There’s an astonishing sonnet by Rilke, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos,” which commands us to stare hard at a broken Greek statue. As we look, we perceive that the stone is so beautifully worked it’s lambent. Apollo comes to immortal life beneath our eyes; more, his light seems to free itself from the finitude of the stonework, and become boundless as a star, not just filling the space about it, but beaming back at us, the watcher, until da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht: There is no place that does not see you. Thus the point of the poem is not the lovely thing looked at, but the person looking; and the poem finishes, bluntly, with Du mußt dein Leben ändern. You must change your life.
Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is astonishing in the same way. It chronicles Foster’s attempts to cross the species divide: to act, live, think, be like a fox or an otter. That might seem a quaint, or even an insane project. But he pulls it off – or at least (as he says again and again, in his charming, self-deprecating way) he does not absolutely fail at all points. And that leaves the reader of Being a Beast staring hard at a wonder which he has never glimpsed before, but can’t deny, and can’t put aside once he’s seen: the wonder of the beasts.
The non-human animals who share this planet with us use it, inhabit it and perceive it in ways that are extremely different from ours. There is a majesty and seriousness in the way they exist. Foster’s “grope at extreme otherness” forces his reader to see that glory as never before, and even, at one remove, to share it.
And that changes us. As the epigram to Being a Beast says, “To ask ‘What is an animal?’ … is to ask ‘What is a human?’” And to give some account of what animals are, is to give some account of what humans have to be. The glory peers back at you. Da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht: There is no angle from which you are not seen. Once you’ve admitted the overwhelming beauty of animals, their strangeness, and vividness, and importance, it’s not tolerable to go on being quite the same human.
Seeing the beasts from within changes you; and thus Being a Beast is the sort of book that changes your life – not mine, perhaps; I am a peculiarly hard sell; we’ll come to that in a moment. But Beast is probably the most important book you and I will read in many a long year.
Foster changes us, to begin with, by what he makes us know.
I suppose we’re all vaguely aware that there are things called air-currents. I, for one, have never really thought about them. But Foster has; he makes us grasp that they form a whole dimension of existence on our planet, a perpetual realm of irresistible movement, with its own flora and fauna, and its own predators, of which the most magnificent is the common swift.
The air crawls. Up there, like plankton, there are live things drifting in the wind; aphids, other bugs, spiders, beetles. An aphid might be sucked from a grass stem in an English wood, up a gurgling plughole in the air, across the Pyrenees and the Strait of Gibraltar, and into the crop of a Zitting Cisticola at an oasis in Mauritania.
This is heady prose. We don’t need to know that a Zitting Cisticola is usually known as the streaked fantail warbler, or to be able to picture Mauritanian oasis, to get drunk.
But it doesn’t stay a matter of baroque imagination. Foster being Foster, we don’t merely describe air-currents, or imagine them. He gets outside the usual human role and experiences the air, as it might be experienced by that supremely aerial creature, the swift. He was walking through Oxford when
the air above a wood by the road exploded in black, screeching sparks. The swifts were among a new hatch rising from the treetops… plowing through, jerking openmouthed heads from side to side to hit the areas of deepest density. I … ran across the road, and scrambled up a tree as high as I could get…. I swayed in a fork just below the top and pushed my head out into the killing zone .... I saw a tongue, squat, gray, and dry; I saw myself, pinched and saucer-eyed. I felt the cool electric grace of a downstroke on my face.
That tongue and the electricity belong to a swift.
And what is a swift? An egg hatched over Foster’s head in Oxford – he happens to have a nest of the things in his house – “swelled like a boil” for six weeks, then flew off to the Congo. Four years later, it returns to breed (as it will do perhaps twenty times), without having landed, or touched anything: nothing but air and its prey. It is utterly a creature of the air, and of speed. It goes hurtling, at nearly fifty meters a second, through the tides and flocks of the upper air, six kilometers above the ground, precisely selecting one rushing individual insect from another, snapping it up, soaring on; and it achieves this five thousand times a day, flying a hundred kilometers. It can distinguish notes two-millionths of a second apart – we can manage about two-hundredths – so that Foster argues it’s “getting in one second” three hours’ worth of human experience. A swift will live two decades, but crams hundreds of thousands of years’ of living into that space.
