Why Look at Animals?

why look at animals

Strictly speaking, being a collectionof essays rather than a work of fiction, Why Look at Animals? shouldnot be on this particular list, but John Berger’s writing is so wonderfully measured and lyrical, that I think its inclusion is justified.

Why Look at Animals? is a short collection of eight essays and one poem, most of which ponder on the physicaland metaphysical (indeed philosophical) relationships between humans and beasts. Berger is a journalist, essayist and all-round radical thinker and I first came across his writing about animals in a short article called ‘Why Zoos Disappoint’, published in New Society in 1977 (although I only read it about  five years ago or so). In it he traces the history of the zoo as a nineteenth century institution and a palace of colonial plunder. It was this particular idea of the zoo as an expression of the imperial project that interested me at the time. Also Berger sets out the idea that zoos aim to recreate the natural environment of the animals in an attempt to enable us, as humans, to have a natural and authentic interaction with them. Ultimately, however, this is purely illusory as the zoo itself is inauthentic, an artificial environment, and the animals know t and behave as such. It is a theme that Berger picks up on both in the main essay in this collection and in another essay, ‘The Ape Theatre’, also published here. There are other gems here too – ‘The Eaters and the eaten’ explores the cultural meaning of food and meals and the final piece, an account of the last day in the life of the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer, which was spent in Berger’s company, is moving without being sentimental.

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