Talking with the Animals: Dillard, Doolittle, and the Puritan Aesthetic

Nina Strohminger, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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"I want to walk with the animals, talk with the animals," famously proclaimed Dr. Doolittle, the fictional animal-lover whose popularity in a series of children's books from the 1920s and 1930s spawned a musical in 1967, and two very bad Eddie Murphy films in the 1990s. Dr. Doolittle is hardly alone; the desire to 'talk with the animals' is a notable characteristic of homo sapiens. No other creature on earth shares such a stubborn yearning for inter-species communication; and it remains to be seen that any shares the ability. Nontheless, we humans continue to empathize with, and hallucinate reciprocated empathy from, the seemingly indifferent animals that surround us, a syndrome I shall refer to as DoDo (Doctor Doolittlitus). That Dr. Doolittle was able to realize the secret desire of many of us is likely the nature of his lasting appeal.

Annie Dillard continues the tradition of imagined connection with our Animal Brethren when she waxes philosophical about insects in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (section two, p. 63). Though Dillard seems willing to provide bugs the esteem she is able to bestow upon other members of the animal kingdom, she can't seem to get her mind around their emminent unhumanness (inhumanity):

"Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect-- the possibility of fertile reproduction-- is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god" [63].

Dillard reveals an important component of DoDo in this passage: we are willing to accept animals, not as they are, but as we want them to be; which is to say, they must be as similar to us as possible. This should perhaps not surprise us, given typical human attitudes within the species. We are meant to sympathize with the disappointment insects have brought Dillard, as she describes the various ways the obstinate creatures refuse to be human-like (they are immoral and total imbecils), particularly in the scientific work of J. Henri Fabre (who is both a scientist and a Frenchman, giving his work particular credibility).

Why do Dillard and Fabre, who are supposedly nature-lovers, encounter such philsophical problems when it comes to bugs? How does DoDo impact our sense of kinship, and our sense of 'humane' treatment, with various types of animals, for better or for worse? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published in 1974, during the same years humans were running the first (unsuccessful) attempts to teach chimps human language. Is this merely a coincidence?

Dillard, clearly repulsed, makes numerous references in this section to the "profligate" reproduction of insects (and Nature on the whole). As a self-professed "pilgrim," we might wonder what, if anything, Puritanism has to do with all of this. What do you think?

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Last modified 3 December 2006