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Maria Esther Maciel: In counterpoint to the mechanization of life

The acclaimed writer and researcher has completed a trilogy on the place of animals in contemporary society

Inês RabeloMaria Esther Maciel, UFMG professor and zooliterature and zoopoetics researcherInês Rabelo

In 2008 Maria Esther Maciel published the book O animal escrito: Um olhar sobre a zooliteratura contemporânea (The written animal: A look at contemporary zooliterature) (Lumme Editor), the first work to come out of her research on the “literary history of animals.” In 2016, the professor at the School of Arts at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) continued her reflections on the topic with Literatura e animalidade (Literature and animality) (Civilização Brasileira), and this year has returned to the subject once again in Animalidades: Zooliteratura e os limites do humano (Animalities: Zooliterature and the limits of the human) (Editora Instante). Maciel, who earned her master’s degree in Brazilian literature and a PhD in comparative literature from UFMG and completed postdoctoral research in cinema at the University of London, also edited the collection Pensar/escrever o animal: Ensaios de zoopoética e biopolítica (Thinking/writing the animal: Essays on zoopoetics and biopolitics) (Editora da UFSC, 2011), with texts by Brazilian and international scholars.

In this interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, the researcher and writer explains why she began to dedicate herself to zooliterature, discusses the intersections between this field of research and other areas of knowledge, and talks about how, in her studies on the subject, she “made the leap” from natural history and encyclopedic knowledge “toward the sphere of life, with all its ethical and political inflections.”

Could you define the concepts of zooliterature, zoopoetics, and animal studies?
Animal studies are a vast field of investigation that, over the last few decades, has been gaining ground in various parts of the world. They have an intersectional character, and embrace a variety of disciplines, such as zoology, ecology, ethology, philosophy, political science, anthropology, law, and arts and literature, around two main axes: one being a multifaceted approach to nonhuman animals and the other a focus on our complex and controversial relationships with them. Zooliterature and zoopoetics are aspects of this extensive area. The first, zooliterature, is a set of literary practices, or works, by an author, a country, a time, which emphasize an approach to animals, animality, and the relationships between humans and nonhumans. Zoopoetics concerns both the theoretical study of literary works about animals and the specific poetic production of an author that’s focused on the animalistic universe. My broader reflections on the question of animals are built on philosophical, biological, biopolitical, and ecological references. Zooliterature and zoopoetics help me to make more specific examinations of this issue in literary theory and in the analysis of narrative and poetic texts that talk about animals and the interactions between animality and humanity. I often say that zooliterature also enables an understanding of animals through the lens of our senses, empathy, and imagination, since the poetic and fictional exercise of literature can lead us to cross the boundaries between species and recognize the animality within us.

What are the intersections between zooliterature and areas of knowledge such as anthropology, philosophy, biology, zoology, sociology, and the arts?
The very prefix “zoo” in the word zooliterature already indicates an incursion into other spheres of knowledge, coming from the intersections that cut across animal studies. The biological sciences, especially zoology and ethology, offer zooliterature scholars important information about the characteristics, behaviors, abilities, emotions, and ways of life of different species, while the other areas in the humanities that you mentioned illuminate the ethical, political, and aesthetic dimensions related to the animal world, which have repercussions on literature.

Animals have been marginalized in the hierarchy of living beings, associated with machines, and submitted to every kind of exploitation and atrocity