Foster feels almost idolatrous reverence for the bird. There’s no possibility of becoming one (“I might as well try to be God”), so his devotion takes the secondary form of pilgrimage. What are swifts, really? They are “alpha and omega. When they left, I couldn’t bear it,” and for years he obsessively follows their route south, through Picardy and Andalusia to Africa, “a gnat’s breath from psychosis.”
Which raises the question: what is Charles Foster, really? One answer, which he gives himself, is: a wolf. His British boarding school (“brazen enough to have compulsory lessons in laissez-faire economics”) taught him, he says, to be an apex predator; so did his university (Cambridge: until the meek make “a serious bid” to inherit the earth, say the dons, “trample all over them”). He is a London barrister and an Oxford don – apexes of another sort – brought up to hunt. He once had a column in the Sporting Times. “My name is in gold-embossed Game Books in some nice country houses.” His account of deer-stalking in Scotland is the best thing in this whole excellent book: a tour de force of poetry, ironic wit and social satire. When Foster wriggles through the heather, the reader stops breathing with excitement; when the bullet fires and the red deer falls, the reader jumps.
Foster has put down his guns and taken up his tofu, not because he thinks deer-stalking is wrong. It can’t be; it is necessary; red deer have no predators in the British Isles except wolves, which are extinct; their number must be controlled, so man must play at wolf. But although it is necessary, it is tragic. He ends up after a hunt with “an animal that’s better than me, except that it’s dead.”
It is not the connection with beasts that he wants. He wants the opposite of killing them. Like all converts, he has zeal, he is inclined to go to extremes. He is not content with knowledge – although as we have seen that his knowledge is dazzling – nor with experiencing them from outside – although as we have seen that he dazzles us with that, too. Foster wants to be a beast, to break across the frontier between species, to know animal life from within.
Conversion stands things on their heads. Perhaps it is easier for a man whose education was, by his own account, beastly, to become a beast in a different way.
A very different way. Foster and his eight-year-old son dig a badger sett, crawl into it, and live there, underground, for weeks. They go about on all fours, like badgers; they try to read the wood with their noses, rather than their eyes; they mark their territory as badgers do, with their own dung; they eat what badgers eat, which is the earthworms that fall into their hole.
Worms from Chablis have a long, mineral finish. Worms from Picardy are musty; they taste of decay and splintered wood. Worms from the high Kent Weald are fresh and uncomplicated
– and so forth; but even the splendid joke of writing wine-tasting notes for earthworms doesn’t blunt the extreme and appalling oddness of what the Fosters are up to.
And it works: at least to the extent that Charles starts, not just living, but thinking as a badger must (or might, or could) think. “Do badgers use adjectives?” He begins (he believes) to understand badgerese.
Again: he becomes a fox, not a pretty fox in a shire, but an urban fox, in London. Foster has grown to hate the East End, full, as it is now, “of shrill, carefully unshaven meterosexuals eating pine nuts.” Now he experiences it in a different way: not as a leftwing haut bourgeois contemptuous of gentrification, but as a nocturnal scavenger, going through rubbish bags to find pizza scraps, trying (and failing) to kill voles with vulpine leaps, spending the day lying hidden in a den in his own excrement.
Again: he becomes an otter, wriggling up frigid Devon rivers, attempting to snatch live fish in his teeth – although as a matter of fact he hates otters, frenetic killing-machines as he finds them, asleep for eighteen hours then amok for six, dashing up and down their waters burning fearful amounts of energy so they can slaughter and consume a fifth of their own weight every day and do it all again, until death takes these makers of death and they’re washed out to sea. But even his otter-shamanism works, at least to the extent that Foster begins to sense whole rivers through his cheeks, which have grown imaginary sensor-whiskers: otterized.
What is gained by these profound adventures? I mean, apart from showing us some outrageous physical possibilities – things a man can do if he is brave enough, and dogged, and rugged, and unsqueamish?
For Foster, what is gained is spiritual solace. He was sickened by London, and the foxes “give him back” the city. He is wearied by too much movement, by never belonging anywhere: badgers cure that, since they are altogether part of the local land. If he can transform into a functioning beast, he can be confident about human autonomy in general. “That these things should be a comfort is strange:” but they do. They change his life.
So is my life changed? A fair question.
