Looking at animals

I’m reading John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals’. He claims that animals look at their environment in response to cues and are only in fear and uncertainty when the relevant cues are visible. When a human looks at an animal it not only sees the gaze of the animal but reflexively sees themselves as through the eyes of the beast. In addition to this there is a complex layer of cultural understanding and supposition that shapes and modifies the gaze of the human. Berger claims that humans are the loneliest of species, due in part to their capacity for reflexivity, their awareness of lack of knowledge and constant uncertainty. “Whereas in animals fear is a response to a signal, in men it is endemic’. When human meets human there is always a complex and uncertain process of interpretation, imputation of meaning, and negotiation. When human meets animal there are elements of this process but much more circumscribed, much less complex and with a limited range of possibilities.

In some cases (pets would be a paradigmatic case) animals can offer a quality of companionship not available from other human beings. They are faithful, loyal, non judgemental, non threatening, offer a certainty and constancy that does not require the dance of compromise and accommodation demanded of human relationships. This is illustrated by the example of Christopher in Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.

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