarship suggests a picture in which the idea of the animal that we have inherited from the Enlightenment and thinkers such as Descartes and Kant is better seen as marking a brief period (if the formative one for our prevailing intellectual, political, and juridical institutions) bookended by a pre- and posthumanism that think the human/animal distinction quite otherwise.

A diligent scholar, Wolfe deftly weds literary representations with philosophical discussions of humans and animals. His phrasing above might sound brisk, but in the body of his essay, Wolfe shows how humanism, a term we assocate with the promotion of human progress and ingenuity broadly, actually rests on a separation between humans and animals. Enlightenment writers (as Wolfe represents them) didn't just race toward an idealized version of humanity, but away from the danger that we could (again) become animals. Wolfe reminds us that humanism equals speciesism.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge to any speciesism is the scientific one: species distinctions are hazy at best and arbitrary in many cases, as scientific debate and the biological record alike attest. "If Wishes Were Horses" echoes the scientific argument against speciesism by inviting us to consider ourselves as horses and horses as people. However, Bonnaffons also extends the argument in a literary direction: she presents the notions of "a horse who is really a woman," "a woman who has become a horse," and so on as linguistic abstractions rather than valid natural categories. In this expanded context, the speciesist distinction between humans and animals becomes just one of the many binaries that cascade from the Cartesian division between soul and body. The centrality of personification in human language reflects the centrality of humans-writ-large in language-writ-larger.

I think Bonnaffons is an optimist. Since she sees that it'd be a special hell to have one's soul trapped within a horse's body, she has her Hungarian doctor devise a procedure that works on the soul as well as the body—or, if you'd prefer a determinist reading, the injection works on the physiology that generates the two. But what if the technology is brought to market ahead of thorough QC? In the next post in this series, we'll look at a story whose narrator wasn't content with looking at venemous reptiles and fierce carnivores through the glass of enclosure. He created a beast of his very own and miscalculated its ferocity.