Professor’s curiosity sparks literary course on animal life and consciousness

Jonathan Kramnick and one of his four dogs.
Jonathan Kramnick and one of his four dogs.

It was with the proverbial curiosity of a cat that Yale professor Jonathan Kramnick designed his cross-disciplinary undergraduate course “Animals in Literature and Theory,” which explores the representation of animal life and consciousness in works of literature.

Teaching a course with a focus on animals was an opportunity to be more present and relevant to his students’ interests and to their everyday world, says Kramnick, the Maynard Mack Professor of English. It was also a way to connect with intellectual and ethical considerations and passions in Kramnick’s own life — one that he shares with a menagerie of animals, including his four dogs, one of which is a frequent, and very popular, visitor to his classes.

This course also fuels Kramnick’s long-standing curiosity in cross-disciplinary relationships between literary studies and other disciplines of knowledge — particularly philosophy and the cognitive sciences.

To prepare to teach this course, Kramnick spent a summer reading texts in the various disciplines that address the questions of animals, animal life, animal cognition, and animal ethics. “These works are not in my own field, so I studied people who study these topics to gain an insight into this body of work. I further explored things that I knew — and researched things that I wanted to know more about.”

A specialist on the 18th century, Kramnick focuses most of his teaching on literary and philosophical texts from 1660-1800. “There’s something wonderful about exciting students about older works and about the particular corner of the world that I spend most of my time inhabiting.”

The literary works that Kramnick chose for “Animals in Literature and Theory” date from antiquity to the present. Students read fiction, poetry, philosophy, and critical theory, and discuss animal sentience and experience, ethics, animal fables, the history of human and animal relations, and the representation of animal life in the visual arts, among other topics.

One of the texts that Kramnick assigned to his students to illustrate the concept of animal consciousness was Virginia Woolf’s novel “Flush,” which is a fictionalized biography of 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barret Browning’s dog, Flush. “It is a story that attempts at several times to give you the Flush point of view — or point of nose, as it were,” says Kramnick.

In the book, Woolf describes a carriage ride that the Brownings and Flush take in Italy. She begins from Browning’s point of view — a depiction of a beautiful countryside as you pass through it, and portrays how humans experience beauty and landscape, which is fundamentally through the eyes. When they depart from the carriage, Woolf changes point of view to Browning’s dog Flush, and she also switches sensory modality from the eyes to the nose. “The experience of beauty moves from a visual interface to an olfactory interface. Woolf imagines what it would be like to smell beauty. She is not trying to represent what it would be like to be a dog but she is giving you a vividly rendered literary approximation of what she understands the olfactory experience of beauty to be like from the canine point of view,” says Kramnick.

Among the questions that Kramnick asks students to consider in the course are: What are our ethical obligations to the other animals, and how should their interests constrain and shape our behavior? How do poetry and fiction attempt to represent the experience of animals by asking us to inhabit their sensations, or emotions, or thoughts? What role do animals play in our aesthetic, political, and scientific worlds?

One of the greatest mysteries about animals is: What is the life experience like for creatures that are so different from us?” says Kramnick, who believes that one way to approach if not to bridge that gap is through literature. “Literature can attempt to put you in the mind of someone else in both very general and in some sharp and specific ways by giving you access to something that is by nature in real life always at a remove. Literature is really the only thing that can do that.”

Studying how animals are represented in literature alongside how they have been studied by other disciplines also expands our understanding of their cognitive capacities — which are often greatly underestimated because we are predisposed to think that animals are simpler than they really are, says Kramnick. “If you decenter yourself from the human perspective, where you are always trying to imagine what makes us more special than non-human animals, and appreciate what they do in their own terms, animals have an incredible range of capacities and intelligences — varying from species to species or even within species.”

One concept that provided the Yale scholar with significant insight into animals was that of the umwelt, or “self-world” — a term invented in the early twentieth century by Jakob von Uexküll, who used it to describe how experience is radically different based on the perceptual organization of the animal and the animal’s relationship to the environment.

Kramnick posing with his pet bunny and pet cat.
Kramnick with more of his “menagerie of animals.”

Kramnick says that he was struck by how central this idea of an umwelt was in contemporary work on animal cognition, perception, and experience. “Acknowledging that an animal is an individual with autonomy is important to understanding how it experiences the world differently from the way that we do. The world of any given animal is not going to be the same world that we or another species inhabits. It is simply going to be what the animal needs from its environment and the way the animal moves through, interacts with, and changes its environment to suit its own purpose. All different life forms have umwelten that are particular to them based on what pieces of the world they pick up on,” adds Kramnick.

Kramnick’s goal for this course — which he is currently teaching for the second time — is to “engage brilliant undergraduates” to consider how important and complicated the questions around the relationships between human and non-human animals are for our knowledge of the natural world and to better understand our obligations to non-human animals — “the kind of tough ethical questions that they pose for us and our own behavior.”

In addition, says Kramnick, he wants students to become aware of “the centrality of non-human animal life to the cultural imagination — to literature, the arts, philosophy, and human self-understanding across time.”

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324