How and when did you become interested in this subject, and how has it been received in the academic world?
This subject has always been on the horizon for me, but it was only in 2007 that I began to dedicate myself to it more completely. This happened during my previous research into inventories, collections, and encyclopedias in literature and the arts, when I ended up in ancient nature encyclopedias and medieval bestiaries. When I read History of Animals, by Aristotle [384–322 BCE], the zoological passages from Natural History, by Pliny the Elder [23–79 CE], and The Etymologies, by Saint Isidore of Seville [560–636], I entered the field of animals. The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges [1899–1986], and other Latin American bestiaries soon followed. While at the beginning my focus was on these authors’ collections of extant and fantastic animals, I later focused on different literary, ethical, and cultural records of what I called “zoocollections.” Reading two essays by Montaigne [1533–1592] on animals and, later, the works of J. M. Coetzee, Elisabeth de Fontenay, Jacques Derrida [1930–2004], and Armelle Bras-Chopard was also fundamental. These texts led me to “make the leap” from natural history and encyclopedic knowledge to the domain of life, with all its ethical and political implications. From that point on, my research broadened over several phases. During these years, I have written three books of essays on the subject and one fiction book completely focused on animals and plants, Pequena enciclopédia de seres comuns [A little encyclopedia of common beings] [Editora Todavia, 2021]. As for reception within the academic world, my research has been well received since the beginning. I received a scholarship from CNPq [the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] and I also had support from the Institute for Advanced Transdisciplinary Studies [IEAT] at UFMG, where I was a resident researcher. If there was some initial resistance from colleagues in the academic sphere, it gradually began to cool off. Today, I’m seeing a growing interest in zooliterary studies in Brazil, mainly in conjunction with ecocriticism. Ultimately, we live in a time marked not only by environmental catastrophes and impressive discoveries in the field of animal behavior research, but also by the emergence of alternative thinking, such as Amerindian perspectivism.

In Animalidades: Zooliteratura e os limites do humano you dedicate chapters to Machado de Assis [1839–1908], Clarice Lispector [1920–1977], Hilda Hilst [1930–2004], and Carlos Drummond de Andrade [1902–1987]. Why did you select these writers?
Because this is an extensive study, with a huge repertoire of authors, I tried to address those who were most dedicated to this zooliterary world, in harmony with the topics covered in the book. In my previous books, I’ve dealt with names such as Borges, Coetzee, Marianne Moore [1887–1972], Eva Hornung, Jacques Roubaud, João Guimarães Rosa [1908–1967], and Graciliano Ramos [1892–1953]. Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector also figured prominently in Literatura e animalidade, but from other perspectives. In the case of Animalidades, which is more focused on the nonhuman “selves” present in poems and narratives, with an emphasis on dogs, both de Assis and Lispector offered me many thought-provoking ideas for dealing with this motif. The Japanese writer Yoko Tawada was another important author in my thinking, about what I call “zoo(auto)biography.” Hilda Hilst is in Clarice’s chapter thanks to her dissenting affinities with Clarice’s work. And Drummond, one of the first Brazilian authors to deal with animals from an ecological perspective, was essential so that, in the last chapter, I could enter into the poetics of nature and focus on contemporary authors whose work is in dialogue with Amerindian cultures.

When citing the writer Marguerite Yourcenar [1903–1987], you suggest an association between mistreatment or the practice of violence against animals and the marginalization and exploitation of groups of humans. Could you talk about that?
As a result of the split between humanity and animality effected by anthropocentric thinking and the consequent demarcation of the so-called “properties of man,” such as reason, language, and the awareness of death, animals were overtly marginalized in the hierarchy of living beings, associated with machines, and subjected to every kind of exploitation and atrocity. This contributed not only to legitimizing acts of cruelty against animals, but also to establishing hierarchies and practices of violence in relationships between certain humans and other humans considered “inferior” on the social scale. Montaigne had earlier highlighted this in one of his essays, when he spoke of the imprisonment and exploitation of animals as a human prerogative for the enslavement of people whose lives are considered less important than others. This biopolitical dimension also exists in the association Michel Foucault [1926–1984] made between the creation of zoos and prisons and asylums. In the book Literatura e animalidade, I sought to explore this relationship, especially when dealing with Coetzee’s work. Yourcenar approached the topic in a very incisive way in her 1981 essay Para onde vai a alma dos animais (Where the souls of animals go). She covers the history of animal suffering from the beginnings of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the present day and highlights the hellish condition of animals that are condemned to being mass-produced products. Then, she associates this suffering with that of humans exploited and subjected to violence by the power of their fellow man.

