“Anthropomorphism” is an excerpt from Laura McKay’s essay, A ‘very important chimp’: The species binary in Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. To read more, and discover other pieces exploring the theme ‘binary’, pick up the 2018 edition of Antithesis Journal, launching October 17th!
Allegorical works such as Aesop’s Fables paved the way for a western literary tradition of ascribing human traits to animals, which is especially prevalent in children’s literature and moral tales. Nonetheless, the representation of nonhumans in literature has changed during the historical period of the animal turn. This can be seen as part of a response to the urgent reconsideration of how humans portray other animals in all areas, including on the page. Scholtmeijer insists that ‘anthropomorphism has become one of the great anxieties of the modern age’ (89). For Plumwood, who examines anthropomorphism specifically in the case of speaking nonhuman protagonists, the concern is that ‘the attribution of characteristics such as subjectivity to animals must be anthropomorphic’. Plumwood stresses:
The problems in representing another species’ speech or subjectivity in human terms are real, but they do not rule out such representation in any general way, and they pale before the difficulties of failing to represent them at all, or before the enormity of representing communicative and intentional beings as beings lacking all communicative and mental capacity. That is a much greater inaccuracy and injustice than any anthropomorphism.
Like all techniques used to convey meaning in written form, the use of anthropomorphism as a literary device needs to consider the subject that is being observed or represented. In his essay ‘What Kind of Literary Animal Studies Do We Want or Need?’, R. McKay calls for a conscientiousness in depictions of nonhuman animals, arguing that:
reinvigorating the human on the model of a generalized animality has often gone hand in hand with a certain violent or at least irresponsible attitude towards actual animals – even if it remains a burning question whether the willingness to think and generalize about life at all across the realms of the human and the nonhuman is tantamount to committing such violence, or alternatively required for its rejection.
The intersection of representation and practice is complicated in fiction, particularly in the hands of Hale’s Bruno: an exceedingly self-anthropomorphised character with a ‘lust for the spotlight.’
The overall representation of Bruno as a talking chimpanzee is portrayed through a melodramatic voice described in one review as ‘a grossly over-blown prose style.’ Hale uses extensive foreshadowing to create tension in his novel. This foreshadowing becomes imbedded in Bruno’s first person narration . In anticipation of the description of a graphic flashback scene in which Bruno’s chimpanzee father ‘rapes’ a frog until it dies, Bruno tells the reader, ‘oh and I should tell you about the frog. There was a frog – wait. Not now. Not just yet.’ The affectation is intended, however, Bruno explains that ‘ostentation is my style’ (Hale’s italics). The language of the novel is self-conscious; the prose imbued with relentless suggestion. This creates the impression of a narrator who has come late to language and now revels in it, keen to experiment with literary devices. Hale depicts a chimpanzee who has embraced western cultural capital through a passion for Shakespeare, fine art and philosophy – an animal in love with language. As Bruno explains:
an animal mind expends much energy in mapping the body’s immediate physical surroundings; but language causes us, for better or worse, to forget this, and to think instead in abstract symbols that are physically evident nowhere but in our mouths, ears, minds, and memories.
Bruno’s hyper-literacy enables articulate and poetic insights into the possibilities of other animal perception. For Bruno, ‘a being acquires language to carve out its own consciousness, its own active and reactive existence. A being screams because it is in pain, and it acquires language to communicate.’ The novel reads as an anti-Chomskyan and anti-behaviourist argument, in which language arises out of an increasing sophistication of social life, as a necessity born from a shared love of music and from mutual love between conscious beings. Bruno’s retelling of his life story is also essentially a report (to borrow from the title of Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report to an Academy’) of his language development and cultural education. Despite the repetitive nature of his narration, Bruno’s retelling presents a confusion of ideas, rather than a clear statement of an argument. He never quite makes the leap into truly human language.
Ferdinand de Saussure argues in Course in General Linguistics (1916) that language ‘has an individual aspect and a social aspect’ and ‘one is not conceivable without the other.’ Saussure suggests that language is both connected to its present usage and origins. Used by a chimpanzee, language necessarily changes to fit its user (or the user changes language to suit their needs). With Bruno, this necessitates encompassing his nonhuman origins. In Hale’s novel, chimpanzee communication is impossible to translate because, as explained by Bruno, ‘these nonlingual conversations occur outside the sphere of activity that is capturable by the tools of text.’ Through Bruno’s outsider’s eyes we access what he thinks of the human world, even as his nonhuman animal world remains relatively mysterious. His deep unknowability as a chimpanzee is reinforced through this characterisation.
