Chloe Aridjis interviews Philip Hoare about his new book, Albert and the Whale (Fourth Estate)
Starting with the monkey in the prologue you brilliantly set up the myriad ways in which our relationship to other species has been defined (artistic, scientific, utilitarian). Would you say much has changed over the centuries or was it established early on?
I think Dürer intuited a new way of seeing the natural world, for its own sake, rather than as an alchemical symbol or a religious allegory (although he used those mechanisms, too). He isolated animals like the rhinoceros, the hare, the stag beetle, the spider crab, the walrus, and determined a kind of equivalence with his own species. He seemed to see the same light in their eyes. By setting them apart from medieval history, he launched them into the modern world. He set a new tone of responsibility, I think. To the extent that, if he had drawn a whale the same way he drew a rhinoceros – an animal he also never saw – I wonder if he would have saved the whale, by making us realise the extent of its real state. Or perhaps I’m being overly optimistic.
I try always to be optimistic. It’s the only course that gives us power to change.
To feel such a strong kinship with another species (as you do with the whale)—for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading Leviathan, could you describe where this close identification began, how the sea connects you, and whether this was part of what led to your affinity with Dürer, for whom certain creatures had a mythical hold?
I saw my first whale as a captive, an enslaved cetacean in Windsor Safari Park. He was held in a concrete tank. He performed for our amusement, in front of an advertisement for Embassy cigarettes. He scythed through the ersatz turquoise water, a simulacrum of the sea in a Home Counties zoo, and this, the single most successful mammal on the planet, present in every ocean and in their evolved state for six million years, jumped through a hoop, balanced a ball on his nose, and caught a fish in his beak as his reward.
It was an obscene circus trick and I saw through it, and all its wiles. I determined never to see another whale again.
Thirty years later, in the waters off Cape Cod, on a boat which I had reluctantly paid $12 dollars to sail upon for the purpose, a 40 tonne 40 forty foot humpback whale breached twenty feet away from me. For a nanosecond she held herself in my world, demonstrating our kinship, holding her pectoral fins out like wings. A barnacled angel, confronting me with her beauty, and my sins.
I said, very loudly, fuuuuckkk.
And my life changed.
Your work repositions the human, vividly reminding us we are not central in the universe. Can human nature be better understood through the perspective of the non-human?
The non-human being is no new invention. Indigenous peoples dealt in that notion a long time before we came to a realisation of it. Look at a raven, an owl, a mountain gorilla, and it is clear that they possess personhood. There is nothing so salutary as meeting a cetacean who knows, after a brief scan, your body better than you do. Slipping species is not just a metaphysical idea. It is a re-creational one.
Whale skeletons/vertebrae seem to foreshadow future extinctions as they hang over the hall of many a natural history museum. As you wrote, ‘whales heralded their own disaster’ and elsewhere you mention the extinct sea cow’s ‘pantomime of lovely bones.’ These installations now seem to carry yet another narrative: dead oceans. Could you say a bit more about this?
Yes, the image you evoke is right. Those empty ribcages and crania hanging in museums around the world echo with the emptiness of sound. The sound they once created which filled entire oceans has been deafened by the roar of our economic progress. The beach is a problematic place. An arena of pain, of disputation, and rapacity. But it remains our liminal introduction to their world. It is not a barrier or a defence but a connexion, a bridging point. Human laws and hubris runs out there, even now. We have as much to gain as to lose, even now.
You’ve often written about stranded whales. Could you tell us what a beached whale represents for you on a more symbolic level?
It’s a cycle of the stars, the northern lights, the photosynthetic and chemosynthetic process, the dead whales as new economies for other species, interrupted by human gain and disgust. Whales have always died on beaches. The pity is that we feel the need to clean them up. As if we must sweep our guilt away.
Every creature, whale or rhino, pangolin or sacred hare, encompasses a landscape. Every creature may someday belong to a museum display of extinct species. Towards the end of your book you write, ‘it’s hard to know who might go extinct first in this race to the finish.’ Over the years have you found yourself writing differently about nature, now that the shadow of extinction looms over every living thing?
I find it hard to write directly about it. It’s partly why I returned to Dürer’s experience, five hundred years ago. It’s clear that these events were set in train even then, and perhaps before – as soon as we could kill, remotely. As soon as we set the distance between them and us; as soon as we invented ‘them’ and ‘us’. Art is one way to cope. In a way, I think Dürer’s hare and his large turf were emblematic of that awareness. The light in an animal’s eyes, the cross-section of dandelions and flowering grass as a slice of time, stilled. By setting these apart, on a page, Dürer showed what they were. He saw them for their own sake. Then he looked to the future.Like Dürer’s uncanny vision of the atom bomb five hundred years before it exploded and the strange and powerful cataclysmic premonitions envisaged by da Vinci and Turner, would you say that most of the greatest artists have been prophets of a sort, that their deep understanding of humanity has enabled them to foresee our future?
And saw the deluge falling upon earth, the same drowned world Leonardo drew in his last ‘black drawings’, or Turner saw in his stormy seas. The tumult. At the same time that understanding awoke a new spirit. The renaissance of things and ideas could also have been the renaissance of the natural world. I wonder how Leonardo or Dürer really felt about the future of the planet. I wonder if they felt their art served a purpose other than observation. As Frank Kermode wrote in his collection of essays, The Sense of an Ending, humankind and its culture has ever fed on the disconfirmation of apocalypse. That’s why we seem unable to address the disasters ahead. I wonder what non-human cultures make of it. Do they have their own signs and wonders, as cultural pre-echoes of the future? They certainly sense, in ways other than those open to us, the reality of these changes. They feel them in their very bones. Do they dream of them, too? Do they, in fact, wake up, saying fuuuuckkk?
CALL TO ACTION: Sign Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans https://uk.whales.org/whale-culture/
Philip Hoare is the author of nine works of non-fiction, including biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward, and the studies, Wilde’s Last Stand and England’s Lost Eden. Spike Island was chosen by W.G. Sebald as his book of the year for 2001. In 2009, Leviathan or, The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. It was followed in 2013 by The Sea Inside, and in 2017 by RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. His new book, Albert & the Whale led the New York Times to call the author a ‘forceful weather system’ of his own.