I began reading Being a Beast in a hut in the temperate rainforest of the American Northwest, luxurious by beast-Foster’s standards, God knows, although without water or power. I finished it a week later on the highveldt of Africa. In the interval, I spotted scarlet parrots, raccoons, a moose, a leopard shark (ten feet below me), kudus, tremendous albatrosses, zebras, snakes (a Baja ratsnake, Bogertophis rosaliæ, not dangerous to me, but closer than I liked), wildebeests, bears, giraffes and a minke whale. I’m sitting now in my house in the Transvaal, which has, on the roof, a colony of hadida ibises, birds almost exactly like puppies as to size, temperament and (as I type) noise.
I’ve enjoyed all these critters, but it would never occur to me to want to share their separate existence. Even the delightful Foster couldn’t persuade me to want it. Why? I suggest the quick answer is religious attitude.
It is preposterous to regard Being a Beast as a piece of “nature-writing” – or, if so, it’s that only incidentally. Beast is a religious book, and (for all its lightness of touch, its friendly wit, comedy, flippancy, breeziness) an intensely earnest one.
Foster scorns Darwinian reductionism: the idea – which, as he points out, Darwin did not share – that’s there’s nothing but matter. He does not doubt consciousness, “the essential I that inhabits my body.” (“It sounds suspiciously as if I’m talking about my soul.”) And he’s troubled by the metaphysical predicament of being conscious. Everything shouts back at him “I and not you.”
The universe I occupy is a creature of my head. It is wholly unique to me. The process of intimacy is the process of becoming better at inviting others in to have a look around. The sensation of loneliness is the crushing acknowledgement that…no one will be able to see very much.
The idea is movingly and precisely put; and from it arises the whole practical experiment of Being a Beast. “If I can bond with a swift, I may well be able to bond with my children.” The animals bring “salvation” by allowing him out of his self. The swifts are “high-priestly,” they “are doing something on our behalf. Their motion is redemptive.”
This idea is so wisely stated that is it worth arguing with.
Why must our extreme individuality be a burden to us? An even more original writer than Foster, G.K. Chesterton, argued that the solitude of each human mind need not be experienced as loneliness or alienation. If a man is tormented about the contents of his mind being inaccessible to other minds, he will naturally brood on those contents:
a man who thinks a great deal about himself will try to be many-sided.... Thinking about himself will lead to trying to be the universe; trying to be the universe will lead to ceasing to be anything.
(Which might, perhaps, be reads as a gentle admonition to Charles Foster.)
If, on the other hand, a man is sensible enough to think only about the universe; he will think about it in his own individual way. He will keep virgin the secret of God; he will see the grass as no other man can see it, and look at a sun that no man has ever known.
The sly move here is monotheism. If there is a God, God shares the inside of my mind, as well as the inner lives of animals (whatever they are like); existential loneliness never gets underway. Through his adventures with beastliness, Foster creates, piecemeal, this sense of the thou looking in at the I. “The woods are full of slinking ‘thous’!” The final words of his book affirms a sort of faith: the sort of love he has for the manifold thou of nature “is necessarily reciprocal:” the thou must love him back. Perhaps so; but the argument seems incomplete: it aches for its next term!
That said, this is not a book that seems incomplete. Especially, it is emotionally whole; and possibly its greatest achievement is giving the reader a rapture very few writers can even hope to deliver.
Flaubert – it’s a measure of Being a Beast that we can only compare it to the very greatest art, to Flaubert or Rilke – Gustave Flaubert wrote a novel, or long prose poem, about St. Antony. Antony was the first Western hermit: the first Westerner to try to exit human society, and experience the whole cosmos on his own. Most of La Tentation de saint Antoine is about the hermit’s failure, his suffering, weakness, grief, ennui, bewilderment. But in the end, Antony has his reward. He looks and looks, and at last can cry j’ai vu naître la vie, j’ai vu le mouvement commencer.
O bliss! bliss! I have seen the birth of life; I have seen the beginning of motion. The blood beats so strongly in my veins that it seems about to burst them. I feel a longing to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. I would like to have wings, a tortoise-shell…to spread myself everywhere, to be in everything…to descend to the very depths of matter.
Much of the time, Foster’s longing to bellow, fly, howl, is just good fun. But he ends by showing us something of the birth of life, the beginning of motion (those hundreds of centuries of the swift!), and what remains with us from Being a Beast is ecstasy.