Bruno’s pathway to language and human culture is imbued with the misunderstandings and also the insights that a nonhuman animal might have if they learned to speak and read. In one telling scene, Lydia takes him to a classroom at the university to demonstrate his cognitive skills. Bruno is overwhelmed by the students and unable to focus on what Lydia is instructing him to do. Instead, Bruno becomes distracted by the smell of one of the female students: ‘this weird oily briny coppery smell – this smell, I believed, originated from her’ (Hale’s italics). Because of his simian attributes, only Bruno can detect the young woman’s smell. He lunges for her crotch, disrupting the class and getting reprimanded by Lydia. Bruno retains his chimpanzee sensibility, which is both an advantage (he holds power of both speech and advanced nonhuman senses) and his ultimate downfall.
In another scene, Bruno reads a ‘whimsical frivolous juvenilia about a girl who for some reason is living in an attic with her family.’ The meaning of The Diary of a Young Girl (known as The Diary of Anne Frank ) and the impact of the Nazi Regime are lost to Bruno. It is implied that even as Bruno crosses into the human world of language, literature about war does not make cultural-historical sense to him. As Barbara J. King notes in her interview with Hale, this is a ‘way of situating Bruno outside of human culture.’
Another scene that illustrates Bruno’s nonhuman otherness occurs at a showing of his artwork, for which he dresses in a suit and talks with the gallery goers. Bruno loses sight of Lydia and becomes hysterical.
You might say that the animal within me, within this chimpanzee, this mock-man, Bruno, at this moment chose an extraordinarily inopportune time to burst forth from below, come out and say hello to everyone.
Despite the nonhuman attributes of advanced smell and passionate anger, Bruno is portrayed as a creature who is actively self-anthropomorphising in order to be accepted in human society. Through plastic surgery, speech, dress and cultural interests, Bruno attempts to pass in the human world. This places anthropomorphism in the hands of the fictionalised nonhuman narrator. In the concluding speech of the novel, Bruno appears to express this agency by showing an acute ambivalence towards language.
I, Bruno, would like to say to the whole world, to scream and rattle up and down the Great Chain of Being from the simplest life-forms all the way to the upper links where the angels crowd around the heavenly throne with wings beating and mouths open wide in glorious song, but especially, especially to humankind, to this animal, man, who thinks he is the measure of all things: you taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.
This final sentence is a reference to a line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), which features prominently in the novel. The line ‘I know how to curse’, as used in Bruno Littlemore, suggests that while language is held in such high esteem that it serves as the primary distinction between humans and other animals, in reality (Bruno’s reality) language begets a different type of ‘savagery’. In their essay ‘The Storied Lives of Non-Human Narrators’ (2014), literary theorists Lars Bernaerts, Marco Caracciolo, Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck argue:
Non-human narrators prompt readers to project human experience onto creatures and objects that are not conventionally expected to have that kind of mental perspective (in other words, readers ‘empathize’ and ‘naturalize’); at the same time, readers have to acknowledge the otherness of non-human narrators, who may question (defamiliarize) some of readers’ assumptions and expectations about human life and consciousness.
Nonhuman narration can therefore result in a ‘a double dialectic of empathy and defamiliarization’ – a mode Bruno attempts to straddle in the narration of his complex journey.
 Marion Scholtmeijer, Animal Victims in Modern Fiction (University of Toronto Press, 1993), 89.
 Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile (Australian National University Press, 2012), 66.
 Plumwood, Crocodile, 68.
 McKay, Robert, "What Kind of Literary Animal Studies do we Want or Need?" MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60 (3) (2014): 638.
 Hale, Bruno, 4.
 Zsuzsi Gartner, ‘The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale’. The Globe and Mail, 2011. www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/the-evolution-of-bruno-littlemore-by-benjamin-hale/article565505/. Accessed 27 November 2017.
 Hale, Bruno, 20.
 Hale, Bruno, 8.
 Hale, Bruno, 271-272.
 Hale, Bruno, 139.
 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 24.
 Hale, Bruno, 29.
 Hale, Bruno, 82.
 Hale, Bruno, 394.
 “An Interview with Benjamin Hale.” Barbara J. King, Book Slut, 2011. www.bookslut.com/features/2011_04_017470.php. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017
 Hale, Bruno, 227.
 Hale, Bruno, 576.
 Hale, Bruno, 576.
 Lars Bernaerts, Marco Caracciolo, Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck, “The Storied Lives of Non-Human Narrators,” Narrative, vol. 22, no. 1 (2014): 68-93.
 Bernaerts et al., “The Storied Lives”, 69.
Image from NBC, used with permission.