A Conversation with Thalia Field, author of Experimental Animals
As you may know, when I started managing the Nonhuman Rights Project’s social media pages in the summer of 2013, I was a grad student in literature at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Little did I know, volunteering with the NhRP would be so interesting to me—this in the six months or so before we first filed suit—that I’d ultimately decide to forgo the career path of the literary academic and join the NhRP full time.
That said, I’m no less inspired by the power of literature to promote and effect social change, which is why I was thrilled when the editors at Solid Objects, a publisher of fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction based in New York City, wrote to let us know they wanted to host a benefit for the NhRP and the Natural Resources Defense Council featuring readings by Thalia Field, Julie Carr, Karen Joy Fowler, Miranda Mellis, Laura Mullen, and Jim Shepard—writers who are deeply engaged with the most pressing social and political issues of our time. This unique bringing together of artists and activists (and artist-activists) will take place next Wednesday, Jan. 18, at The Kitchen in New York City. Please join us if you can!
We at the NhRP are looking forward to it—especially after we read Thalia Field‘s new book, Experimental Animals, a “reality fiction” that explores the fraught relationship between 19th-century French vivisector Claude Bernard and his wife Fanny, who came to oppose his research (visit this page for a blog post by NhRP President Steven M. Wise that discusses Claude Bernard’s work in the context of the suffering Hercules and Leo endured as research subjects at Stony Brook University). A vivifying collage of Fanny’s voice, Claude’s journal entries, letters by prominent anti-vivisectionists, found photos, and more, the book provides a compelling framework for thinking about the long history of the fight for nonhuman rights and the role that individual activists have played, and continue to play, in it. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Thalia via email. Here is our conversation:
Thalia Field: Experimental Animals was necessary for me to research and write because I wanted to explore how we’ve ended up so disastrously disconnected from the suffering we are imposing on the living world. I discovered that the crisis of how humans have separated from the rest of the animals, instrumentalizing them (and thereby our own values), has clear-cut historic roots. Our animal crisis has been in the making for a long time. Through legislative, philosophical, and scientific changes, we have lost touch with how to value and respect our world and all who live in it, except through extremely utilitarian terms. Our excessive love of pets continues to cover up the industrialized cruelty to the same animals—and many others—whether through scientific, agricultural, or ecological devastation. My hope is that through new forms of storytelling, through exploring the problem through a number of approaches, writers and artists can invest narratives that are more interdependent, less human-centric. Claude and Fanny Bernard represent, in their dysfunctional marriage and separation, the controversies surrounding vivisection and animal abuse in 19th-century Paris. Their drama became the wider societal drama of scientists, artists, philosophers, and activists—waged over living animals in pain. That the animal laboratory (as well as other sites of animal cruelty) is so natural to us now, and the pain so hidden, is something I wanted the reader to see through the historical lens of a time when it wasn’t.
LC: The writing, I want to say, is stunning: that’s the word that kept recurring to me as I read. And when I asked myself, “why that word?” I thought of the pared-down, exacting beauty of your prose in general, and Fanny’s voice in particular, but also how often it made me feel dazed—as if I had just been delivered a blow without having seen it coming, rendered immobile the same way one of Bernard’s countless animal subjects would have been (“Sliding along the spine of an uncomprehending dog, Claude holds the writhing animal in place, announcing, ‘Thus we open our book!’”). Experimental Animals seems to have great faith in the rhetorical power of straightforward, visceral description of animal experimentation and animal suffering. How did you want description to function in the book?
TF: Because the book is looking at “experimentalism” in both the scientific world, and then in the artistic world that emulated it, I try to explore different aesthetic choices toward suffering and description. For example, I mention the preface to Wilkie Collin’s Heart and Science, in which he says he will not disturb the reader with graphic descriptions of the laboratory. On the other hand, you have Zola, who exposed the “naked” truth of social injustice, but never stood up against vivisection, and used animals mostly metaphorically or chimerically. The other writers I include are the activists such as Anna Kingsford and Francis Cobbe, who define their “realism” as the need to quote the physiologists and awaken their audiences to the unvarnished texts and images. I quote from the preface to A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which used first-person and other research, and was more popular than the novel, at least in France. These precedents are in the book to alert the reader to why I include original and often disturbing material. If I didn’t include it, I wouldn’t be able to represent the animals in their pain, in their situation, nor explain the feeling of desperation that many of the activists felt as they fought what they saw as a life-or-death battle. They spent their every day saving these animals, and if we didn’t understand, if we DON’T understand, that they viewed pain even for one creature as a worthy life cut short, cut off, destroyed, we don’t understand their passion and sacrifice.