When referring to the death of American singer Laurie Anderson’s dog Lolabelle and mentioning the association between this event and the deaths of the artist’s mother and her companion Lou Reed [1942–2013], you say that the death of a beloved dog tends to resurface other deaths. How does dealing with the loss of animals we’re close to prepare us for facing the deaths of humans we love?
The loss of pets not only prepares us to face the deaths of humans we love, but it also brings to light the deaths that have already occurred within our loving, family circle. When I wrote this chapter, in which I talk about Lolabelle’s death, I, too, was mourning the loss of my beloved 15-year-old dog Lalinha. My husband had died three years earlier, and my mother was to die three years later. The film [Heart of a Dog, 2015] that Laurie Anderson made about her dog, dedicated to Lou Reed, still moves me to this day. The loss of my canine friend led me to develop the phase in my study titled “Cães literários” [Literary dogs], which explains the presence of so many dogs in the book Animalidades. Moreover, the studies of the American researcher Marjorie Garber [a professor at Harvard University who works in literature, arts, gender, and sexuality] and the French journalist Roger Grenier [1919–2017] contributed to my reflections on the subject of dog deaths.

Laurie Anderson – Heart of a Dog (2015) / Reproduced from YoutubeOn this and the facing pages, scenes from the film Heart of a Dog (2015), directed by Laurie AndersonLaurie Anderson – Heart of a Dog (2015) / Reproduced from Youtube

Guimarães Rosa seemed to have a special appreciation for the world of zoos. Is there a contradiction between loving animals but being willing to observe them in confined spaces?
Rosa was, without a doubt, the greatest “animalist” in Brazilian literature. Rural, domestic, and wild animals, of different species, appear in his literature, in varied situations. I don’t think his relationship with the zoo as an institution was one of appreciation. He visited zoos in various cities around the world to observe the animals and write about them, as an exercise in compassion. It wasn’t for mere entertainment. In excerpts from the Zoo series, from the book Ave, Palavra [Bird, word], we can see a mixture of curiosity, astonishment, tenderness, and empathy towards the dozens of species he described, and his constant attention to the behavioral characteristics of each of the animals he encountered at these zoos. Other writers did this — mainly as a form of criticism of confinement practices — such as Patricia Highsmith [1921–1995], José Emilio Pacheco [1939–2014], and Ted Hughes [1930–1998]. The writer Yoko Tawada, who wrote Memoirs of a Polar Bear [Editora Todavia, 2019] and delved into the perverse reality of zoos, also had direct experience with these spaces in Germany, so she could see the sad lives of confined animals with her own eyes. Rosa liked to take deep dives into many of the situations he brought into his writing and even accompanied cowboys on long trips through the interior of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso States, to record both human and nonhuman lives. He paid special attention to animals in these pieces, treating them as subjects, as individuals with personality and knowledge about life.

Is zooliterature’s aim to draw attention to the urgent need to react to environmental catastrophes and species extinction?
Yes. Zooliterature, amplified by its intersections with ecocriticism, the contributions of Amerindian perspectivism, and recent discussions regarding the concept of the Anthropocene, draws our attention — more than ever — to the destruction of forests, the disappearance of countless animal and plant species, the decimation of original peoples, the poisoning of rivers, and the terrible conditions for animals in industrial poultry production and other factory farms, among other problems that have turned our planet into a desolate land. The emergence of indigenous literature has also been very important in expanding what we can call zoo(eco)literature.

Is looking at animals, in a way, a counterpoint to the era we live in, which is so marked and dominated by technology?
Not just looking at them, but also exchanging glances with them, seeing these animals without invading their intimate spaces or ignoring their unique differences. In this way, we can confront, to whatever extent possible, the mechanization of life.