The Aesthetics of Care: On the Literary Representation of Animals

By | July 21, 2016

Guest post by Josephine Donovan

I’ve long been concerned about the aestheticization of evil; that is, the setting off or the framing of evil deeds as material to be appreciated for the beauty of its arrangement (in the case of pictures) or for the transgressive thrill provided (in the case of literature) by the experience of vicariously entering or glimpsing into forbidden territory.  

Here is a good example of the aestheticization of evil: it occurs in the war novel, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

For all its horror [O’Brien writes] you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat.  You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. . . . You admire . . . the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down . . . the purply orange glow of napalm. . . . [A]n artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference–a powerful implacable beauty.

Here atrocious evil is disconnected from its ethical effect–the killing and hideous wounding of living creatures (not to mention the destruction of the environment).  The scene is set off from its ethical context, framed, and viewed purely from a dispassionate aesthetic point of view.

In my book, The Aesthetics of Care, I explore the various aesthetic theories—mainly variations on the Kantian—that justify and legitimize such aestheticization; instead, I propose an aesthetics of care that doesn’t elide ethical consideration of the subjects being treated.  I then examine a series of works of literature—by such figures as Willa Cather, Leo Tolstoy, J. M. Coetzee, and others—from the critical perspective of an aesthetics of care, focusing on the treatment of animals therein.  All too often, I argue, in the fictions of modernity animals are framed aesthetically without regard to their ethical status.  There are, however, writers, such as those noted above, who treat animals as ethical subjects with stories of their own.

Focusing on the animal as subject opens up new ways of looking at received classics.  Anna Karenina, for example, is rarely, if ever, considered with attention to its animal characters.  Yet doing so reveals aspects of the novel (and the author) hitherto ignored.  Levin’s dog Laska, for example, receives a great deal of detailed attention by Tolstoy.  She is really a character in her own right.  Such a shift away from human-centered reading necessarily puts a new and limiting perspective on the human doings in the novel–a perspective Tolstoy offers in several of his short stories, such as “Three Deaths” and “Strider,” to great effect.

My hope in writing this book was to intensify readers’ awareness of animal characters as subjects and to propose alternatives to their habitual aestheticization, which continues to be a common fictional practice. More broadly, I critique the aestheticization of evil seen in other works and hold that ethical considerations must not be overriden by aesthetic interests and concerns.  My overall hope is that my readings may provoke readers to further reflect upon these issues.  


Aesthetics of Care_smallJosephine Donovan is Emerita Professor of English at the University of Maine, USA.  Her other books include:  Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions, 4th ed. (2012)—named an Outstanding Academic Book by Choice; European Local-Color Literature (2010)—both Bloomsbury books; and Women and the Rise of the Novel, 1405-1726, 2d ed. (2013)—also a Choice Outstanding Academic Book.  With Carol J. Adams she co-edited The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (2007) and Animals and Women (1995).  

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