This was my motivation for writing the more graphic parts of the book, as well as to show the scientists at work—in their own rituals of dedication and sacrifice—in its full graphic and violent form. Their aesthetic, at least for the public, became to change the language and hide the violence: three dogs would be turned into “three vagus nerves”—therewith hiding the animal. I wanted to expose that practice as a choice, as something that distances and protects. I mention Goya as well—his engravings that basically said of war: here is the atrocity, it needs to be witnessed. And those were silent images. During the time my book covers, whole neighborhoods could HEAR the animals, day in and out. I wanted to bring that into clarity for the reader. We are protected, too much, from the sounds and the smells and the horrors being done in our name.
LC: Under cover of night, Fanny and her daughters search for and save from Claude and his assistants the stray animals Claude brings back to his lab. As their and others’ resistance to Claude’s experiments begins to materialize, I found myself deeply moved. I’m still working on how exactly to account for this feeling, which stayed with me for the rest of the book, but I was struck by how ghostly and ephemeral the anti-vivisectionists’ work seemed even while they were in the middle of it. And then, of course, as we know—and as the book takes care to remind us, I think—the anti-vivisectionist cause will outlast any individual activist’s life, just as the arguments advanced by people who experiment on animals have persisted into the 21st century. I’m sure these dimensions of the book will be compelling to animal advocates who understand the long-term nature of the fight and labor daily under a mixture of despair and hope. To what extent do you view Experimental Animals as a hopeful book?
TF: In order to get a grip on today’s controversies, I felt compelled to write about a time when the situation (vivisection in particular, animal “rights” in general) was just being worked out. In this historical period, I was amazed to discover that the outcome was not predetermined, and the struggle to “legitimize” the laboratories—to get vivisection left out of the anti-cruelty legislation, to achieve state-sponsorship and protection for scientists—was all a very step by step process, with the activists fighting and making it hard the whole way. This public power is important to remember today—and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the public was exposed to the extent of the cruelty, in other words, it wasn’t as hidden and euphemized as now.
That’s the hopeful part for me—that the harder we work to uncover the truth of it, the more the public’s sense of wisdom will be aroused, and perhaps the conversation will grow more potent until vivisection can find its end. I also wanted to uncover the stories of the amazing activists who have come before, because just as one studies other heroes, it is important to not feel that a challenging effort is isolated. The continuity is there, especially for the lawyers and the legislators and activists who are taking the public energy, helping direct it, to focus on profound questions of what is a life worth and what is its measure. The other point I think the book is hopeful about is that activism has always taken many forms—from the women who simply stole or fed the strays, to the writers and platform speakers—everyone can do a part. I can’t go to law school (though I’ve thought about it) but I can write, and I can give my money to those who can do the legal work.
LC: Thank you so much for your support for the NhRP and arranging with Max and Lisa for the Jan. 18th event to serve in part as a benefit for our organization. We deeply appreciate it! Can I ask, how and why did you become a nonhuman rights supporter? What commonalities do you see between what you do and what we do—between the domain of literature and the domain of law, as far as animal advocacy is concerned?
TF: I think literature suffers from the same problems our society suffers from—a narrow and human-centered view. This isn’t to say there aren’t many cruel and unjust human problems that need exposure, only that our stories are usually so limited to only people, that we ignore how degradation and injustice spreads to all. I’ve always tried to make work that places the humans in a much larger frame, whether time scale, size, or extension of interdependent web of lives. I think literature, like our laws and values, need to reflect a more humble view of the human in the world, and remake our notion of the “heroic” and the “protagonist” so that we reframe the stories we tell with new language, new definitions of character, self, event. We are much more intertwined than we even realize, and yet our mainstream movies and fictions, our self-understanding, rarely moves beyond the human hall of mirrors. I take this as a personal aesthetic challenge, but I recognize kindred thinking in the animal rights community—and in those philosophers and thinkers who are striving to redirect and refocus the conversation we have with ourselves about our place in the world, and our responsibilities. I couldn’t be more dedicated to doing whatever I can in my tiny way to improving the lives of animals right now at this very moment. The NhRP is at the forefront of change. You are working to protect the truly voiceless and most vulnerable, just as many writers hope to tell those stories, too. Now is the time for us to demand new forms of art, new views, new approaches. Animals need advocates of every sort. My greatest admiration extends to those who take the animals’ cases to the courts. In the human world, the courts are powerful arbiters, necessary, flawed, and yet a crucial, must-win battleground. Thanks to you for all you do.
Lauren Choplin is the NhRP’s Communications Director.